The Gold Rush (1925)

Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp looking on at the merriment in the dancehall

Just like most of Chaplin’s stories, The Gold Rush is a deeply humanistic film. It tackles the lengths men will go through to achieve their dreams and how much we are able to persevere and hope in the face of adversity. At the center of it all is the little tramp – the classic underdog of Chaplin’s most heartfelt narratives. In this picture, the tramp takes on the role of a lone prospector searching for gold. He ventures out into the Klondike where he eventually ends up stranded in a cabin with an escaped convict named Black Larsen and a burly fellow prospector named Big Jim.

For much of the film’s first act, it’s difficult to miss the many gags that has made The Gold Rush so enduring and influential. In one scene, Larsen and Jim fight over a shotgun; and while they struggle, so does the tramp as he frantically avoids being on the receiving end of the barrel. In another scene, in desperate need of sustenance, the tramp dines nonchalantly on a boiled shoe while Jim looks at his half of the shoe hesitantly. In yet another, Jim gets delirious from hunger and hallucinates as the tramp transforms into a giant chicken before his very eyes.

It’s one familiar gag after another, and the familiarity stems from these jokes being borrowed on over and over by comedies for the past 89 years. Watch the film in full and one will undoubtedly see scenes appropriated for The Looney Tunes, The Muppets, The Simpsons, and surely many other films and shows. Yet even though it features such a familiar set of skits; the jokes are still able to produce the heartiest of laughters. And the most remarkable thing about The Gold Rush is that the impeccable comic timing and charm make these gags even much more effective than the acts that copied from it.

Later on the film shifts in tone from adventure to romance. It still doesn’t let up on laughs; but instead of coupling it with daring and exuberant thrills, Chaplin effortlessly weaves hopeless romance and melancholy in its place. My one and only issue with the film is in the way the romance was resolved. Georgia’s quite a bitch, really. I mean, the only reason she crossed paths with Chaplin’s tramp is because she picked out the most unfortunate looking fellow in the dancehall to spite her suitor. It never felt like she actually cared for the tramp, and even played him for a fool when she discovered that she was in love with him. All the while the tramp was acting like her knight in shining armor in his starry-eyed romantic idealism, which makes the viewer empathize with the protagonist so much more. In one of the films best scenes – the dinner roll dance – all of these emotions come together as for that solitary minute, Chaplin captures the charming comedy of his picture, the hopeful optimism of his protagonist, and the sad realities of life. Which is why I was so disappointed at the ending where a string of contrivances eventually brings Georgia and the (now wealthy) tramp together. It just didn’t seem right for the film and she didn’t seem right for him.

So I’m not so much a fan of the romance; but still, The Gold Rush endures as one of Chaplin’s most consistently funny comedies, which features a wealth of iconic gags and classic cinematic moments. It’s a film where he juggles and hits more notes than usual: It’s an adventure, it’s a romance, it’s a comedy, and yet another proof of Chaplin’s timeless wit at capturing the many faces of the human spirit.

Rating: A (excellent)

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The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

Daniel Day-Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans

It’s a peculiar experience to see a film starring Daniel Day-Lewis where he either wasn’t the most interesting actor or didn’t play the most interesting role. In most of his other films, he disappears into the character. He was Bill the Butcher. He was Daniel Plainview. He was Abraham Lincoln. In The Last of the Mohicans, he’s just a good actor making the most of a dull role. For the first time, I’ve seen him give a performance that I can easily see being done by another actor with half his talent.

More fascinating than his Hawkeye is that of the English Major, Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington). He gives off an aura like Javert from Les Miserables. Not as cold, but just as firm regarding his strict principles, patriotism and adherence to duty. In spite of this, there are scenes that subtly hint at his turn of heart and unlikely sympathy. That internal conflict is what makes him among the more interesting aspects of this movie, and it culminates in a surprising turn during the film’s climax.

Another thing peculiar about The Last of the Mohicans is it being a historical epic in Michael Mann’s filmography. As a director who typically excels in action-thrillers, it’s curious to see him weave together multiple dramatic narratives set against the backdrop of the Seven Years’ War. He not only tackles the conflict between England and France, but also the struggles of the local militia, a Native American’s quest for revenge and, of course, a love story. Interestingly enough, he succeeds in telling most of these tales, which brings me to the oddest thing about the film.

For the first time in a Michael Mann movie, the action sequences are what left me bored and uninterested. A lot of it was messy, unfocused and fell flat as if the efficacy of his stylized direction gets overwhelmed by the grandiose scope of this wartime period piece. He nails the beautifully sweeping cinematography, costumes and production design needed for such an epic, but for Mann’s standards it feels safe. The most compelling scenes turn out to be the ones that have very little action going on. The best ones in particular include one where the French & English army negotiate the latter’s terms for surrender, one at the end involving talks with the chief of the a native American tribe, and one in particular with Madeline Stowe stretching her acting chops as she argues fiercely against the charges of sedition against her lover.

On a narrative level, it’s a story layered with multiple conflicts, both external and internal, all handled very deftly. That’s not to say that it’s without fault, as I personally could have done without any of the romantic angles, which is – I’ve come to learn – something that Mann doesn’t do very well. Yet even then, the narrative of The Last of the Mohicans is easily much more engaging that anything else about it, which is not something I thought I’d ever say about a Michael Mann film.

Rating: C+ (average)