Friday 20 October 2017

We Don't Go Back #69: The Pied Piper (1972)

The story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin was very much part of the fairy tale repertoire when I was a kid. I remember seeing Cosgrove Hall's animated adaptation as a kid, had at least one book of fairy tales that included a retelling, heard it at school. One of my dad's Prediction magazines had a typically unsettling piece (for a kid) about the history and folklore of the story (March 1982, "Who was the Pied Piper?"). Although it goes back to the fourteenth century, it was retold by the Brothers Grimm and Robert Browning, among others, and so you'd think its entry in the canon is assured.

None of my children had heard of it before I asked them yesterday.

It isn't one of the stories they were told at school and thinking about it, of the multitude of fairy tales I read to my kids, or saw with them adapted on TV, it was absent. They know the stories of the Three Little Pigs, Red Riding Hood, Aladdin, Snow White, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, all present, all correct.

But no Pied Piper.
(Prediction, March 1982)
I always found the story of the Pied Piper disturbing and sad as a kid, and maybe there's a reason why it's been excised. Even when I was a kid, the grimmer ones (if you'll pardon the pun) were disappearing. Red Riding Hood survives now (even Granny gets out in the version my kids have, released healthy and whole from the stomach of the wolf by the woodcutter's axe). The pig with the house of straw and the pig with the house of sticks escape now and find refuge with their more practical brother. Cinderella's stepsister now refrains from mutilating her foot to fit the slipper, and so does not meet with the fatal consequence for her act of deception; she just shrugs and stands in the wings.

I don't think current children's media is necessarily dumbed down. I think in fact that books and visual media for children have a complexity and willingness to approach difficult issues that the media I consumed as a kid could never have had. But the way in which so many of these stories shrug at sudden death is no longer part of our vocabulary.
This is not the sort of thing I expect from my fairytales.
And you can't remove the loss from the story of the Pied Piper. Rats, vicious and disease bearing, plague Hamelin. A nameless Piper, a fey, androgynous figure dressed in multicoloured ("pied") rags, says he'll clear the town of rats for a large sum of money. The burgomeister says, sure, go ahead, not really believing that he can do it, and the Piper plays his pipes and charms the rats out of the city, leading them into the river where all the rats drown but one, which escapes to warn rats elsewhere to stay out of Hamelin. The elders of the town don't uphold their part of the deal and won't pay (presumably, they reckon he'll be happy to do it for the exposure). Enraged, he plays his pipe again, and this time he leads the children of the town away to a sort of magical otherwirld, leaving behind one boy with a lame leg, who cannot keep up. No one ever sees them again (although in another version, it's two children who can't follow, a blind one who cannot show the way, and a mute child who cannot say where the others have gone).

One theory (picked up by that Prediction article and uncritically repeated) is that the legend of Hamelin comes from a folk memory inspired by the Children's Crusade of 1212, a perhaps apocryphal but much darker tradition. According to this account, vast numbers of children, led by the visions of a boy named Nicholas, abandon their homes on a quest for the Holy Land only to die far away, exploited and sold into slavery.

So, maybe it should have distressed me.

The 1981 Cosgrove-Hall adaptation, all in stop motion animation with Robert Hardy reciting the Browning poem, literally was the stuff of my childhood nightmares; you can find it on YouTube (the DVD is long since out of print) and it's still pretty terrifying, as so many kids' films of that era were.
Sailing Riding homeward...
Jacques Demy's 1972 version, titled simply  The Pied Piper, is framed as a prestige family musical, but takes a similarly dark turn, for all its songs and bright colours.

Its main problem is that the title role is filled by singer-songwriter Donovan (Leitch). In a lot of ways, Donovan seems a shoo-in for the role, being himself a fey, androgynous performer of equally fey material, but as an actor... he's a really decent singer-songwriter. He only looks happy when he's singing and playing, and when he's called on to act, he mostly looks pretty uncomfortable. Donovan is suitably fey, and has a lovely voice, but he's not numinous, he doesn't have a true sense otherworldliness, and although he displays magical powers early on, it's almost a surprise when he starts to deliver the magical goods.

It doesn't help that The Pied Piper has an otherwise absolutely stellar cast, and Donovan pales in comparison. But then, if you're going to have scenes where John Hurt, Michael Hordern, Roy Kinnear and Peter Vaughan all stand in the same room, it's going to be difficult to hold your own.
Only a million guilders, you say?
It's 1349. Keith Buckley (Uryens from Excalibur) plays Mattio, leader of a troupe of travelling players. They're trying to find somewhere to work, but, as they find to their horror, much of the countryside is in the grip of the black death. Still, they keep pressing on, picking up along the way a kindly pilgrim (Peter Eyre, most memorably seen as King Cassiodorus in Dragonslayer) and the Piper. Fast friends all, it's the Piper who gets Mattio and his troupe into Hamelin, which is otherwise in quarantine. He's going to play for the wedding of the burgomeister's teenage daughter Lisa (Cathryn Harrison) to Franz, the baron's son (John Hurt, in rare villainous mode). It's not a love match. The baron (Donald Pleasence) wants the match because of the dowry so he can build a cathedral, the better to buy himself into heaven; the burgomeister (Roy Kinnear) wants to be connected to power; the burgomeister's wife (Diana Dors) is, it is hinted, sleeping with Franz and wants him close.

A subplot concerns Melius, a kindly Jewish apothecary (Michael Hordern) and his lame assistant Gavin (Jack Wild, cinema's quintessential Artful Dodger), who discovers that a plague of black rats is coming to the town, and tried to prevent the spread of the plague, only to fall foul of Franz, who wants to force Melius to aid in criminal fraud, and the church, represented by the corrupt, hypocritical bishop (Peter Vaughan, reliably excellent). The Piper's ridding the town of rats, which is a beautifully filmed and framed sequence, then, happens in the context of a drama set around the plague and with themes of corruption, greed, and religious hypocrisy.
He's already taken a bite of that apple.
The pilgrim is the only religious figure who is at all sympathetic; but he barely believes in God himself, and in the end his faith and fake relics (the unwashed sock of Thomas à Becket and a splinter of the True Cross) don't help him. The Bishop wins his point and gets his cathedral, but The Pied Piper is savagely critical of the Christian establishment, right down to the closing caption, which tells us the Black Death inspired savage religious persecutions, quite the note for a family film starring a beloved entertainer to go out on.

We see these privileged people exploiting their families and grasping money and power for their own ends. And the film has a bleak ending; while one of the villains catches the plague, one of the characters we're rooting for dies of it too, while another winds up burned at the stake, without any rescue or even hope of it. The leaders of the town don't even notice that the children are gone in-film (the grief of the town for the children is only mentioned in the end caption), since they are too terrified at the discovery that the plague has come in their midst. The only thing for the lame boy to do is to leave with Mattio and his players; Mattio's family remains intact, for they are outsiders. 
I can't watch this.
The Pied Piper tries to have its cake and eat it, historically speaking; on the one hand, captions at the start and end of the film set the film firmly in midsummer 1349 and talk about the onset of the Black Death. But it has these lush and frankly brilliant but outlandish costumes, and here's Donovan with a guitar (not invented until the nineteenth century) on his back, because even though he's the Piper, he's still Donovan, and hence a guitarist, and there's no point at all in having Donovan in your film if he isn't going to play guitar. And here is why Donovan isn't the otherworldly creature he could be: Donovan is playing himself. He's not really the fairy Piper, he's Donovan, Donovan walking into a medieval fairytale and filling one of the roles in it, so you have these fairytale worthies meeting Donovan, and talking to Donovan, and hanging out around a campfire with Donovan, and that's not actually a bad thing, as far as it goes. In fact, it makes the whole experience stranger and more dissonant. Because what could be otherwise an extended Very Special Pop Music Extravaganza becomes a weird, dreamlike affair, with renditions of "Sailing Homeward" and "What a Waste of Time to be Unhappy" sitting alongside the rats, the corrupt bishops, and the corpses of the plague-dead. And the escape of the Piper and the children, singing and dancing, alternates in quick cuts with an innocent man's judicial murder.

So you have in a weird way the same sort of delirium that you get in, for example, The Devils, except, you know, in a film for kids.
Lalala lalala lala.
I ummed and ahhed about including this film in my series. But on balance, I think it's right to have it here. We have a dark piece of folklore, framed around a tale of misappropriated faith and given a fevered, strange atmosphere. If I'd have seen this film as a kid, I think I might have decided later that I'd dreamed it. I'm sure that it would have given me nightmares.