Monday, August 23, 2010

#94 - A BRIDGE TOO FAR



BACK-STORY: 

“A Bridge Too Far” is basically a sequel to “The Longest Day” and suffers a bit in the comparison. They are both based on books by Cornelius Ryan. ABTF was released in 1977, three years after the book. It has a similar format as its sister film – the all-star cast in a war epic. The movie was something of a flop which should not have been a surprise given that it was about a mostly British affair and a loss at that.  It did not help that the film clocks in at around three hours.  Given the odds stacked against it, the movie mirrors the event it portrays in that respect.

OPENING SCENE:

A woman’s voice narrates black and white footage relating the war up until then. The narration is effective in bringing the audience up to speed on the war in 1944 and is crucial in explaining the strategic dilemma facing Eisenhower. Ike is dealing with two prima donna generals – Montgomery and Patton – each of whom has a sure-fire plan to win the war quickly. Of course, each plan involves giving them most of the scarce resources for their roll of the dice. Montgomery’s plan is codenamed Operation Market Garden and Eisenhower opts for it in a decision that smacks of politics (although the movie does not make it clear why Ike chose Monty over Patton).

SUMMARY:

The Germans are retreating and Gen. Von Rundstedt is pessimistic. The German characters speak German and the movie has subtitles – an early clue the producers are serious. Meanwhile, at British headquarters, Lt. Gen. Browning is outlining Operation Market Garden. The plan will end the war in 90 days. It will be the biggest airborne operation ever. The plan calls for dropping thousands of British and American paratroopers behind enemy lines to capture three key bridges to open a corridor that will be exploited by the British XXX Corps which will move over 60 miles in two days to reach the last bridge at Arnhem. Or so the plan calls for. If you know nothing about Operation Market Garden, but do know about the British army in WWII and Montgomery in particular, you know this movie will not have a happy ending. The plan calls for daring and speed – two words not associated with the British in WWII.

One of the movies themes of bad luck is apparent in the next scene as Rundstedt moves a resting Panzer unit to the “quiet sector” of Arnhem. The second theme of overly optimistic high command is emphasized when Browning refuses to believe intelligence reports which include photo recon indicating Arnhem will be very well defended by a paratroopers worst nightmare – armor. And even if they are true, Browning says “This time the party is on and nobody is going to call it off”. The Browning family could not have been happy with his portrayal in the film. It is clear he represents a composite of Browning and Montgomery and his character would have struck a chord with the post-Vietnam audience. The third theme of incompetence and disregard for losses is apparent when the British parachute leaders are informed they will have to land 8 miles from the Arnhem bridge.

The take-off and landing of the paratroopers is handled in a great scene featuring thousands of extras and authentic aircraft. No CGI here! We even get the perspective of the paratroopers as they bail out and drift to earth. The landings go according to plan. That will be the last time anything goes according to plan.

Meanwhile, the XXX Corps led by Gen. Horrocks (Edward Fox) and spearheaded by Gen. Vandeleur (Michael Caine) start down the single lane, raised highway. Horrocks instruction to “Ride like hell… speed is the key” is ominous to any student of the British army in WWII. The attack is preceded by an impressive artillery bombardment with lots of explosions. The Germans are realistically portrayed as withstanding the chaos and then opening fire to take out several tanks which are exposed on the raised road. The British call in fighter-bombers which blast the hell out of the enemy causing them to surrender but it is a bad omen for keeping the timetable.  The road soon acquires the nickname "Hell's Highway".

The 101st Airborne led by a Col. Stout (Elliot Gould) assault the first bridge only to have German 88s take it out moments before they reach it. A bailey bridge will be needed. Luckily for the Allies, the German Gen. Model is mirroring Browning’s “I won’t believe anything that does not fit my preconceived notions” philosophy by refusing to blow the other bridges.

The British arrive at Arnhem with no resistance, but without their commander Gen. Urquhart (Sean Connery) who has been separated from the unit and spends most of the movie working his way back. They assault the bridge led by the stereotypical British officer carrying an unopened umbrella (based on an actual person who survived the battle, but not in the movie). They knock out a pillbox when a flamethrower accidentally cooks off ammunition nearby. In a great scene, the Germans counterattack using armored cars that are taken out by British bazookas. So far, so good, but what happens if the Germans bring up armor?

The movie now veers away from its command-centric story line to tell the tale of Ssgt. Eddie Duhon (James Caan). Duhon locates the body of the supposedly dead Capt. Johnson and in an homage to the Jeep drives through a forest and then through a German unit under fire to reach a hospital. The doctor refuses to work on the hopeless case until Dohun pulls a pistol and insists. The Capt. is saved and the doctor decides not to court-martial Dohun.

We get a realistic and informative look at the building of a bailey bridge (possibly unique in war movie history). The XXX Corps crosses the bridge and is on its pokey way again, but way behind schedule. Surprise!

In Arnhem, armor arrives and a tank crosses the bridge into the town and into the British position. House to house fighting begins and the casualties mount including the resistance/spy family introduced earlier in the movie.  The British are gamely led by Lt. Col. Frost (Anthony Hopkins).   We also meet our opening footage narrator Kate ter Horst (Liv Ullman) as a Dutch woman who allows her house to be used as a hospital and helps the wounded with an elderly doctor portrayed by Sir Laurence Olivier. ( I guess Marlon Brando was not available ).

At Nijmegen, the Americans are forced to make a daring, daylight combat assault across the river in flimsy boats (which are slow in arriving, thus accurately portraying the “hurry up, then wait” nature of warfare). Maj. Cook (Robert Redford – paid $2 million for seemingly 5 minutes of work) leads the assault repeating the “Hail Mary” (there are no atheists in assault boats). The scene accurately reflects the suicidal nature of this type of action, but also what determined men can do in the face of ridiculous odds. The Germans attempt to blow the bridge which would have meant the assault would have been in vain, but the charges do not go off. Not all luck in war is bad. However, instead of bursting ahead, the British armor hunker down to brew their tea as they wait for their infantry to come up. Cook confronts the British commander in a moment which must have resonated with American vets of the European Theater. He angrily points out that “those are British troops in Arnhem. They’re hurt bad. And you’re just gonna sit here and drink tea?”

The Polish brigade is sent to reinforce the British in Arnhem. They are led by the reluctant Gen. Sosabowski (Gene Hackman) who knows the mission is doomed, but reflects another theme of the movie – good soldiers swallow their doubts and wade in. The landing is a bloody disaster and only a few Poles reach the British. By this time, the Germans are overwhelming the lightly armed British in the streets of Arnhem and they get orders to withdraw as best they can. Only a few, including Urquhart, manage to escape through the woods during the night. Urquhart confronts Browning about Montgomery’s summary of the operation as being 90% successful. Browning responds that “I always thought we tried to go a bridge too far”.

THE FINAL SCENE:

Kate and the doctor leave her ruined house and join a long line of refugees. The movie fades with the refugees moving out of frame. Not a happy ending. No Doolittle raid like in “Pearl Harbor”. Bizarrely, in a movie that begins with a tidy review of the war up until the operation, there is no preview of what happens next, nor are the events of the film put in perspective.

RATINGS:

Action - 8 ( not graphic )

Acting - 8 ( especially Connery, Caine, Gould, and Hopkins )

Accuracy - 9

Realism - 9

Plot - 8

Overall - 8

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?

I do not think most would. My wife found it to be too “military”. It is a very macho movie, but does have one significant female character – ter Horst. Surprisingly, Ullman’s character was based on a real person and not just simply thrown in to attract a female audience. The “Angel of Arnhem” is accurately portrayed.  It is also long, even for a war movie.  Not a good selling point for women.

ACCURACY:

Gen. Urquhart described the movie as a “reasonably accurate spectacular”. This is a fair description of a movie that tried hard to make a realistic, yet entertaining retelling of a complicated military event. This effort is obvious from the multitude of technical advisers which included Urquhart, Horrocks, Gavin, Vandeleur, and Frost. It would have been hard to stray far with those guys on the set.

The basic facts are not tampered with so it is a good history lesson about Operation Market Garden. Since this failed campaign had been gathering dust historically speaking, the filmmakers do an admirable job of reminding us of the sacrifices the soldiers made in the operation. They deserved the recognition the movie brought. The movie also accurately portrays how command decisions can be flawed and even the best plans do not survive the first clash of arms. The role of SNAFU in warfare is also clear in the events portrayed.

One character in the movie allows for a discussion of how Hollywood will tamper with a perfectly good story to “enhance it for your viewing pleasure”. I am referring to the Eddie Dohun tale. First, his name was Charles ( I guess Hollywood did not think Charles was cool enough ). Second, his buddy Capt. “Legs” Johnson was already in the hospital’s “dead pile” when Dohun located him (having come to recover Johnson’s wallet). Johnson had received his head wound while riding on the hood of a jeep which was evacuating him because of an earlier shoulder wound. There was no mad dash in a jeep driven by Dohun. Dohun does force a doctor at gun point to save Johnson’s life, but the doctor did press charges. A Lt. Col. put Dohun under arrest for one minute and then released him. Is the movie’s version more entertaining? Yes, but I would argue the real story was good enough to begin with. This is what separates war movie fanatics from average Joes, I guess.

CRITIQUE:

The obvious thing to do is to compare this movie to “The Longest Day”. In some ways it is a sequel and we all know about sequels – they seldom live up to the original. However, ABTF has some big shoes to fill and it is probably asking too much for it to surpass or even equal its parent. Technically, it is a superior film. The airborne landing scene and the fighting in Arnhem are superior to any action in TLD. Compare the combat in Arnhem specifically to the scenes in Ouistreham and you will see what I mean. Also, for those of you of the younger generation, ABTR is in color! Alas, you still have to read when the Germans talk.

Another comparison is ABTF is more command-centric than TLD. There is only one grunt character – Dohun. TLD is full of privates. I do not know if it reflects the difference, but Sean Connery portrays a private in TLD and he has been promoted to general by ABTF ( think on that ). It does not have to be either/or as TLD proves with its blend of scenes showing the strategic ( the generals ) and the tactical ( the foot soldiers and their officers ). ABTR does not blend as well.

I admire the guts of the producers and director Richard Attenborough in making a movie that is a history lesson and a downer at that. I cannot believe the marketing people were thrilled with that. Kudos for swimming upstream.

The movie came out in the mid-seventies and reflects the transition from old-school war movies ( like TLD ) to the more cynical modern war film ( Patton ). It clearly reflects the post-Vietnam view of the military and warfare in general. The emphasis on SNAFU, clueless strategists, the waste of human lives, and pressing on with flawed plans are apparent in the movie.

CONCLUSION:

"A Bridge Too Far" is a movie that deserves a better reputation.  It covers an operation, Market Garden, that would otherwise be forgotten by most moviegoers.  It is a good bookend to the all-star war epics that began with "The Longest Day".  One critic referred to it as "the last dinosuar".  You could argue that it is the second best of that genre which includes "Tora! Tora! Tora!", "The Battle of Britain", "Battle of the Bulge", and "Midway".  Although it is a downer because the Allies lose, we Montgomery-haters can enjoy the discomfiture of the limeys.

"Bridge' is a good example of a war movie that appeals to war movie buffs, but not to average viewers.  A lover of war movies is cautioned to not watch this movie with soemone who is not a fanatic.  You will be frustrated by their lack of respect for the craft and fidelity to the truth of the moviemakers.  

Sunday, August 15, 2010

#95 - The Last of the Mohicans


BACK-STORY

“The Last of the Mohicans” was released in 1992. It was the first big budget feature from director Michael Mann. It was very loosely based on the John Fennimore Cooper novel, but actually is closer to the 1936 Randolph Scott film. The movie is set in 1757, three years into the French and Indian War. Although the action takes place in upstate New York, it was actually filmed mostly in North Carolina. The production used 1,000 Native American actors and extras. Mann had a 20 acre frontier farm, a Huron village, and a replica of a British fort built. The director’s obsessive quest for authenticity was matched by his star Daniel Day-Lewis who completely immersed himself in his role. Part of his preparation involved a “colonial boot camp” experience in the backwoods. Mann used a respected authority named Mark Baker to vet the film. Baker is an expert on frontier life, Indians, and weaponry. Mann provided him with a copy of the script and in most cases made changes suggested by Baker. The movie was a box office success and critically acclaimed. It was awarded an Oscar for Sound.

OPENING SCENE

Three men run through the woods, chasing who knows what. Hawkeye (Day-Lewis) stops, takes aim, and kills a deer, thus establishing that he is not only a frontiersman, but also a crack shot. His companions are his adopted father Chingachcook (played by the famous Indian activist Russell Means) and step-brother Uncas (Eric Schweig) of the Mohican tribe which means he is not your typical colonist. They stop at a frontier farm where they are welcomed warmly, implying that Hawkeye is living between two worlds. The opening also indicates that some Indians are “good”.

SUMMARY

 
The British authorities are recruiting colonial militia to reinforce Fort William Henry which is being threatened by the French and their Indian allies. The British are arrogant and insist that the colonists owe it to their king to serve. The militia get a promise that if their homes are in danger, they will be allowed to leave. Spoiler alert: they won’t.

Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice Munro (Jodhi May) are being escorted to be reunited with their father Colonel Munro who is in command of Fort William Henry. They are chaperoned by a haughty British officer named Maj. Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington). He has proposed to Cora, but she wants to remain just friends. They are led through the forest by an Indian scout named Magua (Wes Study wearing a face that tells you immediately that he is a villain). Hawkeye’s trio are heading to Kentucky when they pick up signs of a war party and on following it come upon the ambush of Duncan’s party. The scenery is awesome and the violence intense (but not graphic) as Hawkeye saves Cora from Magua and they rescue the significant characters (Duncan, Cora, and Alice) – too bad if you are just a common British soldier! The fighting realistically portrays what happened to Braddock in the Wilderness in that volley firing is not effective against an Indian ambush in the woods.

The survivors arrive at the frontier home from the opening scene to find it burned out and everyone dead. In a moment of authenticity, Hawkeye insists they leave the bodies unburied because burying them would give away that they had been there.

Next we have the standard campfire, getting to know you scene. Surprise, Cora dislikes Hawkeye. Spoiler alert: that will change. She asks him why anyone would want to live on a farm in the feral wilderness. He tells her that many backwoodsmen had been indentured servants who want to own their own land and not be beholding to anyone. A French-led war party approaches but turns away when they encounter a sacred Indian burial ground. It turns out that unlike other movies where passing through a burial ground is certain doom for whites, they can also protect you!

They arrived at the fort and it is under an 18th Century siege. Fort William Henry was reconstructed using historical documents and the effort shows. The scene accurately recreates the various elements of a siege-- the trenches, flares, fascines, even the little details like covering the touchhole of a cannon with sheepskin. They sneak into the fort at night. A great scene with Oscar winning sound effects.

Cora is reunited with her father and he is informed that Indians are raiding colonial farmsteads. He refuses to allow the militia to leave. ( A tough, but wise decision that is portrayed as an inhumane act of perfidy by the hissable British upper class twit. ) Meanwhile in French General Montcalm’s camp we learn that Magua has a grudge against Munro because of the destruction of his village, the killing of his children, and the loss of his wife. He vows to kill Munro and his daughters to wipe out their bloodline.

A courier needs to be sent to Albany for reinforcements so Duncan leads a diversion of a unit firing volleys while Hawkeye shows his mastery of the Kentucky rifle by picking off Indians trying to tomahawk the fleet-footed courier.

Hawkeye meets with Munro ( called George in the movie when actually named Edmund – why? ) He can not convince Munro to let the militia go home to defend their families. Munro threatens punishment for sedition. This accurately reflects the British army’s attitude toward colonial forces. Do as we say, no questions asked.

Cora and Hawkeye are now in love. In a nice touch their first kiss is accompanied by swirling music, but no dialogue. Some of the militia escape during the night so Hawkeye is arrested and sentenced to death. Cora defends him to her father showing she is not your typical British woman and she even sides with the colonial militia’s point of view. Munro agrees, apologizes and insists she marry the half-Indian frontiersman instead of the upper class British officer. Just kidding. The death sentence stands.

Munro and Montcalm meet to discuss surrender. After being assured no relief is coming and guaranteed safe passage to Albany, Munro agrees to abandon the fort the next day. That night Montcalm meets with Magua and assuages his anger at the terms by telling him “I can’t break the terms” (wink, wink)

On the march from the fort the foreboding is broken at first by several Indians preempting the ambush by rushing out to count coup. An accurate portrayal of a problem that is going to continue for well-planned Indian ambushes all the way through the Plains Indian Wars. When the ambush begins there is mass chaos, appropriately so. Cora shoots an Indian right between the eyes with a pistol. The trio race through the melee looking for the girls. There is lots of hacking. The atrocities are realistic for Indian warfare. Magua cuts out Munro’s heart, but Hawkeye rescues Cora and Alice and they escape in a canoe. They link up with a surly Duncan. Can you have a chase scene in a movie set in 1757? Of course! Could we throw in rapids and a waterfall? Done. They hide in a cave under the waterfall in a visually striking locale.

Magua is hot on their trail and it is obvious he will find them and their powder is wet meaning they will not be able to put up much of a fight so Hawkeye makes the tough decision to survive so he can rescue Cora. “You stay alive, no matter what occurs. I will find you”. He jumps into the waterfall. Cora, Alice, and Duncan are captured. You can guess what happens to the expendables who are with them.

The next scene is in the reconstructed Huron village. Magua is trying to convince the sachem to let him have his revenge. Hawkeye walks a gauntlet of angry Huron to approach the sachem. He argues that the sachem should not become greedy and “civilized” like the British. He wants to take Cora’s place on the stake, but Duncan mistranslates ( he speaks Huron? did they teach that at Eton? ) and gets himself staked. So the cad becomes a reformed martyr in the end. Hollywood loves redemption. Magua gets the consolation prize of Alice as his bride.  Although she is the ideal wife - she barely says a word in the movie - he is upset.   Hawkeye mercifully shoots Duncan from a far distance as he is being lit up.

Uncas chases after Magua to rescue Alice ( who he is ,of course, in love with ), but in a surprise to movie audiences everywhere, Magua kills him and throws his body over a cliff. In a poignant moment, the Bambi-like Alice jumps off the cliff joining him. The scene is made more powerful by the sparse dialogue. Actions do the talking. This has all been witnessed by Hawkeye and Chingachgook from afar. It’s revenge time! Chingachgook comes raging in like a charging grizzly bear as Hawkeye clears the path with his rifle. The penultimate battle is shockingly brief as the grieving father quickly dispatches one of the great villains of filmdom. Way to flout movie conventions!

THE FINAL SCENE

Chingachgook and Hawkeye lay Uncas to rest. Pop is now “the last of the Mohicans”. He predicts that “one day there will be no more frontier … , but once we were here.”

RATINGS

Action - 10

Acting - 10

Accuracy - 9

Realism -  10

Plot - 10

Overall - 10

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?

Of course. Cora is a strong female character and something of an 18th Century feminist. She stands up to her father, finds true love, survives many perils, and looks lovely throughout! Then throw in Daniel Day-Lewis as the protagonist. What’s not to like?

ACCURACY

For a movie based on a novel, the movie is actually very accurate. Credit has to go to Mann for going beyond the call of duty in making the movie authentic right down to the moccasins. It was interesting to read Baker’s comments on the original script and see how Mann listened to him on most of his complaints. And the ones where Mann vetoed the suggestions were all sensible digressions from historical accuracy. Having an anal director may be hell on the actors and the financers, but it makes for a wonderful movie for us hard core war movie buffs.

The historical centerpiece of the movie is the siege of Fort William Henry and it is handled admirably. I know of no other movie that so accurately depicts 18th Century siege warfare. The reconstruction of the fort was well worth the time, effort, and funding. You will learn something from this movie unless you are already an expert. The best war movies take you back in time to experience what it was like from the safety of your theater seat or recliner. This also applies to the frontier farm and the Huron village.

The movie accurately portrays the interaction and customs of three groups – the frontiersmen, the Indians, and the British army. In particular, the Native Americans are not all “noble savages” or “bloodthirsty heathens”. A majority of them are anti-colonists, but that is as it should be. If you think about it, Magua has legitimate reasons for revenge. Portrayed by Mel Gibson in one of Hollywood’s many revenge pics, he would be the hero.

With that said, there are two major inaccuracies in the tale. First, Montcalm’s character is unfairly maligned by implying he condoned the ambush. Note the year the movie premiered and add the fact that he was French and you can figure no American would complain about his portrayal. Second, in reality only the rear of the retreating column was attacked. It consisted of mainly civilians. Between 70 and 180 were killed. None of them was Munro, who escaped in the forest. Obviously, the column was not attacked because one Indian wanted revenge for his family. In fact, the Indians were upset that the French lenient terms had deprived them of the anticipated spoils of the battle.

The rest of the plot is based on a novel, so there was no person named Nathaniel Poe (Hawkeye) and I doubt we will ever know who the last of the Mohican tribe was. Speaking of the source, Cooper’s book is justifiably famous, but does not hold up well as literature. Mann’s plot actually improves on the novel. That is something that cannot be said of most movies based on famous novels. All the changes Mann made are for the best. And he made a lot of changes! Many of the characters who died in the book, survive in the movie and vice versa. Some of the romantic attachments are different ( e.g. in the book, Hawkeye falls in love with Alice ). Students in American Literature class who are assigned this book - do not watch the movie instead!

CRITIQUE

This is a magnificent movie. It combines an interesting plot with great acting and a real concern for historical accuracy. Kudos to Michael Mann for getting the little details right. Let’s face it, even war movie nuts do not care if the moccasins are circa 1757. However, when a director insists on accuracy down to the ground and cares if anyone will notice, you get a better movie for purists.

Also commendatory was the tampering with the plot of the novel. I admit I get upset when a nonfiction source is changed to Hollywoodize a movie, but I do not think it is hypocritical to endorse what Mann and the screenwriters have done. Especially since most literary critics are not big fans of the novel. As long as you get the historical facts mostly right, why not make the tale batter?

The movie also looks good. The scenery is breathtaking. Parts of North Carolina really do look like the frontier of colonial America. The score is perfect. Interestingly, the music was done by two composers separately – Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman. That might have been a dysfunctional situation, but you can’t tell from the finished product.

CONCLUSION

So here we have a movie with great acting, a moving score, realistic sound, romance, action, suspense, violence, and historical accuracy. Why is it not ranked higher than #95? I cannot get into the minds of Armchair General’s panel of experts, but I can guess they may have the same problem I have with ranking it really high. Is it really a war movie? Certainly more than “Ben Hur” and it does fit my definition for a “war movie”, but since it fits better into other categories like historical epic or action romance, I cannot rank it as one of the great war movies. After all, would you ever find a copy of “Last of the Mohicans” in the war novels section of a book store? However, as a movie that could be described as a war movie, it is better than a vast majority of the movies on the list.

Up next:  #94 - "A Bridge Too Far"

Monday, August 9, 2010

#96 - Ben Hur

Now would be a good time to discuss what qualifies a movie to be a “war movie”. The editors of Military History Magazine have adopted a very broad interpretation of what a war movie is. Unfortunately, they do not clearly spell out what their criteria were in determining which movies would be considered for their top 100. They do categorize their choices into the following: “prewar intrigues, postwar dislocations. resistance struggles, spy capers, POW sagas, historical re-creations, costume dramas, ersatz biographies, romantic adventures, wacky comedies, barbed satires, burlesques, political allegories, sentimental melodramas, and antihero thrillers”. I would argue some of those categories are stretches. Of course a war movie could be made that could fit into each of the types listed. However, it is unfair to take films that were not intended to be war films and label them as such simply because they fit one of the categories. An outstanding case in point is the #96 movie- “Ben Hur”.


I do not believe anyone associated with this movie intended it to be a “war movie”. It may fit in the category of “romantic adventures”, but that does not make it a war movie. I would personally label it as an “historical epic”. This puts it in the same genre as “Spartacus”. But “Spartacus” is definitely a war movie and “Ben Hur” is not. Here is the difference. “Spartacus” is about a war – the Third Servile War. Spartacus was a warrior and led an army. The movie “Ben Hur” has only one scene that has anything to do with war – the famous galley battle scene. One scene does not a war movie make, especially when the rest of the movie is obviously not even attempting to be classified in the war movie category.

Do not get me wrong – I am a huge fan of this movie. I personally feel it is the greatest movie ever made. This means that if it really is a “war movie”, it should be rated much higher than #96! However, it is not a war movie by any reasonable definition of what a war movie is and thus does not belong on the list.

So what is a “war movie”? Having seen over 100 films that everyone would agree are war films, I will offer the following definition. A war movie must be set in a war. This eliminates “post-war dislocations”. It must be about warriors (including reluctant ones) and/or their leaders. This eliminates most “spy capers”. Those two qualifications should be sufficient for our purposes. “Ben Hur” is not set in a war and Judah Ben Hur is not a warrior except for the brief galley scene. I would describe the categories as: battle movies (“Gettysburg”), soldier life (“Platoon”), POWs (“The Great Escape”), biographies of soldiers, generals, or war leaders (“To Hell and Back”), suicide missions (“Guns of Navarone”), war satires or comedies (“MASH”), strategy (“Downfall”), adventure (“The Man Who Would Be King”), the home front (“The Best Years of Our Lives”), and romances set in war (“Casablanca”).

THE GALLEY BATTLE SCENE

Judah Ben Hur has been convicted of treason and sentenced to life on a Roman war galley. A Roman consul takes command and uses Ben Hur’s ship as his flagship. He announces that they are going to war with Macedonians who have been conducting raids on Roman territory. He checks out his oarsmen by seeing how they do at “ramming speed”. He takes an interest in Judah and when the battle looms he orders that Judah not be chained. In the battle, the ship shears off the oars of one enemy ship and rams another before being rammed itself. The enemy board and are taking the ship when Judah saves the consul’s life and prevents him from committing suicide when he assumes the battle is lost.

This is the only war scene in the movie and is justifiably famous, but how authentic and accurate is it? As far as authenticity, the scene rings true. Heck, the actors are even sweating when the consul decides to take his ship out for a spin! In a nice touch, the Roman in charge of pace is using wooden mallets on a wooden block, which is accurate. Galley battles at this stage of warfare did feature ramming and boarding tactics. The ships would either shear off the opponent’s oars to disable them or ram them broadside to sink them. They did use missile weapons as shown in the film. The Roman soldiers are equipped appropriately with the short sword (gladius) and shield (scutum).

There are numerous problems historically, however. First, it is out of place in historical chronology. “Ben Hur” is set in the 1st Century A.D. At this point the Roman navy was in complete control of the Mediterranean and would not have been fighting any naval battles. Second, the Roman navy was rowed by freemen, not convicts or even slaves. The slave-rowed galley is a standard Hollywood myth. Third, the standard Roman warship at this time was the quinquereme. The ship in the movie is a trireme - three banks of oars. Fourth, the Romans did have ballistae on their warships, but not catapults. Ballistae would have had the low trajectory and accuracy appropriate for combat on moving ships, whereas catapults with their arced trajectory would have been inefficient. Also, there is no record of the Romans hurling fire in naval battles.

In spite of these inaccuracies, the scene fits well into the plot of the movie and as an introduction to ancient galley warfare it is outstanding. In a movie which is not a war movie, it is a commendable effort.

Next up:  #95 - The Last of the Mohicans

Sunday, August 8, 2010

#97 - Northwest Passage


BACKSTORY


The film is based on the acclaimed novel of the same name by Kenneth Roberts which was published in 1937. The movie came out in 1940 and was one of the first big Technicolar movies. It was nominated for an Oscar for cinematography. Director King Vidor was one of the best directors of the time and star Spencer Tracy was as big as they got. The movie was meant to be the first of two parts with the sequel covering the actual attempt to locate the Northwest Passage. The main character was the real-life Robert Rogers who formed the famous Rogers’ Rangers unit that fought in the French and Indian War. The Rangers were a light infantry unit that the British used for reconnaissance and special operations like raids into Indian territory. They specialized in guerrilla warfare. The movie depicts their most famous exploit – the St. Francis Raid.

Spencer Tracy

OPENING SCENE

The movie opens in 1759 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Langton Towne ( Robert Young ) returns home after getting kicked out of Harvard. He wants to be an artist and his parents are supportive. Langton is in love with Elizabeth Browne, but her father strongly disapproves of his career choice calling it “claptrap”.

SUMMARY

At a tavern, Langton slanders a British official named Daggett and the Indian agent William Johnson and has to flee with his friend “Hunk” Marriner ( Walter Brennan ) for fear of arrest. They meet a green-uniformed man at a rural tavern who turns out to be the famous Robert Rogers ( Spencer Tracy ). Rogers buys them drinks and next thing they know they wake up at Crown Point with Rogers’ Rangers. Rogers convinces Langton to come along on a raid as his map-maker. He can paint Indians also.

Gen. Amherst (commander of British forces in New York) gives Rogers orders to take the war to the Indians who have been ravaging the frontier killing settlers. The mission is basically to get revenge by destroying the main Indian village at Saint-Francis. William Johnson insists Rogers bring along a force of Mohawk Indians. He reluctantly agrees.

The Rangers start on boats on Lake Champlain and pass by a French-Indian camp by night. They are headed into territory where they will have to avoid French and Indian forces. They have to portage over hills to avoid French sloops on the lake. This scene does a good job showing the difficulty of moving large boats across land from one waterway to another.

Rogers fires the Mohawk Indian scouts because they did not report the French ships. It turns out they are working for William Johnson who was trying to sabotage the expedition. Rogers also sends back 40 men for indiscipline. The remainder of about 160 men leaves the boats behind and strikes off into the wilderness. The movie is noteworthy for the beautiful scenery which the new Technicolor highlighted.

Robert Rogers

The march is extremely difficult with much wading through swamps while fighting mosquitoes. Because there is no dry land, they are forced to sleep in felled trees which makes for a cool sight. Rogers is a great role model for leadership as he goes without sleep, is enthusiastic, and tough, but fair with his men. He leaves behind a man with a broken leg saying “he knew what he was getting into”. The men have only cornmeal and sausage to eat and it soon runs out. There is a well-done scene of them crossing a raging river by creating a human chain.  (Tracy once said that the exertions actors had to go through were overrated, but he made an exception for this scene.)

Finally they arrive at the village and can hear the savages celebrating into the night. Rogers goes over the plan which involves some of them assaulting the village while other forces lie in ambush for fleeing Indians. Rogers tells them to “kill every fighting Indian, kill them quick, and kill ‘em dead.”

At dawn, with the Indians sleeping, Rogers leads the attack. They set fire to the village and the Indians panic and run into several ambushes. There is a great amount of gunfire partly because the actors are able (by the magic of Hollywood) to reload their flintlock muskets (called “firelocks”) in record times. They also use bayonets on the hapless Indians (watch closely and you can see the rubber bayonets wobbling). There are no women and children among the Indians until one shelter is busted into and a few come out. Rogers stops the men from killing them. A few white captives are taken, including one who has “gone Indian” and does not want to return with them. They lose 16 men killed and only one wounded. Unfortunately, the one wounded is Langton who has been stabbed in the stomach.

Rogers motivates Langton to get up and come with them ( “put your left foot forward, then your right” ) or else. Rogers orders the white wannabe Indian woman to be Langton’s crutch and she does it even though she could have easily escaped from him (not in a Hollywood movie, though). Surprisingly, they do not fall in love and get married at the end of the movie.

The movie jumps ten days with the force reaching Lake Agar. Langton is getting better. Apparently the best cure for a gut wound is to walk it off! They are out of food and miserable. Some of the men suggest splitting up so they can hunt better. Rogers argues the French and Indian pursuers are close and they need to stick together. This time Rogers’ speech falls on deaf ears and a war council votes to split up.

An interesting subplot is one of the men named Crofton has gone insane and is carrying something in a pouch and talking to himself a lot. It turns out the thing in the pouch is an Indian head that he has been snacking on! When Rogers confronts him, he tries to shoot Rogers and then jumps off a cliff. Rogers salutes him. What did they call “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” in the French and Indian War?

The men proceed in four separate units and we follow Rogers’ unit, naturally. At one point, they make a stew of an assortment of critters. One of the men goes crazy and runs off. Two survivors of one of the other units arrive and report that they had shot a moose which led to the detachment being captured by the French, but the two were able to escape. This is the way the movie points out Rogers was right about not separating. There are only 50 men left at this point. They press on through the rain with Rogers trying to keep their spirits up.

They finally arrive at their destination – Fort Wentworth. They find the fort abandoned and in a soul-crushing discovery realize that there is no food to be had. Rogers breaks down for a short while, but recovers before the men can see his depression. He gives an inspirational speech saying it could be worse. Be thankful for the roots and water that you have. As he quotes from the Bible, fife and drums are heard and a relief force arrives under Amherst with food. The British soldiers salute the ragged colonials.

LAST SCENE

The Rangers return to Crown Point to the acclaim of crowds. Rogers gets new orders and tells the men their next mission is to go to the Pacific to find the Northwest Passage. They march off into the sunset as Langton watches with Elizabeth. Langton: “It’s every man’s dream to find a short route to his heart’s desire. If the major dreams long enough, he’ll find it”.

RATINGS

Action - 7


Acting - 8


Accuracy - 7

Realism - 7 as good as you could expect from a 1940 movie

Plot - 7


Overall - 7


WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?

Although there are two speaking female roles, this is pretty much a guy movie. It does not have any gross or graphic images. However, the idea of a man eating an Indian’s head means you definitely want to put the dinner before the movie.

ACCURACY

Roberts’ book is considered to be well-researched and he did help with the screenplay, so the movie is better than most as far as accuracy is concerned. However, there are some disturbing exceptions to this. The attack on the village is Hollywoodized quite a bit. In actuality, few “fighting men” were in the village at the time. Most were off hunting or with the French searching for Rogers’ force. This means the 200 dead that Rogers claimed (actually it was closer to 30) were mostly women and children. Although Amherst gave Rogers specific orders not to kill noncombatants, Rogers either ignored the orders or could not control his men. The movie does not show the killing of any women or children. All the dying are Indian men running around in a panic. Substitute women and kids for the Indian actors and you would get a truly accurate depiction of the raid on Ft. St. Francis. Curiously, in the movie Rogers loses 16 men killed whereas in reality he lost only 1. I suppose the filmmakers decided it would be hard to swallow only one loss to all those Indian men fighting for their lives.

There is no evidence that Rogers disagreed with the decision to split up. It could be argued that it was the correct decision and the reason Rogers’ detachment survived was because it was the luckiest and it had him as its leader.

A very typical Hollywood fabrication is the British relief arriving literally minutes after the Rangers despair at Ft. Wentworth. In actuality, Rogers left his men at the fort and went to get food and a relief force promising to be back within ten days. He returned ten days later with the rescue party. You can figure out why the moviemakers decided to shorten the time frame and not have Spencer Tracy leave the starving men behind while he went for food!

The rest of the movie is pretty spot-on. It does an especially good job showing the trials the unit went through. The strategy and tactics are accurate. Tracy’s portrayal of Rogers is a good one.

The movie has been criticized for its racist tone toward the Indians. It does cause modern seats to squirm, but remember the movie was made in 1940. Plus, the movie reflects the books accurate look at colonial attitudes toward the marauding Indians. They really hated those Indians and with good reason considering the atrocities perpetrated against white settlers. If anything, the movie pulls its’ punches by not accurately showing the killing of innocents at Saint-Francis. It is asking too much for a 1940 movie to point out the whites were no angels when it came to atrocities. It will be another 30 years before “Little Big Man” gave us the Indian perspective and an accurate depiction of what whites did to sleeping Indian villages.

CRITIQUE

For its time period, “Northwest Passage” is a pretty good movie. It is an excellent study in leadership with Tracy doing an outstanding job as Robert Rogers. Aspiring leaders could get some tips from how Rogers handled his men through some very difficult obstacles. (Serious injury? Walk it off!) However, it has to be noted that the movie glorifies Rogers and he probably was not a saint.

The scenery is awesome and gives you the idea of why the colonials would later fight the British for possession of it.

You have to credit the filmmakers for making a movie about a forgotten war (the French and Indian War) and some forgotten heroes (Rogers and his Rangers). If they took a few typical liberties with the facts, they can be excused.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, if you are interested in an old school “action-quest” film and do not like to watch black and white, try “Northwest Passage”. Just don’t expect to learn how to get to the Northwest Passage. It serves as a good history lesson about the original “Rangers” that inspired all the other Ranger groups throughout American military history. Today’s Army Rangers should watch it to learn their heritage. Boy Scouts should be required to watch it so they won’t complain next time they are in the woods. Anyone in a leadership position might get some ideas from Robert Rogers. You might want to be careful with his advice on how to handle worker injuries. One group that should skip it – Native Americans.

Next up:  #96 - Ben Hur

Saturday, August 7, 2010

#100 - The Thin Red Line



BACK STORY: “The Thin Red Line” came out in 1998 (the same year as “Saving Private Ryan”). It is based on the acclaimed novel by James Jones and is a fictional account set in the Battle of Guadalcanal. The film marked the return of legendary director Terence Malick after a twenty year hiatus. He had previously made “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven”, both of which were highly thought of in Hollywood. Many A-list actors were interested in being directed by Malick in whatever movie he made his comeback with. In fact, several major actors worked on the movie and were left on the cutting room floor (e.g. Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman ). The movie did not do well at the box office, but did garner seven Oscar nominations ( including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Cinematography ). It won none.


OPENING SCENE: The movie opens with an idyllic scene in a native village where two AWOL soldiers are living in peaceful paradise. We listen to the first installment of the “voiceover” as a disembodied voice comments about nature. Later in the scene, the main character (Witt) sees an American warship off the coast and next thing you know – he’s in the brig.

SUMMARY: We meet most of the characters on board a troop ship headed for Guadalcanal. A pompous general (cameoed woodenly by John Travolta) implies to Col. Tell ( Nick Nolte ) that this is his chance to advance his stagnant career. Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn) meets with Witt and implies he disagrees with his anti-war philosophy and his going AWOL, but he still likes him. Witt is going to be put in a discipline battalion where he will be a stretcher-bearer. Meanwhile below decks, the soldiers are doing the typical before a landing clichés like complaining about how their officer (Staros) is not a warrior and they always get the shit details. It is this scene that signals the first flaw in the movie. This is supposed to be August in the South Pacific and below deck in a poorly ventilated troop ship and yet no one is sweating! (I will come back to this theme of how the characters react to the environment in future movie reviews. Or more simply, are they sweating when they should be?)

The landing via Higgins boats is unopposed and the men head inland. Here the viewer becomes aware that Malick is very interested in shots of nature and we will have to put up with the pretentious and sometimes indecipherable voiceover throughout the movie. The men are still not sweating!

The core of the movie involves an assault on a hill that has several hidden bunkers that have clear fields of fire. The first attempt ends up with the unit being pinned down after suffering severe casualties. The assault is shown with appropriate graphic violence and realistically portrays the “fog of war”. Malick develops the theme that war causes men to crack and do things that violate humanity. He also does a good job depicting the randomness of war as some men are hit and others are not. Sgt. Keck pulls the pin on a grenade then accidentally drops it and is mortally wounded.

See that grenade - do not accidentally pull the pin!

There is a command crisis as Tell insists on taking the hill immediately at any cost while the company commander Staros insists it’s a suicide mission and refuses to order the attack. Tell backs down and allows a flanking attack. A patrol of volunteers ( including the deserter Witt who has begged to return to the unit ) goes after the main bunker. The tactics portrayed are realistic with artillery fire called in first and then grenades thrown through sight holes. Americans kill prisoners (which definitely happens in combat especially when there is racism involved).


Tell arrives and is excited about the victory, but wants more and insists on pushing on even after being informed that the men are suffering from lack of water. At one point Tell says “The only time to worry about a soldier is when he stops bitching”. The audience is meant to feel that Tell is an insensitive jerk, but if you think about it he is right. You should not give up the momentum and it’s a leader’s job to insist on doing the right thing even if the men want to rest.

Nolte as Col. Tell

The attack reaches the Japanese camp where at first the Japanese meet it with a frontal attack which inexplicably quickly turns into the Japanese running away. The Americans rampage through the camp with the Japanese putting up little fight. Most of them are so delirious they cannot even commit suicide. This flies in the face of the standard view of the fanatical Japanese soldiers.


After the battle, Tell relieves Staros from command because he is too soft and cares about his men too much. Again, we sympathize with Staros, but have to admit Tell is right. The men are enjoying R and R including booze in bottles ( no “jungle juice” for them ) and the amazing absence of critters like mosquitoes. Malick’s Guadalcanal is a tropical paradise with no rain where you can snooze in the lush grass.

One character gets to have flashbacks about his lovely wife. As though it’s not obvious enough what is going to happen, he even comments to a friend “I haven’t touched another woman”. Cliché/Spoiler Alert: guess what his wife has to tell him in her next letter?

Returning to battle, we find the unit wading in a river under the command of a new officer who is clearly in over his head ( not literally ). When there is suspicion that they might be wading into an ambush, Witt volunteers to scout ahead. Witt runs into a large Japanese force and proceeds to lead them away in scene similar to the “Platoon” scene where Elias is killed. Witt does not get to die Christ-like, however. Later, we see the obligatory burial scene with the stoical mates saying goodbye to the deserter/pacifist who had morphed into a heroic warrior.

THE FINAL SCENE: Malick bookends his stunt cameos with George Clooney arriving as the new Captain and giving your standard pep talk. The men re-embark and the battle is over for them and for us.

RATINGS:

Realism – 5

Acting – 6 ( some embarrassing performances )

Action - 7 (some good combat scenes)

Accuracy – 5

Plot - 8 (it is based on a great novel)

Overall - 5

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?:   My wife hated this movie. She sighed through the entire length and could not wait for it to end.

CRITIQUE: Most movie critics loved this movie when it came out. They had been waiting for twenty years for a Malick product and refused to be disappointed. It seems every male actor wanted in on the project and when Malick would tell them to wander around and gaze at the sea ( as he did with Travolta in his big scene ) they did not question the “genius”. The Oscar nominating committee must have been very impressed with cinematography that managed to make Guadalcanal into a tourist destination. Some lucky cameraman was paid to get numerous shots of flora and fauna, especially looking upward. And then there are the voice-overs which are sometimes character’s voices ( often unidentifiable ) and sometimes a more generic sentiment. This may be inspired film-making but it just looks and sounds pretentious to the average war movie buff.

The main fault of the movie ( and any bad war movie ) is lack of realism. Malick may be arguing that the Battle of Guadalcanal was evil man versus good environment, but any veteran of the campaign would support the view that the environment was almost as big a villain as the Japanese. To make a film set on a tropical island and not show the pests, the rain and mud, and the heat is laughable.

Several of the characters do not behave realistically. Witt goes from pacifist to gung-ho with no explanation why. Welsh is a tough guy, yet he volunteers to assist a malingerer back to the rear at a critical moment in the battle, but later he makes a suicidal dash into no man’s land to help a dying soldier.

The assault on the bunker is well done, but the following attack on the camp strains credulity as the Japanese behave against type. Is Malick being a revisionist? Nothing I have read suggests the fanaticism of Japanese soldiers has been inaccurately depicted by military historians.

ACCURACY:

This movie was not meant to be a documentary about the Battle of Guadalcanal, but since the movie-going public often gets its history from Hollywood it is a shame that the movie gives an inaccurate take on the battle. The unit arrives on the first day of the battle and moves into the interior to assault the hill. This is contrary to the flow of the actual battle. Guadalcanal was mainly a defensive battle in the early stages. The landing was unopposed, the Americans seized the airfield and then had to hold it against several banzai-type assaults. The movie plays loose with chronology by skipping the defensive phase and moving to the offensive.

Although we cannot demand that Malick teach the Battle of Guadalcanal through his film, we can demand that he get the soldiers’ experience right. The biggest flaw of the movie is to gloss over the terrible hardships the men went through. Guadalcanal was a tropical hell, not a tropical paradise. When men broke down on Guadalcanal it was usually due to the living conditions, not the combat. A famous phrase associated with the battle was “One more Marine reporting, St. Peter. I’ve served my term in Hell”.

CONCLUSION: Because I am in the opening stage of my journey through the greatest war movies, it is premature to offer an opinion on whether “The Thin Red Line” belongs on the list. I will be watching some movies that did not make the list as part of my “Should it have made the cut?” blogs which will basically come down to whether other movies are better than “The Thin Red Line”. However, I feel it is safe at this point to say that this movie is a dubious inclusion on the list. For instance, just off the top of my head, I would argue that “Enemy at the Gates” is a superior war film.

Next up:  #99 - They Were Expendable

# 98 - Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo


BACK STORY: “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” was made in 1944 during World War II. It is based on the famous book by Ted Lawson. Lawson flew the “Ruptured Duck” in the famous Doolittle Raid. The book and movie cover the planning, preparation, execution, and aftermath of the raid from the perspective of one of the participants. The training phase of movie was filmed at Elgin Field where the actual training took place. A mock-up of an aircraft carrier deck was constructed on a sound stage and a 60’ model of the Hornet was used in a tank. Also, the USAAF provided B-25 bombers to add to the documentary feel of the flying scenes. Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo made several flights to get a feel for air combat. The movie also makes good use of newsreel footage. There is even some actual footage from the Raid. Ted Lawson and other Raiders served as consultants and the film was acknowledged as authentic by the group as a whole. The film was awarded the Oscar for Special Effects in 1945 and was nominated for Cinematography.

OPENING SCENE: The famous aviator Jimmy Doolittle (Spencer Tracy) is in the office of Hap Arnold and they discuss a secret mission to bomb Tokyo and several other Japanese cities using Army bombers taking off from a naval aircraft carrier.

SUMMARY: We next see a scene of the B-25’s flying cross country to Elgin Field in Florida. Interestingly, the scene is reminiscent of the arrival of the PT squadron in “They Were Expendable”. The crews get accustomed to their new barracks and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo throws in some realistic dialogue of the men conjecturing about the mission as soldiers and airmen have a tendency to do. “What’s the dope?”

Doolittle meets the men in your standard war movie “briefing in the assembly hall” scene. Typically, he emphasizes the importance of secrecy. After the briefing, the only major female character, Lawson’s wife Ellen (overplayed by Phyllis Thaxter), arrives to interject a romantic subplot. It’s your 1940ish movie romance that a modern audience would find corny, complete with soundtrack to match. Surprise! She’s going to have a baby. Should he give up this chance of a lifetime to be a hero for his country? Guess what he decides to do (with her full support).

The crews are taken to a runway where their training begins. They must be able to take off in less than 500 feet. The movie deemphasizes the difficulty and makes the training seem prefunctory.

It’s back to the bedroom for some more old school romancing. The actress playing Mrs. Lawson overacts and attempts to portray the perfect military wife. This is followed by a night club scene that continues to lay the schmaltz on thick.




We get the flying across the country montage as the unit rendezvous with the U.S.S. Hornet. There is a bit of humor as Lawson gets lost in the maze that is a carrier below decks. One of the airmen says “I’ve got a girl back home. If we get back, I’m gonna marry her.” In a shocking breech of war movie clichés, he does not get killed!

            Spencer Tracy makes another appearance to justify his fat pay check as he explains the mission. The men are appropriately impressed with the boldness of the objective. Later on deck, Lawson and Thatcher talk about the mission. They refreshingly do not hate the Japanese and there is no mention of revenge for Pearl Harbor. Lawson says “You suddenly realize you’re gonna dump a ton of high explosives on one of the biggest cities in the world… I don’t pretend to like the idea of killing a bunch of people, but it’s a case of drop a bomb on them or pretty soon they’ll be dropping one on Ellen”. (Shame on you if you feel at this point that both things happening would be great.) Less realistic is the depiction of the love fest between the sailors and the Army air crews. Their love and respect for each other may have been factual, but flies in the face of the more common depiction of a bar-fight-waiting-to-happen that we see in most war movies.

the take-off
Doolittle meets with the men for the last time and tells them to bomb military targets only, but civilian casualties will be inevitable. Soon after, the Hornet is spotted by a Japanese patrol boat and the mission is scrambled 150 miles sooner than planned.  Several of the pilots refuse toi take off knowing they do not have enough fuel to make it to their landing sites.  Just kidding!  The take-offs take place without a hitch.  We're on board Lawson's plane. 


the "Ruptured Duck" over Tokyo
The take-offs are handled with excellent special effects especially since a carrier was not available for the filming. Some shots look like the real deal and may be from the newsreel footage.  (The scene is so well done, more than thirty years later it was used in the movie "Midway".)  The low-level flying is also well done including the sound effects.  It sounds like you are in the "Ruptured Duck". We stay with Lawson and get the raid from the “Ruptured Duck” perspective. They spot several Japanese fighters, but are not intercepted. The filmmakers admirably chose accuracy over false Hollywood suspense. However, they cannot pass up the opportunity to have a multitude of explosions when the unrealistically accurate bombing is shown. (One shot of a fire breaking out was actually a fuel-fire in Oakland that occurred during the filming. The director literally scrambled one of the bombers to get the shot!) The mission is accomplished with nary a problem which is surprisingly accurate as only one of the Raiders was hit over Japan. I particularly liked this scene because it is done with no music and little dialogue.
It’s on to China with not enough fuel. Lawson is forced to crash land off the coast at night. Several crew members are injured including Lawson who has a bad leg. There is some scene chewing in this scene, but the movie is mostly free of this ( except Lawson’s wife ). We even get a flashback to her saying “The baby is why you’re coming back to us”.

The Chinese arrive and take them to a hut. They are given cigarettes which in 1940’s war movies is a symbol of friendship. They are moved by litters to keep ahead of the very angry Japanese. The injured are in terrible pain, but of course are stoical about it. They reach a hospital and Lawson is diagnosed with gangrene. “Doc” White who had graduated from Harvard Medical School performs the amputation which is not graphic but has some fine acting by Van Johnson. In a cute scene, Chinese kids sing the National Anthem in Chinese. They are finally able to reach an airfield where they are evacuated by an American plane.

Mrs. Lawson finds about the lost limb in a phone call from Doolittle. Lawson does not want to tell her because he feels she will feel he’s not the man he was ( cliché alert ). On her part, she’s worried she will think she is fat ( even though she is not showing after all these months being pregnant ).

THE FINAL SCENE: Doolittle visits Lawson to tell him he should tell his wife about the injury because she can take it. Lawson wants to wait until his artificial leg is ready. Doolittle leaves and the wife enters for a surprise reunion. She takes one look at the stump and flees crying. Just kidding! Lawson gets up to run into her arms and falls. They wrap up as the movie wraps up. Surprisingly the movie does not close with mention of the significance of the Raid which would be standard for a movie of this type.

RATINGS:

Action - 6

Acting - 6 some scene chewing, especially the wife and a corn-pone, comic relief Southern airman

Accuracy -  8

Realism - 7

Plot - 7

OVERALL - 7

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? I found the romantic subplot to be cringe-inducing. However, some “significant others” may enjoy this aspect of the movie. Certainly any woman that grew up before the baby boom will be comfortable with the depiction of the relationship of a pilot and his wife. My wife liked it and pointed to the deft mixture of war and the personal lives of the men.

CRITIQUE: TSOT is an admirable depiction of one of the legendary raids in all of history. It brings one of the great war books to the screen accurately. The movie is realistic and is one of the best movies in the “war movies - air combat” genre. There are no glaring Hollywood “add to the action” scenes. This unfortunately makes the movie less entertaining to the non-war movie buff who does not care about the facts. A fictional movie about a daring bombing raid on an enemy capital could be much more exciting.  (If you want that, see "Memphis Belle".)   I have to give major credit to these filmmakers for avoiding that temptation.

ACCURACY: The film was lauded for its authenticity when it was released and justifiably so. It has a documentary feel to it which, by the way, makes the romantic subplot even more jarring. However, I must admit that even this is accurate because Lawson was recently married at the time of the mission.  I do not know if he married a Stepford wife.

The coverage of the planning, training, take-off, bombing, crashing, and surviving are all handled much more accurately and realistically than most war movies of that time period. The director and screenwriter deserve commendation for this. Doolittle was much as we see him depicted here. He did not originate the plan, but he certainly grabbed the ball and ran with it. The practice take-offs are downplayed too much in the film. It was actually not easy to take-off in such a small space and few were able to do it at first. The interiors of the planes are accurately depicted down to little details.

They did have to launch 150 miles too soon because the fleet was spotted by a sentry boat. The movie accurately refers to the fuel problem. The take-offs did go off without a major problem, other than a sailor losing an arm to a propeller. Because the Japanese happened to be practicing an air raid drill, they were not molested by Japanese fighters who assumed they were part of the drill. Although they hit their target of Tokyo, the bombing was not as precision as shown and the damage was negligible.

The “Ruptured Duck” did crash in the surf and it was during a storm. Lawson’s leg was badly injured and it was amputated by “Doc” White. Because this was basically Lawson’s story, we do not learn much about the other planes, but I would like to point out that 8 aviators were captured by the Japanese and three were executed and one died of malnutrition.

I do find fault with the movie glossing over the penalty the Chinese paid for aiding the Raiders. It is estimated that well over 100,000 Chinese lives were lost to Japanese vengeance for the raid. Many of the Chinese depicted in the movie (including the cute kids) were killed in gruesome ways by the Japanese. No mention is made of this.

CONCLUSION: This movie stands up pretty well in comparison with other WWII movies from that time period because it avoids a lot of the clichés, the overpatriotism, and the happy ending. It does have the old school romantic subplot, but I can live with that.  It added some unintentional humor. The acting is pretty good. Van Johnson was like the George Clooney of his day. He anchors the movie well. Tracy was a giant, but is not given a lot to do. It’s too bad they never made a biopic of Doolittle – that would have been a great acting opportunity!

It could have been a lot more exciting, but at the expense of realism and accuracy. As it is, it stands as one of the best aviation films and a worthy history lesson for those who do not want to have to read about Jimmy Doolittle and his remarkable Raiders.  God forbid!

Next up:  #97 - Northwest Passage

Coming soon:  DUELING MOVIES - Thirty Seconds vs. Memphis Belle

#99 - They Were Expendable




BACK STORY: Our 99th ranked movie was released in 1945 and directed by the legendary John Ford.  (Some consider it his best film.)  This was the last of his fourteen films with famed cinematographer Joseph August. The film is based on the book by the same name by William White. The book is the story of a PT boat squadron in the Philippines at the start of WWII. The screenplay was written by Frank “Spig” Wead who war movie buffs will recognize as the hero of Ford’s “Wings of Eagles” starring John Wayne  (“I’m gonna move that toe”) . The main characters in the book and movie are the commander John Bulkeley ( played by Robert Montgomery as John Brickley ) and his executive officer Robert Kelly ( played by John Wayne as “Rusty” Ryan ). Ford was good friends with Bulkeley and spent five days with him during the Normandy invasion. Bulkelely was in command of a PT-Boat squadron at the time. Ford had to step down from the director’s chair midway through shooting due to health reasons and surprisingly tapped Montgomery instead of Wayne to finish up. In a side note, real-life nurse Beulah Greenwalt (played by Donna Reed as "Sandy Davys") felt her portrayal “cheapened her character” and sued and won $290,000. The movie was a hit and was praised for its authenticity. It was nominated for Best Visual Effects and Best Sound Recording.  It was filmed in the Florida Keys which stand in well for the Philippines.
 
OPENING SCENE: The film opens with a patriotic song and quote from Douglas MacArthur ( “I shall return” ). We are in Manila Bay "in the year of Our Lord 1941". A line of PT boats approaches the harbor as naval brass watches. Brickley orders a maneuver by the squadron to show off their speed and maneuverability. This elicits the comment from the Admiral that the boats “maneuver magnificently, but I in wartime I would prefer something a little more substantial.” This establishes the theme that the torpedo boats are the navy’s stepchildren.

SUMMARY: We move on to the obligatory “sailors drinking in a club” scene. Any war movie buff knows a major announcement will be forthcoming to break up the party. Before that we get the cliché of a sailor (Ryan) demanding a transfer to a combat outfit and then tearing up the request when it is announced that Pearl Harbor has been attacked.

Brickley anticipates an air attack and leads the squadron out of the harbor. They fight off an attack shooting down two in a good action scene. However, upon returning to base they find it destroyed and burning. This actually happened.

The Admiral calls in Brickley and sets the theme that the PT boats are expendable. He uses the baseball analogy of a sacrifice bunt. He assigns them messenger and patrol duty. Later they earn a mission against a Japanese cruiser. Ryan has an arm wound and insists on going, but in cliché-busting move Brickley sends him to the hospital.

In the hospital, Ryan meets a comely nurse ( Donna Reed as Sandy Davys ) and of course, their relationship starts off prickly. Guess what – this is temporary! There is no historical basis for the love story, but this is a 1940s war movie so you are required to have romance.

Meanwhile they are having trouble with their engines due to sabotage. Before you say that that could not have been the actual reason – it was. They go after the cruiser in spite of faulty equipment. A model of a cruiser blows up in a spectacular fireworks display. Unfortunately, this never happened.

Nurse Davys stoically helps in an operation under bombardment, but later dons pearls for a dinner with the guys (she may be in uniform, but she’s still a woman). Rusty and Sandy begin their chaste romance.

Things are not going well at the front. Whenever a PT is lost the crew is conscripted into the army. In one admirable scene, Brickley sends off a group of his mates with a speech that does not sugar-coat the situation – you are expendable. In another surprising turn from the usual war movie fare, Ryan’s attempt to say goodbye to Sandy over the phone gets cut off and he does not see or hear from her again.
The squadron is given the secret mission of evacuating some big brass which turns out to include MacArthur and his family. MacArthur is presented reverentially with no hint that many soldiers were at this point calling him “Dugout Doug” for his rare appearances at the front. The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” plays on the soundtrack (the movie is full of patriotic music). A map shows the perilous journey which contributed to Buckely being awarded the Medal of Honor.

The survivors return to regular duty and sink another cruiser in an action-packed scene similar in fireworks to the first, but at least this one is based on an actual attack. The only problem is in reality only one torpedo hit and it was a dud. The movie-makers decided not to delve into the fact that American torpedoes in the early months of the war were notoriously unlikely to explode on contact with Japanese ships.
The next scene is an accurate depiction of a seaplane attack on Brickley’s boat resulting in its destruction. Try not to notice that the movie planes are dropping bombs they are clearly not carrying. Several crew members are killed and in the clichéd funeral scene, Rusty realistically proclaims that in war you cannot expect a fancy funeral.

They are now all in the Army. Ryan goes off by himself for no discernable reason, but at least he is sweating as he tromps through the jungle. He meets up with Brickley and they find the Army in full retreat. Before they can join their brothers in arms and go down in a blaze of glory a general informs Brickley and Ryan that they are too valuable to the future of the torpedo boat program and are going to be evacuated on the last flight to Australia. Sadly, their crew is not on the list so they part ways in an appropriately stoical male way. “Good luck” “So long” 

THE FINAL SCENE: In a refreshingly nontraditional scene, Rusty insists on getting off the plane to fight on, but desists after Brickley reminds him he cannot put himself above the needs of the service. “We’re going home to do a job and that job is to get ready to come back”. All those who thought no way the Duke escapes the battle in a plane – think again! We see the plane flying off into the sunset as their mates gaze up on their way to death or imprisonment as the “Battle Hymn” makes a reappearance.

RATINGS:

Action - 7


Acting - 8


Accuracy - 7


Realism - 8


Plot - 7


Overall - 7

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?:  Surprisingly, in spite of the romantic subplot, my wife did not like this movie. She felt the love story was just thrown in to show the softer side of war. She found the film had too much of a documentary feel to it. She also had trouble keeping track of the characters.

CRITIQUE: Considering when the movie was made ( during WWII ), “They Were Expendable” is laudably free of many of the old-school clichés movies made during this period are noted for. There is no happy ending. The romance does not close with a long passionate welcome-back kiss. The heroes do not bathe in glory in the end.

An interesting dynamic is that between the two leads.  Montgomery underplays his Brickley and Wayne is, well, John Wayne.  Montgomery was just coming off his real-life stint as a wartime PT commander and probably would have been embarassed to be overly heroic.  He has the look of someone who has been there.  Wayne's character is much more gung-ho. For this reason, Brickley and Ryan are not BFFs and that is realistic.

In spite of the refreshing reining in of the standard plot-lines, the film does not altogether avoid some cringe-worthy moments. We get the patriotic soundtrack swelling at the appropriate scenes. There is the reverential treatment of the controversial MacArthur. Not surprisingly the effectiveness of the PT boats is exaggerated.

I was especially impressed with how the film-makers put in the usual plot-lines, but then twisted them. The romance between Rusty and Sandy is standard until their last conversation is cut off. Rusty insists on fighting although wounded, but gets over-ruled and sits the big attack out in a hospital. Rusty wants to go down fighting, but ends up fleeing the war zone. All very refreshing and unexpected.

ACCURACY: It handles a true story as accurately as could be reasonably hoped for. It is the realism of the script that is particularly praiseworthy. In an era when most war movies were puff-pieces, TWE dares to flout many conventions. Although optimistic at the end, there is no doubt that we got our ass kicked during the period the movie covers.

CONCLUSION: I would have to say that TWE holds up pretty well after all these years. The acting is strong and it tells a story that would normally be overlooked by Hollywood. The valiant PT crews in the Philippines at that stage of WWII deserve the recognition.  Specifically, John Buckeley deserves the recognition.  Let’s face it, if Hollywood had not made this movie, how many Americans would have known the role the PT boats played in the defense of the Philippines?


Next up:  #98 -  Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo

Coming soon:  DUELING MOVIES -  Expendable vs. Bataan









Wednesday, August 4, 2010

THE GREATEST WAR MOVIES

MISSION: The mission I have undertaken is to watch and critique each of the films on Military History magazine’s list of the “100 Greatest War Movies” in reverse order. I hope to watch one movie each week which means this project will take about two years.


THE LIST: The editors of Military History magazine put together a diverse panel of experts which included historians and movie critics to determine the greatest war movies. The movies that made the list reflect the full spectrum of films that could be described as war movies. It includes spy movies, movies set on the home front, and even comedies. “What lifts the films reviewed…at least a cut above the rest is the revealing light they shed on the paradoxes that shape human nature…. They take us to places where the reality and unreality of war intersect.” These qualifications mean there are some movies on the list that many war movie fans will shake their heads at. One of my goals as a war movie buff is to keep an open mind as I review the questionable inclusions on the list.

MY QUALIFICATIONS: I teach Military History at New Iberia Senior High School. I created the course and use war movies as part of the course. I have always loved military history and have read extensively in the field, both nonfiction and fiction. I have been watching war movies since I was a child ( my favorite movie as a boy was “The Great Escape” ). I have also read extensively on the subject of war films. I have seen an enormous amount of war movies and had already seen most of the movies on the list. I have the ability to determine what is Hollywood and what is real history.

THE FORMAT: I will watch one movie per week starting with #100 and working to #1. My review will include back-story, the opening scene, summary, the closing scene ( spoiler alert! ), and the critique. I will grade the movie on action, acting, accuracy, realism, and plot. Most importantly, I will weigh in on how accurate the movie is. I will also include a section entitled “Would Chicks Dig It?” in which I will suggest whether women would like the film. I will conclude with my opinion on how I would rate the movie and whether it deserves its spot on the list. I welcome debate.

THE OUTCOME: You and I will adjust the list so it is the actual 100 greatest war movies of all time. I mention you because I welcome your input. I also welcome suggestions of what movies did not make the list, but should have. I will watch these movies and let you know what I think.