The Final Programme
|UK Release Date||1973|
|Reviewed||8th May 2014|
Before George RR Martin raped and pillaged his way through the fantasy landscape, two opposing titans dominated the sword and sorcery genre. On the one hand you had Oxford Professor JRR Tolkien (what is it about double Rs?) and his hairy-footed Hobbits, irritated Dwarves and high-minded Elves singing and prancing through Middle-Earth. Peter Jackson brought the darkness to the forefront in his impressive The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the (so far) superior Hobbit adaptations.
The other literary giant was the prolific king of counter-culture Michael Moorcock. Moorcock was the teenage editor of Tarzan Adventures in the 50s and then found notoriety with his Jerry Cornelius, a bisexual adventurer and the first facet of his Eternal Champion. The Eternal Champion was a reluctant anti-hero existing in every dimension, doomed to right the balance between Law and Chaos.
Elric of Melniboné was the most infamous of the champions; a drug-taking albino slaved to a sentient soul-sucking blade called Stormbringer. Other facets included Dorian Hawkmoon battling against an evil futuristic British Empire and Corum, a tragic prince tormented by savage gods. Moorcock’s list of heroes is endless and in the age of the Disney uber-franchise surely we are being denied a warped and chaotic series of movies? Wendy Pini’s animated feature of Elric’s saga never reached completion but her excellent book, Law and Chaos: The "Stormbringer" Animated Film Project covering her attempt did.
Sadly the only Moorcock adaptation to see the light of is of his first Jerry Cornelius novel, The Final Programme. Moorcock continues to hate it but Director Robert Fuest’s film is a strangely engaging oddity that perfectly reflects the cosmic gobbledegook spouted in the 1970s. Cornelius is a flamboyant genius still in the shadow of his brilliant father, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who has developed the Final Programme to develop a self-replicating human being. Jerry is approached by rival scientists, including the fur trimmed Miss Brunner to persuade him to hand over his father’s microfilm (remember that?) of the design. What transpires is like James Bond on acid.
The film opens like a Ken Russell Spaghetti Western with the funeral of Jerry’s father. It’s part pagan, part Christian, Jerry is aloof with a fur coat swagger all of his own. His nails are painted black, Marc Bolan as Macbeth. And of course he was tragic in Polanski’s version of the Scottish Play. Jon Finch has that arch, Shakespearean precision that makes his Jerry Cornelius so spikey and enticing. Moorcock was at least a fan of Finch’s casting and his performance retains the brooding required of the Thane of Cawdor embellished by a camp cowardice, “Fuck off, you Greek maniac!” he yells when he’s had enough of one fight. Still he’s not beyond drink driving, pill-popping and slapping his dying manservant.
Jerry minces his way through a dystopian, pop-art London full of pin ball arcades, nuns playing one-armed bandits, and mud wrestling themed restaurants, “The long dark age is about to begin” we’re warned and from the oblique angles framing his adventures, civilization is definitely at its nadir. Trafalgar Square is used as a scrap yard, towering car wrecks jostle for position with Nelson’s Column and Jerry fancies destroying his own family home with napalm, “You know what a traditionalist I am” he quips. Fuest isn’t and makes no compromise to narrative cohesion, after all he was behind The Avengers and with Finch’s effete central performance he doesn’t really need to.
Finch commands the screen as Jerry, whether he is in a shoot out with his evil brother Frank, fighting his futuristic house or exploring a Nazi U-Boat base and dabbling in scientific mysticism a decade before Raiders of the Lost Ark. When Miss Brunner emerges as an extra from a Leni Riefenstahl film he knows the game is up and retreats into her arms bombarded by solar radiation. When we see Jerry again he grins like a new born Messiah, “It’s a very tasty world.” Moorcock might hate it but The Final Programme is all we’ve got of his unique vision. And that’s very tasty indeed.
Check out the trailer here.