Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Bunker Hill Bunny (1950)

Bunker Hill Bunny (Warner Bros., 1950) 
Dir: Isadore "Friz" Freleng
Cel Bloc Rating: 8/9

My dad loves Yosemite Sam. Outside of probably Foghorn Leghorn, and beyond simply having Sam's "Back Off" mud flaps hanging from his pickup for a couple of decades, my dad always seems to get the biggest kick out of seeing this fireplug-sized powder keg of ham-handed orneriness stomp about all-fired determined to have his way. No matter what the stunted villain calls himself: Riff Raff Sam, Pirate Sam, Sam Schultz, Shanghai Sam, Sam the Duke of Yosemite; these were only names that he appropriated to fit whatever setting he was placed in to do battle with his arch-enemy, Bugs Bunny. Besides, this wide array of aliases had little bearing on what Sam was with a high level of consistency: drop-dead funny, especially to my Dad, who even now, all these years later, still mentions to me how hilarious he finds Yosemite Sam.

In Bunker Hill Bunny, the year is 1776, and Sam calls himself Sam Von Schmamm the Hessian. He is fighting the Battle of Bagle Heights, an obviously little known battle of the Revolutionary War, against an unseen foe. Two forts sit, depending on the scene, anywhere from 30 to 100 feet apart on a mostly barren field, raining cannon fire upon each other at an insanely rapid clip (but causing no damage to either fort whatsoever). Sam's fort flies a flag reading "They" and is heavily stone-fortified; the other fort is much smaller, bears a flag reading "We" and is made up entirely of logs (explaining the occasional stump seen in the background).

Sam yells, "Enemy ahoy!" after which Bugs pops up and replies in his usual calm manner, "What's up, doc?" An amused Sam von Schmamm calls for the rabbit's surrender, declaring that he has Bugs "outnumbered one-to-one!" Bugs refuses, and Sam makes to charge the "We" fort, marching on the barricade with drum in hand. He strikes the drum with each step as he doggedly makes his advance on Bugs' fort. When he arrives at the door, he is shot in the face with a cannon, and returns charred and sheepish to his own door, but now rat-a-tat-tatting his broken drum to little effect. 

Sam and Bugs both charge simultaneously, taking over each other's forts and declaring it so by each raising their own flag in the enemy's camp. Bugs adds insult to injury by adding a picture of a carrot to the "We" flag. They exchange charges again, and this time raise their flags back in their own forts. Sam is enraged further, and charges a third time, but Bugs leans against his own front wall and casually opens the main gate, revealing a tremendous cannon that Sam runs into full bore. There is the memorable image of Sam standing in the darkness of the huge cannon barrel, realizing his mistake, his echo of "Retreat" following him frantically out of the cannon. He is blasted clear over his own walls.

Sam yells out, "Ya ornery, fur-bearing rebel!" and lights a huge bomb, fast-balling it in the rabbit's direction. Bugs disappears momentarily and reappears in a baseball uniform, smacking the bomb with a baseball bat high over Sam's head. Sam pulls out a baseball glove, yelling "I got it! I got it!" He sadly gets it alright, and a flag raises inside his fort telling the audience of that fact. Sam begins firing on Bugs again, but Bugs catches each shot with his own cannon, affecting the tone of a baseball catcher rooting on his star pitcher ("That's the ol' pepper, boy!" is practically straight from Baseball Bugs), and sends it reeling back at Sam. Finally, Bugs follows a return shot into Sam's cannon by also shooting out a large plug, which Sam tugs on to no avail but his own explosion.

The determined Sam not only doesn't learn any lessons from his varmint nemesis, he can't learn. He soldiers on, attempting to dig a tunnel into Bugs' fort, and popping up triumphantly in the darkness, he lights a match. Unfortunately for Sam, he is completely surrounded by stacks of TNT and gunpowder inside a shack marked "Explosives". Clearly, this is not Sam's day. But the smoking and discombobulated Hessian is not licked yet.

In the brilliant closing of the picture, Sam shoulder-carries a powder-keg with an amazingly long fuse over to Bugs' door, only he doesn't realize that there is an open hole on the other side of the keg. The gunpowder pours into the seat of Sam's trousers, and also pours out behind him, leaving a gunpowder trail as he sneaks back to his own fort. He lights the fuse, but when it finally reaches Bugs, who is sitting pleasantly on top of the powder-keg whilst munching a carrot, the rabbit gingerly snuffs the fuse at the last second. He then lights the line of gunpowder that leads back to Sam, who watches its return but doesn't realize it is leading to him until it is almost too late.

Sam runs about desperately trying to escape the blast that is sure to come (thanks to the rule of Cartoon Explosive Inevitability), charging off over the hill and into the top of an apple tree. A leafless tree with the odd apple core and a disconsolate Sam are all that remains. Sam surrenders by declaring, "I'm a Hessian wit'out noooooo aggression. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Sam and Bugs then come over the hill towards the camera, drum-and-fifing their way to the film's conclusion.

Friz Freleng's sure-handed ease with Sam is not surprising; he created the character, and directed him in all but the fireplug pirate's final picture, Dumb Patrol. Likewise, Bugs starred with the villain in all but three of Sam's pictures. The rivalry between the two nearly approaches epic proportions, much more so than with any of Bugs' other foils, such as Elmer Fudd or Daffy (not counting the "Duck! Rabbit! Duck!" trilogy). This is because Sam is an outright villain, not so much concerned with feeding himself (like Taz), or food and trophy gains (like Elmer), or sheer force of jealousy (like Daffy). Sam is just plain bad to the bone, and the give and take between the two is on the level of pure good vs. evil. (Only Marvin Martian is on a similar level of "bad," but he had only a handful of films comparatively.)

The battles between the pirate and the rabbit are bigger, often in scenarios with historical backdrops, because the stakes are larger than simply "hunting wabbits". Because Bugs is the clear good guy in most of these pictures and not simply a troublemaker, and because Sam's intentions are clearly always to the detriment of either Bugs or all of humankind, it is easy to root for the rabbit and laugh uproariously at whatever befalls the unflappable Sam.

Of course, like most movie bad guys, there is a certain part of Sam that you can't help but be intrigued by, admire, and even outright love. I think the stereotypical bad boy persona is a crock of dung, but even I love Sam. My dad is as pleasant, polite, and as good a guy as there could possibly be, and he loves Sam. 

Just not quite as much as he does that giant loudmouthed schnook of a rooster...

[Two final, trivial notes: I have always heard Sam's surname as "von Schmamm", not "Schamm" or "Schpamm", as others seem to hear it. Sam says it not quite so clearly in the film, so I understand the multiple interpretations, and Bugs says "von Schmamm", but he might be mocking "von Schamm". (The subtitles on the DVD have "von Schmamm" on both lines.) Also, the battle in the film is spelled "Bagle", not "Bagel". Whether is was misspelled this way on purpose by Freleng and gang, or whether there exists another spelling of the word outside of "Beigel" or "Beygl" (the Yiddish word from which we derive "Bagel"), I am unaware. But it is the way it is used in the film.]



And in case you haven't seen it...

[This article was revised and updated on 1/12/2016.]

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