Political Film Society - Newsletter #116 - November 1, 2001

November 1, 2001


The Last CastleA three-star general pleads guilty in a court-martial and is sentenced to ten years at Leavenworth in The Last Castle, directed by Rod Lurie. The offense is to disobey orders and ignore intelligence by authorizing a foray in Burundi that results in the death of eight American soldiers. Colonel Winter (played by James Gandolfini), the prison commandant, greets General Irwin (played by Robert Redford) personally in his office on his first day of confinement, when Irwin says that he just wants to serve his time and get out. Although Winter initially asks Irwin to autograph a special book, he demurs when Irwin comments that the collection of memorabilia in his office means that he has never seen battle. But battle is indeed in store for Winter, who sadistically enjoys provoking racial conflict among the prisoners and giving out punishments way out of proportion to the offenses. In particular, Winter picks on Corporal Aguilar (played by Clifton Collins, Jr.), who is so impressed by the presence of General Irwin that he disobeys regulations and salutes him, for which the punishment is to maintain a salute for hours despite a heavy downpour of rain. Irwin, meanwhile, assesses the social and physical aspects of the prison the way a chessplayer analyzes a chessboard. As the film’s tagline says, "No castle can have two kings." One of his first moves is to end the racial divisions by encouraging Caucasian prisoners to accept Aguilar’s masonry expertise in building a wall, and Aguilar carves his name in one of the blocks. However, Winter arranges to bulldoze the wall in order to destroy morale. Aguilar then places himself between the bulldozer and the wall, whereupon Winter orders him shot with a rubber bullet so placed that he is killed. Incensed by the mistreatment, Irwin then plans to take over the prison, citing grounds in the Unified Code of Military Justice. Meanwhile, Yates (played by Mark Ruffalo) appears not to want to go along with the plan, which is to conclude by raising the American flag upside down. Winter asks Yates to reveal the battle plan, and Yates discloses that the flag will be flown upside down. When the prison flag is missing one day, Winter orders a shakedown of all the prison cells, so the prisoners assemble together outside, just what Irwin expected. Thereafter, Molotov cocktails blow up some of the guard towers, a catapult hurls Aguilar’s block into the picture window of Winter’s office, the prisoners take over a water cannon, the prison’s helicopter is seized, but surprisingly the walls are not breached despite all the firepower. When Winter gives the order for all prisoners to lie on the ground, they refuse. When Irwin gives the same order, they obey. Irwin has indeed taken control of Leavenworth. The climax of the film then deals with how Winter deals with Irwin and whether the flag is flown upside down or rightside up. As an action film, The Last Castle is one of the best of the year. Careful reviewers will note, however, that Irwin ended racial conflict rather easily by providing leadership and a common goal, perhaps a lesson for other prisons where rehabilitation is no longer the goal and racial division is endemic. MH

From HellIn 1888 Jack the Ripper terrorized the East End of London. At least five prostitutes plying their trade late at night in Whitechapel had their throats slit, and in four cases their bodies were mutilated. Thirteen other victims have been alleged. Jack was never caught, though more than a dozen persons have been suspected of the crimes. In From Hell, codirectors Albert and Allen Hughes try to portray the madness and solve the puzzle, based on a story by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell that constructs a tale of political intrigue. Inspector Frederick George Abberline (played by Johnny Depp) is assigned to the case by his superior, Police Sergeant Godley (played by Robbie Coltrane), who summons Abberline to duty from an opium stupor, a result of his grief over the death of his wife three years earlier. What Inspector Abberline uncovers, step by step, is an elaborate plot hatched in the royal palace of reclusive Queen Victoria, who sought to cover up a scandal. The scandal is that her eldest son, Prince Albert, married a prostitute in the presence of several others and sired a child who would be next in line to the throne upon Albert’s death. Although Albert was rumored to be gay in the 1880s, he evidently was also a frequent visitor to the Whitechapel brothels, and he knew how to slaughter animals in ways similar to the way victims were mutilated, so he is one of a number of possible suspects. Abberline's principal confidant is Sir William Gull (played by Ian Holm), the Royal Physician, who was secretly working with and covering up for Albert, as was the Police Commissioner (played by Ian Richardson), who takes Abberline off the case when he gets too close to the truth. In the course of his investigation Abberline goes to Whitechapel to interview prostitutes, notably Mary Jane Kelly (played by Heather Graham), whom he seeks to protect from the horrible death in store for those who witnessed the wedding and knew about the child. For his kindness, Mary once tries to plant a kiss on Abberline, who first pushes her away and then pulls her toward him to kiss her passionately. The plot further vilifies the conspirators by identifying them as anti-Semites, anti-foreigners, and bloodthirsty Freemason snobs. To silence Gull, he is ultimately lobotomized, a common remedy at the time to calm those who were mentally disturbed. Abberline, unable to arrest the culprits, then returns to the opium den at the end of the film. The preposterous story is made more grisly by animations of various sorts, including the removal of the victims’ internal organs, to provide something frightening for the Halloween season. MH