Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Robert Parrish | The Purple Plain  (1954)

The Purple Plain fits the (ever-changing) borders of the war movie genre, yet it just as well could have been a western. It is a psychological journey, a story not of redemption but of reconciliation of a man with his kind, within a ruthless and deadly environment... of which he has become an integral part. His ascetic direction well tempered by one of Gregory Peck's finest interpretations, Robert Parrish delivers here a superb tale of the survival instinct prevailing over self-destruction.

Child's play
The 'depressed pilot' has been a classic of war movies since the early thirties. Sometimes as evidence of the disorders of the human mind right within the heart of technology, sometimes as a symbol of the burden of war and its cohorts of destruction, even on those holding a position generally viewed as more desirable than others. Peck's character is quite special: a bomber pilot in Burma, his wife was killed in front of him by a bomb in London. And things aren't going so well.

The Purple Plain is typical Parrish. Far from the excesses of spectacular, over-dramatized psychological entanglements that cripple so many war films, melancholy reigns supreme. There's no glory here, but no doom either; the character isn't dispassionate - Peck's acting prevents that - but seems temporarily detached, suspended. The brilliant sound editing of this film regularly sustains this mood: whereas the musical score is mostly used to evoke the turmoils of either the characters or the audience's feelings, sounds of nature often take over in the closing of scenes, functioning like 'reality checks'.

Reality check.

The picture editing and composition are also quite remarkable. In particular, diagonal directions are used to hint at the characters' conversations dynamics: opposite diagonals in shot/reverse shots express conflict. In a single shot two characters sharing the same oblique line, one being close and the other further apart, often point at a possible - but not yet achieved - cooperation. Not only does this kind of craftsmanship relieve the script from superfluous dialog lines, but it also lets the audience fill in the blanks.

As a caveat, one shouldn't expect action-heavy military sequences in this film: war, in the form of death, destruction and fear, is at the same time the source of the main character's inner conflict, and the ground where it will be resolved. Not an object of entertainment nor edification. And though the female lead is a big flaw, the movie is so centered on Peck's character I'm not sure it can spoil the whole experience of this inspired piece of cinema, by a director with such obvious talent.

The Purple Plain at imdb

DVD edition (MGM)

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