Sunday, December 19, 2010
Perilous Voyage - a toupological analysis.
Perilous Voyage (originally titled The Revolution of Antonio DeLeon) is a TV movie starring Michael Parks, Lee Grant and William Shatner. Although filmed in 1968 (during the hiatus between Star Trek's second and third seasons), Perilous Voyage was not actually shown until eight years later in 1976, when it was finally broadcast by NBC. It is also a top contender for the most obscure film Bill Shatner has ever made.
The plot concerns Antonio DeLeon (Michael Parks), a revolutionary leader in the fictional South American country of San Cristobal (not to be confused with Mexico's San Cristóbal de las Casas municipality). He and his band of followers are determined to remove their country's new government by force, instead installing the wanted DeLeon as its leader.
A cruise ship, the Morelia, is about to leave port headed to Ecuador.
DeLeon and his men trick the crew into smuggling several barrels of arms aboard. These, they intend, will be used to takeover the ship and divert it to a port from where they will launch their revolution.
Suddenly, a group of military men escort the deposed former leader of the country, General Enrique Salazar (Frank Silvera) and his daughter Alicia (Louise Sorel) to the ship.
They are to board at once, exiled from San Cristobal by its new leaders. Will this derail DeLeon's plans?
Meanwhile, on-board the ship, Virginia Monroe (Lee Grant) is missing her playboy husband Steve (William Shatner). The vessel finally leaves without him.
Thankfully, Steve manages to catch up with it just in time...
DeLeon is traveling under a fake identity - Antonio Moralez. Now on-board, he and his gang begin to plot their takeover.
The various passengers sit down together for a meal, eventually joined by DeLeon.
Will he (now clean-shaven) be recognized by the very silent General Salazar?
DeLeon and Monroe are both hopeless drunks and find a genuine rapport.
As DeLeon gets increasingly plastered, his lips become looser and he lets slip his revolutionary thoughts.
While Virginia evidently has a soft-spot for the mysterious fiery traveler...
...which doesn't make her husband too happy.
The crew of the Morelia change course to avert a hurricane...
Not long after, the ship is taken over. The hijackers want to go to a place called Ponte Negritia. They order the captain to change course, hurricane be damned.
It also increasingly appears that the cool and calculated Reynaldo Solis (Michael Tolan), DeLeon's assistant, is the one calling the shots. Who is he? What is to be his role in the revolution?
Meanwhile, the passengers, led by Monroe, try to figure out a way of taking back the ship.
But Monroe's role isn't straightforward either. It turns out he's an arms smuggler, with the Morelia actually carrying a shipment of arms to fuel another separate revolution in Ecuador. Now these arms have fallen into the hands of DeLeon.
Will the passengers manage to take back the ship? Will DeLeon succeed in launching his revolution? Will Monroe persuade (somewhat Kirk-like) DeLeon to stop?
That's where we'll leave it...
So what to make of this movie? Not great, but no bad either, we thought. Certainly entertaining, certainly watchable and certainly much food for thought contained therein. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Perilous Voyage is the lack of clear-cut protagonists and antagonists. Who exactly are the good guys and who are the bad guys? Here, there are many shades of gray. Nothing is clear cut, despite initial appearances.
On the one hand, DeLeon is a crazed, drunken, firebrand left-wing Latin American revolutionary. On the other, he is portrayed as genuinely caring deeply for the neglected poor in his country. Hijacking and heated passions aside, he ultimately comes across as surprisingly well-intentioned, rejecting the more insidious path taken by Solis.
Then there is General Salazar. In his case, he is a deposed right-wing dictator, blood on his hands, evidently a ruthless rule which most are glad to see over. But he too has a likable side, a love for his daughter and a concern about what DeLeon might do to his country. Both of these men have been left isolated by the new government (here too, no firm judgments are made as to this new government's credibility - is it popular or is its stated popularity mere propaganda?).
Steve Monroe, meanwhile, is a drunken, opportunist arms smuggler - possibly even employed by the CIA as part of covert efforts to prevent communism spreading into Latin America. It is he who leads the charge to regain the ship and also to reason and even empathize with DeLeon. His wife Virginia, meanwhile, is the archetypal naïve 60s hippie, enamored with DeLeon's cause and blind to the darker sides of the potential revolution - in the movie she goes so far as to warn DeLeon of plans underway to retake the ship and instead ends up being raped by DeLeon's assistant Solis.
So Perilous Voyage manages to play out a drama in which the four chief characters embody various key political permutations taking place in Latin America and in the US's relationship towards this region during the Cold War: The anti-communist dictators (for example General Pinochet) often favored by the US versus the left-wing dictators (for example Fidel Castro) who often started out as legitimate anti-imperialists, but soon morphed into tyrants; the covert US interference (embodied by Shatner's character) and also the often naïve hippies looking on from afar (embodied by Grant's character) blind to the nefarious aspects of well-meaning revolutions.
"In our revolutions, dictators are always succeeded by dictators," says Solis at one point, rejecting any comparisons to the very different North American example of the Revolutionary War. "The trouble with revolutions is that they can never produce the promised results," points out a peripheral character - underscoring how so many Latin American revolutions during this period often needed to be corrected by counter-revolutions, which then too needed to be...etc. etc... Is DeLeon to be just another "etc."? He says he wants a real revolution, truly of the people, but why should it be any different to previous revolutions?
It's a scenario of a swinging pendulum in which there is no real correct answer, only alliances; only the enemy of my enemy temporarily becoming my friend. And that is what Perilous Voyage manages to examine with surprising effectiveness. Rather commendable for 1960s TV! And certainly far more mature and less stereotypical than many other dramatic efforts along the same lines.
Watching this movie, we couldn't help but wonder why it sat on a shelf for eight years. A network or studio eating the approximately quarter-million dollar production costs of such a drama by refusing to air it would indicate that Perilous Voyage was a complete unmitigated disaster. But it wasn't.
There were and continue to be TV movies ten times worse that still end up being shown in graveyard slots during the summer months. So what happened? 1968 was one of the most tumultuous times in modern American history - could that, coupled with the controversial and variegated politics explored in this TV movie have been too hot to handle? We don't know, but it may be a possibility. Or was it the fact that the character of Victoria Monroe was raped - could that have been considered too unsuitable for 60s TV? Again, we just don't know. Or did some executive simply not like the unusual absence of a clear protagonist in this drama?
The fact that Perilous Voyage was finally shown in 1976 was possibly down to Star Trek's growing popularity and the fact that Bill Shatner featured in this project. Otherwise, it may never have been seen at all.
As a purely dramatic piece, Perilous Voyage is certainly far more cohesive than, for example, the disastrous Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. ST:V also concerned the hijacking of a ship by enemy forces and also followed a trip to a "Promised Land" sought by hijackers. But ST:V arguably failed because the journey of the hijacked ship was far less interesting than the perceived promise of the destination (a similar weakness dogs the first Trek movie too).
With Perilous Voyage, fortunately the reverse is the case - the real drama takes place on the hijacked ship, the perceived payoff of reaching the final destination is wisely kept as little more than a footnote. If only ST:V had been more like Perilous Voyage it might have actually been a far better film.
This TV movie isn't without it's flaws, however. 60s TV production-values aside, there's a tendency towards over-the-top characterization at times, such as the depictions of alcoholism or Bill Shatner surrounded by women at the start (telegraphed meaning indicating he's a playboy), while DeLeon too comes across as a little over-the-top. This latter point was addressed by Bill Shatner in his autobiography Up Till Now:
"The whole plot hinged on the fact that this guerrilla leader, Antonio DeLeon, was so handsome, so charismatic that several woman passengers couldn't resist falling in love with him [not entirely accurate -ST]. Supposedly he was a Che Guevara type. A talented, handsome young actor named Michael Parks was hired to play that role...On the first day of filming, he arrived on the set made up to look like a sixty-year-old Mexican bandit out of a 1940s B-movie Western...It couldn't have been more wrong if he had been made up as Santa Claus. The director tried to convince him to play it differently but he was adamant: 'This is the way I'm going to play it.'" It's certainly a fair point - Parks' performance could have been a little less clichéd.
Let's move swiftly to the hair...
As we've noted before, Perilous Voyage was likely just one of two dramatic screen projects undertaken by Bill Shatner during Star Trek's 1966-1969 run. The first, during the season 1-2 hiatus was White Comanche; Perilous Voyage was filmed during the season 2-3 hiatus. Surprisingly, both times Bill Shatner shunned his usual "Jim Kirk lace" for the first time in years (outside of overtly costumed projects like Alexander the Great).
We can only speculate as to why this was the case. Perhaps Bill Shatner or the producers of these two projects sought to distance the actor from the familiar James T. Kirk image. Or perhaps it was just a matter or practicality - the "Jim Kirk lace" required constant attention to make sure it was styled properly and to avoid the lace line showing on the forehead. In Perilous Voyage, Bill Shatner wears more of a typical and durable hairpiece, attached to the scalp instead of the forehead. It's similar, though considerably shorter than the later "Lost Years" toups of the 1970s.
As for toupological moments, there are a few. About twenty minutes in, Bill Shatner's character makes an awkward joke about a barber - it is met with incredulity:
A "Real Hair Reflex" is also evident as Bill Shatner makes a hair-cutting gesture during this sequence. Sub-consciously, the actor points to an area of real hair at the back, rather than to an area of his toupee.
There's also some windiness as the actor makes his entrance in the movie (see the very first clip above). Could the "Jim Kirk lace" have survived such wind?
Perilous Voyage manages to be both hokey and thoughtful entertainment. Certainly worth watching. Unfortunately, not only is it commercially unavailable on VHS or DVD, but it hasn't been shown on TV for years either. TCM apparently own the rights, and you can vote (here) on their website for this movie to be released on DVD. The movie was recently digitized from a highly degraded video recording (we cleaned up the audio for the clips here) by someone, enabling this analysis and review (thanks to whoever you are) and can be found out there on the Internet - until a proper release or re-broadcast, that's the only option for anyone who wants to see it.