It’s the first day of Theatre at the Mill’s September Film Festival, and a feast of George Lucas-related fun awaits. Sadly, there are just four audience members present for this afternoon’s screening of Lucas’s sci-fi comedy Howard the Duck.
Who knows if the sparse attendance is down to scheduled opening film The People vs George Lucas having been pulled, or because Howard the Duck is a notorious box-office turkey? Perhaps it’s simply due to the lovely, sunny weather.
To be fair, blaming executive producer Lucas for Howard the Duck is a bit like blaming Steven Spielberg for the Transformers movies, or Quentin Tarantino for Hostel.
And at least Lucas still has a career. The fallout surrounding Howard the Duck’s disastrous summer 1986 release meant writer-director Willard Huyck and co-writer Gloria Katz have barely worked again. But here’s the strange thing – from a couple of decades’ perspective, Howard the Duck isn’t actually that bad.
Sure, it’s a tame watering down of its satirical Marvel comic book origins, and the ending is a mind-numbing free-for-all of explosions and stop-motion special effects. Yet compared to the lifeless, CGI-addled slop we’re served up at the multiplexes these days, Howard the Duck is charming and entertaining.
It’s some way from classic status, but only the most cynical cinema-goer could fail to be won over by Tim Robbins and Jeffrey Jones’s gonzo performances, or to raise a smile at the fowl-based puns (a “Mae Nest” poster adorns Howard’s wall; the Duck reads “Rolling Egg” magazine).
A significantly larger crowd turns up for the evening’s programme, a rare big-screen outing for what is arguably Lucas’s finest moment, the 1981 action epic Raiders of the Lost Ark. Penned by Lucas, directed by Spielberg and starring Harrison Ford, it is the very definition of “blockbuster”.
And the adventure yarn’s globetrotting dynamics retain the power to thrill 30 years on. Ford debuts as Indiana Jones, socking bad guys and bedding women with such charisma that it beggars belief the actor would wind up being such a grumpy sod (see the recent Cowboys & Aliens for evidence).
Classic scenes? How about the opening race through a booby-trapped South American temple? Or Indy’s fistfight with a giant Nazi mechanic, as a plane spins out of control around them? Or the horror-tinged climax as the Germans unleash the full force of the Ark of the Covenant, to their eternal cost?
The movie zips along from one iconic set piece to the next, Ford dispensing quotable lines (‘Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?’; ‘It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage’) and bare-chested heroics (the wry shooting of the Arab swordsman has never been bettered) with aplomb.
If this were a boxing match, Raiders of the Lost Ark would easily KO Howard the Duck, though the latter would eventually crawl from the mat to live on in the hearts of schlock lovers everywhere. Next time, for a truer test of Lucas’s talents, the theatre should pitch the original Star Wars trilogy against the godawful prequels. A stalemate – and perhaps an audience riot – could be the only outcome.
Theatre at the Mill’s September Film Festival runs from September 18 – 24. Browse the programme here.