Tuesday, May 29, 2012

CRACKER? Hope and Glory



         “Hope and Glory” is a war movie set in London during the Blitz of WWII. It was directed by John Boorman and was based on his own experiences as an eight year old boy. It was a British-American endeavor that was released in 1987. It was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Art Direction, Cinematography, Original Screenplay, Director, and Picture. It won the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy.


         The movie opens with newsreel footage about the opening of the war (the “footage” is actually from the movie “Battle of Britain”). The movie follows the Rowan family, but concentrates on the little boy named Billy (Sebastian Rice-Edwards). The father Clive (David Hayman) enlists in the Army so his wife Grace (Sarah Miles) has to take care of the three kids during the bombardment. She decides at the last moment not to send the kids off to Australia.

        The movie does an excellent job portraying the effects of the Blitz on a typical London neighborhood. An entire street with its houses was constructed for the film (the largest set ever constructed in England up until then). The first bombardment is spent claustrophobically under some stairs. The camera focuses on them and the sound effects are awesome. In the middle, the teenage daughter Dawn (Sammi Davis) runs out and dances on the lawn. She sobers up when the neighbors house goes up in flames.

        At school, the head master recites a patriotic prayer. There is an air raid that puts the kids in a bomb shelter. Their excitement is evident. Gas masks and recitation go together. Later, when the school gets hit by a stray bomb, the students yell “Thank you, Adolf!” Very realistic.

        Billy is “recruited” into a gang of vandals. They go around the rubble strewn streets making more rubble. His initiation is to say the lewd phrase “Bugger off, you bloody sod” which apparently was very naughty back then. Later, in the movie's most memorable scene, the gang convinces a girl to show them her private parts. The movie is good at showing the effects of the war on the morals of children.

        A major subplot is the loose Dawn and her affair with a Canadian soldier. She and her mother butt heads when she finds out. When they return from a beach outing, they find their home aflame. Surprisingly, the fire was not caused by a bomb. It’s just a regular fire. A fireman tells them “it happens in wartime as well.” They go to live with Grace’s crusty grandfather (Ian Bannen) in the country. He’s your typically eccentric British coot. He shoots at rats in his garden from his breakfast table. It’s an amazing contrast to their previous life. The tension of the first half dissipates.

        The film is filled with interesting vignettes. Putting up a barrage balloon. A German parachutes into the neighborhood. A rogue barrage balloon. The king gives a speech and they comment on his improved stutter. Playing cricket with grandpa.

         “Hope and Glory” is one of the best movies depicting the effects of war on children. Everything Billy experiences feels real. The excitement instead of fear is apparent. The school and gang scenes are authentic. It also does an excellent job showing the variety of effects on different family members. The characters are vivid and human. The actors help make them so. Special kudos to Miles, Bannen, and Davis. The child actors are strong.

       This is a wonderful little movie. The best word to describe the humor is it is “droll”. Not laugh out loud. More smile out loud. There is no better movie about the Blitz from a family point of view. There are few movies about the home front in any war better than “Hope and Glory”.

Will it crack the 100 Best? Probably

Rating: 8


\



Saturday, May 26, 2012

CRACKER? Where Eagles Dare



        In the late 1960s, Richard Burton was coming off several box office flops and his step-son urged him to dumb it down and make an action picture. Burton took the idea to producer Elliot Kastner who sought out Alistair MacLean (“The Guns of Navarone”). MacLean wrote the book and screenplay (his first) in six weeks and took the title from a line from Shakespeare. Clint Eastwood (fresh off his spaghetti western trilogy) was recruited and it was off to snowy Austria and Bavaria. Just as importantly, famed stuntman Yakima Canutt brought a cadre of great stuntmen to the production. Eastwood would later dub the movie “Where Doubles Dare”. The movie was a huge hit and firmly took a position among the suicide mission subgenre with “Guns of Navarone” and “The Dirty Dozen”.


          The movie opens with the iconic theme by Ron Goodwin which is the greatest in war movie history, in my opinion. We also get our first taste of the wonderful snowy mountain scenery. The plot revolves around a secret mission to send a commando team to infiltrate the Schlos Adler (“Castle of Eagles”) which is located high in the Alps. They are to rescue a captured Gen. Carnaby who happens to know the Operation Overlord plans. The team is led by Smith (Burton) and includes American Ranger Schaeffer (Eastwood). When they parachute (“Green on – go!”), they are joined surreptitiously by a female MI6 agent named Mary (Mary Ure). One of the team is found dead on landing. There is a traitor amongst them! Smith has his own agenda as he communicates with his superiors (Adm. Rolland and Col. Turner) back in England. “Broadsword calling Danny Boy”.

Schaeffer and Smith
          Smith and Schaeffer (disguised as German officers) are caught in a night club. The Germans speak English in an early clue that the movie is aiming for entertainment, not authenticity. Smith and Schaeffer cause their captor’s car to crash (an early sign that they are indestructible) and they return to booby trap a shed in the town. They use these really cool dynamite bombs with trip wires. When the Germans search the shed, someone trips a wire and we get numerous explosions. This is a noisy movie when it is not going through long stretches of quiet.

        Smith and Schaeffer ride the top of a cable car to reach the aerie-like castle and then they rope-climb into Mary’s room. She has a job in the castle with fellow agent Heidi. Let the orgy begin. Excuse me, I don’t mean a sex orgy. I mean a violence orgy starting with the silencing (with a silencer) of the radio operator and the knifing of a helicopter (that's right, there's a helicopter - what about it?) pilot. The Germans are preparing to question Carnaby (who Smith has revealed to us is actually a plant named Cartwright Jones) and the interrogators are joined by three members of the commando team who are German agents. To add a fly in the ointment, an amorous Gestapo agent (blond hair, blue eyed and charmingly malevolent) has the hots for Mary and ferrets out her undercover nature. That sounds dirty, sorry.

blonde haired, blue eyed evil Nazi with a Luger
        Smith and Schaeffer barge the interrogation party and Burton gets to use some of his Shakespearean training. He tricks the Germans into revealing key intelligence. The Gestapo guy barges in and the talking is over. Let the machine gunning and booby trapping begin!

          To get out of the castle requires Schaeffer to slaughter numerous German expendables in a hallway. (Eastwood had his highest body count in this movie and the movie overall has to be in the top 5 all time). This leads to the famous cable car fight scene which has Burton’s double fighting two of the traitors on top of a car. The stunt work is fantastic and includes a leap to another car coming up. The guys (including Jones) and gals head down on another car (as the Germans try to bash in the outer door ala “Guns of Navarone” – did MacLean sue himself?) They leap into a river to avoid the welcoming committee, but they provide a gift basket of an exploding cable car that jumps the body count by about twenty. By the way, the castle has been booby trapped for more cool explosions.

Mary holds her own
         The trek to the air field is via a bus with a snow plow convenient for tripping roadside explosives. They are a bit more hands-on for the blowing up of a bridge as a German vehicle crosses. Why should the guys have all the fun? The girls get their share of the slaughtering. When they reach the air field, it turns out the plow is also convenient for clipping fighters lined up on the runaway. This, of course, leads to more explosions. At this point our quintet is pretty unpopular with the locals, but fortunately there is a transport plane waiting for them. Col. Turner is on board. How nice of him to participate in the rescue of our heroes! I won’t give away the ending, but it is a nice twist.

        “Where Eagles Dare” is the best suicide mission/mystery war movie ever made. Of course it does not have a lot of competition, but it is well done. It is meant to be reality-defying for entertainment purposes and it is popcorn entertainment at its finest. The acting is good and even though he is slumming, Burton seems to be having fun and invests in the role. Eastwood is Eastwood, ‘nuff said. The supporting cast is excellent. The girls hold their own and reduce the testosterone level for the female audience. Beautiful women killing Nazis - what’s not to like?

       The production is admirable. They spent a lot of money and effort on this film. The location shooting took six months partly because of the weather factor, but the snowscapes are a strength of the movie. The castle is a perfect setting. It is medieval/Nazi evil. The score is great. It is used sparingly, but when it comes on it jazzes up the scene. The stunt work is stellar.

         The movie is highly implausible, but not more than others of the subgenre and less than the most recent entrant “Inglorious Basterds”. It does not take liberties with history like a “Braveheart”, for instance. It is what it is and does not claim to be high art. The thing I admire about it the most is that there are two scenes that have really nice plot twists. You rarely get that in war movies. It is one of those movies where you wish you were seeing it for the first time and encourage people who have not seen it to watch it with a wink. Normally, I do not like to watch twist movies again because you now know what will happen, but in this case the ridiculously over the top action scenes keep me coming back. In my opinion it is better than its rivals. I would rank them in this order:

1. Where Eagles Dare

2. Kelly’s Heroes

3. Inglorious Basterds

4. The Dirty Dozen

5. Guns of Navarone

6.  The Eagle Has Landed

Cracker? Absolutely! 9/10




Wednesday, May 23, 2012

CRACKER? The Last Samurai




        “The Last Samurai” is a war movie set in 19th Century Japan. It was directed by Edward Zwick (Glory, Courage Under Fire, Defiance) and released in 2003. It did well at the box office in the U.S. and Japan. It was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor (Kenneth Watanabe), Art Direction, Costume Design, and Sound.


         The movie opens in San Francisco in 1876. A Civil War/Indian Wars veteran suffering from PTSD (and the resulting alcoholism) named Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is recruited by a Japanese businessman named Omura to help train the new, modern Japanese Army. Japan is going through the Meiji Restoration when the newly empowered emperor was attempting to modernize and industrialize Japan. The warrior caste of samurai is considered to be obsolete and are deemed “renegades” when they refuse to accept “Westernization”. The American-trained and equipped Imperial Army will eliminate the rebels.

         A surrealistic flashback explains Algrens PTSD as the byproduct of his witnessing, but not participating in, a Battle of the Washita-type massacre of an Indian village under his Custer-like Col. Bagley (Tony Goldwyn). How ironic that now he is helping the Imperial Army to do the same thing! He accompanies his newly trained conscripts into a misty forest ambush similar to the skirmish in “Glory”. Surprise, the samurai warriors trounce the rookies. Algren fights like Rambo and is spared because of it.

         Algren is taken to the samurai village for the “Dances With Wolves” portion of the film. He detoxes, learns Japanese, immerses in Japanese culture, trains with swords, and woos the wife of a man he coincidentally killed (honorably) in the battle. All in record time. The samurai leader Katsumoto (Watanabe) befriends Algren. Of course, his top swordsman is less befriendly. Will he earn the man’s respect?

         During a play, ninjas stealthily attack to assassinate Katsumoto. This gives us the chance to see ninjas (with their crossbows and throwing stars) and some mighty frenetic sword-play. To prove he’s the good guy and does not want war, Katsumoto goes to speak to the Emperor. Unfortunately, the teenage emperor is under the thumb of Omura and Katsumoto is arrested. Algren and his retinue rescue him in an action (and arrow) filled scene.

         The village is prepared for defense ala “The Magnificent Seven”. With the Imperial Army approaching, Algren dons his girlfriend’s husband’s armor (he would have wanted it that way!) to fight alongside his new comrades. Only this time he is an Indian.

         The Imperial Army is led by both of our hissable villains – Omura and Bagley. They bring their modern howitzers and their modern snobbery. Their infantry assault is met by a field set afire by incendiary arrows like in "Spartacus" and "Braveheart". Although the defensive tactics are working, Algren orders a cavalry attack that results in a melee which is graphic and sometimes in slo-mo (naturally). When the enemy retreats, the samurai regroup for the last suicidal charge. Suicidal because it’s across an open field against a more numerous enemy which bombards them with artillery and Gatling guns. Banzai! What a glorious way to die!

HISTORICAL ACCURACY

         The movie does not claim to be a true story, but it does have some basis in historical events and personages. The Meiji Restoration started in 1867 when imperial authority was reasserted over the Tokugawa Shogunate. Meiji and his oligarchic council decided to modernize Japan with industries like railways and a European-style army trained by advisors mainly from Prussia. (Hollywood decided America should stand in for the European powers.) This included artillery and breech-loading rifles. One part of the reforms was the abolishment of the samurai caste. This included making the carrying of swords in public illegal. Most of the samurai accepted the reforms and landed on their feet in the new Japan. A few decided to fight to preserve their privileged status (moreso than their traditional way of life).

         The Satsuma Rebellion broke out when samurai rebelled against the new rules. It was led by a famous samurai named Saigo Takamori. Earlier he had led a group of samurai who had captured the Imperial Palace and helped restore the power of the emperor. He, at first, had favored the move toward Westernization as an advisor to the emperor, but soon turned against modernization (especially the new railway system) and commerce with the West. He resigned when the oligarchs refused his plan to foment war with Korea. In the Satsuma province, he established academies that taught weapons training and the bushido code. When Satsuma “seceded”, a police force (sorry, no ninjas) was sent to “deal” with Saigo, but he got the best of them and the revolt was on. Saigo took a force with him to go to negotiate with the emperor, but they stopped to besiege a castle along the way. Samurai flocked to join him.

         The arrival of a larger Imperial army forced Saigo to give up the siege and withdraw. At the Battle of Tabarazuka, Saigo was defeated after a hard fight. He and the survivors made their final stand on the slopes of Mount Endake. Greatly outnumbered, most either surrendered or committed suicide. Saigo escaped again with a small force. At the Battle of Shiroyama, artillery and bombardment from nearby warships wreaked havoc on their defensive positions. Only 40 warriors survived until the final assault. Saigo either died from a bullet wound or committed seppuku. He became a martyred hero and was later posthumously pardoned by the emperor.

         Cruise’s character is based on a French officer named Jules Brunet who was in Japan earlier as a trainer. He trained the shogun’s artillery and stayed with the rebels after they lost to the Meiji forces. In the Boshin War (1868), the shogun forces were defeated at the Battle of Hakodate and Brunet returned to France.

        Omura is based on Okubo Toshimichi. He was a nobleman who served as Home Lord under Meiji. He promoted industrial development and passed a law against samurai carrying swords. He parted with Saigo over the reforms. He led the army in the Satsuma Rebellion. A year after, he was assassinated by some samurai.

        The samurai were different than depicted. By the 1870s they had not worn the lacquered armor for almost 250 years. They were also armed with the same types of rifles as the Imperial Army. They only fell back on their bows and swords if they ran out of ammunition. They lost because they were outnumbered, not outgunned They also were not the pure traditionalists the movie has them. The minority that rebelled were mainly interested in keeping their medievally-exalted status. You could argue they were blocking progress.

ANALYSIS:

        You have to admire the effort that went into “The Last Samurai”. The scenery is awesome. Most of the production was done in New Zealand. The sets are well done, especially the samurai village. The costumes were worthy of an Academy Award nomination. The involvement of respected Japanese actors really made a difference. The score by Hans Zimmer is excellent.

        The acting is noteworthy. Watanabe is the standout, but Cruise does not embarrass himself. He prepared two years for the role and this included swordsmanship and Japanese language training. It may be a vanity project, but you have to admire his commitment.

        The movie does not break much new ground plot-wise or character-wise. You can recognize ground trod already by “Dances With Wolves”, “A Man Called Horse”, “The Magnificent Seven”, and “Glory”. It is stocked with stereotypes: the shell-shocked soldier seeking redemption, the noble rebel against the corruption of modernity, the Robber Baron, the puppet emperor, the atrocity-loving commander, etc. The villains are over the top and one gets a ""take that, you bastard" Hollywood death. The stereotypes are matched by the clichés. All of the major scenes appear in other movies. The movie would have been a great parody if humor had been added.

       The action is excellent. The combat is graphic and macho. It has explosions and fire! Clangs and bangs. Limbs are hacked off and there are decapitations. But you also get a chaste love story to keep the ladies happy.

        The main strength of the movie is it is educational. Although the historical accuracy is a C+, the viewer does get a nice portrayal of Japan during the Meiji Restoration. The tension between modern Japan and medieval Japan is well played. The samurai culture may be anachronistic, but it is realistic (if idyllic). The film is sincere in its desire to open people’s eyes to a little known era. It is noteworthy that the movie was well-received in Japan.

CRACKER? Probably. It is well-balanced and accurate enough.

Rating: 8

the trailer

Tom Cruise vs. 5 assassins



Saturday, May 19, 2012

NOW SHOWING: Battleship



        The latest opportunity for war movie buffs to see a movie in their favorite genre is “Battleship”. The movie answers that age old question: “why can’t they make a movie out of the board game Battleship?” (especially since “Clue” and “Jumanji” were so successful). Apparently Hollywood heard the tumult of pleading or the movie industry has run out of ideas.


       The movie begins with the discovery of an Earth-like planet and the undebated decision to send a message. They have to be peaceful, right? No one wants to listen to nerd, comic relief scientist Cal Zapata (Hamish Linklater) who likens the aliens to Columbus with Earthlings playing the Indians. Could he be prophetic? Meanwhile we meet the Hopper brothers. Stone (Alex Skargard) is a naval captain and Alex (Taylor Kitsch) is a screw-up. Could this be a redemption story? Stone joins the Navy and so should you because within months this loser is a lieutenant and in love with Brooklyn Decker (playing Megan Fox’s role). If that isn’t a reason to join the Navy, I don’t know what you high school boys want! Oh, by the way, “Sam” is the daughter of the crusty Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson). He is very disappointed in the underachieving Alex. Unless something earth-shattering occurs, Alex has no chance to earn his respect. Hey losers hoping to marry up, pray for an alien invasion! About to be kicked out of the Navy (for unclear reasons), add another rosary.

        America is hosting an international naval exercise off Hawaii when the aliens arrive. What are the odds of the alien communications craft hitting a satellite and crashing into Hong Kong? Pretty high if this is a movie. Marvel at the destruction of Hong Kong.  $200 million buys a lot of explosions. The other four land near the fleet. The ships of Stone, Alex, and Nagata (Alex’s token foe) are sent to investigate. Alex (the weapons officer), Petty Officer radarwoman Raikes (Rihanna because Michelle Rodriguez was unavailable), and Chief Petty Officer Lynch, having never seen a Transformers movie, approach the alien craft in a motor boat. (Why these three would be sent is one of many, many good questions.) The aliens flee back to their planet. Just kidding. Being very poor guests they create a force field that separates the three destroyers from the rest of the fleet. They then lob shells at the destroyers. (The alien technology is either awesome or hohum. Witness their hopping ships. Frogs will be rooting for them.  On the other hand, they have these whirling balls of destruction.)  True Blood fans are going to be pissed. Guess who has now risen from burrito thief to captain? Join the Navy!

       They find a dead alien floating so we can see what they look like. Not very impressive. Oops, he’s alive. Suddenly he’s rescued. One stays behind to have a fist fight with the chief and get his head blown off by one of the ship’s guns fired by the feisty black chick. Join the Navy and learn to do everything. Thank goodness the aliens don’t use their superior technology to easily kill the pesky humans. They also inexplicably decide not to sink Alex’s ship. In fact, they cannot locate it in the dark since they did not grow up with “Battleship” board game training. This is for the best, I did not want to witness the reaction of the female audience to the deaths of both Skargard and Kitsch. It’s nice to be a guy because we do not have to worry about our sex objects dying in movies like this.

         At this point in a movie like this two things have to happen. The clock has got to start ticking to the “extinction level event” and an alien weakness must be discovered. Check and check. Hint: ETs want to phone home and they are not here to get a tan. Also, shouldn’t there be a tie-in to the board game. If you think there is no way to reference the game play without being ridiculous, you would be right. But you have to give the screenwriters credit for taking on that embarrassing task.

        That’s as far as I will go with the plot. You get the drift. Spoiler alert: the movie becomes a comedy! It’s hilarious. Don’t leave before the last fifteen minutes.  The movie has a gag reel before the closing credits.

         In conclusion, I looked forward to this movie because war movies are so rare these days. Be careful what you wish for. “Battleship” is terrible. I do not want to offend anyone, but you have to lack intelligence to enjoy it. I envy the average moviegoer because they can get away from the problems of today by going to entertainment like this. Let’s face it, “Battleship” is pretty typical of what Hollywood is blessing us with these days. Curse you above average intelligence! Why can’t I be a chump?

       In a later post I will specify the numerous clichés, improbabilities and outright absurdities that proliferate this movie. I literally laughed out loud at several insults to my intelligence. Sadly, most of the audience apparently was perfectly content with being insulted. It is incredible to me that any critic could give it a positive review and if I find out any of them gave it a positive review and dissed “Battle: Los Angeles”, I will ring their door bell and punch them in the face.

P.S. Producers of “Battleship”: your movie is clearly pro-military. I have no problem with that, but how clueless do you have to be to use the song “Fortunate Son” over the closing credits? John Fogerty must be laughing his ass off at the irony of that! Did you pay him to use the song? Was he smiling when you handed him the check?

P.S.S. Dear audience, as you are leaving the theater, please listen to the lyrics. The song contradicts tI respect the right of intelligent people to watch a movie just for the fun of it. I myself ocassionally enjoy a movie that has a ridiculous plot and bad acting. It is okay to enjoy this movie, but let noone argue that it is not a piece of crap. Enjoy it as a guilty pleasure and to give your brain a rest, but you have a serious problem if you feel it is quality entertainment. Here is my list of the most ridiculous elements (not including the acting and dialogue).




ADDENDUM  5/23/12

HOW RIDICULOUS IS IT?

1. The battleship Missouri is now a museum yet has live munitions on board.

2. The day before the invasion there was a ceremony that included veterans of the Big Mo and they hung around on the ship until needed to save the world.

3. The force field conveniently goes away for the final battles.

4. The only main character that dies is Stone Hopper.

5. One 500 pound shell from a WWII-era battleship not only accurately hits the communications site with no guidance system, it sets off multiple collateral explosions.

6. President Obama does not bother to attend any National Security Council meetings with the Earth threatened with destruction.

7. The Admiral describes the U.S.S. Missouri as the “greatest fighting ship in the history of the U.S. Navy”. Sorry, USS Enterprise and USS Constitution.

8. One of the sailors believes these odd craft with their force field are the North Koreans.

9. Aliens with very advanced technology can only hop their ships from one spot on the sea to another and their main defensive weapon is lobbing shells on opponents.

10. Even though the aliens have a problem with bright light, they have no ability to find a destroyer in the dark.

I know "it's just a movie", but why do we have to be insulted?


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

#39 - PORK CHOP HILL



BACK-STORY: “Pork Chop Hill” is arguably the most famous and best movie about the Korean War. It was directed by Lewis Milestone of “All Quiet…” fame.  PCH was his last war movie. It was released in 1959. The screenplay is based on the nonfiction book by the famous war author S.L.A. Marshall (SLAM). Gregory Peck’s character (Joe Clemons) acted as technical adviser on the film. Clemons was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for the battle. The movie is populated by many familiar actors from the 1960s and includes a small role by Barry McGuire of future “Eve of Destruction” one hit wonder fame.


OPENING: GIs are listening to a Chinese propaganda broadcast coming over a loudspeaker system. They are living in trenches similar to WWI. The Chinese broadcaster promises if they give up, the Chicoms will quit, too. Screenwords tell us we are at a reserve position near Pork Chop Hill which is seventy miles from the peace talks being held at Panmunjom. The year is 1953.

SUMMARY: In the battalion command bunker, Lt. Clemons (Peck) gets orders to prepare his King Company for an assault on Pork Chop Hill. It has recently been lost to a Communist attack and the powers that be want it retaken. It will be his first command.

King Company wondering why it's always King Company
        Clemons’ men are understandably fixated on the peace talks. They are all anticipating the imminent armistice. One of Clemons’ men, Pvt. Forstman (Harry Guardino), is insistent that he has enough points to be rotated out of combat. No such luck, pal. Dead meat alert! Now they get this lousy assignment. Why is it always them to get the crap details?

Ohashi and Clemons
        The plan is to make a two platoon frontal assault up the hill in the dark with the third platoon held in reserve. Standard tactics. Clemons is assured that the preliminary artillery barrage will destroy all the concertina wire barriers. He’s also told he will be supported on his right flank by Love Company. Piece of cake! It may be easy as pie, but is it worth it? Clemons tells his skeptical executive officer Ohashi (George Shibata) that Pork Chop Hill is “a chip in the game at the peace talks. We have to convince [the Commies] we’re not going to give up any more chips.” That’s a pretty accurate analysis of the politics of it. In another piece of refreshing truth, Clemons comments that the Chicoms are good soldiers, especially at night. (That line would not have been used in “The Steel Helmet” which was made during the war.) The enemy is not demonized in this movie.

enemy in the trenches
         The assault is classic American bullheadedness. In line with bayonets fixed. The deaths are random. The terrain is like no man’s land. The soldier chatter is terse. The Chinese Tokyo Rose taunts King Company by name, welcomes them to “the meat grinder", and plays taps. The men begin to wonder how tasty that piece of cake is going to be. A black soldier named Franklin (Woody Strode) “twists his ankle”. Clemons is not buying that and forces the sullen soldier to proceed. When they reach the wire, surprise! It’s intact. To make matters worse, the Chinese open fire with bolt action rifles, burp guns, and potato masher grenades. Some of the men throw themselves on the barbed wire so their buddies can run over them. Could things get worse? American spotlights suddenly illuminate them from the rear. A desperate radio call gets them doused. Not only that but where the hell is Love Company?

Robert Blake as Pvt. Velie


         There is an awkward transition to daylight. Weirdly, they are now further from the Communist trenches than they were in the previous scene. The Chinese now give way too easily. The Chicoms launch a flank attack that fizzles for no apparent reason. King Company occupies the trenches tenuously having lost a large percentage of its men. They have a joyful reunion with the survivors of Easy Company who had taken refuge in a bunker. The reunion is cut short when an artillery round smashes into them. C’est la guerre.

Catch, Yankee dogs!
         Love Company finally arrives – all twelve (oops, artillery round – make that ten) of them. Clemons calls in his reserve platoon which uses a well staged bayonet charge to take the crest. Things calm down enough for some exposition from the stoically cynical Clemons. His discussions with his subordinates are realistically fatalistic. His radio calls to the rear demanding support are appropriately frustrating as the brass are clueless to the actual situation. This is hammered in by the arrival of a publicity officer sent to get the story of the glorious victory.  He brings a "Mission Accomplished" banner to put up.  Just kidding.

        Things seem to be looking up when Clemons’ brother-in-law Lt. Russell (Rip Torn) arrives with George Company. The back-slapping ends abruptly with word that the rear has ordered George to withdraw because they don’t want to lose any more men on the hill! Clemons is left with only 25 men to defend the whole hill. One of those men is Franklin who is still a reluctant warrior and in a confrontation with Clemons threatens to shoot him. Clemons tries to shame the coward into fighting alongside his comrades. Gregory Peck + 1950s movie + black guy can’t remain a coward + redemption theme = Franklin mends his ways.

        Meanwhile, back at Panmunjom, the inscrutable Chinese are obviously testing our strength with this fight over a worthless knoll. They are willing to expend lives over nothing. Are we? Clemons finds out the answer is yes when his requests for withdrawal or reinforcements are turned down. The Chinese broadcaster tells them the attack is coming in 45 minutes. Tick tock.


last stand
CLOSING: The fort is about to be swarmed by Indians. I mean the trench line is about to be assaulted by a Chinese horde. The Americans pull back to the keep, I mean the bunker. They bunker in, but the Chinese have a flamethrower. Unfair! This would be a good time for the cavalry to arrive. Sure enough (although they’re not on horses) reinforcements arrive and save our band of brothers (one of whom is alive meat Forstman). We win! We win! We get to possess the worthless hill!  (Hamburger Hill veterans can empathize with them.) “Millions live in freedom today because of what they did.” Seriously? Way to pull your punches, Milestone.

RATINGS:


Acting - 8


Action - 8


Accuracy - 9


Plot - 8


Realism - 8


Overall - 9

WILL CHICKS DIG IT? No. It is totally a guy movie. In fact there is only one woman in the entire film. A Chinese woman brings a note to the propaganda dude.  She's wearing a negligee.  Not really.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The movie could have used more background, complete with maps. The action portrayed in the movie took place after the fall of a more strategic hill called Old Baldy. That loss left Pork Chop Hill sticking out like a sore thumb in front of the main line of resistance and dominated by higher hills. This information would have been cogent to the plot because attempting to hold PCH was strategically and tactically unsound. The defense was purely to make up for the loss of Old Baldy and avoid another propaganda debacle. This makes the final post script ridiculous.

         The pre-battle situation and plan are accurately depicted. The attack itself is pretty close to the real deal which is to be expected given Clemons’ involvement as the technical advisor. They did cross the barbed wire on soldiers’ bodies. However, they were not under fire until they reached the trenches unlike in the movie. The discovery of survivors in a bunker and the subsequent short round did happen. The arrival of Love with only a dozen men and the later arrival of George led by Clemons’ brother-in-law are authentic. The withdrawal of George is correctly represented as brainless, but the movie does not make it clear that part of the fault was Clemons not mentioning the shortage of men when he begged for resupply.

        There were many more grenades thrown by both sides than shown in the movie and the artillery was also short-changed. This battle involved more artillery fire by our side than almost any American battle in history. It was almost continuous through the two days. Speaking of weapons, the movie is outstanding in that respect. Even the Chinese are using appropriate weapons. The movie does a poor job of portraying the incredible exhaustion of the men. In fact, this plus the lack of water meant that before the final enemy assault the Americans did not talk due to parched throats. Hollywood could not abide with that!

Hollywood loves fire
         The final scene is problematical. There was no dramatic rescue of King. The surviving seven were withdrawn before it happened. It was mainly Fox Company members that were laid siege to in the bunker. I found no evidence that a flame thrower was trying to cook them. You can’t fault Hollywood too much for this one. Simplification for dramatic effect.

         Overall, you are not going to get a more accurate view of the trench type warfare that dominated the last year of the Korean War.  Specifically, it is as accurate a depiction of one of the most famous battles of the Korean War as you could ask for.

CRITIQUE: “Pork Chop Hill” has been described as the best Korean War B-Movie. That’s not as impressive as it sounds considering the quality of those other Korean War B-Movies. (BTW why are almost all the Korean War movies low budget?) With that said, it is very good for what it is. The acting is solid. Not surprising considering the cast. Peck is Peck. Did he ever make a bad movie? Harry Guardino, Rip Torn, George Peppard, Robert Blake, the great Woody Strode. ‘Nuf said. The cinematography is a crisp black and white. The scenes are shot close. You seldom see more than a few men in the shot. The sound effects are realistic. The sound track is sparse and is not used to set moods. In spots, it reminded me of music from the series “Combat!” The sets are well done for a low budget effort. The dialogue is refreshingly cynical in its commentary on war.

Fedderson and Forstman
        The movie is clearly anti-war, but dilutes its message with the optimistic coda. It is gritty and authentic in its depiction of the randomness of death in combat. Forstman and Fedderson (George Peppard) are doing a fine impression of Rivera and Friedman (also machine gunners) from Milestone’s "A Walk in the Sun" before Friedman is blown up. The deaths are bloodless, but not old school. Noone signals touchdown as they twirl around and fall. It is not propagandistic or overly patriotic. In fact, the Chinese propaganda broadcaster is not a hissable villain nor is he comical.

         PCH is one of the best company level movies ever made. It is not a small unit dynamics movie ala “Platoon”. There is little dysfunctionality other than with Franklin (who is a fictional character). One fault of the movie is because it concentrates on such a small picture that some of the actions defy reality. Why do the Chinese who vastly outnumber the Americans give up so easily at times? It is hard to justify the American success given what we see on the screen.

           The biggest strength of the film is its historical accuracy. It is one of the best movies covering a battle. Considering the war is known as the “Forgotten War”, it is nice that a typical battle gets the featured treatment. It reminds one of “Hamburger Hill” in its battles-can-be-futile theme. It also has a similar take on how command decisions based on political factors can result in unnecessary squandering of lives.

CONCLUSION: “Pork Chop Hill” is underrated at #39. It is one of the most realistic battle films and one of the best small unit movies. Considering when it was made and the budget, it is clearly a classic. It holds up very well and if it had been made with the modern sensibilities that allowed for the realistic violence and language in "Hamburger Hill", it would be superior to that movie. It also deserves credit for representing the “Forgotten War” well.

the trailer

Chinese propaganda dude


Sunday, May 13, 2012

FORGOTTEN GEM? Everyman's War

 

       “Everyman’s War” is a war movie made with a low budget that went straight to DVD. It was directed by Thad Smith and is the true story of his father Don who was with the 94th Infantry Division during the Battle of the Bulge. It was awarded “Best Narrative Feature” at the GI Film Festival in 2009. It is a sincere attempt to portray the combat experience.


         The film is set in Germany in January, 1945 outside the town of Nennig. Through flashbacks we are introduced to a squad of GIs. There is a farm boy, an Italian-American criminal, a husband and father, a gas station attendant of German ancestry, and a saw mill worker (Smith). They bonded on the troop transport on the way to Europe. Sample dialogue: “We’re going to war. We’re going to fight the Nazis.” “And we’re going to kill every last one of them.”

         The rest of the movie is basically your typical who-will-survive film. The answer to that question is – not many. When the German Ardennes Offensive breaks out, the squad is swept up in it. They are dug in when German tanks come at them. There is an intense firefight with lots of confusion (“the fog of war”). We see some of the action from the soldier’s point of view. Soon, Smith is on the run with most of his squad dead. He runs across a mine field and gets shot. He flashes back to his girlfriend at home. He gets up and stumbles back. A German decides not to shoot him (This is the second time he has gotten lucky like this.) He reaches the American line and the scene ends prematurely.

         The film closes with a touching scene of Smith back home in the present. He is now married to his sweetheart and reminiscing about his buddies.

        “Everyman’s War” is a low budget labor of love. It deserves credit for telling a soldier’s story. Unfortunately. the low budget impacts the quality of the film. The acting is average with Cole Carson as Smith doing a decent job. The combat scenes have a “Saving Private Ryan” feel to them and are not bad considering the budget. The script is problematic. Some of the dialogue is cheesy and there are some clichés that are lazy. For instance, the Italian-American who is a thief and scam artist. Also we get the classic guy who shows off a picture of his wife and kid and soon ends up dead. There is no real connection between the squad members. It is difficult to tell who dies when. A positive aspect of the film is its sympathetic depiction of the German soldiers. They are men just like us. They also speak their own language which is laudatory for such a low budget film.

        It pains me to rate this movie only a 5. Thad Smith honored his father and his father’s generation with the film and it is a goof effort. But the fact is that money does show up on the screen and not enough money went into this film. It is good, relatively speaking. Unfortunately, I am not reviewing its relative value. Sincerity is nice and for that reason I do recommend you watch this film. Just don’t expect “Glory”.

P.S.  Check out that poster.  Another example of a poster unrelated to the content of the movie.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

WAR CHICK FLICK: Yanks



        “Yanks” was directed by John Schlesinger and released in 1979. It is set in WWII England and is a wartime romance on the home front movie. It covers three relationships between Yanks and British birds. The Americans are stereotypes. Danny (Chick Vennera) is the sex-crazed one. Matt (Richard Gere) is the brash, but sensitive one. John (William Devane) is the veteran, married man.


        The movie opens with thousands of Yanks arriving in England to prepare for Operation Overlord. The British soon adopt the slogan: “oversexed, overpaid, and over here”. Danny and Matt get passes to the local town where they meet two girls at a movie. The period touches begin as we witness the movie audience sing to music from an organ and then watch a newsreel.

        Matt’s girl, Jean (Lisa Eichhorn), is close to an engagement to a British bloke and is not interested in a relationship with Matt. Is this the end of it? Have you seen any wartime romance movies? Being a brash American Matt shows up at Jean’s shop the next day. They become “just friends”. Jean’s family is big fans of her beau Ken (awkward!), but Matt wheedles his way in partly by bringing them scarce items. Complications ensue when Ken returns on leave and the engagement is finalized. Cliché alert: wartime love triangle! Matt gets drunk at a pub and starts a fight. Keep the clichés coming.

        Meanwhile, John has met an upper class woman named Helen (Vanessa Redgrave). They are both married, but her husband is away at war and his wife is on the other side of "the pond". They start as mature friends, but the sexual tension is there. Guess who wants to jump into bed more? Hint: not the starchy upper class dame. She eventually caves, but morals prevail in the end.

        Ken goes back to war and Matt and Jean resume their courtship. The relationship is warming up when they receive word of Ken’s death. How convenient. They go off for the weekend (Matt gets a lot of leave in this movie), but he can’t consummate. Guilt? The relationship has now come full circle.

         Oh, by the way, Danny marries Marlie. Their courtship was left on the cutting room floor, apparently. The movie was originally 165 minutes!

        “Yanks” is not that bad. It is certainly superior to "Hanover Street". The acting is good and Gere was cute when he was younger (so my wife tells me). The chemistry is fine in the two main relationships. The relationships are realistic. There are some interesting twists to make up for the stereotypes and clichés. The score is weak. It opens with some Disney comedy sounding tripe and progresses to schmaltzy romantic crap.

        The main strength of the film is the period touches. You get a good picture of the British home front. Some of the nice touches include: warm beer and darts in an English pub, swing music and the jitterbug at a dance, food queues (one orange each). On a similar note, the English accents are seemingly genuine to the point that the movie could have used subtitles in spots. Oh, and the British like to drink tea.

        In conclusion, “Yanks” is a good war chick flick. It is tolerable for men and most females will enjoy it.

Rating – 7/10

Spoiler alert:  the ending