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Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Connecticut Yankees (originally published 12/01)

With a full slate of Christmas releases to compete with and a tight economy to boot, the films currently in release need any edge they can get. One way for producers to hedge their bet is by basing their film on a premise with a tried and true track record at the box office. That's what the producers of "Black Knight," starring Martin Lawrence, have done. The plot device of sending a modern-day man back to medieval times has a long and honorable pedigree extending all the way back to Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court."

Naturally, "Black Knight" is not the first film to borrow Twain's idea. Through the years there have been a number of movie versions of this same premise, ranging from straight adaptations of Twain's story to oddball variations on the theme. For a sampling of how earlier filmmakers have treated this classic plot, look for these titles on home video.

"A Connecticut Yankee" (1931). Who better to adapt the work of one great American humorist than another icon of American humor? This version of Twain's story features Will Rogers as a radio repairman who wakes from a bump on the head to find himself in medieval England. Like Twain's hero, he inspires awe by pretending to have caused a solar eclipse, but the film's anachronistic gags go far beyond anything Twain envisioned. Rogers makes many topical references to social and political conditions of the early Thirties that may seem arcane to viewers today, but overall the film remains enormously entertaining.

"A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" (1949). This musical adaptation from Paramount stars Bing Crosby as the time traveling Hank Martin. With its technicolor imagery and tuneful soundtrack, this version offers a sharp contrast to the earlier Rogers vehicle. It also sticks more closely to the original story, although liberties are still taken. Most movie fans still regard this high-gloss production as the definitive Hollywood rendering of "Connecticut Yankee." The film's original promotional trailer is reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"Unidentified Flying Oddball" (1979). Disney's take on the story leaves behind the familiar device of a bump on the head, substituting instead a more pseudoscientific explanation for the main character's time shift. Dennis Dugan plays Tom Trimble, a NASA scientist whose android double is about to become the test pilot on the first faster than light spacecraft. Through a mixup, Tom is on board when the launch occurs, so that both he and the android make the journey. It is a well established principle in science fiction (although not in science) that faster than light travel is capable of moving the traveler through time as well as space, and that's exactly what happens here. Tom and his android companion soon find themselves at King Arthur's court. Generally played for broad comedy, this version of Twain's premise is aimed squarely at younger viewers. The canny folks at Disney were sharp enough to realize that by making the main character both an astronaut and a knight they would be tapping into two common childhood fantasies at the same time.

"Army of Darkness" (1993). Perhaps the strangest movie variation on "Connecticut Yankee" is this bizarre comedy from director Sam Raimi, which manages to simultaneously parody horror films and medieval period films. This is billed as the third film in Raimi's "Evil Dead" series, but the connection with "The Evil Dead" (1983) and "Evil Dead 2" (1987) is tenuous at best. "Ash" (Bruce Campbell), one of the lead characters from the earlier films reappears, as does a mystical book, the "Necronomicon," which sends Ash back to medieval times. Those, however, are the only threads connecting this film with its predecessors. Although Ash finds himself stranded in the distant past, he does have a few 20th Century artifacts with him: his car, a shotgun, a chemistry textbook, and a chainsaw. Each of these comes in handy in fighting off an army of the dead, which Ash himself accidentally awakens by botching a spell from the "Necronomicon." Raimi's style, though eccentric, is quite entertaining, so long as you have a high tolerance for blood and guts and a slightly twisted sense of humor. It's certainly not for everyone, but I like to think that Mark Twain, crusty old curmudgeon that he was, would have gotten a kick out of it.

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