Film Review - November 1981

 

 


IT WAS THE VERY DEVIL OF A PART
. for Sam Neill in 'The Final Conflict' but he later proves his versatility playing a priest in 'A Man From a Far Country'

 

Sam Neill in real life, as on screen, is tall, dark and handsome - devilishly handsome, you might almost be tempted to say. For there's no denying that Sam's satanic good looks made him ideally suited to portray Damien Thorn, Satan's son in human form in The Final Conflict, third and final part of the demonic Omen trilogy.

 

When we talked recently, Sam reminded me that during the past eighteen months he's played such diverse roles as a Roman Catholic priest, a Russian KGB chief and a mediaeval knight all in a concentrated effort to get away from his Damien image.

 

Our planned meeting in London's West End was switched abruptly to Pinewood at the last moment - but for the best of reasons. Sam had just heard that he'd been cast as Brian de Bois-Guilbert in Norman Rosemont's lavish production Ivanhoe, and was urgently required to join costars Anthony Andrews and James Mason at the studio for rehearsals.

 

"I was scared when I first started work at Elstree for The Final Conflict," Sam began, "because it seemed as though the success or failure of that film rested all on my shoulders. When I think back on it now, I realise that I loaded myself with a lot of unnecessary pressure on account of that feeling.

 

"One of the reasons I took the role of a priest in another film I made soon after, caned A Man From A Far Country, was that it was the other side of the spectrum from The Final Conflict. Playing Damien had been a lot of fun, but I gather it's being sold to the Christians in America as a kind of heavy warning. I'm a little concerned about these 'born-again-back-to-God' people, and I didn't feel like being set up in a big way and used as a target for anything.

 

"But, despite that, Damien was the most difficult role I'd ever played up till that time. He was the incarnation of all of man's worst, most destructive impulses, yet he hides all that behind a charming and ingratiating facade.

 

"Damien is a man with a mission sent to save the world from the Christian philosophy of love and kindness. As the film's poster paraphrases it, the power of evil is no longer in the hands of a child. Damien is grown up in our story. He's 33, and my task was to capture the essence of Damien's soulless character and at the same time make him seem human.

 

"He is the human son of Satan, fully and totally committed to his Father. I tried to convey in my performance that compelling, consuming dedication to the powers of evil. I had to make Damien an amiable kind of man but, at the same time, I had to let his inner nature show through. It was a very delicate balancing act, the kind of acting challenge I enjoy most."

 

It's hardly surprising that, after completing The Final Conflict, Sam went looking for a subject that would offer him a completely different change of pace. He found it in Possession, a

psychological chiller made in English by the renowned Polish director Andrej Zulawski. Making that film took Sam behind the infamous Berlin Wall, which he describes as a very depressing experience.

 

"The Wall is the central image the whole time," he told me, "and for much of the time on Possession we seemed to be filming in its shadow. There's an extremely claustrophobic atmosphere about the place, even when filming in the Western sector. There were occasions when we asked for co-operation from the East German authorities when filming right up close to the Wall, just in case they got jumpy at what we were doing.

 

"I got very interested in the idea of the East during the making of that film, and that's when I was first approached by another Polish director, Kryzsztof Zanussi, to make A Man From A Far Country. I flew to Poland from East Berlin after being searched by guards carrying machine guns.

 

 

"A Man From A Far Country is the story of how a Polish Roman Catholic, Karol Wojtyla, ascended the throne of St. Peter as Pope John Paul II. He was the first non-Italian in over 400 years to do so. We had a mixed Polish and Italian crew, and a cast of largely British actors. Christopher Cazenove and Lisa Harrow - my leading lady from The Final Conflict - played the other leading roles.

"The major part of filming took place on location in Cracow and other Polish cities before moving to Rome for the final sequences in Italy. When we got to Vatican City, the Pope himself

received the whole film unit in audience and stayed talking to them for fully one hour, something unheard of in Papal history.

 

"Never before had a feature film unit been allowed to work inside St. Peter's Basilica, the private chapel of the Popes, but Pope John Paul granted us special permission. His approval was evident throughout filming as permission was granted not only to shoot inside St. Peter's and the Sistine Chapel, but for scenes in the Basilica, the unit was allowed to use the actual Papal throne. Real priests and cardinals mingled with the film 'extras' during the duration of filming in Rome.

"I met the Pope at the end of filming A Man From A Far Country", Sam said. "It was a very moving experience for me. He gave me a rosary, which I now keep with me in my briefcase. I think it might help with all the flying and jet-setting around the world an actor does in this business."

 

Sam's personal experiences of contemporary life behind the Iron Curtain, both in Poland and

East Berlin, provided him with valuable insight for his next film role. He was off on his travels again, this time to Paris and Lille, to portray Russian KGB official Dimitri Vasilkov in the modern romantic thriller Enigma, a Franco/British coproduction which teamed him with Martin Sheen and French actress Brigette Fossey.

 

"Although I don't think the KGB is a very pleasant organisation," Sam said, "I met a lot of people on location in the East who'd support it. What concerns me is that it is not seen in too benevolent a situation. What also concerns me is that Dimitri doesn't appear too attractive despite the fact that he turns out to be not entirely unsympathetic.

 

"What interested me about the character was that Dimitri wasn't presented as the stereotyped KGB 'heavy'. There is a dark and a light side to his personality, and the role works on a number of different levels. Enigma is a film more about relationships than politics. Yet, at the same time, it should never be forgotten that Dimitri is an extremely dangerous man. He's the hunter in a deadly cat-and-mouse battle of wits as the hunted American dissident (played by Martin Sheen) tries to keep one jump ahead to thwart a KGB assassination squad."

 

 

Sam was born in Northern Ireland, 33 years ago, of an English mother and a New Zealander father who was then serving with the British Army in Ulster. At the age of eight, Sam went to New Zealand with his parents. After making his stage debut in 'Macbeth', Sam joined the New Zealand National Film Unit and played leading roles in three feature films before deciding it was time he became a part of the then booming Australian Film Industry. The first film to win Sam an international following was My Brilliant Career.

 

But Sam's career really got under way when veteran actor James Mason and his Australian actress wife, Clarissa, spotted him in a stage production Down Under and were sufficiently impressed to enthuse about his performance to producers far and wide. As a result, American Harvey Bernhard screen-tested Sam for the Damien role in The Final Conflict, which brought him to the attention of British film-makers. By coincidence, Mason is now one of Sam's co-stars in Ivanhoe playing the wealthy Jew, Isaac of York.

 

"A lot of good things have happened to me lately," says Sam. As long as I can return to Sydney between assignments, then I'll be happy to travel the globe wherever the work takes me. I miss Australia where I first really got started. The movie industry is exploding there, and at present that's where most of the work is. You're paid more in Europe and America, of course, but it's the same job wherever you are. It's just a matter of setting your own mentality in tune with the country you happen to be in at the time."

 

With his Final Conflict devils firmly exorcised, New Zealander Sam is truly a man from a far country who has come to England, by way of Australia, to continue his own brilliant career in films.

 

Iain F. McAsh

 

 

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