Red White and Zero is, as the opening credits tell us, a film in three parts. First up is Ride of the Valkyrie, in which Fricka-Schnapps (Zero Mostel), a pompous German opera singer, tries to cross London from Heathrow to Covent Garden so that he can appear as Wotan in a production of Wagner's Ring Cycle. But the journey, in the company of a chauffeur (Frank Thornton) is fraught with mishap. In The White Bus, a young woman (Patricia Healey), leaves a dead-end job in a London typing pool and takes a train up north, tagging along with a municipal tour with the Mayor (Arthur Lowe) and others, on the white bus of the title. Finally, Red and Blue, a musical, introduces us to Jacky (Vanessa Redgrave), a singer. On her way to Paris via the boat train, she remembers her past loves (Michael York in his screen debut, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Gary Raymond) and her latest encounter, a member of the band she is to perform with (William Sylvester).
Earlier this year, the BFI released an eight-film, nine-disc box set, Woodfall: A Revolution in British Cinema, containing all but one of the films the company made between 1958 and 1965. Red White and Zero, released on the BFI's Flipside label, is a pendant to that set. Woodfall's films, and others in similar vein, had transformed its country's cinema, corresponding with movements in literature and theatre (which gave many of the films their source material). Subject matter largely new to British cinema was introduced, along with the voices of younger writers, male and female both, often from working-class, regional backgrounds. By 1965, Tom Jones had been a big hit and had won the Oscar for Best Picture. The Knack...and How to Get It had taken the Palme d'Or at Cannes and, along with director Richard Lester's earlier A Hard Day's Night, epitomised a London and a decade which was beginning to swing.
Portmanteau films have been around since silent days, and are particularly popular in the horror genre. In European cinema, there were some high-profile examples in the 1960s – Love at Twenty and Boccaccio '70 (both 1962) and RoGoPaG (1963), amongst others – and the idea was to make a three-episode film showcasing three of Britain's leading younger directors, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson (actually pushing forty or, in Anderson's case, over that age). Each film would run between thirty-five and forty-five minutes. Reisz had made Saturday Night and Sunday Morning for Woodfall, while Richardson had been co-founder of the company and had made by then five features for them. Anderson had not worked for Woodfall before, but he had worked with Richardson and Reisz the previous decade in the Free Cinema movement, and his first feature, This Sporting Life, was clearly in the same spirit as Woodfall's output.
Shelagh Delaney's play A Taste of Honey had formed the basis for one of Woodfall's most successful films. In 1964, she published a short-story collection Sweetly Sings the Donkey, and the original plan for Red White and Zero was for the three directors to base their films on one each of the stories in the book. Needless to say, things developed, and the only Delaney story which reached the screen was The White Bus, for which she wrote the script. Karel Reisz's segment, based on David Mercer's 1963 BBC play A Suitable Case for Treatment, proved intractable at long-short length. Reisz left the project, and Morgan – A Suitable Case for Treatment became a feature film in 1966. Peter Brook replaced Reisz, but when he delivered Ride of the Valkyrie, it was clear that it didn't work at over half an hour. Anderson and editor Marlene Fletcher (the professional name of Katherine Reynolds) re-edited it to the fifteen minutes it now is.
As is the way with many portmanteau films, Red White and Zero is very much a mixed bag. All three of the films involve a journey of a kind. Ride of the Valkyrie, in black and white, harks back to silent comedy, with often the score and sound effects obliterating the dialogue, and when Mostel does open his mouth any synch-sound that comes out is either a couple of lines of German or Wagnerian libretto, also in German. This is really a showcase for Mostel, though Frank Thornton (later best known for Are You Being Served?) does hangdog long-sufferingness very well. It's amusing enough but Anderson was right: a quarter of an hour of this is enough.
At forty-six minutes, The White Bus is the longest segment, and the most accomplished. We begin in London, and while our protagonist, unnamed on screen and simply “The Girl” in the credits, is at work, in a life of quiet desperation, we cut to a shot of her apparently hanging from the ceiling, in frame from the waist downwards, while her fellow workers carry on without noticing. Once The Girl leaves London for an unnamed northern city (shot in Delaney's native Salford) we could be in one of several earlier Woodfall films...but what Anderson brings to the film is a mixture of fantasy and reality, declining to make a distinction between the two, something he would develop in his later films. The White Bus marks a shift in his work, as This Sporting Life is a work of admittedly heightened realism and his other previous films were documentaries.
Like many other British filmmakers, Anderson had been very impressed by the New Wave films coming from the then Czechoslovakia, by Miloš Forman and others. However, Anderson went further than most by hiring Forman's regular cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček. This involved obtaining permission from both the Czech authorities and the British unions as well as obtaining the services of an interpreter, as Ondříček spoke no English and Anderson no Czech. The results were worth it, giving the proceedings a poetic realism that moves beyond simple naturalism. The White Bus is mostly in black and white, but every so often Anderson and Ondříček will introduce a shot in colour, sometimes several in a given scene, especially vivid when our eyes have been accustomed to monochrome thus far.
As well as journeys, another theme running through Red White and Zero is communication, or the lack of it: our protagonist, has just two lines of dialogue. That's not to say that it's a silent film, far from it. But for the most part, The Girl is talked at, rather than to, especially by a bowler-hatted man (Stephen Moore) who does just that at her train station, in what now rather than then would be called mansplaining. (Maybe he's her boyfriend? It's not specified.) It's not hard to detect the hand of a female scriptwriter, especially given that The Girl's second and final line of dialogue is to the Mayor asking him to take her hand off her leg. The other line is to the bowler-hatted man: “I'll write,” an ambiguous line as that may be her ambition, not to write to him, but to be a writer. There's not a lot of plot as such in The White Bus, but plenty of sly humour, and it sticks in the mind.
The third segment, Red and Blue, shows Tony Richardson paying homage to the films of Jacques Demy, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg especially. The central role, and the songs written for her, was originally to be played by Jeanne Moreau. However, Vanessa Redgrave played the role, which was game of her as her marriage to Richardson was then collapsing partly because of his affair with Moreau. It has to be said that Redgrave isn't especially convincing in the role, and this segment soon drags. However, after just over an hour of mostly black and white, Billy Williams's colour cinematography is an undoubted highlight.
Red White and Zero went as far as being submitted to the BBFC as a whole in January 1968, but United Artists were reluctant to release it, and in the end split the film up. The White Bus was released in support of Věra Chytilová's film Daisies, with some critics preferring the short to the feature. Red and Blue went out with The Graduate and, compared to that piece of up-to-the-minute New Hollywood, and new permissiveness, it seemed very old fashioned. It was laughed off the screen and removed from the bill after less than a week. Ride of the Valkyrie simply disappeared, though it had rare showings, such as on BBC2 in 1977 following Zero Mostel's death. The only commercial showing of Red White and Zero in its intended portmanteau form was a short run in New York in 1979. Until now, that is.
Red White and Zero is number 36 in the BFI's Flipside line, and is a dual-format release. Given an A certificate in 1968, the film now bears a 12.
The Blu-ray transfer is in the ratio of 1.37:1, which seems odd for a film shot in 35mm and at least intended for commercial release in 1967. The transfer derives from a 2K restoration. The White Bus' colour shots would have been spliced in to cinema prints, though it's likely that sequences with several would have been printed on colour stock including the black and white material in between, and that's visible in this transfer, with the monochrome bearing a charcoal effect in these parts of the film (such as the visit to the factory). The transfer is excellent, both in black and white and colour, pin-sharp and with natural-looking film grain.
The sound is the original mono, and is clear and well-balanced, given that in Ride of the Valkyrie especially, dialogue is meant to be inaudible under music and sound effects. Subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are available. I spotted one error, of French: “bon nuit” instead of “bonne nuit”.
The extras begin with a typically informative commentary by Adrian Martin, who is better-disposed towards the first and last segments than I am.
Then it's all aboard The White Bus again, in the form of About the White Bus (58:48), an in-depth making-of documentary that's actually longer than the film itself. Made by Anderson's Free Cinema colleague John Fletcher, in black and white 16mm (as the spoken opening credits tell us, though some of the film's colour shots make an appearance), it begins with Anderson on the phone trying to sort out Miroslav Ondříček's visa. The film takes us through the film's production up to the wrap party, which was also a party for Ondříček's thirty-first birthday. A brief epilogue takes us to 1968 and Anderson preparing his next film, again with Ondříček, which became if...
Anderson appears again, in an audio recording of his introduction to a National Film Theatre showing of The White Bus in 1968, double-billed with his Polish-shot short documentary The Singing Lesson. This plays over the first 5:15 of a stills gallery, which runs 8:51 in total and also includes pre-production stills by Nick Hales with an introductory caption by him.
Kevin Brownlow had ties with Woodfall, Richardson having given him and Andrew Mollo the money to complete their film It Happened Here. The result of that film was editing work for Brownlow, and he served on that capacity on both The White Bus and Red and Blue. Among his other tasks, as he tells us in his interview (15:34) was to check Vanessa Redgrave's lipsynch when singing to playback. He found it difficult not to be distracted when one of her songs was in a scene set in bathroom when she was wearing just a pair of knickers.
Brownlow shot some behind-the-scenes black-and-white 16mm footage (6:50) on the Red and Blue shoot – though he didn't operate the camera throughout as he can be seen onscreen at one point. The footage is silent, but a voiceover is provided by Billy Williams. Williams also appears on screen (14:04), talking first about the beginnings of his career as a cinematographer, following his father into the business, then specifically about his work on Red and Blue.
Finally on the disc is No Arks (7:50), a satirical cartoon about Noah's Ark. This is the only film by Indian-born cartoonist Abu (Abu Abraham) who was then based in England and working for The Guardian. A link to the main feature is the narration, provided by Vanessa Redgrave.
The BFI's booklet begins with “Here Comes History” by Sarah Wood, which locates Red White and Zero in the historical and political currents of its time. Then there are essays on the three individual films, by respectively Paul Fairclough (with a short note by Katherine Reynolds on the re-editing). So Mayer and Philip Kemp. Also in the booklet are film credits, notes and credits on the extras, transfer notes, and stills.