Wednesday, July 23, 2014

FORGOTTEN GEM? Sabre Jet (1953)


                I have to admit that I have a stake in this movie.  My father flew F-86 Sabres in Korea after the war.  That was enough motivation to watch the movie, but imagine my excitement when parts of the movie were filmed at Itazuke Air Base in Japan.  When my father was flying in the Vietnam War from 1964-67, my family was stationed in Japan and one of the bases we lived on was Itazuke.  The movie was directed by Lewis King who was a B movie director.  He got the seal of approval from the Air Force and there were numerous technical advisers so the movie gets off to a promising start.  “This picture is dedicated to the Air Force wives who shared their men with a world made desperate by the most brutal aggressor in history.”  Exaggerate much?
the rare war movie wife who puts her
career ahead of her husband

"Stuka at nine o'clock"
                The plot focuses on the wives of the fighter pilots.  A female journalist named Jane Carter (Colleen Gray) comes to Itazuke to write a feature on the wives.  Surprise, she is the estranged wife of the squadron commander Col. Gil Manton (Robert Stack).    They separated because he wanted a traditional wife and she wanted a feminist career.  Note how she is using her maiden name.  She discovers that the wives are all supportive of their husbands in a very sappy way.  However, I have to say that I recognized my mother in their portrayals.  The movie at least attempts to show the feelings when the men are away.  There is an extended take-off scene that intercuts the agonized faces of the wives (with patriotic music swelling in the background).  Unfortunately, the acting by the actresses is terrible so the theme is diluted.  Some of the dialogue does open a window to the women’s lives. 

                For the guys in the audience there is some air combat.  Much of it features gun camera footage provided by the USAF.  This is blended pretty well with shots of F-86s and F-80s.   Too much of a good thing can be a problem as the footage begins to look like a mix tape of unconnected missions, strafing, and dogfights.  There is no continuity to the footage.  The filmmakers are a bit patronizing by throwing in scenes from WWII that include the shooting down of a Stuka!  To make matters worse, the MIGs are played by F-86s.  I hate to be sexist, but I guess it was assumed the ladies in the audience would not notice any of this.  On the plus side, there is none of the silly pilot chatter that you usually have to endure in low grade air combat films like this. 

                The plot is totally predictable.  And rife with clichés.  There is a newlywed pilot who has only five missions to go.  Can you guess what happens to him?  While you are guessing, try figuring out which feuding couple reconciles at the end.  Speaking of which, the one twist in the plot is that Jane is the jerk who put her job ahead of her husband.  There is some comic relief in the form of Fuji the cook.  Nothing like old school racism to remind you this is a 1950s movie.

the best actor in the movie
                Kudos to the Air Force for wanting a film to commemorate the wives.  Unfortunately, this movie does more harm than good by sucking big time.  In that respect it joins most of the other Korean War movies.
GRADE  =  F-     

Monday, July 21, 2014

FORGOTTEN GEM? Company K (2004)

            “Company K” is a WWI movie based on a novel by William March.  March serialized his semi-autobiographical accounts in a magazine from 1930-32.  It was published in book form in 1933 and hailed as a landmark in American war literature.  The novel is unusual in that it is a series of 113 vignettes involving a Marine company.  March had been a Marine on the Western Front.  He is represented by Pvt. Joseph Delaney (Ari Fliakos) in the movie.  He is trying to exorcise demons by writing a book about his and his mates’ experiences in the Great War.  In particular, Delaney is haunted by the death of a nonthreatening German.

                The movie is difficult to summarize because it is very episodic in nature.  There is no plot to speak of.  Some of the vignettes are interesting and some are not.  Most hammer the anti-war theme.  For example, in one episode a soldier sees Jesus in no man’s land at night and says:  “Damn it, you should be ashamed.  How long will you let this go on?”  The most significant sequence involves the execution of some German prisoners.

                I do not even know if this movie even appeared in theaters.  It is very low budget and it shows.  The acting is poor because you get what you pay for.  None of the actors make an impression.  This is the only movie Fliakos has made.  The technical aspects are what are to be expected.  The sets look like they are recreated trenches.  There is no mud.   The soundtrack is poor.  Unfortunately, there is little action even of a campy nature.  One interesting thing about the film is it was rated R for absolutely no reason.  There is no bad language, no nudity, and no graphic violence.

                In conclusion, read the book instead.


Monday, July 14, 2014

#3 - Das Boot (Director’s Cut) (1997)

BACK-STORY:  “Das Boot” (“The Boat”) is a German submarine movie directed by Wolfgang Petersen.  Originally the movie was going to be made by John Sturges starring Robert Redford and then by Don Siegel starring Paul Newman.  Thankfully, both projects fell through.  It is based on the novel by Lothar-Gunther Buchheim.  Although fictional, Buchheim used his experience as a correspondent on U-96 on a tour in 1941.  The Werner (Herbert Gronemeyer) character is based on Buchheim.  Buchheim began as a technical adviser, but had a falling out with Petersen because of what Buchheim considered unrealistically enhanced dramatic license.  The movie took three years to produce (1979-81) and was the most expensive German film up to then.    It was released in 1981 at 150 minutes and then shown as a miniseries at 300 minutes.  The version I am reviewing is the definitive Director’s Cut which clocks in at 209 minutes.  The original version was a big hit in Germany and the U.S.  It was an even bigger critical success.  It was nominated for Academy Awards for Director, Cinematography, Adapted Screenplay (Petersen), Film Editing, Sound, and Sound Effects Editing.  Stunningly, it was not nominated for Foreign Film.

We're not Nazis so we salute like this
(the Chief, the Captain, and Werner)
OPENING:  The movie opens at La Rochelle, France in the autumn of 1941.  We are informed that the u-boat fleet is beginning to suffer heavy losses.  By the end of the war only 10,000 of 40,000 submariners will have survived tne war.  The Captain (Jurgen Prochnow), the Chief (Klaus Wennemann), and Werner arrive at the base and Werner gets his first taste of the submarine service when some of the drunken crewmen piss on their car as it passes by.  (I don’t mean taste literally.)  The enlisted are not the only ones “preparing” for their next tour, the officers are partying at a French cabaret.  The scene is reminiscent of a cinematic fighter squadron on a regular night except that these guys are going to be away from debauchery for a couple of months.  They party like there’s no tomorrow partly because they know that is reality.

SUMMARY:  The next day the U-96 sets sail.  Werner is given a tour of the boat.  It is very crowded and narrow.  Spaces are filled with supplies, even one of the two latrines.  Sausages hang from the ceiling.  We are introduced to the key members of the crew.  There are 48 men on board a boat that would have had 24 in peacetime.  The First Watch Officer (Hubertus Bengsch) is the only Nazi fanatic.  The rest of the officers are cynical and war-weary.  The Captain, in particular, makes biting remarks about the “braggarts” that run the government and to needle the “Hitler Youth leader” (the FWO) insists on singing “Tipperrary”. 

                The next twenty days are ones filled with boredom. A sailor flicks a booger at another.  This boredom switches to terror instantly when the boat is surprised by a British destroyer.  The sub dives below its maximum depth of 160 meters and withstands a depth charging.  There is no warning of the explosions for the crew or the audience.  For some reason, the destroyer gives up and they move on to a convoy.  They manage to torpedo three freighters, but then its payback time for the escorts.  The depth charging is much worse this time.  Leaks, flying bolts, a fire, and numerous close explosions cause extreme tension.  The Captain remains stoical throughout, but the Chief Mechanic Johann (Erwin Leder) cracks up and the Captain threatens to shoot him.  After several hours of pounding, the British apparently run out of depth charges and they can breathe easier and fresher air.

"Hey, who flicked that booger on me?!"
                When the sub resurfaces, it encounters a burning tanker.  The Captain decides to use a torpedo as the coup de grace thinking there is nobody on board.  Oops!  They are constrained from picking up any survivors.  War is hell.  Johann comes to apologize to the Captain, thus establishing a redemption arc.  The boat stops in neutral Spain at the port of Vigo.  The Germans have a ship set up for resupplying u-boats.  The officers are wined and dined by ass-kissers who are clueless about the Battle of the Atlantic.  The contrast between the spic and span noncombatants and the grungy submariners is telling.  While on board the lap of luxury, the Captain receives suicidal orders to run the Strait of Gibraltar to sink ships in the Mediterranean. 
they hear the Incredible Mr. Limpet coming

                The Captain makes the head-scratching decision to run the gauntlet at night on the surface.  They try to sneak past numerous patrol vessels and ironically it’s a plane that catches them.  They suffer bomb damage and are forced to dive.  It’s an unstoppable dive to the bottom of the sea.  The depth meter needle stops at 280 meters.  Well below the maximum depth determined by the manufacturer.  The list of problems is a mile long.  Any one of which will prevent the boat ever seeing the surface again.  The Chief proves to be an expert fixer and Johann gets to redeem himself.

"Take that, people who determine hull crush depth!"

CLOSING:   Surprise, the sub rises from the depths. 
Because God has a conscience, the trip back to La Rochelle is uneventful.  They come sailing into the base with smug looks that are quickly wiped off by a sudden and extremely ironic air attack that wreaks havoc and sinks the sub.  The sailor who had showed off the picture of his girlfriend is dead meat, but you did not have to take a walk on the cliché side to die.  This is one of the great final scenes in war movie history. 

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  If they like sweaty, sallow Germans.  The language and violence are not too graphic.  There is only one female character, the cabaret singer.  She’s more for the guys in the audience than their girlfriends.  Not exactly a role model.  The movie has a horror movie feel to parts of it, so there’s that aspect.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  Analyzing this movie for historical accuracy is problematic.  The film is based on a novel so it is hard to determine what in the novel is true.  The movie does follow the book closely which means the questions about accuracy focus on the book.  There was a U-96 and it was commanded by Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock for its first eight patrols.  He was the 6th highest u-boat ace based on tonnage.  He won the Iron Cross.  The submarine was credited with sinking 27 ships in 11 patrols.  Buchheim (Werner in the movie) was a Navy correspondent who was embedded for propaganda purposes.  It appears that the patrol he based the book on was the 7th one.  My research on that patrol shows that Buchheim enhanced the story quite a bit.  In fact, even if Buchheim used incidents from other patrols, it is still hard to find the incidents that appear in the book and in the movie.  The seventh patrol saw the sinking of only one freighter and one significant depth charging.  There was no Gibraltar incident on any of the patrols.  The u-boat sailed from St. Nazaire (the movie understandably used La Rochelle because the sub pens are intact there and were essential to the verisimilitude of the film).  It also returned to St. Nazaire, but not to the reception shown in the film.  U-96 was sunk under similar circumstances when the submarine pens at Wilhelmshaven were bombed in 1945. 

"What were the chances we would have trouble on the surface?"
So, what could have happened?  It seems likely the submariners partied hard considering the u-boat service had the highest mortality rate of any service in WWII for any country.  Adm. Donitz did make a habit of seeing off the individual boats.  The depressed vibe may be a bit laid on, but autumn 1941 was the first nonhappy time for the u-boats.  In 1941, convoys became more effective and more escorts came into play.  Also, anti-submarine technology improved with the use of ASDIC (sonar).  The movie implies that the u-boat war was on a path downward from then on, but in reality there was to be a second “happy time” with the entry of the U.S.  The vibe in the movie is more appropriate for 1943 when the Battle of Atlantic was clearly lost.  It seems unlikely that the depth of depression and cynicism would have sunk that low by autumn 1941.

  The movie accurately reflects the fear the pinging of sonar caused for the crew.  By this stage of the war, Ultra was being used to reroute convoys away from wolf packs.  Of course the U-96 would not have been aware of this and the movie makes no allusion to the code-breaking.  The movie does make a point of depicting the use of the Enigma machine to decode messages from submarine command.  The u-boat crews were noted for being outspoken in their cynicism and the Captain evidences that.    As far as the Nazi on board, this stock character has been criticized, but it seems likely there would have been someone like him on board.  Actually, I would have thought there would have been more than one fanatic.    While the incidents in the movie can be questioned, the u-boat is as real as it can get.  The movie interior was an exact copy of a Type VII-C on display in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

welcome home!
CRITIQUE:  The effort that went into this movie is amazing.  It reminds me of “Master and Commander”.  I already mentioned the interior, but there were also several models that were used for exterior scenes.  One was an eleven foot long model used for the ocean storms.  It was hollow and driven by a man laying inside on his stomach.  The same model was borrowed by Spielberg for “Raiders of the Lost Ark”.  There were dolls on the tower that were moved by remote control.  For the depth charge scenes, the interior mockup was on a hydraulic apparatus called a gimbal that allowed for realistic (even dangerous) hurling of bodies and objects.  The filming in this tight environment is incredible.  A special version of the steadicam was developed by cinematographer Jost Vacano who wore padding so he could move and not be hurt by encounters with the walls and hatchways.  One of the great war movie shots is when the crew rushes to the bow of the boat to speed the crash dive.   It is done in one continuous shot with no cuts.  The cinematography overall is great.  In the opening scene in the Bar Royal, Vacano has a long shot where the camera moves around the room to catch the revelry. 

join the u-boat fleet - get claustrophobia!
                   The acting matches the technical virtuousity.  The cast was relatively unknown even if Germany.  Most went on to good careers.  Prochnow is perfect as the Captain and Wennemann matches him as the Chief.  Gronemeyer is appropriately awed, wide-eyed, and terrorized by his experiences as the neophyte Werner.  Erwin Leder makes a good impression as Johann.  It was his first acting role and you won’t be able to forget his face.    The entire cast was serious about making the picture special.  They all agreed to avoid sunlight during the production to get the sallow look.  The movie was shot in sequence so the men’s beards reflected time at sea.  The actors went through a type of boot camp so they could maneuver through the cramped interior smoothly.

Look at their hands and tell me which one is the Nazi
                There have been many submarine movies.  It is a subgenre that has had great staying power and “Das Boot” (even though it is considered the last word on submarine movies) is not even the last example.  Hollywood still finds the cramped confines conducive to drama.  “Phantom” is just the latest proof that the subgenre will never die.  What makes “Das Boot” special is the way it gets the life of the submariners right.  The sailors behave as you would expect a German u-boat crew to behave.  Some veterans took umbrage with the crude language, but that seems revisionist and the book (by an ex-submariner) is even cruder.  No movie has depicted life on a WWII submarine better.  Any submarine.  At screenings in America, when the statistic of 30,000 German submariners dying appeared on the screen, the audience applauded.  By the end of the film, few rejoiced in the tragic exemplification of that stat.  You care about these men.  They are not the enemy.  Speaking of which, the movie does not cut to the anti-submariners.  U-96’s foes are faceless.

this is actually a model
                The plot is linear and somewhat episodic.  It builds nicely to its overt anti-war message.  It is not perfect, however.  The depth chargings are a bit repetitive with each topping the last.  By the end of the movie, the boat has had everything but the kitchen sink thrown at it.  The movie cannot escape some of the clichés submarine movies are noted for.  It is the opposite in all ways from “U-571”, but it is not flawless.  Judging from my earlier analysis of submarine cliches, it features two very common ones.  The sub has to go below “hull crush depth” and yet the hull is not crushed.  The sub withstands not one, but three depth chargings with the depth charges exploding alongside the sub.  Unrealistically close, by the way.  It does avoid several other tropes.  There is no command conflict.  The captain is no Ahab hunting his white whale.  Noone is left on deck during a crash dive and no debris and oil are released to fool the hunters.  Most importantly, the sub is on a routine patrol.  No special mission.

                The biggest problem with the movie is it is implausible in parts.  Some of the set-ups are trite.  The boat encounters the burning freighter to set up the emotional scene where they back away from the drowning victims.  The Captain threatens to shoot Johann so later he can redeem himself.  Redemption is a common theme in war movies, but it’s the captain’s threat that makes no sense.  I think he would have empathized with a fellow submariner who had been on numerous patrols.  My biggest problem with actions taken in the movie is with the captain’s decision to try to run through the strait on the surface.  That was an act of insanity by a leader who the movie has portrayed very positively before then.  This reminds me of how Captain Miller in “Saving Private Ryan” is a role model, but actually a moron tactically-speaking.  For a u-boat ace, the Captain sure likes to stay on the surface when there are hunters nearby.

CONCLUSION:  “Das Boot” is a very good movie, but it is not great.  I have to admit that in my opinion it is slightly overrated.  In the worthy attempt to be firmly anti-war, it has a narrative arc that is consistently downward.  Each episode is more depressing than the last until the twist of the ending.  In my opinion, the plot would have been more effective as a roller coaster ride than a downward spiral.  This does conform to the novel, but movies have the right to improve on their sources.  “Das Boot” would have been better if it had included some of the thrills of u-boat combat.  There is too much prey and not enough predator.  The torpedoing of the three enemy ships is given short shrift. The three depth chargings are not.  Is it the third greatest war movie of all time?  It is certainly in the top twenty, but not in the top five.


Acting  -  A
Action  -  7/10
Accuracy  -  B
Plot  -  B
Realism  -  B
Cliches  -  B-



                The movie tracks the novel closely.  It opens with the cabaret scene, but there is more talk of losses and miraculous escapes.  This better sets the tone of the dangers of being on a u-boat.  The party is much wilder than it is reenacted by the film.  The depth charge scenes are basically the same as in the book only shorter and the book is told from the perspective of one crew member – Werner.  This gives you an excellent feel for what he went through as the stand-in for the readers.  The movie is able to show multi-perspectives and the various efforts to make repairs.  Because of the visual nature of movies, you get to see what it must have been like to be on board a u-boat and you can imagine what is going on in their heads.  The movie leaves out some scenes, but nothing major.  Other scenes are condensed.  For example, the storm that the sub endures is much more lengthy in the book (65 pages covering a two week storm!).  Score one for the movie on this one.  The movie completely skips the return home after the Gibraltar disaster.  This is another good edit considering the highlights of that part of the voyage are not believable.  Speaking of editing, the book’s dialogue has a lot more sailors discussing sex.  I would have to say that in this case my theory that a war movie should be superior to the book it is based upon applies to “Das Boot”.  Buchheim has a tendency to drag passages on.  The storm scene in particular is redundant and gets to be boring.  The tweeks Petersen adds are improvements.  In the book, the Captain does not finish off the burning freighter and there is no dilemma about picking up survivors.  He adds the navigator being wounded in the air attack off Gibraltar.  In the book, no one is wounded on the patrol.  Other than those small or understandable changes, the movie is one of the best adaptations of a novel that you can hope to see.  It is hard to understand what Buchheim was upset about. 

the trailer


Thursday, July 10, 2014

WORLD CUP SPECIAL: Victory (1981)

                In honor of the upcoming World Cup final match, I thought it would be appropriate to review the only war soccer (sorry rest of the world, but that’s what I’m going to call it) movie that I am aware of.  Talk about a tiny subgenre.  It is my favorite movie that combines war (specifically the prisoner of war subgenre) and soccer.  I actually saw it long before I became a soccer coach.  I now use it in my Soccer P.E. class on rainy days.  The boys love it, what’s not to like?  It combines their favorite sport with war.

                The movie opens with an escaping prisoner being machine gunned while caught in the barbed wire surrounding the prison camp.  This abuses you of any thought that it might be a comedy.  There is no time frame given but it would appear to be 1942 as there is a reference to British successes in North Africa.  A German officer named Von Steiner (Max Von Sydow) proposes a match between a team of POWs led by a British officer named Colby (Michael Caine) and the German national team.  Both men are former professional soccer players.  Von Steiner seems sincere in just wanting to have an international match, but Nazi propagandists quickly see the potential for an ass-whipping display of Aryan superiority.  Von Steiner facilitates a fair match by allowing Colby’s squad to get special treatment and even gets Colby some emaciated and mistreated Eastern European stars from other prison camps.  Colby’s team includes a very talented Luis (Pele) from Trinidad.  It also includes a typically obnoxious, cocky, soccer-challenged Yank named Hatch (Sylvester Stallone).  The subplot of Hatch escaping from the camp is somehow blended into the soccer match plot which itself is morphed into a prison escape.  It is not as pretzely as you would anticipate.  All of this builds to the match in Colombe Stadium in Paris.  It is arranged for the team to escape at half-time, but will they flee as losers?

                “Victory” (also known as “Escape to Victory”) was one of John Huston’s ("The African Queen") last films.  I’m guessing most cinephiles are surprised to be reminded that he directed it.  In fact, movie has been long forgotten by most.  I was under the impression that it had bombed when it came out, but my research shows that it was a moderate success and even got mostly positive reviews.  It was filmed in Budapest because the city looked more like 1940s Paris than Paris did.  Budapest also had a 1940ish soccer stadium. 
a great soccer player, Stallone, and a great actor

                   The movie is technically proficient with a well-constructed three acre prison camp set.  The barracks are a bit too pristine, but the settings are realistic.  The cinematography is nothing special until the match where Gerry Fisher does a wonderful job lensing the action.  We get a mixture of close-ups, medium, and longer range shots that manage to avoid making the game look fake.  There is even some slow motion (like on Pele’s bicycle kick).  Quick cuts work perfectly to make the game look like a battle.  It also reduces the visuals that might have soccer fans crying fake.  The way the game is depicted is among the best cinema contests.  The game was choreographed by a former pro with input from Pele (who I would imagine was listened to when he spoke).  Amazingly, on a key foul that results in a penalty kick, I rewatched it and could not determine if it was a bad call.  That may not mean anything to a non-soccer fan, but trust me - I just gave the movie  a huge compliment.   There is absolutely no comparison to the soccer piece of crap in “The Boys from Company C”.  The score by Bill Conti is above average.  The theme rolling over the credits is old school reminiscent of “The Dam Busters” ilk.  The music matches the scenes well and rises to a crescendo in the match.

Because Brazil was not in the war yet,
Pele's character was from Trinidad
                The acting is much better than you would expect considering a large part of the cast is not actors, including Sylvester Stallone.  Seriously, Sly does some acceptable work here.  The role of a cocky American suits him and he certainly plays soccer incompetent well.  Caine is solid although way too old to play a soccer player.  The movie has eighteen international soccer stars appearing on screen.  Some are quite famous and this explains why the movie was a bigger hit overseas than in America.  They do fine and it does not come off as just stunt casting.  Pele is comfortable in front of the camera, but none of the others embarrass themselves.  Of course, it helps that they are on screen with Stallone.  I have to specifically mention Werner Roth who plays the German captain with verve.  Roth is in the National Soccer Hall of Fame and was a key member of the New York Cosmos back when teammate Pele was trying to bring soccer to America.  Special mention has to go to the crowd at the game.  Aside from the anachronistic clothing, they are as good as you could ask for.  I am sure they were grateful that Stallone was overruled when he insisted on scoring the winning goal.

Sly stopping a goal is infinitely more plausible
than him scoring one
                I was pretty shocked to find that a basis for the story could be posited, although it is unclear whether the screenwriters were aware of this.  There is no claim that it is based on a true story.  The seed could have been the mythical “Death Match” in the Ukraine in WWII.  The FC Dynamo Kyiv played some matches against German military units during the occupation.  They were undefeated and according to legend, after the last victory the team was arrested by the Gestapo and they were executed.  This extreme version of the story has been refuted by modern scholarship, but when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

According to a legend I am starting here, the ex-players
insisted the second half be played

                If you were to read a summary of the plot, you would shake your head and you would not green-light the production.  Somehow it works as light-weight entertainment.  Parts of it are implausible, but nothing is laughable.  It is not totally predictable and the end is crowd-pleasing without being cloying.  The game is above average and we all know how hard it is to realistically act out game action.  But the best thing I can say about it is repeat viewings have not made me question my sanity.  Is it more entertaining than a World Cup soccer match?  Decide for yourself. 

GRADE  =  B- 

the trailer