A favorite game of movie buffs is to program our own film festivals, or at least our own creative double features. It's a bit like making a mix tape of your favorite songs, finding just the right ones that go together, either thematically, or just simply going by feel or mood. Or sometimes it's fun to create a huge, crazy, opposite clash between two sensibilities. I have always dreamed of what kind of "summer movie" film festival I would program, using only movies that were released between May and August. I will be adding more throughout the summer, but this is my first double-bill.
When I started assembling my double features, the first movie that popped into my head was John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China (1986). It's the quintessential summer movie, filled with fun, humor, chases, escapes, special effects, exotic locations, etc. In a nutshell, it's the heartwarming story of a truck driver, Jack Burton (Kurt Russell), who winds up venturing into the unknown depths of Chinatown to help rescue a buddy's fiancée from some ancient sorcerers and warlords. It's fast and gorgeous and doesn't take itself seriously. That's a major qualification for me; a summer movie that takes itself too seriously just isn't a summer movie. Its seriousness is a clear attempt to be "better" than the competition, which, conversely, also makes it a more self-conscious work, with far less risk.
But then I started trying to figure out how to match Big Trouble in Little China. It's not an easy task. It's a movie that crosses several genres and themes and settings and characters. It's an adventure movie like Indiana Jones, but more of a spoof. And it's a fantasy movie like Harry Potter, but much funnier. It feels a bit like certain Hong Kong movies, like A Chinese Ghost Story or The Bride with White Hair, but it has a burly American hero. Probably the closest matches I found were Romancing the Stone and The Golden Child, neither of which are summer movies. I also thought of Jackie Chan's Operation Condor (1991) as a close match, but the only version that's available is the inferior dubbed version, that was released in the U.S. in July of 1997 and is missing 14 minutes of footage.
So then I focused in on one thing: Kurt Russell's centerpiece performance, with its broad action hero posing and wonderfully ridiculous John Wayne-style line delivery. And then I thought: what better way to match him than with the Duke himself? Instantly I went to one of the great summer adventure films of all time, Howard Hawks' Hatari! (1962), which was released on June 19 that summer. (The title is Swahili for "danger.") It's an African safari movie with some awesome animal chase footage; it's 157 minutes long, and yet it moves with the urgency of a nap in a hammock. In France it was proclaimed a masterpiece by a legendary American auteur, but in the U.S. it was mainly known for spawning a hit song, Henry Mancini's "Baby Elephant Walk." (Though it was the year's #8 box office hit.)
Wayne plays Sean Mercer, an experienced trapper who basically fills orders for zoos. He has an experienced team with him, and they all know each other well. They have an easy, cheerful repartee. Comedian Red Buttons is on hand as "Pockets," lightening the mood even more, but things get rough when an unwanted female photographer, nicknamed "Dallas" (Elsa Martinelli) turns up and upsets the balance. Typically in a Hawks film, Dallas is as tough as Sean, and they immediately begin a bickering banter. Eventually she will become "one of the guys" and she and Sean will fall in love. The film mainly moves in segments, with occasional excursions to the Serengeti for more animal chasing (no special effects, by the way). One of the men is wounded, Pockets tries to invent a new kind of trap, and Dallas finds herself in charge of a baby elephant.
The two movies have very little in common except for the Wayne-style delivery, and the fact that director Carpenter is a huge fan of director Hawks. Mainly they have in common the breezy call to adventure and the cheerful answer; one is fantasy and the other is zoological, but neither is exactly an ordinary summer day.