Tuesday 24 January 2023

The Boy in Blue (1986)

Director: Charles Jarrott
Writers: Douglas Bowie
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Christopher Plummer, Cynthia Dale, David Naughton, Sean Sullivan and Melody Anderson

Index: The First Thirty.

There have been a few surprises during my Nicolas Cage runthrough. The Best of Times was one for sure. That I’ve rather enjoyed much of what’s followed was another. And that it took him this long to make a theatrically exhibited dud is a third, but that’s exactly what it is.

Let’s start with a question. Cast your eyes at the poster above and hazard a guess as to when The Boy in Blue is set. That’s right! 1976.

Oh, sorry, you’re a century off. It’s 1876 and this is a biopic of a Canadian sculler called Ned Hanlan, who wore a moustache and not a Jane Fonda workout headband. Amazingly enough, he also sounded Canadian, given that he was, well, Canadian.

The problem isn’t just that Cage doesn’t try to approximate authenticity here, unlike the period pieces he had made immediately before it, it’s also that every other sculler in the film, and there are a bunch, look far more like Ned Hanlan than Cage does. He does a good job as a Californian surfer dude, which means that he kind of showed up for the wrong movie.

The good here is mostly around Ned Hanlan being a fantastic subject for a biopic, even if a sport like sculling is hardly sports movie gold. His story was a fascinating one from his early days, rowing to school and a local fish market, delivering the catch quicker than other local fishermen. That’s drama.

He won his first amateur championship at eighteen, then turned professional, won a big race at Philadephia’s Centennial International Exposition, became champion of Canada, then the United States, then the world. He was the first Canadian to hold the world championship in any individual sport and he held his status as world sculling champion for five years.

If that wasn’t enough, his dominance was in part due to a different technique. Sliding seats were a new innovation in his era and he used the slide simultaneously with the swing. Yeah, maybe that’s not particularly cinematic, but if that’s what Cage is doing, then it may well be the most cinematic aspect to the film. For all his many faults here, it looks like he’s rowing for real and we can buy into him doing it well.

The bad here is mostly around most of that not actually being included in the script. I’m used to Hollywood biopics making shit up left and right, but this was a Canadian film and I’d have expected more accuracy.

This film would have us believe that Hanlan was a rumrunner who didn’t turn professional and only went to Philly because a conman set the police onto him. They arrive while Melody Anderson is bouncing around on top of him, so our conman appears with a convenient escape plan to save him and we’re off and running.

There’s a lot of talent here, but it’s not well used. Cage isn’t miscast; he just isn’t doing the job he should be doing. Anderson has fun with her role but overplays it so much that we start to see Flash Gordon as the height of realism. Oh, and she’s quickly relegated to a support role, because the leading lady is Cynthia Dale, who hasn’t shown up yet.

David Naughton brings relish to Bill McCoy, that conman, who also has the most depth of any character here. The villain is Christopher Plummer who could do this sort of thing in his sleep and may well have done as Colonel Knox, the face of a corrupt sport of gentlemen.

And yes, everything’s done with the utmost decorum, but Knox hires thugs to drug racers and break their bones and sabotage their boats so his bets pay off. It’s a bloody business, this sport of sculling, don’t you know.

What counters that is the romance, because of course this had to be a romance. Knox has a niece, Margaret Sutherland, and Hanlan can’t resist her from moment one, even when she’s an entitled waste of space. At least she’s given good lines, but the scenes surrounding them aren’t remotely up to the same quality.

Arguably the best line comes when Hanlan is at a party of the beautiful people. Margaret is elegant and socially astute. Ned is rough and ready and utterly out of his depth, so pitches a hissy fit to her. “You wouldn’t recognise wit and sophistication if it hit you in the face,” she tells him. He kisses her anyway, she slaps him and it’s acutely embarrassing for them and us.

What’s most upsetting is that this romance is the only true part of all of this, because Ned Hanlan actually married Margaret Sutherland, though she probably wasn’t at all like this one.

That Cynthia Dale is excellent as Margaret is a small mercy, given what their romance leads to. Hanlan gives up during his next race with a broken heart, which is problematic given that the rower who would beat him has bet on him and so gives up himself and suddenly nobody wants to row. What a farce.

Here’s where I ought to state that you can’t write the rest of the script, because you know less about Ned Hanlan than I do, given that I’m looking at his Wikipedia page right now. What I’ll actually state is that you can absolutely do that, because this is as historically accurate as Braveheart, which is to say almost not at all.

For instance, do you think there’s a training montage scene? Is Hanlan going to be banned from an entire country for doing something a little ungentlemanly? Is that new sliding seat innovation going to play an important part?

Just in case you’re not willing to commit to answers quite yet, let me add that the sliding seat was invented by George Warin, who I’m sure you won’t be too surprised to discover happens to be Hanlan’s coach. Does that make a difference?

It really shouldn’t, because this gets notably predictable, as if it was written by AIs who had been fed the scripts of the last thousand made up sport biopics and then churned out their own version.

And that’s how they cast Nicolas Cage as an eighties surfer dude version of a 19th century Canadian sculler.

I’m open to better interpretations but that’s the best one I can come up with.

1 comment:

Karen said...

Wow - I've never heard of this film, and it sounds like I didn't miss much! Your review made me laugh, though, and I learned what sculling is -- so . . . win-win!