Fulvue Drive-In.com
Current Reviews
In Stores Soon
In Stores Now
DVD Reviews, SACD Reviews Essays Interviews Contact Us Meet the Staff
An Explanation of Our Rating System Search  
Category:    Home > Reviews > Drama > Spy > Crime > War > Literature > Little Drummer Girl (1984/Warner Archive Blu-ray)

Little Drummer Girl (1984/Warner Archive Blu-ray)

Picture: B- Sound: C Extras: D Film: C

PLEASE NOTE: This Blu-ray is now only available from Warner Bros. through their Warner Archive series and can be ordered from the link below.

John Le Carre's novels are a lot of things: Tense espionage thrillers. Unsparing interrogations of man's basic human cowardice. Dispatches from the crumbling infrastructure of the Cold War and prescient warnings about the up-for-grabs geopolitical reality of the 21st century. But one thing they aren't is neutral. Le Carre's writing comes from a place of deep conviction and, often, agitation. Indeed, it's only when he found the courage to embrace that voice in his third book, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, that middle-management spy David Cromwell well and truly became John Le Carre. It's what sets him and his work apart from the hacky spy novels that sell big at airports. It's what makes Le Carre addictively readable and enduring.

It's a choice, then, to adapt Le Carre by completely disregarding why his books are vital. But that's what we find in George Roy Hill's unfortunate 1984 take on Le Carre's 1983 book The Little Drummer Girl. And the result is a flaccid, frankly cowardly film that more often feels like a made-for-TV movie than a Hollywood production. There's a lot of blame to go around - from a lousy script by Loring Mandel, known more for TV work than features to a woefully miscast Diane Keaton to a director who is clearly past his prime. Any one of those things could be overcome, but together they torpedo the adaptation of Le Carre's 1983 novel, which never rises to the challenge of its central conflict: the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Set in 1981, Kurtz (Klaus Kinski), an Israeli spy master, recruits Charlie (Keaton), a pro-Palestinian American stage actress working in Britain, to play the role of a Palestinian bomber's concubine in a plot to smoke out the bomber's bomb-making brother (Sami Frey) who is blowing up people and buildings across Europe. Kurtz and his men apprehend Salim, the bomber, setting in motion a plan where Charlie and her Israeli handler, Joseph (Yorgo Voyagis), very publicly pose as Salim and girlfriend so when Kurtz's team kills Salim, his brother, Khalil, will seek out Charlie, bring her into the Palestinian revolutionary fold, and give the Israelis a chance to put an end to Khalil, too. Naturally, Charlie falls for Joseph, her politics get complicated once she goes deeper into the Palestinian experience, and when the plan reaches its end Charlie and her mental state are the collateral damage, sacrificed in the name of ''peace.''

Melodramatic? Absolutely. But Le Carre could pull it off because he imbued his potboiler narratives with a sincerity of cause - and a steely sense of justice. There are no ''good'' guys or ''bad'' guys in Le Carre's world, just pawns in a chess game who think they're kings and the innocent people they use and destroy for a victory as marginal as it is hollow.

None of that is present in the film, which wallows in the melodrama and actively rejects anything like a point of view. In fact, it often actively rejects comprehension to the point of distraction. For instance: An American, working in Britain, is sent to Greece on a phony job to be scouted by Israeli intelligence, which then recruits her for a mission targeting Palestinians. It's like Mad Libs: Espionage Edition. And it's hard to believe that the American government would be OK with such an arrangement. And yet there's never a mention of the United States except in relation to its planes being used by Israel to bomb Palestinians. In the book, Charlie is British - makes sense! - and apparently based on Vanessa Redgrave, who was anti-Zionist. Recasting the role as an American is inane, particularly because Keaton is achingly wrong for this role. Her bubbly Annie Hall act is out of place and wears thin almost instantly. It doesn't help that she carries herself like Katherine Hepburn out on a spying jaunt.

The recasting of Charlie as American is also incomprehensible from a geopolitical standpoint. Israel has no stronger, more reliable ally than the U.S. If this film, like the book it's sourced from, were interested in really digging into the Israel-Palestine conflict and complicating whatever opinions viewers have coming into it, projecting it onto a dilettante American fauxtivist makes a lot of sense. But Mendel and Hill never do anything with the opportunity. Rather, they stake out a place in the cowardly middle, commenting on this side and that and tipping only slightly in one direction - and only because the Hollywood that made this film demanded clear villains, not moral ambiguity.

Who the ''bad guys'' are is set out in the first few minutes. A white, blonde European woman delivers a Palestinian bomb to an Israeli diplomat's house in Germany. As she does, the man's child arrives home from school. She leaves, jumps back in the car with Salim, and the bomb detonates. A Palestinian using a white woman murders a child. Clear enough? If there were any doubt that they were the heavies, when Khalil appears he's dressed in black - on the streets and in the sheets - and when Joseph and crew kill him, he receives a fittingly gruesome villain's death. (The only time we see Israelis kill, it's dispatching bomb makers and delivering airstrikes against soldiers.)

But that's as far as the filmmakers' political viewpoints go. The Israelis do some bad stuff - dupe Charlie into working for them, torture Salim - but so do the Palestinians. There are Israelis who hate Palestinians for purely racial reasons - and there are Palestinians who feel the same about Israelis. This is the worst manifestation of objectivity, a shield to hide behind while shutting your eyes and covering your ears.

When the film tries approaching this hatred, it falls on its face. Do the Palestinians hate Jews or Zionists? Is Charlie anti-Zionist or an anti-Semite? The film tap dances around the question. When Charlie, who at a speech vocally defends a Palestinian against an accusation of terrorism, is brought to Israeli intelligence, she rails against being kidnapped and later says, ''Why don't you leave the poor Arabs alone? Why don't you give them back the land you stole from them?'' This murkiness comes to a head later, during a cringey exchange during Charlie's undercover training at a Palestinian camp in Lebanon. She says something about Israelis being ''greasy'' and the Palestinian commander replies, ''Don't speak that way. We're not anti-Semitic, we're anti-Zionist.'' Charlie responds with a smirk, ''Oh c'mon.'' Is the smirk selling her role? Does it reveal her true conviction? Is she aligned with the Palestinian cause out of a sense of justice or something else? What are her allegiances?

This is the closest the film gets to Le Carre. It gets there grudgingly and doesn't stay there long. The Little Drummer Girl is abstractly critical of both sides, the kind of typically apolitical early-Reagan-era action drama Hollywood pumped out and dumped on the nation. That makes one wonder why anyone chose to adapt the book in the first place. There hadn't been a Le Carre film since 1970's Looking Glass War, and as popular as The Little Drummer Girl was as a book it's not like the author was big-screen bankable. That leaves as an explanation the jingoistic exoticism of its plot, a spy tale set in the Middle East locations and politics that were de rigueur in the early '80s. Yet it failed to make back its then $15,000,000 budget.

Credit that to a production that feels cheap and bored. Hill, who made two stone-cold classics with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, seems out of gas. (He only made one other film after this, 1988's Funny Farm.) From the script to the acting to the score, The Little Drummer Girl feels fogged in by the stagnancy of the early '80s. Kinski, that madman, does something with his role, hamming it up and going intentionally big when everyone else around him is self-consciously self-serious. Frey, too, sinks his teeth into the limited screen time he has to create a nuanced antagonist who is as charming as he is deadly. Otherwise, watching the film is like observing sleepwalkers. Whether Hill didn't know what he had, was hemmed in by the studio, or just showed up for the paycheck, the result is disappointingly inert.

There are times, if you squint, where you can detect some of that old Le Carre murkiness that made The Spy Who Came In from the Cold such an unsparing cinematic masterpiece and would be fully embraced, post-9/11, by Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), A Most Wanted Man (2014), and even prestige TV adaptations of Le Carre books like The Night Manager (2016) and, yes, The Little Drummer Girl, made again as an AMC limited series in 2018. There's also an interesting double feature possibility with Steven Spielberg's Munich (2005), a superior film in every way (and one of Spielberg's overlooked gems). Both deal with the ambiguity of terrorism, war, espionage, and revenge, and both are struggles - one with holding on to one's humanity, the other with maintaining one's patience.

In that context, The Little Drummer Girl would be worth its 130-minute runtime. Otherwise, it's a curiosity at best, an incoherent mediocrity at worst; a film that makes you appreciate just how far Hollywood has come in tackling Le Carre's work - and embracing the courage and conviction that are its lifeblood.

The Little Drummer Girl arrives on a Warner Archive disc that includes only a trailer.

The 1080p 1.85 X 1 digital high definition visual presentation is a mixed bag. The daytime and well-lit interior scenes look good, even if the clarity of Blu-ray really highlights how little money there was to throw around. The night scenes are a different story. Nothing is ever indecipherable - the trailer provides a great point of comparison for just how bad this film looked once upon a time - but it can get murky in ways that could have been corrected with a bit more attention. It's fine, nothing to write home about, but given the relative obscurity of the film it's notable the film was given any attention at all to make it look as good as possible.

The audio here is a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono track. It doesn't blow the doors off. In fact, it reveals the deficiencies of the film's sound. There are times when the dialogue redubbing is out of sync and when it sounds like people are speaking in a cavernous warehouse when they're physically in a confined room. But then explosions, chases, gunshots - all the effects sound like they come from a different, better track. At one point an explosion made me jump, which was a surprise. Generally, the state of the audio is mildly distracting. Though sometimes that distraction is welcome, especially when the film really wallows in its melodrama.

To order this Warner Archive Blu-ray, go to this link for it and many more great web-exclusive releases at:


- Dante A. Ciampaglia


 Copyright © MMIII through MMX fulvuedrive-in.com