BACK-STORY: “Castle Keep” is a war movie based on a fantasy novel by William Eastlake. The movie was released in the middle of the Vietnam War in 1969. It was Sidney Pollack’s fourth film and his second straight collaboration with Burt Lancaster (the first was “The Scalphunters”). Lancaster was the one who suggested filming the book. A styrofoam mock-up of a 10th Century Belgian castle was built for the movie. It cost $1 million and caught flame prematurely causing Pollack to scramble to get some film of it going up. the footage was used in the movie. The castle was then rebuilt because there were two more scenes requiring it. The movie was shot in Yugoslavia.
OPENING: An exhausted squad of war-weary American soldiers arrive at a Belgian castle. They are referred to by their eye-patched Maj. Falconer (Lancaster) as “eight walking wounded misfits”. The castle is inhabited by an impotent Count (Jean-Pierre Aumont) and his sexy, much younger wife Therese (Astrid Heeren). The squad settles in to await the return of the war.
SUMMARY: After the opening, the movie jumps three weeks and is on the eve of the Battle of the Bulge. Somehow Falconer knows the German Ardennes Offensive will come through the castle and he prepares to defend it. This is abhorrent to art expert Capt. Beckman (Patrick O’Neal) who revels in the art works and even conducts lectures on them. The men are on the edge of their seats during the lectures. Just kidding. Beckman feels defense of the castle will result in destruction of the art. It would be better to let the Germans take the castle. There is a reference to the Germans having occupied the castle earlier in the war, but they did not loot it. Of course not, everyone knows works of art were safe when the Nazis were around. Falconer insists on making a stand at the castle because it is a key strategic position. (Plus Lancaster feels he has done enough to save art in "The Train".)
While the storm clouds gather on the horizon, the members of the unit engage in idyllic fantasy scenarios. Sgt. Rossi (Peter Falk) moves in with the baker’s wife in the local town and starts baking. I mean actually baking. Several soldiers take up residence at the brothel where they do not go upstairs, preferring to chill with the whores who look like they are from the 1960s. Cpl. Clearboy (Scott Wilson) has a love affair with a Volkswagon Beetle. I am not making this up. Pvt. Benjamin (Al Freeman, Jr), the only African-American, takes notes for a future novel and narrates the movie. Meanwhile, Falconer is bedding the Countess with the tacit approval of the Count who is hoping he will impregnate her.
The movie is a collection of bizarre scenes. At one point the men encounter a cult of conscientious objectors led by a zealot, Lt. Bix (Bruce Dern). They sing religious songs and have dropped out of the war. In another head-scratcher, two of the unit try to drown the Volkswagon in the moat. It goes down with its windows open, but pops up with the windows closed. Apparently, it’s Herbie’s father. Oops, I mean mother. (Sorry, Clearboy, I did not mean to suggest you were a homocarual.) Clearboy jumps in and drives it out! WTF Beckman has a duel with a German spotter plane that is armed with machine guns. He shoots it down with a .50 caliber on the roof. Rembrandt guided his aim, I suppose.
The Germans reach the area. Rossi is still baking. Bix is still ranting. The brothelites are still cavorting. Falconer convinces Bix to lead his cult to the castle, but a single artillery shell kills all the cult members. Falconer is unable to convince retreating American units to defend the castle. They are not impressed by the fact that he is riding around on a white horse. When the Germans arrive in the town, Falconer’s men use a bazooka to take out a tank that is in the church. They then drive the tank out, in the process destroying the church. Get it?
The defense of the castle is one big fire-fight. German artillery blows up the statues outside. One by one the Americans are killed. Luckily there are lulls in the fighting so the men can speechify. The castle is being destroyed in the process of saving it. How ironic!
CLOSING: Suddenly a fire truck arrives (yes, I am still writing about “Castle Keep”) and the Germans use the fire ladder to span the moat. Falconer sets fire to the moat (they had earlier poured gasoline in it). The fires of Hell consume the castle.
Acting – 8
Action - 6
Accuracy – 3
Plot - 4
Realism - 4
Overall - 4
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? It depends. Is your significant other on drugs? Or do they want to witness film-making done on drugs? Are they from the Old World and want to breed with an American? Do they dream of Burt Lancaster on a white horse with an eye-patch? Warning: if you own a Volkswagon Beetle, she might get suspicious and/or jealous.
ACCURACY: It is pointless to discuss this. Other than the fact that there was a Battle of the Bulge, there is nothing factual in this movie. However, I don’t think Pollack meant to instruct. At least I hope the Hell not. By the way, what is a black guy doing in the unit? And when do spotter planes come with machine guns?
CRITIQUE: “Castle Keep” has become something of a cult classic since its release. The reviews were mixed when it first came out, but it has gained some respect over the years. The reviews I read are very polarized. People either love it or hate it. As for me, HATED IT!!!
The movie is pretentiously bizarre. You know this right off the bat when in the first ten minutes of the movie the music shifts styles three times. The dialogue is weird and is nowhere near the way soldiers actually talk. The camera angles are avant-garde in the worst way. The symbolism drips (oozes, jumps out, permeates, skulks) from every line and every action. The theme is that Old Europe is dying (e.g. the Count is impotent) and must be saved by the New World (the American army) from the barbarian hordes (the Germans). But, of course, when you are rescued by Americans you can expect to be destroyed in the process. (They had to destroy the castle in order to save it. Like a village in Vietnam, get it?) Military might (Falconer) trumps art (Beckman) is another heavy-handed theme. The movie is clearly meant to be anti-war, but Pollack provides a rousing action-packed battle in the end with the protagonists dying heroic deaths.
One positive thing about the film is the actors really bought into the mess of a script. They act as though they are participating in an important film. Pollack and Lancaster really brainwashed them well. “Okay, Wilson, your character is going to fall in love with a Volkswagon. You will rescue it from being drowned in the moat by driving it to dry land. You must do this with a straight face. It’s important to the plot of the film.”
Did you know that war can cause mental anguish? Soldiers might fantasize about doing something more pleasant. What if they actually got to do their fantasy? Wouldn’t that make an interesting movie? No.
CONCLUSION: If there ever is a list of most bizarre war movies, “Castle Keep” belongs on it. However, since I am reviewing the supposed 100 Greatest War Movies as chosen by Military History magazine, I must question the drug-ingestion of the panel. To place this piece of crap at #66 cries out for drug testing. Every one of the movies ranked worse than this movie are better than it. It is absolutely incredible that this movie could be ranked higher than “Last of the Mohicans”, “Breaker Morant”, and “Dr. Strangelove” - to name just three. The panel may not have the guts to say the Emperor has no clothes, but I will shout it. Luckily, the public saw through the pretentious bull shit and the movie was a flop. (It was very popular in France. Figure that one out for yourself.)
Congratulations “Braveheart”, Military History magazine managed to make me feel sorry for you.