Thursday, February 16, 2017

FORGOTTEN GEM? Carve Her Name with Pride (1958)

                “Carve Her With Pride” is a biopic about Violette Szabo.  Szabo was a British espionage agent in WWII.  The movie is based on the book by R.J. Minney.  It was directed by Lewis Gilbert (“Damn the Defiant” and “Sink the Bismarck”).  It is your typical British black and white 1950s war flick.  The movie stars Virginia McKenna, who is apparently well known in England and still a working actress.  She was very motivated for this movie.  She only took two days off during the 92 day shoot and that was for her wedding and brief honeymoon.  She insisted on doing her own stunts including parachuting from a parachute tower.  After going through all the hardships of the training scenes with aplomb, she freaked out over a cockroach in some vegetables. 

                Violette Bushell (McKenna) is working at a Woolworth's in London in 1940 when she brings home a French soldier named Etienne for supper.  A whirlwind romance results in their marriage and the birth of a daughter named Tania.  After Etienne is killed at El Alamein, Violette is recruited as a liaison to the French Resistance.  She goes through training with two other plucky British lasses.  Her mentor is a Capt. Frazer (Paul Scofield).  He is also her wooer.  They are parachuted into France to make connections with a Resistance cell.  On a train she meets a suave German officer who befriends her.  Later she is picked up by the Gestapo and guess who the interrogator is.  He is on to her but for some inexplicable reason he lets her go and she and Fraser return to England.  Although she had promised not to risk her life again, she is talked into going back into France with Fraser.  It’s vital to the war effort.   She is given a coded poem entitled “The Life That I Have”.  The poem does not keep her from being captured by a German patrol after a shootout.  It’s torture time.

                I had never heard of Szabo before viewing this movie, although she is famous in Great Britain.  A good thing about movies is they expose you to heroes from other countries.  She certainly was a heroine and deserved a film about her life.  Her portrayal by McKenna could not have been better.  She is outstanding and obviously put her heart and soul into it.  McKenna insisted on deglamorizing her.  However, this being an old school British war movie, her Szabo never loses her composure and all the British characters keep their upper lips stiff.  All the Nazis are sinister.  While the characters are unpredictable, the plot is not.  At least if you are not British.  However, the movie is predictably nongraphic in its handling of her torture and her concentration camp stint is completely skipped over.  It is, after all, a 1950s British war movie, so what do you expect?  You expect a romance between spies and a reunion between female spies.  And you expect to leave the theater inspired, but not conflicted.

                There is nothing to dislike about “Carve Her Name With Pride”.  It is competently made and has a bravura performance by the lead.  It does its job of lionizing Szabo and is educational for those who are not familiar with George Cross winner.  The problem is it is just an average biopic.  It is very much of its time and although I like Old School war movies, I prefer my Resistance movies with a little more pizzazz.  Give me “The Black Book” or “Flame and Citron”.



            For those of you who are not British and over 80 years old, here is the accuracy of the movie.  She was working at a Woolworth's when the war began, but she was actually working in an armaments factory when she met Etienne.  She picked him up at a Bastille Day parade.   The romance was quick and he was off to war.  He was killed leading an attack during the Second Battle of El Alamein.  At the time, she was serving in an anti-aircraft battery.  His death caused her to accept an invitation to join the Special Operations Executive.  She did go through intensive training (which she did not do particularly well at).  She badly sprained her ankle in a parachute drop.  This injury would come back to haunt her.  Her first mission was led by Capt. Phillippe Liewer.  He is the person that Fraser was based on.  There is no evidence that they were romantically involved.  The mission was to Rouen to assess the damage done to the exposure of a cell there.  It was before this mission that she was given the poem.  There was no contact with a German on a train, but the Germans were on to her and instead of arresting her they decided to tail her.  She managed to elude them and returned to England.  The second mission was in coordination with D-Day.  She and Liewer were dropped to aid the Resistance in sabotage efforts.  She was captured while traveling  in a car with a Maquis, even though travel by automobile was forbidden.  They encountered a road block and fled.  The movie accurately depicts the recurrence of her ankle injury and her use of a Sten to hold off the Germans as the Frenchman escaped.  She was tortured much worse than the movie implies.  She was transferred by train to Ravensbruck concentration camp.   The movie has her tritely reunited with her two female agent friends, but surprisingly this is fairly close to reality.  She did train with Lilian Rolfe and Denise Bloch.  Both were brave operatives.  Szabo was cuffed to Bloch.  Liewer was not on the train with them.  The incident involving the strafing (actually bombing) of the train is handled acceptably.  Szabo and Bloch did fetch water for the other prisoners, although it is doubtful this was at the expense of escaping.  The train journey was an excruciating 14 days.  She spent about 6 months in concentration camps where she endured hard labor and malnutrition.  Treatment got even worse after she led a mutiny against making munitions.  She continued to be inspirational until the three women were put in solitary confinement and physically abused.  This ended with their execution by way of bullets to the backs of their heads in February, 1945.   She was 23 at the time.  The movie closes with Tania receiving the George Cross from King George VI. 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

FORGOTTEN GEM? It Happened Here (1964)

                If you are an American and watch hundreds of war movies, you will eventually run across “It Happened Here”.  It is a unique film.  It was the brainchild of two teenagers.  Eighteen year old Kevin Brownlow got the idea when he saw some thuggish looking men wearing leather coats come screeching up in a car and go storming into a house.  He thought “what if?”.  An alternative title for this alternative history is “It Happened Here:  The Story of Hitler’s England”.  Brownlow asked a history buff named Andrew Mello.  The sixteen year old soon became Brownlow’s collaborator.  They spent eight years on the project, making it one of the longest productions in cinema history.  Brownlow went on to become a famous film historian and recipient of an honorary Oscar for film preservation.  Mello is now a well-respected military historian.

                The movie is set in 1944 England.  A narrator informs us that England fell to the Nazis after the retreat from Dunkirk in 1940.  The resistance movement had been crushed, but the success of a Soviet offensive has led to the withdrawal of a large part of the occupation forces and a revival of the resistance.  American soldiers have recently arrived to aid the insurrection.  The country is being ruled by British Union of Fascists which is a political party of collaborators.  The counterinsurgency is comprised of police collaborators and German S.S.  Most of the public is acquiescent of the occupation.  At least the Nazis are better than the Bolsheviks.  The government’s counterinsurgency strategy is to remove civilians from zones where the resistance is powerful.  Massacre of civilians deemed disloyal is also part of the strategy.

                The main character is a nurse named Pauline (Pauline Murray) who is initially apolitical.  This changes when she barely survives an ambush by rebels which kills several of her friends.  She ends up in London and gets a job with the government’s paramilitary ambulance corps.  The training includes firearms.  Indoctrination encourages her evolution towards collaborating.  At one point she goes to a theater where a propaganda film uses the Christmas Truce of WWI as an example of the true love of the British and Germans!  Also, Waterloo is an example of Anglo-German cooperation.  And International Jewry has brought on WWII.  Later, there is a discussion of how the Jews are evil and inferior.  A character refers to them as “fleas on a dog” and argues for euthanasia to get rid of “useless” people.  Pauline does not succumb to these odious views, but she does take the realistic attitude that since England lost, they should be happy with law and order.  Her evolvement is sidetracked by an encounter with two respected friends who are harboring a rebel fugitive and her posting to a hospital that disposes of incurables through “cleansing operations”.

                “It Happened Here” is an amateur triumph.  The fact that it was made by two young men is astounding.  Brownlow and Mello used a shoe-string budget and unpaid actors to accomplish the eight year task.  The actors, including Pauline Murray, were amateurs but this added to the natural feel of the acting.  Some of the scenes looked unrehearsed.  The duo used actual British fascists, some of whom were playing themselves.  They also made use of German veterans.  Although the movie is in black and white and was shot with 16mm film, the cinematography is noteworthy.  Peter Suschitzky was lensing only his second film and went on to a distinguished career.  His greatest feat in “It Happened Here” is the recreation of newsreels and fake archival footage.  Even the battle scenes have the look of real footage.  In this respect they resemble the assault on the air base in “Dr. Strangelove”.  (Coincidentally, Stanley Kubrick donated some film stock from that film.)
                The movie is thought-provoking.  The theme is that fascism can rise anywhere and a majority will accept it.  From that foundation the movie proceeds to chronicle the result of that.  It does not take sides between the collaborators and the rebels.  There is a feel of “a pox on both houses” to it.  This is clear in the bookending of the movie with dueling atrocities.  Murray’s character arc is a bit unrealistic as she stands in for the rare individual in those circumstances who starts out neutral and then moves from one side to the other.  She is not typical of the average Britain who accepted the status quo in exchange for security.  The movie was controversial because of its insinuation that it could have happened in England if it had not won the Battle of Britain.  This is also unrealistic, but doesn’t detract from the plot.  Surprisingly, the collaborators are not villainized.  The movie was decried by Jewish groups partly for its use of British fascists.  More problematic is the references to the Jews.  Some of the dialogue is repulsive and there is no rebuttal.  United Artists insisted on cutting some of the anti-Jewish rhetoric for its American release.  Needless to say, Brownlow and Mello did not have the clout to prevent this.

                “It Happened Here” is a must-see for hard core war movie lovers.  It is definitely a forgotten gem here in America and I had never heard of it until recently.  I certainly would never have seen it if I had not undertaken this blog.  Another perk of my hobby.  Not only did I see a unique film, but the researching of it informed me of some fascinating facts.  In the movie, we see on the walls of government offices portraits of Oswald Mosley (alongside Hitler).  I now know that Mosley was a British politician who founded the British Union of Fascists in 1932.  Mosley was a big fan of Mussolini and wanted Great Britain to go the route of Italy.  Unoriginally, his followers were called “blackshirts”.  The party was condemned in 1940 and he was interred for the rest of the war.  The movie imagines if things had gone in the opposite direction.  It is not unimaginable that had England fallen, he would have been released by the Germans and appointed puppet ruler.  It is unimaginable that the British people would have accepted this, but it sure makes for an interesting movie.

GRADE  =  B-  

Sunday, February 5, 2017

FORGOTTEN GEM? Went the Day Well? (1942)

                “Went the  Day Well?” is a propaganda curio from WWII Britain.  It was released in 1942 and although  the threat of Nazi invasion had dissipated, there was still a fear of a German raid and espionage activities.  People were also cognizant of Fifth Columnists living amongst the loyal British civilians.  The movie tapped into these fears and was a morale booster for a public which wanted confirmation that the British people would deal with these types of threats in their stiff upper lip style.  The film was based on a short story by Graham Greene entitled “The Lieutenant Died Last”.  It was directed by Alberto Cavalcanti.  The movie was a success with audiences and critics and has undergone a revival with the release of a restoration in 2010.

                The story is told in flashback form from a future where Great Britain has been victorious in the war.  A tourist in the village of Bramley is told the story behind the graves of German soldiers in the church cemetery.  On May 23, 1942, a lorrie full of British soldiers arrives in the village.  They are actually Germans who speak flawless English (as opposed to the American soldiers soon to arrive in England).  The village intellectual is suspicious, but makes the mistake of telling her suspicions to the local traitor who is able to explain away her concerns.  However, the Germans are eventually forced to lock the locals up in the church.  The people fight back and the village scamp goes for help.  With the cavalry on the way, the villagers attempt to take back their home.  This includes a spirited defense of the vicar’s house led by two feisty females from the Woman’s Land Army.  (The Land Girls were young ladies who volunteered to take the place of men in agriculture during the war.)

                “Went the Day Well?” is an underrated little gem.  It has a far-fetched plot which probably seemed near-fetched in 1942.  It was intended to be inspirational and educational.  The audience was taught to be wary and not to feel uncomfortable with killing Germans with axes (as one female character does).  There are some rousing heroes and heroines and some hissable villains.  The movie has some of the strongest female characters in any war movie.  Several women get in on the killing.  The villains are not caricatures.  The village and villagers appear stereotyped, but this is probably a realistic depiction of a rural British community from the 1940s.

                The movie is well-crafted.  The dialogue is good and acting is stellar from a classic British cast.  There is some excellent action and some gut-punching deaths.  In fact, the movie is refreshingly sober.  Although generally predictable (did you think the Germans would be successful?), how it gets to its feel-good ending is not obvious.  The suspense builds nicely.  And the traitor gets his.  It is a satisfying movie. 

                “Went the Day Well?” is from the “what if” subgenre and we will never know whether the British public would have reacted the way the fictional villagers do.  It seems likely that the movie is a “what would have been”.  Its depiction of how the various social classes come together to defeat the Nazis seems realistic.  The fact that the traitor is an upper class landowner also seems easy to believe.  Watching it made me wonder if the same thing would have happened in America during the war.  Certainly in New Iberia, but I have my doubts about the patriotism of many Northerners.  (That's a joke, my Yankee friends.)


Sunday, January 29, 2017

FORGOTTEN GEM? Between Heaven and Hell (1956)

                “Between Heaven and Hell” is a WWII movie based on the novel The Day the Century Ended by Francis Gwaitney.  Gwaitney wrote a screenplay that clocked in at nine hours so the project went to others including Harry Brown (“A Walk in the Sun”).  It was directed by Richard Fleischer (“Tora! Tora! Tora!”).  The score by Hugo Friedhofer was nominated for an Academy Award which means the film could claim to be nominated for an Academy Award! 

                The film is set on an undisclosed island in the Pacific in 1945.  PFC Gifford (Robert Wagner) is in a stockade for having assaulted an officer.  Gifford is a decorated hero so he is given the option of being transferred to a company of misfits in an isolated post.  The company is run by a Captain who insists on being called “Waco” (Broderick Crawford).  He is a tyrant who is hated by his men, except the two lackeys who lick his boots.  Gifford is not in Heaven or Hell, he is in Purgatory.

                A flashback informs us that Gifford was a cotton plantation owner before the war.  He treated his white sharecroppers like they were blacks.  He is married to the daughter of a Colonel and she thinks he is too harsh with his workers.  He tells her it’s just business.  When his National Guard unit is called up, he goes but for some reason he is only a sergeant.  (Shouldn’t a plantation owner be an officer?)    He has to share fox holes with cotton pickers – awkward!  Queue the empathy and comradeship.  Transformation complete when an upper class good ole boy friend sends Gifford and four of his new peers on a scouting mission. The Captain panics and opens fire killing three of the men and earning a butt stroke from Gifford and a trip to a punishment company.

                The movie morphs into a Western as Gifford is part of a squad that is put out as Jap bait and sure enough they take the bait.  It’s whittling time.  Gifford and his new best buddy Willie (Buddy Ebsen) are the last men standing.  Willie is a “cropper” and Gifford is one in spirit now.  This will impact his relationship with his workers when he gets home.  If he gets home.

                “Between Heaven and Hell” is a strange movie.  It appears to be making some type of social statement about the upper and lower classes in the South.  This being a Hollywood movie, Gifford finds redemption in war.  He learns the error of his ways when the crucible of war thrusts him into close proximity to the people who he had formerly looked down on.  It a small world for planters and croppers in the Pacific.  He sees what he was in the Captain that kills his friends and what he would have become in the guise of Waco.  All of this is very tritely played.  Fortunately the cast is strong and the acting is fine.  Wagner is his usual solid self and you can’t go wrong with Ebsen playing a cracker.  Who but Crawford to play a villain?  The biggest disappointment in the movie is his anti-climactic death.
                For a war movie, the film has some good action, but not enough of it.  The invasion of the island is well done with footage of shore bombardment and air bombardment.  There are lots of landing craft.  The assault is intense and realistic.  Later, there is a very furious mortar attack with better effects than most war movies.  The isolated squad sequences are basically of the enemy are sneaky variety.  Were we still at this stage eleven years after the war?  The infrequency of combat makes Gifford’s combat shakes hard to swallow.  The PTSD subplot seems shoehorned in.  Portraying combat fatigue is not really Wagner’s forte.  You would think romance would be right up his alley, but the romantic dialogue with his wife is sappy.  In fact, the whole script is lame.  Pre-war snob learns empathy through camaraderie and combat and returns to America to make the South a better place.  Gag!

                Forgotten gem?  The movie is an average WWII movie that tries to make a statement but does so ineffectively.