This film is made up of three separate stories which somehow represent a way of seeing an aspect of life in the Britain of the mid-nineteen-sixties. It starts with Ride of the Valkyrie, where opera singer Zero Mostel must take a perilous journey from the airport where he has just arrived to the theatre where he is meant to be appearing in Wagner's Ring. Second is The White Bus, where a young woman (Patricia Healey) leaves her deadly boring job in London to return north to her hometown, but finds things both the same and different. Third is Red and Blue, as chanteuse Vanessa Redgrave reflects while on a train journey back to her lovers, some more significant than others...
For most of its life, Red White and Zero was not able to be seen in its intended form at all, and if you saw any of it, it would probably be that middle section directed by Lindsay Anderson which had a wider, if still limited, release than any of its fellow short films. As for the first, from theatre director Peter Brook who was breaking into film before promptly abandoning it shortly after, to dabble in future projects, it was barely glimpsed, a television broadcast the only way the lucky few had to see it some years later, and the third was practically orphaned, its helmer Tony Richardson believing it to be lost once it had been pulled from cinema release, judged a resounding flop.
In the decades between 1967 and 2018, the production languished in obscurity, with only the most dedicated buffs of British film knowing about it; the association with writer Shelagh Delaney for The White Bus at least keeping it alive among her cultists, albeit on a very low level. But then in that year over half a century following, the elements were found, spruced up and edited back together to be seen as a restored version of what had originally been intended, and a fascinating result it was too. Not that everything fell into place to craft a rediscovered masterpiece, The White Bus remained the best thing about it and it was little wonder this was the segment which had endured.
But what of those others? Valkyrie, inspired by one of Brook's theatre anecdotes, was presented in a silent movie fashion which had enjoyed renewed interest in the sixties, not least thanks to the efforts of archivist Kevin Brownlow who had also been an editor on part of this project. Was it funny? Mostel was certainly an accomplished performer, but he did have a tendency to go very big, subtlety not his strong point, and he overwhelmed everything in this piece, not always in a good way either. Nevertheless, you may find yourself laughing out loud during the fifteen-minute running time. Next up was The White Bus, the meandering riposte of Delaney's to those who would try to keep her down, sending up her critics and the small-minded who did not appreciate her in a glacially bizarre manner.
Red and Blue was a different matter, and you could tell why United Artists, who had funded the effort to appeal to appreciators of the trend for portmanteau movies, felt the switch in tone and approach between each part was too much of a whiplash in radical shifts. It was a musical in the French style as Richardson was having an affair with Jeanne Moreau at the time and wanted to direct a vehicle for her; when she demurred, he opted to use his current wife, as they were still on decent enough terms, to star. It had to be observed the songs were not heard to their best advantage in Redgrave's husky, prim tones, and depicting her as a fun-loving good time gal was less than convincing. That said, visually it matched the vivid, engrossing photography of The White Bus, albeit in a more stylised method, and the colour popped from the screen, sustaining the interest when otherwise you would struggle to stay engaged with the heroine's up and down love life. No, these three items did not flow perfectly into one another, but it was absorbing to take a trip with these sixties talents nonetheless.
[The BFI have released this on Blu-ray... those extensive features in full:
Presented in High Definition and Standard Definition
-About The White Bus (1968, 59 mins): documentary on the making of Lindsay Anderson's segment
Lindsay Anderson Introduction/Stills Gallery (1968, 5 mins): an audio recording of Anderson addressing the NFT in 1968, played over stills
Behind the scenes of Red and Blue (1966, 7 mins): Kevin Brownlow's 16mm footage of cast and crew
Kevin Brownlow on Red, White and Zero (2018, 15 mins): the Red and Blue and The White Bus editor on making the films
Billy Williams on Red and Blue (2018, 14 mins): the cinematographer recalls working with Tony Richardson on the segment
No Arks (1969, 7 mins): political cartoonist Abu's satirical reworking of the Noah story, narrated by Vanessa Redgrave (this is great!)
Audio commentary by Adrian Martin
Illustrated booklet with new writing by Sarah Wood, Paul Fairclough, So Mayer and Philip Kemp and Katy McGahan, plus full film credits.]