HERE BE DRAGONS...
The Thief of Bagdad
Current generations grow up with TV, and their attitudes are informed accordingly. By the time they reach adulthood they will have been exposed to countless documentaries and travel programs that will have given them a reasonably objective impression about foreign places and cultures. But what did objectivity ever do for the development of the imagination?

I grew up in the age of the cinema, a time when views were informed by the romantic visions promulagated by Hollywood. There was still mystery in the world, still places to explore.

Africa was still depicted at its darkest, with fierce tribes, ivory poachers, and stockades to keep out maurauding hyenas and lions. Arabia was a place of romance, a seascape of billowing dunes, remote oases, and noble Sheiks. China was the land of the Tongs, of hatchet men and opium dens, where sinister Fu Manchu-like figures lusted after young white flesh, and retribution came in the form of a severed head. Every ocean was the hunting grounds of ruthless buccaneers and hungry sharks, and deep below each stormy and squalling sea lay the sunken wrecks of ancient treasure ships, their cavernous hulks now the haunt of the giant octopus.

All food for a growing mind. Very little today can stir the imagination to the extent of films such as Clark Gable and Jean Harlow's China Seas. The Indiana Jones series deliver a load of thrills, but as inspiration it doesn't even come close - today we know too much about the world. And anyway if you've seen Cary Grant in Gunga Din why would you want to see Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? Same thuggee sect, same jewel, same pit of fire, same flimsy bridge, and even the same elephant. Although it seems the writers forgot to include the bugle.

Of course there was a down side. Propogandists have always found cinema an easy way to influence results. To the English cinema-going public during World War II every German quickly became a 'Hun' or a 'Boche', every Japanese was a 'Nip', bandy legged, buck teethed, wearing glasses, and with evil intent - a yellow peril to be stopped at all costs. And of course there was no doubt that 'our brave lads' would do just that. John Wayne's Sergeant Stryker was shot down by just such a murderous Nip, but his squad still went on to raise the Iwo Jima flag. Fiendish Japanese sailors threw quicklime into the prisoner's cells on the hell ship that was taking them into slavery, but like the US Cavalry, the Allied destroyers arrived in the nick of time.

And no doubt on the Axis side the propoganda was equally as crude. Yes, there was a downside to the pre-TV age. Imagination is an asset, but when there are few hard facts available, it easy to manipulate imagination when a political class wants to maintain control. However, having said that, it appears to be not too difficult even in the Internet age.

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My first experience was as a ten-year old being taken by my parents to the village hall in Cricklade, Wiltshire, where once a week films were shown. Presumably these would have been 16mm transfers, so the choice can't have been that great.

The cost was 6d - pronounced 'sixpence' - which was about US 10 cents in those glorious days when there were four Yankee dollars to the Great British Pound. In the vernacular one of the most common coins, the 2 shilling and 6 penny piece, was always 'half a dollar'.

Unfortunately I cannot remember a single film I saw. All I can recollect is that the seats were hard, waiting for the film to start was torture for a ten-year old, and that every week they played the same music over and over again while we waited - a particularly sirupy version of an Ivor Novello classic.

We'll gather lilacs in the spring again
And walk together down an endless lane
Until our hearts have learned to sing again ...
Evocative of a bygone age today perhaps, but at the time I was bored out of my tiny skull.

The next burst of cinematic activity was at Truro, Cornwall. There were two cinemas, the Plaza which was on the J Arthur Rank circuit, and the Palace which was independent. The plaza was purpose built, but the Palace was older with a flat floor so that you saw more of the head of the person in front than the screen. Usually there were two programs per week, and as each program consisted of an 'A' and a 'B' film, that meant there were eight films that could be seen each week, plus whatever was showing in children's cinema on Saturday morning. And on a good week I could pester enough money out of my parents for all of them!

Of course officially many films could only be seen if accompanied by a parent, but those were the days when it was still possible for kids to hang around the entrance importuning strangers: 'Take me in, Mr?' And usually they did. Today anybody would run a mile in case they were accused of paedophilia.

I saw many films I wasn't supposed to - and some I wish I hadn't. I had nightmares after the scene where Tyrone Power has his eyeballs gouged out in Prince of Foxes. By the time the pair of approaching thumbs was in close focus, my own eyes were firmly closed. All I could hear was a voice from the screen saying 'Scream, you fool!' and a sharp intake of breath from the person sitting next to me. I wasn't aware that a spot of sleight-of-hand had taken place, and when I opened my eyes again I had no way of knowing that the eyeballs being displayed on the screen were in fact only grapes.

I saw just about everything that was going, and even though the movie may have been long forgotten some scenes still resonate. Several decades later when I watched a video of The Batchelor and the Bobby-Soxer, I had no recollection of the movie itself, but the scene where Cary Grant is shown in gleaming metal armour hit a nerve. The knight-in-shining-armour metaphor must have meant something to me way back then. The image had not been forgotten. And isn't that what cinema is all about, images?

Even then I believe I was developing a critical eye, although it was somewhat immature.

Why did all the Mexican/Red Injun maidens die protecting the hero in the last reel?

Why did everyone in the cinema cheer as another Injun bit the dust? And why did the Injuns keep trying?

Did all Chinese look like Warner Oland?

Why was Lee Van Cleef always cast as a half-breed? And what was a half-breed anyway?

What did 'Dang!', 'Yer durn tootin'!', and 'Gol darn it!' actually mean?

Why when movie stars kissed did their heads remain upright and their lips firmly closed? Surely the noses got in the way?

And why were my parent's so old-fashioned that they had a double bed? Cary Grant and Irene Dunne never shared a double bed...


Later, as a young adult, I lived in London, and for a while shared a flat with a mate in Hampstead. Both of us were interested in films and the Everyman cinema was only just up the road. It was the late 1950s - a politically charged time - and films like Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds struck a chord. Everything was going to change. To use the catch phrase of the times, England was in the 'white heat of the technological revolution'. Political spin has always been with us.

Surprisingly the dawning age of television (somewhat late in the UK) was not the death of cinema. Suddenly all those old movies were on display again - cheap fodder for the new Moloch - although unfortunately this did nothing to help the cause of those who appreciated silent films. From the moment of TV's inception, the silent age became synonymous with Mack Sennet comedies, the Keystone Kops, and moustachioed villains who bound innocent young maidens to railway lines. The great films such as Chaplin's A Woman of Paris might never have existed.

However there was another up side. For a time British TV even paid homage to cinema. There was a Truffaut season. A Buñuel season. There was even a season of Chinese films on the BBC which ran concurrently with the actual showings at the National Film Theatre.

Unfortunately this was too early for the video recorder. But eventually this made its appearance, and suddenly I was able to record the stuff I liked. Over the years this collection has grown, and currently there are over 1200 titles at my disposal. A mixed blessing considering the storage problem and the need for constant vigilance to prevent the tapes going mouldy in the humid Cornish air.

I feel somewhat akin to one of the old-time gold prospectors. A river of mud had been swirled in his pan. There has been a lot of dross, but occasionally a nugget has been revealed. But only a critical eye can tell if it is the real article or just the Fools Gold that others value so highly.