'The Harder They Come' (1972) Review: A Classic Sitting In Limbo
When you hear about the greatest films of all time, you will inevitably come across a few typical names. Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Chinatown to name a few. Films that examine their setting with a critical eye, and give a new perspective to the norm. They challenge audiences. Make us question the society we live and take part in. They show us the world as it is, and leave it to us to consider what is right and what isn’t. These movies justify cinema, and one of the most challenging of them all is the indisputable classic 1972 film, ‘The Harder They Come’.
My first instinct is to call ‘The Harder They Come’ timeless. Yet as accurate a description as that might be, it feels misleading. ‘The Harder They Come’ was made on a budget of US$200,000 (The Godfather was released in the same year for US$6 Million), and was released almost 50 years ago. There are scenes where the film is so dark the characters are indistinguishable from the environment, and one particular fight scene looks like it was filmed as quickly as possible sparing as much film as they could. Yet despite these aesthetic qualms, ‘The Harder They Come’ is chock full of picturesque cinematography that are not only beautiful, but inform the telling of its complex and compelling story.
That is the story of Ivanhoe Martin, a young man from the country who tries, tries and tries, tries and tries, to succeed at last, as a singer in the rough and tumble city of Kingston. To say Ivan’s dreams are difficult to attain would be an understatement. He’s faced against a system that’s designed to keep him from being successful, and when it comes to moral support, his own mother decides the only thing he’ll be good for is a career as a gunman. Still, Ivan does his best. He’s polite, he’s patient. It’s only until he’s forced to his breaking point does he act out violently. Soon after he gets the recognition that he’s always felt he deserved, at the simple cost of his country boy soul.
Ivan is of course played by Jimmy Cliff, who gives an understated performance. Cliff’s known for portraying both frivolity and penance within the same 3 minute song, and his acting style is much the same. He might not say much, but you sense the vast array of emotions Ivan goes through by a simple look by Cliff. He’s also instrumental in crafting one of the greatest film albums of the century. A track list that’s full of songs that are played to this day.
Though the film mostly focuses on Ivan’s journey it still manages to find time to touch on several aspects of Jamaican life in 1972 (Modern viewers will be shocked to discover that flogging was an acceptable means of judicial punishment). Particularly with Janet Bartley’s Elsa, whose fate is decided by the men who see fit to run her life. Whether it be her guardian, a man of the church with illicit intent, or Ivan, a dreamer with no real regard for Elsa’s needs. She encapsulates her plight in the immortal words “Every game I play I lose”.
‘The Harder They Come’ is likely to be seen as rough around the edges by today’s film audiences. Beyond that, it remains a timeless story because it’s one that could take place today. As prescient as it was in 1972, it reflects a reality in 2020. That may not bode well for the world as we know it, but it does mean that ‘The Harder They Come’ will be a film that’s easy to watch for the years to come. Maybe one day we’ll fix up the cracks it so expertly exposed a half a century ago.