Fred M. Wilcox | Code Two
| Forbidden Planet
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Fred M. Wilcox
Fred M. Wilcox was a Hollywood film director.
Police Training and the Semi-Documentary Film
Fred M. Wilcox's Code Two (1953) is one of the last films
in the semi-documentary tradition. As a whole, this film is both one
of the cheeriest and one of the most entertaining of the semi-doc cycle.
Like other semi-docs, Code Two offers an inside look at a government
crime-fighting organization: in this case, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).
Code Two shows some variations on the semi-doc paradigm. Many semi-docs begin with
scenes of the government institution in question, showing its facilities and
the training of the agents. These aspects are greatly expanded in Code Two.
It gives a full look at the training of LAPD recruits. This in
fact is in two stages. First we see the regular training at the
Police Academy, then the specialized training motorcycle cops
undergo. These scenes take a half an hour, and are the best part
of Code Two.
Wilcox tends to use long shots throughout the film. These range
from truly long shots, that show the characters against their
environment, to somewhat closer-in camera setups that show the
characters full figure, from head to toe. Occasionally Wilcox
will track in, and show a medium shot. Even these tend to show
the upper half of his characters' bodies. They are the closest
the film tends to get to close ups, and tend to occur in scenes
of maximum emotion.
Wilcox's motivations for this style are several:
- The film is trying to show as much as possible about the training
and life of policemen. Because of this, it is important to show
the background of the characters: what they are doing at all times.
Whether it is motorcycle training at the academy, or investigating
the bad guy's lair, the film tries to display it all, documentary
fashion. Long shots seem appropriate to this.
- The film is often
conscious of the bodies of the characters. People in the film
are most often standing up. Showing the whole standing figure
of the characters is a principal goal of many shots in the film.
Even the medium shots of the film emphasize the characters' bodies,
along with their faces.
- The characters wear a great variety
of police uniforms throughout their training. The long shots reveal
all details of these uniforms.
Many of the shots of training are visually striking. One is especially
good. It shows the motorcycles running a gauntlet: men are hidden
behind walls, and they take turns pushing obstacles in front of
the cycles, which their drivers must avoid. The composition of
this shot shows the corridor face on, perpendicular to the camera;
the walls run parallel to the plane of the shot. The whole shot
reminds one oddly of Ozu, with his frontally
filmed corridors in which one can see a series of walls along
the way. The shot is sustained: it is from a single camera position,
which does not move throughout. This is fairly typical of the
stability of Wilcox's set ups.
Ralph Meeker is trying out here the wise guy persona that he will
later employ in Robert Aldrich's
Kiss Me Deadly (1955). There is the same cocky, overwhelming confidence,
the same grin, the same anti-authoritarian attitude. Underlying
all this ego and swagger there is a great deal of pathos. His
characters in both films are clearly from working class backgrounds,
and completely powerless. This swagger is a compensation for their
position at the bottom of the social heap and class structure
in the United Sates. Meeker's attitudes were somewhat anachronistic
in 1950's America. They are more reminiscent of the gangsters
of the 1930's, such as James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey
While Meeker is well remembered by noir historians, he
never made the impression on the official guardians of culture
that such "rebel" types as Marlon Brando, James Dean
or Montgomery Clift did. Unlike the rebels, Meeker's characters
want to take part in society. They want a social position which
they have been denied. Symbolizing this, Meeker's characters usually
wear suits and ties. Their clothes look like what a working man's
idea of class and flash would be. They show a man who wants to
be dressed in as flashy and as sharp a way possible. He looks
very flashily dressed, and at the same time, there is a working
class look to him: he is not the man in the gray flannel suit
that was the middle class, organization man ideal of the period,
nor do his clothes in any way suggest affluence. Meeker in both
films wears single breasted suits. He wears flashy ties, often
shiny or striped.
Another difference between Meeker and the rebels: they often portrayed
adolescent characters, whereas Meeker played grown men. Even in
a bildungsroman like Code Two, Meeker is already an adult
at the start of the film. He still has no profession, has to learn
to be mature and fit in with other people, but he is all grown
up. In his introductory shot, both he and the two other principal
characters are standing in suits and ties, waiting for admission
to the Academy. These are already men, trying to take on adult
Code Two and Later Films
Code Two is a film that has often been "deconstructed"
by modern films. As the classic film version of what the LAPD
Academy is like, it is probably the source of the Police Academy
comedies that were so popular in the 1980's. While the critics
roasted these films, I tended to enjoy them very much. The best
films in the series are not the first, but numbers 2 and 3. They
were directed by Jerry Paris, the veteran TV comedy director,
and have a great deal of character driven charm.
Code Two also seems to be the cinematic cross reference for the recent
exposť of the LAPD, L.A. Confidential (1997). Like
Code Two, it concentrates on a trio of policemen. It is
also set in the same year as Code Two, 1953. The clothes
in L.A. Confidential seem directly inspired by those in Code Two.
The suit that Meeker is wearing in the opening scene
of Code Two directly recalls those worn by Russell Crowe
in L.A. Confidential. In fact, I had an eerie feeling of
deja vu while watching Code Two recently. I felt almost
as if Crowe were standing among the recruits waiting to enter
the Academy, he is dressed in such a similar style. His lower
class swagger also seems reminiscent of Meeker's. I liked Crowe's
performance very much, but had much more mixed feelings about
L.A. Confidential as a whole.
Code Two has been written out of film history. While it
has been influential on later films and television, like most
semi-documentaries, it is little remembered today. Fred Wilcox
is now a largely forgotten director, best known for the science
fiction film Forbidden Planet (1956). Like Code Two,
this later film also concentrates on young men in uniform,
the space explorers who land on Walter Pigeon's planet.
The glowing circular pool the hero encounters anticipates the great
Whatsit of Robert Aldrich's
Kiss Me Deadly, and is a not unworthy predecessor to that most
sinister of all film noir McGuffins.
Innocence versus Experience
The characters in Code Two are younger and less experienced
than those of many in the semi-documentary tradition. However,
many of the semi-docs focused on young men, on their first assignments.
One of the persistent themes of the series in fact was innocence
versus experience. Semi-docs often showed a good young man, on
his first investigation of a world of evil. The characters are
nice, ordinary people, plunged into a world of corruption and
crime so vicious that its is almost beyond belief. The standard
critical metaphor for T-Men, for example, is of a descent
into hell. These films form a metaphor for what happens to people
when they grow up, leaving their nice supportive families to try
to make their way into the world, and discover that it is often
a shockingly unfriendly place.
The later scenes of Code Two are much darker than the earlier
ones. They show the heroes trying to investigate a criminal gang.
It is always a gang in the semi-docs, never a lone villain. There
is still something of a Boy's Own Paper feel to these scenes,
that of a kid's idea of grown up adventure fighting crime. However,
there is also some authentic film noir type violence.
The film's attitude towards the heroes' uniform is interesting.
The characters' main declared motive for wanting to be motorcycle
cops is admiration for the uniform. But once they join the squad
and become uniformed officers, things begin to go wrong almost
at once. The hero eventually solves the crime and makes the situation
somewhat better, but he does this by going out of uniform and
wearing civilian clothes for his detective work, something his
police superiors give him explicit permission to do in one scene.
It is not as if the film blames the uniform for this problem.
Its attitude is rather different. The film seems to suggest that
the responsibility of being a policeman is almost too great for
human beings to bear. Being a police officer is an ideal for the
heroes, but it brings so much responsibility and difficulty that
it is hard for the heroes to live up to it. Or to make it a success
in practical terms. The uniform suggests all the responsibilities
of organized adult action that the heroes are trying to take on.
It is a metaphor for the adult role itself, something both wanted
The film also suggests that the uniform makes the heroes the target
of bad guys. By getting out of uniform by "disguising"
himself in civvies, the hero is able to function much more effectively,
with less attention attracted to his actions. This too could be
a metaphor for men's lives. The uniform publicly declares that
the hero is following the male role: in fact, it is harder to
imagine any clothes that would function more as certifiers of
masculinity than the ultra-macho motorcycle cop uniform. But such
public certification calls attention to the heroes, and makes
them targets. The hero can perform better by blending in with
all the other men, wearing ordinary clothes, and doing his work
in private. This need to protect the self, by not calling attention
to it, is a typical male survival and coping strategy. It is part
of growing up, and gaining maturity.
Forbidden Planet (1956) is one of the most elaborate science
fiction films of the 1950's. Its opening scenes directly recall
those of Code Two. As in that film, most of the characters
are young men, wearing identical uniforms. While there are three
main characters in Code Two, here there are around a dozen.
It is actually quite rare for the characters in a film all to
be dressed alike. Here, everyone is wearing neat space uniforms,
designed by the great Walter Plunckett. Both films offer an idealized
portrait of male bonding.
The first half of Forbidden Planet is much better than
the second. The first part shows us a spaceship, another planet,
Robbie and the high technology of the Krell: all exciting, idealistic
science fiction concepts. It also has much enjoyable, positive
interaction among the characters. The second half is just another
monster movie. Monsters were big in 1950's sf films, and perhaps
the filmmakers thought it de rigueur to include one. But it reduces
and trivializes the intellectual level of what has gone on before.
Composition and Widescreen
Forbidden Planet shows an expert use of composition. If
one watches this film on TV, it is important to view it in letter
box format. This preserves the composition. It also allows one
to see all the action. Wilcox stages scenes all over the entire
length of the Cinemascope screen. Missing any part of this will
result in a travesty of the original film.
The compositions get much mileage out of such circular features as:
They remind one of the circular pool in Code Two.
- the round space ship,
- the spherical navigation globe, and
- round regions in Pigeon's house.
Comic Books: An Influence?
Forbidden Planet recalls the science fiction comic books
of the 1950's, especially Mystery in Space
and Strange Adventures. Like them,
it takes place in a highly civilized future. Like them, the focus
is less on violence, and more about the wonders of the future.
The elaborately futuristic set design of the interior of Walter
Pigeon's home, recalls the futuristic interiors of these comics.
So do the uniforms worn by the spacemen - similar uniforms were
often worn in comic book stories. The whole first half of the
film is like seeing the sf comics brought to life on screen. One
wonders if the filmmakers were inspired by such comic books.
Chesley Bonestell: An Influence?
There are also signs of influence from the sf artist Chesley Bonestell.
Bonestell's work appeared in sf magazines. It was famous for its
realistic illustrations of what planets might look like from outer
space, for example, what Jupiter might look like from the surface
of one of its moons. In Forbidden Planet, the exteriors
showing the planet, and the surface of the planet itself after
the spaceman first land, remind one of Bonestell's work.
A Star Trek Ancestor
Of all the science fiction films of the 1950's, Forbidden Planet
is the closest ancestor to the TV series Star Trek. Star
Trek began production in 1963, although it did not appear
on the airwaves till 1966. Both works take place in the far future.
Both concentrate on the crew of a space ship, exploring new worlds
throughout the galaxy. In both, the space ship is organized on
military or naval lines, with officers and a chain of command.
In both films, the characters wear uniforms. In both, they wear
belts, with blasters and high tech communication equipment. Although
both spaceships are organized on military lines, both are highly
civilized, and neither is in a state of warfare or militarism.
The commanding officer and his closest confidant, the ship's doctor,
are central characters in both. Both films show an advanced future,
filled with peaceful progress and scientific wonders.
Both films have similar art direction, with pleasing looking rooms
and furniture that suggests a modernistic, but pleasingly civilized
future. Both films are in color, and have a similar sense of color
design. Both favor bright colors, that are a bit on the pastel
side, but not quite: light blues, green and reds. All of these
colors are mixed together, with large solid regions of each, on
the clothes, furniture and walls. This gives a bright but not
garish color scheme. The colors are insistent, and highly visible
and conspicuous. But they are not garish or loud. They suggest
a future world where everyone has the pleasure of looking at vivid
colors: a civilized future. The furniture looks soft and gentle
in both films. It also looks elegantly designed, as if experts
on ergonomics had planned everything for maximum user comfort
Both films also look at advances in computers. Forbidden Planet
is the origin of the wonderful Robbie the Robot, later featured
on the Lost in Space TV series, while Star Trek
has the ship's intelligent computers. The Star Trek computers
are the best depiction in film of where computer technology is
going, in my opinion.
The ceiling to floor beams in which the crew members stand during
hyper space transitions recall the transporter beams used on Star
Trek. Although the science fiction functionality of the two
machines is different, their visual design is much the same.
Forbidden Planet reminds one of other science fiction films
as well. The huge shafts built by the Krell anticipate shafts
in Star Wars (1976) and X-Men (2000).