Tuesday, May 31, 2011

"Gettysburg" on the History Channel

     The special presentation of “Gettysburg” was executive produced by Ridley and Tony Scott. With that kind of pedigree, you can expect it to be more pop history than military history. You can also expect some Hollywood “bells and whistles”. You get what you pay for. The Scotts delivered a documentary made to the current standards of what modern war movies are supposed to look like. This is either a sacrilege or shrewd catering to the masses. Given the History Channels recent programming decisions, it fits their new philosophy and at least it was on an historical topic.


     The program follows eight participants in the battle. They each get their segment, but several reappear at later stages of the battle. They are Rufus Dawes (an officer in the Iron Brigade), Amos Humistan (Union sgt.), Dr. Lagrande Wilson (CSA), Gen. William Barksdale (CSA), Gen. Dan Sickles (USA), Ridgely Howard (Confederate private who was a slaveholder from Md.), Col. James Wallace (Union officer who also owned slaves in Md.), and Joe Davis (officer form Miss.) Each gets a back story and most have some primary source narration. The actors (reenactors?) are okay and better than you could expect. Their stories are interesting, although not necessarily typical. The program is fairly balanced between the two sides.

     The “bells and whistles” are entertaining. There is a lot of action and the modern style editing and quick cuts. Surprisingly, there was little use of CGI for the combat scenes. (They did use it for “flyovers” of the battlefield.) Of course, the deaths are in slow motion and shown several times. The program is very graphic for a documentary. At one point blood splatters on the camera lens. The wounds are also pretty gruesome. Too Hollywoodish, but a good balance to the staid old-school docs. The show is strongest in getting the sights and sounds of combat realistic. It’s not “Saving Private Ryan”, but not bad for a TV documentary.

     The talking heads are a mixed bag. They do have James McPherson, but the others are B list. They add some interesting opinions, but many of their thoughts were apparently chosen to increase the suspense for rubes who know little of the battle. (“I can’t wait to find out who wins”) For instance, on Pickett’s Charge, one said it “had a reasonable chance of success” and another opined that it “almost cut the Union army in two. They almost did it.” These statements were made with straight faces! The trivia-type asides that are thrown in by the narrator are cool and informative. There are segments on how the rifles and cannons worked that are well done.

     The biggest flaw is in its coverage of strategy and tactics. The decision to concentrate on eight participants and cover the battle was a poorly executed one. For instance, we launch into Dawes’ story before we get a map tutorial on Lee’s strategy. Also, Dawes minor victory was not typical of the first day’s fighting. There are shocking omissions. No mention of the actual start of the battle and unbelievably nothing on the fight for Little Round Top! Sickles’ decision to move forward is treated as a golden opportunity for the South to break the Union army in two rather than what it actually was – the chance to cut out a large body of troops. Stuart’s faux pas is mentioned, but he is not. As a tutorial on the battle, the doc falls short.

     By far the greatest strength of the program was the reenactors. They are amazing. They will probably cringe at some of the stuff that appeared on the screen, but they did their usual outstanding job making sure all the little details were right. The uniforms and weapons were all authentic. We should have more movies set in the Civil War to take advantage of this awesome resource. I bet there was no Hollywood-style boot camp for the actors in this one. It was nice to see them honored (?) with one of the funniest commercials ever – the Geico cave man as a by-the-book reenactor spot.

     There will be people who despise this program. I am not one of them. I have learned to lower my standards and accept the few crumbs the History Channel tosses history buffs. After all, can’t we all agree it was an improvement over “American Pickers”? It was a nice compromise between what the ignorant masses want for entertainment and what the purists would want in information. Let’s hope it gets good ratings so THC might decide to show some history programs. It is a dream I have.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

#64 - CROSS OF IRON


BACK-STORY: “Cross of Iron” is a war movie set on the Eastern Front in World War II. It is told from a German point of view. The action takes place in the Taman Peninsula in the Caucasus in 1943. The Germans are in the midst of their retreat from Stalingrad. The film was Sam Peckinpah’s last great feature and his only war movie. He supposedly was heavily drinking during the shoot. The movie is based on the novel The Willing Flesh by Willi Heinrich. The movie follows the book fairly closely. The movie was filmed on location in Yugoslavia with the cooperation of the Yugoslavian army. Because the production ran out of money, the ending had to be improvised. The release met with mixed reviews and it did not do well at the box office. It’s reputation has been rising over the years, however.


OPENING: The opening credits roll over German war footage with a German children’s song in the background. Corporal Steiner (James Coburn) and his squad sneak up on a Russian mortar post and kill their opponents in the slow motion typical of a Peckinpah film. They capture a Russian boy and bring him back.

SUMMARY: Capt. Stransky (Maximilian Schell) arrives to take command of the battalion and meets with Gen. Brandt (James Mason) and Capt. Kiesel (David Warner). Stransky is an aristocratic Prussian who has requested a transfer from France specifically so he can win an Iron Cross. Brandt is disillusioned and points out that the German soldier is simply fighting for his life, not for medals. They recommend Stransky make use of Steiner. The cynical, embittered Keisel says “Steiner is a myth. Men like him are our last hope and in that sense he is truly a dangerous man.”

Stransky, Meyer, and Steiner
When Stransky meets Steiner, he is angered by Steiner’s lack of respect for his “superior” (in rank and social status) officer. Steiner simply tolerates Stransky as the latest in a long line of clueless officers. When Stransky insists the orders to take no prisoners be carried out by shooting the boy, Steiner refuses, but the confrontation is diffused when one of the squad members promises to do it. He lies and later Steiner releases the boy and points homeward. The boy is immediately killed by attacking Russians. Oh, the irony.

The attack is a major one with frantic battle action. There are more slow motion deaths and lots of explosions. There is hand-to-hand combat and Steiner is wounded. His respected platoon leader Lt. Meyer is killed leading a counterattack. Later, Stransky (who cowered in his bunker during the battle) claims he led the successful counterattack and deserves the Iron Cross.

Steiner ends up in a hospital which results in some surreal scenes as he hallucinates and sees old comrades. He has an affair with a nurse (Senta Berger). In a telling scene, a general arrives with propaganda film crew to show the wonderful treatment of the men, but once the shots are done the banquet is reserved for the visiting officers. When Steiner is recovered enough (in his opinion), he abandons the nurse in favor of a return to his unit (cliché alert).

When Steiner returns to the squad’s bunker, he finds some of his men are dead and they now have a Nazi Party member attached to them. In a great scene, Steiner is called before Brandt to verify Stransky’s leading the counterattack. Stransky has two eyewitnesses – Steiner and a homosexual adjutant named Treibig who he is blackmailing. Brandt suspects Stransky is lying and wants Steiner to confirm his suspicions. Steiner surprises him by asking for more time. Brandt peevishly points out that he has tolerated a lot of insubordination from Steiner, prompting an outburst from Steiner in which he proclaims that he does not care that Brandt is “enlightened”. He hates all officers and, in fact, the whole army.

The Germans are forced to retreat, but Stransky sees an opportunity to silence Steiner by not passing on the order. The Russians move in with tanks. The squad takes refuge in a factory, but a tank simply plows through the wall. They escape through a tunnel. The action is intense.

They are on the run and moving cross country to try to reach German lines. They reach a village and take a unit of Russian female soldiers captive. The Party worm attempts to rape one of the women, but gets his genitalia bitten off and kills her. The scene is unique in that the women are treated sympathetically. When they kill one of the Germans who was distracted, Steiner does not retaliate. They would have done the same, I suppose. Steiner even gives them the Party guy as a parting gift.

They reach the German lines but still have to cross no man’s land. They send a message warning the Germans not to shoot as they are coming in, but Stransky gets his toadie Treibig to open fire on these “Russians” coming through the wire. Several members are killed in graphic, slow motion deaths. Steiner guns down Treibig and goes looking for Stransky.

CLOSING: The Russians choose this moment to launch an attack. Lots of explosions and flying debris. It’s as though Peckinpah added an Indian attack to the showdown scene of a one of his westerns. Steiner tracks down Stransky amidst all the chaos, but decides not to kill him. Instead, they go out together to fight. Steiner has shamed Stransky into earning the Iron Cross. The movie ends with Stransky fumbling with reloading his machine gun and Steiner laughing at him.

RATINGS:

Action - 9


Acting - 9


Accuracy - 8


Realism - 8


Plot - 8


Overall – 8

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? This is a very manly movie. It is unlikely your significant other will enjoy it. There is only one significant female character and she is treated like a piece of meat. The movie is very grimy and gritty. It pulls no punches. The scene with the Russian female soldiers is admirably nonsexist, but most women would find it discomforting. Besides, how many women are Sam Peckinpah fans?

ACCURACY: Willi Heinrich was a veteran of the Eastern Front and was wounded five times so he knew of which he wrote. The book is probably partly autobiographical. It is also claimed the book is based on the experiences of the decorated soldier Johannsch Werdfeger who won two Iron Crosses.

The movie does not claim to be a true story. The battles are generic and represent typical battles during the Taman Peninsula campaign. The fighting is realistic in a Hollywood sort of way. Peckinpah does stage chaos well. The sets are appropriately decimated. The deaths appropriately random.

The movie is helped in its realism by the authentic weapons. The Russian tanks are T34/85’s on loan from the Yugoslavian Army. I won’t quibble with the fact that that particular model was not in use in 1943. The small arms are accurate. One flaw is the use of F4U Corsairs to represent Russian fighter-bombers. Gull wings – did they think we would not notice?

The small unit dynamics of the squad, especially in the bunker scenes ring true. The soldier banter is realistic. The comradery is what you expect for a squad that had gone through all they went through. The attitudes of the enlisted and the officers in the German army circa 1943 are well displayed. The cynicism and defeatism is apparent.

CRITIQUE: “Cross of Iron” is a special movie. There is no other war movie quite like it. It has the Peckinpah touch throughout it – the trademark slow motion violence, the iconoclastic anti-hero, the lack of respect for authority. An American war movie concentrating on Germans on the Eastern Front is pretty rare.

The movie is certainly action-packed with lots of explosions. It is a great combat movie and has several combat scenes that are among the best filmed. It does have its exposition parts (which are necessary to develop the conflict between Steiner and Stransky and to explain Brandt’s role in the triangle), but the movie is definitely not wordy.

The movie is an excellent depiction of small unit warfare, but it also gives a taste of command. Brandt is a sympathetic soldiers-general and Keisel represents another type – the cynical staff officer. Stransky is yet another type – the chicken-hearted glory hound. Steiner portrays the hardened NCO who cares more for the survival of his men than the “big picture”. The movie is refreshingly free of the stereotyped evil Nazis. Stransky is not a Nazi – he is an aristocrat who is fighting for his family honor, not Hitler.

The acting is outstanding. Coburn deserved an Academy Award nomination and has one of his best roles. He is perfect as Steiner. He is ably supported by Mason, Warner, and Schell. I especially enjoyed Warner’s cynical Keisel. He is riveting whenever he appears. Schell is appropriately loathsome. The unknown actors who make up the squad also do a good job.

The ending has drawn mixed reviews. I personally did not like it. I found it out of character that after killing Treibig, Steiner does not kill the more despicable Stransky. Why would he suddenly change his mind? Then Stransky in a character-flip does not kill Steiner when he turns his back on him. Either one of these character shifts would be hard to swallow, but both? I did not mind the abrupt halt to the movie.

CONCLUSION: If you want a war movie that is adrenalin-fueled and well-acted, try “Cross of Iron”. It is not subtle, but it is not one-dimensional either. It is definitely underrated at #64. It seems incredible that it is only two places higher than “Castle Keep”! I feel confident it will be in the top fifty of my 100 Best War Movies list.  By the way, that is a great movie poster.





COMING UP:  I will be reviewing the History Channel special on "Gettysburg" on May 30 at 9 EST.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

FORGOTTEN GEM? "King Rat"

    

      “King Rat” is a WWII prisoner of war movie released in 1965. It was based on the novel by James Clavell. The film is set in the infamous Changi Prison Camp on the island of Singapore in 1945. It is a tale of survival, not escape. The main character is an American in a mostly British camp. He is Corporal King (George Segal) and he unofficially runs the camp because he is the go-to guy for anything a prisoner might want – at a price. He is amoral and enjoys it. Because he has profited from his acquisition “skills” he looks spic and span and eats well. Most of the inmates resent him, especially the Provost Marshall, Lt. Grey (Thomas Courtney). Grey is an officious British officer who is obsessed with bringing King to justice. He is having a hard time catching the King red-handed, however.


     King develops a dysfunctional relationship with the suave, upper class Brit Peter Marlowe (James Fox). He wants him to act as an interpreter (he speaks Malay) and tries to put him on the payroll by offering him an egg. Marlowe cannot be bribed, but he is intrigued by the charismatic King and takes the job.

     King has a posse, which includes toady Sgt. Max (Patrick O’ Neal), that he lords over. They come up with a scheme to breed rats and sell the meat as mouse deer. Meanwhile, Grey discovers corruption in the food distribution. When he brings the accusation to Col. Smedley-Taylor (John Mills), he finds out the brass are involved and is told he should ignore it. He is incensed, but the offer of a promotion calms him down. So who is worse – King or the camp leaders?

     King is a strange character. When he is almost caught with money gained from trading with the Japanese, he gets Marlowe to hide the evidence and then gets expensive medicine to save Marlowe’s gangrenous arm from being amputated. Is he doing this out of friendship or because only Marlowe knows where he buried the money? It is unclear because King is such a dislikable person.

     The British officers are called in and the commandant shocks them with news that the war is over. Everyone in the camp celebrates except King who realizes that not only are his salad days over, but the sword of justice now hangs over his head. He barely survives a fit by the seething Max. When a single British paratrooper (Richard Dawson!) arrives to liberate the camp, he pointedly asks King why he looks a lot fitter than the other prisoners. The hand-writing is on the wall for King. Marlowe defends King’s actions to Grey by pointing out that hatred of King is what kept Grey alive. However, King turns his back on Marlowe’s attempt to part on good terms. Is King trying to save Marlowe from guilt by association?

    At the end of the film, King is leaving with the other Americans in a truck. He stands in the back of the truck with his arms out like Christ on the crucifix – an image that, if planned by the director, does not fit his character at all.

     This is a pretty bleak movie, although it has its moments of black humor. It does accurately reflect conditions in a Japanese prison camp. We can assume this because James Clavell spent three years in Chongi. The conditions are not exaggerated in part because Chongi was actually one of the better run Japanese camps. What’s bleak is the men themselves. The prisoners are gaunt and they sweat a lot. Only King is not a scarecrow. They also smoke cigarettes whenever they can get them which makes butts a type of currency in the camp. This is a movie that will make some non-smokers and all vegetarians sick. The camp brings out the worst in some men. There probably were men like King in every camp, but you do not see them in most POW movies.

     Some of the movie strains credulity a bit. King does not hold sway because of physical intimidation. He is in the distinct minority as an American and is disliked by the vast majority, including members of his entourage. Realistically, he would have been killed for his stash (which his posse knows the location of).

     The movie is well respected in the prisoner of war genre. It contrasts well with the more up-beat and optimistic ones like “The Great Escape” or “The Colditz Story”. It is interesting to note that TGE came out in 1963 before the 60s cynicism hit Hollywood and KR came out in 1965 about the time that cynicism begins to be felt. To see what I mean, compare the scrounger in TGE (Hendley – James Garner) to King. Being more realistically depressing does not make it a better movie than TGE and it is probably a bit overrated. But you have to give it credit for showing survival over escape. It came as a surprise to me that it was nominated for two Academy Awards (cinematography and art direction). The acting is good, especially Segal who has to be unlikable (Paul Newman and Steve McQueen turned down the role). Watch it if you want a different point of view on prison life.

Rating – 7/10

Saturday, May 21, 2011

#65 - CASABLANCA


BACK-STORY: “Casablanca” is a war movie released in 1942 to coincide with Operation Torch and the liberation of Casablanca. It is based on an unproduced play entitled “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”. Shockingly, several writers adapted it which flies in the face of multi writers signaling problems. It was directed by Michael Curtiz. It was Bogart’s first romantic role. In spite of the chemistry between him and Ingrid Bergman, they never made another film together. Only three American actors have roles. Many of the extras were Jewish refugees. It was filmed at the studio. The Production Code Administration had all direct references to sex removed from the script. (Note to current television writers, it is possible to be sexy without beating the audience over the head.) It won three Oscars (Picture, Director, Screenplay) and was nominated for Actor (Bogart – robbed by Paul Lukas (who?) in “Watch on the Rhine”!!), Supporting Actor (Rains – robbed by Charles Coburn in “The More the Merrier”!), Cinematography (how did it lose that one?), Editing, and Music.  There was only half-hearted talk of a sequel.  Times change.


OPENING: A narrator explains the situation in Vichy-controlled Morocco. It is a transit point for refugees hoping to get to Portugal and then to safety in America. Most are stuck and waiting…waiting…waiting… The search is on for the murderer of two Nazi couriers. The criminal has taken two “letters of transit” which will fetch a great price. Capt. Renaud (the local Vichy police chief) is rounding up the usual suspects.

Henreid, Bergman, Rains, and Bogart
SUMMARY: At Rick’s Café Americain, the cynical expatriate Rick Blaine is visited by Ugarte (Peter Lorre) who is a petty criminal who has two letters of transit for sale. Czech Resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) arrives in Casablanca. He has escaped from a concentration camp and is on the lam. He is accompanied by his wife Ilsa (Bergman). He needs the letters of transit. The typically loathsome Nazi Maj. Strasser (Conrad Veidt – an anti-Nazi who had fled Germany) of the Gestapo is in town to get Laszlo, but cannot simply arrest him in Vichy jurisdiction. When Ilsa asks the house piano player Sam (Dooley Wilson – a drummer who could not play the piano) to play “As Time Goes By”, Rick realizes his ex-lover is in town. He gleefully greets her like a lovelorn schoolboy. Not really.

     A flashback reveals the reason for Rick’s bitterness. Rick and Ilsa had had a fling in Paris in 1940. They drove around in front of a movie screen and also boated in front of a screen (so much for 1940s special effects). We get a montage of romantic moments. We are left to wonder whether they had sex. It seems likely. They are scheduled to flee as Paris falls, but Ilsa does not show up at the train station. She leaves a note saying she loves him, but it’s over. She runs out of ink before she can explain why.

     We find out that Rick was a gun runner to Ethiopians fighting the Italian invasion and then later he fought in the Spanish Civil War. These are his bona vides as a cynical fascist hater. In the café, “La Marseillaise” wins a duel with “Die Wacht am Rhein” (“Watch on the Rhine”). Movie audiences must have high-fived at this point.

Bergman preferred her left side
     Ilsa visits Rick to beg for the letters. He refuses. She pulls a gun, then cries. (Not realizing if she had done the crying first, the gun would have been unnecessary.) He cracks (he may be Bogart, but even he cannot withstand the ultimate female weapon). She explains why she left him in Paris (in an amazing coincidence, her assumed-to-be-dead husband showed up the day of the train rendezvous. Better late than never.) They rekindle their love. He promises to help Laszlo escape with the understanding that she will stay.

     Laszlo arrives to beg Rick to use the letters to escort Ilsa to safety. It turns out he figured out the love of Rick and Ilsa because of the steam. Laszlo is arrested on a trumped up charge before the conversation is over. Rick makes a deal with Renaud to entrap Laszlo on a more serious charge. Renaud releases Laszlo, and then Rick turns a gun on Renaud.

scenes from the satanic colorized  version
CLOSING: Come on, if you don’t know what happens you would not have read up to this point because either you don’t know how to read or you are a teenager (or both). Anyway, at the airport, Rick insists Ilsa leave with Laszlo because if she doesn’t she will regret it. “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life. Plus, the motion picture code will not allow you to stay because you are married.” (That last sentence was cut from the final version.) Rick says “Here’s looking at you, kid” for the fourth and last time. He kills Strosser and goes walking off with Renaud (who has ordered the rounding up of “the usual suspects”) and they plan to join the Free French. “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”. A friendship based on cynicism and back-stabbing.

RATINGS:

Acting - 10


Action - 5


Accuracy - N/A


Realism - 8


Plot - 10


Overall - 9

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Are you kidding? Bogart and Bergman. As they said about the Kennedy’s, every woman would want to be with Bogart and every woman would want to be Bergman. The chemistry between the two is sizzling. The romance is heart-tugging and realistic. Watch out guys, the movie could prompt disillusionment in your significant other. However, this should be cancelled out by the props you get for watching it with her. Also, you won’t have to talk her into watching a war movie because she won’t recognize it as such.

ACCURACY: Accuracy is not really an issue. It does not claim to be based on a true story. The general outline is accurate. Morocco in 1941 was officially part of Vichy France and thus technically out of Nazi jurisdiction. Casablanca was a transit point for European refugees trying to get to Portugal and then to America. It seems likely that under real circumstances the Gestapo would have had less scruples about eliminating a resistance leader like Laszlo. The “letters of transit” were a fictitious plot device. In my opinion, one of the most accurate statements in the movie is made by Ferrari (Sidney Greenstreet) who is Rick’s shady-operator rival. He opines: “My dear Rick, when will you realize that in this world today, isolationism is no longer a practical policy?” The screenwriters obviously agreed with that sentiment, as did FDR who screened the movie in The White House (la casa blanca).

CRITIQUE: “Casablanca” is one of the top five movies of all time. It is one of the few “classics” that holds up for modern audiences. The dialogue is crackling. Numerous quotes are among the greatest in movie history. The acting is top notch. Bogart is at the top of his game and he is matched by Bergman. Rains is outstanding in the best performance of his career. The only downer is Henreid’s stiff performance, but that was partly due to the saintliness of the character. You throw in Strasser, Lorre, and Greenstreet and you have an amazing cast. The musical score keeps pace with the acting. The song “As Time Goes By” is justifiably one of the most memorable in cinema history. The cinematography is awesome. Bergman’s face is shot in such a way to highlight her conflicting emotions. The darkness and shadows give the film a film noir feel.  The theme of sacrifice resonated in WWII America, but can be understood at any time.  The cynic who does the right thing may be stereotypical, but Bogart set the template for it.  This is an adult movie for adults.

CONCLUSION: “Casablanca” is one of the greatest movies of all time, but is it one of the greatest war movies? It certainly fits the 100 Greatest list better than "Foreign Correspondent" or “Notorious” (which incredibly is placed 8 slots higher than "Casablanca"!), for example. I am more comfortable with it being placed in that vague category of “movies set in war”. If you classify it as a war movie, how do you place it at only #65 when it is clearly superior as a movie to virtually every movie on the list? For that reason, although I love it, it will not be on my eventual 100 Best War Movies list. Watch it for the tenth time anyway.

                                                                       



Wednesday, May 18, 2011

CIVIL WAR READALONG: "Rebel"

     Rebel is the first in a series of Civil war novels (the Starbuck Chronicles) by Bernard Cornwell of Sharpe’s fame. The story starts at the beginning of the war in Richmond. The hero, Nathan Starbucks, is a naïve Northern divinity student who has exiled himself from his famous abolitionist/minister father by going south. He is being assailed by a mob of rebels who insist he is a Yankee spy. He is rescued from being tarred and feathered by his best friend’s father (Washington Faulconer) who is a wealthy land-owner.


     Faulconer is an interesting character. He had set his slaves free ten years earlier, but is excited about secession because it will give him an opportunity to show off his military ability. He recruits a military unit which he pompously calls Faulconer’s Legion. He outfits it with his own funds and envisions it as an elite unit that will gloriously play a leading role in the only battle that will be necessary to win independence for the Confederacy. Faulconer takes Nathan under his wing and makes him an officer. He sends Nathan into the backwoods to recruit a Mexican War veteran and local crime boss, Thomas Truslow. Truslow is as crude as Nathan is genteel, but they develop an unlikely bond. Nathan also meets Truslow’s vixen daughter Sally who is a revelation to the impressionable Nathan. She is a feral beauty and it s lust at first sight. He reluctantly marries Sally off to the father of her soon-to-be baby after Truslow insists being a minister-in-waiting is good enough to perform the ceremony.

     Faulconer decides not to wait for the war to come to him, so he leads a commando raid on a railroad trestle. The raid is a farce with Faulconer showing little command sense and he blames Nathan for the failure of the mission. Nathan (and the reader) begins to get the impression that Faulconer is not the great patron he appeared to be.

     Starbucks becomes obsessed with reacquainting himself with the saucy Sally. He rediscovers her in a Richmond brothel. She is there after she was way-laid by order of the loathsome Ethan Ridley who is an aide to Faulconer, fiancé to his daughter, and father of Sally’s child. The baby is aborted and Sally is tortured via rape into behaving herself. She likes her new life as a high class prostitute, but asks the seduced Nathan to kill Ethan for her.

     With a Yankee invasion imminent, Faulconer ships his Legion off to Manassas to help win the upcoming battle. Truslow has risen to an unofficial leadership role by weight of his fierce personality. Truslow finds his status unsurprising, opining “the army shouts at you, shits on you and does its best to starve you, so you get by the best you can, and the best getters-by are the ones who thieve best.”

     Before the battle, Faulconer insists Nathan return north to his family. Nathan reluctantly agrees, but on his way he runs into the Union flanking column marching to surprise the Rebel left. Meanwhile, Faulconer is off to see Gen. Beauregard about moving the Legion to the right where he is sure the action will be. When Nathan hastens back to warn his Rebel comrades, he convinces second in command Maj. Bird (Faulconer’s brother-in-law) to reposition the unit into a blocking position. Bird rises to the moment as does the unit. Nathan, Truslow, and Nathan’s best friend Adam Faulconer are heavily involved in the fighting. Nathan gets his wished-for confrontation with Ethan Ridley.

     The combat depicted in the book is a strong point of the book. Cornwell has a way with action and his characters behave realistically under the stress of battle. He accurately portrays the innocence of a virgin army. When the first member of the Legion is killed by a cannon ball, the men gather around in wonder and grief. They worry about how his mother will take it. They do not anticipate how soon they will be hardened to the death of one man. Cornwell describes the three types of soldiers. Some of the men are “effortlessly brave”. “They went calmly about their business, stood straight in the face of the enemy, and kept their wits sharp.” The second type is the soldiers who “oscillated wildly between bravery and timidity, but responded to the leadership of the brave men.” The last type is the minority that are cowards. They “huddled far back in the trees, where they pretended to be busy loading or repairing their guns…” He also describes how Civil War officers would expose themselves to enemy fire to inspire their men.

     The book does end on a high note with the section on the Battle of First Bull Run. Although there was no Faulconer’s Legion, the rendering of the battle is pretty accurate. The brigade it is attached to, led by Nathan “Shanks” Evans, was real down to Evans’ barrelito of whiskey. The fighting in the book accurately reflects the experience of Evans’ brigade. The reader can learn a lot about the Battle of Manassas through the book. Real war figures like Evans, Beauragard, Lee, and Jackson make cameo appearances in the novel.

     Having read the entire Sharpe’s series, I am a big Cornwell fan. However, Rebel is not up to that series. Cornwell spends most of the book developing the characters, so it is a bit slow. He throws in the raid on the railroad seemingly to break ennui. I assume the other books in the series flow swifter now that the characters have been fleshed out. The characters are interesting, if inconsistent. Nathan is hard to like. You get tired of his constant whining about how he is going to go to Hell for being a normal young man. Thomas Turslow is by far the coolest character. One problem with the character development is Cornwell has a high percentage of the main characters completely changing from their introduction to the end of the book. For instance, the reader is led to believe that Thaddeus “Pecker” Bird (the schoolmaster who hates kids) is a prim loser, but he turns out to be a cool-headed combat leader. The sympathetically portrayed Washington Faulconer goes from benevolent savior of Nathan to arrogant, incompetent buffoon. But most disturbing is Cornwell’s transformation of Sally from a hillbilly hellion to a Machiavellian gold-digger. And this is brought about by raping her into submission!

     Rebel is the first in a series of novels that leaves you wondering if the strong close bodes well for the sequel, but causes concern that the next book will be similar in slow buildup. I am not real confident going into the next book, entitled Copperhead.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

CLASSIC OR ANTIQUE: “49TH Parallel”

   
 “49th Parallel” is a British propaganda film released in 1941. It is loosely described as a war movie. It was requested by the British Ministry of Information to encourage American entry into the war and to unite Canada behind the war effort. The movie was a big hit in England and America (where it was titled “The Invaders”) and won the Academy Award for Best Original Story. It was nominated for Best Picture and Screenplay.


     The movie opens with a map showing the 49th Parallel which is the boundary between the U.S. and Canada. Ironically, no scenes occur on the 49th Parallel. A German u-boat, U-37 (a fictional boat), is sinking ships off the coast of Canada. With coastal defense hot on their trail, the u-boat heads inland and gets sunk by aircraft stranding six men at a trading post. At the post is a French Canadian trapper named Johnnie (Laurence Olivier using an outrageous accent) who is not even aware there is a war on. His friend informs him how nasty the Nazis are. Johnnie thinks that it is none of Canada’s business. Do you think he will change his tune? The Nazis take over the post taking the Canadians captive. An Eskimo (lower than Negroes to them) is killed.

     Four of the Germans manage to escape in a plane, but it crashes in a lake when it runs out of gas. Now there are four. They meet a teenage girl (an angelic Glynnis Johns) named Anna who welcomes them to her Hutterite (similar to the Amish) community. The community is utopian and communistic (note the year the movie came out). Would you believe Anna’s father was killed in Germany because he called Hitler the “anti-Christ” and her mother drowned on a ship sunk by a u-boat? The leader of the Nazis, Hirth (a loathsome Eric Portman) can barely stand this group of pussies. However, the conscience of the quartet, Vogel (Niall MacGinnis), helps the Hutterites bake bread.

     With a storm in the background (get it?), Hirth misreads his audience by giving a bombastic speech referring to Hitler as a god. This does not go over well with the Hutterites (and presumably with the American filmgoers). The Hutterite leader Peter (Anton Walbrook) gets equal time for rebuttal and gives an impassioned condemnation of Hitlerism. He wins the debate. Hirth decides to move on, but first they kill Vogel before he can spend the rest of his life happily baking bread.

      They have 2,000 kilometers to go to get to safety. They walk, steal a car, hop a train. They end up in a crowd when a Mountie makes a speech warning that Nazis are in the crowd. Look around at anyone suspicious. One member of the trio panics and is caught, then Hirth and the other make an improbable escape to the woods where they meet a pansy rich guy appropriately named Philip Armstrong Scott (Leslie Howard, who else?) They pull a gun on him and run off, separating in the process. Scott tracks the guy who is not Hirth to a cave. He boldly marches in counting the bullets as they are fired. The last one hits him , but he knows it’s the last one so he is clear to kick some Nazi ass (sadly off camera for those who wanted to see Leslie engaged in ass-kicking). Scott: “One armed superman versus one unarmed decadent democrat”.  No contest!

     Hirth moves on and is almost home free in naively neutral America when he encounters an AWOL Canadian soldier Andy Brock (Raymond Massey) in a train boxcar. He points a gun at Brock and takes his uniform. They debate Nazism versus democracy. Hirth can afford to be smug because now that he has crossed Niagara Falls he is in America. Unhappy ending, right? Guess again.

     Classic or antique? An antique with dust covering it. This movie does not hold up well and could only have existed as a good movie in the context of its release. Looking at it sixty years later, it is laughably quaint. It is painfully propagandistic and much too preachy. Much of the dialogue reads like a 1940s Civics text book.

     By the way, at the bottom of the movie poster it shows Laurence Olivier carrying a blond in a blue dress.  Nothing remotely like that happens in the movie.

RATING - 5


Saturday, May 7, 2011

#66 - Castle Keep

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.

RATINGS:

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.

 

Thursday, May 5, 2011

CRACKER? 'Ride with the Devil


     “Ride with the Devil” is a war movie about the Civil War in Missouri. It is a film by Ang Lee based on a novel by Daniel Woodrill entitled Woe to Live On. It brings light to a theater of the war that seldom gets coverage. The war in Missouri was like the evil twin of the Civil War.


     The main characters are Southern sympathizers who join the Bushwhackers. The Bushwhackers are guerrillas who call themselves the Missouri Irregulars. As with most irregulars throughout history, they are ill-disciplined and take on mostly soft targets, meaning civilians. Their Northern equivalents are called Jayhawkers. Both sides commit atrocities which breed retaliatory atrocities.

     The main character is Jake Roedel (Tobey McGuire) who is of German ancestry. This makes him suspicious with the Rebel crowd and yet he joins the Bushwhackers and puts up with the animosity. To make matters worse, Jake inconveniently has a conscience! His best friend Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) joins up too. They bond with a dandy named George Clyde (Simon Baker) who is accompanied by his freed slave Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright).

     The band takes part in some typical bushwhacking activities that involve graphic violence. Lee stages violence well. A scene where they are ambushed in a farm house and are chased through the woods is intense. The movie also has its introspective moments. The four men spend the winter hiding out in a shack. They meet a feisty widow Sue Lee (Jewel) and all want her, but she chooses Jack Bull. Jake and Holt become friends. When Sue Lee’s father-in-law gets murdered, the quartet goes after the killers and Jack Bull is mortally wounded in a wild fire fight. When springtime arrives, it’s bushwhacking season so the remaining men return to their unit. The camp scene is realistic with the men singing, playing cards, and drinking.

     When the infamous William Quantrill arrives and urges them to join in a retaliatory raid on the abolitionist stronghold of Lawrence, Kansas, they are intrigued with the idea of getting revenge on the anti-slavery folks. They come charging in and start sacking the city. There is looting and burning, but Jack and Holt refuse to participate and even save a man. This earns further enmity from a psycho named Pitt (Jonathan Rhys Meyers).

     They withdraw chased by a regular Union cavalry unit. They launch a counter-charge and feigned retreat which is followed with dismounted rifle fire. (“Horse holders to the rear!”) Pretty good for an undisciplined group of Bushwhackers. During the fight, Pitt shoots Jake. Did I mention he was a villain? Jake and Holt are reunited with Jewel who has a baby girl (from Jack Bull). Oh no, a bastard baby! That child needs a daddy. Those who think it will be the black guy, think again. Do the newlyweds live happily ever after? Does Jake get revenge against Pitt? Does Holt return to the rabidly pro-slavery Bushwhackers? Only one of these has a “yes” answer.

     “Ride with the Devil” is one of the better Civil War movies. It is well-balanced with action, romance, and character development. The action is dynamic and intense. The romance is not syrupy, but rings true. The cinematography is sumptuous. Lee likes to juxtapose the vibrant greens of the forests with bright red shirts.  (They did not believe in camouflage in the Civil War.) The acting is good, with the exception of Jewel in her acting debut. She is a bit shaky, but what do you expect? McGuire is likeable, Rhys Meyers is hissable. Jeffrey Wright takes the honors with his portrayal of Holt. Holt is an intriguing character. He is actually based on a black named John Noland who served as a scout for Quantrill. You could argue that just because there happened to be a black Bushwhacker that does not excuse including an offensive character in your movie. Holt is portrayed as a strong and admirable man, but you should not overlook he is fighting on the wrong side. In fact, the two main characters (Jake and Holt) are far from being typical Bushwhackers.

     The movie is admirably accurate. The clothing is authentic. Many did carry 3 to 4 Colt revolvers. The noncombat actions of the irregulars are realistic. Many did spend winters holed up in shacks. The raid on Lawrence is a good tutorial on this little-known atrocity.  It was launched after a jail containing pro-slavery families collapsed killing many.  There were members of Quantrill’s unit who refused to participate. However, I found no evidence that there was a battle against pursuing Union cavalry. The themes of the hopelessness of the Lost Cause and how it is hard to have a conscience when few do are well-explored. If you want to see the seamier side of the Civil War, watch this movie. Does it crack the 100 Best war Movies? Possibly. It is better than many so far.

RATING: 8