Thursday, October 25, 2012

CRACKER? The Siege of Firebase Gloria




                In my quest to discern the 100 Best War Movies, I am working my way through Military History Magazine’s 100 Greatest War Movies list.  In the process, I am also looking at movies that could potentially crack the top 100.  One of the ways for a movie to make the potential queue is for the movie to get 4 bones in “Video Hound’s War Movies” guide.  One of those movies is “The Siege of Firebase Gloria”.  This movie is highly regarded by many so you would think it would be pretty good.  You would be wrong!
                The movie is set during the Tet Offensive at an isolated base camp near a South Vietnamese village.  The movie opens with a squad entering a village to find the villagers dead and in some cases mutilated.  “This is insanity” says one.  Sgt. Major Hafner (R. Lee Ermey – two years after “Full Metal Jacket”) responds with “This is effective”.  There is plenty of action and gunfire from here.  They walk up on a nest of VC and kill all of them (including women fighters) without suffering a loss.    Surprise, the men at the base are an undisciplined bunch.  Some are smoking joints, including the CO who is unconcerned with Hafner’s warning that something big is coming.  That night Hafner and his buddy Di Nardo (Wings Hauser) frag the CO.
Hafner is a bad-ass
                Hafner takes command and forces the men to improve the defenses. The base has an aid station with nurses which seems inaccurate for a forward base, but allows the modern day knights to protect the damsels in distress.  Two Vietnamese girls come up flirtatiously, but Di Nardo opens fire and they blow up.  Di Nardo is hard core and knows the enemy cannot be trusted.
                The assault begins.  The enemy tactic is frontal attacks in broad daylight on just one part of the perimeter.  They do not use their overwhelming numbers to put pressure on one area and then break through elsewhere.  (Do not watch this movie to learn any military tactics unless you plan to do the opposite of what both sides do.)  They also cannot win even though the camp has no barbed wire around it, no claymores, and very shallow trenches.  But if you are uninterested in accuracy, you will enjoy the mindless old school fighting and dying (throw your arms up in the air before you fall).  Did you know that after repelling an assault, American soldiers would be sent out of the perimeter to shoot the wounded enemy?  According to this movie, this happened.  By the way, did you know that you could load an AK-47 banana clip into an M-16?
                At night Hafner, Di Nardo, and Murphy disguise themselves as VC and sneak up on the VC camp.  They set up claymores which do not have wires.  They escape and then the mines go off apparently by magic.
                Another daylight assault gives Di Nardo the chance to wield a machete.  Gunships are called in to kill bunches because the regular killing is getting redundant.  The helicopters go on to spray the enemy camp and they bring in supplies, but they do not evacuate the wounded or the nurses!  Later, the enemy sneaks in and impales the heads of a gun crew without anyone noticing!
Di Nardo is a psycho, but he's American
               In the obligatory final assault, the enemy break in and even reach the hospital where they treacherously kill all the nurses except the head nurse who guns down several with a machine gun.  She’s normally a pacifist, but…  Hafner goes hand-to-hand with the VC leader (naturally), but he gets away wounding Di Nardo in the process.  The paralyzed Di Nardo begs Hafner to put him out of his misery.  You can’t torture prisoners if you are paralyzed, thus there is no reason to live.  I won’t give it away what Hafner does, but I will say I cheered.  The VC have been repulsed for the last time.  We win, but the VC leader rescues a little village boy that the Yankee dogs had mascoted.  He lives happily ever after in Communism.
                One of the things about reviewing movies is you will sometimes look back at a review and wonder what the hell you were thinking.  I sincerely hope the critics who have positively reviewed this piece of crap have done their mea culpas.  I am a big fan of Video Hound’s guide, but I just randomly opened up the book to find that it gave “A Bridge Too Far” 3 ½ bones which means Mike Mayo (the author) thinks SFG is better than BTF.  Are you kidding, Mr. Mayo?
                The movie is poorly acted (sorry, R. Lee), especially by the scene-chewing Hauser.  The dialogue is cheesy.  It is laughably inaccurate and unrealistic.  It besmirches the American soldier by showing him committing atrocities.  The only positive thing I can say is the enemy commander is portrayed in a sympathetic way.  He is similar to the commander in “We Were Soldiers”.  At the end, he realizes he was being used by the NVA so they could take over the war from the VC.  They wanted him to suffer heavy losses.  Unfortunately, the movie dilutes this message by having him make mindlessly bloody frontal assaults in broad daylight.  There are at least twelve Vietnam War movies better than this.  See them first.
 
Grade =  F

Thursday, October 18, 2012

#24 - The Battle of Algiers

 
 
BACK-STORY:  “The Battle of Algiers” is an Italian/Algerian production released in 1966.  The film was subsidized by the Algerian government.  It was directed by Italian Gillo Pontecorvo in the neorealist style.   He was nominated for the Best Director Oscar and the film also got nods for Original Screenplay and Foreign Language Film.  It won numerous international awards.  The movie was banned in France for many years and the torture scenes were edited for the U.S. (I must have seen one of the edited versions) and the United Kingdom.
OPENING:  The movie opens in Algiers in 1957.  Algeria is a French colony and it has been in a state of rebellion for several years.  French soldiers have just finished water torturing an Algerian terrorist.  He has told them the whereabouts of a most-wanted and they are now solicitous to him.  They dress him up as one of their own so he can lead them to the hideout.  This scene will be mirrored later when Algerian women dress as European women to infiltrate the French quarter.  As the credits roll, an apartment building is surrounded with the target Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag) hiding in a safe-room.  It’s flashback time!
SUMMARY:  We are now in Algiers in the year 1954.  The setting is the Casbah (the quarter that was the epicenter of the uprising ).  A street grifter named Ali is picked up by the police after a random European jerk trips him simply because he is running.  This subtly implies the racism of the colonizers.  Ali is politicized in prison.  He witnesses guillotinings (but I didn’t in my edited version).
                Five months later, Ali is free and recruited by Djafar (Saadi Yacef) of  the FLN (the National Liberation Front).  His initiation is to murder a policeman.  Surprise – there are no bullets in the gun.  It was test to see if he was a plant.  (Don’t ask why pulling the trigger on an empty gun proves more than on a loaded gun.)  Ali has found his calling as a terrorist bad-ass.  One of his first tasks is to gun down an Algerian who does not want to join the FLN.  Ali’s an amateur, but he has potential.
                The uprising begins with an attack on a police station and a drive-by.  The French seal off the Arab quarter with barbed wire and checkpoints.  The tit-for-tat escalates (as it tends to do).  French soldiers are gunned down (sans blood).  A group of Frenchmen (apparently part of a militia-type organization) set off a bomb in an apartment building.  The aftermath is stunning.  Uncovering the corpses in the debris (including children).  Mourning survivors.  Solemn music.  No dialogue.  The solemnity morphs into a chaotic revenge mob scene.  We are in the thick of it with Ali.  The FLN intervenes with a promise to get even.  Did I mention the movie has absolutely no sense of humor?
                In the movie’s best scene, three Algerian women change their appearance to pass as Europeans.  They breeze through the checkpoints without having to show identification.  Your typical Arab, especially the men, are harshly treated.  Each of the women has a bomb to plant in a location frequented by French civilians.  The movie serves as a good tutorial for terrorist bombers.  The suspense builds to an explosive conclusion (get it?)  The results mirror the earlier bombing (and pictures I have seen of Viet Cong bombings in Saigon).  This scene makes me glad to be living in America, more empathetic to citizens living in countries like Israel, and concerned that the same thing could happen here
                The French government reacts to the bombings with a surge.  French paratroopers led by Lt. Col. Matthieu arrive to cheering French crowds.  Matthieu establishes martial law.  His policy is to isolate and destroy the insurgents.  Now the tutorial is on counter-terrorism.  Matthieu coolly lectures his officers on how rebel organizations work.  They create cells.  Intelligence gathering through “enhanced” interrogation is the key.  “Humane considerations can only lead to despair and confusion.”  He is hoping for an incident that will give him an excuse to further crack down.  The Arabs provide this in the form of a general strike.  Matthieu launches Operation Champagne.
                The French begin by kicking down doors in a scene replicated in Spielberg’s Krakow ghetto scene from “Schindler’s List”.  The French press is now on the story.  They remind Indochina veteran Matthieu about Dien Bien Phu, but he is not concerned.  He feels the end justifies the means as the strategy is working.  A montage highlights the means – water boarding, blow torches, ropes, electricity.  Thank goodness these methods are no longer used!
CLOSING:  We are back full circle from the opening as the French paratroopers closes in on Ali.  He and three comrades (including a boy and a woman) are hiding in a no-longer-secret room.  Since it is unlikely they will give up without a fight, Matthieu has the room rigged with explosives.  Ironic, eh?  Matthieu is confident the war is over, but it is a pyrrhic victory. 
                The post script takes us to 1960 when the “Algerian spring” erupts.  Newsreel-like footage of mobs effectively previews the success of the independence movement.
RATINGS:
Acting =  B
Action =  6/10
Accuracy =  A
Plot =  B
Realism =  A

Overall =  B

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  It would help if they are a cinephile.  The movie is not a hard-core war movie.  There is no bloodshed or graphic violence.  There are strong female characters, even though they are terrorists.  It’s an interesting movie for both sexes.
HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The movie is set in the Algerian War of Independence which lasted from 1954-1962.  Algeria had been a French colony since 1830.    The FLN (National Liberation Front) was created in March, 1954.  It consisted of socialists, anti-colonialists, and Islamists.  The movie was inspired by the memoir “Souvenirs de la Bataille d’Alger” by an FLN commander named Saadi Yacef (he basically plays himself as Djafar in the film).  The war began with the Toussaint Rouge (“Red All Saints’ Day”) incident when the FLN launched thirty attacks on military and police targets.   French colonists (colons) demanded retaliation.  Colons conducted ratonnades (rat-hunts) to kill suspected FLN members and collaborators.    In August , 1955 the FLN reacted with the massacre of French civilians in the town of Philippeville.  Previously, the FLN had limited itself to military and police targets.  The gloves were off now.  A classic guerrilla war was underway.  Tit for tat.  Torture for torture.  The French army attacked villages deemed sympathetic to the FLN.  Villagers were relocated to strategic hamlet-like locations.  Meanwhile, the FLN was conducting kidnappings and performing ritual murder and mutilation of French soldiers.
                The Battle of Algiers began when members of a French militia planted a bomb in a Casbah apartment building resulting in the deaths of 73 Algerians.  This is the incident depicted in the film.  This led to the other historical depiction.  Three Algerian female militants planted bombs in a milk bar, a cafeteria, and a travel agency. 
                The French government started a counterinsurgency campaign with a large increase in troops deployed to Algeria.  The total peaked at 400,000 (including 170,000 loyal Muslim Algerians).   Gen.  Massau (the inspiration for Matthieu) was allowed to operate outside the legal barriers which means he could use torture methods to interrogate.  The movie accurately portrays the success of his methods.  The terrorist cells were rooted out and the insurgency collapsed in Algiers.  Ironically, this victory sowed the seeds of the eventual French defeat as the French public began to question involvement in Algiers.  This had some similarities to the aftermath of the Tet Offensive.
                The French used search and destroy methods and raised units of loyal Muslim irregulars.  You can guess what methods they used in what was essentially a civil war inside the war of independence.  Sound familiar?  The movie chooses not to reference the civil war aspect of the conflict.
               In May, 1958, the colons and French army officers overthrew the Fourth French Republic and De Gaulle returned to power.  To their chagrin, DeGaulle decided to seek a peaceful solution to the quagmire.  Eventually a referendum was held that allowed the Algerian people to vote in favor of independence.
CRITIQUE:  I was not too impressed at first, but the movie builds nicely.  It does not take long to realize you are watching something special.  Ironically, I saw this soon after “Rome, Open City”.  Both come from the neo-realist school popular in Italy at that time.  See my summary of that style at "Rome, Open City" .  “The Battle of Algiers” has all the bells and whistles.  Hand held cameras, grainy film, use of nonprofessional actors, the newsreel look, prominent roles for kids.
                The acting is surprisingly good considering there is only one professional actor in the cast.  Jean Martin plays Matthieu with gravitas.  He is played as a reasonable villain.  His lectures on counterinsurgency to his officers and his condescending interplay with the press are very military.  He’s a charismatic Westmoreland (the U.S, commanding general in Vietnam).  Interestingly, Martin was a veteran.  He had been a paratrooper in Indochina.  The actor supported Algerian Independence.  One strength of the acting is you would not know that he was the only professional.  The other main actors do not come off as amateurish.  There are strong female characters and the boy Petit Omar is depicted as a valuable member of the FLN.  He is very reminiscent of Marcello in “Rome, Open City”.
                The music is cool.  It uses a variety of sounds.  Most notably, the crucial scene with the three female bombers is dominated by African drums which effectively build the suspense.  Other sounds are used metaphorically.  Gunfire, helicopters, and truck engines symbolize the French army.  Bomb blasts, chanting, and wailing background the Algerians.
                The cinematography is solidly in the neorealist school.  The most standout feature is the camera taking us into the middle of crowds.  Pontecorvo also likes to shift from medium range shots to long range vistas.  We get a lot of facial close-ups.
                The themes are instructional on guerrilla warfare.  The movie clearly portrays the escalation that is inescapable in a guerrilla war.  Anyone conversant with the Vietnam War or the Filipino War for Independence will not be surprised with the dynamics of the film.  The suffering of innocents caught in the middle of the conflict is another theme.  Guerrillas being faces in the crowd and blending into the populace is another.  Matthieu represents the “end justifies the means” approach often taken by conventional forces faced with an insurgency.
CONCLUSION:  “The Battle of Algiers” is an important film that lives up to its billing.  It supposedly inspired guerrilla and terrorist groups like the Black Panthers and IRA.  In 2003, it was screened at the Pentagon during the Iraq War.   The invitation mentioned “How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas”.  It’s a pity it was not required viewing at the Pentagon in 1968 during the Vietnam War.  The movie can be viewed by both insurgents and counterinsurgents because it is admirably even-handed.  Although clearly favoring the FLN, Gen. Matthieu is depicted as a reasonable and worthy adversary. 
                The film is excellent in bringing attention to the Algerian War for Independence and the Battle of Algiers in particular.  I knew virtually nothing about the conflict before watching it and doing my requisite research.  I have a good friend whose father fought in the conflict as a French soldier so I was especially looking forward to reviewing it and learning more about the war and its effects on the participants.  This movie makes you empathize with both sides.
                Although ranked just ahead of “Rome, Open City”, “The Battle of Algiers” is a better film.  This is partly because it is more historically accurate and informative.  Made twenty years after, it benefits from the evolution of neorealism and lack of difficulties in filming compared to “Rome, Open City”.  It’s ranking at #24 is the rare case of Military History getting the quality plus importance right.
POSTER:  Kind of weird.  A pastiche of styles.  Does not clearly convey the jist of the film.   Grade = C  
 
TRAILER:  Excellent.  Great juxtapositioning of the two sides.  Grade = A
 
 
 
 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

FORGOTTEN GEM? Tunes of Glory


                      
 
              “Tunes of Glory” is a British service film released in 1960.  It was directed by Ronald Neame from a novel by James Kennaway.  Kennaway adapted his novel for the screenplay and adjusted it significantly to make the movie plot better than the novel.  His script was nominated for an Academy Award.  He served in the Gordan Highlanders.  The title comes from the bagpiping at regimental ceremonies.

                The movie opens with bagpipers entertaining officers at a dinner in a Scottish Highlander regimental barracks in the post-WWII period.  Maj. Jock Sinclair (Alec Guinness) presides like a frat president.  He chastises a young officer for not smoking his cigarette like a man.  Sinclair announces he is being superseded by a new commander.  These seems unfair considering that he led the regiment through the war after their commander was killed.  Sinclair had risen through the ranks after starting as a piper.

                The new commander is a Lt. Col. Barrow (John Mills).  Barrow is the polar opposite of Sinclair.  He is upper class and graduated from Oxford.  He spent the last part of the war in a Japanese prison camp.  He is now in command because his family is associated with the regiment.  While Sinclair is a drunken, arrogant bonhomme who is loved by his men.  Barrow is an officious martinet.  Both men have been effected by their war experience.  Sinclair is still addicted to the camaraderie and only results matter mentality.  Barrow is obviously suffering from the mental consequences of his Japanese imprisonment.  It is implied that he was tortured.

                Barrow cracks the whip on the frat house antics and insists the officers learn highland dancing in anticipation of a party for the locals.  (Imagine forcing a frat house to learn square dancing.)  In a telling exchange, Barrow demands the bagpipers follow a dress code and Sinclair insists it’s the music that matters.  Sinclair is constantly undermining Barrow’s authority and is quick with snide comments.  He is quite the ass.

                The party is a disaster as Sinclair and his posse get drunk and dance inappropriately.  Barrow has a melt down.  Soon after, Sinclair catches his daughter (Susannah York) in an affair with a lowly piper and punches him.  Sinclair’s best friend Scott (Dennis Price) wants Sinclair’s girl so he secretly urges Barrow to throw the book at Sinclair.  At this point the regimental officers begin to represent a cheerleader squad with all the backbiting and factions.  Barrow knows he’s in a no win situation, but naturally leans toward following the rule book no matter the effect on morale.

                In a powerful scene, Barrow comes to apologize for charging Sinclair, but argues he has no choice.  Sinclair plays contrite and argues the affair should be swept under the rug for the good of the regiment.  He promises to toe the line from now on.  Barrow reluctantly agrees to the deal.  Happy ending with mutual respect developing, right?  Wrong!  Sinclair and his frat buddies become insufferable and Scott needles Barrow for wimping out even though he can see he is fragile mentally.  Both leads are on downward paths because they cannot change their personalities.

                “Tunes of Glory” is worth seeing mainly for the great acting.  Guinness and Mills are fantastic and the rest of the cast hangs with them.  The two leads do not chew the scenery although it must have been tempting to.  Susannah York is nice eye candy in her first role.  The acting must have been the main reason the movie was so positively received by critics.  Looking at the picture as a whole, the acting overshadows some flaws.  The plot is too simplistic.  The two leaders are too extreme as archetypes.  This actually works pretty well because unlike most movies of this type (e.g., “Damn the Defiant”, “Platoon”), neither character is sympathetically portrayed and you can’t root for either.  The twist of Sinclair being unredeemable is certainly uncliche.  The biggest flaw is Scott’s behavior.  His betrayal of his best friend over a woman is unrealistic.  It is also unrealistic and lazy to have both leaders suffer nervous breakdowns.  It’s as though Kennaway wanted to keep it a tie to the very end.

                “Tunes of Glory” deserves to be seen, but is overrated.  It is instructive on the role of class distinctions in the British Army.  No army is history has had such a strong dynamic.  It’s amazing that it was still strong even after WWII.  The movie also is strong in depicting the varied effects of wartime experiences on peacetime officers.  It is one of the best character studies set in a peacetime army setting.
 
Grade =  B-
 
 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

CRACKER? Enigma


               “Enigma” is a film by Michael Apted that was released in 2001.  It was partly meant to be an answer to “U-571”.   It is based the novel by Robert Harris.  The book and film are highly fictionalized accounts of the British code-breaking efforts at Bletchley Park in WWII.  Those efforts were based on captured Enigma machines.  Brilliant cryptanalysts worked to read German military messages.  In the movie, those messages involve routing u-boats to intercept a major convoy.

                The movie opens with Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott) reluctantly returning to Betchley Park after a nervous breakdown involving being jilted by beautiful fellow geek Claire (Saffron Burrows).   Jericho had earlier broken the “Shark” code when the Germans updated to a four rotor Enigma machine.  It doesn’t take long for Jericho to try to find Claire, but she is missing.  The movie becomes a mystery as Jericho attempts to find out what happened to Claire.  He finds evidence in her flat that she has been passing top secret information to someone and this may be connected to her disappearance.  His amateur sleuthing is aided by Claire’s friend Hester (Kate Winslet).  Will romance bloom?  Duh!

                Interwoven with the personal story is the bigger picture of saving the convoy by rebreaking the code.  The clock is ticking.  While Tom focuses with his comrades on doing their jobs, Hester uses an Enigma machine that she and Tom “borrowed” to read the intercepts they found in Claire’s room.  It turns out that Claire was in possession of a list of Polish officers executed by the Soviets in Katyn Forest.  The British government (represented by an agent named Wigram) wants to cover up the Katyn Massacre because it would damage their relationship with their allies, the Russians.  Claire passed the information on to another cryptanalyst nicknamed “Puck” (Nikolaj Waldau) who is Polish and had a brother whose name is on the list.  This humane gesture apparently backfired because the incensed Puck turns coat to rat out Betchley Park to the Germans to get revenge against Stalin.

                Jericho goes after Puck, but he’s not alone.  MI-5 agent Wigram (Jeremy Northam) is on to both of them.  It’s a cat and mouse game.  Puck escapes to Scotland where he hopes to hook up with a u-boat that will take him and his information to Germany.

                As far as historical accuracy, the movie is fine in depicting how Betchley Park operated and how the Enigma machine worked.  The cryptanalysts were probably not the heterogeneous characters as depicted in the film, but that is to be expected and makes the movie less bland.  In actuality, the Jericho character is based on a far from boring man named Alan Turing who was a big contributor to the code-breaking effort.  Turing was not your stereotypical geek because he was a homosexual who was later prosecuted for his sexual orientation and chemically castrated.  Not exactly the type to fall for Claire and Hester, but possibly the type to structure a more interesting movie around. 

                The movie is set in April, 1943 which is inappropriate for the secondary storyline of rebreaking the “Shark” code to save the convoy.  In reality, the German switch to a four rotor machine occurred in 1942 and had been solved for good by the time frame of the movie.  As far as the Katyn Massacre, it occurred in April and May of 1940 in the Katyn Forest in Poland.  The NKVD (the Soviet secret police) executed around 22,000 Polish officers.  The orders came from Stalin.  The movie’s Claire list is fictional, but it is true that the Churchill government knew who the villains were and yet supported the Soviet lies that the Nazis perpetrated the atrocity and he suppressed any contrary information.  The movie dramatizes a race against time to save a large convoy by solving the four rotor code, but that is not based on any actual situation.  The implication that a decision will have to be made whether to warn the convoy and thus jeopardize the code-breaking is intriguing although not really played out.  It is possibly based on the supposed decision by Churchill to allow the bombing of Coventry without warning the city.  This legend has been refuted, however.  The movie would have been more interesting if it focused on a fictional dilemma of “warn or not warn” instead of a romance/espionage plot.

                I mentioned that the movie was partly an answer to “U-571”.  If you are not familiar with that controversy, in this American movie the U.S. Navy is credited with acquiring the first Enigma machine.  In reality, the British deserve that credit.  The British were justifiably critical of that plot.  Ironically, “Enigma” can be similarly criticized.  Although briefly implied, the movie overlooks the fact that the Betchley Park operation got off the ground originally due to efforts by the Polish Cypher Bureau.  The Poles passed on their ground-breaking successes to the British.  That’s ironic, here’s what’s disgusting.  The movie (and book) incredibly makes the main villain a Pole!  At least “U-571” did not compound the offense by having a British member of the crew be a traitor.

                The movie is fairly entertaining.  The acting is satisfactory and the cast is appealing.  Special mention must be made of Kate Winslet who plays Hester as mousy.  She is not beautiful in this movie.  The chemistry with Scott is fine.  The suspense is tame, but thankfully the code-breaking is not headache inducing.  The movie just could have been a lot better and a lot more thought-provoking.  And by the way, this is not a war movie.

Rating – C+
 
the trailer
 
the full movie
 
 
 
TRAILER:  Pretty good.  Gives you an idea of the plot.  Overplays the action, of course.  The movie is not as fast-paced as implied.  B+
 
 
POSTER:  Nicely done.  Has the four main characters.  The convoy is a good touch.  A
 
 

Monday, October 1, 2012

#25 - Rome, Open City



BACK-STORY:  “Rome, Open City” is a cinematic masterpiece by acclaimed director Roberto Rossellini.  It was set and filmed in Italy in 1945 during the waning days of Nazi occupation.  It was shot in the streets of Rome.  The crude look to the cinematography was the result of the lack of funding, the damaged studio, and the circumstances.  It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and won the Palme D’Or at Cannes.  It is a landmark in the Italian neorealist movement.  These films were noted for a general atmosphere of authenticity, immediacy as in being shot on location, use of nonprofessionals in roles, documentary style cinematography, and children in major roles.

OPENING:  The situation is established as German soldiers are marching and singing through the streets of Rome.  Soldiers come to arrest Resistance leader Manfredi (Marcello Paglieri).  He escapes.
Pina and Don Pietro
SUMMARY:  Manfredi meets with a Catholic priest named Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi).  He asks the father to meet a contact and deliver some money which lets us know Don Pietro is part of the underground.  Also part of the movement is a pack of young boys who blow things up in acts of sabotage.

                 While some daring Romans fight the occupiers, most Romans try to lead normal lives.  This group is typified by Pina (Anna Magnani).  She is the pregnant fiance of a communist Resistance member named Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet).  They are getting married the next day.  Pina’s son Marcello (Vito Annicchiarico) is the leader of the young saboteurs. 
the truck's view
                The Roman police chief meets the Gestapo head who looks like Pee Wee Herman’s evil father.  He is effete and slimy.  They are working together to nab Manfredi.  Manfredi is hiding at Pina’s (way to go Einstein – hide at the pregnant soon-to-be-married’s place).  Suddenly the building is surrounded and Manfredi and Francesco are arrested.  As they are taken away in a truck, Pina chases and is gunned down in a powerful scene made more shocking by its proximity to the comic relief of Don Pietro hitting a talkative grandpa over the head with a frying pan to shut him up.   

                In a brief and unrealistic scene, the Resistance ambushes the truck and rescues the duo.  Francesco and Manfredi take refuge with a tart named Marina (Maria Michi).  Another unwise choice for a host because Marina is on drugs and her dealer is a lesbian German agent who is so stereotypically villainous you would cross the street if you saw her approaching on the sidewalk.  (Unless, of course, you’re into evil lesbians.)  The lesbian keeps Marina in the type of clothes an Italian floozy wears.
Pee Wee's pop and Sappho's spawn
 
                Don Pietro is arranging for Manfredi to hide in a monastery when the Gestapo arrive and they are arrested.  Marina gets a new coat.  At Gestapo headquarters, Manfredi is taken to the torture room by Pee Wee’s father and Don Pietro is forced to watch, but we don’t get to.  Boo!  All we hear is moans and then suddenly a brief shot of a flame.  Manfredi dies pretty easily for a hardened Resistance leader.  Meanwhile, Germans in the adjacent lounge are playing poker and listening to a piano.  Get it?  One agent refers to the Italians as a slave race.  Manfredi will talk because he is inferior.  A sophisticated German named Hartmann (Joop van Hulzen) disagrees and contends that all Germans want to do is kill.  This hatred will destroy Germany and there is no hope.  He is apparently channeling Rossellini.
torturer and torture room

CLOSING:  Don Pietro is taken to the execution site.  His last words are “It’s not difficult to die, it’s difficult to live.”  The Italian firing squad misses because they are an Italian firing squad.  Just kidding.  They miss because they don’t want to shoot a priest.  You have to draw the line somewhere.  Hartmann kills Don Pietro.  All this is witnessed by the sabotage boys.  They walk off into the brighter Italian future.

RATINGS:
Acting =  C
Action =  4/10
Accuracy =  hard to say
Realism =  C+
Plot =  C

Overall =  C

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?   Certainly, if they are a cinephile.  It is not a hard core war movie.  It has no graphic violence or language.  It has some strong female characters and is balanced in portraying the effects of the war on Italian women.  Unfortunately, two of the three women are stereotypically loathsome.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The movie is supposedly based on real events as told to Rossellini by actual Resistance members.  This makes it hard to verify.  Let’s assume the events in the film actually happened.  That is plausible.  The movie does not depict anything that is obviously ridiculous or improbable.  Even the young boys sabotaging the German war effort is based on reality.

                One of the characters (Don Pietro) is clearly based on a real person.  Don Pieto Morosini was a Catholic priest who was part of the Resistance.  My research could not confirm any of his actions in the movie, but the death scene is close to his execution.  The last words are authentic.  The firing squad did miss.  The killing was actually done by an Italian officer, not a German.  A telling decision by Rossellini?  He does have characters that are collaborators, but overall the movie is lenient toward the Italian public.   

CRITIQUE:  “Rome, Open City” is a cinematic classic and deserves its fame.  It has an immediacy to it that makes it unique, especially for back then.  It has been best described as looking like a newsreel.  The cinematography is not jaw dropping, but if you know the back-story, it’s remarkable.  Rossellini had to overcome such obstacles that you have to admire the finished product.  The blending of film stocks is a standout feature.  Rossellini had to use what was available.  However, there’s the rub.  If you don’t know the full story behind the production, the movie does not have the same impact.

                The acting is what you would expect from a production like this.  Fabrizi is the top performer.  His Don Pietro is humane, humorous, and a hero.  He provides the comic relief like the frying pan silencing.  There is also a whimsical scene involving a naked statue.  Without him, the movie would have been too bleak.  The rest of the cast is average and many are playing stereotypes.  For a movie of such consequence, it is perplexing why Rossellini would include such sore thumbs like the Gestapo chief and the lesbian agent.  You would not expect hissable villains.  But I suppose if I had lived through the Nazi and fascist days, I might put a vampirish lesbian and an effeminate torturer in also.

                The themes are basic.  Good versus evil.  Normal people doing heroic things because the situation calls for it.  Civilians trying to live their lives in wartime.  Freedom is worth dying for.  None of this is ground-breaking.  The plot does not match the production.  If it did, this would be a masterpiece.  As it is, the movie could have done with more concentration on the more unorthodox elements like the children saboteurs.

CONCLUSION:  Once again I am confronted with a movie that must be highly rated by critics because of its historical importance moreso than its actual quality.  It is assuredly a must-see for anyone interested in the history of cinema and specifically Italian neorealism, but purely as a war movie it is nothing special.  I admire what Rossellini went through and the movie is truly a great accomplishment.  This must have been a large part of the reasoning by the Military History magazine panel of experts.  It could be argued that it is the #25 most important war movie ever made, but you cannot replace” important” with “greatest” or “best” and even put it in the Top 100.  It will not make my list of the 100 Best because I am not judging the films on importance.  I am looking at two main factors:  historical accuracy / realism and quality.  “Rome, Open City” does not make a case for itself in either area.  I would not put it ahead of the other Resistance movies I have reviewed:  Army of Crime, Flame and Citron, Black Book, and Army of Shadows (none of which made the Greatest 100).  All of those are more entertaining than "Rome, Open City".
             For those upset with this review, I am not a trained movie critic and did not go to film school.  However, I am true to what I call myself and I will not bow to the film intelligentsia.
 
 the beginning