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Drunk history

We are here today to praise the drunkards.  Specifically, drunk heroes.

But let me clarify what I mean by this–because there are plenty of drunks in cinema, and many of them are protagonists or sympathetic supporting characters.  That’s not what I mean.  I’m more interested in the rare subspecies of such characters where their imbibing is actually integral to their heroism, not a character flaw.

By way of an example, let’s start with an edge case and see where it does or does not fit my criteria: Robert Mitchum’s Sheriff from El DoradoThere is a moment where Mitchum is stalking an assassin who has retreated into a saloon.  The killer is surrounded by armed compatriots, and Mitchum actually isn’t sure what the bad guy looks like (he has at best a hazy description).  If he sets foot in the saloon he’ll be wildly outnumbered, and in enemy territory–but he’s got one advantage.  He’s a known drunk who just humiliated himself minutes earlier.

His enemies underestimate him severely, and he uses that to his advantage.

So, for that one scene, Mitchum’s rumminess is a plus.  But in the rest of the film, his alcoholism is a character failing that he must overcome–indeed the point of El Dorado is to highlight how his drinking has become a problem with substantial negative externalities (fancy lawyer talk for “hurts other people”).

So let’s switch our attention to The AvengersThe classic TV series, mind you, not the unrelated blockbuster Robert Downey Jr. movie, and certainly not the miserable Ralph Fiennes movie allegedly based on the TV series.  I know this is a movie blog, not a TV blog, but I don’t much truck in the distinction between TV and movies (they’re both moving pictures), and even if I did I’m not about to advocate that anyone spend their time watching that Ralph Fiennes/Uma Thurman misfire.  The classic TV series is another matter, however.

Right from the opening titles, our heroes’ love of champagne is made part of the premise, but only in a playful and positive way.  John Steed is a professional secret agent (which means his colleague Emma Peel is a “talented amateur”!)–in real life you’d think that their never-ending cocktail hour would prove an impediment to, I dunno, reliable aim, but what else about The Avengers resembles “real life”?

In one of my favorite scenes from the 1980s run of The Avengers, Steed has a bottle of bubby flown in by helicopter in the middle of a shootout.  The man has his priorities straight.  (And what’s that famous saying?  Don’t bring a gun to a gunfight, bring champagne?)

Patrick McNee even appeared in character as John Steed in ads for Laurent-Perrier champagne.

Of course Steed has nothing on Nick and Nora from the Thin Man series.

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Again, you’d think that maybe the hero’s ability to solve absurdly overcomplicated whodunnits might be compromised by such a high blood alcohol level, but Mr. and Mrs. Charles seem to get by just fine.  Certainly they have more fun.

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Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master doesn’t have more fun, but he does depend on drunkenness to enhance his abilities–in his case, not only doesn’t alcohol get in his way, it’s absolutely essential.  Like spinach to his Popeye.

How’s that, you say?  Well, it starts with a 1978 kung fu flick called Drunken MasterThe plot involves Jackie Chan learning a specialized kung fu technique in which alcohol is used to dull his sense of pain and loosen up his fighting style to unpredictable–and thereby unbeatable–extremes.  It’s a perfectly serviceable action movie, and one of Chan’s best early efforts.

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But then in 1994, Chan came along and updated the material as an ostensible (but freestanding) sequel released in the US as The Legend of Drunken MasterThis altogether nuttier, loonier action comedy isn’t just one of Chan’s best early films, it’s one of his best full stop (Time Magazine identified it as one of the 100 best films ever made).  The plot hinges in part on the challenge faced by a “drunken master” in mastering the right balance of drunkenness to be an effective fighter without being just, y’know, drunk.

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And I’ll finish off by drinking a toast to Strange Brew, a delirious retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet starring Bob and Doug MacKenzie.  The film’s baddie is Max Von Sydow as a sinister brewing magnate plotting to conquer the world with a mind-control potion added to his company’s beer.  Bob and Doug stumble across this plot and foil it–by drinking the entirety of the tainted batch!

This isn’t a complete list, but it’s not as if Hollywood has filled the screen with positive images of drinking.  Moralizing about drinking, yes, there’s been plenty of that.  To which I say phooey.  As 2013 comes to a close and I raise a glass to the incoming 2014, I’d prefer to share the moment with the likes of Nick Charles, Wong Fei Hung, or John Steed.  They had it all figured out.

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12 Responses Drunk history
Posted By preston122 : December 28, 2013 5:20 am

Has anyone ever counted the number of drinks consumed by Nick and Nora in the Thin Man movies?
I expect it would be similar to the stats I read in the recent news stories about a study of 007′s drinking habits in the British Medical Journal:
“They found that in “From Russia with Love,” on the third day of the story, Bond drank about 50 units of alcohol….” Impressive!
http://www.cnn.com/2013/12/12/health/james-bond-alcohol/

Posted By Doug : December 28, 2013 2:41 pm

I luve me some Bob and Doug, and Nick Charles forever; the first drink champion that comes to mind is Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark winning a contest and later tossing down one more after Indy walks back into her life.

Posted By LD : December 28, 2013 2:45 pm

In WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION Laughton’s barrister wouldn’t be as efficient, in his mind, without his brandy. The Tracy Lord character in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY and HIGH SOCIETY is humanized because of champagne. The characters in these movies and the THIN MAN series have chauffeurs which is helpful.

Doc Boone in STAGECOACH is an alcoholic. He will not deliver a baby drunk but can shoot and tend to an arrow wound. So he can be successful in spite of his condition.

While reading this post I was reminded of a couple of anecdotes of actors filming drunk. Astaire’s New Year’s Eve dance in HOLIDAY INN. A shot of whiskey after each take and what we have on film is the result of the eighth take. Then there is the legend of Hugh Griffith in TOM JONES. Supposedly much of the film he was inebriated and after mounting a horse managed not just to fall off but to bring the horse down on top of him. This is included in the film. His condition may have saved him. I don’t know how the horse fared.

Posted By Strange Brew is ‘a delirious retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet starring Bob and Doug MacKenzie’ : December 28, 2013 3:31 pm

[…] Huh? […]

Posted By DevlinCarnate : December 28, 2013 4:08 pm

in Bob and Doug’s case,their beer consumption is not only their raison d’être,but also comes in pretty handy when you need to put out a fire ;)

Posted By Dan : December 28, 2013 4:55 pm

I will like to add a more recent film, since I just wrote about it on a blog post coming soon. Edgar Wright’s The World’s End is a film where character development unfolds by how drunk the main characters are. When plot points are revealed and character backstories are expressed, you have to decide for yourself how truthful some of these points are (or the other way around). It is a ludicrous narrative structure, but one that works so well in a film where chaos and absurdity go hand in hand with alienation.

Posted By AL : December 28, 2013 10:12 pm

Nick & Nora are at a nightclub with 2 friends.
NICK (to waiter”): “4 martinis, please.”
NORA: “What a wonderful idea! I’ll have the same”…

Posted By robbushblog : December 30, 2013 3:18 pm

Nick and Nora will always be my favorite drunks.

Posted By jimmo : January 1, 2014 2:54 am

Doc Holliday’s drinking served him well in Tombstone.

Posted By Mike : January 1, 2014 1:01 pm

Let’s not forget Dean Martin in Rio Bravo. As much as I love any Robert Mitchum role, this time out it’s Howard Hawks re-inventing the script into El Dorado. Martin was a really good in Rio Bravo as the alcoholic trying to find redemption.
One for the road……Lee Marvin wins on Oscar as a drunken, broken down ex-gunfighter Kid Shelleen.

Posted By Keith : January 2, 2014 7:07 pm

“Blazing Saddles” spoofed “El Dorado” & “Rio Bravo” with Gene Wilder as the drunken gunman.

Posted By swac44 : January 6, 2014 7:01 pm

Over the holidays we binged on the HBO series Deadwood, and decided that if we tried to initiate any kind of drinking game inspired by it, we’d probably be dead after a couple of episodes. But an Avengers drinking game, that could probably be survived with only a slight amount of brain damage. As if I needed more incentive to continue ploughing through that Complete Avengers DVD set I got for Christmas a couple of years ago.

If you like Nick & Nora Charles, I heartily recommend the free audio podcast The Thrilling Adventure Hour, which has as one of its shows Beyond Belief, in which imbibing socialites Frank & Sadie Doyle (Paul F. Tompkins and Paget “Birdgirl” Brewster) solve supernatural mysteries while constantly inebriated (although they don’t act overly drunk, which is part of the joke, I suppose). Incredibly funny, clever and filled with sly references. It’s really one of my favourite creations ever at the moment.

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