directed, and Malcom McDowell
took the title role, in this unique landmark in British cinema
, running almost three hours. A surprising, picaresque
tale, a modern Candide
(actually marketed in France as Le Meilleur Des Mondes Possibles!
) The story of Mick Travis
, a young and innocent coffee salesman making his way through the starkly envisioned complexities of modern life.
After the critical and commercial success of Anderson's dark public school fantasy, If..., also starring McDowell as a slightly different version of Travis, McDowell was encouraged by Anderson to write up his 'coffee salesman' script idea, which having got so far was 'taken over' by If... screenwriter David Sherman. McDowell's initial scenes for the film were autobiographical, based on his own experiences as a travelling coffee salesman. One can only hope that the remainder of the film was not.
If you don't want to know the plot - and I recommend this if you intend to see the film - please read no further.
After the single word "Then" in large white-on-black text,
the film opens with a short, silent, sepia-tinted sequence
showing forced labour in a third-world coffee plantation.
Armed soldiers patrol, as the workers harvest coffee
beans from regimented rows of plants. Plantation worker
McDowell slips a few of the beans inside his shirt, but
is noticed by one of the gun-toting guards. Cut to a
colonial court - closeup on the fat mouth of the porcine
Governor pronouncing "guilty". The sentence follows
immediately: we see McDowell stretch out his hands
above a wooden block; the hands of a soldier taking
a precise grip on a large machete; the soldier's enthused
preparation for the act; McDowell strengthening his resolve;
the downward chop of the machete; McDowell's wide-eyed
scream. The word "Now" fills the screen. Back to full
colour and sound as we cut to Alan Price's hands poised above the piano, and then starting to play the title song,
and the opening credits appear over an (apparently live)
rendition of this, with the director, Anderson, and
a couple of other cast members in attendance.
We then start the film proper, with scenes set inside
a coffee factory, as trainee salesmen are educated in
the finer points of the modern food industry.
After demonstrating his wonderfully sincere smiling abilities to the tutor in the coffee salesman's sales school, Travis is sent to replace his mysteriously disappeared predecessor, "Oswald", as Imperial Coffee's area representative in the North East.
He takes up lodgings in a grim, anonymous, industrial town, rife with local government corruption. His salesman's skills ensure he ingratiates himself with the local dignitaries, and he soon finds himself immersed in the seedy fleshpots offered by the location: prostitutes, strippers and some humourously awful pornography, screened at a small gathering of movers and shakers. After a brief liason with his landlady, he's disappointed to be sent up to scotland by Imperial Coffee HQ. On departing, his crumpled but strangely knowing fellow lodger gives him the odd advice: "try not to die like a dog."
However, his quest for further sales leads him into trouble. In one of the pivotal sequences of the film, he parks his car outside a power station and consults his map, using binoculars to take his bearings. It's a beautiful sunny day, and his car radio is the only thing disturbing the rural stillness, a dry talk show discussing Zen:
To understand life ... to be with life ... to get a feeling of life. So that in effect all your days are good days and every day should be looked upon as living in the moment rather than in the past or in the future--and this really is what Zen is all about--living now. [...]
It is a very hard practice ... Nothing is acquired in a day. It comes suddenly. It comes in many ways. One could be arranging a vase of flowers, one could be sitting cross-legged with a straight back ... one could be doing so many things ...
Two armoured vehicles, full of military police
, abruptly arrive. Travis is frogmarched into the vehicle, his outrage met with silence, and a black bag placed over his head. Inside the facility, he's strapped to a chair, interrogated as a communist spy, and given electroshock torture
as his calm, well-educated interrogators politely accept coffee
and biscuits from the unfazed charlady
Escaping from this predicament as the power station undergoes an unrelated low-grade nuclear emergency, and after a confused episode involving a church he hitch-hikes back down the M1, heading for London. A large, expensive, car stops for him, and he's offered money as a medical research subject by Dr. Millar (actually the chemistry teacher from If..., who appears again in Anderson's third Travis film, Brittannia Hospital.) His overnight stay in Millar's research wing is cut short, however, when, investigating some odd noises, he finds a traumatized "patient" whimpering and twitching in bed, apparently in a deep state of shock. Following the direction of the man's desparate and pleading glances, Travis notices there's something not quite right with the shape of the torso under the bedclothes, and pulls them back to see what the problem is. His fellow subject has been given the body of a giant purple pig, and his trotters are chained to the bed.
Fleeing this dubious scientific enterprise, he gratefully accepts a lift from Alan Price's band, heading for London. A brief involvement with idle band follower, artist and rich-girl Patricia (Helen Mirren) follows, and capitalising on this good fortune, he obtains an introduction to Patricia's father, Sir James Burgess (possibly modelled on real-life evil tycoon Sir James Goldsmith), and a job as his personal assistant. He helps Burgess with his pitch for a complicated arms deal, selling 'honey' to the dictator of a small African country ('Zingaria'. The dictator, amazingly, is played by Arthur Lowe in 'blackface'.)
In one of the most chilling scenes of any movie I've seen, a screening (echoes of the pornography screening in the Northern town) is arranged, explaining just what this is about. The coffee plantation workers in Zingaria are kept decently (segregated by sex, of course) in clean, though utilitarian, housing. But some insidious rebels are not happy with this. Hence the services of a distinguished German military man ("Colonel Steiger") are needed to contain the troublemakers. The "honey" is a lethal defoliant and poison which kills "all known forms of life". The sales pitch is that extensive use of "honey" dropped aerially onto the rebel-held areas will solve (or dissolve) these small local difficulties. As a demonstration, we see slides of human corpses in various stages of dissolution under the action of the "honey".
Unfortunately for Travis, he's the fall guy. After the sale goes through, and the plane is loaded with copious quantities of honey ("You could do all of East Africa with that, you know", says the RAF man who takes Travis's papers) he's arrested by the suspiciously unsuspicious export control police, and is soon sentenced to a five year stretch. After sentencing, the judge, reminiscent of the one in Gerald Scarfe's famous 'this justice must be seen to be done' Private Eye cover, inspired by the judge at the Oz Magazine trial, retires to his chambers where he immediately drops his pants, and is calmly whipped by the tea lady.
Inside the British justice system, Travis learns to appreciate secular humanism, and, after serving his term as a model prisoner, equipped with a slim volume of inspirational poetry by the doting prison governor, he once more finds himself out in the world, pursuing his now transformed ideals. A disturbing episode follows, where he attempts to convince a poverty-beaten housewife not to kill herself, by reading some of the poems from his book to her. Needless to say, his attempts are fruitless. He falls from her window-ledge into the gutter, where he's woken some hours later by the flashlight of a bobby on the beat, to discover his wallet has been stolen, and the housewife has gassed herself and her two children. "Hop off", says the policeman, "before I nick yer."
Out of sorts, but still retaining a smattering of his faith, he tries to do good works, helping distribute soup to the meth-drinking down and outs in an urban slum, but for his troubles is mocked and attacked by them. At the end of his tether, he wanders into the bright lights of the West End, where he finds there are ongoing auditions for a new Lindsay Anderson film. Taking his place in the queue of hopefuls, he gets his turn on stage.
Anderson (playing himself, as the director of the film) says "Books" - Travis is handed a few schoolbooks, with which he poses, putting them under his arm. "Gun" - Travis is handed a gun with which he poses. "More aggressive." Travis adjusts his pose. Anderson is obviously pleased. He nods to his assistants, then turns to Travis and delivers the punchline of the film.
"No", says Travis, beginning to look annoyed. "What's there to smile about?"
"What's there to smile about?" Travis is (finally, after grinning and smarming his way through the rest of the film) looking decidedly angry.
Like a Zen master, Anderson hits him (hard!) about the head with the script of the film: "Smile."
Closeup on Travis' face, and a stupendous piece of acting from MacDowell, who is nearly crying with anger and frustration, as the light begins to dawn. Just before the scene ends, we see the inkling of a real smile start to spread across his clearing features.
Throughout the film, Anderson has employed some novel cinematic techniques. As can be seen from the cast list, below, he uses the same actors in several roles. He intercuts simple white on black text, sometimes puzzling, sometimes gruellingly relevant, and interspersed with the action I've described are several scenes of Price's band, performing the songs from the soundtrack. After the final audition scene, there's a final run through of the title song, and the entire cast, smiling to a man, indulges in some energetic, joyful, disco dancing.
: Mick Travis
: Monty - Sir James Burgess
: Gloria - Mint. Paillard - Mrs. Richards
: Mr. Duff - Charlie Johnson - Dr. Munda
: Tea Lady
: Sister Hallett - Usher - Neighbor
: Dr. Millar - Prof. Stewart - Down-&-out
: Chairman - Prison Governor
: Interrogator - Jenkins - Salvation Army
: Mrs. Ball - Vicar's Wife - Salvation Army Woman
- Col. Steiger - Warden - Meths Drinker
: Judge - General
: Welfare Lady
: Captain - Dickie Belminster
: Interrogator - William - Prisoner - Assistant
: Young Man
Director: Lindsay Anderson
Producers: Lindsay Anderson, Malcolm McDowell, Michael Medwin, David Sherwin
Script: Malcolm McDowell, David Sherwin (from the novel Candide by Voltaire)
Cinematography: Miroslav OndrÃffÃ,Âcek
Costumes: Elsa Fennell
Editor: David Gladwell
Music: Alan Price
Filmed from March through October, 1972
London opening: May 2, 1973
U.S. premiere: June 1973.
Represented Britain (hoho!) at the Cannes Film Festival, but didn't receive any awards.
And my own recent viewing.