Eureka (1986) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I don't know if any movie ever had a better real-life story as its source material.

Harry Oakes was a young man from New England who followed the classic dream of riches. After obtaining a university degree and attending medical school for a couple of years, Harry dropped out to make his fortune as a gold prospector in the 1890s. He followed the possibilities around the globe: to Australia and New Zealand, to Death Valley, to Alaska and Canada, living in poverty and hardship, narrowly avoiding death for twenty years. A lesser man might have given up. Almost any other college man would have given up after two decades of a miserable, hardscrabble existence among ruthless uneducated men and prostitutes. Harry was not any other man. He set his sights on achievement, and was not afraid to pay for it with his own death, if necessary.

His determination ultimately paid off. Following rumors and opportunities, he figured out a way to work an unworkable claim underneath a frozen lake in Canada. He raised enough money to do what was necessary, and found one of the largest motherlodes in North America in the caves under that lake. In 1917 he had arrived in the area with $2.65 to his name (about like thirty bucks today). In 1918 he was earning $60,000 per day, which is equivalent to about three quarters of a million dollars per day in today's currency.

He soon found out that there was a price for having achieved his dreams. His entire life had been based on aspiration, and he was lost and purposeless without something to work towards. He was not psychologically suited to be idle, nor was he socially prepared to join the life of the leisure class. Twenty years of survival existence, living alone or with roughnecks, had left him unpolished, distrustful, ill-mannered and irascible. And he was alone.

He then began a new stage of his life, gadding about the world in search of inspiration. On a cruise he met a cultured, attractive young woman. Mankind's most common bond, that between powerful men and beautiful women, occurred. When they married, Harry was 48, short, ugly, and ill-tempered - but extremely rich. Eunice was 24, cultured and lovely. The match worked. Harry and his wife raised three sons and two daughters. Harry soon took his young family to the Bahamas, where the tax laws were most favorable to someone in his position. Within a fairly short time, his real estate holdings included more than half of the island of Nassau. Harry and Eunice became integrated into the Nassau social set, which centered around the Duke of Windsor, the former king of England. Harry was still cantankerous, but was also generous to excess, and he was much loved by the poor of the island.

But life on Nassau was anything but idyllic. Harry found two major sources of grief.

1) Nancy, his eighteen year old daughter, met and married an idler, a handsome member of the European titled set, a "count" whose only known interests were partying, womanizing, and yachting. Harry's daughter could not have picked a man more dissimilar to her father, who was the ultimate "rough and ready" self-made man. Needless to say, her father and her husband despised each other, as evidenced by loud public rows.

2) Some very powerful men in Miami wanted to turn Nassau into a Caribbean Vegas, complete with slick hotels and lavish casinos. Harry opposed their development plans, and had the clout to block them. These were not the kind of men who take "no" for an answer. The Miami group was headed by the notorious mobsters, Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, the childhood friends who had assembled the most cohesive and enduring organized crime enterprise in American history.
In 1943, Harry was found murdered, beaten to death, his body burned to a crisp. Killed by the mob? Killed by his son-in-law? Nobody knew. Harry's son-in-law was arrested and tried, but even Harry's daughter, who knew him better than anyone, thought him incapable of such an action. The evidence against him was circumstantial, the investigation was bungled (some say deliberately, to cover up mob involvement), and the count was ultimately set free. Court TV did an elaborate and detailed report on the background behind the Oakes trial, but they could reach no definitive conclusion and the murder remains unsolved to this day.

What a story for a movie! Right? Although the script changed everyone's names (would you want Lucky Luciano's friends mad at you?), the story was clearly Harry's, almost down to the last detail. The cinematography was stunning, The casting was perfect. Gene Hackman played crusty old Harry Oakes, and the parts of his spoiled daughter and her handsome, amoral count were played by Theresa Russell and Rutger Hauer. Joe Pesci played Meyer Lansky, and Mickey Rourke played the soft-spoken but lethal Lucky Luciano. In concept, it seemed like a no-brainer that should have proceeded directly to the Oscar Night stage.  I know what you must be thinking: "With a great story like this, magnificent cinematography, and a perfect cast, why have I never heard of this movie, and why is it rated a mediocre 6.0 at IMDb?"

For you experts, the answer is "Nick Roeg." For the rest of you, the short answer is "because it isn't that good," but those words will just prompt you to ask "why?"

The first problem is that the stories of Harry Oakes and Nancy Oakes are not one story, but two separate stories that intersected only briefly, when Nancy's husband was accused of killing Harry. Since the count was exonerated, that fleeting intersection was of minimal importance. By combining the two stories into one, the screenwriter and director painted themselves into a cinematic corner. They were painting a portrait of Harry Oakes, absorbing the audience into his Citizen Kane existence, when Harry was suddenly dead, and the movie still had a lot of running time left. Harry's death just drained all the energy from the film.

The second problem? Well, this great story called for a no-bullshit director who could tell the story in an interesting way. I think Clint Eastwood would have been perfect, inasmuch as he was extraordinarily successful with a similarly long and rambling story in The Outlaw Josey Wales. Instead of Clint, we got artsy-fartsy Nick Roeg, a confused story teller with no good sense of a strong campfire tale. Roeg was a classic example of the Peter Principle, a brilliant cinematographer who worked his way up to a directing job, and settled in there, at his level of incompetence. His images were visual poetry, but in the natural interaction of people and the simple logic of storytelling, Roeg was overmatched. Pretentious dialogue compounded the problem. The characters kept trying to intellectualize with philosophical musings and long speeches, all of which served to try to reveal points which were already evident (or should have been) in the plot and visuals. Gene Hackman was the only actor in the film who truly had the gift to breathe life into the rhetorical dialogue and make it sound like human speech instead of human speeches. Once Hackman was gone, the damned movie seemed like one of those hollow European art films where people deliver sonorous speeches while looking out of the window.

The film is separated into three acts, like a classical tragedy.

In Act I, Harry is in the Yukon prospecting, and this all leads to his strike. This section is brilliant! It is surrealistic, but the plot line is simple (guy digs for gold, struggles, finally finds it) and the cinematography is brilliant, so the surrealism works. It is a nearly wordless portrayal of a frostbitten Harry striking gold underneath the frozen lake, finally being swept away by a river of gold generated by an explosion. Act I constitutes one of the most impressively filmed and imagined sequences in film history, and is nearly perfect except when Harry and his fortune-telling prostitute are speaking. When director Nick Roeg could concentrate on images and poetry without dialogue and natural human emotions, he was brilliant, as he was through most of this sequence.

In Act II, Harry and his family are trying to find some meaning to their lives in the Bahamas, and this all leads to his death. This section is fairly engaging, but suffers from a multitude of oddball digressions. The count was into some kind of native pagan rituals as well as Kabbalah, and this generates plenty of pseudo-mystical baloney and hifalutin' conversations which serve little purpose.

Act Three is the trial, and it is an abject failure. In the trial scene, with the down-to-earth Hackman already dead and buried, we are left with Hauer and Russell exchanging lofty, philosophical, poetic, dreamy thoughts about their life together, supposedly while she was on the witness stand and he was acting as his own lawyer. (Very realistic court procedure! The judge and lawyers just sat patiently as they made goo-goo eyes at one another.) Roeg brought this act out of left field and tried to turn this part of the film into something like Murder in the Cathedral. Unfortunately, while the story of Harry Oakes was fascinating, the story of Nancy Oakes was not, at least in this portion of her life. The trial portion of the film was particularly irritating since everything was totally ambiguous. Nobody knows to this day who really killed Harry Oakes, and the script maintained the mystery, so everything shown after the murder was essentially hogwash except for one great romantic moment at the very end, which was a rare deviation from the true story.
In real life, the count stayed with Nancy Oakes for six years after the trial. In the film, the count made love to her once more, discussed the future with her, then waited for her to fall asleep, rowed out to his yacht, and sailed off (right). That was an excellent embellishment, in my estimation, allowing the director and his team to layer in a heavy dose of romanticism, and to come up with a brilliant closing image, but except for that richly imagined final minute, all of Act III could have been handled better with a word slide telling us the result of the trial.

Eureka should have been a brilliant movie, but wasn't. Instead of a disjointed three act play, it could have been a focused story about the life of the Oates family in the Bahamas, and their inability to make it work despite infinite riches. The surreal portion in the Klondike, trimmed of some dialogue, would have made a beautiful prologue to that.

Ultimately, it should have been Harry's story, and it should have ended with Harry's death, sculpting a sad commentary on a man who achieved everything he had dreamt of for the first forty years of his life, and then could never find a way to enjoy it, because the process of achieving his dream changed the man who dreamt it in the first place. And the director should have let us see that point for ourselves inside of the story, instead of having the characters deliver soliloquies about it.


Post scripts:

Harry's daughter, last known as Nancy Tritton, was still alive when I first reviewed this film in 2004, although she has since passed. "The fabulously rich and difficult Nancy Oakes", as one critic called her, seems to have spent her entire life replaying the same mistakes over and over again. She had her marriage to the count annulled in 1949, and some years later married another seedy aristocrat, this time a German baron. Having made herself a countess and a baroness as well as an heiress, she soon separated from the German and married another famous playboy, the fun-loving Patrick Tritton, upon whom is based Dickey Umfraville, a character in Anthony Powell's "A Dance to the Music of Time." That marriage failed as well, and her matrimonial inclinations seem to have stopped there.


Theresa Russell and Rutger Hauer showed all the goods. Russell even appeared naked with her legs open to the camera.

Several women also show breasts in a lengthy voodoo orgy scene.

DVD info from Amazon

  • widescreen anamorphic, good trransfer

  • the DVD has the original theatrical trailer, but no meaningful features

The Oakes family estate still holds vast amounts of wealth and property in the area of Lake Ontario. HOCO Enterprises (formerly Welland Securities) is today one of the largest owners of real estate property on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. "HOCO" is the acronym for the Harry Oakes Company!.

The Critics Vote ...

  • TV Guide 2/5. Edinburgh U Film Society calls it a masterpiece, but admits that act three is terrible

Miscellaneous ...

  • How pretentious is Eureka? It generated a philosophical treatise called, "The Self and the Other in Roeg's Eureka and Sartre's Being and Nothingness", online in its entirety.

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 5.4/10. It scores a dreadful 4.9 with Americans, but a more respectable 6.2 from the rest of the world.

  • Box office was virtually nil. Filmed in 1982, with post-production done by 1983, the film was shelved for three years after it was completed, and was finally released only in a handful of art theaters in large cities, where it died a quick, if anti-climactic, death.

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on the description above, this film is a C. It is a great movie, and it is a poor movie. Above all, it is a film which always tries to soar into stratospheric heights, sometimes finding an air current and floating majestically through the clouds for we earthbound to admire, and sometimes crashing clumsily and painfully to earth. If you study films, you must see it, if only for what it hoped to be and might have been, if not for what it actually is.

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