Fred M. Wilcox | Code Two | Forbidden Planet

Classic Film and Television Home Page

Fred M. Wilcox

Fred M. Wilcox was a Hollywood film director.

Code Two

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.

Long Shots

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 Gauntlet

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

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 Bogart.

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 responsibilities.

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.

Police Uniforms

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 and feared.

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

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.

Circular Forms

The compositions get much mileage out of such circular features as: They remind one of the circular pool in Code Two.

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 and convenience.

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).