Saturday, January 31, 2015

SHORT STORY READALONG: "The Aviator" by Hornell Hart


This is the begging of my War Short Stories Readalong.  So here we go on our journey through some of the best war-related short stories.  First up - "The Aviator" by Hornell Hart.  It first appeared in a magazine called "Short Stories from Life" in 1916.  The story is about a French aviator who is attacking a Turkish fort in 1916.  It is apparently based on an incident in the Gallipolli Campaign. A French cruiser is bombardind the fort at night.  Meanwhile, the aviator is piloting his monoplane in an attempt to take out the powder magazine in the fort.  The refrain  "the French Government declines to accept your services" keeps running through his mind.  It appears that the hero was rejected by the military (Gen. Joffre) because of some diplomatic blunder.  Don't ask what a diplomat is doing flying a warplane or how he got the plane or why he would be using nitro-glycerine as an explosive.  Too much carping because the story is actually tres cool.  It has a smidge of Luke Skywalker taking on the Death Star.  The aviator is on a suicide mission to follow a searchlight to the powder magazine.  The story has a superbly ironic ending that is not like "Star Wars", but maybe is more realistic and certainly is more anti-war.   The story is very interesting and a good start for the readalong.  It is quite short, but you may have to read it twice because it has some subtle elements to it.  I read some other reader's views on it and some of them were wrong about what happens in the story.

GRADE =  A-

Next up -   The Battle of Lake Borgne - by George Cary Eggleston

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

HISTORY or HOLLYWOOD: Casualties of War (1989)


 
GUESS WHICH ARE HISTORY AND WHICH ARE HOLLYWOOD

1.       Meserve saves Eriksson’s life when he falls into a Viet Cong tunnel during a Viet Cong ambush.

2.       Meserve’s best buddy Brownie is killed by a grenade thrown by a farmer.  Eriksson hits a grenade with his grenade launcher.

3.       Meserve briefs the men on the mission.  They will go on a long range patrol to observe a Viet Cong camp.  He proposes kidnapping a Vietnamese girl for sex.

4.       The squad consists of Meserve, his crony Clark, the malleable Hitch, the new guy Diaz, and the moralistic Eriksson.

5.       They kidnap a girl from her hootch.  She is forced to carry a pack and is coughing a lot.

6.       Hitch shoots at a water buffalo that he mistakes for the enemy and Meserve chews him out.

7.       Eriksson stands up to Meserve who calls him a queer and threatens him with friendly fire.

8.       The rest of the squad take turns raping the girl including Diaz who reluctantly participates because peer pressure.

9.       Eriksson is left alone with the girl and is planning to leave with her when Clark returns.

10.    From their observation post overlooking the Viet Cong camp, Meserve orders Eriksson to kill the girl, then Hitch, then Diaz.

11.    Eriksson opens fire to halt the murder.

12.    Clark stabs the girl.

13.    There is a wild fire fight with numerous enemy casualties.  A gun boat arrives and is hit by friendly fire from helicopters.

14.    During the fire fight, the girl tries to escape down the train track.  Everyone except Eriksson open fire and she is killed and falls to the river bank.

15.    When Eriksson goes to Lt. Riley, Riley relates his baby at the hospital story and tells him “what happened is the way things are, so why try to buck the system?”

16.    Eriksson goes to Capt. Hill and is told that Hill is handling everything, but courts-martial are notoriously lenient.  He is very unsympathetic and mentions that Meserve did save Eriksson’s life.

17.    Clark attempts to frag Eriksson in the latrine and Eriksson confronts his tormentors with a shovel.

18.    Eriksson’s talk with a chaplain gets the courts-martial started.

19.    The four accused get various sentences with Meserve getting ten years hard labor for murder.

 THE ANSWERS

1.  Meserve saves Eriksson’s life when he falls into a Viet Cong tunnel during a Viet Cong ambush.  HOLLYWOOD  This crap was put in to start the movie with some action and establish that Meserve is a good soldier and Eriksson owes his life to him.

2.  Meserve’s best buddy Brownie is killed by a grenade thrown by a farmer.  Eriksson hits a grenade with his grenade launcher.  HOLLYWOOD  This scene was totally fabricated, but Eriksson did once hit a grenade with his grenade launcher.

        3.  Meserve briefs the men on the mission.  They will go on a long range patrol to observe a Viet Cong camp.  He proposes kidnapping a Vietnamese girl for sex.  HISTORY  Meserve felt the “boom boom” would be good for unit morale.  In reality, he added that they would kill the girl when they were done with her.

4.  The squad consists of Meserve, his crony Clark, the malleable Hitch, the new guy Diaz, and the moralistic Eriksson.  HISTYWOOD  The movie changed the names of the men and gave them Hollywood stock personalities.  There were actually five men on the mission.

5.  They kidnap a girl from her hootch.  She is forced to carry a pack and is coughing a lot.  HISTORY

6.  Hitch shoots at a water buffalo that he mistakes for the enemy and Meserve chews him out.  HISTYWOOD  The Hitch character did take a shot at a water buffalo, but Sgt. Gervase did not get upset.

        7.  Eriksson stands up to Meserve who calls him a queer and threatens him with friendly fire.  HISTORY

8.  The rest of the squad take turns raping the girl including Diaz who reluctantly participates because peer pressure.   HISTORY  No one showed any reluctance.

         9.  Eriksson is left alone with the girl and is planning to leave with her when Clark returns.  HISTYWOOD  Unbelievably, Storeby was left alone with the girl, but he did not try to let her escape.

         10.  From their observation post overlooking the Viet Cong camp, Meserve orders Eriksson to kill the girl, then Hitch, then Diaz.  HISTYWOOD  During the fire fight, Gervase and Thomas (Clark) began to worry that the girl would be spotted by Americans.  Gervase did not order several men to murder the girl.

         11.  Eriksson opens fire to halt the murder.  HOLLYWOOD

         12.  Clark stabs the girl.  HISTORY  Thomas took the girl into the bushes and stabbed her three times.

         13.  There is a wild fire fight with numerous enemy casualties.  A gun boat arrives and is hit by friendly fire from helicopters.   HOLLYWOOD  It was not much of a fight and only one enemy body was found afterwards.

          14.  During the fire fight, the girl tries to escape down the train track.  Everyone except Eriksson open fire and she is killed and falls to the river bank.  HISTYWOOD  The girl did try to escape, but Thomas chased her down and shot her in the head with his M-16. 

          15.  When Eriksson goes to Lt. Riley, Riley relates his baby at the hospital story and tells him “what happened is the way things are, so why try to buck the system?”  HISTORY 

           16.  Eriksson goes to Capt. Hill and is told that Hill is handling everything, but courts-martial are notoriously lenient.  He is very unsympathetic and mentions that Meserve did save Eriksson’s life.  HISTYWOOD  Hill did not so much cover up the crime as try to overlook it.  He was right about the probable result of a court-martial, but he was not belligerent and did not bring up Meserve saving Eriksson’s like because that had not happened.  Meserve did have a reputation as a good soldier.

          17.  Clark attempts to frag Eriksson in the latrine and Eriksson confronts his tormentors with a shovel.  HOLLYWOOD  There were some veiled warnings, but Storeby was transferred to a new unit as soon as he first told his story and there never was any attempt on his life.

          18.  Eriksson’s talk with a chaplain gets the courts-martial started.  HISTORY 

          19.  The four accused get various sentences with Meserve getting ten years hard labor for murder.  HISTORY  The movie covers the trials as one when actually there were four separate trials and Storeby was the lone prosecution witness at each.   The movie gets the sentences right, but De Palma curiously does not add a post script detailing the shameful reduction of the sentences.  All of the convicted spent substantially less jail time than they were originally sentenced to.  I was not able to find out why Gervase was not charged with rape.

 

RATING  =  .58

Saturday, January 24, 2015

CRACKER? Casualties of War (1989)


 
                “Casualties of War” is Brian De Palma’s entry into the Vietnam War movies competition.  It was based on an actual incident known as “the incident on Hill 192” which occurred in 1966.  De Palma wanted to make the movie after reading Daniel Lang’s article in The New Yorker in 1969.  Lang later turned the article into a book entitled “Casualties of War”.  The movie was filmed in Thailand where the local cuisine ravaged the cast.  The bridge used in the climactic scene was part of the Japanese Burma railway system of River Kwai fame.  The budget was $22 million and the box office was $19 million.  The movie was a hit with most critics and is considered by some to be one of the better Vietnam War films.

                The movie opens with a night patrol in which PFC Max Eriksson (Michael J. Fox) falls partly into a Viet Cong tunnel and has his about-to-be-stabbed life saved by his Sgt. Meserve (Sean Penn).  Eriksson is a cherry who wants to be friendly with the Vietnamese civilians in spite of what the veterans tell him.  Their point of view seems to be confirmed when Meserve’s best friend “Brownie” is killed when a farmer throws a grenade while the squad is relaxing near a “friendly” village.  Back at base camp, Meserve outlines a mission to scout a Viet Cong camp.  He proposes they make a side trip to a village to acquire a Vietnamese girl as a sex slave.  Eriksson is not on board for this, but the other members of the squad go along with it. Clark (Don Patrick Harvey) is Meserve’s henchman.  He is a bitter ass hole who hates “gooks”.  Hitch (John C. Reilly) is a hick who is easily manipulated. Diaz (John Leguizamo) is a new addition who just wants to get along. 

You wanna become a movie star youse
gotta learn to chew the scenery
                They kidnap a girl and take her with them.  They set up in an abandoned hootch and proceed to rape her.  Each takes a turn with Diaz participating due to peer pressure, but Eriksson refusing in spite of threats from Meserve and Clark.  The next day they locate the Viet Cong camp and set up an observation post to call in an air strike and a gun boat.  Meserve decides the girl must be killed.  The resulting atrocity leads to Ericksson bringing charges against the other members of the squad.  A court-martial results.

Thuy and Fox react to Penn's performance
                 Michael J. Fox does an outstanding job playing the naïve, moralistic Eriksson.  It is his best performance in my opinion.   John C. Reilly (his first film), Don Patrick Harvey (playing his usual typecast bad guy), and John Leguizama (his second role) are solid. Thuy Thu Le is remarkable as the doomed Oanh (it was her only acting credit). Plus we get the bonus of Dale Dye in a fiery take on ass-covering brass. The only problem is the scene-chewing of Sean Penn as Sgt. Meserve. The performance has been praised, but not by me. His hammy portrayal of the villain is distracting.  (See the poster.)  He plays Meserve as a retarded bully and made the “actor” decision to vocalize him as such.  Oscar please!  Imagine a movie where he is the weak link in a cast with three comedians in their first substantial dramatic roles. His emoting of faux grunt slang is the worst thing about the movie.  At one point he spouts the familiar “this is for fighting, this is for fun” but gets the hand gestures backwards!  This is typical of a script that seems to throw in grunt slang to establish realism, but comes off as trying too hard and has Hollywood actors mouthing words they obviously don’t understand.  Meserve refers to an enemy ambush as a “mad minute”, for instance.  (For those not familiar with Vietnam War slang, a "mad minute" was when an American unit fired all its weapons into the bush for a minute.)  More bizarrely, when they locate the enemy camp Hitch proclaims “there’s a bunch of them cruel-hearted little people.”  Huh?

Penn dreaming of his Oscar
                Although the soldier talk is lame, the rest of the script is powerful and the movie tells a story that needed to be told.  In fact, the story was so powerful that the movie could not have been made until well after the war.  De Palma adds some military justice to combat to produce a movie that is similar to “Paths of Glory” in that respect.  It is not in a league with that classic, but it does tell a true story well.  The cinematography is what you would expect from De Palma.  He uses deep focus, odd angles, and off center shots.  The rape scene is especially well done as a stationary camera from mid distance gives the outside looking in perspective.  The music is orchestral with a lot of pan flute and surprisingly no Vietnam era tunes.

Dale Dye:  Look here Fox - you can not carry
a blow up mattress on a patrol! 
 The movie does not avoid some common Vietnam movie clichés.  We get the required death of the clueless cherry and the authorities trying to cover up the atrocity.  One of the unit is looking forward to going home soon when he is killed.  The movie would have seemed even more clichéd if it wasn’t based on a true story.  The movie does track the book fairly well until the obligatory Hollywood insistence on a big set piece battle to satisfy combat junkies.  The enhancements are acceptable because the movie does bring to the screen a story that needed to be told.  The Eriksson character was a real hero even though he does not fit the usual war movie template of killing the enemy in heroic ways.  In a war like Vietnam, more should be made of the heroism of the soldiers who did not succumb to the corruption of that war.  Unfortunately, although De Palma obviously was trying to make a statement about that corruption, he dilutes his message by not adding a post-script about the Army’s wrist-slapping handling of the war crime.

Is it going to crack my 100 Best War Movies?  Probably not.  It is a must see movie and well done, but it is only in the middle of the pack of Vietnam War movies.

 

GRADE =  B
the trailer
 
Thuy Thu Le > Sean Penn
 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

NOW SHOWING: American Sniper


 
 
                “American Sniper” is based on the best seller by Chris Kyle which is the autobiography of the “most lethal sniper in U.S. Military History”.  Kyle served four tours in Iraq from 2003-2009 and had 160 confirmed kills.  The movie was directed by Clint Eastwood after Steven Spielberg considered doing it.  The Iraq scenes were filmed in Morocco and if you look carefully you will recognize a setting used in “Black Hawk Down”.  The movie is doing well at the box office and has received six Academy Award nominations:  Best Picture (but not director), Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing.  Bradley Cooper gained forty pounds for his role as Kyle by consuming 8,000 calories a day.

                The movie opens with the beefy hunk on sniper overlook from a roof top as a Marine patrol moves through the rubble of an Iraqi town.  He has to make a decision as a mother and her son approach the patrol with what looks like a Russian grenade.  Suddenly we flash back to Kyle as a child being preached to by his father.  Mr. Kyle tells his son there are three types of men:  the sheep, the wolves, and the sheep dogs.  Be a sheep dog and protect the sheep.  It takes a while for this to kick in as Kyle became a rodeo rider until a cuckolding and the embassy bombings in Africa causes him to enlist in the Navy SEALs.  SEAL training montage.  Their drill instructors are as taunt-creative as some of their best cinematic brethren.  Kyle meets his future wife Taya (Sienna Miller) in a bar and they would have lived happily ever after except for 9/11 which gives him the chance to do that sheep dog thing.  The movie now returns to the opening scene and we get to find out whether he shot the kid and mom.

                The rest of the film covers Kyle’s four tours and his awkward interludes at home.  Taya has two kids and would prefer he stay home and take care of his own sheep.  She is the classic whiny military wife who hates her country apparently.  Kyle is the classic war movie husband who lives by the war movie maxim:  bros before hoes.  In the Iraq scenes, we are made aware that Kyle is very good at his craft and soon his comrades are calling him “The Legend”.  Every white hat needs a black hat and Kyle gets his in an Iraqi sniper referred to as “Mustafa”.  Cue the sniper duel as every sniper movie fan knows that two is better than one.  A movie made by an arch-conservative also needs a hissable villain to bring a face to the ‘’savages”, as the Iraqi insurgents are called.  Kyle and his team of not Bradley Coopers are tasked to eliminate Al Zarkawi’s second in command “the Butcher”.  He may be second in command, but he is first in torturing.  The Butcher’s weapon of choice is a power drill!  (And all we did was water-boarding.)   The cat and mouse with the Butcher and the sniper duel coincide.  Along the way, a SEAL with little knowledge of war movie clichés talks about the ring he has bought for his impending proposal.  Guess who gets shot?  The movie builds to an Alamo reenactment in a sand storm.  “The fog of war” becomes “the sand storm of war”.  Credit Eastwood with a unique take on the “last stand” trope. 

                “American Sniper” is well made entertainment for the masses.  Eastwood uses his usual spare story-telling style and the movie has an Old School feel to it.  When the Kyle’s get frisky, they go in the bedroom and close the door behind them.  The movie is also unabashedly patriotic and supportive of the war in Iraq.  Eastwood inserts some support for religion (our religion) although he does not bludgeon us with it.  The cinematography is no frills with none of the hand held frenetics that mark most modern war films.  The sniper kills are visceral, but Eastwood does not indulge in sniper porn like most in the sniper subgenre.  We only see a few of Kyle’s 160 kills.  The movie was not made for 14 year old boys.  But unfortunately, it was made for main stream adults.  This means that it oversimplifies the themes for popular consumption.  Kyle chooses country over family, but eventually gets both.   Every return home develops the PTSD theme, but Kyle’s recovery is much too pat.  This does a disservice to the men who Kyle helped after he gave up the game.

                The movie is very well acted by the cast of Bradley Cooper.  I think there were some other actors in the movie.  There must have been.  To give you an idea of how Cooper dominates the movie and no one else is able to develop, there is an early scene that proposes that Kyle overlook an operation.  When the soldiers are going to go out of sight, Kyle (Cooper) disobeys orders and leads the ingress and personally interrogates the suspect and gets him to collaborate.  And by the way, why waste screen time on Kyle having a spotter to bond with?  The movie has virtually no scenes without Cooper in them.  I wonder why so many women are going see a war movie?

                The movie has given a big boost to the sales of the book.  This is partly I would think due to the fact that people like me come out of the theater wondering whether some of the key plot points are bull shit.  I plan to read the book and do a “History or Hollywood” post on it in the future, but for now I will say that it is fairly accurate.  Some of the things I thought were very likely Hollywood turned out to be artistic license.  For instance, the reason for his enlistment was different.  There was no boy involved in the Russian grenade incident.  There was a Butcher type figure in Iraq, but Kyle was not involved in a hunt for him.  Needless to say, there was no sniper duel.  I questioned the ability of a serviceman in Iraq to call his wife while on a mission and found that he actually did call

                 Taya while waiting for targets and once was interrupted, resulting in her listening to the noises of a fire fight and it was a traumatic experience as depicted in the movie.  However, the call where he tells her he is coming home never occurred.  On a minor note (but symbolic of how hero movies work), the movie ups the insurgent bounty on Kyle to $180,000 compared to the actual unimpressive $20,000 for any sniper.  On the other hand, the movie does get some things right.  This is especially true of the marriage dynamics and the PTSD (but not the resolution).

                I may have come off too harsh on a war movie that is competently done and tells the story of a true American hero.  It advances its themes well and the combat scenes are among the best in recent war films.  They are edge of the seat and nicely unpredictable.  Cooper deserved the Oscar nomination and the movie should be titled “Bradley Cooper’s American Sniper”.  Considering the paucity of war movies, it is a good addition to the genre.  It makes a good companion to “Lone Survivor” and shows that there are some good movies being made about our two most recent wars.  Maybe some people will become aware that we did fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.

GRADE  =  B