The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box-office flops.
This is the first time I’ve seen Enemy Mine’s original 108-minute version, having previously been privy only to the 93-minute UK cut (I well recall it being made available on Fox’s “All Time Greats” sell-through video label, an opportunistic catch-all marketing ploy if ever there was one). The extra time certainly allows the picture to unfold more evenly upfront. Indeed, most noticeable in this form is how uncertain anything outside the primary Robinson Crusoe part of the picture is.
Davidge: Space is the new battleground, Earth a distant memory.
At the time, I think I assumed Dennis Quaid must have been as big a star as Tom Cruise, given the high-profile, high-budget movies he often appeared in (pretty much all of them, Jaws 3-D aside – also with Louis Gossett Jr –were superior to the average Cruise vehicle, and most of them were also financial failures). He was a reliably charismatic performer throughout the ’80s, forever holding out for that big, box-office-draw-making part that never came (as noted, Jaws 3-D was his best performer during the period, with Great Balls of Fire! the final capper on a quest for success that wasn’t to be).
Mostly, Quaid was playing into his wolfish charm, so he’s slightly undone by the straight hero part here; he can’t completely sell either Willis E Davidge as the gung-ho fighter pilot of the opening or the droll narrator who informs us how, come the end of the 21st century (events take place 2092-95), “the Nations of Earth were finally at peace, working together to explore and colonise the reaches of space”. Alas, another race, Dracs, were “claiming squatter rights”, but “they were not going to get it without a fight”.
The finale, as Bilateral Terran Alliance pilot Davidge inspires a Drac slave revolt in order to reunite with young Drac ward Zammis (Bumper Robinson), is also on the clumsy side. The opposing-ethics element has largely played out naturalistically between marooned Davidge and Drac Jeriba Shigan (Louis Gossett Jr). The introduction of thunderingly uncouth Scavengers, led by Stubbs (Brion James doing his leering loon act) is as one-note as these things come, and the racial-intolerance commentary moves from personal grievances and preconceptions into less textured delivery. Davidge’s narration informs us the Scavengers “raped whole planets for special ores” and hunted Dracs for slave labour, “so we tolerated them”. The BTA is essentially an empire – take your pick which – substitute, then, and the casting of black actors in the only speaking Drac roles (Gossett Jr, Robinson, Jim Mapp) becomes counterpointed in slightly embarrassing fashion by Davidge arriving as the white saviour figure.
It’s been suggested the action climax, taking place as it does in a mine working, was at the behest of a studio needing the title to make overtly literal sense and… Yeah, that’s probably completely right. That’s exactly what would happen.
The Film Yearbook considered the best parts were those involving human and pup, but I’d contrastingly argue it’s Gossett Jr who almost singlehandedly makes the movie worth seeing, such that, once he exits with forty minutes left on the clock, Enemy Mine never quite recovers. This is surely one of the best prosthetic/alien performances ever, full of humour and personality and blessed with “alien” decisions on the actor’s part that only ever enhance character and verisimilitude. Some of Enemy Mine’s effects are cheesy (the space battles), but others remain absolutely superb, and Jerry’s appearance falls into the latter camp. Quaid can only assume the role of straight man in the face of Gossett Jr’s endearing quirkiness (he’d do this again in Innerspace, of course, but on that occasion, at least, he got to be much more Dennis Quaid, zero defects).
Even though the tropes here are on the unrefined side – alien Drac is possessed of spiritual serenity, while the out-of-touch human has lost all sense of religiosity, such that he doesn’t live universal values, even though he has heard them voiced before (“Of course, you have. Truth is truth”) – Gossett Jr’s efforts makes them seem almost fresh. Jerry is much more alive and complete than your average Star Trek alien, and the pidgin English (“You, ugly head!”), misunderstandings (“Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!” – Davidge has told him Mickey is their deity) and straight talk (“Shit” is his assessment of the shelter Davidge is building) are amusing rather than laboured.
Jerry: I am not women!
Gossett Jr pays Jerry’s hermaphroditic essence with a degree of wisdom and knowing too (“I await a new life”). Obviously, he would now be the poster boy for the trans movement, and doubtless adorn a Calvin Klein ad (Calvin Klein is one big stupid dope!) But Davidge, raised in the materialist/humanist universe, rejects Jerry’s spiritual-biological insight (“You are alone. Within yourself, you are alone. That is why you humans have separated your sexes into two separate halves. For the joy of that brief union”). The movie clearly identified Davidge’s rejection as churlishness that another should see so clearly. Notably too, the difference Jerry identifies is portrayed as a positive, facilitating humanity’s individual spiritual journey. There’s no proto-transhumanist tack suggesting the non-sexualised Jerry is ultimately superior.
(At least, as far I could discern; I may be naïve, though, since many have called out Peterson’s The NeverEnding Story for delivering dark themes and undercurrents, and Cathy O’Brien cites it as a programming tool à la The Wizard of Oz. Whether the shoe simply fits or has been custom-made is a different matter, of course; as many will cite the film – and its source novel – as a profoundly positive and instructive piece of work. Jay Dyer points to Micheal Ende having attended a Waldorf School, with esoteric influences including Crowley, the Kabbala, Kierkegaard and Zen; Dyer evidently hasn’t read much Steiner if he believes he was preaching a globalist creed, though (whatever else Steiner may have been guilty of), irrespective of Ende’s takeaway from the upbringing. Dyer can provide cogent analysis, but he tends to be limited by his adherence to perceived Christian-pagan polarities, failing to recognise that Christian texts are as manipulated as any other. The gist of The NeverEnding Story would be the individual as self-actualising god, and trauma as gateway to this.)
It’s notable too that, in contrast to the traditional reptilian depiction – right down to the name Dracs; see Draconians or dragons – Jerry is both benign and spiritually advanced. Again, one might view this as a misdirection of essential cold-blooded, destructive, oppressive reptilian energy, seen as an oppressive coordinating element of global society (be it via Draco lurking beneath the Earth or Anunnaki hailing from beyond the ice wall, or whoever), particularly with the softening of aesthetics (there are no snouts on these reptiles; they are not Star Trek Arena’s Gorn). A few such were appearing at the time (also Grig in The Last Starfighter), more than balanced out by the likes of V’s far more representatively evil strain (but then, nice guy Robert Englund). Doctor Who had also historically made a thing of stressing the reptile could be both positive and negative, so reflecting humans (Silurians, Ice Warriors).
Peterson came on the production after initial director Richard Loncraine (The Missionary, Richard III, Wimbledon, Firewall) got the boot. He was in the midst of The NeverEnding Story (soon to be a substantial hit). As a consequence, his two leads were kept on the payroll, waiting for him to be freed up. Peterson had the alien prosthetics redesigned, switched locations (from Iceland to the Canary Islands) and built massive sets in Munich (I’m always a fan of studio planets, sod “realism”, and in this case they’re definitely one of the picture’s positives in terms of visuals).
Under Loncraine, the budget was $18m (with $9m spent on production before filming was stopped). Petersen would reshoot from the ground up, with a new budget of $24-25m. Some estimate Enemy Mine’s total at $48m including marketing (about $125m in today’s money). None of which seemed to have been spent on convincing false hair and beard for Quaid. It made $12m in the US, spending a solitary week in the Top 10; a resounding turkey, it dashed Fox’s hopes of laying claim to THE big Christmas movie (which was Rocky IV; others included The Jewel of the Nile – at least Fox had that one was – Spies Like Us, Out of Africa and The Color Purple). The movie undoubtedly did well on rental market, but it would have to have done really well to make all that back.
As it turns out, then, Terry Gilliam was very wise to resist the studio’s wooing. Hot off Time Bandits (it wasn’t often he’d be “hot” subsequently), he held fast that he didn’t want to make it: “Somehow having turned down Enemy Mine to do Brazil elevated Brazil because for me to be asked to do Enemy Mine meant I’d been elevated to the top position, because this was going to be the biggest film that year. So all the stakes were being raised. It was like ‘top guy turns down film for other film? The other film must be really good’”. Consequently, he got his Brazil budget raised from $12m to $15m.
Enemy Mine may have seemed like a good deal on paper, but one has to ask: what was the success ratio for space-opera that was neither Star Wars nor Star Trek at that point? The biggest genre movies of the year were decidedly more grounded (Back to the Future, Cocoon, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome), and you have to go back to Alien for something with the kind of box-office success a film on Enemy Mine’s budget needed. Which was much more definably contingent on the appeal of horror movies, blending then resurgent genres (SF and slasher). You might argue something like Cocoon also had limited precedent, but it was very much treading in the proven, feel-good, relatable Amblin tradition.
Besides which, Enemy Mine is definitely a mixed bag. Maurice Jarre’s score doesn’t really do the trick, while the ultimate sign off adds an epic signature the movie never remotely earns (Davidge on the Drac home world reciting the Shigan – Jerry’s family line – and Zammis calling his child Willis Davidge). Nevertheless, it deserved a better reception, and Gossett Jr, dare I say it, deserved another Oscar nod.
First published by Now in Full Color on 30/05/22.