It was a combination of mild frustration and bewilderment — something I’d be getting used to as part of a repeated pattern in my life: surveying a theater sprawling emptily around me, wondering why ticket-buyers weren’t lining up for a conspicuously superior film.
Nearly eight years ago, it was The Great Raid — a second-world-war flick, billed as “the most daring rescue mission of our time … a story that has never been told”. True enough, Raid portrayed the audacious 1945 rescue of five-hundred American POW’s from a Japanese prison camp — in broad daylight — over an open plain — a plot so outlandish, it simply had to be true; which, in fact, it was.
Raid boasted an impressive cast. The “good guys” of this tale? American military men embarked on a chivalrous, selfless quest. Thematically, aesthetically, educationally and inspirationally it was a worthy product.
Costing around $80,000,000 to be brought to the screen, it snagged just over a paltry $10,000,000 in receipts. The box-office math? Catastrophe.
The “story that has never been told” irksomely remains one few have seen.
I don’t recall what fart-and-booby sex-farce garnered financial gold that year, but I suspect there were several.
Four and a half years later (2010) it was The Road that thrilled (and grieved) me — but not many others. Based on Cormac McCartney’s harrowing and magisterial apocalyptic novel, and starring a mesmerizing Viggo Mortensen and remarkable, twelve-year-old Kodi Smit-McPhee, it’s a movie experience that haunts me even today. I sobbed through the last few pages of the book and part of its filmic counterpart, to boot.
My boys and I hazarded a forty-five minute drive through the snow to find a cineplex screening
The Road. Counting us, I think there were five people in the seedy auditorium that Sunday afternoon.
A disturbing movie, difficult to watch throughout, The Road is not recommended for those whose tastes strictly go to Hallmark Channel fare or zany, Seth-Rogan romps. I suppose you could categorize it a kind of horror movie, albeit the “horror” is not throat-savaging vampires or shambling zombies munching on intestines — but a dead world without warmth or food. Yet, as a searing portrait of a father’s frantic devotion to his boy? Unsurpassed.
And passed over by almost everyone.
One year later The Way Back slipped unheralded into a few theaters, and slunk away, disregarded, a week or two later. This is another film that can trace its bones, supposedly, to actual events — although there is some debate about that. What’s not subject to much debate is its deeply-affecting power: a motley group of wretches escape a Siberian gulag and, defying murderous winter, trek incomprehensible distances into Mongolia, then India, then freedom. Its final, fleeting scene will stop your heart; it left me briefly speechless.
Although recognizable, big-screen personalities like Ed Harris and Colin Farrell adorn the cast., Hollywood seemed weirdly listless about promoting The Way Back. Perhaps because it, incongruously for modern Tinseltown, takes a respectful angle on the Christian religion and a contemptuous one on Communism? Perhaps for less sinister motives? Whatever the case, the film’s production budget clocked in at $30 million; it’s domestic take less than 10% of that. Yikes.