Tuesday, February 9, 2016

BEST / WORST: 2015

                I’m a little late on this, but here is my annual post on the best and worst war movies I reviewed this past year.  After five years, I am still seeing some excellent war films for the first time.  I am also seeing a higher percentage of terrible war movies.  Goes with the territory, I guess.  Here are the top five war movies I saw last year:

5.  Stalingrad, Dogs Do You Want To Live Forever? -  This  is a micro and macro view of the famous battle seen through German eyes.  It is close to being a documentary as far as teaching about the battle.  It covers the period after the Soviet double envelopment.  It gets the rubble and the snow right.  It’s a bit clicheish with the good German versus the bad German and has a bit of an “Attack!” feel to it.   There is an interesting romance thrown in and the combat is excellent.  It is the best movie about the Battle of Stalingrad.

4.  Theirs Is the Glory -  This British war movie is about Operation Market Garden.  It is the grunt level view as opposed to “A Bridge Too Far”.  It concentrates on the British forces trapped in Arnhem.  Many actual British paratroopers act in the movie giving it a unique realism.  The action is amazing and the movie is admirably accurate.

3.  City of Life and Death -  This Chinese movie is about the infamous “Rape of Nanking”.  It concentrates on the Chinese civilians who take refuge in the Safety Zone.  The main Japanese character is a soldier who is a controversially sympathetic figure.  The movie also has roles for John Rabe and Minnie Vautrin – two foreigner who attempted to save as many innocent Chinese as possible. It highlights the plight of the “Comfort Women” and the terrible atrocities committed by the Japanese army.  There is a nice balance of drama and combat.  The cast is excellent and the acting is stellar.  This is a must-see about a must-know-about event in history.

2.  "71 -  I was lucky to see this gem in a theater in Austin.  Although it got amazing reviews, it did not break nationwide.  It is set in during “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland.  The main character is a British soldier who gets cut off from his unit in ravaged Belfast.  He spends a night caught between a corrupt British counterinsurgency unit and two factions of the IRA. The plot has touches of Homer's Odyssey in it.  This movie kicks ass in its action scenes and is full of adrenaline-fueled suspense.  It is full of memorable characters and scenes.  This was by far the best war movie that was released last year and the most accessible to an adult male audience.

1.  The Brest Fortress (2010)

                “The Brest Fortress” (“Fortress of War”) is a Russian film about the famous defense of Brest Fortress in the opening days of Operation Barbarossa in WWII.  It was directed by Alexander Kott and had strong input from the Brest Fortress Museum.  The film chronicles the defense of three separate strongholds within the fortress.  The movie was made “in memory of the fortress heroes”.

                The movie is told in flashback form based on the memories of a then teenage boy named Sasha (Alexey Kaposhov).  Sasha and his older brother are orphans who are in the Soviet Army and stationed at the fortress.  Besides the fortress defenders, their families live within the walls.  Life is normal until the German invasion of the Soviet Union takes the fortress completely by surprise.  The first inkling that they are at war is when a savage air bombardment pummels the fortress.  Several buildings are blown up as people run around like chickens with their heads cut off.  Soon after, the German army arrives.   When the civilians attempt to flee, they are machine gunned.  The siege has begun and it will not be the cake walk the Germans anticipated.

                The movie concentrates on the defense of four strongpoints and the commanders of each.  Political commissar Fomin (Pavel Derevyanko) is in charge of the Kholm Gate.  Regimental commander Gavrilov (Alexander Korshuvov) commands at the Eastern Fort and defense of the 9th Frontier Outpost falls to Lt. Kizhavatov (Andrey Merzlikin).  Another force holds out in a barracks.   The Germans assault all four positions, leading to some intense combat.  The Germans use tanks, artillery, and flamethrowers to try to whittle down the defenders.  Through all this Sasha moves through the maelstrom seeking his girlfriend Anya and taking part in the fighting.  He serves as the framing device as he connects the isolated forces. 

                “Brest Fortress” has been on my list of movies to watch for some time, but I did not assign high priority to it.  However, as I am working through the last stages of my project to determine the 100 Best War Movies, it finally was time to view it.  I have been pleasantly surprised lately to find that after having reviewed hundreds of war movies, there are still some outstanding movies I have not seen yet.  This is one of those movies. 

                I was not familiar with the Defense of Brest Fortress so the movie was not only entertaining, but educational.  I suppose every country has its famous ill-fated siege.  Brest Fortress is the Russian equivalent of the Alamo.  Sieges are grist for war movies because of the potential for cinematic drama.  “Brest Fortress” maximizes this by tapping in to the personal elements of the story.  Not only is there the romance between Sasha and Anya, but there is another couple that is tragically impacted by the German assault.  The fact that families were caught in the siege adds a dimension that you don’t get in movies like “The Alamo”.  There is a strong human dimension to the film.  The decision to concentrates on the leaders of the strong-points was wise.  Each of these characters is distinctive and compelling.  The key to the movie is the Sasha character.  His arc is the glue tying together the various battle sites.  His quest to find his girl friend in the midst of the turmoil brings the audience into the story.  It helps that the acting is solid.  There is no scene chewing.  The dialogue is natural.  This is not a propaganda film.  The Germans are evil, but it is their actions, not the soldiers themselves.  There are no German characters in the film to speak of.

                Although the movie does a great job personalizing the siege, the movie is most memorable for its quantity and quality of combat.  The opening air bombardment is the best I have seen.  The first fire fight sets the stage with slo-mo, graphic wounds, hand-to-hand, and extreme action.    It reminded me of the Korean style of movies like “Tae Guk Gi”, but it is also similar to the Russian film "9th  Company”.  There are several frenetic action scenes.  Unlike many war movies, the deaths are not ridiculously unrealistic.  And if you like explosions, this movie blows things up real good.  There is even a two ton kilogram bomb that results in a humongous explosion.  The German use of flamethrowers is not for the squeamish. 

                SPOILER ALERT:  The movie does a great job of retelling the Defense of the Brest Fortress.  This was the first encounter between the Soviets and the German invaders in Operation Barbarossa.  The movie clearly depicts the shameful lack of warning the Soviet defenders got when Stalin had knowledge that the invasion was coming.  The fortress had a garrison of 9,000 men and 300 families.  The air bombardment was devastating and was followed immediately by assault from 20,000 Germans.  The defenders were isolated into the four positions shown in the film.

5.  Ardennes Fury -  This is a mockbuster from the folks at The Asylum movie studio.  It went direct  to DVD for obvious reasons.  It is set in the Battle of the Bulge.  An American tank crew is cut off and has to deal with an evil German.  Very low budget with sincere, but challenged actors.  Full of clichés and laugh out loud moments.  Add a six pack and it is sort of entertaining.

4.  Top Gun -  One of the worst insanely popular war movies ever. “Pearl Harbor” with unintentional laughs.  A movie that was made to be parodied.  A movie where the best acting is by the F-14 Tomcats.  The movie that brought us the Tailgate Scandal.  The movie that brought us homoerotic male volleyball.

3.  Saints and Soldiers:  Airborne Creed -  The second in the series and a huge disappointment after the first.  American paratroopers are dropped into Southern France as part of Operation Dragoon.  A few of them are making their way back to their unit when they hook up with a French Resistance group that includes a sexy female sniper.  There is a lot of walking and talking in the film.  Everything is below average.  There is no sense of urgency and no suspense.  It is very predictable and a waste of time.

2.  Fire Fox -  An unbelievable perfect shit storm from the usually reliable Clint Eastwood.  He was in his prime as an action hero when he directed and starred in this turkey.  Clint is a PTSD-plagued Vietnam veteran who is recruited to go undercover with little training into the Soviet Union to steal a top secret, next generation fighter plane.  The whole plot is beyond preposterous.  To top it off, Clint does a poor acting job.

1.  Sky Fighters  (2005)

                “Sky Fighters” is France’s answer to “Top Gun”.  It was directed by Gerard Pires.  He got cooperation from the French Air Force including their top gun fighters.  The movie opens with the supposed theft of a Mirage 2000 from an air show.  The two ace / fighter jock / buddy / heroes are recruited for a special anti-terrorist fighter jet unit.  They pair off with two sexy fighter jockettes.  (Spoiler alert:  they keep their clothes on.)  Eventually they have to deal with Middle Eastern terrorists who want to blow up a tanker above a European Summit meeting in Paris.  To give you an idea of how ridiculous the movie is, there is a scene where one of the aces uses a sonic boom to blow out windows so his captured ami can get loose and he can land and pick him up.  There’s a mole thrown in for suspense and cliché purposes.  

              This movie could not have been worse if it starred Tom Cruise.  Speaking of which, the acting is terrible.  The plot is hard to follow (the opposite of “Top Gun”, but not an improvement).  It does have some excellent aerial photography and some wonderful scenery.  The dogfighting is a plus, but there is only ten minutes of it.  Surprisingly, no CGI was used.  This does not overcome an overdose of stupid.  There is no realism in this film, starting with the premise that France has some competent pilots. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

FORGOTTEN GEM? Guns at Batasi (1964)

                “Guns at Batasi” is a British war movie directed by John Guillermin (“The Blue Max”).  It was based on the novel The Siege of Battersea by Robert Holles.  It was filmed at Pinewood Studios in the United Kingdom.  It has a cast of venerable British war movie stars and one up and coming sexpot.  Actually, Mia Farrow’s role was supposed to be played Britt Ekland, but newlywed husband Peter Sellers did not trust her to avoid the charms of John Leyton.  Leyton was a pop star and was coming off his performance as the dreamy Willie in “The Great Escape”.

                The movie takes place in an undisclosed African nation which most likely is Kenya.  Or some other nation prone to a coup d’etat.  I guess that means it could have been any African nation.  As far as the imperial power, it doesn’t take the accents to figure that it’s Great Britain.  The action takes place on a military base.  The country is newly independent and word arrives to turn over command to the senior African officer.  Into this awkward transitional phase comes a liberal Member of Parliament named Miss Barker-Wise and her sexy secretary Karen (Farrow).  At a dinner, the MP spouts about the Africans ruling themselves. Since the movie was released in 1962 one can imagine half the audience shaking their heads and half nodding theirs.  The British officers harrumph at her enlightened political views.  Especially Regimental Sergeant Major Lauderdale (Richard Attenborough).  He is a martinet and a blowhard.  If this was an American movie, he would be the villain.

                Before the new government can even begin to be corrupt, there is a mutiny in the army.  A traitor among the African soldiers at the base arrests the British commanding officer and his men lay siege to the barracks where the dinner is taking place.  A wounded African officer named Abraham has taken refuge with the Brits and they are not disposed to turn him over to sure execution.  All this turmoil really puts a crimp into the lame romance brewing between Karen and Private Wilkes (Leyton).  So the coup does have a positive side.  Lauderdale takes charge because in a situation like this you want a proper bastard.

                “Guns at Batasi” is short and sweet.  It means to tap into the debate over the fall of the British Empire.  Lauderdale represents the Winston Churchill wing and Barker-Wise represents the Clement Atlee wing.  The movie comes down on the side of Lauderdale, but Barker-Wise does get to tear him a new one at the dinner.  She perceptively accuses him of being a weapon that can’t wait to be fired.  The movie does not demonize the Africans, although it is a bit patronizing.  In an interesting touch, the African language is not subtitled.  The movie does not have a lot of action so the entertainment value is almost totally due to the very appealing cast.  The dialogue matches the performers.  There is some typically dry British humor. 

                Forgotten gem?  It is entertaining, but not a must-see.

GRADE  =  B             

Thursday, January 28, 2016

CRACKER? Theirs Is the Glory (1946)

                “Theirs Is the Glory” is a unique war movie.  It reenacts the British participation in Operation Market Garden.  It was “produced entirely without the use of studio sets or actors.  Every incident was either experienced or witnessed by the people who appear in the film.”  Everyone in the 200 person cast was either a British soldier who participated in Operation Market Garden or a Dutch civilian who lived through the battle.  The veterans were paid three pounds per diem.  They had a lot of input in the action and dialogue.  Director Brian Desmond Hurst (“Malta Story”) was a veteran of the Gallipoli Campaign of WWI.  He considered the movie to be his finest achievement in a stellar career. It was a labor of love. The filming began one year after the battle on the actual sites.  The premiere occurred on the two year anniversary of the battle and was attended by the Prime Minister.  A private showing was provided for King George VI.  The film was a huge hit in Great Britain and was the top grossing film for a decade.

What do you mean there's a Panzer division nearby?
                The movie opens with a view of the destroyed bridge at Arnhem.  A montage of sites familiar to students of the battle follow.  The Operation Market Garden plan is outlined via a map.  Several paratroopers in a barracks are identified by the narrator.  The campaign begins with an armada of gliders and transports dropping paratroopers.  Upon reaching the Arnhem Bridge, a flamethrower sets off ammunition and a mixed bag of Germans are taken captive, but the bridge cannot be taken.  The unit at the bridge is cut off from the main body that ends up surrounded at Oosterbeek.  The rest of the movie consists of the last stands of both these bodies of men.

                This is a gem of a movie.  It is unique in using the actual participants in an historical event.  Surprisingly, the “actors” do a commendable job.  They are obviously not professionals, but they are still better than many B movie actors.  Notice how they duck and flinch at explosions like they have been there before.  They have also seen enough death to know how a soldier dies.  No one throws his hands in the air and twirls around.  The dialogue is natural as is to be expected from men who had input in what they say because they may have said it.  One unfortunate decision was not to identify the men.  Only keen students of the battle will recognize Majors “Freddie” Gough and “Dickie” Lonsdale, for instance.  Look closely and you will see Kate ter Horst (the Liv Ullmann character in “A Bridge Too Far”) reading psalms to the wounded.
Set up Montgomery's reviewing stand over there

                The movie is an amazing blend of footage and reenactments.  Basically, whenever anyone speaks it is a reenactment.   A narrator provides the documentary feel and also does a great job informing.  The narration is sincere, but not treacly.  Maps are used well.  A nice touch is the use of an embedded war correspondent to give eye-witness accounts of what is happening within the Oosterbeek perimeter. 
                If the acting is satisfactory, the action is outstanding.  And there is a lot of it!  The bitter aspects of a last stand against overwhelming odds is reenacted with verve.  There is some realistic tank action and excellent bomb effects.  The only false note has a Brit throwing a grenade to silence a German broadcasting a surrender demand.  It stands out in a movie that is a sober portrayal of the hell of war.  There are some emotional deaths in the movie and one can assume they were emotional for the reenactors.  The movie ends by returning to the barracks to inform that most of the paratroopers did not return.
Hello, Monty - I have some bad news

                “Theirs Is the Glory” is as good as it gets when it comes to telling the story of the British 1st Airborne’s role in Market Garden.  It honors the participants.  It is not a propaganda puff piece, but it does leave out a few details that would slightly mar the theme.  The movie is mostly free of reference to the mistakes the campaign is famous for.  There are no communications problems in the film, for instance.  There is only brief mention of Gen. Urquhart being cut off from his men for crucial hours and no mention about the flaws in the overall plan.  There is no controversy, not surprisingly.

                “Theirs Is the Glory” has often been compared favorably to “A Bridge Too Far” as though one must choose between them.  In reality, they are both great movies and when paired do complete justice to the campaign and the men who participated in it.  “Bridge” gives the big picture and “Glory”concentrates on just Arnhem and Oosterbeek.  I strongly suggest you watch “Bridge” first and use “Glory” as an addendum.  Whatever order you choose, watch both because they both are among the 100 Best War Movies.


Saturday, January 23, 2016

CRACKER? Hanoi Hilton (1987)


                     A recent post on Face Book reminded me that I still had not posted my review of "Hanoi Hilton".  The post was about Jane Fonda and her horrible treatment of prisoners of war when she visited Hanoi during the Vietnam War.  I am no fan of Jane Fonda.  My father flew an F-105 fighter-bomber in the war.  I lived in Japan for three years while he was doing this.  My father harbored a hatred for Hanoi Jane because of her support for the people he fought against.  He partially passed this on to me, but I never went to the extent of never watching a movie with her in it.  Still, seeing her sitting in the seat of an anti-aircraft gun whose purpose was to shoot down my dad is hard to forgive.  With that said, my extensive reading on the war tempers my view of her because the war was a mistake and I am not a blind patriot.  She certainly can be taken to task for her method of voicing her opinions.  The fact is that the post accused her of heinous actions that she did not commit.  There is a character in this movie that reenacts some of the calumnies.

                “Hanoi Hilton” is a prisoner of war movie about the infamous North Vietnamese prison.  It was directed by Lionel Chetwynd.  It came out the same year as “Full Metal Jacket”, “Good Morning, Vietnam”, and “Hamburger Hill” and got lost in the wake of those other films.  It was an example of the backlash against the cynical, anti-grunt films like “Platoon” and “Full Metal Jacket”.  All of the characters are fictional, but the movie purports to enlighten the audience about the mistreatment of American prisoners.  It covers the entire history of American internment at the Hoa Lo Prison.

                 The movie’s main character is a Lt. Williamson (Michael Moriarty) who gets shot down early in the war.  Before that, he is interviewed and proclaims that we are in Vietnam to help the South Vietnamese get their freedom.  The movie says nothing to contradict this belief.  When Williamson is captured, his co-pilot is shot in the head.  This movie is not going to show empathy for the North Vietnamese.  Williamson is taken to the Hanoi Hilton where he finds out that because there was no declaration of war, the Geneva Conventions do not apply.  He is a war criminal.  The first torture is a dry shave.  A variety is yet to come.  These include shock treatment, beatings, and sitting on a pile of bricks.  At one point a group of prisoners is marched through the streets of Hanoi and it becomes a gauntlet with civilians assaulting the Americans. 

                Williamson interacts with other prisoners who are all dealing with the dilemma of when and whether to answer the questions.  How much torture is enough to justify telling the torturers what they want to hear?  Unfortunately, some of the torture is to break the prisoners.  A guy is whipped for yelling when a rat crawls on him.  Another is killed because of an escape attempt.
Don't worry, Jane Fonda is coming to get us out

                The movie has two themes.  The captors are evil and manipulating the prisoners for propaganda purposes.  The commandant tells the prisoners that the media coverage of their confessions will help win the war.  The guards are hissable with the volume turned up to 11 with a Cuban interrogator who kills a Puerto Rican who refuses to betray the USA.  Equally loathsome are the liberal media.  A Jane Fonda type wants the men to apologize and ignores tales of mistreatment.  And don’t forget the home front stabbing the men in the back as they do their duty to their country.  At one point the guards pipe in coverage of hippies protesting.  A new prisoner tells the men that most Americans consider them to be fascists.

                “Hanoi Hilton” is the counterpoint to all those Vietnam War movies that cast aspersions on the American war effort and the men carrying it out.  Although from a different subgenre (POW film), it’s most close kindred soul is “Hamburger Hill”.  Hmmm, both have double H’s.  They both portray the Americans as simply doing their duty under difficult circumstances and being betrayed by the home front.  Having read extensively on the war, I can see both the hawkish viewpoint and the dove perspective.  There is a place for both among Vietnam War movies.  There is room for “Hamburger Hill” and “Platoon”.  Needless to say with Hollywood being what it is on the political spectrum, there are quite a few more movies that are cynical toward the war.  It is a shame when a movie like “Hanoi Hilton” botches the attempt to balance the scale.  It takes a worthy subject and bludgeons it.

                It is no wonder the movie got lost in the 1987 box office duel.  It looks second tier.  The cast is B-list and is not memorable.  Moriarty was not a good choice for the lead.  He is too tepid in a role that could have used some emoting.  In fact, one surprise of the movie is the lack of scene-chewing, but sometimes the opposite can be almost as bad.  For a movie about mistreatment of prisoners, the movie is curiously flat.  This may be because most of the torture is implied.  The movie is not graphic.  Weirdly, Williamson does not seem to be terribly mistreated in his eight years in the camp.  In other words, Moriarty was given no chance for an Oscar campaign.

                The biggest flaw is the ham-handed steamrolling of its themes.  The movie is too anti-anti-war.  Jane Fonda is a cheap target and pushes buttons with the intended audience, but why not be factual in her depiction.  In fact, the decision to have all fictional characters was a perplexing and poor one.  Throwing in the hippies and a detestable Cuban was overreaching.  A documentary style film about the prison would have been better.  As it is, one is left to question how accurate the movie is in depicting the treatment.  A neutral viewer could easily watch this poorly made movie and blow it off as conservative propaganda.

                How historically accurate is it?  The Williamson character was probably based on Lt. Edward Alvarez, Jr.  He was the first American taken prisoner and spent almost the entire war in the Hoa Lo Prison.  The North Vietnamese did not honor the Geneva Conventions with the excuse that the Americans were war criminals fighting an illegal war of aggression.  The torture included rope bindings, iron foot stocks, beatings, and solitary confinement.  The movie does show a variety of methods, but is not graphic enough.  The gauntlet scene was based on the infamous “Hanoi March” in which prisoners were paraded down a Hanoi street for newsreels, but the crowd got out of hand and attacked not only the Americans but the guards.  The goal of the jailers was not so much to get military information as to get the men to make statements that could be used for propaganda purposes.  The men developed a code of honor that basically said that you should take as much pain as you could before you were justified in talking.  Almost every prisoner eventually broke and signed statements.  Most of which wer e fabrications.  Executions, torture, injury, and diseases took the lives of 65 prisoners.  Most of the deaths came in the period before 1969.  It was in that year that the Nixon Administration reversed policy and began to condemn the mistreatment of prisoners.  After this, treatment improved.  As far as the Jane Fonda character, Jane did interview some prisoners, but did not encourage them to apologize.  (P.S. to those who have read and swallowed the post about her actions in Hanoi, she did not turn over to the guards notes passed to her by prisoners.)

                "Hanoi Hilton" is not in the upper tier of Vietnam War movies.  If you want some knowledge about the treatment of American POWs, it is not without merit.  However, it could have been a lot better.  It is too simplistically pro-America.