Politics love disaster: ‘”Ace in the Hole” aka “The Big Carnival” directed by Billy Wilder, with a great star turn by Kirk Douglas, could just be the best cynical disaster film ever made.[UPDATE: With a general federal election now called in Australia for 2 July 2016, the Beaconsfield Mine collapse has appeared as part of the opposition’s political campaign. Ten years ago (Autumn 2006) Brant Webb and Todd Russell left the pit, triumphantly clocking-off, after spending a fortnight trapped underground. There had been an earthquake and the tunnels didn’t hold. 14 other miners escaped early on; of the three that were buried, Larry Knight didn’t make it. It was a remarkable story of chance, luck, survival and resilience. It was also a tale of exploitation. For those two weeks, the event became a media circus, with the good and the great travelling to northern Tasmania to wring hands and shout the bar.
Mining disasters evoke strong visceral reactions, and have led to numerous musical homages: The Ballad of Spring Hill, New York Mining Disaster 1941 and the Foo Fighter’s bluegrass tribute to Beaconsfield. Cynics as we at TVC are, we prefer to recall this acrid film, the alternate title of which is, appropriately, The Big Carnival:]
(Dir. Billy Wilder) (1951)
Cynical flim flam journo Carl Kolchak – er, sorry, Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is stuck in a dead-end Albuquerque newspaper, replete with small-town standards and wall samplers saying ‘Tell the Truth’. Kirk aches to get back with a big city rag. On his way to cover a rattlesnake hunt (yes, you heard right – a rattlesnake hunt), he happens upon a disaster at the “Mountain of the Seven Vultures”, an old Indian burial ground (yes, the old Indian burial ground), where a local schmuck of an artefact-thief is trapped underground.
Tatum grabs the story with both hands and sexes it up, slapping some tears into the schmuck’s not-so troubled wife along the way. He smells a Pulitzer Prize. Meanwhile, a lot more than seven vultures are beginning to circle. Grotesque, acrid, cynical, highly offensive (and unpopular) in its day, this piece of work is too explicit to be entirely true, and too true for comfort. A memorable and pungent film though, with Douglas a vibrant villain.