Monday, November 24, 2014

CLASSIC or ANTIQUE? Breakthrough (1950)



                “Breakthrough” was one of the first American movies to deal with D-Day.  It did not set the bar high for movies like “The Longest Day”.  Being early has its advantages as it was greeted positively.  The movie was directed by Lewis Seiler (“Guadalcanal Diary”) and he made extensive use of war footage.  1/3 of the film is actual footage, including from the Germans.  This stunt makes the film more special than it deserves and partially overcomes the onslaught of clichés.  The film is your basic small unit campaign movie.  It follows the platoon from D-Day through the end of the war.  Although there are some deaths, it is not a “who will survive?” movie.  It sets itself up in this subgenre and then midway through shifts to the pressures of command subgenre.
                The movie opens in England in the summer of ’44.  The redemption angle kicks in early as Lt. Mallory (John Agar) puts his platoon in jeopardy during a live fire exercise when he goes to rescue a wounded man.  He is chewed out by Capt. Hale (David Brian).  The platoon is your typical heterogeneous mix required of black and white WWII infantry films.  The barracks is home to an ambitious politician wanna be, the unit clown who imitates Humphrey Bogart and others, a dweeb with glasses, a Jack Lalane type called “Muscles”, a hick named Jumbo,  a ladies’ man, and a guy from Brooklyn (imagine that!).  Mallory was a high school English teacher before the war.   None of the unit know this… oops, wrong movie.
                Training montage?  Check.  Ike meets the paratroopers in famous footage.  This must be D-Day.  Our guys are on board a transport ship.  The soldier banter is surprisingly unsucky.  They reach the seawall and then crawl toward the German trenches and force the Krauts to surrender.  It’s the opposite in difficulty level when compared to “Saving Private Ryan”, but it’s not terrible.  It is terribly brief, however.  On to the hedgerows and kudos for covering this aspect of the campaign.
"A guy told me you don't have to use your
teeth to pull the pin."
                Here’s a taste.  They are tasked with capturing a German position.  There is a preparatory bombardment.  They are crawling when their tank gets hit with an anti-tank gun.  One of the men gets killed because earlier he had shown off a picture of his girl.  A bazooka takes out the gun.  Abrupt ending.  Boo!
                When they approach a French town, the mayor and his hot daughter Collette (Suzanne Dalbert) insist the Germans have pulled out and it is not necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.  They enter to a celebration that is slightly marred when a German sniper opens fire killing Jumbo.  Capt. Hale kills the snipette (that’s right – this movie influenced the plots of both SPR and “Full Metal Jacket”!  Spielberg and Kubrick – hacks.)  In a humorous subplot, Collete tries to seduce Muscles, but he is not interested because he only has eyes for himself (and/or he is gay).
                A German counterattack is handled with some panache and then it’s to a rest area which means one thing – dames!  In an interesting (if not exactly groundbreaking) development, Capt. Hale realizes that he is cracking up due to caring too much about his men.  This is a surprise to the men since he has been doing a great impression of an ass hole.  He recommends the now fully redeemed Mallory to replace him.  He advises Mallory to avoid caring about the men.  “When they bleed, you bleed.”  The ass hole baton is passed.  As Seiler aided Spielberg and Kubrick, so he owes Howard Hawks (“The Dawn Patrol”).
The poster is not lying - there are dames
in this movie!
                “Breakthrough” is surprisingly not horrible.  The acting is satisfactory and no one really embarrasses himself.  Agar (who was in the process of divorcing Shirley Temple) was a pretty big star, but the rest of the cast was B-List.  The characters are all stock and even in 1950 they had all been seen before.  There was little character development, but who needs it when you’ve met them in previous small unit movies.  War movie fans in the theaters must have groaned a bit.  The dialogue is also average.  Not too sappy.  It’s the narration that gets treacly.  The movie is not nearly complicated enough to warrant narration, by the way.
                The movie has some strengths.  The action is energetic and the blending of the footage is relatively seamless.  Plus there is lots of it.  The use of the German footage is a nice touch and stands out.  It juices up the movie.  The theme that you have to be an uncaring jerk to be a good commander is not original, but it is competently handled.  Capt. Hale’s arc is honest about combat fatigue.
                Classic or antique?  Antique.  At the time it got props for being one of the first D-Day movies and for use of newly available footage, but there are much better movies that cover the same ground.
grade =  C+               

Sunday, November 16, 2014

CRACKER? Kippur (2000)


 

                “Kippur” is an Israeli war movie set in the Yom Kippur War.  It is autobiographical as director Amos Gitai co-wrote the screenplay based on his experiences in a helicopter rescue unit.  The movie was assisted by the Israeli Defense Forces.  It was screened at the Cannes Film Festival, but had very limited release in the U.S.
                The film opens at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War.  The movie assumes its audience is familiar with the circumstances behind the war.  In October, 1973 an Arab coalition led by Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack during the Yom Kippur holiday.  The Egyptians attacked the Sinai Peninsula and the Syrians assaulted the Golan Heights.  The movie is set on the Golan Heights where the Syrians had initial success in pushing the Israelis back.  Gitai realistically conveys the confusion and fog of war that were common in the early days of the conflict.
                The movie opens with Weintraub (Liron Leub) making love not war in a bohemian environment using paint with his girlfriend to make a work of art.  He believes in multi-tasking.  Sirens alert him and the country that love-making time is over.  Weintraub joins his buddy Ruso (Liron Levo) is a fruitless attempt to reach their reserve unit.  Weintraub is the intellectual and Ruso is the gung-ho, it’s finally our time to fight type.  They literally drive a car to the front where they get caught up in a retreat.  This sequence is lensed from the back seat of the car.  They end up sleeping on the side of the road.  There they meet a doctor and decide to join his unit.
                The rest of the film is the duo going on various rescue missions for hospitals.  It’s like MASH, but concentrating on the helicopter deliveries, not the hospital activities.  They do a lot of stretcher bearing.  One scene is an exhausting (and exhausting to watch) trek through a muddy field with a wounded soldier.  The guy dies anyway and then it starts raining!  Did I mention the movie is anti-war?  The most autobiographical moment is a mission where their helicopter gets hit by a missile and goes down in chaos.  The action is filmed from inside the chopper to intense effect.
There's a stretcher in there somewhere
               This is a strange movie.  That is apparent from the onset with Weintraub walking down a street toward a stationary camera and then away from it.  Art!  This is the first in a grab bag of cinematography.  The sex painting is done from above.  Hand-held follows them through a trench system.  Shots from the backs of cars and helicopters.  Overhead shots of tanks maneuvering through muddy fields.  The camera is either intimate or detached.

               The movie is low budget, but Gitai uses the no-frills to his advantage.  Most scenes have no music.  On the other hand, the sound stands out.  The droning of the helicopter blades permeate the film to realistic effect.  The sets are realistic although because of the low budget the fields with the tanks look like someone’s churned up back field.  The hospitals are realistically chaotic.  The insides of the helicopters appear to be the real deal.  They even have a helicopter with racks for the wounded.  I had never seen that before.

                The movie is variable on dialogue.  There are long stretches where it is sparse.  There is more droning than droning on the missions.  Strangely, there are three straight talkie scenes in the hospital that provide some exposition, but slow the movie down.  The acting is average with the cast never achieving ensemble status.  The bells and whistles of the cinematography tend to overshadow the actors.  There is little character development.
War can be stressful

                “Kippur” is a worthy effort.  It is different in a positive way.  It deals with war on the micro level, but you still get a clear impression of the chaos and confusion at the beginning of the war.  Weintraub and Ruso represent the multitude of reservists who were yanked out of their civilian lives and shoved into the war feet first.  The fact that they were able to function after the initial sensory overload is a testament to the training they went through.  For instance, Weintraub and Ruso were not assigned to a medical unit but they were able to join one because they had some rudimentary training in that field.  By the end of the film the audience feels like it could perform similar tasks as the movie does a good tutorial on the workings of medical care in the Israeli army.
                The film is refreshingly devoid of clichés.  It even resists the old trope of inserting an omenous dream and then fulfilling it.  (Weintraub tells Ruso of a dream of burning to death in a tank.)  There is no hero to worship, but noone is a villain either.  There is no clash with authority and none of the doctors are doctrinaire buffoons.
                Does it crack the 100 Best list?  No.  Although it is a good movie and looks at war in a different way, it is too repetitive.  This film must have set the record for carrying bodies on stretchers.  Another problem is the weak ending.  By attempting to bring the film back full circle, Gitai ends up being trite.  The point is clear – these are civilian soldiers ripped from their cocoons and then restored (if they survived) – but it is heavy-handed.  It is still a worthy addition to the Israeli war film genre, but not as good as “Beaufort” or “Lebanon”.

grade =  B-

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

HOLLYWOOD or HISTORY: We Were Soldiers


 

                I earlier reviewed “We Were Soldiers” and then reread We Were Soldiers Once… And Young by Harold Moore and Joseph Galloway.  The director and screenwriter of the movie, Randall Wallace, claimed the movie was as accurate as you could get.  But given his track record of “Braveheart” and “Pearl Harbor”, I was skeptical.  Here are some things that happened in the movie.  Which are true and which are Wallaceisms?

1.  The French Group Mobile 100 was ambushed in the Ia Drang Valley in 1954 and wiped out by a unit of Vietminh led by Nguyen Huu An
2.  During boot camp at Fort Bragg, a radio operator picked up a fire fight in Vietnam.
3.  Moore was a devout Catholic.
4.  Moore and Geogehegan had a heart to heart in a chapel after the birth of Geogehagen’s baby.
5.  Moore told his daughter that war was when some people in another country try to take the lives of other people and then soldiers like daddy have to go over and stop them.
6.  Moore’s unit was the 7th Cavalry – Custer’s old unit.

7.  Sgt. Plumley was a crusty veteran of WWII with a gruff personality and leadership style.
8.  The Lost Platoon got “lost” because Herrick chased after an enemy scout as soon as they landed.
9.  Herrick’s last words were:  “If I have to die. I’m glad to give my life for my country.”
10.  They blew up trees to create a new landing zone.
11.  Metzker was killed when he gave up his place on a medevac helicopter.
12.  Galloway arrived on the night of the first day.
13.  Mrs. Moore and Mrs. Geogehagen delivered the telegrams to the other wives.
14.  Moore prayed over the dead bodies.
15.  Geogehagen and a black soldier were killed out in front of the American lines.
16.  They peed on the mortar tubes to cool them down.
17.  Plumely told Galloway he could not take pictures lying down and soon after he told the wounded “Prepare to defend yourselves”.
18.  A soldier jumped on a grenade to save some of the woundeds lives.
19.  When the position was about to be overrun, Moore called for Broken Arrow.
20.  Jimmy Nakayama was mortally wounded by friendly napalm and never saw his new-born baby.  Some of his flesh came off in Galloway’s hands.
21.  The Lost Platoon was finally rescued when Nadal’s platoon fought its way to them.

22.  Westmoreland ordered Moore to leave the battlefield to brief him, but Moore refused.
23.  Moore went into no man’s land at night to recover Geogehagen’s body.
24.  Moore led a bayonet charge that forced the enemy to retreat and then helicopter gunships decimated the enemy before Moore’s men walked into a trap.
25.  Crandall took over medevacing the wounded because the assigned unit refused to come in under fire. 

 

 THE ANSWERS
 1.  The French Group Mobile 100 was ambushed in the Ia Drang Valley in 1954 and wiped out by a unit of Vietminh led by Nguyen Huu An.  HISTYWOOD  The French Mobile 100 was ambushed several times during the war but never was wiped out.  It is unclear whether An participated in any of these attacks.  An is a significant figure in Vietnamese history.  He ably commanded units in the siege of Dien Bien Phu and was in command in the Battle of Ia Drang.  He rose to generalship and was highly regarded by Giap.  His forces were instrumental in the capture of Saigon at the end of the war.
2.  During boot camp at Fort Bragg, a radio operator picked up a fire fight in Vietnam.  HISTYWOOD  They actually picked up a forward air controller directing an air strike.  This was apparently not omenous enough for Wallace.
3.  Moore was a devout Catholic.  HISTORY
4.  Moore and Geogehegan had a heart to heart in a chapel after the birth of Geogehagen’s baby.  HOLLYWOOD
5.  Moore told his daughter that war was when some people in another country try to take the lives of other people and then soldiers like daddy have to go over and stop them.  HISTORY
6.  Moore’s unit was the 7th Cavalry – Custer’s old unit.  HISTORY
7.  Sgt. Plumley was a crusty veteran of WWII with a gruff personality and leadership style.  HISTORY  “Old Iron Jaw” (which he is not called in the movie) served in WWII and made four combat jumps with the 82nd Airborne and another in the Korean War.  As far as I could tell, his personality is accurately depicted.
8.  The Lost Platoon got “lost” because Herrick chased after an enemy scout as soon as they landed.  HISTYWOOD  Fighting was already taking place when Herrick was sent into a support position and proceeded to chase several enemy.  Herrick was not killed as quickly as the movie indicates.  Sgt. Savage did take over leadership.
9.  Herrick’s last words were:  “If I have to die. I’m glad to give my life for my country.”  HISTORY  Most of the “cheesy” soldier lines were accurate.
10.  They blew up trees to create a new landing zone.  HISTORY
11.  Metzker was killed when he gave up his place on a medevac helicopter.  HOLLYWOOD  Metzker was killed as he was about to board Crandall’s ship.
12.  Galloway arrived on the night of the first day.  HISTORY  However, Moore had already met Galloway and had given him permission to come.
13.  Mrs. Moore and Mrs. Geogehagen delivered the telegrams to the other wives.  HISTORY  At least according to Wallace.
14.  Moore prayed over the dead bodies.  HISTORY  It’s unclear whether An did any praying.
15.  Geogehagen and a black soldier were killed out in front of the American lines.  HISTYWOOD  Geogehagen was not making a two man attack.  He was killed instantly when he got out of his fox hole to rescue a dead black soldier.
16.  They peed on the mortar tubes to cool them down.  HISTYWOOD  These types of things happened in warfare, but this incident was not mentioned in the book.
17.  Plumley told Galloway he could not take pictures lying down and soon after he told the wounded “Prepare to defend yourselves”.  HISTORY
18.  A soldier jumped on a grenade to save some of the wounded’s lives.  HISTORY  Sgt. Charlie McManus won the Medal of Honor for this act. 
19.  When the position was about to be overrun, Moore called for Broken Arrow.  HISTORY
20.  Jimmy Nakayama was mortally wounded by friendly napalm and never saw his new-born baby.  Some of his flesh came off in Galloway’s hands.  HISTORY
21.  The Lost Platoon was finally rescued when Nadal’s platoon fought its way to them.  HOLLYWOOD  The unit was actually reached by a reinforcing unit and there were no shots exchanged in getting to Savage and his men. 
22.  Westmoreland ordered Moore to leave the battlefield to brief him, but Moore refused.  HISTORY
23.  Moore went into no man’s land at night to recover Geogehagen’s body.  HISTYWOOD  Moore did find the body, but it was in daytime.
24.  Moore led a bayonet charge that forced the enemy to retreat and then helicopter gunships decimated the enemy before Moore’s men walked into a trap.  BULL CRAP  Moore did have the men fix bayonets before pushing the perimeter out after the battle was over and he did lead the movement, but there was no contact.  The whole movie charge and the intervention of Crandall is a painfully obvious attempt at a happy ending.  Keep in mind that a true ending would have included the ambushing of 2/7 as it marched to LZ Albany for egress after the fighting was seemingly over.  People who insist we never lost a battle in Vietnam conveniently overlook this disaster (which is covered in the book).  I do not insist that this downer of an ending should have finished the movie, but don’t substitute fantasy that is the total opposite.
25.  Crandall took over medevacing the wounded because the assigned unit refused to come in under fire.  HISTORY  Crandall started out bringing in troops, but switched to medevacing because of the circumstances.  He made a total of 14 trips and was awarded the DFC which was upgraded to the Congressional Medal Of Honor by Pres. G.W. Bush in 2007.  It is highly unlikely he pulled a pistol on another pilot like in the movie and he could not have led the counterattack because his chopper was unarmed.
RATING =   .72


 CONCLUSION:  ''We Were Soldiers" is above average in accuracy and surprisingly factual for a Randall Wallace and Mel Gibson.  This does not completely make up for their historical malpractice in "Braveheart", but at least shows they have some sense of shame.  However, it is most likely that what accuracy manages to sneak in is due to Moore and Galloway watching over their shoulders.  Unfortunately, nothing could stop Mel and Randall from tacking on the egregious happy ending that has John Wayne written all over it.  Hadn't we gotten past this type of jingoistic, crowd-sating trope by the 21st Century?   

Thursday, November 6, 2014

CRACKER? The Way Back (2010)


 
                “The Long Walk” is a film by Peter Weir (“Gallipoli”).  It is based on the very popular memoir by Slawomir Rawicz entitled The Long Walk.  Weir and Keith Clarke wrote the screenplay.  The movie cost $30 million and made only $20 million.  It received an Academy Award nomination for Best Makeup in what must have been a slow year for makeup.
                The film is set in WWII Russia.  Janusz Wieszczek (Jim Sturgess) has been ratted out by his wife to the NKVD for being critical of Stalin and for espionage.  He is sent to a gulag in Siberia.  The prisoners are a mixture of political prisoners and career criminals.  They are working in mines that are very dangerous and claustrophobic.  Janusz joins a group of seven prisoners who escape in a snow storm.  The movie now has a “who will survive?” subplot.  It does not take long for one of them to freeze to death.  They have a 4,000 mile journey ahead of themselves.  Along the way, they are joined by a teenage girl named Irena (Saoirse Ronan).  In a surprise twist, even the amoral Valka (Colin Farrell) does not mess with her.  The movie is not burdened by clichés.
                Suddenly the subtitle budget ran out and all the trekkers are speaking English.  They also look way too healthy and fit.  Their clothes are also holding out remarkably well.  Good thing because they have a lot of hiking to do.  Surprisingly the journey is not really fraught with serious problems until they reach the Gobi Desert.  By that time, Valka has left the group, taking a lot of tension and drama with him.  More walking gets the final four to their destinations.
                I found this movie boring.  It’s mostly a movie about people walking.  There are not enough dangers or problems along the way.  There is also not enough dysfunctionality in the group and what little there is leaves with Valka.  Most of the characters are undeveloped and few make an impression.  The cinematography is nothing special although the scenery is a strength of the movie.  The lack of dazzle is perplexing considering that Weir’s cinematographer (Russell Boyd) had won the Academy Award for “Master and Commander”.  The score is sparse.  There is little evidence that this is a Peter Weir film.
                Before you call me a hypocrite for wanting the movie to be less of a “true story”, consider the fact that the “true story” as told by Rawicz has been refuted.  Apparently he did not escape from a gulag, but was in fact released by the authorities.  And by the way, he was imprisoned for killing an NKVD agent, not for being an anti-communist spy.  The incredibly popular book appears to be a fraud.  Even Weir was forced to admit the film is “essentially a fictional film”.
                My main problem with the movie is that it was made.  This was Weir’s big follow up to “Master and Commander”?!  That movie was a tour de force of directing and created high expectations for his next film.  So what happened?  Not only did he not do a sequel, he waited seven years to release a new feature length movie and it was this dud.  What was he thinking?  After the disappointing box office of “Master and Commander” I can see why he would take a break from filmmaking, but why return with a film that was bound to land with a thud?  This was a wasted opportunity.

grade = D