BACK-STORY: “Soldier of Orange” is a Paul Verhoeven (“Black Book” and “Starship Troopers”) film about the Dutch Resistance in WWII. It is based on the autobiography by Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema. It was the most expensive Dutch movie up until then and was their most popular movie in 1977. It was nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film.
OPENING: The film opens with a blend of real and faux newsreel footage of Queen Wilhelmina returning to a liberated Netherlands in 1945. At her side is her aide Erik Lanshof (Rutger Hauer) .
SUMMARY: The movie follows a group of frat boys during WWII. It opens in the city of Leiden in 1938. The main characters are introduced via a wild frat party at a night club. Erik is pledging and undergoes the Dutch version of hazing. The frat president Guus (Jeroen Krabbe) makes him sing a song and then pours soup on his head followed by braining him with the soup tureen. What an a-hole! First blood – ten minutes in. This bodes well. The next day Guus apologizes to Erik and a fast friendship begins. Erik goes to live in the frat house and the core group develops. Jan is a Jewish boxer, Alex has a German mother, Nico is so anal they call him “Mr. Precise”, Jacques is a serious student, Robby is going steady with a Jewish girl. They are living the frivolous lives of rich college boys.
|who will survive?|
When England declares war on Germany, the boys are interested, but naïve about its potential impact. Erik remarks that “a spot of war would be exciting”. Wish granted. A spot of war entails four days of Nazi ass kicking (off screen aside from a lame bombing scene). Erik and Guus tool around in tails on motorcycles to try to enlist, but too late. Clueless rich guys. Oh well, there’s always the Resistance or collaboration. Pick one.
|Erik and Guus in tails on choppers|
Guus and Erik hatch a hare-brained plan to motorboat to England, but a petrol leak causes a fire and explosion. The comic genius of Verhoeven! The home front begins to get serious as Jan beats up two Gestapo wannabes who were harassing a fellow Jew. Erik allows Jan to take his place on a boat to England, but said boat is intercepted by a German gunboat (there’s a mole!). Jan is taken captive and tortured (briefly but memorably) then guillotined. It turns out clandestine Radio Robby has been turned due to blackmail involving his Jewish fiance Esther.
|Guus, Susan, and Erik|
At this point the boys have all picked sides (except Jacques who has decided to sit the war out). Alex is channeling mommy and has joined the German army where it turns out he is good at his new job. Nico is a Resistance leader. Robby is a collaborator. Jan is headless. Erik and Guus are off to England to spy for the Queen and bed a sexy British secretary Susan (it’s a Verhoeven film so we get some gratuitousness - see above) to Col. Rafelli (Edward Fox!). The British are willing to use the duo for their little spy games.
|Erik and Alex tangoing|
Guus returns to Holland to help Nico and others escape to England. Erik returns to rescue Guus from the trap laid by the compromised Robby. Erik runs into Alex and they do a tango, literally. There is some homoeroticism in the film, but you would have guessed it would have been Erik and Guus dancing. The rescue is botched, but Erik and Guus escape in different directions. Robby gets his in a ride-by shooting by bicyclist Guus. Unfortunately, Guus gets captured and unlike Gerbier in “Army of Shadows”, there’s no miracle escape ensuing. Meanwhile, Alex plays Nazi snob to an urchin and is rewarded with a Vietnam style fragging.
CLOSING: It’s time for a career change for Erik, so he follows his dream to be a pilot by joining the RAF. No training montage. He flies a Mosquito on bombing raids over Germany. It’s faster than a motorcycle, but you can’t wear tails. The Queen has taken a liking to him (but thankfully not in a disrobing way) and makes him her adjutant. He flies her back to the Netherlands to much fanfare. Erik hooks up with collaborator-shorn Esther (they had dabbled a bit during her engagement to Robby). He then reunites with Jacques so we can wonder if sitting out the war wasn’t the shrewdest move of the frat boys.
Acting - C
Action - 6/10
Accuracy - B
Realism - B
Plot - C
Cliches - B
Overall - C+
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Yes. The cast is attractive. The violence is brief and not hard core. There are two female characters that invade the boys club. Their main purpose appears to be to reduce the guyness of the film. It is more balanced than most war films.
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: Having not read the book it is based on, I can’t vouch for much of the film. Erik Hazelhof Roelfzema was a law student at Leiden University when the war broke out. He did join the Resistance. He escaped to England on a freighter along with Bram van der Stok (one of the three escapees from Stalag Luft III of “The Great Escape”). In England, he met the Dutch intelligence chief Gen. Francois van’t Sant (Van der Zanden is modeled after him). I do not know if Roelfzema tried to kill him because he was told he was a traitor.
Roelfzema set up a group of spies called the Mews. Their goal was to make contact with the Dutch underground. The Germans ended up turning many in the Dutch Resistance, but Roelfzema’s superior refused to accept that and they had a falling out. Because of this bad blood, Roelfzema enlisted in the RAF and went to Canada for training in 1942. He returned in 1944 as a Mosquito-flying pathfinder. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. In April, 1945, Queen Wilhelmina tapped him as her adjutant and he returned to Holland with her. The real Roelfzema appears in the newsreel footage shown in the film. Roelfzema wrote Soldat van Oranje in 1970 and it made him a legendary figure in the Netherlands.
It would appear that the movie uses composite characters for Erik’s friends. I also assume many of the vignettes are made up for entertainment purposes.
CRITIQUE: “Soldier of Orange” is proficient entertainment. Verhoeven has an interesting visual style. He likes colorful sets and colorful characters. This is obvious from the beginning with the frat hazing scene. The sets are realistic to wartime Holland and he gets the small touches right. At one point, Erik and Guus encounter some Dutch guards who have them say words with “sch” in them because no German could handle that sound.
The acting is only average. The movie made Hauer a star, but he is nothing special. The supporting cast is competent. Krabbe stands out in the flashiest role. The movie is in some ways a buddy film. I did not find that the rest of the core group was well-developed. Their motives were not explored much. Even Erik and Guus become members of the Resistance for unclear reasons.
The plot is basically a series of vignettes following the frat boys, but mostly focusing on Erik and Guus. The scenes are fun partly because they toy with reality a bit. There is an underlying surrealness to the behavior of some of the characters. Alex and Erik dancing cheek to cheek would be an example. Or is it silliness? The movie has several ridiculous elements. The escapes are routinely unlikely. They are also repetitive.
The movie is technically sound. The cinematography is fine, but not laudatory. Verhoeven does not throw a lot of pizazz at us. The sound track is unobtrusive and does not beat you over the head. It also does little to add to the movie. There are long stretches with no score.
The movie stands out in its even handed treatment of the Dutch home front. Two of the characters go over to the dark side. Robby is the cliched turncoat who does not have the moral courage to stand up to evil. Alex is the cliched douche who revels in the power that comes with the uniform. The movie was controversial in the Netherlands for showing the reality of how the war divided the country. Some were also upset that the film depicted the harsh treatment of Dutch Jews. That treatment was not just by the Nazis. There was quite a bit of anti-semitism in the populace.
“Soldier of Orange” fits comfortably into the small unit, ”who will survive?” subgenre. It is suspenseful in that respect, but a good bit of that suspense is diluted by the opening which specifies that the main character will survive his adventures. This was a perplexing decision on the part of Verhouven. Was it because he wanted to show off the faux-real blend of newsreels? Another perplexing element is the lack of palpable danger in their Resistance escapades. You are not put on the edge of your seat. The torture scenes are truncated and are basically snap shots that your imagination is asked to expand.
CONCLUSION: It took me a while to locate this movie. That is why it is appearing out of sequence. When I first started this project of reviewing all one hundred of the Military History 100 Greatest War Movies, it stood out as one of the few on the list that I had never heard of. It was also one of the minority that I had never seen. For those reasons, I was looking forward to watching it. The long wait added to the buildup. Plus, it is #28 on the list.
I have to say, the movie was very disappointing. As I have approached the top of the list, it has become increasingly rare for a movie to hold a head-scratching position on the list. However, the panel really got #28 wrong. There is nothing special about “Soldier of Orange”. It may be based on a remarkable man, but it is definitely not a remarkable movie. I realize I am flying in the face of virtually all the experts and I did read several very positive reviews that left me questioning my sanity, but in the end I decided to stick with my gut and not compromise my reviewing by forcing myself to join the crowd.
First, there are many Resistance movies that did not make the list and are superior to it. Hell, Verhoeven’s “Black Book” is better in every way. So are “Flame and Citron” and “Army of Crime” to mention two similar films. Although I am not a fan of “Army of Shadows”, if the panel wanted a critically overrated example of the subgenre anyone could make a stronger case for it. Second, who in their right mind could place “Soldier of Orange” ahead of “The Deer Hunter” (#29)?
the tango scene
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