Thursday, December 29, 2011

BEST AND WORST OF 2011


All About War Movies gave me the idea of a list of the best and worst war movies I reviewed  in 2011.  To qualify, I could not have seen the movie in the last five years.  I saw a lot of war movies in 2011.  Few were great and few were terrible.

THE BEST

10.  Cross of Iron - great performance by James Coburn as one of my favorite characters - Steiner;  gritty combat; very anti-war; set on the Eastern Front in WWII

9.  Army of Crime- the best of the French Resistance movies;  concentrates on the French Communist Resistance in WWII

8.  Beau Geste - old school entertainment; a rare war movie mystery and it works;  great cast

7.  Battle of Haditha - true story of an atrocity in Iraq seen through both perspectives;  thought-provoking and fair-minded

6.  The Train - Burt Lancaster at his peak;  very suspenseful;  Resistance protecting art treasures

5.  Born on the 4th of July -  Tom Cruise's greatest performance;  goes from pro-war to anti-war in a realistic way;  true story of Ron Kovic

4.  Where Eagles Dare -  the best of its type - war/action/adventure;  a kick-ass movie with some great twists and a lot of dead Germans

3.  Three Kings -  a modern war film for modern audiences;  great ensemble cast;  personalizes the Persian Gulf War

2.  Oh, What a Lovely War! -  WWI set to period music;  a remarkable movie with great songs;  very hard on the brass - justifiably so

1.  Waltz with Bashir - the most incredible movie I saw last year of any type;  set in Israel's invasion of Lebanon;  the visuals are jaw-dropping

THE WORST

5.  In Harm's Way - bloated star-studded soap opera set around Pearl Harbor;  even John Wayne and Kirk Douglas

4.  Hanover Street -  sappy romance set in WWII with a ridiculous spy plot thrown in

3.  Journey to Shiloh - some friends trek to join the Confederate Army;  series of lame adventures ensue

2.  Tin Drum -  a bizarre movie about a malevolent little boy set in WWII;  many critics patted themselves on the back for praising this piece of crap

1.  Braveheart - my mission to watch the top 100 war movies forced me to watch this abomination again;  the small hope that I had been too hard on it in the past did not come to fruition;  the most egregious falsification of history ever put on film 

Sunday, December 25, 2011

NOW SHOWING: War Horse


     Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” opened on Christmas day and I attended the first feature. Being a war movie buff, I have eagerly awaited this movie, but with trepidation because Spielberg has been known to get juvenile in his movies, especially recently. The movie is based on a children’s novel and an acclaimed stage play. The movie has generated numerous awards nominations and could end up as one of the more important films of the year. But how is it as a war movie?


     The movie opens with the birth of a colt in Great Britain. The birth is witnessed by a farm boy named Albert (Jeremy Irvine). Albert falls in love with the horse and in a happy coincidence his father decides to outbid his evil landlord for the horse at an auction where his farm desperately needs a work-horse. “Joey” (as Alby calls him) is no work-horse and his mother Rosie (Emily Watson) rightfully thinks her husband is daft. They can’t get rid of the horse because Alby really wants a pony. In a cliché-busting scene, Joey proves to be easily trainable and very smart. When the landlord (David Thewlis) threatens to take back the farm if the drunken, loser father (Peter Mullan) does not make a rock-strewn field productive, Alby hitches him to a plow and (with the help of a fortuitous rainstorm that quickly softens the ground) the horse earns his keep.

     The father’s love of the bottle is explained by his soldiering in the Boer War. He was decorated, but does not talk about it. Rosie theorizes that “he refuses to be proud of killing”. He is so down on his luck that when the plowed turnip field is ruined by rain, he is forced to sell Joey to the military. The horse goes off to war as the underage Alby stays home.

     The movie from this point on is basically another take-off on Homer’s “Odyssey” with Joey meeting several interesting new owners and facing dangers. Here is a summary:

1. Captain Nicholls rides Joey in a cavalry charge which represents every cavalry charge of the Great War in that machine guns > horses.

2. Two German brothers acquire the horse who is to be used as an artillery-puller, but instead is used as a getaway horse as the elder brother rescues the younger from a column heading for the front.

3. A feisty young French girl named Emilie is the next owner. Before she can break her brittle bones riding recklessly, the German army requisitions the horse and its back to the artillery.

4. An animal-loving German lets Joey escape when his usefulness is approaching bullet-in-the-head time. In the process, in a scene of heavy-handed symbolism, Joey escapes from a tank and then runs down a trench and then through no man’s land. Unfortunately, Joey gets entangled in barbed wire.

5. A Tommy and a Fritz use wire-cutters to free Joey and he rejoins the British Army.

6. Joey is reunited with Alby at a hospital where Alby barely convinces a doctor not to put his wounded horse out of his misery.

7. Joey is bought at auction by Emilie’s grandfather, outbidding Alby (and a butcher).

     I’ll stop right there to and let you wonder if the movie has an ‘Old Yeller” ending. Don’t read the next paragraph if you do not care if a movie has ridiculous moments.

     Where do I start? Joey becomes BFFs with another cavalry horse named Blackthorn. They are captured together and after it is unsubtly made clear that if you don’t work you die, Joey “volunteers” to take Blackthorn’s place pulling a cannon. The whole scene with the German brothers is laughable. When the deserting brothers are captured, the older brother does not insist he forced his unwilling brother to come along and they face the firing squad together. Or why would a tank chase after a lone horse? You have to suspend disbelief a bit in this movie.

     Historically speaking, the movie is based on a children’s book so what do you expect. However, since Speilberg had to assume some adults might want to see it, he could have at least read one WWI history book. (This is his first WWI movie after six about WWII.) Before the big cavalry charge scene, the British commander references famous successful charges, including Pickett’s Charge. Surely, even an Englishman would know Pickett’s Charge should not be mentioned to boost morale. The charge itself adequately depicts the suicidal nature of WWI cavalry attacks. I assume the attack is fictional and it is possible that the Germans could have been stupid enough to camp in a field with no entrenching or even guards posted because its early in the war. It is also possible they may have emplaced a line of machine guns behind their tents. Highly unlikely, however. By the way, that line of machine guns is incredibly accurate as they knock off riders without hitting horses.

     The “Saving Private Ryan” moment comes two-thirds of the way through the movie. Incredibly, Spielberg decided to label the battle “1918 – The Somme”. You don’t have to be a military historian to know the very famous Battle of the Somme was in 1916. Alby is now at the front in a Pals’ Battalion with his best friend and a snooty rich kid acquaintance. The trench sets are realistic and no man’s land is appropriately hellish. The British assault is bloody (without blood) and violent (but not graphic). Alby reaches the German trench first and it is empty with all the Germans dead. Wait, what? To make matters worse, Alby is blinded by a poison gas bombardment that hits directly in the trench. What accuracy! This works out for plot purposes as Alby needs to be sightless for his reunion with Joey.

     Being a Spielberg movie, certain things are guaranteed. The cinematography is lush in the bucolic British countryside scenes and colorless in the muddy Western Front scenes. John Williams’ score plays on the audiences emotions throughout. You don’t have to think much, Williams will let you know how to feel. For example, plowing the field – cue the inspirational music. The acting is satisfactory, if unspectacular. The horse (actually eight horses to portray the adult “Joey”) is amazing and its accent does not change, unlike some of the humans. The film does avoid some obvious clichés. The horse is not hard to train. Alby’s potential rivalry with the rich boy over a local girl ends up on the cutting room floor. Emilie does not have an accident. It’s not unorthodox in its cartoonish villains, however. The evil landlord. The martinet German officers. Hiss him, cheer that, cry now. The movie very effectively manipulates the audience’s emotions. Most people will get what they paid for.

     The problem is that Spielberg has made the kids’ version of a war movie. He even includes a goose for comic relief. How Disneyesque! The “it’s a small world” on the Western Front aspect is to be expected from any mainstream movie, I suppose. For those expecting the WWI equivalent of SPR in the combat scenes, consult the movie’s rating and target audience. Even the cavalry sabers (inaccurately called “swords” in the movie) remain unbloodstained. Realism is not a forte of this movie. “War Horse” is a good movie for civilians, but it is not a good war movie.


Friday, December 23, 2011

A CHRISTMAS WAR MOVIE: A Midnight Clear

 

     I thought with Christmas approaching I would suggest an X-Mas themed war flick. “A Midnight Clear” was released in 1992. Its cast consisted of several up and coming actors like Ethan Hawke, Peter Berg, Kevin Dillon, John McGinley, Frank Whaley, and Gary Sinise (his film debut). The ensemble cast is strong and the movie is a little gem that is not well-known. It cost less than $5 million to produce and made less than $2 million. It is based on the novel by William Wharton.


     The movie is set in the Ardennes Forest before the Battle of the Bulge. It is not a big picture movie. You get no idea how the battle is going. There is a “fog of war” surrounding the intelligence squad that is sent out to observe enemy movements from an abandoned mansion.  They are scared and unclear about what they are supposed to do. The mission is seemingly suicidal and their ex-mortician, current martinet Major Griffin (McGinley) has a habit of putting them in precarious positions. Speaking of a previous patrol, Will (the narrator Ethan Hawke) makes the following telling remark: “We lost half of our squad attempting one of [Griffin’s] map-inspired, ill-conceived recon patrols. When I say ‘lost’, I mean ‘killed’. Nobody in the Army ever admits that someone on our side is killed. They’re either ‘lost’ like Christopher Robin… ‘hit’, as in a batter hit by a pitched ball… or get ‘it’ like in hide and go seek. Or maybe they “get it”, as with an ambiguous joke.” Well said and true. In fact, much of the narration is cynical and critical of the Army.

     We get to know the squad well. They are typically heterogeneous except there is no country hick because this is an “intelligence” squad. They care about each other, but are not all BFFs. There is a flashback scene from boot camp as several of the boys attempt to lose their virginity with a good girl down on her luck. It is a sweet scene and tastefully done.

     The setting and mood of the movie could have easily fit a horror movie. On the way to the mansion, they come upon the corpses of a G.I. and a German in a death embrace. The chalet is eerie. It is empty except for a deer. The nights are particularly spooky. The first night Germans yell unintelligibly from the woods and the next day the Americans discover a German squad encamped in a hut nearby. That night the Germans come again to yell “Fuck Hitler” (later they insist they are not Nazis, just German soldiers – an accurate description of the dilemma of many German soldiers) and throw snow balls. The third night they rig up a Christmas tree and sing carols. Although fictional, the film harkens back to the famous Christmas Truce of WWI. (That reminds me to suggest "Joyeux Noel" as a companion to your Christmas viewing.) The perplexed Americans finally realize the Germans want to surrender, but they need for it to look like they put up a fight. Since “Mother” (Sinise) has recently suffered a breakdown, the guys decide to make him the “hero” of the skirmish so he can be sent home. Mother is to be kept in the dark about the whole affair. Nice plan, disastrous results. Watch the movie and see what happens.

     This is a remarkable movie. It is unlike any other war movie I have seen. It is spiritual (helped by the New Age musical score) and has a heart-tugging scene involving the bathing of a dead comrade that is hard to forget (and slightly homoerotic). It is also overtly religious in spots. Although a Christmas movie, there is also a strong reference to the Crucifixion. Some will not like this aspect of the movie, but I found it refreshing. Keep in mind that soldiers tend to be religious for obvious reasons, so why shouldn’t war movies occasionally have religious themes?

     The movie is very well acted. The squad is likeable and relateable. Each has a distinct personality. Each actor gets a chance to shine. No one dominates. The small unit dynamics are realistic. Their behavior rings true. McGinley is appropriately loathsome as the clichéd commanding officer. (By the way, McGinley and Dillon went on to appear in another great small unit movie – “Platoon”.) The Germans are shown in a sympathetic light. What happens to them is truly tragic.

     This is a very snowy movie. Watch it with a mug of hot chocolate by a fire place if you can. It was shot in Utah and the temperatures at night were frigid. The cinematography is crisp and clear like the locale.

     In conclusion, “A Midnight Clear” is one of the two greatest war movies set at Christmas. Are there others? Let me know. It will make my 100 Best War Movies list when I get done with my journey.

a tribute video


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

CRACKER? Taegukgi (The Brotherhood of War)

    

     “Taegukgi” is the most famous war movie to come out of South Korea. It was released in 2004 and was South Korea’s answer to “Saving Private Ryan”. It was written and directed by Kang Je-gyu and set attendance records in South Korea. The name comes from the name of the pre-war flag of Korea. It is an epic.


     The film opens at an excavation of a battle site (similar to the grave site opening in “Saving Private Ryan”) which leads to the contacting of an old Korean who is linked to one of the corpses. This leads to a flashback to Seoul in 1950 right before the war. Jin-Seok (Jang Gong-gun) and Jin-Tae (Won Bin) are brothers. Tae (that’s what I’ll call him) dreams of being a shoemaker and Seok hopes to go to college. Their happy family life comes to a screeching halt when Seok is press ganged and Tae enters the army to protect him.

     They join a unit in the trenches near the Naktong River in the Pusan Perimeter. On a mine-laying operation in no man’s land, the squad is ambushed and Tae goes Rambo (even pulling a grenade pin with his teeth). He is a natural born great shot. The violence is SPResque and the wounds are very graphic. A later attack at night ups the adrenalin with Molotov cocktails and hand-to-hand combat. Tae takes out a machine gun and then the command bunker. Tae has made a deal with his commanding officer that if he wins the Taeguk Cordon of the Order of Military Merit (the South Korean equivalent of the Medal of Honor), his brother will be discharged. The problem is that Tae becomes addicted to combat and the subsequent glory that comes with it. Meanwhile, Seok’s attitude is heading in the opposite direction as his experiences have disgusted him and he is becoming estranged from his brother.

     In October, 1950, the fighting shifts to Pyongyang for some urban combat. Tae captures an enemy captain and Seok accuses him of being a glory-hound. At a nearby village, the squad encounters countless bodies, some of which are booby-trapped. It’s retaliation time at the next town as they kill prisoners with only Seok refraining. Seok has to intervene to save the life of a friend of their’s who was forced into the North Korean army. Later, in a strange character development, Seok beats the tar out of a prisoner in a gladiator style pit.

      When Seok returns home he has a brief reunion with his fiancé Yong-shin before she is carted off by anti-communist zealots. They bring Seok, too. Yong-shin gets a great death scene as she is killed during a mutiny by the political prisoners. Seok is held captive and then dies when the “Communist” prisoners are burned alive in their jail. An enraged Tae kills the officer who gave the order and then defects to the enemy not knowing that Seok has survived.

     Tae is now a North Korea Rambo and heads an elite squad called the Flag Unit. Seok returns to the front to try to reconvert his brother. There is a huge set piece battle involving 15,000 bullets, 3,000 extras, and 500 stuntmen. There are numerous minor injuries in the 3 weeks of shooting, mostly from the fist-fighting. Director Kang Je-gyu throws in the kitchen sink in one of the most remarkable battle scenes ever filmed. There is a strafing attack by CGI Corsairs. A plane is hit and crashes into a machine gun nest. The fighting is hand-to-hand as Seok runs through the trenches seeking his brother. The Flag Unit enters the battle to boost the carnage to a peak. The brothers meet, but Tae does not recognize the ghost of his brother and is in a zone anyway. He is about to kill Seok when he is stabbed. Tae finally recognizes Seok and agrees to return with him but urges Seok to go on ahead while he holds off the North Korean army with a machine gun. His bones are found many years later.

     This is an amazing movie. I did not expect much from a South Korean film. I have to assume South Korea is a macho society because the film has more blood and guts than a vast majority of war movies. The violence is a bit over the top, but you have to admire the sheer quantity of the killing. It is “Saving Private Ryan” on meth. It is very gory. If shown in splatter-vision, you would have to burn your clothes.

     The movie has its flaws. The two leads are excellent, but the character arc of Seok is not believable. He goes from being frail to buff too quickly. His whipsawing from pacifist to pugilist is also hard to swallow. The family scenes are touching and the relationship between Seok and his fiancé is well done. Her death is heart-tugging. The rest of the roles are not fleshed out enough. We do not get to know the squad very well, unlike other small unit movies like “Platoon”. It does have a few clichés. One soldier shows off a picture of his family.  Can you guess what happens to him soon after? I wonder if this cliché seemed fresh to the South Korean audience. The score is sappy, but at least you can hear it above the explosions.  This is one loud, badass movie.

      Will it crack the 100 Best? Certainly. It could definitely kick the crap out of movies like “Guadalcanal Diary”.

8/10

the trailer


trench warfare

Saturday, December 17, 2011

SHOULD I READ IT? Prisoner of the Mountains

    

      “Prisoner of the Mountains” is a Russian film released in 1996. It is based on a short story by Leo Tolstoy entitled “The Prisoner of the Caucasus”. It is set in the First Chechen War and in fact was filmed in the area at the time fighting was still taking place nearby. The movie was critically acclaimed and was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar.


     Although fictional, the film gives the viewer a feel for the First Chechen War. The war began in 1994 after Chechnya seceded from Russia and declared independence. Boris Yeltsin decided to invade and reacquire control. The war was a foreign policy disaster for Russia. The Russian army of mainly untrained conscripts was marked by poor morale and lack of support from the home front. The Russian military resorted to sledgehammer tactics like carpet bombing and rocket artillery attacks on civilians. Thousands of civilians were killed. The capital of Grozny was destroyed in the taking. Next the Russians attempted to pacify the mountainous areas and were confronted by guerrilla war tactics that included ambushes, IEDs, and hostage taking. Eventually, in 1996, Yeltsin cried uncle and agreed to a cease-fire and pulled out of Chechnya.

     In the movie, a Russian unit is ambushed and two soldiers are taken captive. They are taken to a Chechen village in the mountains. Vanya (Sergei Budrov, Jr.) and Sasha (Oleg Menshikov) are given to an elderly man named Abdul. He plans to exchange them for his son who is being held in a Russian stockade. Abdul has them write home to get their parents to put pressure on the Russians to make the deal. Vanya’s mother (a school teacher) makes the journey to the local Russian occupied town. Meanwhile, Vanya and Sasha are being held under guard by a man named Hassan who lost his tongue to the Russians.

     Vanya and Sasha are polar opposites. Vanya is a young naïve soldier and Sasha is a cynical officer and all-around jerk. He torments Vanya, but gradually they bond and Sasha becomes less of a jerk. Vanya developes a relationship with Abdul’s teenage daughter Gina. Vanya is also interested in the local culture and endears himself to the locals by fixing clocks. Sasha is only interested in escaping.

     Vanya’s mother tries to broker the deal, but the Russian commander doesn’t trust the Chechens. Rebels come and take Vanya and Sasha. They are forced to walk through a mine field at night to clear a path. At the rebel camp, Vanya is forced to fight a rebel, but the Chechen backs down when Vanya yells at him. This bit of bizarreness is followed by them being returned to Abdul. Apparently, they were taken only to clear the mine field.

     They manage to escape with Sasha killing poor Hassan. Later, he kills a shepherd. Unfortunately(?), they are recaptured. Vanya is returned to Abdul, but Sasha is taken away to have his throat cut. Vanya is chained in a hole. At the stockade, a father of a son who turned traitor and joined the Russian army kills him touching off an escape attempt by Abdul’s son. The son is shot and killed.

     Gina wants to help Vanya, but he refuses because he knows she will be punished. Abdul takes him off to be shot, but instead lets him go. As he flees the village, Russian helicopters ominously pass overhead on their way to the village.

     This is an intriguing movie. It forced me to learn a little about the First Chechen War. That was one messed up war. Worse than Afghanistan (which obviously influenced the average Russian’s adverse reaction to it). The movie does not do justice to the atrocities, but you do get the impression that some really bad things have happened on both sides. Abdul, for instance, not only has a son being held captive, but had lost two other sons in the war. The villagers have a strong desire to take revenge against Sasha and Vanya for Russian offenses. Given that it is a Russian production, the film is admirably sympathetic toward the Chechen point of view. This probably reflects the guilt feelings of many Russians toward the conflict.

     The movie is slow-moving and introspective in spots. It is not an action film and does not have a lot of war violence. Maybe this is a good thing because in the ambush scene, the actors look like actors playing soldier. The lead actors are excellent, especially Menshikov. I hated his character at first, but he grows on you. Budrov matches him in what is in some ways a buddy film. The music is effective and includes some traditional Russian songs. The scenery is beautiful. The slice of village life is tasty.

      “Prisoner of the Mountains” is a thought-provoking film. It explores the theme of how distrust in war between enemies can lead to tragedy. Civilized human emotions can be overcome by our more animal instincts, like revenge. When a minority of warriors are empathetic to their enemy’s motivations, it usually leads to more tragedy instead of less.

Overall – 7/10

Sorry about the poster, it's the only one I could find.  It has little to do with the movie.

I could not find a trailer, so here is the first part of the movie on You Tube.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

CIVIL WAR READALONG: Damage Them All You Can

      Damage Them All You Can by George Walsh is the history of the Army of Northern Virginia in the Civil War. The book covers all the major battles the army was involved in and analyzes command decisions. It is pro-Robert E. Lee, but Walsh’s opinions are solid and he does not hold back on criticisms. I will use this review to partly judge Lee’s performance in the major battles.


      Walsh sets the stage for the “Lost Cause” by pointing out how statistically dominating the North was. In 1860, there were 22 million whites in the North versus 5.5 million in the South. The North had 1.3 million factory workers versus 110,000. 97% of firearms were produced in the North, 94% of textiles and 90% of industrial production. The North had twice the railroad capacity and more than twice the draft animals (an often overlooked advantage) . Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia had its work cut out for it. The book makes a case for the army doing as well as it could have.

1. Mechanicsville – Good plan, but Jackson did not launch a flanking attack and A.P. Hill prematurely launched a series of bloody frontal attacks on a very strong defensive position – Lee rating = 7

2. Gaines’ Mill - Good plan, again Jackson is slow in engaging 7

3. Savage’s Station - Plan was too complicated and relied on suspect generals (a recurring theme) 5

4. Glendale and Frayser’s Farm - poor coordination and poor performance by Jackson, but Lee is not forceful enough in demanding he move 5

5. Malvern Hill - suicidal frontal attacks that are ill-coordinated; inexcusable 2

6. Second Manassas - daring plan that came together for a stunning victory; first clear look at Lee’s formula for success: aggressive maneuvering, faith in his army, and his ability to read his opponent’s deer-in-the- headlights reactions; Longstreet begins to show his stubbornness when it comes to offensive tactics 8

7. Antietam - the decision to stay and fight was very questionable and the decision to remain on the battlefield for another day was borderline insane, but the handling of the battle was artful (although dependent on incompetency by McClellan) 8

8. Fredericksburg - not much planning involved here; credit for letting the opponent play the aggressor and accepting the defensive role (which thrilled Longstreet, but chafed Lee) 8

9. Chancellorsville - Lee’s masterpiece, but dependent on passiveness on the part of Hooker; should have been a terrible defeat; Lee’s decisions are breath-taking in their daringness 10

10. Gettysburg - Lee’s penchant to allow initiative by his generals back-fires in several instances, but the ultimate decision to launch Pickett’s Charge is totally on him 4

11. The Wilderness - Lee takes advantage of Grant leaving two flanks open and relies on the fighting ability of his men 8

12. Spotsylvania - Lee anticipates Grant’s maneuver, but mars the victory by agreeing to Ewell’s holding of the Bloody Angle salient 7

13. Cold Harbor – similar to Fredericksburg in that Lee allows the enemy to win the battle for him 8

      One theme of the book is that Lee was often let down by his generals. Walsh is especially hard on Ewell and Longstreet. However, it is apparent that Lee’s method of allowing his commanders flexibility in carrying out their orders was a double-edged sword. It led to some great successes, but also some failures. Lee can mainly be faulted for not realizing which of his generals (e.g. Ewell and Lonstreet) needed firm orders. He also should have fired some of them.

      The book is very well written. Walsh did copious research and it shows in the numerous quotes from both the officers and the foot soldiers. The first person accounts are kept short and blend in seamlessly with the narrative. Although the book does not have much on soldier life (other than an excellent chapter on the subject), the quotes by regular soldiers give a clear view of their combat experiences.

     Walsh humanizes the commanders. He provides interesting biographical information on most of them. Strangely, this drops off in the second half of the book. Another fault is the lack of maps. The book includes many interesting anecdotes.

      The main takeaway from Damage Them All You Can is the incredible bloodshed in these Civil War battles. Few Americans have any conception of what the soldiers went through. More amazing is the losses among the officers and generals. The power of honor and peer pressure has never been better used to the destruction of men than in the Civil War.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

#50 - Colonel Redl


Note:  This review is appearing out of order because I had a hard time finding it.  Surprisingly, I ended up watching it on You Tube.

BACK-STORY: “Colonel Redl” is a Hungarian film directed by Istvan Szabo. It was the second in a trilogy and came after the acclaimed “Mephisto”. It is based on a British play by John Osborne entitled “A Patriot For Me”. The movie won the Jury Prize at Cannes, was chosen Best Foreign Film at the BAFTAs, and was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. The movie was hardly shown in America and made just $2,357 in one week at one theater.


OPENING: The movie is set in the Austro-Hungarian Empire pre-WWI. It is “not based on a true story”. Alfred Redl is a boy from a lower class family that is heading off to a military school. The training is typical with Redl and another cadet having to run a gauntlet after breaking some wooden rods in sword practice. Surprising for macho teenage boys, the whacks are half-hearted.

SUMMARY: Redl develops a friendship with the son of a baron, Kristof Kubinyi (Jan Niklas). He visits his friend’s estate for a fish out of water scene. He also strikes up a relationship with Kristof’s sister Katalin (Gudrun Landgrebe). She will reappear throughout the film as a sounding board and to give him advice. They would make a good pair except that Redl is a closet homosexual. Redl deals with this social taboo by going through the motions. He visits a brothel, but can only perform after witnessing Kristof in another room.  That same night another officer plants a big smooch on Alfred, but the prevalence of homosexuality in the officer corps is not going to be explored.

      The turning point in Redl’s education occurs when he protects Kristoff from punishment by ratting out another student for a prank. Although he self-flagellates with “I’m a treacherous peasant”, he discovers that being a loyal stoolie is good for his career. He is not quite a Judas because he sincerely worships Emperor Joseph and is willing to fight anyone who disses His Majesty. A telling moment occurs when he turns down permission to go home for his father’s funeral because he does not want to miss a celebration honoring the Emperor. This guy has really drunk the Koolaid.

     Redl rapidly rises to Captain. It is implied that he benefits from sucking up to his superiors. Meanwhile, Kristof languishes because he refuses to play political games. For instance, he fights a duel with flintlock pistols in which he shoots his opponent dead. Significantly, Redl is reprimanded for being a second in the duel, but gets promoted to Major.

     Now in a position of power, Redl is able to implement his desire to clean house. He accuses the officer corps of wining, wenching, and not properly supervising their men. He might be meant to come off as a martinet, but I found his rant to be reasonable. He breaks with Kristof when he criticizes the Emperor as being senile. Redl literally leaps on him and they have a silly fight. This disagreement comes from out of the blue and is unrealistic. Later, Kubinyi is transferred because of disciplinary problems.

      The movie now begins to chip away at Redl’s façade. A strange visit from his sister is thrown in to reveal that Redl is a closet Jew and uptight about it. He is decorated by Franz Ferdinand (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who appreciates his blind loyalty and ability to turn on his fellow officers. What better person to head Military Intelligence which the Archduke envisions as an organization to spy not on the enemy, but on his own officer corps? Redl relishes the role and in a telling scene he reads his own file and finds himself accurately labeled as ambitious, a social climber, and a monarchy lover. He adds “insincere” to the list.

     Redl is efficient in his ferreting.  He interrogates potential rats and uses filmed surveillance. When Ferdinand longs for a spectacular shake-up of the army, Redl suggests a public treason trial. The Archduke likes the idea, but then ticks off a long list of ethnic groups that cannot be targeted! Redl:  Who can I target then? Ferdinand:  I suggest someone from your insignificant group. Someone like you.

      Redl seems to have found the perfect victim, but in a ridiculous scene he manages to commit suicide. Oops, there goes the show trial. How about Kubinyi, his former friend? Surprisingly, Ferdinand refuses and asks Redl if he is evil. It seems the Archduke has already decided who his patsy will be.

      Redl meets a beautiful young man at a ball and decides that considering the piranha-infested waters he is swimming in, now would be a good time to abandon chastity! In a squirm-inducing scene, they seduce each other without words. Gag! When Redl realizes he is being set up he threatens to shoot Alfredo, but lets him go after reciting a list of military facts to put the noose around his own neck.

CLOSING: Ferdinand hosts a conspiracy meeting where Kubinyi suggests Redl be allowed to commit suicide. Strangely, Ferdinand agrees so long as Kubinyi hands him the revolver. What happened to the show trial they were looking for and how is this different than the other suicide which was deemed unacceptable? Surely, the trial of the head of Military Intelligence would make the splash desired by Ferdinand. Anyway, Kristof delivers the gun and the wink, wink. You know all those movies where the soldier stoically bites the barrel? This is not one of them. It might be more realistic for the human to vacillate, but the movie comes off silly with Redl literally running around the room. The movie has a happy ending as Ferdinand is assassinated and WWI begins.


RATINGS:

Acting - 8


Action - 4


Accuracy - 4


Realism - 7


Plot - 7


Overall - 7

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Since this is not really a war movie and is more of a character study, it should appeal to many females. There is certainly nothing graphic or violent about it. The back-stabbing is soap opera-esque. The acting is good and there is a strong female character.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The movie makes it clear from the opening credits that it is not a true story. This was wise because Szabo strays far from the real story. In reality, Redl was one of the most infamous traitors in history. He was much worse than Benedict Arnold and was responsible for the deaths of thousands of fellow Austrians in WWI.

     Some parts of the film are accurate. Redl did come from a poor family and at first he did not fit in due to his lower class upbringing and ethnicity. He did well in school and his academic achievements got him noticed. Excellent fitness reports and subsequent military decorations put him on the fast track. As in the movie, he was promoted to head of Military Intelligence. The movie hints at the reforms he made in the agency. In some ways he was the J.Edgar Hoover of the Austrian Army. He instituted modern methods that allowed him to ferret out spies. These methods included hidden cameras, fingerprint dusting, shadowing suspects, and intercepting mail. He was also not beyond setting up officers for arrest.

      The movie is accurate in portraying Redl as a homosexual, but in reality he was not as in the closet as is depicted. His favorite partner was a young cavalry officer who he kept in luxury and travelled with (introducing him as his nephew). However, he also had numerous partners and pictures were found of them wearing women’s clothing and in various “activities”. He was certainly not as torn over his sexuality as the movie implies and was not nearly as secretive. There was no Baron Kubinyi or his sister Katalin. Redl was never married.

      Redl’s turning coat was apparently a result of blackmail due to his homosexuality. The Russians got him in their pocket and then kept him there by financing a lavish life-style that went way beyond his salary level and yet raised no red flags. In exchange Redl gave the Russians awesome information. He passed on the plans for the invasion of Serbia which Russia then passed on to its ally resulting in failure and thousands of casualties. He also gave Russia various Austrian plans and information. He ratted out Austrian agents in Russia. He presented the Austrian Army with false estimates of Russian strength. Szabo having Redl blurt out military statistics to a confused faux lover is a ridiculous downplaying of his treason.

      The movie implies Redl’s downfall was the result of the dissatisfaction of Archduke Ferdinand. This is totally made up. In fact, Redl was ensnared by his own method of intercepting mail. In a stroke of incredible luck, the new counterintelligence head traced an envelope full of Russian payoffs to Redl. Redl was given a pistol similar to the movie.

      In defense of his take on the Redl story, Szabo said he was interested in exploring the identity crisis Redl must have gone through. Coming from a lower class family and a minority, he had to try to fit in in order to rise in the Army. When you throw in his homosexuality, you have an interesting character study.

CRITIQUE: “Colonel Redl” is an interesting movie, but predictable. The themes that power corrupts and ambition is bad have been explored ad infinitum. There is little that is special about the film. The cinematography is simplistic and features a lot of extreme close-ups and static cameras. There is no soundtrack which is either lazy or avant-garde. Generally speaking, there are reasons why virtually every movie has music to set the mood. “Colonel Redl” is not unorthodox enough to justify the absence of music.

       The strength of the movie is the acting. Brandauer is excellent as Redl. His portrayal of a tormented man is mesmerizing. His performance is the main reason to watch the movie He is ably served by the supporting cast.  Armin Mueller-Stahl as Franz Ferdinand is convincingly malevolent.    

       The plot is realistic. Redl’s evolution from innocent, but ambitious trainee to toady of the emperor is believable. The homosexuality angle also seems to fit the man and the times. The depiction of the inner workings of the Austrian Army pre-WWI are well done. The role of politics in a military-dominated monarchy is apparent, especially in the guise of the Archduke.

CONCLUSION: I can only wonder what an accurate movie about the arch-traitor Alfred Redl would be like. I cannot help but believe it would be more powerful and entertaining than this movie. Why do movie makers tinker with accuracy when the real story is better than fiction? Why make the loathsome Redl into a sympathetic character? If you want to make a character study with the themes in this movie, why not make up a fictional character?

      “Colonel Redl” is overrated at #50. It is interesting, but not special. I am glad I watched it because it forced me to research the fascinating Alfred Redl. I am ashamed to admit I had never heard of him.  His real story would make a fascinating movie.


Friday, December 9, 2011

REARRANGING THE BOTTOM 50

After reviewing almost all of the bottom 50 (I still have not seen "Scipio Africanus"), I am ready to rearrange the list.  The number in parentheses is the Miltary History Magazine ranking.

99. Ben Hur (96) (not a war movie)
98. Ministry of Fear (53) (not a war movie)
97. The Informer (51) (not a war movie)
96. Foreign Correspondent (86) (not a war movie)
95. The Third Man (80) (not a war movie)
94. Notorious (57) (not a war movie)
93. The Tin Drum (60)
92. Castle Keep (66)
91. They Died With Their Boots On (68)
90. The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp (87)
89. Hail the Conquering Hero (70)
88. Braveheart (67)
87. From Here to Eternity (59)
86. Ulzana's Raid (54)
85. To Hell and Back (77)
84. The Thin Red Line (100)
83. The Alamo (61)
82. Ballad of a Soldier (81)
81. Guadalcanal Diary (69)
80. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (55)
79. Guns of Navarone (93)
78. Northwest Passage (97)
77. Henry V (75)
76. Run Silent, Run Deep (79)
75. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (98)
74. They Were Expendable  (99) 
73. Dunkirk (89)
72. Desert Rats (88)
71. The Desert Fox (78)
70. The Big Red One (71)
69. Battle of Britain (90)
68. Midway (92)
67. The Manchurian Candidate (85)
66. The Bridges at Toko-Ri (73)
65. Sahara (83)
64. The Big Parade (58)
63. El Cid (63)
62. Twelve O'Clock High (72)
61. Ran (76)
60. Beau Geste (52)
59. The Man Who Would Be King (77)
58. Cross of Iron (64)
57. A Walk in the Sun (82)
56. A Bridge Too Far (94)
55. Casablanca (65)
54. Dr. Strangelove (84)
53. The Train (62)
52. Breaker Morant (91)
51. Last of the Mohicans (95)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

BOOK / MOVIE: The Killer Angels / Gettysburg




     I recently reviewed “Gettysburg” as #46 in the 100 Greatest War Movies list. It gave me the idea to reread the book The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara to compare the book to the movie. The novel came out in 1974 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction a year later. In 1993, Ted Turner released the movie “Gettysburg” based on the book. The film was written by Ronald Maxwell.


      The movie parallels the book extremely closely. Almost all of Maxwell’s dialogue is word for word from the book. All of the scenes are from the book. I have seen few movies that are more faithful to their source material than “Gettysburg”. Since the book is a Pulitzer Prize winner, this makes the script for the movie outstanding. If you have not seen the movie, read my review at . Since the movie is so close to the book, I’ll concentrate on what the movie leaves out.

      The book delves much more into Lee’s heart condition. This leads to exhaustion and poor decisions. The movie has little on this theme. It also goes further in some scenes. For instance, the book goes beyond the death of Reynolds on the first day. We read about Lee sending orders to take Cemetery Hill “if practicable”. This makes Lee’s reaction to Trimble’s complaint of Ewell’s lack of initiative more understandable. The novel includes an entire chapter on Lee’s thoughts during the first day. The movie limits itself to getting in the minds of Longstreet and Chamberlain. The book gives more back-story for their characters. We learn that Chamberlain’s father had referred to man as a “murdering angel” and he had turned it into an oration entitled “the Killer Angels”. (The movie script has Kilrain using the phrase.) Similar to Lee’s heart condition, Shaara explains that Longstreet’s moroseness is partly attributable to the deaths of his three children.

     The book has a whole chapter on Longstreet talking to Fremantle including the need for trench warfare. Later, they discuss tactics. Lee meets with Ewell and Early to discuss the situation at the end of the first day. The movie deletes this and picks up with Trimble’s rant. Fremantle, who appears briefly in the movie, gets his own chapter where he likens the South to England. He (and Shaara) conveniently overlook that England was very anti-slavery. Both the book and the movie sympathize with the South and push the “states’ rights” argument.

     The book spends more time on Longstreet’s thoughts which helps when viewing the movie to understand where he is coming from. Not that the movie is totally unclear on this. We also learn Longstreet’s reaction to the second days’ fighting after he visits Hood in the hospital. It turns out that he is not a big fan of Stuart.

     Several scenes in the movie get post scripts in the book. For instance, we find out what Chamberlain is thinking the morning after.

     Basically, if you watch the movie you do not really need to read the book with one big caveat. The chapters on Pickett’s Charge are amazing at taking you into the action. The movie does not give a good idea of what the men are experiencing. Although the viewpoint is General Armistead’s, he is on foot leading his brigade. This means we get a foot soldiers perspective of the carnage. 
  
      My advice would be to watch the movie and read the chapters on Pickett's Charge.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

WAR MOVIE PICTURE QUIZ #3

In honor of Thanksgiving, it's  time for the third quess-the-movie-from-the- still quiz.  Good luck!

1.


2. 
3.



  4.
5.
6.

7.
8.
9.

10. 

Once again I would like to thank IMFDB for the pictures.

I'll post the answers in a bout a week.



Saturday, November 19, 2011

CRACKER? The Halls of Montezuma


 

      “Halls of Montezuma” is a war movie released in 1951. It was directed by Lewis Milestone and was inspired by a short film entitled “Objective – Prisoners” which was about the necessity of taking prisoners for interrogation purposes. It was filmed at Camp Pendleton, California with the full cooperation of the Marine Corps. The movie is dedicated to the Marines and was later used as a recruiting film. It opens with the “Marine Corps Hymn” which, of course, starts with ”From the halls of Montezuma”.

      The seven surviving members of a platoon are on a troop ship headed for an unnamed Pacific island circa 1943. Lt. Col. Gilfallan (Richard Boone in his film debut) gives a speech emphasizing the need to take prisoners. (In reality, this speech would have gone over with a yawn from Marine vets who had seen or heard about the results of trying to take prisoners.) The leader of the unit is Lt. Anderson (the always reliable Richard Widmark) who is suffering from psychological migraines due to combat fatigue. Through a flashback we learn he was a science teacher before the war, so the war experience is pretty foreign (a theme of the movie). He pops pills given to him by the medic (Karl Malden). It’s your typical “quit your preaching and give me the pills, doc” situation. (It’s unclear what message the Marines were hoping to send with this subplot.) In spite of his own problems, Anderson is able to convince an ex-student, who he had helped overcome stuttering, to fight on in spite of his fears. (A message for Marines in Korea?)

     The landing in amphtracs is well played and includes a seamless blending of color archival footage. We get old school deaths sans the blood. Those are real Shermans spouting flame. “Spray the whole hill, it’s lousy with Japs.” After the initial combat, we get some character development for our heterogeneous small unit. This is done through flashbacks and realistic soldier talk. Strangely, I was shocked to hear the comment “They can kill me, but they can’t eat me” for the second time in a war movie. Wait, what? The ensemble cast is first-rate and includes Jack Palance, Neville Brand, Jack Webb, Martin Milner, and a very young Robert Wagner as Coffman.

     When Coffman is killed in a Japanese rocket barrage, Anderson pops some more pills and we realize we are in a “who will survive?” war movie. One down, how many more to go? Anderson is sent by Gilfallan on a mission to bring back some Japs hiding in a cave. The location of the rocket site must be discovered because the frontal attack must go on. Accompanying the squad is a Brit named Johnson who speaks Japanese and knows their culture and psychology. Played by Reginald Gardner, he appears to have wandered in from North Africa, but is droll and adds color. They take several prisoners including a wounded officer (we’re the humane ones) and head back to headquarters. In the process, Pretty Boy (the resident psychotic) goes crazy and is killed accidentally when he yanks on a buddy’s gun (that’s original, anyway). Death #3 is the medic. The rest make it back. However, Conroy (the stutterer) dies from shrapnel, sending Anderson over the edge. Fortunately, a letter written to him by the doc reminds him of his duty to his men and he throws away the pills and gets his act together.

     The movie slows down appreciably at this point as deduction is necessary to pinpoint the rocket site. A big clue comes from the pompous Japanese officer. The attack goes off as planned and as the rockets come raining down, Corsairs swoop down to take them out.

      This movie is definitely second string Milestone. The acting is pretty good, especially Widmark. It’s also a kick to see the recognizable faces. The back-stories are not particularly compelling, but it is a commendable effort to flesh out the warriors. In fact, the movie is a part of the second wave of WWII movies which spend more time on the effects of war on the soldiers and admit to dysfunctions within units. In spite of the cooperation of the Marine Corps, the film is not a jingoistic flag-waver.

     The action is fine and the actual footage adds to the authenticity. The weaponry is accurate. The location (Camp Pendleton) must have been convenient, but the terrain does not look like a tropical island. The plot is not strong. The two main plot points – take prisoners for questioning and find the rocket site – are not very realistic to the war in the Pacific. In all my reading about the war in the Pacific, I never ran into Japanese rocket barrages as being a problem. Another problem is the ending. It does not appear all the trouble of discovering the site is put to use. The attack is launched and comes under rocket fire. The Corsairs taking out the rocket battery is not contingent upon pinpointing them on a map. The movie would have been better if the unit had gone on to take out the site after questioning the Japanese found in the cave. The dead could have more effectively died going after the site than returning to base.

     “Halls of Montezuma” is worth watching. It is entertaining and has good performances. However, it is definitely not one of the 100 Best War Movies.

      By the way, check out that movie poster.  Who is that woman?  There are no women in the movie!  Imagine the disappointment of women who went to this movie.  False advertising!!!  Also, this is not "the everlasting story" of the Marine Corps.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

#46 - Gettysburg



BACK-STORY: “Gettysburg” is a war movie that began as a TV miniseries produced by Ted Turner. The finished product pleased the millionaire so much that he decided to release it to movie theaters. It may be the longest American movie (254 minutes) ever to appear in theaters. It appeared in a limited number of cinemas and did not recoup its cost, but the publicity was golden and when it was first shown on Turner Broadcasting Network, it was the most viewed basic cable program up to that time. The movie is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. The title was changed to the battle name after it was discovered that potential viewers thought the original title indicated a motorcycle gang movie. The National Park Service allowed filming on site, although much of the action was lensed at a nearby farm. The film made use of over 5,000 reenactors. There are also cameos by Ted Turner and Ken Burns. Turner is killed during Pickett’s Charge (rumor has it by Jane Fonda masquerading as a Union soldier). Burns plays an aide to Hancock.


OPENING: The movie opens with a map tracing the paths of the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac as a voice-over explains the strategic situation in June, 1863. The assumption that most of the viewers would be ignorant of their Civil War history is appropriate. The movie will take great pains to inform the historically-challenged.

     A lone horseman spies the Union army on the march northward. He turns out to be an actor/spy named Harrison who works for Confederate General Longstreet (Tom Berenger). He reports the surprising news that the Union army is much closer than was believed. Longstreet passes the information on to a skeptical Lee (who has been blinded by the loss of contact with Stuart’s cavalry) and Lee decides to concentrate the army at a sleepy little crossroads named Gettysburg.

SUMMARY: (Note: since the movie is over four hours long, I’ll mercifully hit only the highlights) Union Col. Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) is handed a hot potato in the form of some mutineers from another Maine regiment. As commander of the 20th Maine he is tasked with taking the mutineers along and shooting them if necessary. He gives an inspired speech about the importance of the upcoming battle (“we are here to set men free”) and his empathetic approach convinces most of the unhappy crew to pitch in.

     Outside Gettysburg, a Union cavalry unit led by John Buford (Sam Elliot) blocks the road leading to the town. Buford assesses the terrain and realizes his outnumbered brigade must attempt to “hold the high ground” until the main body of the army arrives. He soon makes contact with Confederate infantry heading for Gettysburg. The movie jumps to Lee (Martin Sheen) who is still in the dark about what is transpiring, but follows Napoleon’s advice to march to the sound of the guns. Lee reluctantly orders a general attack knowing the battle you get is not often the battle you want. The first of the movies set piece battles chronicles Buford’s holding action and subsequent retreat after being flanked in spite of the arrival of Reynold’s corps. The highlight is the death of Reynolds by sharpshooter.

     The movie introduces a major theme as Lee and Longstreet disagree on strategy. Lee, ever the aggressor, wants to end the war with this battle and intends to attack the Union army no matter their defensive position. He has supreme confidence in his soldiers and exhibits a tiredness that influences his decisions. Longstreet, ever the defensive-minded, wants to maneuver around the Union position to force the Union to attack them on advantageous ground. This back and forth will reappear later in the movie with Longstreet playing the petulantly obedient subordinate.

     The 20th Maine is marching toward destiny. They encounter a runaway slave which gives Chamberlain the opportunity to expound on his liberal professorial views against slavery. His earthy Scottish sergeant Kilrain (Kevin Conway) argues the war is a class war to ensure that Americans are judged by their ability, not their lineage. To Chamberlain’s belief that all men have a “divine spirit”, Kilrain refers to men as “killer angels”.

     Longstreet’s brigade commanders discuss the war around the camp fire. They are all agreed that the war is about states’ rights and Northern aggression. A British observer named Fremantle listens to the speechifying with a “hey, I’m only here to watch the killing” look.

     General Trimble (Morgan Sheppard) visits Lee to complain about his corps commander Ewell’s failure to take “that hill”, Cemetery Ridge. Lee defuses his anger, but obviously empathizes with his frustration. Meanwhile, on Cemetery Ridge, Gen. Meade arrives to ask if his subordinates have put his army in a good defensive position. Buford and others assure him it is “good ground”. Buford pats himself on the back for “holding the high ground”.
the 20th Maine defends Little Round Top

Rebels advance up Little Round Top


      The second big set piece takes place on Little Round Top where the 20th Maine is stationed on the very end of the Union line. Chamberlain is ordered to hold his position at all costs. The situation is clearly outlined for the audience through some more speechifying. The subsequent series of assaults by Alabama infantry that culminates in hand to hand fighting and finally in a bayonet charge are the high water mark of the film. The second day ends with the Union still holding its fishhook line on Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top.

     The last day is portentously set up by the melodramatic story of pre-Civil War BFFs Gen. Armistead (Louis Jordan) and Union Gen. Hancock. Armistead tells Longstreet of their teary parting at the beginning of the war and his desire for a reunion in the midst of the battle. This effectively adds a human element to the next day’s carnage. At Lee’s headquarters, the joy-riding Stuart returns to a wood-shed moment from the fatherly Lee. The encounter accurately reflects Lee’s command style of giving his generals lots of room for initiative and then gently scolding them if their decisions are flawed.

      The third set piece is the famous Pickett’s Charge. It is shown in what seems like real time. The plan is outlined by Longstreet to his generals (and the audience). The theme of Longstreet’s reluctance to launch what he is sure will be a failed attack reappears. The 30 reeanactor cannons fill in noisily for the actual over one hundred. The 5,000 reenactors fill in for the actual 15,000 in Pickett’s Charge. There is a long stretch featuring tracking shots that has no dialogue and relies on the beating of drums that evolves into the score. The Rebels march stoically into a metal storm of first shrapnel, then canister, and finally volleys. One has to admire the dedication of those men. As to why they did it, there is a telling moment when Armistead bucks up a cringing youngster with the question “what will you think of yourself in the morning?” He responds with “I won’t think too highly of myself, but at least I’ll be alive to think!” Just kidding – he continues on after properly being shamed into doing the honorable thing.

      The movie reaches a second climax (the first being the bayonet charge) with Armistead (hat on sword) reaching the Union line but falling mortally wounded. Jordan gets to chew the scenery with his death scene including a wheezing begging of forgiveness from Hancock. On the other side of the corpse strewn field, Lee rides among the survivors taking the blame for the disaster and encountering the distraught Pickett who cannot reform his division because “General Lee, sir, I have no division”.

CLOSING: Joshua Chamberlain and his brother Thomas embrace as the sun goes down. The closing credits tell us what happened to the main characters. Pictures of the real historical figures make you feel guilty for laughing at the seemingly ridiculous facial hair of the actors. They actually looked a lot like their characters.

RATINGS:

Acting - 6


Action – 9


Accuracy – 9


Realism - 9


Plot - 9


Overall - 10

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Only if they are a Civil War buff. This movie is the anti-“Gone with the Wind”. There is absolutely no romance (except between Armistead and Hancock – which is thankfully unrequitted). In fact only one female speaks in the movie. Interestingly, the line by a Northern belle (“I thought the war was in Virginia”) is uttered by director Maxwell’s daughter. The movie does have a lot of talking and is not graphic in its violence. It is also very educational which might be appealing to some females.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY: It amazes me that some critics question the accuracy of the movie. Trust me, you are not going to get more accuracy than this movie. The small faults can be excused by the fact that the movie is technically based on a novel, but the novel is a masterpiece of imagining around historical facts. Shaara imagines conversations and thoughts of the historical figures that populate the movie, but all of it rings true. The movie is faithful to the book and few have questioned the accuracy and authenticity of the book.

     The Battle of Gettysburg is probably the most important battle ever fought on American soil. It lasted three days and involved well over 100,000 men. It would be impossible for any movie to cover the battle in detail. The screenwriter wisely focuses on one key action per day. Buford’s holding action, the defense of Little Round Top, and Pickett’s Charge are adeptly reenacted. The three set pieces are much better and more enjoyable than any documentary could do.

     The strategy and tactics are true to the battle. The command decisions are accurate. The movie does a great job of showing the hows and whys of the battle. There is no historical revisionism here. The motivations of both sides and of the individual leaders are clear, although the movie can be faulted for downplaying the South’s desire to maintain slavery.

a reenactor fires an Enfield
     As far as historical realism, anyone who is familiar with historical reenactors knows they are obsessed with authenticity. “Gettysburg” makes fantastic use of this resource. CGI cannot compare to the real thing and reenactors are as close to the real thing as you are going to get. These are people who insist on having the correct buttons on their uniforms. The participation of over 5,000 is incredible. This movie is their shining moment and they have a lot to be proud of. Their participation takes the movie to unparalleled heights of accuracy in tactics, uniforms and equipment, and soldier life. One example will suffice. There is a moment in the Little Round Top scene where a soldier does not use the ramrod to pack down the powder and ball, instead he taps the butt of the rifle on the ground. Only a reenactor would know Civil War soldiers sometimes did this in battle. I have to say that although I still do not know how they decide who will die, these reenactors really stepped up their game in dying. The deaths are not cheesy or ridiculous. Also, some of the reenactors seemingly were given speaking parts and they do a commendable job for amateurs.

Daniels as Chamberlain
CRITIQUE: “Gettysburg” is not a perfect war movie. It has some flaws. The acting is spotty. It appears some of the actors are not motivated by the made-for-TV nature of the production and perhaps their salaries matched their performances. Louis Jordan in particular chews the scenery. This dynamic makes the good performances stand out. Jeff Daniels deserved an Academy Award nomination. Joshua Chamberlain was virtually unknown before the movie and Daniels delivered him the fame he deserves. Chamberlain was a remarkable man and one of the great soldiers of the Civil War. Daniels is brilliant in his portrayal of the reluctant warrior who rises to leadership in the cauldron of battle. He nails the character’s humanity. Tom Berenger’s Longstreet is properly morose (although the movie does not mention the recent deaths of three of his children) and tactiturn. Lang gets Pickett’s flamboyance down pat. Sheen is not great, but his seemingly lackluster performance would have been more acceptable if the movie had alluded to his heart disease.

     The movie has been criticized for its pro-South slant. This reflects the book. Shaara obviously found the “Lost Cause” appealing. It must have been fun imagining the stilted speaking style of the Southern aristocrats. The movie actually edits the speechifying commendably. The brushing over of slavery as the key cause of the conflict is upsetting.
     The sound effects are superb. The sounds of battle are realistic. The cannon fire in particular (while not nearly loud enough) is as close to being there as you can get. More importantly, the score by Randy Edelman is one of the best in war movie history. The music matches the mood perfectly. Do not forget that the score was meant for a TV movie. That is hard to fathom.

a face full of grapeshot
     The combat is well done, thanks again to the reenactors. Unfortunately, due to the PG nature of TV movies (at least ones made in the 1990s), the violence is not graphically realistic. There is little bloodshed. An R-rated version would have been awesome. There is one cool shot where some Rebels get a face full of grapeshot, but there is no spray of blood. The hand to hand combat on Little Round Top is cool.

     The movie does a great job in teaching the battle. The narration and map at the beginning establish the situation and the dialogue makes it clear what the big picture is throughout the battle. I can think of no other war movie that attempts to tell the story of a specific historical battle that does a better job in replacing the written word. It is superior to “Waterloo”, “Midway”, “Pearl Harbor”, etc. in this respect.

CONCLUSION: “Gettysburg” has been harshly judged by critics who are not familiar with the Civil War, The Killer Angels, or the way people talked and groomed in the 1860s. I’ll grant you the beards look fake, but if you stick around for the closing credits, you will see that the actors look a lot like their characters. Even a minor figure like Harrison is a lookalike. Such fidelity to accuracy was not necessary, but indicates the care with which the movie was made. If you criticize the screenplay, you are essentially criticizing a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. The movie follows the book very closely. The dialogue is almost word for word from the book, which is a good thing. The scenes in the book are replicated in the movie with the only significant difference between the book and the movie being the fact that the movie deletes some scenes. It could be argued that the movie improves on the book. There is little reason to read the novel if you see the movie.

      “Gettysburg” is very underrated at #46. There are several movies ahead of it which I have seen, but not reviewed yet that are inferior to it. It is a classic example of how a labor of love can overcome a small budget and low expectations. Many military history buffs rank Pickett’s Charge as one of the top moments in their “if I could witness an event” lists. This movie achieves that dream and throws in one of the all-time great battle scenes (the defense of Little Round Top).

     On a personal note, I took my History Club on a field trip to see this movie during its brief run in the theaters.  We had to travel two hours to see it.  It was worth it, although I can't say the students were thrilled with the length.


the trailer

fix bayonets!

Monday, October 24, 2011

#47 - Battleship Potemkin





BACK-STORY: “Battleship Potemkin” is a combination war movie / propaganda piece. It was meant to be one part of an eight part series on the Revolution of 1905. It turned out to be the only one in the series that ended up being made. It did not have the intended inspirational effect as it was not warmly embraced by the Russian people. It actually lost the box office to “Robin Hood” the opening week. It was a big hit outside Russia, however. The movie is justifiably famous and is considered Sergei Einstein’s masterpiece. It has been oft-copied by other directors. The film is divided into five parts: (1) “Men and Maggots” (2) “Drama on Deck” (3) “A Dead Man Calls for Justice” (4) “The Odessa Staircase” (5) “The Rendezvous with a Squadron”. Interestingly, the staircase scene was not planned as part of the movie and was added during production.


OPENING: Waves are crashing on a breaker. The screen tells us Russia is in revolution. “The individual personality, having hardly had time to become conscious of itself, dissolved in the mass, and the mass itself became dissolved in the revolutionary elan.” On board the Potemkin, two soldiers talk about supporting the workers. Vakulinchuk urges the men lounging in their hammocks to revolt against mistreatment.

SUMMARY: The men are upset about rancid meat, but the officers (including the doctor) insist it is edible. The men refuse to eat the borscht. In response, the Admiral orders the execution of those who are insubordinate. The rebels are gathered on the deck and a tarpaulin is thrown over them. A wild looking Rasputin-like preacher condones the execution. Vakulinchuk demands the firing squad back down and they do. The mutiny begins. There is mass chaos as the officers are thrown overboard. Unfortunately, Valulinchuk is shot and killed, thus becoming a martyr.

      Valulinchuk’s body is carried ashore at Odessa. A mass of people come out to view the body. The whole city apparently. There is a montage of various emotions. The anger builds, symbolized by clenched hands recurring. “Down with tyranny!” The crowd joins with the crew and raises a red flag of revolution. An armada of sail-boats comes out to bring food to the battleship while a crowd cheers from a stairway. Uh, oh!





      Next is the famous Odessa Staircase scene. Einstein shows off his innovative cross-cutting technique as he bounces from the robotic czarist soldiers advancing with bayonets fixed down the seemingly endless steps and the panicked civilians reacting to the tsunami of violence. Some of the focus is on a boy and his distraught mother. Another group tries vainly to reason with the soldiers. Most famously, a mother is shot and her baby carriage goes bouncing down the steps unguided. The violence is graphic for that time period of black and white / silent movies.

CLOSING: The fleet is coming! What will happen? The Potemkin will obviously be outnumbered and outgunned. The crew prepares for battle in a good tutorial of how a dreadnaught would be readied for naval combat. The music builds, the tension rises. At the last moment the squadron allows the Potemkin to pass through unimpeded to the accompaniment of cheers from the other crews who have refused to obey orders to open fire.

RANKING:

Acting - 6


Action - 6


Accuracy - 9


Realism - 6


Plot - 6


Overall - 6

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? It depends on if they a film buff. Everyone who claims to be a movie lover should see this movie. It is a true classic. It is not particularly macho and since it is not in smell-o-vision, females should be able to get into the story. Certainly the staircase scene tugs at female emotions as many of the victims are women.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The movie is surprisingly accurate for a propaganda piece. There was a mutiny on the battleship Potemkin in 1905 and it apparently started over the gross food. The movie does not give background (which makes the causes of the rebellion unclear), but the crew was already low on morale because of the aftermath of the terrible ass-kicking at the Battle of Tsushima. The Japanese fleet destroyed a Russian fleet and rumor threatened that ships like the Potemkin might be sent to the war zone. To make matters worse, the officer class had been diluted in quality to bolster the fleet that had been sent to Tsushima. The Potemkin’s officers would have probably been similar to the arrogant bourgeoisie of the film. However, it seems unlikely that Einstein’s heroic, saintly proletariat sailors were accurate representations of the actual crew.

      The mutiny did break out under circumstances similar to the film. A sailor named Vakulinchuk did foment the rebellion against the food. The sailors who were refusing to eat were being threatened by marines when Vakulinchuk started the mutiny. He was shot and fell into the sea, was rescued, and subsequently died. His funeral in Odessa was attended by a large crowd and incited more civil discontent.

      The movie has had such an impact that the staircase incident has been read into history. The fact is that it never happened. However, there were incidents in Odessa involving troops firing into crowds.

      Surprisingly, the sailing of the Potemkin through the fleet unmolested is true. The movie does not carry it from there, but the battleship took refuge in Rumania where most of the crew went into exile. The ship was eventually returned to the czarist government.

CRITIQUE: “Battleship Potemkin” is a remarkable movie. It is a classic that holds up well. You do not have to be a film historian to recognize the brilliance of Einstein’s direction. His innovations of montages and cross-cutting are apparent in their importance to the evolution of movie-making. The staircase scene alone is worth the price of admission. The story-telling is terse, but effective. The subtitles mostly explain instead of translate. To tell the truth, the film could have used more subtitles. The music is effective and matches the scenes well.

      Unlike other true classics (like Casablanca), the movie is not flawless. Some of the scenes linger too long. We get your point, Sergei! The movie also tends to be heavy-handed at times, but for a propaganda film it is remarkably restrained. The acting is mediocre. This is not surprising considering several key players were not professional actors.

CONCLUSION: Once again we have a movie that is obviously one of the “greatest” war movies, but not necessarily one of the “best”. It is interesting and does a good job covering an important historical event. It is very influential and is still studied. This influence has been basically on films in general, not particularly on war movies, however.

       I think the editors of Military History magazine got its ranking of #47 pretty right considering their apparent definition of “greatest”. There are many movies that I have already reviewed from the 100 Greatest that are better and more entertaining, but you have to give “Battleship Potemkin” some credit for being ground-breaking.