It was the eighties here in Australia. Video stores were huge and their selection was impeccable. Aisle upon aisle they ranged; the good, the bad and the extraordinary. During this fine time the local industry was bold and daring. Our filmmakers were still doing genre pictures, and among these great men was a director I have always admired, one Philippe Mora.
I remember watching Mad Dog Morgan (Mora’s feature debut) for the first time with some neighbourhood friends. Unlike me, their parents were very controlling over the films they were allowed to watch, thus they would come round to my place regularly to sample the weird and wonderful.
So there we were watching Mad Dog, and I swear I have not seen since, such perplexed expressions on children’s face whilst watching a movie. They were stunned and poorly and not enjoying the flick at all. It was following this screening that my house became off-limits and I had to go to their houses to watch stuff where we could be monitored, and I could no longer expose these young, fragile minds to quality cinema.
Philippe has an eclectic resume that’s got everything from alien abduction to ballerina werewolves. But there is a film of his that I have watched more than all the others. It is movie that was ahead of its time. It has it all; comedy, action and Christopher Lee singing. It is the ultimate tale of a superhero that has hits the skids; it is The Return of Captain Invincible.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Philippe on this, my favourite of his movies:
KH: You had come off of Mad Dog Morgan, and then The Beast Within – how did Captain Invincible fall into your lap?
PM: My agent Robert Littman gave me the script and an offer to direct. I liked the basic idea of the fallen super hero, the opening newsreel montage, and the American history reminded me a bit of my film Brother Can You Spare a Dime. I wanted to stylize it and I also wanted to make a musical. I said I would direct it if I could turn it into a musical which reflected different styles of popular music and the producer agreed.
KH: The writer of the film (one of the three credited writers) was Steven E. De Souza who would go on to write Die Hard – what was your experience working together?
PM: We never worked together on the film for reasons that I have honestly forgotten. We are now friends and want to work together on something if we can agree. I have found that producers sometimes like to keep directors and writers apart as a misguided control tactic. I worked on one re-write with Peter Smalley where my aim was, quite crudely put, to have a gag on every page, that is, every minute. Any kind of gag – visual or verbal.
KH: It was I think a great plot. A superhero, helps end WWII, is accused of siding with communists, retires Down Under, the US has a secret weapon go missing, the world needs the Cap back, but he’s hit the booze and gone over the edge?
PM: The plot was unique and ground-breaking. Until we made this film superheroes never had problems. But with alcoholic Captain Invincible recovering, now every superhero has problems! Recently The Guardian called it “pioneering.” At the time many people did not understand the film because it radically broke with formulas and was cross cultural in genre and national cultures. The Australian angle was due to financing necessities and I embraced it to make it work.
KH: You re-teamed with your Mad Dog cameraman Mike Molloy for the film?
PM: Molloy in my opinion is brilliant and one of Australia’s best. He was a newsreel cameraman in Vietnam and I met him when I was a kid at my parent’s restaurant the Balzac in Melbourne.
KH: You directed Alan Arkin in the title role; Christopher Lee is the villain – also accomplished Australian actors like Bill Hunter and Chris Haywood – a very eclectic mix?
PM: James Coburn was my first choice for the Captain, but it seems strange to me even now, he didn’t get the humour. I worked with him later on Death of a Soldier. Superb actor. Arkin I believe accepted the role for personal and political history reasons: his father I understand had been a blacklisted teacher. He is brilliant in the film in my opinion and hysterically funny to my taste. Regarding the Aussie actors Bill Hunter was part of my OZ “repertory” company since Mad Dog and Haywood was very funny as the French valet. Serious actors love doing comedians’ work and vice versa.
KH: I still can’t get Christopher Lee’s musical number out of my head after all these years, “If you won’t chose your poison, I’ll have to bring the boys in…”
PM: As WW2 buffs, Lee and I became fast friends. He was dying to sing in the film and when he found I wanted to make a musical he was in. He hated Nazis his whole life and so liked the idea of caricaturing a Nazi racist. Richard O’Brien wrote the incredibly clever lyrics so we had a perfect storm of talents. Unique in the history of musical films. Lee himself thought that number was one the best or favourite things he had ever put on film. It was killer!
KH: Can you tell us any anecdotes from the productions that have not surfaced:
PM: We had a crew doctor who gave the crew legal stay awake pills that also increased appetite! The producer Andrew Gaty came to me about a third way through the gruelling shoot and said the food and catering budget was way over budget, skyrocketing. I expressed bafflement. Which was true. Anyway I ended the shoot rather heavy like everyone else. I think the pill was called Catovit.
KH: Superhero films are the order of the day. Your film was, some might say, a superhero parody, something that could really be said to be ahead of its time – an anti-superhero film on the level with what would emerge with The Watchmen and Kick Ass. Time has been called the ultimate critic. Looking back, in your opinion, how has time treated the Captain?
PM: As mentioned The Guardian recently called it pioneering and I agree. At the time there was more creative freedom in Australia under 10BA financing than anywhere else in the world and that is the only way it ever could have been made. I think cross genre films are anathema to corporations and financing entities because the brain type cannot comprehend innovation or non-formulaic narrative. The frontal lobe starts melting. Anyway Invincible has now spawned many films with variations on superheroes as anti-heroes or damaged individuals. Yesterday’s innovation becomes today’s cliché. Many films have been derivative of my film: for example, look at Hancock.
KH: What are your finally thoughts on Captain Invincible?
PM: I love the film and was originally really confused by the reaction. I am very proud of it and I think it stands alone. As I recall we paid Irving Berlin ten thousand dollars for using Kate Smith singing God Bless America, which he donated to the Boy Scouts of America. So when I see Captain Invincible inadvertently crushing the Boy Scouts shoulder at the beginning of the film I always get a chuckle.
Well that was Philippe Mora ladies and Gentlemen. For those interested in the Guardian article which is referenced, please find the link below. For those of you not familiar with Captain Invincible, I urge you to seek it out; for adventure, for laughs, for the unknown. In the days before it was Marvel, Marvel everywhere and not a spot to think – Mora’s movie is more than ever, what the world needs now!
Into the blue!
COMING SOON: Elvis has left the building: Remembering 3000 miles to Graceland with Demian Lichtenstein.