Deeds, Not Words!

Public rebellion as a work of art

Published: Apr 10 2014, 01:01:am

November 28, 1972
SAVAGE MESSIAH. Written by Christopher Logue, based on the book by H.S. Ede. Music by Michael Garrett. Directed by Ken Russell. Restricted entertainment with the B.C. Classifier's warning: some nudity, frequent use of coarse language.
HOW LOW THE MIGHTY have suddenly fallen. According to a dispatch from MGM, director Ken Russell has been riding "an incredible wave of success," a statement supported by the fact that his last three pictures — The Music Lovers, an explicit biography of the composer Tchaikovsky, The Devils, a tale of clerical passions and politics in 18th-century France, and The Boy Friend, a revival of a 1920s musical comedy — were all playing simultaneously in London's West End, while his major success, an adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love, was enjoying revival engagements.
    Despite all that success, Russell seems to have lost the faith of the local film exhibitors. His solidly directed Women in Love is, to be sure, still good for a revival. It's on view locally this week at West Broadway's Hollywood Theatre.
    What of his latest movie, though? It has been unceremoniously written off.
     Savage Messiah, Russell's enormously entertaining look at the life of French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, has been buried in the subterranean depths of the Lougheed Mall, a 40-minute drive from Vancouver's Theatre Row.
    It occupies the smallest of the triple theatre's auditoriums, the 297-seat Cinema II.
    Even so, the trip is well worth it. For one thing, the Lougheed Mall Cinema is the most attractive suburban theatre complex in the area, a warm, pleasant movie house that never feels underground.
    For another, there is the film. An extreme, energetic, totally alive movie, Savage Messiah reflects Russell's manic flamboyance and intellectual biases.
    The historical Henri Gaudier was born in the Loire region of France in 1891, the son of a carpenter. He worked at a number of jobs in England and Germany before arriving in Paris to study art. It was there that the 18-year-old Gaudier met a 38-year-old Polish emigre and would-be writer, Sophie Brzeska.
    Although their relationship was sexless, they loved one another and exchanged names. In 1911, they went to England, where they lived as brother and sister, and where Gaudier began making a reputation for himself among the avant-garde.
    In 1914, he returned to France to fight in the Great War. Twice promoted for his gallantry, the 23-year-old Gaudier was killed on June 5, 1915.
    These are the bare facts, but it would be wrong to dwell upon them at any length. Two recent films, The Great Waltz and The Assassination of Trotsky (both 1972), oppress their audiences with their claims of historical accuracy. Neither is a particularly good movie.
    Historicity is not one of Russell's pretences. His own description for Savage Messiah is contained in the subtitle: The story of a young French art student and the lowly Polish woman he met in Paris just before the First World War.
    It is a story with which Russell takes considerable licence, creating an impression, rather than a reconstruction of the artist's short life.
    His script, by Christopher Loge, is based on H.S. (for Harold Stanley) Ede's 1971 biography of Gaudier-Brzeska, and it manages to put glibness on every tongue. In one delightful scene, for example, Gaudier (Scott Anthony) and his Sophie (Dorothy Tutin) visit the Louvre.
    Within the museum, the two Left Bank bohemians find the hushed patrons posed in their Sunday best before the masterworks. "It's more like a waxworks," mutters Sophie. A pair of uniformed guards appear to see what the disturbance is. "Hello, hello," says the senior officer (Peter Vaughan), sounding more like a London bobby than a Parisian flic.
     Gaudier is improperly dressed. His shirt tail is out. He talks in a loud voice, and moves in explosive bounds.
    The guards give chase. "We don't want to disturb the taxpayers enjoying the benefits of cultural democracy," one says soothingly, as he stalks the errant artist.
    "Art is alive!" Gaudier bellows. "Enjoy it! Love it or hate it, but don't worship it! You're not in church! USE IT!" For his trouble, Gaudier ends up on his end in the street, in the middle of a funeral procession, snarling "let them keep it, pure and air-conditioned for the American tourists."
    Oops, there's an anachronism. In 1910, air-conditioned buildings were still nearly a generation away.
     The facts are really quite beside the point, though. Russell is making a film for a 1970s audience, and the mood, if not the words, fits perfectly.
    Savage Messiah is not reverential. Unlike Charlton Heston's Michelangelo (in 1965's The Agony and the Ecstasy), Antony's Gaudier receives no divine inspirations from the special-effects department. "A bad artist is like a bad doctor," he growls, hammering away at a piece of stone, stolen from a local cemetery. "He tries to surround his work with hocus-pocus."
    Russell's Gaudier is motivated by two things: a desire to create, and a desire to be recognized for his creations. His film has much in common with director Ronald Neame's 1959 comedy The Horse's Mouth, a movie that was scripted by Alec Guinness, and starred Sir Alec as an eccentric modernist on the loose in London.
    To populate his world, Russell draws from the ever-reliable pool of English character actors. Tutin, who plays Gaudier's principal involvement Sophie Brzeska, is seldom seen in films but has solid stage credits and is thoroughly convincing as his middle-European muse.
    A less familiar face is Helen Mirren, who plays outlandish freelance suffragette and artist's model Gosh Boyle. A graduate of the same Royal Shakespeare Company that produced Glenda Jackson, Mirren previously modelled for James Mason, the solitude-seeking painter in the 1969 Australian feature Age of Consent.  
    Scott Antony is a total unknown who is making his professional acting debut as Gaudier. Whether he can actually act, or was fortuitously type-cast, is irrelevant. He carries off the role of the vigourous, impulsive, uninhibited sculptor, giving the film the sort of centre that Albert Finney provided in Tom Jones (1963).
    Ken Russell may not be in current favour among theatre owners, but his Savage Messiah should keep him in filmgoers' good graces.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1972. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Aside from a scene in which she takes a knife to a painting in an art gallery, Helen Mirren's character Gosh Boyle would be hard to mistake for the historic Mary Richardson. Very much a Ken Russell creation, her very name told English filmgoers that she was to be regarded as the tale's Tinkerbell: for Londoners, G.O.S.H. is the Great Ormand Street Hospital, the institution best known for holding the (donated) copyright on J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan. Demonstrating his artistic eclecticism, Russell gave his Gosh a show-stopping entrance that's a cheeky homage to Marcel Duchamp's 1912 Modernist classic "Nude Descending a Staircase." A new face to North American audiences in 1972, the classically-trained Mirren is today a favourite of all true cinema sophisticates. Whether playing assassin Victoria Winslow in the comic-book-inspired Red movies (2010 and 2013), Shakespeare's Prospera in The Tempest (2010) or Elizabeth II in 2006's The Queen, she is never less than wonderful to watch. Personally, I can't help but love a woman who, in a March, 1995, interview with TCM's Robert Osborne, quoted her own nephew, agreeing with his assessment that the Academy Awards are "the creme de la creme of bullshit."