Thunder Rock (1942)

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First posted on MyMavra

Director: Roy Boulting

Starring: Michael Redgrave, Barbara Mullen, James Mason.

I’m leaving the schlock to the professionals and going backwards in time instead. My introduction to the movies was through the old stuff, watched as a kid on a 14-inch black & white telly cursed with a wonky tube. Seriously, everybody had little legs and huge fods. Yeh, we were that poor. I saw The Old Dark House on the bugger, maybe even Ice Station Zebra. I think of that telly a lot, with its wooden cabinet and big plastic knobs and marvel at the gulf between it and the 50-inch plazzy I’ve got now. So, I thought I’d throw an oldy or two your way because, well, I owe the oldies, they gave me my cinematic grounding. I’ll begin with a personal favourite and I should say, not one I recall seeing as a kidlet, I arrived at the Rock much later on…

Thunder Rock is home to a foreboding lighthouse standing sentry on the waters of Lake Michigan. The keeper of the light is David Charleston (Michael Redgrave, Dead Of Night, 1945). He has turned his back on the world, on journalism and writing. He’s an unlikable man, rude and cynical, detached from a society for which he has nothing but contempt. So, off the bat, this fella’s not your stock hero figure…

Into the lighthouse come six individuals, passengers from a ship, the Land O’ Lakes. Here’s where it gets funky – see, she never made port, all hands were lost during a terrible storm some 90 years ago…

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Charleston insists to his friend Streeter (James Mason, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, 1954) that they are not ghosts but exist in his imagination. He has resurrected them not so much to keep him company but to wipe away the sour taste of apathy he feels has subjugated the modern folk of 1939 – “It’s good to live among hopeful people again.” This conjuring of the passengers is portrayed in a great sequence when Charleston closes his eyes, the vessel’s log book open before him and superimposed is the howling storm beyond the lighthouse walls. The storm represents the clash within him, wrought by the intrusion of the outside world. But slowly the book comes into focus and he can open his eyes, becalmed once more… and no longer alone. By his side stands the Captain of the Land O’ Lakes, Joshua Stuart (Finlay Currie, Ben-Hur, 1959).

The good Captain (in many ways Charley’s conscience) is the only one of the six who knows he’s dead. Neither is he impressed with Charleston’s interpretation of his passengers – “You’ve made them silly and shallow.” Accordingly, the sequence is skewed to represent Charleston’s initial inaccurate portrayal. From here we go into a flashback, breathtaking in its technical simplicity; a photograph comes to life and finally we begin to understand, but more importantly like David Charleston. We see him as a war correspondent covering the re-armament of Germany and the rise of Fascism. Charleston’s editors dismiss his reports and frustrated, he quits the newspaper to write a book, touring the country giving oratories on the Nazi threat. We see him delivering a lung-busting speech in a town hall and when the camera tracks back expect to see a rapt audience. Instead, seat upon empty seat. Later, he stops by a theatre to catch the latest newsreel depicting a world reaching crisis point. The attending public is either bored or asleep, only coming to life when the cartoon main feature begins. Disenchanted, he leaves the theatre and disappears into the rain swept night – only to emerge from a darkened room back inside the lighthouse. It’s a wonderful transition. Now he is ready to conjure the passengers once again…

They are like him, hitting a wall and turning away – “running away.” A poor and sickly man with a large family to provide for; a woman who shuns a respectable marriage proposal because she wants more for herself and her gender, falters on a society not ready for female empowerment; a doctor with a radical new aid to surgery is forced to flee from an angry mob when his treatment fails to save a patient. These folk, immigrants, went looking for a new start but found only the sea bed.

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Captain Stuart asks one thing of Charleston, to give these lonely, beaten people hope, to give them courage. And in turn maybe they can pull him out of his own bleak isolationism. But should he tell them of their watery fate…?

As a ghost story, it’s very subtle. Some might argue that the passengers aren’t even ghosts, that they each represent an inner manifestation of his perceived cowardice – he is after all avoiding the growing war effort. That’s one way to go. I prefer to go the more fantastical route. I think at the start they are a product of his imagination and that’s why he gets them wrong, they’re an airy and uncomplicated distraction. He doesn’t want to face the truth. But when the spirits reappear they are no longer in his head. They have accepted his invitation to return to the world of the living – and that too is Charleston’s destination.

The main thrust of the film isn’t as ambiguous as the ghostly element; it’s a call to arms, pure and simple.

Director Roy Boulting (of the controversial Twisted Nerve, 1968) displays a sureness of foot with an unconventional narrative and that in turn breeds confidence in his actors. Mutz Greenbaum (of the stunning to look at Night And The City, 1950 – as Max Greene) is responsible for the photography, all pools of light and long shadows puts me in mind of early Fritz Lang, sort of ‘German expressionism’ – and that phrase didn’t roll off the tongue, I had to look it up. The music by Hans May (Brighton Rock, 1947, a film directed by Roy’s brother John Boulting) is suitably melodramatic and features a powerful main theme. And hark, do I detect a theremin in there…? Movies need more theremin.

The light-hearted opening is a misstep. It feels like an afterthought and totally unnecessary. Tell you what, though, there’s not enough James Mason. His scenes with Redgrave are a highlight as they ping the dialogue back and forth. Streeter isn’t impressed with his friend’s choice of employ – “All it’s good for is a toilet for gulls,” he says disparagingly of the Rock. And when he asks what ‘Charley’ does all day, the pithy reply is – “Sit out here on the rocks and howl like a dog…” Streeter announces it’s his last visit, he’s off to fly for “the Chinese.” Charleston reacts with cod-irritation; Streeter feigns indifference. It’s a lovely little moment and you don’t fully understand what’s going on between these men until Charleston’s flashback. Back in the lighthouse tensions rise as Charleston proclaims – “You think the world’s got an outside chance. Well, I don’t. I’d say the world’s hell bent on destruction.” You and me both, mate. Streeter becomes inflamed; Charleston punches him in the face (In fact, the flashback features Redgrave and Mason twatting Italians – surely the film needs no other endorsement. And watch closely, one punch gets used twice for added violence!). The altercation is soon forgotten and when Charleston tells him of Captain Stuart’s visits, Mason has a great time with the line – “You mean there’s a man in your mind who knows he’s dead, who knows it’s 90 years later, who knows he’s just an idea in somebody else’s mind?” Worth noting Streeter knocks back 4 shots of Irish whiskey in a short space of time… and he’s flying a plane!

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Most of all the film belongs to the mighty Michael Redgrave (indeed, he also starred in the noted stage production). It’s in the little things he does, like reading the commemorative plaque, his head tilted back. But when the camera comes around we see his eyes are closed and he has memorised the words that mean so much to him. It’s a towering performance.

So, if you see Thunder Rock hanging around late night telly some time, give it a go. It’s a good film to watch in the dark with the wind and the rain beating against your window. Extra points awarded for correctly identifying Space 1999’s resident know-all professor Victor Bergman.

Now, why would Charley need a shotgun in a lighthouse…?

ThereWolf, June 2009.

About ThereWolf

I only come out at night... mostly...

7 responses to “Thunder Rock (1942)”

  1. ThereWolf says :

    And that concludes my prolific output from MyMavra. A grand total of 3.

    Now I’ll have to get me finger out…

  2. Xiphos says :

    its always best to leave schlock to the professionals Wolf.

  3. lordbronco says :

    O.o never even heard of this flick before-sounds nifty-you are correct-you can never have enough theremin.

  4. ThereWolf says :

    Not saying I won’t ever do any schlock… Most of the schlockers I saw were a viewed-once event, usually pirated, sometime in the early 1980’s. And frankly, the early 1980’s are a bit of a haze. I can’t remember enough to offer a review.

  5. Guy Budziak says :

    Taking a break as I watch Thunder Rock for the second time, the first was months ago. Also, the first was on my computer, this time it’s my television. Much better the second time around, as I much prefer the comfort of my couch to the computer chair. I like that this movie has something to say, although it does take its time telling it, lesser mortals wouldn’t have the patience for this film. Redgrave is splendid in the lead, and Finlay Currie always enhances everything he’s in (his Magwitch in Lean’s Oliver Twist is definitive). Wolf, you did a great job summing it all up with your assessment, well-written, engaging.

  6. ThereWolf says :

    Thanks very much, Guy.

    I was extremely doubtful and nervy about tackling ‘Thunder Rock’. I’m just not qualified, I haven’t got the vocabulary, y’know? But, yeh, I did okay in the end.

    Much better viewing on the telly, with the lights down, gentle tipple of choice to hand. Can you imagine ‘TR’ being remade now? Doesn’t bear thinking about…

  7. Tom_Bando says :

    Gotta give this a whirl, as I like Redgrave, Mason, Currie, etc. Good stuff here, sounds brooding and moody etc.

    The one Mike Redgrave movie I own is ‘the Lady Vanishes’, he’s kind cool in it but nothing great. Currie well Ben Hur and Great Expectations, of course, you know him even if you donno the name or remember where ya saw him.

    Barry Morse is in this? I remember him as Victor in ‘1999’-the immortal words-Two Brains. Yes. It was a benighted childhood I lead in the 70’s.

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