Comfortable and Furious

20th Century Duvall: Part 7 -Other Stuff

Other stuff: The Greatest (1977), Phenomenon (1995) & The Apostle (1997)

Given the arse-licking title and its gag-inducing theme song, you’d expect The Greatest to be nothing more than ninety-minutes of Muhammad Ali cuddling himself. And for the most part (especially during his anti-Vietnam stance) it does its best to depict him as The Most Dignified Human Being On Earth, even if the first scene shows him picking up a white street hooker in his car before going on to ogle a black woman’s arse in a public park. Gotta admit, that wasn’t what I was expecting.

However, Greatest really makes a boo-boo when he rejects the ‘white man’s religion’ and converts to Islam. Straightaway, he starts manhandling his unacceptably dressed girlfriend in public. “You’re gonna dress like I tell you,” he shouts at her at a party. “How can you be my woman when everything you do is embarrassing me? My woman walking around with your chest all out, your knees all out… all that makeup on your face. You told me you were gonna stop it.” He then rips her dress off, forcing her to run away humiliated in her underwear.

Oops, Ali, you slipped up there, son, coz The Greatest is not only supposed to be pro-Ali and pro-black but pro-Islam. Yet this revealing scene is perfect in capturing that religion’s female-oppressing nature.

Duvall pops up during a ‘special appearance’ in this bloody awkward, but oddly watchable non-PC pile of crap as a flustered promoter. Early on he urges Ali to publicly state he has ‘no connection with the Muslims’ and then… disappears. Great, thanks Robert, another tiny role where you do fuck all of any consequence e.g. Sling Blade. I dunno, perhaps he thought he was onto a winner with The Greatest after the runaway success of Rocky a year earlier. Still, at least he’s animated, which is more than you can say about the curiously dead-eyed Ali lumbering around the screen, barely reacting whether repeatedly labelled a ‘faggot’ by Sonny Liston, called a ‘conceited nigger’ by a rabid, middle-aged woman at ringside or shot at by Georgian rednecks.

In the big hit Phenomenon Duvall plays a loyal, bow-tied father figure to the chunky John Travolta. Given he’s introduced baring his arse in public, you kind of expect his small town doctor character to be whacky, but this is mostly another one of those roles where he’s part of the scenery. All he gets to do is grow concerned about Travolta, a kind, run of the mill man suddenly blessed with unusual abilities, such as being able to learn Portuguese in twenty minutes. “I consider myself a rational man, a man of science, but I feel like a child,” he says when Travolta begins moving a fountain pen on his desk without touching it. “I feel scared.” Duvall’s best scene turns up in a bar when he pulls apart a trio of naysayers, who’ve started treating Travolta like a witch. “Why’d yer have to tear him down?”

Duvall yells, leaping to his feet. “What are you so afraid of? What have ya got to lose? He wasn’t selling anything. He didn’t want anything from anybody. He wanted nothing from nobody. Nothing!Phenomenon is more grounded than a similar amped-up brain movie such as 2014’s particularly daft Lucy, but it’s still an awkward, unconvincing and maudlin watch complete with New Age mysticism and horrible pop songs. By the end, its overload of sentiment is grotesque.

Given he wrote, financed, directed and starred in the long-envisioned The Apostle, I imagine this hypocritical-preacher-on-the-run-flick meant quite a lot to Duvall. Was it worth the wait? Well, despite it being a critically praised hit that earned him a fifth Oscar nomination, I have to say I much prefer the corrupt clergy in Night of the Hunter and Elmer Gantry. In fact, The Apostle’s credibility gets immediately strained as we watch Sonny Dewey (Duvall) scamper through the site of a major traffic accident to babble about God to a couple of seriously wounded victims while the police do nothing. I, for one, would be none too happy with the boys in blue if I were lying mangled in a wreck and had to endure some bible-carrying lunatic leaning in through the window to tell me the car was already filling with angels. Then somewhere around the eighty-minute mark our portly star starts dating an attractive woman thirty-odd years younger and giving her some of the unsexiest kisses I’ve ever seen.

Worse is to come, though, when the racist troublemaker Billy Bob Thornton turns up. Sonny doles out a badly staged, public whupping and later converts the would-be avenger (as he tries to bulldoze Sonny’s newly restored church) into one of Jesus’ children. As the Lord is my witness, such sincere scenes are duff, groan-inducing stuff. Apart from that, I don’t think I’ve ever sat through a movie in which everyone is as dumb as a bag of hammers.

Sonny is a Pentecostal preacher. To say he lives and breathes his spiritual life is an understatement – this dude can’t stop praying, quoting the bible, talking to God and singing hymns. In short, he’s teetering on the verge of insanity. It really is painful to watch a grown man jigging and clapping on stage in front of an equally deluded bunch of God botherers while banging on about ‘Holy Ghost power’. This sort of nonsense is nothing but theater, complete with silly little props and a weird longing for death. Of course, you see much the same behavior at any pop concert, but no one there is pretending they’re communing with a higher power. They’re just having a bit of fun, you know?

Sonny might love God, but it appears all that worship is not making his Earthly life any easier. His wife is having an affair, he gets voted out of his church and in a real whoops-a-daisy moment he drunkenly belts the guy cuckolding him with a baseball bat in front of his terrified children. He then runs away to Louisiana. So much for religious folk and their oft-implicit belief of moral superiority. Sonny, however, prefers to blame the violence and abandonment of his kids on Satan.

The Apostle is sort of what you expect from Duvall. Overall it’s well acted and unshowily directed yet only offers one significant incident in its first hour (which is one more than its second half). During the next eighty-odd minutes I suspect the editor died and got carted off to heaven or something. The ridiculous climax is like a never-ending evangelical TV presentation. All right, it’s not as bloated and self-indulgent as Heaven’s Gate (what the hell could be?), but a good forty minutes of The Apostle should have been left on the cutting room floor. The supporting cast (such as Farrah Fawcett and Miranda Richardson) has nothing to do. Duvall convincingly inhabits the central role, even if hampered by the one-note slightness of the wonky, self-penned material. There was a point when he slipped on a pair of dark glasses and I started hoping for some Reverend Jim Jones shenanigans with his racially mixed flock while building a new following in the Deep South, but the movie just ambles and rambles before petering out.

Sci-fi: THX 1138 (1971) & Deep Impact (1998)

Duvall first ventured into sci-fi with the chilly, austere and largely action-free THX. Heavily influenced by Orwell’s vision of the future and directed by a pre-Star Wars George Lucas, this depiction of a dystopian city weakly holds the interest until the midway point when it collapses into out and out bollocks. Duvall plays a drug-controlled worker in the 25th century, who spends his dangerous working days making nuclear-powered android police officers. Then his roommate takes a fancy to him, alters his mandatory drug use, and pops out her boobies. Obviously the all-powerful state is not impressed with this romantic diversion, especially as it already takes the trouble to supply him at home with televised images of a black jiggling nude woman and some sort of wanking device.

Saddled with a bad title, THX presents a minimalist future in which everyone’s bald and clad in white. Things take an excruciating turn for the worse when Duvall ends up in a vast, blindingly white prison with no walls, landing the movie firmly in the territory of an avant-garde drama class put on by university students. Despite being paired with the reliably weird Donald Pleasence, Duvall’s expression flicks between boredom and irritation, which certainly mirrored my feelings. If Lucas hadn’t directed this one, it would’ve been long forgotten. Barring some nice visuals here and there, it’s such abstract, predictable rubbish that I would’ve been happy for a few Ewoks to show up.

After its 70s’ heyday the disaster movie roared back into life in the 90s, enabling us to be head-splittingly irritated by the overstuffed likes of Armageddon. Released the same year and covering the same subject matter, Deep Impact is preferable but that really is damning it with faint praise. A seven-mile wide comet is on a collision course with Earth, prompting a team of astronauts to fly out and plant nuclear bombs on the thing. Duvall is the clunkily named Captain Spurgeon ‘Fish’ Tanner, a veteran spaceman in charge of the last-ditch mission. Of course, the younger crew members (a bland, predictably diverse bunch) think he’s a crusty old fart way past his sell by date. On this evidence I’m tempted to agree. Matters aren’t helped by plonking Duvall at a spaceship’s controls and having him do little more than yell: “Get the hell out of there!”

The 1979 Sean Connery vehicle Meteor was a rubbish disaster flick, but it’s a lot more fun than the likes of Impact and Armageddon. Impact is deadened by its bog standard writing and the terrible directorial decision to show an endless parade of TV screens while people passively try to take in whatever the newscasters are blabbing on about. Just count how many minutes are wasted by viewers stonily staring at screens. Impact is also littered with trite performances while making a pathetic attempt at including a religious component.

American president Morgan Freeman (in yet another stoic, noble role – bloody hell, I’d love to see this guy play a kiddie fiddler) offers an on-air prayer to the watching billions. “I believe that God, whomever you hold that to be, hears all prayers, even if sometimes the answer is no,” he intones with suitable gravitas while accompanied by uplifting music. “So may the Lord bless you. May the Lord keep you. May the Lord lift up his divine countenance upon you, and give you peace.” Fucking hell, that’s one weird response, given this big fellah in the sky is apparently determined to wipe out the children he created by hurling a huge rock at the planet (as he did with the dinosaurs all those aeons ago). Impact is such timid, uninspired filmmaking, lacking anything nasty, interesting or profound. It’s far too lame to bother even taking much effort to mock.

As for Duvall, he snagged his first starring role as an astronaut in 1967’s Countdown and repeated the trick a lot tubbier over thirty years later. Frankly, he’s no granite-jawed disaster stalwart like Charlton Heston, but the role still allowed him to revel in a $350million box-office bonanza, the biggest hit of his twentieth-century career.

For back to Part One with links to the other articles, Click Here

Essential Duvall

Godfather/Godfather II

Apocalypse Now



Falling Down

The Outfit


The Chase

The Eagle Has Landed






One response to “20th Century Duvall: Part 7 -Other Stuff”

  1. John Welsh Avatar
    John Welsh

    If someone in Hollywoodland is so obsessed with Balmer & Wylie’s 1931 novel When Worlds Collide (which might include the interesting After Worlds Collide), why don’t they just make it into a film (or remake it. It was a George Pal movie in the 50s). In that story there is no bunch of halfwitted oil roughnecks or astronauts led by an older (clearly based on Story Musgrave) flyboy, a NAVY throttle jockey (take that Maverick). But for sanity’s sake I hope they can keep it off Steven Spielberg’s chopping block. I recall his hack-job of War of the Worlds (although in his version there was only Earth. Mars was not involved). Minority Report was a distortion of Philip K. Dick’s story on a level with the oddly named Blade Runner (title stolen from an unrelated Alan E. Nourse novel)
    In Armageddon (as actual location in Israel) I especially liked the Rovers armed with .30 caliber Miniguns, no doubt included to deter any pirate ETs from grabbing one of our space shuttles when left unattended with the engine running. That NASA endorsed this nonsense was bewildering. Most awkward line of dialogue, “I’d like to shake the hand of the daughter of the bravest man I have ever known.” It is a testament to William Fichtner’s skill as an actor he could even say that line.
    Bye the way, the atomic detonation spacecraft propulsion system used in Deep Impact was not cooked-up by the Russians as in the movie, but was the brainchild of physicist Freeman Dyson’s Project Orion
    Meteor was clearly made by people who flunked remedial physics.
    I sat through all tedious 90 minutes of THX1138. That’s an hour and a half I’ll never get back and at my age I could use ’em. It did include John Lilly’s worse fear of a solid-state-entity in the form of the computerized confessor. Actually rather a good idea as a computer is less likely to diddle your kid.

    When I was a young I ducked into a revival tent to see what the action was. The preacher put on a wonderful show. Not as good as Marjoe, but close enough. He had the sinners repenting left and right while shelling out cash to loose change in the collection plate. A goddamn spellbinder.

    I’m not too much for Southern Gothic so gave The Apostle as pass. Too much of a Flannery O’Connor influence I read.

    I cannot set silently as you diss Ali, no sir. He. stands on the shoulders of Jack Johnson and Joe Louis as the three greatest prizefighters of the 20th Century. Don’t forget, boxing trumps religion every time. That’s my rope-a-dope on the subject.

    PS Spielberg is talking about directing a remake of Bullitt with Bradly Cooper. Heaven forbid Spielberg should come up with an original idea. His remake of
    West Side Story did so well.

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