Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With the election almost upon us and the Obama drama Southside With You now in theaters, we tweak an old Watch This topic and hail some of our favorite films about real U.S. Presidents.
Coming off the superb low-budget gangster film Dillinger (1973), writer-director John Milius went as big as he could for his first major studio film, The Wind And The Lion, a piece of fanciful historical fiction that hearkens back to the movie epics of earlier decades and to the adventures serialized in boys’ magazines generations before that.
The inspiration came from a forgotten incident that was an issue during Theodore Roosevelt’s 1904 re-election campaign: the kidnapping of a Greek-American businessman by a Berber leader in Morocco. Like Dillinger, The Wind And The Lion takes place in the limbo between fact and myth. If anything epitomizes Milius’ sensibility, it’s that his script originally included references to Citizen Kane’s Charles Foster Kane as though he were a real-life figure, but they were removed for copyright reasons.
Two personalities dominate The Wind And The Lion: Roosevelt (Brian Keith) and the romanticized bandit Raisuli (Sean Connery). Keith sounds nothing like Roosevelt, who spoke with the now extinct non-rhotic accent of the old upper crust, and Connery, no one’s idea of a Berber, looks nothing like the rotund Raisuli and sounds exactly like, well, Sean Connery. They’re the mythic versions of these two historical figures—especially Keith, who gives the definitive portrayal of how Americans prefer to imagine the boxing, sleeve-rolling 26th president. (One suspects that Milius’ identification with Roosevelt—a figure he’d return to in the miniseries Rough Riders—comes partly from the fact that they both had severe asthma.)
Among many other things, The Wind And The Lion changes the 64-year-old Ion Perdicaris into Eden Perdicaris (Candice Bergen), a young woman with two children, turning the fairly cut-and-dried kidnapping—settled through little more than diplomatic pressure—into the stuff of classic adventure, with charging riders on horseback, skirmishes in city streets, and plenty of rattling, slicing sabers. This is a world of rousing conflicts, made melancholy by the understanding that, even if any of it ever existed, it would be long obsolete. (Still, Milius finds plenty of reasons to poke at the era’s politicking.)
Milius himself is a personality out of time, enough to later be mythologized as The Big Lebowski’s Walter Sobchak. The Wind And The Lion—which was a hit, but not on the order of Milius’ later Conan The Barbarian or Red Dawn—never feels like the product of post-Vietnam America; it just comes from Milius’ imagination, where history and fantasy meet each other halfway. If anyone is going to make imperialist rah-rah, it might as well be a true believer with a style that makes Raiders Of The Lost Ark look like an ironic send-up.
Availability: The Wind And The Lion is available on Blu-ray or DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased from the major digital outlets.