Monday, November 26, 2012

#22 - Zulu



BACK-STORY:  “Zulu” was released in 1964 and was so successful that it not only resurrected the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, but molded the modern image of it.  The film was a labor of love for Stanley Baker.  It was directed by the blacklisted Cy Endfield.  After The House Unamerican Activities Committee branded him a communist, he moved to England to continue his career.  The movie was filmed on location in South Africa.  700 blacks were used as extras.  Many of them were descendants of the Zulu who participated in the battle.   So many had never seen a movie that Endfield screened an old Gene Autrey film for them.  Because of apartheid, they could not be paid so Endfield let them keep the cattle.
OPENING:  A narrator (Richard Burton) reads a dispatch outlining the British defeat at Isandlwana on Jan. 23, 1879.  We see the aftermath of that disaster in the corpse-strewn British camp.  The scene shifts to a Zulu village where a missionary named Witt (Jack Hawkins) and his daughter Margareta (Ulla Jacobsson) witness a marriage ceremony.  It’s a fascinating slice of Zulu culture.  They leave for their mission at Rorke’s Drift when word of Isandlwana arrives.
Chard is in command
SUMMARY:  Back at Rorke’s Drift, Lt. Chard (Baker) is building a bridge.  He meets Lt. Bromhead (Michael Caine in his first major role) who has been left in command.  Bromhead is your typical upper class officer who is touchy about his status.  When they are alerted to the approach of a large force of Zulu warriors, Chard assumes command based on being commissioned three months earlier.  He orders the position be prepared for defense using mealy bags, crates, and overturned wagons.  He rejects Bromhead’s suggestion of evacuating the post.  The decision to stay and not even evacuate the wounded sets off Witt who is a pacifist Bible-thumper who considers the Zulu king to be a member of his parish.  He is also a closet alcoholic who gets himself and his daughter kicked out of the camp while ranting that they are all going to die.  This sobers up the men, but they continue to prepare calmly for the onslaught.
                We are introduced to some of the soldiers (especially the future Victoria Cross recipients).  The standouts include Colour Sergeant Bourne (Nigel Green) who stoically ramrods the enlisted.  Private Hook (James Booth) serves as the film’s anti-hero.  He is a malingering, petty thief, malcontent.  Will he find redemption as a real hero?  Duh!
Bromhead joins in
                An eerie train-like droning noise heralds the approach of the enemy.  The suspense builds as they sneak up and then launch a frontal charge which comes to a surprise halt within rifle distance of the British line.  A Boer ally named Adendorff informs Chard that the strange tactic is not to allow for the standard Gunga Dinish wanton slaughtering of the natives, but in fact is the Zulu leader’s way of determining the fire power of the defenders.  Get your calculators out if you want to find out whether this movie will approach a “Where Eagles Dare” death count.
there is a Chinese laundry at the post
                As though things are not bleak enough, a unit of the enemy is positioned on a hill where they can use their newly acquired British rifles to harass the defenders.  When one soldier asks “why us?”, Bourne responds with “because we’re here”.  The second attack breaches part of the wall and leads to hand to hand (or bayonet to iklwa) combat.  There are a series of attacks followed by lulls in the fighting.  The casualties mount, but none of the Brits panics.  They all have their upper lips stiff or their cheek on (as in the case of Hook).  Chard is growing into command and Bromhead proves an able second.  At one point, Chard calls for firing by ranks in a mini-counterattack.  Discipline and firepower – how an empire was won.
                The fifth attack reaches the hospital.  Bromhead fights on the roof and Hook leads the interior defense.  The building catches fire to add to the chaos.  Hooks throws on the mantle of a hero, but wears it reluctantly as he stops to take a drink of medicinal alcohol before being the last to leave the burning building.  A cattle stampede breaks the momentum of the assault.  Attacks continue in the night, but we are swiftly in the broad daylight of the second day
CLOSING:  The Zulu serenade the British with a war song so the Brits respond with the regiment’s anthem, “Men of Harlech”.  “Keep these burning words before ye / Welshmen will never yield”.  Could this be a Hollywood moment?  The final assault is defeated with three lines of British riflemen using coordinated volleys.  Result:  a pile of black bodies.  A mad minute of European fire power ends the native dream of evicting the foreigners from their land.  Just when it looks like it’s over, the Zulus mass again on the hillside.  However, this time it’s to acknowledge respect for fellow warriors.  Richard Burton’s voice returns to check off the eleven VC winners.
RATINGS:
Acting -  B
Action – 9/10
Accuracy -  C+
Plot -  A
Realism -  B
 
Overall -   A-

WILL CHICKS DIG IT?    Very unlikely.  This movie is testosterone-fueled.  The one female character is not a positive one and disappears early in the film.  On the plus side, the movie is not particularly graphic.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The Battle of Rorke’s Drift took place during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879.  The war was brought about because of British desire to expand its South African colony into Zululand.  They manufactured a threat from the Zulus as their provocation and used it as justification for an invasion.  King Cetshwayo wanted peace, but could not meekly accept his own overthrow and annexation of his land.  The movie does not explain the background to the war possibly because the British did not want to mar the feel-good aspect of such a sterling battle. 
                The allusions to the Battle of Isandlwana are accurate.  The British central invading column did get wiped out by 20,000 Zulu warriors.  However, King Cetshwayo did not follow this up with the attack on Rorke’s Drift as the movie implies.   The attack was the idea of his glory-seeking half-brother whose unit had not gotten to Isandlwana in time to participate.  In fact, the King had forbidden his forces to go on the offensive into British territory.
                The recreation of the hospital/supply depot is accurate.  It was leased by the British government from the missionary Witt, but his depiction is way off.  The real Witt was married with two young kids.  He was not a pacifist, nor a drunkard.  He supported British policies.  The Zulu king was not a parishioner of his.  He was not drummed out of the camp, but left voluntarily to see after his family.  His is not the only mischaracterization.  The most egregious is Hook.  He was not the malingering malcontent depicted in the film.  He was actually a solid soldier and a teetotaler.  His portrayal was so offensive that his daughters walked out on the premiere.  Bourne was actually very young for a Colour Sergeant and also slight in stature.  The doctor was not cynically anti-war and earned his VC by leaving the hospital to tend the wounded on the front lines.  Not to mention the unit itself is misidentified.  In the movie it is identified as a Welsh regiment when in reality it was not predominately Welsh.
                Some of the incidents are close to reality.  The native levies did flee before the battle, but not because of the rantings of Witt.  They were actually led out by their British officer who was subsequently court-martialed.  The Boer cavalry that refuses to augment the defense actually stayed for the early festivities, but left after its cavalry carbine ammunition ran low.  Chard was actually appointed to command by the unit’s captain before he left.  This was partly based on seniority, but he was commissioned three years before Bromhead.  They did not disagree on strategy and Chard actually favored a withdrawal.  It was Acting Assistant Commissary Dalton who pointed out that a small column slowed by wounded would be easily caught and wiped out.
                Although Adendorf accurately describes the Zulu tactic described as “the horns of the beast”, the movie does not depict them using this tactic.  This might truly reflect the battle as the attacks are best described as piecemeal.  The Zulu spear called an iklwa (the sound it made when being pulled out of a wound) is authentic.  It was a variation of Shaka’s assegai.  They also carried the cow-hide shields shown in the film.  Unfortunately for realism, this force would not have had access to looted British rifles to snipe with.  Like most Zulu units, they would have had an assortment of inferior guns.  Five of the seventeen British deaths were from gunfire.  The British weaponry is accurate.
                The battle itself has some problems.  There is no evidence for the opening “cannon fodder as intelligence gathering” gambit.  The assaults were more consistent and not as easily differentiated as in the film.  The assault on the hospital, its defense led by Hook, and its subsequent burning are pretty close.  They did cut holes through the walls to go from room to room.  The last survivors exited from a window, not out the back door.  Strangely, the movie foregoes the suspense of the consistent night attacks which tapered off after midnight.  They ended around 2 A.M. and the subsequent gunfire was over by sunrise thus ending the battle.  There was no climatic charge after dawn.
                It will not surprise that there was no sing-off.  Plus the song would not be the unit anthem for another two years.  It goes without saying that the Zulus did not salute the courage of the Europeans.  As far as why they withdrew, a final decisive assault was abandoned with the approach of a relief force (“the cavalry was coming”).  By the way, the movie leaves out the post script of the British dispatching any wounded Zulu.  On a similar note, the British actually lost only 17 dead in the battle – the movie gives the impression it was quite a bit more.  
CRITIQUE:  “Zulu” has many strong elements.  The set is authentic and the scenery is amazing.  The movie was filmed in a national park which, although hillier than the real locale, certainly added to the visuals.  The music by John Barry is used sparingly, but effectively.  Some scenes have little or no background music.  A good example is the opening attack which is allowed to build without music.  The cinematography is outstanding.  It’s old school without the modern pizazz, but you are in the thick of the fighting.  The acting is excellent.  Jack Hawkins chews the scenery a bit, but everyone else controls himself like a proper British soldier would.  Baker, Caine, Booth, and Green are standouts.  The most remarkable performances are by the Zulu extras.  They are naturals.  That Gene Autry movie must have really done the trick.
                The movie gets the small things right.  The soldier behavior is true to British soldiers of that era.  Their dialogue is not forced or cringe-worthy.  The comroderie is evident.  There are several friendships that are highlighted.  The soldiers’ bond is apparent.  There is not a lot of humor, but then there is not a lot to laugh about.  There is also very little whining.  Hook is the only soldier who appears to be avoiding combat.  A bit unrealistic.  The movie does not play up the chasm between the upper class officers and the lower class enlisted which is often a theme in movies about the British army of that time period.
                The character development is well done.  The movie does a good job of fleshing out all of the VC winners and several more roles.  Each man is distinct (although name tags would have been nice).  The evolution of Chard from engineer building a bridge to combat leader is instructive.  There is a quiet moment when he goes from trembling hand while reloading his revolver to steadiness.  Of course, the most fascinating arc is that of Hook.  It’s a bit cliché, but it works.  He could have been a tedious character ( he reminded me of some of my students), but Booth does a good job making him a likeable rogue.  His swigging on the broken liquor bottle before fleeing the burning hospital is another nice touch.
                As a movie about a battle, “Zulu” is one of the best.  This is partly because it has few frills.  It concentrates almost totally on the battle and the men who fought it.  The tactics are realistic although some of them have a textbook feel to them.  In reality, it is doubtful the British used the variety the movie depicts.  That’s acceptable for entertainment purposes.  The action is intense and edge of your seat.  The deaths are swift and not melodramatic.  There are no death speeches.
                The movie is not without flaws.  I have already expounded on the historical inaccuracies.  One problem is the lack of background about what brought on the war.  The audience is treated to a fair treatment of the Zulu.  They are not demonized as the Indians were in most Westerns and they are shown as brave warriors, but it is not made clear that they were in the right.  We are manipulated to root for the Europeans instead of the natives fighting for their lands and liberty.  A related flaw is the lack of a Zulu perspective.  This is perplexing given that the movie opens in their village with an interesting take on their culture.
CONCLUSION:   The ranking of “Zulu” at #22 appears to be appropriate.  It is not a great war movie (as some claim), but it is certainly very good and accomplishes its mission effectively.  I am little uncomfortable with this.  As a war movie lover, I really enjoyed the movie.  But as a military history buff, I can see how the movie used a different medium to do in the 1960s what the British government used the newspapers to do in the 1870s.  Think about it – 11 Victoria Cross winners!  Assuming a Victoria Cross is equivalent to the Medal of Honor, it should take extreme bravery to be awarded one.  Not taking away from the defenders, but it would appear the British government was looking for a civilian morale booster to soften the Isandlwana disaster.  The movie does a similar job in glamorizing the imperial days of England.  Unlike its most obvious equivalent (Wayne’s “The Alamo”), the film does not recreate the myths, but instead actually creates the myths.
the trailer
 
the full movie
 
a neat battle scene
 
POSTER -  Outstanding.  A+

TRAILER -  Disorganized.  Doesn't give a clear picture of what the movie is about.  C

Sunday, November 18, 2012

FORGOTTEN GEM? Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

 
           “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” is a POW movie set in Java in 1942.  It was directed by Japanese director Nagise Oshima and has a multi-national cast.  The movie was based on the semi-autobiographical novel entitled The Seed and the Sower by Sir Laurens van der Post.  It is the rare POW movie that does not have an escape or escape attempt.

                Col. Lawrence (Tom Conti)  is bilingual and having lived in Japan before the war acts as a liaison between the British prisoners and the Japanese administration of the camp.  The movie opens with the seppuku of a Korean guard for homosexual acts with a Dutch prisoner.  Lawrence and other prisoners are forced to witness this  His paramour bites his tongue (literally) and chokes on it.  The scene establishes the theme of homosexuality that runs throughout the film and clues us in on the fact that this will be a different kind of POW movie.


Bowie as Celliers
                Maj. Jack Celliers (David Bowie) is a commando leader who had been parachuted into the Javan jungle to conduct guerrilla warfare.  He is captured and the commandant Capt. Yonai (Japanese pop star Ryuichi Sakamoto) inexplicably argues at his murder trial that he should be treated as a POW.  This does not prevent him going before a firing squad which proceeds to miss so he ends up in the camp.  I am not making this up.

                The camp features two intriguing relationships.  Lawrence is paired with the sadistic Sgt. Hara (Takeshi Kitano).  Yonai and Celliers are the other pair.  There is a definite homoerotic vibe in this which means Bowie can just play himself.  Yonai may be attracted to Celleirs, but he sees him as an evil spirit (I guess because he stirs Yonai’s samurai loins).  Yonai throws Celliers and Lawrence into cells because of a contraband radio.  Yonai’s batman tries to kill Celliers on behalf of his boss, but Celliers beats him up and tries to rescue Lawrence.  Yonai foils this and challenges Celliers to a duel which Celliers refuses.  This demon is not going to go easy.

                A flashback attempts to provide Celliers with a back-story that explains his strangeness.  Unfortunately, the flashback to boarding school is so weird a normal person will have a WTF reaction.  Something about his younger brother being forced to sing (which he does like an angel).

Celliers at the beach
                Meanwhile, Hara plays Santa Claus by releasing Lawrence (“Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence”) and Celliers.  Apparently a sergeant can go over the head of the camp commandant in this camp.  Yonai orders all the prisoners assembled and is going to behead the British commander when Celliers walks up to him and kisses him.  Yonai knows he should use his katana on this insolent Englishman, but he’s just so attractive!  He collapses in homoerotic confusion.  The guards beat up Celliers instead.  The new camp commandant shows his heterosexuality by burying Celliers up to the neck.  Yonai comes to visit him and takes a lock of his hair.  It is unclear whether this is done post mortem.

"Those were the good old days"
                Suddenly the movie jumps four years to 1946.  Hara is to be executed for war crimes which seems appropriate considering what he does in the movie.  Lawrence comes to visit him.  He empathizes with this misunderstood man who routinely beat him in the camp.  Who’s to say who was right in the war, right?  They have a nice chat and reminisce about that special Christmas moment they shared.

                This movie is polarizing.  You either love it or hate it.  Not surprisingly I fall into the "hated it" group.  The characters are inconsistent.  Yonai and Hara are sometimes evil, sometimes humane.  Celliers is just plain weird.  Lawrence is bipolar (or suffering from Stockholm Syndrome).  The acting has been complemented by some critics, but is truthfully pedestrian.  Bowie is simply not a good actor.  A movie starring two pop stars has problems.

                The movie seems to revel in its unorthodoxy.  Even the sound track is new age.  It was composed by Sakamoto.  Put me down amongst those that do not want new age music in my war movies.  I also prefer for my plots to be coherent and for flashbacks to add to the understanding of the narrative instead of adding to the confusion.  Much of the actions of the main characters make no sense even under the circumstances they were put in.  Lawrence is supposed to be the sane center, but his relationship with Hara is infuriating.

                To speak of “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” as one of the best POW movies is foolish.  If you want to admire it for being different (albeit different bad), so be it.  I have seen many POW movie and this is the worst.

Rating – F
trailer
 
the whole movie
 
 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

#23 - Stalingrad


 
BACK-STORY:  “Stalingrad” was a major German production released in 1993.  It was directed by Joseph Vilsmaier.  It is in the German language.  I found nothing of particular interest anecdotally

OPENING:  Words on the screen tell us that it is the summer of 1942.  The Germans are in the middle of their second major summer offensive in the Soviet Union.  The goal is the Caspian Sea and the Caucasian oil fields.  The Sixth Army under Gen. Von Paulus is advancing on Stalingrad which will result in the “most brutal battle of the century”.  While these momentous events are taking place, a squad of veterans from North Africa are enjoying an Italian beach.  Their beloved Lt. is being replaced by a Lt. Witzland (Thomas Kretschmann) who is green, an aristocrat, and gung-ho.  He makes an immediate impression on his new charges when he denies the seasoned Sgt. “Rollo” Rohleder a medal because he refuses to button his collar at the decoration ceremony.  We could be looking at a Stransky vs. Steiner dynamic ala “Cross of Iron”.

Witzland rethinking his career path
SUMMARY:  The squad must have done something bad off screen because next thing you know they are being sent to the Eastern Front.  On the train, they are overconfident and brag about kicking Russkie ass.  This attitude is probably due to having recently tangled with the British.  They are about to find out that the Russians are tougher than the Brits and freezing cold is rougher than desert heat.

                When they arrive, we have the obligatory ”in with the new, out with the old loading-the-wounded-on-the- vacated-railway-cars” scene.  The actors are told to be sobered by this sight when in reality these veterans would have seen plenty of death in North Africa.  Speaking of “Cross of Iron”, Witzland has a run in with a sadistic Nazi officer named Haller who is abusing prisoners.  This ‘bad German” will reappear several times throughout the film. 

Reiser with a flammenwerfer
                The squad is attached to a unit commanded by the charismatic Capt. Musk (Karel Hermanek).  They are tasked to capture a factory.  The first death elicits the shock and disbelief you would expect from rookies, not North African vets.  They capture the factory with the aide of flame throwers.  There is confusion (“the fog of war”) and a friendly fire death.  One of the men admits he “shit his pants”.  Only 162 of the original 400 man unit survive to try to hold the position.

                With Soviets just a block away, our boys show typical cameraderie.  The most introspective is Reiser (Dominique Horwitz) who tells a newbie “If you start to think, you go crazy; so I don’t think”.  Witzland decides to defy standing orders and offer a truce to recover the wounded from “no man’s land”.  Humaneness comes to a shattering close when one of the Germans opens fire.  In the chaos, Witzland captures a Russian boy-soldier named Kolya in a move that makes no sense other than as a plot point.

                Still holed up in the factory, Rollo receives a “Dear Johan” letter.  Witzland decides to lead a patrol to find a way out.  This command decision makes no sense (why would he leave his unit behind?), but soon becomes clearly a method to advance the plot.  He gets separated from the rest and runs into a female Soviet soldier named Irina.  Witzland takes her captive, but she pushes him into a sewage pool (including bobbing corpses) and gets away.  What was the point of this encounter?

Bad German is armed and evil
                Reunited with the group, Witzland and the others make it to the hospital where they force an orderly to work on a wounded friend.  “Bad German” suddenly arrives and puts them under arrest.  What are the odds?  They are put in a penal battalion and four weeks later are hunting for mines.  Capt. Musk arrives and offers them a chance for redemption.  All they have to do is defeat a large force of Soviet tanks.  Piece of cake!

You want me to do what with this anti-tank mine?
                They are in fox holes defending a perimeter when the tanks arrive.  Their main weapon is sticky bombs that they have to attach to the tank’s undercarriage.  Lucky for them the tankers are either out of ammunition or feel it’s unsporting to use their main guns!  Kind of like in “Saving Private Ryan” when the tanks did not use their machine guns in the bridge scene.  In a huge upset, the Germans beat off the attack and then abandon the position to return to their hut for some more exposition.  Apparently no need to worry about another attack in that sector.

Sorry, Kolya: orders are orders
                They are put under Bad German’s command and are ordered to act as a firing squad for some Russian prisoners.  Oh, no!  Is that Kolya?  They reluctantly obey orders.  This is the last straw.  Reiser decides to desert and Witzland and Muller join him.  They make it to the airport and fake being wounded, but in the chaos they are not able to board the last plane out.  They return to the hut.

Irina did not enjoy being a sex slave
CLOSING:   As they await the inevitable surrender, a plane drops a crate of supplies in a nearby field.  The guys are gorging on food when Bad German arrives out of the blue and
threatens to shoot them as looters.  He shoots Muller and seems to think his Naziness will cow the desperate, feral, vengeance-minded men.  Wrong!  Before he dies, he reveals that he has a man-cave replete with goodies nearby.  The boys hasten to the lair where they find a mountain of looted goods and a sex-slave tied to a bed.  OMG – it’s Irina!  No wonder the script allowed her to escape in the sewer.  Witzland frees her and plays the gentleman.  He prevents the others from raping her (although they don’t seem very keen on it anyhow).  Suddenly, Capt. Musk starts ranting about them being deserters and wants to return to the front.   Otto commits suicide.  Reiser and Witzland head off with Irina leading.  Rollo sticks around with the dying Musk.  The trio encounter Soviet soldiers and those expecting a happy ending will be disillusioned.

RATINGS: 
Acting =  C
Action =  7/10
Accuracy =  B
Plot =  C
Realism =  B

Overall =  C

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  The film is not aimed at a female audience, but it does have a major female character and it is not graphic in violence or language.  Not exactly a date movie, but more appealing than most war movies.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The Battle of Stalingrad was the turning point in Europe in the Second World War.  It was the decisive battle on the Eastern Front.  It was precipitated by Hitler’s attempt to finish off the Soviet Union with a grand offensive that would capture the Caucasian oil fields and the strategic city of Stalingrad.  The Sixth Army commanded by General Von Paulus was tasked with capturing the “city of Stalin” on the Volga River.  Things went well at first with the army sledge-hammering its way into the city and eventually controlling 90 % of it.  The losses were enormous on both sides.  Although the Germans cut their way to the banks of the Volga and thus divided the city, the Red Army put up a spirited resistance.  The Soviets created strongpoints and forced the Germans to come to grips which negated their tanks, artillery, and air power.  Buildings, including factories, changed hands numerous times.  The city was turned into rubble which naturally favored the defenders.

                In November, 1942, Marshal Zhukov launched Operation Uranus which entailed pincer offensives north and south of the city that resulted in the encirclement of the Sixth Army within the city.  The Germans were gradually whittled down.  Rations were cut to a bare minimum.  The soldiers were forced to make a watery soup using the bones of dead horses that they dug up.  The winter added to the hardships.  Hitler refused to allow any thought of a breakout, especially after Luftwaffe commander Goering promised to supply the city via air drops.  Goering’s bravado was a pipe dream as the actual tonnage of supply drops was woefully short of the minimum requirements.

                Hitler approved an attempt to break through to the city led by General Von Manstein.  Manstein’s spearhead got to within thirty miles of the city, but Von Paulus (sensing Hitler’s disapproval) refused to launch a break out attempt to link up with the relief force.  The Sixth Army’s fate was sealed.  Eventually 91,000 Germans surrendered.

                The movie is fictional and does not attempt to give an overview of the battle.  It could be set in any number of urban combat scenarios.  As a depiction of the trials of a typical squad of Germans caught up in the battle, it is fairly accurate.   The weapons and equipment are authentic. 

CRITIQUE:  “Stalingrad” an admirable attempt to depict the battle from the perspective of a squad of the losers.  We follow them from the sunny beach in Italy to the frozen rubble of Stalingrad.  They become recognizable personalities.  The unit is heterogeneous, but not too stereotypically so.  It reminded me of “Platoon” in this respect.  However, it does have some archetypes like the cynical veteran sergeant (Rohleder), the idealist (Reiser), the naïve novice (Muller), and the ambitious officer (Witzland).  Unfortunately, the acting is pedestrian and the character development is flawed.  Rollo should have been a strong character, but he does not develop into the insubordinate anti-hero he could have been.  This was disappointing.  Perplexing is more the word for Witzland’s evolution.  He starts as a martinet, becomes an officer on the make, and then suddenly gets sensitive towards the enemy and ends up a deserting pacifist.  While unorthodox, this arc is ridiculous.  The small unit dynamics are realistic and the soldier talk seems true to form.  The interaction between the soldiers is not forced.  It is instructive to see that the non-S.S. soldiers behaved like soldiers from any World War II army.  Remember that not all German soldiers were Nazi fanatics.  The movie also throws in a female Soviet soldier and a boy soldier, but the roles come off as attempts to humanize the Germans because they treat these enemy well.  In reality, the Wehrmacht was not exactly sensitive toward those two types.  Plus their appearances in the narrative are too plot enhancing.  Speaking of which, the whole Bad German role was dripping with cliché.

                The movie is technically sound.  The cinematography is average after the opening battle which featured some hand-held and point of view.  The music is sadly trite.   The movie does get the look of Stalingrad.  The dead bodies.  The rubble.  The sewer system.  However, much of the movie is set outside the city on snowy plains.  I feel the movie wimped out on showing the real hellish nature of the battlefield.  Showing a character in a sewer with bobbing corpses was not enough.

                The plot is not smooth.  It does not integrate the big picture into the small world of the squad.  It is one thing to depict the “fog of war”, but the audience should have an idea of why things are disintegrating.  Too many incidents in the plot foreshadow future developments.  This is the kind of movie that when an enemy character suddenly is injected into the plot and then exits, you know they will be reappearing.  It was apparently a small world in Stalingrad.

                The themes are appropriate.  Vilsmaier is interested in filming the futility of war.  What better way to make this point than focus on a German squad at Stalingrad?  There’s no debating the movie is solidly anti-war.  It also tends to be anti-military.  Although Witzland and Musk are shown in a positive light, Haller (Bad German) is meant to represent the German officer corps.  The other theme is comradeship.  In this respect, the film does not break any new ground and does not compare well to movies like “Platoon”.  The interplay is average in realism.

CONCLUSION:  I bought a DVD copy of “Stalingrad” before I started this blog project and held off watching it until I reached its place on the Greatest 100 list.  This means I had been looking forward to viewing it for over two years.  I had every reason to believe I would enjoy it.  It appeared on the surface to be my kind of war movie.  Plus I am fascinated by the Battle of Stalingrad and have read books on the subject.  I was shocked at how disappointing the movie was.  It is very overrated.  Sources that I trust rated it as a great war movie.  They are wrong!  The best way to prove my point is to compare it to its closest equivalents.  It is absolutely inferior to “Cross of Iron” and “Enemy at the Gates”.  COI is much better at small unit dynamics and has much more vivid characters.  Rollo cannot carry Steiner’s boots.  As far as EATG, the plot is much stronger and the rubble is more rubblier.  Not to mention the female and youth characters are much more compelling.

                I think a case can be made for “Stalingrad” being in the 100 Best War Movies mainly because of its subject matter – a German squad in the Battle of Stalingrad.  However, the execution of the concept is flawed.
POSTER:  The poster does convey the fact that it is hard to distinguish the various characters.  You alos get the impression that it is not the feel good movie of the year.  Grade = B
 
the factory scene
 
the trailer
 
 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

FORGOTTEN GEM? The Hill




           “The Hill” is a British prisoner of war movie released in 1965.  It was directed by Sidney Lumet and stars Sean Connery.  The screenplay is based on a play by R.S. Allen.   It is set in the Libyan desert in a British “glasshouse” which is what British Detention Barracks were called.  British soldiers are sent to these military prisons for various infractions like insubordination and desertion.  They had a reputation for cruelty.  This camp is run by the martinet Sgt. Major Wilson (Harry Andrews) who believes you have to break the inmates before you can remold them into good soldiers.

            The “Hill” is the artificial sand hill in the middle of the camp that is used for punishment.  The movie opens with a soldier carrying a sand bag to the top of the hill, emptying it, fainting in the hot sun, and being carried away as the other inmates drill in the background.  The camera pans away to reveal other soldiers going up the hill.  It’s an intriguing opening.

            A set of five new inmates arrives.  One is a former Sgt. Major Roberts (Connery) who has been convicted of assaulting a superior officer when he was given a suicidal order.  He is one sassy SOB and immediately tangles with the sadistic Staff Sgt. Williams (Ian Hendry).  Williams labels Roberts a coward and targets him for special treatment.  To make matters worse, one of his cellmates (McGrath – Jack Watson) takes a hating towards him.

            Williams also picks on Stevens (Alfred Lynch) because he thinks he’s gay.  He makes him climb the hill with a gas mask on.  In a movie where even the guards are sweating their asses off, this is particularly evil.  Later, Stevens dies in his cell.  The Medical Officer (Michael Redgrave) is a wimp who refuses to stand up to Wilson when he demands he cover up the death.  Wilson realizes Williams is a bad egg, but believes loyalty to his officers is crucial to maintaining order.  On the other hand, Sgt.Harris (Ian Bannen) is humane and the conscience of the camp.

            A mutiny by the men has them chanting “Stevens”.  Wilson stands up to them and by threatening them with capital punishment for mutiny, gets them to back down.  When Roberts steps forward and demands to see the commandant, Williams and two other guards beat him up.

            Eventually, Williams gets what he deserves, but the movie ends with the distinct impression that the feel-good justice will be replaced with severe consequences.

            This is a powerful film.  It is not your standard POW film because the inmates are not technically prisoners of war.  They are more like convicts.  Also, there is no escape planned or executed.  It is basically a character study and an interesting one.  The themes are abuse of authority and the battle of wills.  There is a “power corrupts” vibe to it.  Never give power to flawed personalities like Williams.  You also get the frustration of trying to buck the system as represented by Harris.

            The movie is strong technically.  It won the BAFTA for cinematography.  Oswald Morris shot the film in monochromatic hues.  There are numerous close-ups and odd angles.  Morris uses quick cuts and some hand-held.  The screenplay has some good dialogue (although I couldn’t always understand those limey accents).  Connery gets some witty lines.  The characters are varied and fleshed out.  The acting is top notch.  This was Connery’s first big non-Bond role and he proves he will not be type-cast.  The rest of the cast is very strong.  Ossie Davis scores as an unstable prisoner who eventually appears before the CO in just his underwear.  Kudos to Lumet for making a movie with no likeable characters. 

            Although not based on a true story and not your standard POW film, “The Hill” deserves a place among the best of this subgenre.  It accurately portrays the brutality of the “glasshouse” system and gives the audience a look back to when physical abuse of soldiers to make men out of them was standard procedure. 
 
Grade =  B+