In the Interests of Sanity and Clarity
American monolingualism is nowhere more insistent than at the movies. In Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960), Tony Curtis, playing Roman slave Antoninus, delivers his lines in Bronx-inflected English. Catherine the Great grew up speaking German, but, despite all her accomplishments, the Russian monarch, who wrote her memoirs in French, never spoke English, as Marlene Dietrich does portraying her in Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress (1934). Hollywood westerns regularly compel Native American characters to stammer their thoughts in pidgin English, even when conversing among themselves.
On occasion, filmmakers acknowledge the linguistic suspension of disbelief required of movie audiences. In Delmer Daves’s Broken Arrow (1950), the narrator, Tom Jeffords (James Stewart), announces at the outset: “I was involved in the story and what I have to tell happened exactly as you’ll see it—the only change will be that when the Apaches speak, they will speak in our language.” The 1983 remake of To Be or Not to Be, the dark comedy of a Polish theater troupe trapped in wartime Warsaw, adopts a more mocking stance. The movie begins with actors Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft exchanging angry words in Polish. Several minutes into the proceedings, a disembodied voice announces: “Ladies and gentlemen, in the interests of sanity and clarity, the rest of this movie will not be in Polish.” Brooks and Bancroft immediately resume their squabble, in English.
Obviously, the enormous costs of creating and marketing commercial feature films discourage linguistic variety. It is a safer investment to produce a script in English than in Czech, Nahuatl, or Zulu, in fact, than in any alternative to the world’s most popular second language. Cinematic imports in Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish are generally consigned to art-house ghettos, and even the most successful almost always fare better at the domestic box office when remade in English. (Coline Serreau’s 3 hommes et un couffin qualified as a foreign hit in the American market when it grossed $2,052,466 in 1985. However, Leonard Nimoy’s 1987 remake, 3 Men and a Baby, took in $167,780,960 domestically.)
Nevertheless, a small body of American feature films in languages other than English does exist. During the 1930s, the first decade of talking movies, more than sixty features were produced in the United States in Yiddish. Spanish-language productions of the era included El presidio (1930), El tenorio del harem (1931), ¿Cuándo te suicidas? (1932), Contra la corriente (1936), Alas sobre El Chaco (1935), El Día que me quieras (1935), and La Vida bohemia (1937). A smaller group, including La Donna bianca (1930), La Vacanza del diavolo (1931), and Amore e morte (1932), was made in Italian.
More recently, Wayne Wang made Chan Is Missing (1982) in Cantonese and English, Eat a Bowl of Tea (1989) in Mandarin and English, and The Joy Luck Club (1993) in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. Kevin Costner’s Sioux Indians, in Dances with Wolves (1990), spoke their native Lakota. Ham Tran filmed The Anniversary (2003) entirely in Vietnamese. El Súper (1979), El Norte (1983), La Ciudad (1998), and Maria Full of Grace (2004) were each made mostly in Spanish, as was John Sayles’s Hombres armados/Men with Guns (1998). The Godfather: Part II (1974) makes use of English subtitles during the extended flashback to Vito Corleone’s childhood in Sicily, when he, quite naturally, speaks Italian. And not the least unusual feature of The Passion of the Christ is the fact that, in order to underscore the biblical story’s authenticity, director Mel Gibson had his characters speak Latin and Aramaic throughout (though most would have been speaking Greek).
Frequently omitted from the lists of films countering American cinema’s penchant for monolingualism is the only feature-length film wherein the characters speak nothing but an artificial language invented in 1887 by a Polish oculist named Ludwig L. Zamenhof.
The Unfailing Taste of the French
The term hapax legomenon refers to a word or phrase that occurs only once in the recorded history of a language. And within the extensive archives of American film production the singular work that remains a cinematic hapax legomenon is a seventy-six-minute allegorical horror fantasy called Incubus. Written and directed by Leslie Stevens in 1965 and featuring a pre–Star Trek William Shatner, it is said to be the only feature film ever made in Esperanto: “Incubus estas la unusola filmo usona iam farita tute en Esperanto,” declares the film’s official website.
This claim is seemingly belied by Angoroj, a crime drama set in Paris that was completed in 1964, a year before Incubus. Despondent over his failure to find a distributor for Angoroj (Esperanto for “Agonies”) and to recoup his substantial financial investment in it, filmmaker Jacques-Louis Mahé reportedly destroyed most of the prints. The film is not readily available, but, at only sixty-one minutes, would not qualify in any case as the first feature-length film in Esperanto.
A few more widely known movies have offered bit parts to Esperanto. In The Great Dictator (1940), Charles Chaplin, mocking the anti-Semitism of his Hitler proxy, Adenoid Hynkel, flaunts Zamenhof’s Jewish background by printing in Esperanto the signs in shopwindows of the Tomania ghetto (In Mein Kampf, Hitler denounced Esperanto, designed by Zamenhof to facilitate universal adoption in the belief that such a language would encourage global peace and justice—in Esperanto, the name of the language itself means “I hope”—as part of a global Jewish conspiracy, and his Nazi regime singled out Esperantists for elimination, killing all three of Zamenhof’s children.) In Gattaca (1997), a dystopian drama about a totalitarian society in which genetic engineering eliminates individual freedom, the fact that the public-address system issues official announcements in Esperanto, a linguistically engineered communication medium, is meant to intensify the dread of sacrificing our humanity to technocracy.
Despite these examples, Incubus continues to reign supreme in the mostly nonexistent tradition of Esperanto filmmaking. Before embarking on Incubus, Stevens had created and produced The Outer Limits, a Twilight Zone–type sci-fi television series that ran from 1963 to 1965. For his next project, a movie that promised to be as strange as anything on The Outer Limits, he recruited several associates, including Shatner. And strange it was. Before production began, the cast and crew were sent to a ten-day “Esperanto Camp.” Stevens insisted that only Esperanto be spoken on the set, a restriction that one actor later claimed resulted in the dazed look visible on the faces of the characters.
Thirty years after its release, Incubus was lost to American audiences, due to negligent practices at the Los Angeles laboratory that was storing what its producer, Anthony Taylor, believed to be all existing prints. However, in 1996, Taylor discovered one surviving copy at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, where weekly midnight screenings of Incubus had become a cult event. Following protracted negotiations, Taylor restored the dilapidated print, superimposed English subtitles over the French ones, and put the work back into circulation in the United States in 1999. A DVD was marketed in 2001, and the film was aired on the Sci Fi Channel in 2002.
Incubus has since acquired a devoted American following. Though one reviewer, writing for Fantastica Daily under the byline Mervius, dismissed the work as “dated, melodramatic, and silly,” Keith Bailey, at badmovieplanet.com, called it “a visual feast” and “a weirdly compelling movie.” At Daily-Reviews.com, Rick Luehr, assigning it four out of five stars, called Incubus “one of the most original films in American cinema history.”
The Weariness of Luring Ugly Souls Into the Pit
The plot proceeds thus: Set in the fictional village of Nomen Tuum (Latin for “Thy Name,” an invocation of the Lord’s Prayer that immediately alerts the viewer to the presence of religious themes), the film dramatizes a fierce struggle by the forces of darkness to vanquish a human exemplar of virtue. In the opening sequence, Kia (Allyson Ames), a beautiful young succubus, entices a vain and lecherous man into death and damnation. It is her third conquest of the day, but Kia is not content. “I am weary of luring evil, ugly souls into the pit,” she complains to Amael (Eloise Hardt), an older succubus. “I want to find a saint and cut him down.” The opportunity soon presents itself when she observes Marc (played by Shatner, a year before becoming Captain James T. Kirk) walking out of church. Accompanied by his virtuous sister and soul mate, Arndis (Ann Atmar), Marc is a military hero still recovering from wounds incurred during courageous defense of his comrades. Amael warns Kia that Marc is a genuinely good man and not to underestimate the power of love to thwart her evil designs. “Then he has a soul worth fighting for!” insists Kia, eager to take on the challenge.
The rest of the film follows Kia’s efforts to seduce and destroy Marc. Marc is indeed smitten by the ravishing stranger, but he resists her entreaties to follow her to the sea. Instead, Marc draws Kia, who falls helplessly in love with her prey, back inland, toward the church. Indignant that an unsuspecting succubus has been contaminated by goodness, Amael summons up the Incubus (Milos Milos) from subterranean depths. Along with a band of succubi, the Incubus sets out to retrieve Kia and wreak vengeance on Marc. Revenge takes the form of the demonic rape of Marc’s sister, but the effort to deliver Kia leads to a climactic confrontation on the threshold of the church. Appropriating the form of a monstrous snarling goat, the Incubus engages in mortal—and immortal—combat with Marc, a human agent of divine love. And loses.
Preposterous as realistic drama, Incubus must be read as psychomachia, an allegory of the struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness for possession of the soul. Aside from the exclusive use of Esperanto, the most remarkable feature of the film is its expressive black-and-white lighting and cinematography. Early in a career that would earn him three Academy Awards, for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, American Beauty, and Road to Perdition, cinematographer Conrad L. Hall deliberately overexposed footage in the first half of the film, set in luminous daylight before the arrival of the Incubus. However, moments after Kia, pretending to be a lost traveler, arrives at the cottage that Marc shares with Arndis, an unexpected lunar eclipse darkens the frame, temporarily blinding Marc’s sister. The rest of the film belongs to the night, to the powers of darkness that, like the succubi dressed in dark cassocks when they perform their black mass, set about to extinguish the radiance emanating from Arndis and Marc.
Examined in the light of day, Incubus is silly stuff, the kind of hokey dross that thrives on midnight screenings, when reason and discernment are asleep. To relish fully the film’s campy bravura, it might help to experience it stoned, given that this was, according to Hall, the nearly constant condition of cast and crew throughout the ten days in May 1965 that it took to finish shooting. Filmed in part at the Mission San Antonio in Monterey, California, Incubus is a postmodern invocation of pre-Reformation Christian motifs. Taylor recounts how, in order to obtain permission to use the old Spanish Catholic mission, as well as the state park at Big Sur, he had to disguise the project, submitting a dummy script as an alternative to what they were in fact shooting. (The title of this dummy script, Religious Legends of Old Monterey, might do as well for the finished work.)
One of the practical reasons for the peculiar choice of language for Incubus had been the belief that the art-house market, accustomed to presenting subtitled films from overseas, would be receptive. However, any expectation that the language of hope might be good for business proved unfounded. The UEA (Universala Esperanto-Asocio), which in English calls itself the World Esperanto Association, estimates that 10 to 15 million people speak the language, though other calculations place the figure as low as one hundred thousand. Scattered throughout the world, with concentrations in parts of Asia and Europe, the Esperanto population is relatively sparse in North America, hardly enough in one location to keep a movie theater filled for a week.
While Esperanto fails to make much sense as a business decision, it does make sense as an artistic one. What most distinguishes Incubus from the black mass of formulaic horror flicks is its use of a linguistic invention to make strange the clichés of demonic possession. Translated into English, much of the dialogue is as wooden as the burning stick Marc uses to defeat the Incubus. “He has defiled you, Kia… befouled you with love,” Amael, disgusted by Marc’s pious hold on Kia, declares. “Revenge, sister, revenge!” Figures in an allegory, the characters declaim instead of speaking. But heard in Esperanto, the hackneyed, sententious lines are defamiliarized, their speakers deautomatized. Esperanto helps stylize what might have seemed little more than the celluloid record of a self-indulgent troupe of actors camped at Big Sur.
Similarly, the use of Esperanto enables the story to elude the coordinates of space and time. Like the Incubus, it is otherworldly. The modern English in which Stevens wrote his screenplay, before it was translated into Esperanto, would have undercut his aspirations to transcend the familiar. And the international cast he assembled, including narrator Paolo Cossa from Italy, Milos from Yugoslavia, Shatner from Canada, and others from various regions of the United States, would have emitted a distracting array of accents in English. However, Esperanto, like mathematics, is universal, and it is an appropriate medium in which to reenact the eternal clash of good and evil.
Enter the Hippie
The production that disguised itself as Religious Legends of Old Monterey has become legendary not only for its use of Esperanto and its disappearance from circulation for three decades. The infamous “curse of Incubus” now shadows the film, like one of the screenplay’s own malevolent succubi. According to Shatner, who seems to relish spinning supernatural tales about a supernatural movie (he also alleges that Gene Roddenberry intended to make Star Trek in Esperanto), an unknown hippie wandered near the set in Big Sur and was treated rudely by the cast and crew. In response, the interloper pronounced a malediction on them all. As a result—or not—death and failure haunted the film and the people involved in it. Incubus was the last film released by Daystar, a company created by Taylor. Unable to get the film screened in the U.S., Daystar went bankrupt. Aside from at a few festivals as well as in France, where it was hailed in Paris Match by novelist Julien Green as “the greatest fantasy film since Nosferatu,” Incubus remained unseen for thirty years. A few weeks after the film wrapped, Atmar committed suicide, and within the year, after appearing in The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming, Milos killed Barbara Ann Thompson, the estranged fifth wife of Mickey Rooney, and then himself. Later, Hardt’s daughter was kidnapped and murdered. And Dominic Frontiere, who composed the eerie music for the film, spent nine months in prison on a charge of evading taxes for tickets he had scalped to the 1980 Super Bowl. Shatner and Hall thrived, but Stevens, whose marriage to Ames ended in divorce not long after the completion of Incubus, died suddenly, of a blood clot, in 1998, before he could savor the bittersweet benefits of his film’s newfound American cultish fame.
Such are the cruel ironies of shooting a movie in a language invented to foster global peace and justice.