Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Deer Hunter (4) vs. The Green Berets (13)



VS.
 
 
 




ACTING
It would be hard to find a Vietnam War movie with a better cast than “The Deer Hunter” although a couple of the stars (Walken and Streep) were early in their careers. Walken deserved the Best Supporting Actor award he won. He is absolutely amazing. DeNiro anchors the film although the film is something of an ensemble effort. He earned a Best Actor nomination. John Cazales is his usual solid self in what was sadly his last role. Streep clearly shows why she became a superstar. There is not a weak performance to be found. A+

“The Green Berets” is a John Wayne movie, ‘nuff said. Wayne plays Wayne and this is the movie that cemented his reputation as the iconic American warrior as far as Vietnam grunts were concerned. Wayne is pretty subdued and does not dominate, which may have been a mistake because the rest of the cast is weak. David Janssen embarrasses himself as the cynical newsman. He spends most of his scenes with his chin on his neck. Jim Hutton is almost as bad as the stereotype scrounger and comic relief. The rest of the cast is low rent with exception of the super cool Aldo Ray as a tough sergeant. C

FIRST QUARTER SCORE
The Deer Hunter = 10
The Green Berets = 7


PLOT

“The Deer Hunter” is different than all the other movies in the tournament. The plot is divided into three parts. The first is an extended wedding sequence that establishes the main characters and the steel town atmosphere they are leaving to go to the Nam. In Vietnam, they are scarred in different ways by a stint as VC prisoners. Two of them return home to a world they no longer fit in while the third remains in Saigon playing Russian roulette. The themes are hammered in. War impacts not just the warriors. There are different types of wounds – physical and mental. Cimino comments on working class patriotism and male bonding in a knowing way. B

“The Green Berets” is essentially a Western set in the East. Wayne’s Col. Kirby heads off to S. Vietnam with a Green Beret unit and is charged with defending a strategic hamlet / base camp. Newsman Beckworth is in tow to evolve from dove to hawk. The film features an Alamo-like defense of the camp and a behind enemy lines mission to kidnap a VC general. Numerous clichés are thrown in to hammer the theme that the Communists are taking. D

HALF TIME SCORE
The Deer Hunter = 18
The Green Berets = 13


COMBAT

“The Deer Hunter” has very little combat in it so it is hard to judge this aspect of the film. I almost did not put it in the tournament for this reason, but I could not leave out one of the seminal Vietnam War movies and a movie that won Best Picture. If we stretch to call the scenes where Mike, Nick, and Steven are forced to play Russian roulette combat scenes, we do get one spectacular scene where Mike engineers the trio’s escape. I’m going to have to go with a default C in this category. C

“The Green Berets” certainly has a higher quantity of combat. The VC assault on the camp is one of the longest battle scenes in the tournament. It’s basically your human wave variety similar to what you see in “Siege of Firebase Gloria” and just as laughable in spots. There’s a very fake helicopter crash and an equally faux tower collapse. The enemy deaths are rote and the American deaths are melodramatic. Just like in a Western, the cavalry arrives in the form of Puff the Magic Dragon with its Gatling guns. Any red-blooded American commie-hater got his fill of action from the film and the movie was popular partly because of the combat. C

THIRD QUARTER SCORE
The Deer Hunter = 25
The Green Berets = 20


REALISM

“The Deer Hunter” is bipolar when it comes to realism because the home front scenes seem true to the environment of a steel town in Pennsylvania and the Greek Orthodox culture. The trio that go off to war are all volunteers and patriotic. The movie reflects the attitudes of the “silent majority” through the first half of the war. The movie vividly contrasts their relationships with family and friends from before they leave to when they come back. On the other hand, the scenes in Vietnam have little foundation in reality. There is no evidence that the VC forced prisoners to play Russian roulette. It makes for great drama, but is ahistorical. Also the time frame is completely messed up. Nick would have been playing the game for years before Mike finds him. That’s some incredible luck. C

“The Green Berets” is a realistic view of the war if you are looking at it with hawkish glasses on and the year is 1968. If not, it is a anti-commie, pro-Saigon propaganda piece. It is as realistic as a 1940s Western. In fact, it is a 1940s Western! Hell, the camp is nicknamed “Dodge City”. I’m no fan or apologist for the VC, but they get trashed unfairly in this movie. They are punji-staking, booby-trapping, civilian-torturing, ugly-ass, barbarians. Oh, and they kill the cute little mascots dog! With that said, the big battle is not too far from an assault by VC forces in a Tet Offensive scenario. As far as the mission to kidnap the VC general, give me a break! It does give us the hilarious visual of Wayne escaping in a French Citroen. D

FINAL SCORE
The Deer Hunter = 32
The Green Berets = 26


ANALYSIS

I have to admit that I had not seen “The Green Berets” since it came out. I had avoided it partly because of the incredibly bad reputation it has acquired over the years. It has one of the iconic bad movie moments with the sun sinking in the east in the final shot. On second viewing, it is not as bad as its reputation. There are some LOL moments, but overall it is a decent Western that makes the mistake of trying to be historical and relevant to the concurrent events it covers. It also takes an untenable position on the nature of the war. “The Deer Hunter” is on the other end of the spectrum. It is art! Flawed art. Slightly bloated art. It deserved the Best Picture award and you would have to be Rush Limbaugh to think “The Green Berets” should have won this match.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

PLATOON (5) vs. SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA (12)




VS.
 
 



 

ACTING
            The”Platoon” ensemble is of up-and-comers and they show great promise. Sheen evinces the proper naivete and eventual loss of innocence as Taylor. The showier roles of Elias and Barnes are nailed by Dafoe and Barnes (both of whom were nominated for Best Supporting Actor). Special mention to the two most loathsome characters: Dillon as the psychopath Bunny and John McGinley as the ass-kisser O’Neill. All of them went through Dale Dye’s boot camp and their performances reflect immersion over the usual emoting. They are not playing soldier, they seem to be soldiers.  A+

                ‘’Siege of Firebase Gloria” is basically a two man show.  R. Lee Ermey has his first starring role, coming off of “Apocalypse Now” the year before.  This time he has to act as he is not playing a drill sergeant.  He still has a way with soldier talk and the profanity that goes with it.  He got an uncredited screenplay nod so you can assume he wrote some of his dialogue.  He carries the movie.  Unfortunately, his peer Wings Hauser performs like the B-List actor that he is.  He chews the faux Vietnamese scenery as the unstable DiNardo.  The rest of the cast is no names who did not earn career boosts for their efforts.  C

FIRST QUARTER SCORE
Platoon                                     10
Siege of Firebase Gloria          7

PLOT
            “Platoon” is based on Oliver Stone’s experiences in Vietnam about midway through U.S. involvement.  The plot centers around a dysfunctional platoon and its antagonistic sergeants Barnes and Elias.  Each sergeant has half of the platoon as his acolytes.  The platoon is divided between Barnes’ boozer hawks and Elias’ doper doves.  The pressures of the unit dynamics and the stress of the guerrilla war they are engaged in leads to some tense moments in the field and in camp.  Besides the dramatically enhanced group interactions, the film includes some edge of your seat combat.  Stone is not subtle in advancing his themes, but the screenplay is effective as entertainment and is educational about the soldier experience.  A

                “Siege” is basically a retelling of the Alamo.  It is set at the beginning of the Tet Offensive.  Hafner, DiNardo, and their LRRP end up in the titular firebase just before a major VC assault.  Hafner takes command and organizes the last stand.  Meanwhile, the film gives balanced treatment toward the VC commander.  There is plenty of mindless action in the form of human wave attacks.  The screenplay is your typical “who will survive?” scenario and is predictable, but not embarrassingly executed.  C

HALFTIME SCORE
Platoon                                     19
Siege of Firebase Gloria        14

COMBAT
            “Platoon” has several set pieces that are among the best of any Vietnam War movie.  Major kudos for reenacting night combat so viscerally.  Although night actions were fairly common in Vietnam, you seldom see them in movies.  The combat scenes do an excellent job not lumping all the characters together.  They remain individuals.  If you compare the last battle to the last assault on Firebase Gloria, it is amply clear which movie handled combat better.  A

                “Siege” has more combat, so it tops “Platoon” in quantity.  There are three “Zulu” type assaults that are long and bloody. They lack subtlety, but the movie was not aimed at the art house crowd.  As usual in this kind of film, the slaughter is enough for several real battles.  The quantity is not matched with quality as the extras often die laughably.  All the various ways to kill and be killed are explored, including death by machete.  B

THIRD QUARTER SCORE
Platoon                                     28
Siege of Firebase Gloria        22

REALISM
            Although Stone oversold his film as the realistic take on the war, it is clear that the movie’s platoon is not typical of a small unit in Vietnam.  However, all of the characters and situations were typical of the war in general.  The tactics are true to the American army in the war.  The movie has been criticized for depicting the soldiers in a bad light, but my reading of oral histories assures me the negative actions and portrayals were justified because they did exist.  The soldier behavior, the lingo, the command dynamics are probably the best tutorial on the war that have been put on film.  B

                “Siege” benefits from a realistic portrayal of leadership by R. Lee Ermey.  However, much of the film is over the top in its coverage of the war.  The firebase is authentic looking, but much of the soldier behavior is ridiculous.  The original commander (before Hafner has him fragged) is a naked drug addict.  DiNardo is a psychopath prone to violating the rules of warfare.  There is a night raid on the enemy camp that defies reality.  The movie attempts to be sympathetic towards the VC, but does them a disservice in its depiction of human wave assaults in broad daylight.  If the same had been done in their preferred milieu of night, the firebase would have been overrun early.  The sporadic use of mortars by the enemy also does not match their tactics.  Only people like me care about stuff like this, but its my tournament    D

FINAL SCORE

Platoon                  36
Siege                       29

ANALYSIS
            “Siege of Firebase Gloria” has its fans and my second viewing of it made me reconsider my previous very harsh opinion of it.  It is a decent little movie and far from the worst movie about the war.  However, while it can be forgiven for emphasizing entertaining action aimed at the 14 year old boy demographic, it has to take some grief for making a mockery of realism and characters.  If the film did not have R. Lee Ermey, it would be totally forgettable.  This matchup was never in doubt.  “Platoon” is the superior film in every way other than quantity of combat.  There might be some who would disagree with the outcome because they hate “Platoon”, but no one can seriously argue that “Siege” is the better movie.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

84 Charlie Mopic (7) vs. We Were Soldiers (10)



 
VS.
 
 
 



ACTING
                “84 Charlie Mopic” is a low budget movie that has actors it could afford.  A couple of the cast went on to moderately successful TV careers and several were in “84 Charlie Mopic”.  All things considered, the guys do an excellent job.  Each does a good job developing his character and no one drains the momentum in the numerous moments when it’s just the camera and them.  The facial reactions (it is an intimate movie) are especially impressive.  Standouts are Nicholas Cascone as the impish RTO and Richard Brooks as the hard core OD.  This movie does death scenes well.  A

                “We Were Soldiers” is dominated by Mel Gibson as Col. Moore.  This happens to be a good Gibson performance.  He tones it down and does not insist on being tortured.  Sam Elliott has a lot of fun playing the crusty sergeant and injects some welcome humor.  Barry Pepper is solid as the photographer Joe Galloway.  Greg Kinnear is dashing as a helicopter pilot with balls of steel.  The rest of the cast carries water satisfactorily.  The movie stands out among Vietnam War movies in its depiction of the wives of the officers.  Madeline Stowe is excellent as the sorority mom and she is ably supported.  A

FIRST QUARTER SCORE
84 Charlie Mopic               9
We Were Soldiers             9

PLOT  
                “84 Charlie Mopic” is the story of a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol with the twist that the unit is accompanied by a motion picture cameraman referred to as MoPic.  The Army wants a documentary of a typical mission.  To add to the abnormal dynamics, the tightly knit unit (with its tightly wound sergeant OD) has to cope with a green LT hoping to “punch his ticket” to higher command.  The routine mission turns out to be tragically less than routine.  Thank goodness or this would have been a pretty boring mission.  The plot is mostly exposition, but the dialogue flows well.  The action picks up after the characters have been developed to empathy level.  There is a nice buildup to the tense finale with a cool twisty ending.  A

                “We Were Soldiers” is based on the acclaimed book about the first major American battle of the war.  The plot covers the development of the air cavalry concept through training and then plunks the unit into a jungle clearing in “Indian territory”.  They are soon in the middle of a s*** storm.  Its “Zulu” without the buildings and with sympathetic coverage of the enemy.  The movie does a great job of intercutting with the wives back at the base in the States.  The plot follows the book admirably closely with the glaring exception of the ridiculous tacked-on happy Hollywood ending.  The plot also can be criticized for shoe-horning religion into the equation.   B

HALF TIME SCORE
84 Charlie Mopic               18
We Were Soldiers             17

COMBAT
                “84 Charlie Mopic” is really constrained by its low budget when it comes to depiction of combat.  This is partly alleviated by the unique POV perspective.  Although the combat is not balls to the wall, it is realistic to this type of patrol.  It does lead to some very poignant deaths.  B  

                “We Were Soldiers” has some of the most intense action of any Vietnam War movie. We get some breathers once the battle begins. This is welcome because the violence is draining.  Believe it or not, the battle is less frenetic than the actual Battle of Ia Drang.  The tactics of both sides are spot on.  There is no better film for understanding a conventional battle in Vietnam. There’s no surrealism.   Just turn it off before the feel-good ending.  A

THIRD QUARTER SCORE
84 Charlie Mopic               26
We Were Soldiers             26

REALISM
                “84 Charlie Mopic” puts you with a LRRP.  Granted, what is supposed to be a routine mission is far from it.  However, everything that happens could have happened on a mission like this.  The soldier behavior is authentic and the dialogue is not forced.  The dynamics are a strength of the film.  The squad has a bond in spite of their various backgrounds and personalities.  For instance, OD and Cracker are best buddies when in the World they would hardly have been so.  The jocularity of the soldiers is true to American warriors.  The relationship between the rookie LT and OD has been jazzed up but accurately reflects the role of veteran sergeants in leading units and the fact that many officers sought temporary combat to enhance their careers.  A+

                “We Were Soldiers” is a realistic depiction of conventional warfare in Vietnam.  It sticks to the basic facts of an actual battle until it goes off the track in the end.  The movie concentrates on Lt. Col. Moore and he was a technical advisor so we can assume he vetted the command decisions and Gibson’s portrayal.  Although the religiousity is pushy, it does match Moore’s strong faith and reflects the stronger religious beliefs of the Army in 1964.  The lack of cursing by the soldiers is unrealistic in spite of the supposed Kennedyesque innocence of the enlistees.  The movie saved the R material for the bloodshed.  Kudos to the realistic coverage of Moore’s Vietnamese counterpart Col. Anh.  The realism breaks down at the end when the movie sends a message that belies its theme that America was in for a load of trouble in Vietnam.  B

FINAL SCORE
84 Charlie Mopic     36
We Were Soldiers   34

ANALYSIS

                This was an awesome match-up for an opening round duel.  It is a shame one of them has to exit the tournament this early.  The films could not have been more different.  WWS is big budget, with an all-star cast, and covers an entire battle.  84 CM is small budget, no-name cast, and covers one mission.  Both do a great job achieving their cinematic goals.  WWS is a bit heavy-handed in parts and is hurt by the atrocious ending bayonet charge.  Contrast that with the unpredictable and somber ending of 84CM and you can see why it deserved to win.  Sometimes smaller is better, especially when smaller is the underdog.  Both movies are great history lessons, but you can read a book about the Battle of Ia Drang to get the historical facts whereas 84CM puts you in the boots of the soldiers.
 
 
 
watch the winner!
 
 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

THE BOYS IN COMPANY C (11) vs. CASUALTIES OF WAR (6)



VS.
 
 



If you are new to the tournament, go to the opening post.

ACTING“The Boys in Company C” is an ensemble movie with a B-list cast of actors who probably thought they would become household names. Dream big, baby. The movie is dominated in the first 37 minutes by R. Lee Ermey as the Drill Sergeant in charge of training a motley crew of stock characters. Since the film was largely forgotten when it came out (including by Stanley Kubrick), people think Ermey was discovered for “Full Metal Jacket”. He is doing the same “acting” in this film. He is excellent, of course. However, the rest of the actors are embarrassingly bad. You would think it was their first movie. Several of the performances are grating, especially Andrew Stevens as Pike and Michael Lembeck (son of Harvey from “Stalag 17”) who plays the caricatured Italian wise-guy from Brooklyn. Argggh! D

“Casualties of War” has a much better cast. Michael J. Fox does an outstanding job playing the naïve, moralistic Eriksson. John C. Reilly (his first film), Don Patrick Harvey (playing his usual typecast bad guy), and John Leguizama (his second role) are solid. Thuy Thu Le is remarkable as the doomed Oanh (it was her only acting credit). Plus we get the bonus of Dale Dye in a fiery take on ass-covering brass. The only problem is the scene-chewing of Sean Penn as Sgt. Meserve. The performance has been praised, but not by me. His hammy portrayal of the villain is distracting. His emoting of faux grunt slang is the worst thing about the movie. Imagine a movie where he is the weak link in a cast with three comedians in their first substantial dramatic roles. A

FIRST QUARTER SCORE

Boys in Company C = 6
Casualties of War = 9


PLOT

“The Boys in Company C” covers a heterogeneous unit from boot camp to vignettes in Vietnam culminating in a soccer match. The plot is cliché-ridden and predictable. The characters are all stereotypes (the hippie, the ghetto drug dealer, the writer, the athlete, the ladies’ man). It’s painful to watch bad actors playing time-worn characters. The incidents in the movie are progressively ridiculous, culminating in the egregious soccer match. Every scene in the film has been done better in other films. F

“Casualties of War” is based on a true incident involving the rape and murder of a Vietnamese girl by a long range patrol. One member (Fox’s Eriksson) did not participate and was instrumental in bringing on a court-martial. It is a powerful tale well told. The movie is actually weakest in the set-up which attempts to establish the nature of the war and is too truncated in the trial phase, but the mission is the centerpiece and is strong. The theme of war’s corrupting influence and the moral that you must not compromise your principles are advanced efficiently. B

HALF TIME SCORE

Boys in Company C = 12
Casualties of War = 17


COMBAT

“Boys” is sometimes lauded for being one of the better Vietnam War movies and praised for its realism in reflecting the soldier experience. The combat scenes have some fair action, but they are Hollywood’s idea of Vietnam combat. We get the convoy ambush, patrol ambush, and the search and destroy mission. Lots of blanks are fired (from M-16s with banana clips) and there are plenty of explosions. All the unused ordnance is literally thrown in at the end to tack on a war is terrible theme. C

“Casualties” is not designed to be a combat movie and it shows. This is De Palma’s only war movie and he does not stage combat well. In the opening scene (which is a night ambush) Eriksson is sent out by himself to lock down a flank with a grenade launcher in the thick foliage! (Next time we see him he has a M-16. Good editing!) This is all to set up a ridiculous tunnel episode used for Meserve to save Eriksson’s life. (This is followed by Merserve referring to the ambush as a “mad f****** minute” – one of several of the inaccurate uses of slang in the movie.) The show piece of the latter half of the film is the assault on a VC base camp. The five man squad wipe out a much larger enemy force with the help of naval and air support. In the midst of the bells and whistles, we get a wrenching death. C

THIRD QUARTER SCORE

Boys in Company C = 18
Casualties of War = 24


REALISM

“Boys” is illogical and laughable. Once we get to Vietnam, the movie degenerates into a series of vignettes that are all ridiculous. A soldier steps on a mine in a rice paddy. A character plans to send dope back to the States in body bags. A general’s trailer is blown up with a claymore. And don’t get me started on the soccer game. These guys (who have never played soccer and do not practice) are competitive against a talented Vietnamese squad. Hey, American audience, soccer is so easy anyone can play it! D

“Casualties” is a pretty accurate rendition of the book it is based on. I have read the book so I can vouch for the realism of the film. The only major revision is with the attack on the base camp. No surprise that in reality the body count was much lower in reality. And no war-mongering Americans met ironic deaths in the process. Also, I would hazard that the complete lack of noise discipline for a long range patrol is a bit off. Sadly, the atrocity is not only factual, but not unrealistic. As far as Michael J. Fox playing a soldier, I won’t get into that. B

FINAL SCORE

Boys in Company C = 24
Casualties of War = 32


ANALYSIS:

“Boys” is highly thought of in some circles. It was the first significant post-war movie. It did poorly at the box office and some blame this on Americans not being ready for this type of film. And yet, the very next year marked the boom in Vietnam War films – starting with “The Deer Hunter” and “Apocalypse Now”. Obviously it did not flop because of the timing. It did poorly because it sucks. Compare it to “Go Tell the Spartans” (which came out the next year). “Casualties” is superior in every way and it is not an outstanding movie. It is significant and has a worthy cause. It also did not do well financially which proves that the public was not ready for dirty laundry as much as it did not want to see war as a farce.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

MARCH MADNESS 2014: Vietnam War Movies


 
 
vs.
 


                This year’s March Madness tournament is to determine the best Vietnam War movie.  In order to fairly judge the competitors, I limited the field to movies that have some combat in them.  This left out films like “Coming Home” and other mainly home front films.  Some other logical choices like “Rumor of War” were left out because I have no easy, legal access to them.  The seeding is based on their Rotten Tomatoes rating.  If they are too obscure to have a rating, I used my best judgment to seed them.  Here is the bracket:

1 -   Hamburger Hill

16 -  Under Heavy Fire


9 -   Go Tell the Spartans

8 -   Bat-21

 
4 -   The Deer Hunter

13 -  The Green Berets

 
12 -  Siege of Firebase Gloria

5 -    Platoon

 
5 -   Apocalypse Now

15 – The Tunnel Rats

 
10 -  We Were Soldiers

7 -    84 Charlie Mopic

 
3 -   Full Metal Jacket

14 -  Platoon Leader

 
11 -  Boys in Company C

6 -    Casualties of War

As usual, each matchup is divided into four quarters with each quarter being a different category where the film is judged on a scale of 1-10.  By the way, to prepare for the tournament I read the excellent book “Red Thunder, Black Lightning” by Eric Bergerud.  It is a study of the experiences of American soldiers in Vietnam concentrating on the 25th Infantry Division (the unit portrayed in “Platoon”).  There is a lot of oral history in it.  I also watched “The Anderson Platoon” documentary.  Although I have read extensively on Vietnam War fiction and nonfiction, I wanted to be on as solid ground as possible in analyzing how realistic the movies are.

Let the tournament begin and may the best film win!

Bat-21  (9)  vs.  Go Tell the Spartans  (8)

ACTING:

                “Bat-21” is based on the true story of the rescue of a downed SAM countermeasure expert in the closing days of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.  It is essentially a two actor movie with Gene Hackman playing Lt. Col. Hambleton and Danny Glover playing FAC Lt. Clark.  When Hambleton parachutes into enemy territory, Clark in his Skymaster (a propeller plane used for forward air control) maintains contact with him and aids in his rescue.  The two leads are their usual dependable selves although the characters are stock.  Hambleton is the REMF who wants a taste of action and Clark is the underappreciated, but dedicated trooper.  Jerry Reed has a good turn as Clark’s commanding officer who has to juggle common sense caution with the desire to turn Clark loose.  The rest of the cast is adequate with a grating performance by David Grant as Clark’s dauntless search and rescue chopper buddy.  B

                “Go Tell the Spartans” is a fictional tale of American military advisers in 1964.  A squad of Americans are ordered to take a small force of ARVN and local militia to garrison a supposedly strategic outpost in the middle of enemy territory.  The acting is a mixed bag.  A 65 year old Burt Lancaster, who was fully invested in the project (literally), has one of his best performances as the weary and cynical Lt. Col. Barker.  He dominates the movie.  The rest of the cast is an ensemble of thought-they-would-bes.  The performances vary from cringe-inducing to sincere, but forgettable.  Craig Wasson does a much better job one year removed from “The Boys in Company C” as the idealistic draftee that goes native.  C 

FIRST QUARTER:

Bat-21                                    8                             

Go Tell the Spartans           7

PLOT

                “Bat-21” is based on the remarkably resource intense, but wasteful rescue of Lt. Col. Hambleton.  The plot is very predictable.  You never doubt Hambleton will survive and Clark will be responsible for his rescue almost singlehandedly.  There is a character that is dead meat from the moment he enters.  The movie features the tired old trope of the brass holding back the seasoned vet (Clark).  Although surprisingly accurate in spots, the movie has the feel of implausibility throughout.  It has some good action and lots of low budget pyrotechnics.  The plot is obviously designed to evoke admiration for the spirit of American soldiers and does not question the war.  C

                “Go Tell the Spartans” is based on a novel entitled “Incident at Muc Wa”.  Although fictional, the plot fits American involvement in Vietnam in 1964.  The plot is cynical and anti-war.  Of course, in 1978 hindsight was easy, but the plot does accurately reflect the quagmire we were entering.  The ending is predictable, but the route to get there is not.  The movie deftly juggles the headquarters scenes with the scenes at the outpost.  B

HALFTIME SCORE

Bat-21                                    15

Go Tell the Spartans            15

COMBAT
 
                “Bat-21” has a surprising amount of action considering it is basically a rescue movie.  For example, Hambleton is forced to kill a civilian.  The big set piece involves two helicopters and a “deserted” ville that is laying in wait for them.  We get the unique view of a chopper dropping mines, which figure in the death of a main character, of course.  Much of the combat consists of air strikes by a Skymaster firing rockets and two F-5s (doing a poor imitation of F-4 Phantoms) dropping bombs they clearly do not have.  With that said, the film is much more a study of search and rescue than a film about combat in Vietnam.  D

                “Go Tell the Spartans” is low budget so the combat reflects this.  It does have more action than most Vietnam War movies.  There are a couple of night patrols that result in ambushes.  There is a big night assault by the Viet Cong on the outpost that expends a lot of blanks and explosions.  Air support is brought in.  It was too dark for me to tell if the fighters were actually carrying bombs.  The battle results in the usual extremely high percentage of dead to simply wounded.  There is also a melee as the survivors try to break out of the surrounded outpost.  C

 THIRD QUARTER SCORE

Bat-21                                    21

Go Tell the Spartans            22

REALISM
 
                For a movie based on a true story that is packed with the potential to be a great movie, “Bat-21” fumbles the premise by throwing in the usual Hollywood bull crap.  In order to concentrate on the relationship between Hambleton and Clark (which in reality did not exist), the movie gets overly melodramatic and features long dialogues presumably to give the enemy time to zero in on the transmissions.  Surprisingly, the movie tones down the effort to rescue Hambleton.  In reality, the military went to extraordinary measures to rescue downed air men and his is a classic case.  C

                “Go Tell the Spartans” is the most realistic take on the military advisers’ stage of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.  The characters may be stereotypes, but the scenario is true to the hair-pulling nature of the war.  For example, Barker has to bribe a corrupt ARVN general to get artillery support.  His commanding officer orders him to garrison an untenable location, confident that Americans can’t lose.  The movie is excellent in depicting the confusion of who the enemy was.  There is even a humorous dig at the McNamara-inspired use of statistics to determine enemy intentions.  The downbeat ending is realistic considering the situation.  B

FINAL SCORE

Bat – 21                                28

Go Tell the Spartans          30

ANALYSIS
 
            This was an interesting matchup between two movies set at opposite ends of the American experience in Vietnam.  The tone is also totally the opposite.  “Bat-21” is extolling the spirit of the American warrior and the comradeship of our soldiers.  Its central theme is how we would do almost anything to rescue our own.  It is an optimistic film.  “Go Tell the Spartans” has a cynical, we should have known better attitude.  Considering the nature of the war, it is more true to the war than “Bat-21”.  Simply put, “Go Tell the Spartans” is a better and certainly more important Vietnam War movie.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

CLASSIC or ANTIQUE? The 300 Spartans (1962)


 
               Now that I have seen and reviewed "300:  Rise of an Empire",  I thought it would be appropriate to review the movie that inspired Frank Miller to create the graphic novel.  “The 300 Spartans” was made with the cooperation of the Greek government which provided 5,000 soldiers.  The film was shot near the site of Thermopylae.  It was directed by Rudolph Mate.  It was his only war movie.

                The credits roll over shots of the Acropolis.  The Persian Emperor Xerxes (David Farrar) marches into Greece with a variety of units.  A captured Greek spy sasses Xerxes about freedom versus slavery.  Cold War analogy.  A Greek traitor named Demaratus is an advisor to the Emperor.  He is also accompanied by a Greek queen named Artemisia (Anna Synodinou).  She is more than just an advisor, if you get my drift. 


Artemisia and Xerxes plotting
                The Greeks are meeting at Corinth to discuss the invasion.  Themistocles (Ian Richardson) argues for unity.  When a foe quotes the first Delphic prediction about blood running from the roofs, Themistocles counters with the second prediction referring to the “wooden walls”.  Later Themistocles and Leonidas (Richard Egan) discuss strategy using a model of Greece.  The Spartans will hold at the mountain pass of Thermopylae and Themistocles will bring the fleet.  Unfortunately, the Spartan council refuses to allow the Spartan army to go to war during a religious festival.  Leonidas defies them by taking his bodyguard of 300 men.   

                Phyllon (Barry Coe) is the son of a traitor, but engaged to the niece of Queen Gorgos of Sparta.  He wants to prove himself, but Leonidas refuses to take him along because of his father and to set up a redemption arc.  Phyllon and Ellas (Diane Baker) tag along.  The Spartans are joined by 700 Thespians.  The Greeks arrive at the pass and begin to fortify it.

                Leonidas leads a surprise night attack on Xerxes camp.  Phyllon sneaks into the group to begin his redemption.  They catch Xerxes with his pants down as he is canoodling with Artemisia.  As a result of the ass-whipping,  Xerxes executes all the camp followers to motivate his men.  Meanwhile, Leonidas gets the unwelcome news that the Spartan army will not be coming.  They are on their own.

                In the first Persian assault, the infantry advances in lines and the Spartans await in lines.  The Persian cavalry attacks through the infantry and the Spartan front line ducks!  The horsemen are trapped between the first and second lines and a melee results.  After this initial fight, Leonidas meets with Xerxes second in command.  “Our arrows will blot out the sun.”  Leonidas:  “Then we will fight in the shade.” 

                On day two the Persians send in chariots which are dealt with by archers and javelinmen.  Next it’s the Immortals with their wicker shields and short spears.  The Spartans fight in a phalanx.  Phyllon has pretended to be dead and then sets fire to hay behind the Immortals.  War epics love fire!

the Spartan phalanx
                A Greek traitor named Ephialtes visits Xerxes to tell him of a goat path to get behind the Spartans.  Leonidas sends Phyllon back to Sparta to inform them of the situation.  The Thespians stay thinking they will become famous for their sacrifice.  Oops!  Note the title of the movie.

                Spoiler alert if you are so ignorant that you don’t know the outcome of the battle.  Xerxes leads the final attack in his white chariot (shouldn’t it be black?).  Leonidas advances in a wedge shape.  Leonidas is killed and the remnants carry his body to a hill and form a circle around the corpse.  Xerxes offers them their lives if they give up the body.  They prefer a barrage of arrows.  Remember Thermopylae!

                I was pleasantly surprised at how accurate “The 300 Spartans” is.  You get the basic facts about the battle from the film, but a lot of the details are fudged.  The background is the strongest section.  Xerxes did march into Greece with a huge multi-ethnic army.  Greeks like Themistocles did view the struggle as freedom versus slavery (as posited by Herodotus).  The main characters are based on actual personages and are not caricatures.  Their relationships are Hollywoodized.  There is no evidence that Artemisia and Xerxes had an affair, but it is not beyond possible.  Themistocles and Leonidas did not meet to discuss strategy, but the strategy discussed is fairly close to what actually happened.  The movie does an admirable job fitting in the most famous quotes from Herodotus.  For example, the “fight in the shade” line.

                The movie veers away from history and military sense in the battle itself.  The raid on the Persian camp was crap, of course.  But necessary to redeem Phyllon.  There is no record of Xerxes killing the camp followers.  The battle is laughable in its tactics.  The narrowness of the pass did not lend itself to lines of infantry.  Plus the Spartans would have been in a phalanx anyway.  Given the nature of the terrain there would have been no use of cavalry or chariots by the Persians.  The Immortals are accurately dressed, but the Spartans look like legionaries.  The fire surprise is pure bull shit, just as it was in “Spartacus” and “Braveheart”.  The role and motivation of Ephialtes is fine and certainly closer to the truth than in “300”.  Xerxes may have had a white chariot, but he did not participate in the battle.  The death of Leonidas is as per Herodotus.  Overall I would give the film a C for accuracy. 

Leonidas is the dude on the right with the Roman helmet
                “The 300 Spartans” is surprisingly not sucky.  Egan and Richardson do a good acting job, but the rest of the cast is low rate, especially the females.  However, nobody embarrasses themselves.  The romantic subplot is lame and perfunctory.  The dialogue is average, but gets points for borrowing from the ancient sources.  It was cool hearing the famous quotes.  Although the tactics are shaky, the action is pretty good.  The hand to hand is well done and the deaths are not laughable.

                “The 300 Spartans” is a fun companion to “300”.  It is entertaining in an early 1960’s B-movie sort of way.  Watching it and then comparing it to “300” could not be a bigger contrast between an Old School war movie and whatever the Hell “300” is. 

 

Grade =  C