Sunday, July 24, 2016

CRACKER? The War Lord (1965)

                “The War Lord” is a different type of medieval movie.  It was a personal project for Charleston Heston who optioned the play “The Lovers” by Leslie Stevens.  He got Franklin Shaffner to direct it.  This was three years before he teamed up again with Heston for “Planet of the Apes” and five years before “Patton”.  The film was an attempt to bring a more authentically gritty view of the Middle Ages.  It is one of the rare medieval movies that are not epic in scope.  This might partly explain why it did not do well at the box office.

                Orson Welles narrates that in 11th Century Normandy powerful dukes ruled their lands and provided protection from Viking-like raiders called Frisians.  A knight named Chrysagon (Heston), fresh from a Crusade, has been given charge of a Druid village.  He and his band of knights-errant arrive just in time to kick some Frisian ass.  Chrysagon duels with the Frisian leader, but he gets away.  Chrysagon is less than thrilled with his task.  He and his men, including his brother Draco (Dean Stockwell) and his bro Bors (Richard Boone), look down on the Druids because of their pagan beliefs and the fact that they are peasants.  The knights occupy the keep that overlooks the village.  Small scale tale, small scale castle.

                Chrysagon meets the village hottie Bronwyn (Rosemary Forsyth) and he is so confused about his feelings for her that he does not rape her.  When her betrothed Marc comes to him for the customary permission to marry, Chrysagon reluctantly agrees.  Draco reminds Chrysagon of the “droit de seigneur” which gives nobles the right to sleep with a virgin bride first.  He thinks that is a good idea and promises to return her at dawn.  When the sun comes up and she does not come out, Chrysagon has a rebellious village on his hands.  A rebellious village that makes an alliance with the Frisians.  A rousing siege of the keep ensues.  Ladies, you get to watch Charleston Heston fight in his loin cloth!  Although anachronistic explosions are eschewed, we still get lots of fire. 

                This is a strange movie, especially for a movie that was made before the modern era of realism.  Chrysagon is not an anti-hero, but it is hard to tell whether we are supposed to view him as a hero.  Is it admirable that he refuses to rape a peasant girl?  Is he rewarded with her because of his restraint?  The romance that the movie is framed around is different, but not necessarily more realistic than in most medieval movies.  I am sure the movie does not want Bromwyn to be viewed as the villain, but she turns her back on a man that she seemingly was in love with and then betrays the entire village.  Both the central characters show little concern for the consequences of their actions.  This is justified by way of the common movie trope of “love conquers all”.

                There’s a lot to like in the movie.  The acting trio of Heston, Stockwell, and Boone is strong.  Less can be said for Forsyth.  She is in over her head and does little other than look lovely.  There is some interesting cinematography with some deep focus for the interior scenes and quite a bit of stationary camera scenes.  The music is almost continuous, but not pompous.  The action is what sets the movie on a higher plane than your typical medieval romance.  I was surprised to find that the movie does clearly fit into the war movie genre.  The assault on the tower is well done and shifts the movie into a higher gear midway through.  The stunt work is noteworthy.  There are a lot of falls in the film.  The deaths are not laughable and some are special.  One character is impaled by a tree!

                As far as accuracy, the movie deserves some kudos.  The interiors of the keep are authentically sparse.  The clothing is appropriate for the time period.   The knights wear chain mail, open-faced helmets, and carry kite shaped shields.  The siege tactics fit the scenario.  The besiegers use a battering ram and a siege tower.  The defenders respond with boiling oil.  There is a bit more use of bows by the defenders than would be common and the catapult hurling fire balls is pure Hollywood, but these can be forgiven.  The biggest groaner is the use of droit de seigneur to catalyze the drama.  It tosses in the qualification that the girl must be returned by dawn.  Not that this is the first or last time a movie will use this disproved myth to defame the nobility.  At least in 1965, the knowledge of this falsehood was not well-known, unlike the egregious “Braveheart” of 1995.  Other slurs on history include the fact that there would not have been a Druid village in France by  this time.  But then we would not get to see what Hollywood imagined a Druid wedding celebration was like. Lots of dancing, drinking, and wanton sex.  Basically a frat party.  The Frisians were no longer raiding France in the 11th Century, but at least they don’t have horns on their helmets.

                Although the movie has a mixed record on historical facts, it gets a lot of credit for the bigger picture of medieval life.  It goes out of its way to be realistic on some aspects of the feudal system.  It clearly depicts the gap between the nobility (even lowly knights) and the peasants.   More rare is the noble family dynamics that are dramatized.  (The movie is not in a league with “The Lion in Winter”, but what movie is?)  Draco is seething with resentment toward his older brother because being the eldest gave you all the advantages.  In general, the movie does a fair job of showing how unglamorous the time was.  Seamy in a 1965 allowable way, of course.

                Does it end up on my 100 Best War Movies list?  Possibly.  It certainly belongs on a list of the Top Ten Medieval War Movies.  Not that there is a lot of competition.

GRADE  =  B-  

Thursday, July 21, 2016

“BASED ON A TRUE STORY”, REALLY? “In Pursuit of Honor” (1995)

                “In Pursuit of Honor” is a well-intentioned HBO film about the U.S. Army’s horse cavalry in the bleak days of the Depression.  It purports to tell the tale of the rescuing of a herd of cavalry horses scheduled to be exterminated as the Army makes the transition to mechanized units.  The movie claims to be “based on a true story” and seems reasonably believable upon viewing.  It was filmed in Australia and no horses were harmed in the production – just like in reality.

                The movie opens with the Bonus March in Washington, D.C. in 1932.  Hundreds of veterans were in the capital hoping to get their WWI bonuses early due to the Depression.  The doughboys had set up a shantytown and when Congress turned them down, the Army was ordered to clear them out.  A unit of cavalry was lined up to carry out Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s strong-arm tactics.  Sgt. Libbey (Don Johnson) and three of his comrades (all named after characters in John Ford’s “Fort Apache”) refuse to participate and they are relieved by Maj. Hardesty (Bob Gunton).  Flash forward to a dingy Western post where Libbey and his buddies are in limbo.  A new arrival is Lt. Buxton (Craig Sheffer) who is there for assaulting an officer.  The officer deserved it, of course.  It is not Hell until the Devil arrives in the form of Lt. Col. Hardesty.  Hardesty brings with him the new cavalry in the form of some tanks.  The hand-writing is on the stable wall.  The men are told to turn in their sabers and get rid of their excess horses, which means all the horses.  Libbey: “There’s nothing left.  No horses. No cavalry. No honor”.

                Hardesty twirls his mustache as he orders the horses herded to Mexico to be machine gunned in a pit.  You know those Mexicans and their love of horse carcasses.  After a horrific scene depicting the machine gunning of the first hundred horses, Buxton convinces Libbey and his buddies to abscond with the rest of the herd.  For some reason they decide to make a run for Canada instead of simply going deeper into Mexico.  Huh?  The villainous Hardesty is in luke-warm pursuit and manages to catch up with them right at the border.

                On first thought, the movie appears to be a nice little curio about a forgotten episode in American History.  The acting is good with Johnson dominating and Rod Steiger harrumphing in a slumming role.  The rest of the cast is B-movieish, but adequate.  Gunton is well cast as the cartoonish Hardesty.  Most nudge-worthy is an early career turn by Gabrielle Anwar of “Burn Notice” fame.  Her character has a lame romance with Buxton.  Someone has to love humans.  The movie has the inspirational music to match the theme. The scenery is not as awesome as one would expect and there is not a lot of action to compensate for it.  It’s just a nice little movie that is unfortunately marred by the fact that it has no facts.

                It will come as no surprise to history buffs that Hollywood sometimes stretches the truth with its “based on a true story” claim.  In this case, I would have to cry “shenanigans” on that claim for this movie.  Sometimes I am pleasantly surprised to find that seemingly unbelievable stories have some basis in fact.  This movie is the rare opposite.  It turns out virtually nothing that happens in the movie is true.  The Army did transition to tanks, but not as suddenly and not that early.  There is no evidence to support the events in the film.  No horses were killed to reduce the force.  That would have made no sense economically or humanely.  Also making no sense was taking the horses to Mexico to kill them and then all the way to Canada to save them.  If you are going to get your script ideas from a drunken retired cavalryman, you should be more circumspect.  Worse, the movie defames MacArthur.  Now I am not a big MacArthur fan, but I draw the line at accusing him of being a mass murderer of horses. 

                My research definitely colored my opinion of the movie.  It’s a C+ first impression and a D upon further review.  More importantly, I’ll never trust Hollywood again.

GRADE =  D  

Monday, July 18, 2016

FORGOTTEN GEM? The Last Valley (1970)

                “The Last Valley” is a movie set in the Thirty Years’ War.  It was written and directed by James Clavell and is based on the novel by J. B. Pick.  It was shot in Austria.  Although you would think the public was pining for a movie about the Thirty Years’ War, the movie was a flop.  It turns out that people did not care about a complex religious war in Germany in the 17th Century.  Go figure.

                A former teacher named Vogel (Omar Sharif) escapes from a hellish landscape of raping, looting, and murder to find refuge in an isolated village in a picturesque valley that is untouched by the war.  This paradise is about to be sullied with the arrival of a mercenary band led by “the Captain” (Michael Caine).  Vogel suggests they agree to a d├ętente with the villagers.  When one of the men questions this wimpy attitude, the Captain stabs him – end of discussion.  The villagers know the alternative to sharing their village and themselves (if they are women) is worse than any alternatives so they make the best of the situation.  Talk about dysfunction.  Throw in the religious fanaticism and you get a gooey mess.  The movie is not content to explore the obvious Catholicism versus Protestantism angle of the war.  We get a fanatical priest and a witch!  Someone (or two) are headed for a burning at the stake. 

                All this fellowship must come to an end, however.  One of the mercenaries has a dispute with the Captain and returns to the valley with another crew.  There is a mediocre battle that features uncanny accuracy from muskets.  The village sides with their thugs over these unknown thugs.  When spring approaches, it’s time for the boys to get back to work.  There is a siege going on that promises looting and killing.  This live and let live stuff has gotten old.

                I have not read the book so I cannot compare it to the screenplay.  I would hope it makes more sense than the film.  Maybe that was intended because God knows the war made little sense.  You will not learn much about the war from the movie.  You do get the accurate impression that the war was a conflict between Protestants and Catholics.  You also learn that neither religion was in the right.  The ignorant peasants are full of religious ignorance and superstition.  The mercenary nature of the warfare is also highlighted.  And the nasty nature.  At least they are using authentic weaponry.  

                This is a pretty bleak movie.  None of the characters is likeable.  I think the Captain is supposed to grow on you and he does, like a fungus.  In fact, there are several schizophrenic characters.  It does not help that the acting is poor.  Caine and Sharif are solid, but the rest of the cast is weak.  They make up for this with being incredibly well-groomed for the 17th Century.

                In conclusion, this could have been a good movie on a war that deserves at least one decent film.  Unfortunately, the movie tries to do too much and throws in too many diverse characters.  The symbolism of the idyllic valley that is eventually poisoned by the reality of human nature is a bit trite.  Hammering the theme that all religion is bad is also trite.  It also tries too hard to be anti-war.  You don’t have to try hard if you are dealing with possibly the worst war in history.


Friday, July 15, 2016

FORGOTTEN GEM? “The Bunker” (1981)

            There are several movies about the last days of Hitler.  “The Bunker” was a made for TV movie that premiered in 1981.  It was based on the nonfiction book by James O’Donnell.  O’Donnell was a Newsweek correspondent who was in occupied Berlin at the end of the war.  He bribed his way into the Bunker and snooped around, even taking some top secret documents.  He made it a goal to tell the definitive story of Hitler’s death.  His substantial research included numerous interviews with people associated with the Fuhrer in the last days.  The most obvious comparison of this movie is to “Downfall” so some of this review will delve into similarities and differences.

  The movie opens with O’Donnell (James Naughton) entering the Bunker and vowing to tell the tale.  The film then flashes back to Hitler’s arrival at the site.  This bunker is a lot more bright and pristine than the one in “Downfall”.  Instead of centering the movie on the secretary Traudl, it uses multiple viewpoints.  The most notable is that of Albert Speer (Richard Jordan).  Speer is something of a hero (which would conform to his memoirs) and not only argues with Hitler on his plans to destroy the German infrastructure, but he plots to assassinate his boss.  The main villain is Martin Boorman (Michel Lonsdale).  Anthony Hopkin’s Hitler is a lot less sympathetic than Bruno Ganz’s.  He is not portrayed as evil either.  He’s tired and dazed.  The crucial scenes like the wedding, the killing of the Goebbel’s kids, and the Adolf and Eva suicides are similar in both movies.

“The Bunker” is not bad for a made for TV movie.  It is accurate enough to have given the television audience the basics on Hitler’s death.  Some of the dialogue was improvised, but that is acceptable.  There are some controversial (if you are a historian) interpretations of incidents.  For instance, when Speer tells Hitler that he has not carried out his scorched earth plan, Hitler reacts as though he is not surprised.  The acting is fine, with Hopkins dominating of course.  He is not on the same level of Ganz, but he did win an Emmy and his interpretation of Hitler may actually be more realistic.  One major complaint is the sets are too phony looking.  You don’t quite get the desperation that the visuals should imply.  On the other hand, the Bunker is much emptier and quieter in the last few days.  That is probably closer to reality than “Downfall”.

                In conclusion, “The Bunker” is a sincere effort to cover an important and fascinating event in history.  It served a purpose until 2004 when “Downfall” replaced it as the definitive account of the event.  It’s still worth watching as a companion to “Downfall”.  Concentrate on how the same historical event can be variously interpreted.