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The main character in Bernard Malamud‘s short story “The Jewbird,” a bird that calls himself a Jewbird flies through the open window of a Jewish family’s apartment and never willingly leaves there. He is fleeing certain culprits, enemies, especially anti-Semites. The bird represents the Jewish race.
He cannot pay back the Cohen family for his food and shelter, but can only do them the favor of necessarily helping son Maurie with his schoolwork. The father is suspicious of and then hostile to the bird (“whoever heard of a Jewbird?”) Yes, he is a surreal creature, but the bird brings into relief the family’s failure to really understand the threat of anti-Jewish hate, and of human brutality in general. It is the bird who understands as he begins to live as though he were in a chamber or a prison camp of terror. This is before the story’s horrific ending when it becomes clear how indistinguishable violent anti-Semites are from predatory animals.
Revolving around life in the notorious Hoa Le Prison in 1960s Vietnam, Lionel Chetwynd‘s The Hanoi Hilton (1987) launches a strong assault on Communists and the New Left’s anti-anti-Communism of yesteryear. It pays homage to American POWs, tortured until they “broke,” in the prison.
The film’s characters are not fully convincing and sometimes they are viewed sentimentally, but there is never a dull moment and THH can be moving. It is slightly puzzling when Lt. Cmdr. Williamson (Michael Moriarty) asserts to the prison major (Aki Aleong) that the POWs not only survived the prison, admirably, but also “won” against their captors. Weren’t the POWs forced to provide the North Vietnamese with useful information every time they broke under torture? Is this really winning? In any case, I like Chetwynd’s film. Though flawed, it is inspired and conservative.
In Nicolas Roeg‘s Walkabout (1971), an English teenage girl (Jenny Agutter) and her younger brother (Lucien John) must make their way out of the Australian outback, and are helped by a virile, humane Aboriginal boy (David Gumpilil). Here, civilization and primitive culture have so much in common they are nearly one and the same, except, as it happens, primitive culture has a moral nobility that civilization will simply never manifest. Screenwriter Edward Bond does the film no favors by arguing such a theme and by making the theme damnably obvious. In other words, there’s no subtlety.
Although the film is remarkable-looking—and not always pleasant-looking—Roeg is a would-be artist ignorant of how to avoid pretentiousness. Hence we see everything from pointless freeze frames to white tree branches which resemble sexy human legs, and we hear ill-fitting choral music. Walkabout, not surprisingly, is sometimes uncomfortably weird.
Jenny Agutter’s acting is fairly successful, but rather too cold. Gumpilil, on the other hand, is lively. Kids are the major characters in Walkabout but, believe me, it’s an adults-only picture—except, well, I can’t imagine anyone but a callow adolescent REALLY enjoying it. Roeg has seen the enemy and it is us Civilizers.