Monday, April 14, 2014

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "THE MAN WHO RECLAIMED HIS HEAD" (1934)

Let's test your knowledge of current events. Who spoke the following passionate words?

"The people must be told who their enemies are. The unseen foe who maneuver nations into war. They must know the duplicity of men who profit from human misery and death. [...] As long as munitions stay in the hands of private enterprises, war will always be around the corner."

Was this the keynote speaker at the Libertarian Party Convention? Sen. Bernie Sanders on the Senate floor? An anonymous protestor outside last year's G8 summit? 

No, no, and no. The correct answer: Claude Raines on a Universal Studios soundstage in 1934. Now do you remember?

Possessing one of the more freakish titles in moviedom, The Man Who Reclaimed His Head is an uncompromising anti-war drama, resonating today as a startlingly contemporary attack on the hellish marriage of corrupt politicians and greedy businessmen who create war purely for their own financial gain. If the "Occupy" movement ever holds a film festival, this should be the closing night attraction. 

Paris, 1916. Paul Verin  has dedicated his life to promoting world peace. Always poor, Verin is given the chance to make money when hired to write anti-war editorials for newspaper publisher Henry Dumont-- editorials for which Dumont takes credit. But as the temptation for political power and monetary riches grows, Dumont eagerly sells out to the munitions manufacturers. 

When Verin is drafted at the outbreak of World War I, Dumont is able to keep him on the front lines, edging him closer to death -- all the while putting the moves on Verin's wife, Adele. Discovering the truth about his former friend, Verin goes AWOL and, in a fit of insanity, turns the movie's metaphoric title into shocking reality. (Hint: the thing he stuffs into a satchel used to rest on Dumont's shoulders.)


Never push a pacifist to the brink.
Told in flashback as Verin confesses to a lawyer, The Man Who Reclaimed His Head is a wonderful showcase for Claude Raines, only his second movie since his star-making turn in The Invisible Man. Blessed with a mellifluous voice and eyes that can register love, loathing or madness when called for, Raines gives his anti-war dialogue, as the one quoted above, a resonance that holds up even better today than it did in 1934. A committed pacifist, Verin proclaims, "Give me a child's mind for the first 12 years of his life and I'll sweep war from the face of the earth." As my daughter can affirm, my goals are a little different. Give me a child's mind and I'll fill it with old movies, unfunny jokes, and the collected writings of Charles Krauthammer. I think we know who'll turn out better.


"At least I'm taller than your husband."
As usual, nobody plays the slick villain like Lionel Atwill as the murderously duplicitous Henry Dumont. Bad enough he uses Adele to guilt-trip her husband in trying to sell out his beliefs for financial gain. Dumont then tries to get Verin killed on the battlefront so he can have his way with her. But what's really shocking is how easily Dumont, an expert at mob psychology, manipulates the idiot masses into following whatever line he happens to be peddling. Call it the Rush Limbaugh Syndrome.

Like Men Must Fight from a year earlier, The Man Who Reclaimed His Head blames cynical power brokers for wars. The difference is, however, here we actually see those madmen plotting their war aboard a luxury liner. One of them, the manufacturer of chemical gas, appears to have second thoughts:

BUSINESSMAN #1: I hate to think of all that blood being spilled. My dear countrymen -- I   wonder just what is the duty of patriotism?
BUSINESSMAN #2: And you're the man who makes liquid fire!
BUSINESSMAN #1: Well, what good is it? The peace conference banned it.
BUSINESSMAN #3: Oh, they'll forget all their silly scruples once the first shot's fired!
  
Chess game of the damned.
Their silly scruples. Things get uglier when we learn that these "patriotic" men are selling weapons to the enemy through a dummy corporation in Switzerland. To their disappointment, they realize this could lead to the destruction of their munitions plants with their own weapons -- and, unfortunately for them, end the war. It's up to Henry Dumont -- who has sold each of them them stock in his publishing company at 5,000 francs a share -- to give some sage advice regarding "a general understanding to conserve all our natural resources." In other words, he explains, corner the market on oil and drive up the price, creating a handsome profit for all concerned. No way this really happens, right?


I first saw The Man Who Reclaimed His Head when it was run as part of a horror movie show on local television. I'd never heard of it, but the title, cast, and year of production certainly sounded promising. Around the 20-minute mark, I realized I was watching something far different than what was promised. As the years passed, I looked out for it again, but it seemed to have disappeared into movie heaven. Only a week ago -- after roughly 40 years -- I discovered it on YouTube. 

Having become more cynically aware to the ways of the world, I was stunned to see how ruthlessly, depressingly honest a movie it was. And although there isn't a werewolf, invisible man or electrically-revived corpse in its 82-minute running time, The Man Who Reclaimed His Head truly is a horror movie -- one that continues to play out in real life every day.

                                                        ******************** 

To read about Men Must Fight, click here.

No comments: