The Tempest with Peter Fonda (Gideon Prosper), John Glover (Anthony Prosper), Harald Perinneau, Jr. (Ariel), John Pyper-Ferguson (Gator Man and Caliban), Katherine Heigl (Miranda Prosper), Eddie Mills (Frederick). Directed by Jack Bender (1999).
One of the more remarkable features of the 1990s was the giant wave of cinematic adaptations based on Shakespeare's plays. No doubt inspired by the Oscar success of Kenneth Branagh's Henry V (1989), Hollywood and the film industry at large did much to determine the face of Shakespearean production during the final decade of the second millennium. Branagh went on to produce such films as Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Hamlet (1996), and Love's Labour's Lost (1999), and played Iago in Othello (1993), directed by Oliver Parker. Although few may have seen such less widely distributed productions as Christine Edzard's As You Like It (1992), the two versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream (dir. Adrian Noble, 1996; dir. Michael Hoffmann, 1999), or Twelfth Night (dir. Trevor Nunn, 1995), most of us have had an opportunity to see Franco Zeffirelli's Hamlet (1990), starring Mel Gibson, or such experimental features as Al Pacino's Looking for Richard (1996), Richard Loncraine's Richard III (1996), or Baz Luhrman's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (1996). Of the 1990s harvest, I found Peter Greenaway's adaptation of The Tempest, entitled Prospero's Books (1991), both the most ambitious and most complex product. It was not without some surprise, therefore, to find that before the end of the decade, a new film adaptation of The Tempest was to be added to the list, namely Jack Bender's of 1999.
Bender's new film presents an unusual interpretation of Shakespeare's The Tempest. It is a version of the play that begins in the American south on the eve of the Civil War (Mississippi, 1851), and ends with the Battle of Vicksburg (4 July 1863). This very specific choice of time and place serves to support an interesting new reading of Shakespeare's play. Rather than with a storm at sea and a flashback account of the main characters' prehistory, Bender's The Tempest begins with Gideon Prosper (played by Peter Fonda), as the wealthy owner of Prosperity Plantation at a time when black labour and slavery are beginning to be interrogated in the struggle between the North and the South. At the start of this symbolic storm, Prosper is a widower who, since his wife's death, has preferred the life retired, while allowing his brother to run the business of the plantation. For a nineteenth-century plantation owner, Prosper is unusually generous to his black workers. As a measure of his sympathy, Prosper's private studies are devoted to voodoo magic, which he learns from a black lady on the farm named "Mambo Azaleigh." Prosper's reactionary brother Anthony, of course, reads into this rapprochement a threat to the plantation. As he puts it to his bookkeeper Willy Gonzo, who with five children to raise is forced to obey the villain: "My brother prefers the company of slaves." It is when Prosper means to resume control of his plantation, that Anthony (who accuses Prosper of "sounding more like one of those Yankee abolitionists every day") has Azaleigh assassinated. Prosper flees into the bayou, accompanied by his own daughter Miranda, and Azaleigh's son, a black Ariel with magical talents, including the ability to fly.
The main action of the film concerns Prosper's attempted vengeance on his brother Anthony from the moment when the latter approaches the bayou sanctuary at Bruinsburg, as the southern forces and the Union Army are converging on Vicksburg. In Shakespeare's play, Prospero regains his position of power in Milan, and secures the continuity of that power by binding the fate of his family to that of Naples. In Bender's Tempest, Prosper returns to the plantation after procuring, together with Ariel, the Union Army's victory over the confederate rebels of the South, and with it the end of slavery across the newly united nation. Meanwhile, Miranda has also found herself a husband. He is Frederick Allen, not the son of Prosper's arch-enemy, but a soldier in the Union Army of the Tennessee. Crawling ashore at Prosper's swamp refuge after being shipwrecked on the Mississippi river, Frederick walks straight into the arms of a Miranda whom we have seen rapidly maturing, desperately telling Ariel that she, too, wants to "fly."
Bender's The Tempest is not without its comic moments. One of these occurs early in the film. It begins with a shot of Miranda paddling about in the bayou, seen from the rear, and oblivious to the alligator that is silently closing in on her to the accompaniment of some menacing music. It is when the danger seems to reach its peak and the alligator is about to strike the unsuspecting maiden, that Miranda turns round to hit the animal on the head, asking it with her Southern drawl: "How many more times are you going to try that?" She is not misled by the various guises of Prosper's Caliban-like slave, the one-time owner of the bayou sanctuary, in this production presented as the so-called Gator Man, the Southern type who raises and kills the alligators to sell their meat and skins. No less delightful than the alligator incident is the moment when Ariel descends in the shape of a blackbird and slowly materialises as a black man in front of the northern troupes. When the guard of the Union Army wants to know where he is from, he replies: "Eh, Africa, sir. But I've been working in Mississippi."
All things considered, it is in the relationship between Bender's black Ariel and Prosper that the film comes into its own. Whereas the exiled Prosper seems to have come to rely on Ariel's services as a matter of course, Ariel continually seeks his liberty. He is unable to understand how Prosper could have sympathized with the blacks on the plantation, only to change his principles in the bayou. As a blackbird, Ariel observes the movements of the Union Army, and he really wants Prosper to release him so he can paradoxically join the ranks of Ulysses Grant. Ariel has been around. It is he who reminds Prosper of "Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation" of 1863 stating that "all slaves, is free." By presenting Ariel's wish to be "liberated" in this fashion, Bender nicely contrasts Proper's desire for private revenge and the black servant's desire for public justice, nationwide. In the event, Ariel manages to help the Union Army across the Mississippi river to meet the rebels, who are subsequently beaten.
What follows after the Union victory is a showdown between Prosper and Anthony, supervised by General Grant. Prosper is granted permission on the spot to liquidate Anthony. With his rifle aimed at the traitor, however, Prosper is overcome by the traditional horror that still feeds all popular screen versions of the North-South genre, namely that a brother should be about to kill his brother. At this stage, Prosper proves "human," and spares Anthony's life in a gesture of goodwill. He next returns the bayou sanctuary to its rightful owner, the Gator Man, who responds with a dazed "Thank ee" (to which his master-oppressor can only add a vacuous "Thank you"), after which Prosper empties his purse of voodoo powder, and returns to his plantation, leaving a newly empowered Ariel to join the Union Army and build a better America.
Certainly, at a time when scholars are beginning reconsider their reading of The Tempest as a plea for European hegemony, it is no longer original to interpret The Tempest as a key text in the postcolonial debate, whether in print or on the screen. However, the novelty of Bender's film is that it positions itself in the middle of a recognizable mid-nineteenth-century battle for democracy, and playfully enhances our appreciation of this struggle via Shakespeare's comedy.
It is possible that bringing in the Civil War with such detail is also one of the film's weakest points. As Alden and Virginia Mason Vaughan argue in the introduction to their Arden edition of The Tempest (London: Thomas Nelson, 1999), the characteristic richness and resonance of the play would seem to lie in the fact that it is unspecific and oblique on so many points. The Milan past is full of mystery. It is not clear where Prospero's island is situated. It is not clear when the action takes place. Is Ariel's gender male, or female, or neither? Who is Caliban? Is he a walking contradiction, or does he exist by virtue of a conglomerate of the different and differing views about him? For the purpose of characterisation in this film, the director seems to have eschewed the Shakespearean complexity in favour of matters which have a local habitation and a name. In view of this strategy, one is surprised indeed to find, as part of the credits, the warning that "The events and characters depicted in this photoplay are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons living or dead, or to actual events, is purely coincidental."
Bender's The Tempest is full of special effects to convey Prosper's voodoo powers: these include the impressive metamorphoses of Ariel from a blackbird into a black man, or from a young servant into an elderly man, and back into a youth. Less convincing is the representation of Prosper's practices, conjuring forth images on the surface of a water basin, or producing flames that (nearly always) obey his command. All the gesticulation, the waving of arms, the scraping of the soil with a magic stick, and the spraying of handfuls of dust at random fail to make Prosper look like a convincing magus. In the specific historical context chosen for this cinematic version of The Tempest, it was attractive to represent Prospero's magic as the practices of "Houngan" Prosper, but in their execution they resemble New Age mumbo jumbo rather than the genuine voodoo practices that we have slowly come to appreciate. The magic of Prosper has not been sufficiently translated into cinematic terms, and what remains is really pure costume drama.
Ton Hoenselaars, Utrecht University