February 6, 2021
MY CORNER by Boyd Cathey
Christopher Plummer: In Memory of a Great Actor
Friday, February 5, the noted actor Christopher Plummer passed away at the age of 91. His departure brought back to me memories of films he appeared in during an impressive career that spanned seven decades. The pallid and often insipid and undeserved fame of recent Hollywood stars and starlets pales in significance to Plummer’s achievements in film and on stage. Truly he was one of an older generation of actors who were far more talented than the cinematic midgets that infest Tinsel Town these days. He understood the power of cinema and theater which could not only entertain an audience but also through choice of subjects and the art of conveyance had the ability to add something grand to our culture.
Like many viewers and fans of Plummer, the first film I remember seeing with him as a leading star was The Sound of Music (1965), with Julie Andrews and Eleanor Parker. My whole family motored into Raleigh to see it when it played at the old Ambassador Theater on Fayetteville Street, one of those special occasions that remain etched in my memory. Plummer assumed the role of the Austrian aristocrat and conservative opponent of the Nazis, Baron von Trapp. Although he was not fond of the role, it will remain forever connected to him and serve to identify him for millions of viewers who otherwise may not know that much about his distinguished career.
A few later in college I was able to take a side trip into Charlotte to see him in The Night of the Generals (1967), with Omar Shariff and Peter O’Toole (Plummer played Field Marshall Rommel) and Battle of Britain (1969)—still in my opinion one of the greatest “war” movies ever made, with some fantastic air combat scenes. Then, in grad school at the University of Virginia, I took time out to see what would become my favorite historical film, Waterloo (1971).
Waterloo is criticized by some film critics as “too static,” that it simply is two hours of fighting, cavalry and infantry charging back and forth, but lacking a momentum that would carry it forward. I strongly disagree; if anything that criticism misses the intentions of director Sergei Bondarchuk. On a large screen canvas he attempts to actually re-create, to paint cinematically if you will, to the smallest detail an historical event—every uniform, every bit of action, everything said (quoted) by Plummer (Duke of Wellington) and Rod Steiger (Napoleon) brought to the screen. It’s more like an illustrated volume of history, unfolding visually before the audience, in some ways perhaps like a docudrama, but much more than that. Each time I view my Russian-made DVD I imagine myself on that field in Belgium back in 1815, and I can see and understand that momentous battle and what it meant to the future of Europe.
And Plummer as Wellington is priceless…an absolute joy to watch him actually become the Iron Duke. The screen writers went back and combed through the records. Left behind and scribbled down by observant note-takers were numerous accounts of what Wellington said right before and during the battle. Bondarchuk integrates those sayings and quotes seamlessly into his production, and in speaking those lines Plummer excels in bringing his character alive—he truly is Lord Wellington.
Some of those quips and quotes remain with me now fifty years after I first saw Waterloo. Let me offer some memorable examples.
In reviewing the somewhat disreputable moral state of his Welsh Guards on the eve of the battle, he turns to his adjutant and says: “I don’t know how these men will do against the enemy, but by God they scare the hell out of me.” On his preparation for battle he declares: “Always get over heavy ground as lightly as possible,” and concerning the request of a junior officer to take a shot at the Emperor Napoleon who has ridden too close to the English lines, Plummer laconically replies: “Certainly not! It is not the business of generals to shoot at each other.” And perhaps my favorite, spoken near the end of the film as he rides over the battlefield surveying the thousands of dead and horribly wounded: “Next to a battle lost, nothing is so tragic as a battle won.”
Plummer incarnates Wellington, his presentation totally believable…and certainly mirrors somewhat the two-volume biography that Lady Elizabeth Longford painstakingly wrote and published at roughly the same time (1969 and 1972). I don’t think any other actor could have done as well.
Although accomplished in many cinematic genres Plummer continued his mastery of historical film with such titles as The Assassination at Sarajevo (1975) as the doomed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, The Man Who Would Be King (1975) as Rudyard Kipling (co-starring with Michael Caine and Sean Connery), The Scarlet and the Black (1983), where he played the German commander of Rome against Gregory Peck’s Catholic monsignor who has been smuggling Allied prisoners and dissidents out of harm’s way, and then another favorite, Young Catherine (1991), on the early life of Tsarina Catherine the Great of Russia. Later he took roles in such historical on-screen dramas as Nuremburg (2000) and The Last Station (2009)—a memorable account of the last years of Russian novelist Count Leo Tolstoy (receiving his first, and long overdue, first Academy Award nomination).
He was nominated a second time for his portrayal of John Paul Getty in director Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World (2017), depicting the infamous kidnapping case of J. Paul Getty III. And he finally received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the comedy, Beginners (2011), making him the oldest actor to ever receive an Academy Award.
Beyond his mastery of historical drama, Plummer excelled in other areas as well. He could be a believable character from an Agatha Christie mystery, such as in Ordeal by Innocence (1984), or in a Charles Dickens classic, such as Nicholas Nickleby (2002) as the evil Uncle Ralph Nickleby, or portraying Julius Caesar in George Bernard Shaw’s comedic Caesar and Cleopatra (2009). And his on stage Shakespeare roles were uniformly praised…Othello, Macbeth, Henry V, and King Lear
Lastly, modern and younger viewers may recall his iconic role as Chang in Star Trek VI.
Christopher Plummer worked tirelessly up until his death. He was one of the last remaining giants in a swirling sea of mediocrities who populate our film industry these days. He will be missed.
What he said in Waterloo, reputedly words uttered by Wellington when the battle seemed lost to the English, may well apply to us and the bastardization and corruption of our culture: “May God have mercy on us…for no one else will.”