Many of you will recall the middle-aged character Max in Alan Parker’s excellent 1978 prison-is-hell film, Midnight Express. Incarcerated in an awful Turkish jail along with the central character Billy Hayes, Max is brilliantly played with a sort of straggly, drug-addled jitteriness by John Hurt. A well-spoken and intelligent Englishman with the air of a sullied university academic about him, it’s evident that narcotics have been Max’s downfall; judging by his drawn, leathery features and slight, feeble frame, drugs have been a problem for him for some time, long before his spell inside.
With little hope of release, Max has degenerated into physical and mental frailty, his ratty features and broken spectacles framed by a little ethnic earring in each ear; adornments which are perhaps indicative of a wandering, hippy spirit. Occasionally Max is responsible for moments of intellectual sharpness and withering observation, but these are few and far between, and as his years in prison increase, so his constitution decreases relatively.
So, how did Max end up in this mess? If one imagines for a moment what kind of person he may have been as a much younger man—full of rebellion, energy and a distaste for authority—you could conceivably be looking at the titular character Malcolm Scrawdyke in Stuart Cooper’s engrossing 1974 film, Little Malcolm and his Struggle Against the Eunuchs, which features another excellent central performance by Hurt.
The two characters share many traits: like Max, Malcolm is intelligent, able to use his wit and wisdom to manipulate his peers, and by his early 20s he’s already flirting with social non-conformity—in preparation, it seems, to live out life on the fringes of conventional society.
Based on David Halliwell’s 1965 stage play (which was produced during its initial run by Mike Leigh), and financed by George Harrison and Apple Films (Harrison supplemented Stanley Myers’ score with some incidental music of his own), Cooper’s Oldham-set film, which won the Silver Bear award at the 1974 Berlin Film Festival, is an excellent study in sexual politics and quasi-Fascism, and it contains masterful shifts in tone from tragic-comic (the always excellent David Warner as the dorky, delusional, anorak-clad character Dennis Charles Nipple is a particular highlight) to sinister and disturbing, with a narrative that leads steadily towards a fairly unsettling and inevitable climax.
The story concerns the young, angry, disaffected rebel Malcolm, and his formation of a revolutionary group called the Party of Dynamic Erection (to remove any doubt regarding the party’s misguided stance towards male sexual dominance, its logo is a sort of Art Deco penis). Joined by three impressionable friends, Wick (John McEnery), Irwin (Raymond Platt) and Dennis (Warner), their naïve, fledgling political manifesto appears to be nothing more than to steal a Sir Stanley Spencer painting from a local art gallery, then blackmail the head of an art college – the same institution that has just expelled Malcolm for bad behaviour - into destroying it, thus making him a pariah and achieving revenge in the process.
However, matters get much, much darker as the group’s anarchy intensifies; subsequently, their main drive appears to develop into an aimless striving for power and male supremacy, to be attained through force. Trouble reaches a crescendo when Malcolm’s would-be girlfriend Ann (the wonderful Rosalind Ayres), sensing that fear and impotence are the catalysts for his disturbing behaviour, challenges him to partake in the intercourse that she suspects he’ll struggle with. Ultimately, despite all Malcolm’s aggression and bluster, it’s his failings that make him an interesting character study.
Indeed, despite frequently bearing his fangs, and displaying a capacity and desire for cruelty, Malcolm is at heart a frightened, pathetic man plagued by doubts about his self-worth; he rails against conformity in all facets of life, yet his distaste for those who adhere to convention – the weak ‘eunuchs’ he despises—merely masks his many personal inadequacies, both sexual and social. A poster boy for narcissism, Malcolm perceives himself as different to the masses and vitally important (he states without irony that he is “truly one of the greats”), and uses his persuasive power to brainwash those closest to him into participating in an unpleasant communal deed that occurs towards the end of film, just as he and his cohorts reach their zenith of chaos.
Considering that Little Malcolm and his Struggle Against the Eunuchs is primarily a study of misfits, social disorder and gender-encoded violence, there’s nevertheless a keen and welcome sense of black comedy throughout; this makes Cooper’s film palatable in the face of some unremitting bleakness. For example, one creative and satirical scene that literally conveys Malcolm’s Fascism features him giving an enthusiastic outdoor speech to his tiny group of followers.
As the camera pans away from him as he continues to deliver his ranting monologue, the genuine noise of a crowd—at what sounds like one of Hitler’s stadium speeches—crackles on the soundtrack, the cheering no longer echoing amongst the gigantic pillars, columns and stands that would have towered before Leni Riefenstahl’s lens, but now instead heard, out of context, against the visual backdrop of Oldham’s neat rows of small terraced cottages, collectively diffused by snow and the kind of damp, wet fog that frequently hangs in the air of Northern English industrial towns.
Interestingly, the comedic elements of the film that focus on the emasculating ineptitude of Malcolm and his gang appear to have influenced John Sullivan’s excellent and far lighter-hearted BBC sitcom Citizen Smith (Cooper’s film is like a forerunning Citizen Smith—but with teeth, if you will). In Sullivan’s show, the main character of Wolfie Smith (Robert Lindsay), after signing up his coterie of odd friends, forms the London-based social revolutionary movement The Tooting Popular Front. Unlike Malcolm, however, he fails to rouse his men into anything other than a lazy gaggle of mates that are more inclined to nip down the pub for a pint than smash the oppressive system.
However, whilst Little Malcolm and his Struggle Against the Eunuchs differs from Citizen Smith in that it aligns political power and anarchic disorder with male sexual superiority, both works are nevertheless still borne of a similar anti-establishment ideology, and both still focus on guerrilla politics, albeit with differing approaches to tone.
As is the norm for BFI releases, the supplemental material is top notch. The disc is a dual-format DVD and Blu-ray presentation, and also included are two short films, Put Yourself In My Place and The Contraption, a trailer for the main feature, and an extensive illustrated booklet for Little Malcolm and his Struggle Against the Eunuchs, which includes a short, interesting and anecdotal essay by film director Mike Leigh.