Friday, 14 November 2008

BIERCE THE FIERCE (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)

Donald Sutherland stars as writer Ambrose Bierce, who famously walked into the Mexican civil war aged 71 and was never seen again. The film is by no means a biopic, and instead speculates on what might have happened after Bierce's last known sighting- in del Toro's hands, this speculative history is a peppery burrito filled with David Lynch, Ray Harryhausen, Apocalypse Now, spaghetti westerns and Lewis Carroll. del Toro gives us his dreamy nightmare, and his Day of the Dead vision of Mexico is a joy: families who turn into dancing skeletal swordsmen; pinatas that buck and spit fire, empty coffins that wander, looking for mates. Bierce sees visions of his twelve siblings, all whose names begin with the letter 'A'. He has flashbacks from his time in the US civil war, and is frequently under attack from memories of failed cavalry charges by mud-caked blue and gray zombies. The scene is an animated swirl of reflection, a technicolour counter to Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man.

The film has an array of blink-and-you'll-miss'em cameos, including a heavily made-up John C Reilly and Mark Ruffalo as revolutionaries Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. The pair have one scene as a bickering Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee, including a bewildering exchange of wordplay and misunderstanding:

Villa (Reilly):'Is it a no?'

Zapata (Ruffalo): 'Yes; it is a No.'



'So you are saying no?'



'Yes. We are saying no.'

'You seem unsure. It seems like yes and no in your mind are inter-changable.'

'In my mind yes and no are a slither apart. This is how I like it.'

'Sounds like maybe to me.'

'No! Maybe is an uncertain word. Zapata is decisive'

Sutherland's Bierce takes in the madness with a weary lack of concern. As battles surround him, filled with heightened passions and disastrous desires, his blank expressions slowly reveal his own worries: What does it mean to die, or to live? His dialogue is filled with cynical lines taken from Bierce's own Devil's Dictionary, such as the time when a young revolutionary tells Bierce that he is a patient man. 'Patience is a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue,' Bierce responds, sullenly.

The huge array of fantastical happenings in del Toro's Mexico are unprecedented, outside of his own films. Ivana Baquero (star of del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth) plays a girl who may be a refugee of the fighting, an angel, or the ghost of Bierce's sister; Tilda Swinton is a three-armed rebel; del Toro mainstay Doug Jones plays a many-tentacled tree that weeps when traitors are hung from his branches, and unleashes a psychic magic, twisting the battle scenes into obtuse reckonings.

Donald Sutherland sang the title song, The Ballad of Ambrose Bierce, which was written originally by Nick Lowe for Johnny Cash, who did not record the song before he died. The song was originally titled Leaning Alone Against Mexican Stone, and was reshaped with the help of Rick Rubin. Sutherland does a winning impersonation of Cash, and his doomy baritone, descriptive lyrics1 coupled with an evocative video, caused the song to be a big success. A consequence of this was the widely believed internet hoax that the song was a suicide note from Sutherland, and that the actor had killed himself. Some news networks even reported this as fact, and it wasn't until Sutherland gave a press conference to announce his un-death that the hoax was outed.
'The lyrics aren't about giving up,' he said in an interview shortly afterwards. 'They reflect a concern that I think Guillermo had with the film as well. And that is, 'what is success? What is a legacy? What is fame? What is it worth?' These concerns are at the core of the Ambrose Bierce mystery. Why does a seventy something journalist and short story writer go on such a long and dangerous trip? What plan does he have? And Guillermo and I both agree, that while we cannot imagine what Bierce was thinking, we both find the complete disregard for a plan to be the most compelling thing about his case.'2

This controversy aside, the film won rave reviews for it's lavish design and for Sutherland's tired performance. It's meandering plot stopped it scooping major awards, and caused one critic to describe it as 'indulgent as a swimming pool full of cream-cakes; I forgot my rubber-ring of sanity, drowned and now my belly aches.'3

Bierce the Fierce Directed by: Guillermo del Toro Produced by Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron Starring Donald Sutherland, Ivana Baquero, Doug Jones, John C Reilly, Mark Ruffalo, Tilda Swinton Warner Bros/Optimum/Picturehouse UK/US Release date: Sept 2006 Running Time 137 mins Tagline:'Death is death when it is death'

1. The lyrics won a 'Best Lyrics To A Song From A Film' Grammy for Lowe Rubin and Sutherland in 2007. They also appeared in the Best American Poetry 2007 anthology (Ed Heather Stone) and as such deserve repeating here. Especially because some school boards in South Carolina removed this anthology from their library shelves precisely because of a perceived 'pro-failure, pro-suicide sentiment' in these particular words.

The Ballad of Ambrose Bierce

I'm Ambrose Bierce
I'm leaning alone against Mexican stone
I'm waiting for the guns that might shoot me
I am a gringo
But I'll beat old age
And disease
I'll never fall down cellar stairs
I am epiphany
I'm dreaming of all those that walk into the fire, rather than into the spotlight
Those that spend a decade in bed, Or have tea at their Mom's instead
Rather than grind out victories
Those that by design or accident will never be finished
I am Von Gogh's destroyed canvasses, Genet's burnt manuscripts
I'm Garbo walking away at forty-four
Forever more

2. Interview with The New York Times, January 20th, 2007.
3. Les Straight, The Times, 12th July 2006


  1. I want to see this film!!!

  2. Yes. This is possibly the most popular Fictional Film Club entry yet. The viewing was packed.