Sunday, May 24, 2015

FORGOTTEN GEM? Decision Before Dawn (1951)

                “Decision Before Dawn” is a black and white film directed by Anatole Litvak.  He filmed in post-war Germany for the ambiance provided by rubble. It was based on a novel by George Howe entitled Call It Treason which was inspired by the fact that the British and Americans used captured Germans as counterintelligence agents in the last months of the war.  These prisoners of war had various motives for helping.  The credits claimed that the movie was based on a true story with the names changed.  The movie was a surprise nominee for Best Picture.  Litvak thanked the U.S. Armed Forces and the French Army for cooperation.

                A narrator (Richard Basehart):  “Why does a spy risk his life – if he wins, he’s ignored.  If he loses, he’s shot.”  The quote is backed by a realistic firing squad execution.  The movie is set in Germany in December, 1944.  Col. Devlin (Gary Merrill) is recruiting German prisoners for spying behind enemy lines.  After a friend is “court-martialed” and killed by hard core Nazis for pessimism, a young soldier nicknamed “Happy” volunteers.  His motivation is the Germans have lost the war and his aid will shorten the war and free him sooner.  On the other end of the spectrum is “Tiger” who is a cynic who is in it for personal gain.  The duo are paired off with a skeptical Lt. Rennick (Basehart) for a crucial mission.  Rennick and Tiger will make contact with a German general who wants to defect.  Meanwhile, Happy will scout enemy troop dispositions on his own. 

                The movie concentrates on Happy’s odyssey (which is Homeric) and his interaction with a variety of Germans.  They range from defeatists to die-hards.  Some are sympathetically portrayed.  In his guise of a travelling German medic, Happy gets tabbed with serving a general.  The general is a good German common to Cold War depictions of German generals in cinema.  Instead of killing him, Happy saves his life when he has a heart attack.  This interlude provides him with the valuable intelligence that he sought and now it’s just a matter of returning.  He meets up with Rennick and Tiger in a safe house in Mannheim.  Only one will survive the return trip.

                “Decision Before Dawn” is a different take on the closing months of the war in Europe.  Enough time had passed to allow a more nuanced depiction of the German people in those chaotic days when some realized the war was hopeless and others wanted to continue the fight to the bitter end.  It was one of the first war movie to concentrate on the dissenters rather than the Nazis.  Coincidentally, "The Desert Fox" was released the same year.  Not only are the characters realistic, but the locales are amazing.  Six years after the war there were still areas of Germany that were war damaged.

                The acting is great.  Basehart is an underrated actor and he is matched by Blech (who so memorably played Pluskat in “The Longest Day”) and Werner.  Both were German veterans and ironically, the date that the Happy is captured (Dec. 8, 1944) was the exact date that Werner deserted.  The dialogue they are given is a cut above the usual WWII movie.  The screenplay is thought-provoking and unpredictable.  The hero is a traitor!  He is not “just another kraut” as a G.I. refers to him.

                I can’t recall how this movie showed up on my radar screen.  I had never heard of it and it is not well known (in spite of its Best Picture nomination).  I also had never given much thought to the use of German prisoners to spy on Nazi Germany.  The movie does an excellent job shedding light on that obscure program.  I like it when a war movie exposes the public to a little known aspect of history and does it in an entertaining and accurate way.  It reminded me of one of the first forgotten gems I posted on when I started my blog – "Time Limit".  That movie also starred Richard Basehart and dealt with collaboration.

                Forgotten gem?  Yes.  This movie deserves to be seen.

Grade =  B

Friday, May 22, 2015

LIVE: Attack on the Iron Coast (1967)

                First cigarette – 10 seconds (a record?)  /  Maj. Wilson (Lloyd Bridges) will be seeking redemption for a Dieppe type fiasco  /  the redemption will take the form of Operation Mad Dog which will target the port of Le Claire (rhymes with St. Nazaire)  /  the suicidal plan is to ram the dock with an explosives-laden ship – “It’s just mad enough to work!”  /  the Wilson family scenes are creepy as Wilson is tightly wound  /  Royal Navy is uncooperative  /  in training Wilson is a hard ass and the live firing exercise results in the wounding of the Royal Navy liaison – 8 men are killed in training!  /  the wounded liaison vouches for the operation and it is saved, but the new liaison Capt. Franklin (Andrew Keir) lost his son in the Dieppe-like raid and hated Wilson (command clash anyone?)  /  an air attack using models in a bathtub and Scyfy Channel special effects proves only an explosives-laden ship can accomplish the objective  /  fighter planes dropping bombs they don’t have  /  Wilson and Franklin really, really hate each other  /  in the German headquarters in Le Claire they are watching a porno!  What was evil then is commonplace today  /  the mission is launched and complications ensue – surprise!  The RAF will not be able to do the diversionary attack  /  Franklin disobeys orders and refuses to scrub – he’s on board now (get it?)  /  it is misting, but none of them are wet;  the camera bobs, but the cast doesn’t  /  the explosion is on a timer and Wilson has thrown away the key – there’s no turning back now  /  Wilson:  “Let’s start the minstrel show.”  /  boats are launched to land the commandoes  /  lots of running around and shooting from the hip  /  bloodless deaths  /  the ship is hit and aflame – no one seems to be worried about all that TNT  /  the ship rams the dock and there is more running around and hip shooting (everyone has a Sten)  /  the wire has been cut and Wilson is wounded;  Franklin returns to the ship but he is captured and taken to headquarters – this allows Franklin to say in your face to the Nazi commander when the pyrotechnics occur  /  Wilson reattaches the wire just as he is killed  /  huge explosion!  /  the commandoes break into the headquarters and rescue Franklin  /  England lives on music

ANALYSIS -  “Attack on the Iron Coast” is an Anglo-American production.  It is low budget and has a no name cast other than Bridges.  It is a B movie and very cheesy.  The score is average (some of it was “borrowed” from “The Dam Busters”) and so is the acting.  Bridges chews a lot of scenery.  The whole mission is even more implausible than the Raid on St. Nazaire.  Significantly, the movie had no technical adviser.  The movie hammers the theme that the mission is suicidal and that is true because there is no way in Hell the mission would have succeeded.

Grade =  D

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

CRACKER? The Lighthorsemen (1987)

                “The Lighthorsemen” was a film made as part of the Australian New Wave.  It was directed by Simon Wincer (“Operation Dumbo Drop”).   It was written by Ian Jones who was fascinated by the Australian Light Horse.  He made a trip to the site of their greatest triumph and did extensive research for the movie.  I like that.  It was certainly a story that begged to be told.  The movie was filmed on location in Australia which means the continent has locales that can stand in for the Middle East. 

                The movie begins with a crawl that informs us that on October 31, 1917 two regiments of the Australian Light Horse charged Turkish defenses at Beersheba in Palestine.  “This is the story of some of the men and horses that made it into history that day.”  The action begins with the chasing of wild horses in beautiful scenery and with stirring music.  From there it is off to Palestine where a glimpse of tanks reminds us that horse cavalry is now a thing of the past.  We are introduced to four mates.  Frank (Gary Sweet), Scotty (Jon Blake), Chiller (Tim McKenzie), and Tas (John Walton) are their names, but that is about all we learn about them.  Since this is a small unit movie, a newbie named Dave arrives who is not welcomed by the quartet.  Since five is a crowd, one of the core has to go and does after getting a Dear Jack letter.  Dave has a bad case of the Griff from “Big Red One” so he gets transferred to the medical corps.  He wins the lottery to have the requisite romance with a nurse played by Sigrid Thornton (the Australian Julia Roberts).  Romance and redemption – cha-ching!  The familiar face of Anthony Edwards appears  as an intelligence officer who tricks the Turks into thinking the attack on Beersheba is a diversion.  Actually he tricks the hissable German liaison into shiza-shizaing the attack.
                General Allenby’s (the devious jerk played by Jack Hawkins in “Lawrence of Arabia”) plan is to fix the Turks with an infantry dominated attack from the south while the cavalry works its way to the east and assaults Beersheba from there.  The dilemma becomes the lack of water due to poisoned wells on the way to the ingress point.  It is decided that an immediate charge is called for even though the light horsemen normally fight dismounted.  Is the charge worth the wait?  It’s bloody exciting, mate.  No CGI here and amazingly no horses were even injured in the filming.  Guess who foregoes his medical duties to participate in the charge? 
How historically accurate is the movie?  It gets the basics right.  The 4th Light Horse Brigade was part of the 1st Australian Imperial Force that was sent to the Middle East in 1915.  It participated in the Gallipoli Campaign before it was returned to Egypt in time to be part of the Sinai and Palestine Campaign which pitted the British against the Ottoman Empire (with the help of Germany).  The action started with a failed Turkish attempt on the Suez Canal which provoked the Brits to invade the Sinai.  They were at first successful, but then lost two battles near Gaza.  A stalemate ensued until Gen. Allenby initiated the offensive that resulted in the Battle of Beersheba in  October, 1917.  The movie does a fine job outlining the plan and even uses a map (unlike most war movies).  However, as with many movies of its ilk, the big picture is hazy.  Anthony Andrews character Maj. Meinertzhagen is based on the infamous intelligence officer / ornithologist.  The movie depicts the legendary “Haversack Ruse” in which Meinertzhagen supposedly left a haversack with false British plans to fall into enemy hands.  This story has been refuted, but it is acceptable that the movie included it.  The romance of Anne and Dave is based on a real couple that marries after the war.  The climactic attack is well-staged although it is doubtful the clueless German who refuses to destroy the city’s water wells is a real person.

“The Lighthorsemen” was part of the Australian New Wave movement.  Australian cinema had almost ceased to exist until the government reinvigorated it with funding for film production and the Australian Film, Television, and Radio School.  A large amount of films were the result, starting in the early seventies until the late eighties.  Many of these films were popular in the U.S.  The war movies included “Breaker Morant” and “Gallipoli”.  This genre had the common themes of Australian brotherhood, loss of innocence in warfare, and Australia’s emergence as a world player.

I had fond memories of this movie back from my early VHS days.  It was a difficult movie to find until recently or I would have rewatched it long ago.  Sadly, the anticipation was not rewarded.  The movie is curiously flat.  It does not flow well, possibly due to poor editing.  The acting is tepid and there is little character development which is puzzling for a movie that concentrates on only five soldiers.  The love story appears shoe-horned in, probably to get Ms. Thornton in.  It does have its strengths.  The scenery is nice and the cinematography is good, especially in the charge which includes some slo-mo and POV.  The intercutting between the Australians and Turks is a nice touch although only the German leader is developed.  The Australian accents are cool as is the slang.

I went into the review wondering whether “The Lighthorsemen” was on a level with “Breaker Morant” and “Gallipoli”.  It most certainly is not.  It will not make my 100 Best.  My advice is to fast forward to the charge.  It is one  of the better combat scenes in war movie history.


Saturday, May 16, 2015

SHORT STORY READALONG: British Gunners as Cave Dwellers

                Our latest selection is a primary source about the Royal Artillery on the Western Front in WWI.  It is a story by Corporal E.H. Bean.  He served in combat until he was wounded and invalided back to blighty.  The story takes him from England through his return.  It is basically a collection of vignettes that give a taste of life in the artillery.  One day he is England, the next day he is at the front.  It happened that quick for many British soldiers.  Now that I think about it, that was not that different than what American soldiers sent to Vietnam went through. 

                Two things stand out in his tale.  One is that it sucked to be an artillery horse.  Bean makes it clear that horses were very vulnerable to artillery barrages.  Another memorable passage was the genesis of the title of the story.  His unit spends five days billeted in some caves near Soissons.  It was an eerie alternative to the trenches.  The overall vibe of the story is typically British.  Bean and his comrades have stiff upper lips throughout.  He even says “the British soldier has the happy knack of making himself at home in all kinds of odd places…”  When he is wounded he remains cheery.

                If the story was fiction, you would be groaning at times.  It is not very exciting, but it is educational.  You learn about the Royal Artillery and what it was like to be a horse pulling the artillery pieces.


Next selection:  The Canoe Fight