It’s The Boy in Blue, described by the Radio Times as “energy and tension” and by the New York Times as “a caricature of several better films”. A deservedly forgotten Cage, this film is of use only to fan boys and girls who want topless fodder for their diaries, people who’ve made some perverse pledge to watch Nicolas Cage in all available forms and those who really enjoy a good sliding seat. But nevertheless, let’s soldier on and define our terms:
Cage plays Ned Hallan, a turn of the century Canadian rower who “becomes the first to successfully utilise the ‘sliding seat'”. Of which more later. The entire film seems to be background to Cage’s eyes: his shirt is blue, his headband is blue, the boat is blue, the water is blue, the whole film seems to be tinted grey-blue. Cage’s eyes are delicate rock-pools of blue in his hulking meat-sculpted body (of which more later).
He wears a baby blue shirt to row in, and consequently gets nicknamed ‘the boy in blue’ by a journalist, a nickname that causes Ned to exclaim with a look of extreme dismay: “that makes me sound like some kind of fancy boy!”
‘Fancy Boy’ sounds like something my grandma would use as euphemism for gay, but perhaps in this context it just means a mannered, slightly foppish man. In any case: Ned is NOT THAT. He’s rough and tumble, rough and ready, a “young thoroughbred”, a moonshine-brewing, sex-out-of-wedlock having, Canadian “common John”. This point has to be rammed home to make the difference between him and his aristocratic belle more prominent.
The film only differs from the standard sporting achievement movie in that people are wearing caps and crinolines. At Ned’s first race, his manager runs alongside the bank shouting: “Row Ned, row! It’s a hundred to one, Ned! A hundred to one!” and, to paraphrase Terry Pratchett, when the odds are exactly a hundred to one, it’s as good as certain. Old scruffy Ned also has his eye on prim and proper young Margaret, a woman both far above his social status and also engaged. Could he possibly win her heart by the end of the film? (hint: “It’s a hundred to one, Ned! A hundred to one!”)
For most of the film, Ned is too much of a lunk-head to get very overcome by emotion. I was momentarily distracted during this part of the film, but I suspect that his distraught pose was something to do with a rejection from the ever-so-unattainable prim Margaret. The fact that he has one sock on and one sock off strikes me as a charming Cageism in a performance that’s not as charismatic as usual.
But you can hardly blame him. The dialogue is all: “quit your lollygagging!”, “you balmy coot!” and “For God’s sake man, row!”, and all the film really requires of him is to get some impressionable men to buy a rowing machine.
In the above scene, Ned ‘practices’ on a primitive rowing machine, while various whiskered men watch him and eat cucumber sandwiches. One of them comments “It’s like a moving sculpture”, effectively summing up Cage’s role in one dismissive sentence. The appeal of the film is in the appreciation of finely oiled machines – both Ned’s rowing boat and his body. Both are glistening and burnished, both lavishly caressed by the camera’s soft-focus gaze.
Even prim Margaret can’t help but check Ned out when he stands in a stable, sticky with sweat from the strenuous exercise he’s just been performing (he’s so sticky in this scene that a fly lands on his shoulder to have a taste, but of course Nic’s a pro and doesn’t bat an eyelid). It feels like not commenting on Nicolas Cage’s buffed-up body is doing him a disservice in this film. All three stills on the DVD menu show the muscles bulging under his skin like rats in a sack; this is what he’s here for: eye candy and sailing propaganda.
The film’s partially financed by a Regatta, which perhaps explains why the rowboat’s ‘sliding seat’ is Nicolas Cage’s co-star, whatever the DVD box has to say about Christopher Plummer.The rowing seat as we know it today began here, sliding Ned Hallan up and down. “Slides boy, slides, slides like butter!” exclaims the mad scientist who built this outlandish creation. Undoubtedly, the sliding seat was an important development in the rowing world, but to someone un-athletic, idly making fun of a mostly-forgotten film, it seems like an endearing eccentric object to structure a film around.
“Every era has it’s own kind of hero” half-rhymes the DVD box, and perhaps too, every development in sporting technology has it’s own poorly-recieved movie.