The Formula’s mostly a footnote, if it’s remembered at all these days. One of only two 1980s movies featuring Marlon Brando (the other, A Dry White Season, positioned at the opposite end of the decade), and one of the ten finalists at the inaugural Razzies (never the most coherent or inspired of awards ceremonies – so rather like the Oscars, then – fellow alumni included Saturn 3, Raise the Titanic, Cruising and Xanadu. Can’t Stop the Music won. Kubrick’s direction of The Shining received a nod). The movie, slow, talky and ponderous, is not entirely uninteresting in subject and theme, if you can stick with it. Unfortunately, it seems actively disinclined to tackle these elements in an engaging way.
Steve Shagan had been Oscar nominated for earlier John G Avildsen collaboration Save the Tiger and came up with the idea for The Formula while working on 1976’s “respectable” (because it was based on an actual event in 1939) disaster movie Voyage of the Damned. In between, he delivered the screenplay for Nightwing, one of the eco-horror-unleashed cycle, this time with bats spreading bubonic plague (!) after their caves have been disturbed through dynamiting for oil shale. The Formula vaguely echoes both, concerning as it does events of the past and the exploitation of fuel resources. No bats, though.
MGM financed the picture, with Shagan as producer/writer; the studio wasn’t exactly the most profitable or resourceful by this point. The likes of Network, Coma, Fame, Rocky and Poltergeist were very much exceptions; if you look back at their roster, The Formula fits right in as the kind of thing audiences didn’t want but they were very good at churning out.
Shagan’s 1979 novel of the same name had been a Top 10 best seller. It concerned an apocryphal cheap formula for synthetic fuel developed by Germany and passed to the Allies at the end of WWII as a bargaining chip. And yet, three and a half decades later, nada. We’re apprised of this in the movie’s prologue, and the many body of the tale finds George C Scott’s cop Barney Caine investigating a trail of murders that leads him to the whys and wherefores, including a roster of talking heads who offer him answers, most singularly Marlon Brando’s Titan Oil magnate Adam Steiffel.
While Steiffel lives to tell, The Formula’s formula, if you will, quickly becomes rather rote and unconvincing, as Caine simply goes from scene to scene meeting characters who volunteer information. Usually, they are shot or otherwise dispatched immediately after they have furnished him with the necessaries, which is convenient for all concerned. This makes for an extremely didactic, verbose structure, by necessity defeating any nominal designs on drive and internal tension.
We’re essentially reliant on how commanding the actors are with their verbiage. So in Scott’s case, it’s patented gruff barking, and Brando’s, catchy cadence, peculiar sidesteps and improvised (humorous) asides. Which are to the good, but there’s never any sense anyone in the production has grasped the potential of the material. If Avildsen is at a loss, his responsibility is mitigated somewhat by Shagan re-editing the film after the fact, unhappy at the various embellishments (many from Brando).
As Roger Ebert told it in his review, “they exchanged acrimonious letters in the Los Angeles Times recently, and Avildsen failed in an attempt to have his name removed from the picture. The way they tell it, Avildsen wanted the movie to make more sense as a thriller, while Shagan was more concerned with his ‘message’”. Avildsen had produced a 37-page memo on the changes made; MGM agreed with some of his points, but only so much, as it seems many of Brando’s best, most “hilarious” bits during his first showing at breakfast were cut: “… David Begelman, the convicted felon who was running MGM at the time, didn’t think it was funny”.
Brando agreed to the role as he was broke, but such desperation evidently didn’t prevent him from donning false teeth, bald pate, nose plugs, hearing aid – a good excuse for having the dialogue radioed to him – and glasses, going for an utterly goofy look; Val Kilmer appears to have “homaged” Steiffel in The Saint, even more goofily, more than a decade-and-a-half later.
In Film Directors on Directing by John A Gallagher, Avildsen told how he and Shagan met with Brando, and “… he started telling us how he imagined this character who was patterned after an Armand Hammer type of oil magnate. He saw this guy as living out in the desert, a desert rat with big dish antennas, wearing rags because he was a recluse… Steve Shagan was sitting next to me and I could sense this poor guy was dying. Brando was creating this totally different character… Finally, Marlin finished and I said ‘I don’t know. I see this guy as one of those people with a coat and vest on the cover of Time magazine. He’s the Establishment. Why make him some kind of screwball?’ There was a long pause and Brando said, ‘OK, I was just testing you’”.
Avildsen went on to describe Brando as “a pleasure, lot of fun, very funny”. Of Brando and Scott’s performances, a disgruntled Shagan reportedly stated, per the Sunday Telegraph, “I sensed a loss of purpose, a feeling that they didn’t want to work anymore and had come to think of acting as playing with choo-choo trains“. If that likely had some basis in truth – which doesn’t mean either still weren’t compelling screen presences; ultimately, the writer, producer, and the guy who commandeered the edit must take a lion’s share of the MGM blame – Avildsen wasn’t that fussed by the movie either: “I read the galleys before the book came out. I couldn’t understand it. I kept reading and going back and calling up Steve Shagan, the writer and producer. I found it a very convoluted plot and learned a very expensive lesson. I was betting that the movie wouldn’t be made”. Avildsen said he was optioned to get the script and cast together in sixty days, which he didn’t think would happen, and he’d then cash in, but “I got caught. They made the movie”.
As an A-lister at that point – thanks to Rocky, and subsequently again thanks to The Karate Kid – there was no apparent need for him to be pressured into this. Perhaps it was simply down to his prior Shagan relationship (Save the Tiger and W.W. and he Dixie Dancekings) and also the MGM/UA one.
It would be easier – due to the convolution – to miss that The Formula’s miraculous alt-tech fuel source isn’t an alchemist’s dream of the order of cold fusion, perpetual motion or Tesla’s energy from the aether, but one actually achieved by the Germans during the war (and subsequently used by South Africa during apartheid). We are informed at one point, “The making of oil from coal is not new”. The difference is, this is fast, cheap, and the hydrogenation process delivers “pure synthetic oil producing no pollution”.
Ebert’s beef with this – in among other, much more legitimate beefs – was that “One of the problems with his message is that it is not based on fact; it’s a fantasy. Even though it may be true that the multinational oil companies try to manipulate the energy market, it is apparently not true that a formula exists that could turn coal into cheap synthetic fuel. Yet the movie’s publicity calls the existence of a secret Nazi formula a ‘proven fact’. I have here an article from the November, 1980, issue of Science magazine, noting that the ‘synthesis used by the Germans are more in the nature of textbook processes than Mobil secrets’ and that the film, ‘as history, is bunkum’.”
I mean, come on. That’s like complaining about Raiders of the Lost Ark because there’s no mention of the Ark melting people’s faces off in The Bible. The McGuffin is there to serve the overriding point about Big Oil (Big Industry, if you like):
Paul Obermann: At the end of the war they had developed a truly remarkable catalyst. The catalyst lasted for over one million tons of coal.
Barney Caine: Then the formula for that catalyst would still be considered secret?
Paul Obermann: Without question. Whoever possessed the formula would need only coal and a basic chemical technology to be self-sufficient in energy.
Barney Caine: Then it would follow that certain interests wouldn’t exactly be thrilled with the introduction of mass-produced synthetic fuel made from coal.
Paul Obermann: Obviously not. They would no longer enjoy huge profits from the scarcity of natural crude. The entire power structure in the world would shift from the Arabs and OPEC back to the United States. After all, Mr Caine, America has the largest deposits of coal on this planet. The forces involved are colossal.
Ebert shows willingness to credit that the energy market is manipulated – very magnanimous of him – but if you substitute synthetic fuel for cars running on water or the very many patents that have been bought up for energy-efficient – or perpetual-motion – devices, or consider that individuals involved in this area of research who have suffered mysterious deaths, you have something much vaster than simply OPEC (“created by big oil”); you have the preservation of the very mechanism upon which the system is based, whereby enslavement for gain dictates all our lives. That’s the reason anything threatening it needed to be quickly squashed. The amusing part of this is that Shagan doubles down on the myth as he is exposing the mechanism: “the scarcity” of oil (which might be true, if you really believed it was the result of something as absurd as the breakdown of fossil deposits from “dinosaurs”; it is rather believed to be a self-renewing resource, but it would be against all big-business common sense to let that one gain currency).
Indeed, the peculiar thing watching The Formula now is the idea that coal would be an answer (eventually) to a “scarce” resource (when was peak oil supposed to happen, again?) Of course, maybe all the claims about coal resources are equally illegitimate; I’ve not come across arguments to that effect. As Caine suggests, and as Steiffel confirms, the blame for oil shortages and profiteering is smoke and mirrors.
Arthur Clements: (proposing Titan Oil raises prices) The people will accept the twelve cents now because we can blame it on the Arabs!
Adam Steiffel: Ah, Arthur, you’re missing the point. We are the Arabs.
To an extent, there was an imprimatur for the conversation to shift from what to do after peak oil to ridding dependency on oil for “environmental” concerns; if that didn’t happen, people would eventually have to ask, “Why were you telling us oil was running out?” (although, they haven’t really started asking why “global warming” shifted to “climate change”, when the advertised warming didn’t happen).
Barney Caine: You trade lives and human dignity for profit.
Adam Steiffel: “Money, not morality, is the principal commerce of civilized nations.” Thomas Jefferson, 200 years ago. That is the philosophy that built this nation.
Barney Caine: What do you know about this nation? When did you ever give a second thought to American citizens? You’re the reason their money’s worthless. You’re the reason old people are eating out of garbage cans, and kids get killed in bullshit wars. You’re not in the oil business, you’re in the oil shortage business. You’re an ivory tower hoodlum. A common street killer. I wish to Christ there was some way I could nail you…
Adam Steiffel: Well… you’re gonna be nailing the American Dream, Barney. Because it all started in the corner gas station. Remember, you used to take your bike down there and get free air. And daddy said, “Fill them up, Fred”. And you go down to grandma’s for Christmas dinner. Yeah. Then, when you got your first car, what did you do? You took your girl for a ride. There was Fred smiling by the pump there. He never let you down, because a gallon of gas never broke down. Well, it was oil that nourished the American Dream. We’re the great American tit, Barney. And without it… ain’t no America.
Naturally, Steiffel justifies his stance as this having always been the way, because if you’re immoral through-and-through, you’ve rehearsed all the arguments justifying such action (extolling Thomas Jefferson, one of the Elite of his day, is neither here nor there in that regard).
Barney Caine: You see, professor, I’m a little tired of being lied to and shot at. And your phony nostalgia about the good old days doesn’t impress me.
Siebold: Don’t play the sanctimonious American with me, mister. In all the years of the war, in all the great Allied raids, not one important hydrogenation plant was hit. And why? Because certain American oil companies shared chemical patents with the Third Reich. The Americans were in business with the Third Reich then. And the same partnership exists today. There is blood on your hands too, mister.
And then you have the intimations of financial complicity in respect of “the enemy”. Antony Sutton identifies the essential Hegelian nature of nominal conflicts in his Wall Street Trilogy (and more directly in America’s Secret Establishment: An Introduction to the Order of Skull &Bones), whereby the banks were financing both sides in whichever conflict you picked, be it the Russian Revolution, Hitler’s Germany or FDR (the latter a conflict of values rather than, eventually, arms). If Siebold’s charge above is Shagan’s embroidery, it nevertheless carries the flavour of truth to it.
Lisa Spangler: We must believe in the universal brotherhood of man. If not, the world will end. One man miscalculates, pushes the button, and we all end up an accident.
Barney Caine: You actually believe that. You think the people who send you out to kill are different to the people you kill. No wonder you have nightmares. You’ve been brainwashed by experts. Sweet Jesus! You really think those bastards believe in the brotherhood of man?
Indeed, rather than Brando’s speeches, inimitably performed as they are, the key to the picture isn’t explicitly who controls the energy industry, but simply who controls. Ebert wasn’t wrong to draw attention to Lisa Spangler’s (Marthe Keller) murky motivation (remorse for her father’s Nazi atrocities, yet according to Shagan, she joined the PLO?) The fact of her manipulation, though, justifying violence for the greater good, is entirely appreciable. Caine is speaking exclusively to the matter in hand, but when he charges “You think the people who send you out to kill are different to the people you kill”, he’s summarising the nature of the Hegelian conflict, dictated by the Elite and drawing sides based on whims or gain. Ultimately, a figure like Steiffel is just a link in the chain too, his controllers out of sight. We like to think otherwise, but we’re all encouraged to draw sides in arranged fights.
The Formula’s early passages offer grist to the mill, sometimes leading by the nose. “Since when did you believe in God?” asks Kladen/Tedesco (Richard Lynch) after a superior wishes him well. This seems designed to highlight the mercurialness of beliefs and positions; Steiffel nurses no illusions. The plans offer a medley of secrets besides the main one – “Top secret plans, pictures, chemical formulas, rockets, planes with no propellers” – and they’re the kinds of things that would contribute to various other smoke-and-mirror black projects and official programmes. When Kladen is “captured” by the Americans, the dialogue is overly expository; the guy who greets him just happens to have an overview that summarises the movie? How the war’s over, and from now on the world’s “going to be one big happy corporation. No more secrets. No more enemies. Just customers”. That’s the gospel of the villains, after all (albeit enemies are still essential to the overall effect, per the above).
There are other points of note, but less transparent. The invention of the murder scene – decorated with a voodoo doll (an allusion to blaming straightforward espionage on the occult) and cocaine – points to the distractions (occultism, drugs) that society fosters while Kay’s (Beatrice Straight) crescent sign – “one of those Middle East terrorist groups” – seems to fall into the category of Lisa’s less than obvious designations. There’s a mordantly humorous/ twisted scene in a German bar where newsreel of concentration camp survivors is accompanied by gyrating live dancers as and a disco mix of Deutschland Uber Alles; the obvious takeaway is the generational indifference to the impact of past horrors, but there’s also the sense that everything is recognised as packaged, produced and sold to an audience in any era, even “truth”. As far as such things go, the closest we come with that other fuel resource, nukes, is the “French building an atomic reactor in Northern Iraq”.
Adam Steiffel: The sole function of any international cartel is to ensure political harmony.
Brando’s improv is very obvious in places. Like John Gielgud (Dr Esau), he comes on wearing a dressing gown, although he’s initially spending his time fishing frogs out the pool (Brando wanted to impress upon the audience the horrors of chlorine, rather than those of eating too many pies). Early on, Steiffel opines to Caine how the world has fallen apart – I presume for effect, given he hasn’t yet revealed his colours, rather than because he really believes it – and they “send rockets to photograph the rectal passages of Jupiter, and the kids end up in porno films. They violate the laws of Newton and Christ, and now we wonder why a bunch of bandits with towels on their heads have got us by the nuts”. Yes! Kurtz is back, baby!
Adam Steiffel: If we use it now, it’s going to be coal. But if we wait ten years, it’s gold.
We’re shown corruption is endemic, not just in bribery, standard in the Middle East, but also the dirty police department. Caine is blissfully unaware he has achieved nothing at the end, despite giving the formula to the Swiss; a quick call and they have been persuaded to sit on it for ten years, in exchange for 25% in Steiffel’s anthracite holdings. Of course, a lot can change in ten years. Different agendas prioritise themselves. Or people can be taken out.
Adam Steiffel: I’m not advising anyone. I’m just another customer.
The opening scenes suggest setting the entire movie in that period might have been more interesting than the one we got. Not that the subject matter here isn’t interesting, as Hollywood unsurprisingly rarely tackles the labyrinth of Elite business practices with any gusto – only The Godfather III and The International spring to mind – and would much rather offer up lukewarm swill when doing an exposé of the sort Soderbergh and Clooney go in for (and so get them all the awards). The Formula isn’t very good because it doesn’t know how to tell a story, not because it doesn’t have a very good story to tell.