Saturday, May 30, 2015

BOOK / MOVIE: King Rat (1962 / 1965)

   
          

                “King Rat” was the first novel by James Clavell.  It is set in the Changi Prison Camp in Singapore in WWII.  The camp holds British, Canadians, Australians, and a few Americans.  Clavell had been a prisoner in the camp and the Peter Marlowe character is based on him.  The book was published in 1962.  The movie was released in 1965 and was directed by Bryan Forbes.  Forbes wrote the screenplay with Clavell.  Earlier I reviewed the movie and now I am comparing the movie to the novel.

                The movie is about survival in a Japanese prison camp.  The main character is an American corporal named King (George Segal) who is not just surviving like most of the enlisted men, but is actually thriving because he is a talented black marketeer and amoral.  He is well-dressed and well-fed and has a gang of Americans in his hut on his payroll.  Everyone calls him “the King”.  He also has bribed several of the camp leaders to look the other way.  His nemesis is the Provost Marshall Lt. Grey (Tom Courtenay).  Grey is a lower class Brit that is obsessed with catching King breaking the camp rules against profiting while others are suffering.  The movie becomes something of a buddy film when King strikes up a relationship with an upper class RAF pilot named Marlowe (James Fox).  Marlowe agrees to act as King’s interpreter in his deals with the guards since he speaks Malay.  He is unlike King’s other toadies because he is not interested in the largesse that King shares with them.  He is instead attracted to the charismatic King and intrigued by his “every man for himself” philosophy.  The two develop a friendship as Marlowe is corrupted by the unadulterated American capitalism of King.  King is intrigued by a man who is not interested in his money and has an upper class sheen to him.  At one point he even saves Marlowe’s life, although it is unclear what his motives are.  Meanwhile, Grey is in hot pursuit of both of them and the Japanese are hunting for clandestine radios.  We also learn that while King uses his talents to his advantage, some of the British Majors and Colonels are using their status to their advantage.

                The movie tracks the book very closely and much of the dialogue in the book appears in the film.  All the characters in the movie appear in the book and the roles are untampered with.  All of the major incidents in the movie are straight from the novel.  Nothing significant was added in the movie.  Naturally the novel has some subplots and characters that the movie does not include partly because of time constraints.  For instance, the book has a subplot involving a friend of Marlowe’s named Sean who has found his calling as a transvestite actor in the camp plays.  He comes to believe that he is a girl.  (I wonder why that subplot was left out of the movie.  lol)  Also, in the book, King and Marlowe sneak out of the camp and visit a local village to conduct some business.  There are even some women involved.  (The movie does not have a single woman in it.)

                The book differs from the movie mainly in depth.  The movie confines itself mainly to the King character and Marlowe’s reactions to him.  Although the movie delves into whether King has any redeeming virtues, he is more multi-dimensional in the book.  The friendship is much more developed in the book.  There is a strong bond between the two.  In the book it is clearer that King saves Marlowe’s life because he cares for him.  The book is also less enigmatic about the effects King has on Marlowe.  There is a key passage in the book where Marlowe justifies to himself making a profit on a solo deal.

                The novel spends more time highlighting the social distinctions within the camp in general and the British army in particular.  Grey despises Marlowe because of who he is more than who he is associated with.  He is embittered by England’s rigid class structure.  The novel also has the luxury to spend more time focusing in on the corruption of the brass.  It seems clear that Clavell knew someone like King when he was a prisoner.  But it is also clear that he had some anger towards the upper officers.  Both the movie and the book ask the question whether King or the brass were more evil.  It could be argued that the hypocrisy of the camp leadership made them more loathsome.  One thing you can say about King, he did not hide his avarice.  Another aspect that the book pushes is the difference between American culture and British culture.  Clavell’s King represents American capitalism at its worst.  Or best.  If you are a Republican, King is a hero.

                My theory is that a movie should be better than the book it is based on.  The movie makers have the advantage of making improvements on the source material.  In this case, it is not clear that the movie is an improvement.  What we have is the symbiotic relationship that can exist between a movie and its source material.      The movie does not have the time or desire to cover all of the themes in the book.  What the screenwriter retains is very close to the book and seeing a stellar cast bring life to the characters is neat.  “King Rat” works best if you watch the movie first and not vice versa.  The book fills in some of the gaps and explains little details that might go unnoticed in the film.  For instance, you learn why the doctor seems too rude towards his aide.

                In conclusion, in this case I will say that the book is superior to the movie.  The reason for this opinion is you get the plot and characters from the movie plus more.  More is usually better.

BOOK  =  B

MOVIE  =  B-

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

LIVE: Mission Over Korea (1953)


               
                Dedicated to the 8th Army, 5th Air Force, and the South Korean Army  /  filmed at several sites in S Korea  /  the cast includes Maureen O’Hara and Harvey Lembeck!  /  story by Richard Tregaskis of “Guadalcanal Diary” fame  /  “This is an L-5… a small boy with a .22 could shoot it down” – this is its story (so this is the movie that started the subgenre of L-5 movies)  /  mascot kid named Clancy (not Short Round)  /  actors emoting in front of screens with the footage behind them (you don’t think the cast went to S Korea, did you?)  /  Lembeck plays a mechanic who says stuff like “He’s a bold pilot, but will he get to be an old pilot?”  /  the main characters are Capt. Slocum (John Hodiak) and a hot shot pilot and wolf named Pete (John Derek) –oozing that sex appeal that seduced Ursula Andress, Linda Evans and Bo  /  Slocum reunites with Nancy (O’Hara) in Japan – music swells and then harp music for the sleeping kids  /  when the war breaks out, no one is surprised!  /  Slocum kisses Nancy goodbye (on the cheek) and goes off to war and O’Hara goes back to making real movies  /  Slocum and Pete land at a base that has been attacked by the NK Air Force (actually P-51s); dead bodies lie around;  Slocum and Pete rescue the mascot, but Pete’s brother is killed -  revenge theme established  /  Slocum is tasked with flying the American Ambassador and the Korean President to safety;  a NK fighter attacks but Slocum goes down on the deck to cause it to crash into a hill – “Nasty, those one way streets”  /  first cigarette – 39 minutes  /  Slocum:  “The Air Force’s job is to be the fist, we’re the eyes.”  /  Pete attaches a bazooka under his wing and attacks a tank but surprisingly he misses and crashes  /  Pete makes it back to base with the help of ROKs  /  Pete makes an amazingly accurate drop of plasma to a besieged unit  /  montage of artillery spotting  /  black soldier sings a minor hit called “Forgive Me”  /  North Koreans sneak up on the base and Slocum is wounded so Pete flies him to a MASH unit which happens to have a nurse that he was hitting on earlier;  Slocum dies and the nurse gives a long speech ending with “The burden your friend was carrying can’t be allowed to drop.”  /  Pete picks up the burden and has Maxie add a powerful radio to the L-5 to improve artillery spotting  /  Pete and Maxie are ordered to take out some bridges;  they spot some camouflaged tanks and call in F-80s;  good sound effects;  Pete is wounded and Maxie has to land;  the plane crashes and burns;  the end – they must have run out of film

ANALYSIS:  The movie is surprisingly not terrible.  It would probably be more entertaining if it was.  The director, Fred Sears, was famous for his B movies and made 50 of them in less than a decade.  This one stands out a bit due to the name cast.  Hodiak, Derek, and Lembeck are only average and O’Hara’s role is almost a cameo.  There is little character development as Sears decides to let the stereotypes do the work for him.  This is especially true of Pete who is in the tradition of the ladies’ man / fighter jock.  The dialogue is sappy and there are unintentionally funny moments.  Not unexpected in a B movie.  The soundtrack is terrible.  For a film that intends to highlight the role of L-5s, the movie has little on artillery spotting.   I guess because that is boring.  It certainly does a good job recruiting daring young men for L-5s.  It does not sugarcoat the dangers and in fact it portrays some depressing deaths.  I wonder if it would have done that if the war was in full swing when it was made.  The movie is not overly patriotic or propagandistic.  Again probably because of the timing of the production.  In conclusion, it is worth watching for the kitsch value.

the war-winning  L-5 Sentinel


grade =  D+


Sunday, May 24, 2015

FORGOTTEN GEM? Decision Before Dawn (1951)



                “Decision Before Dawn” is a black and white film directed by Anatole Litvak.  He filmed in post-war Germany for the ambiance provided by rubble. It was based on a novel by George Howe entitled Call It Treason which was inspired by the fact that the British and Americans used captured Germans as counterintelligence agents in the last months of the war.  These prisoners of war had various motives for helping.  The credits claimed that the movie was based on a true story with the names changed.  The movie was a surprise nominee for Best Picture.  Litvak thanked the U.S. Armed Forces and the French Army for cooperation.

                A narrator (Richard Basehart):  “Why does a spy risk his life – if he wins, he’s ignored.  If he loses, he’s shot.”  The quote is backed by a realistic firing squad execution.  The movie is set in Germany in December, 1944.  Col. Devlin (Gary Merrill) is recruiting German prisoners for spying behind enemy lines.  After a friend is “court-martialed” and killed by hard core Nazis for pessimism, a young soldier nicknamed “Happy” volunteers.  His motivation is the Germans have lost the war and his aid will shorten the war and free him sooner.  On the other end of the spectrum is “Tiger” who is a cynic who is in it for personal gain.  The duo are paired off with a skeptical Lt. Rennick (Basehart) for a crucial mission.  Rennick and Tiger will make contact with a German general who wants to defect.  Meanwhile, Happy will scout enemy troop dispositions on his own. 

                The movie concentrates on Happy’s odyssey (which is Homeric) and his interaction with a variety of Germans.  They range from defeatists to die-hards.  Some are sympathetically portrayed.  In his guise of a travelling German medic, Happy gets tabbed with serving a general.  The general is a good German common to Cold War depictions of German generals in cinema.  Instead of killing him, Happy saves his life when he has a heart attack.  This interlude provides him with the valuable intelligence that he sought and now it’s just a matter of returning.  He meets up with Rennick and Tiger in a safe house in Mannheim.  Only one will survive the return trip.

                “Decision Before Dawn” is a different take on the closing months of the war in Europe.  Enough time had passed to allow a more nuanced depiction of the German people in those chaotic days when some realized the war was hopeless and others wanted to continue the fight to the bitter end.  It was one of the first war movie to concentrate on the dissenters rather than the Nazis.  Coincidentally, "The Desert Fox" was released the same year.  Not only are the characters realistic, but the locales are amazing.  Six years after the war there were still areas of Germany that were war damaged.

                The acting is great.  Basehart is an underrated actor and he is matched by Blech (who so memorably played Pluskat in “The Longest Day”) and Werner.  Both were German veterans and ironically, the date that the Happy is captured (Dec. 8, 1944) was the exact date that Werner deserted.  The dialogue they are given is a cut above the usual WWII movie.  The screenplay is thought-provoking and unpredictable.  The hero is a traitor!  He is not “just another kraut” as a G.I. refers to him.

                I can’t recall how this movie showed up on my radar screen.  I had never heard of it and it is not well known (in spite of its Best Picture nomination).  I also had never given much thought to the use of German prisoners to spy on Nazi Germany.  The movie does an excellent job shedding light on that obscure program.  I like it when a war movie exposes the public to a little known aspect of history and does it in an entertaining and accurate way.  It reminded me of one of the first forgotten gems I posted on when I started my blog – "Time Limit".  That movie also starred Richard Basehart and dealt with collaboration.

                Forgotten gem?  Yes.  This movie deserves to be seen.


Grade =  B

Friday, May 22, 2015

LIVE: Attack on the Iron Coast (1967)



                First cigarette – 10 seconds (a record?)  /  Maj. Wilson (Lloyd Bridges) will be seeking redemption for a Dieppe type fiasco  /  the redemption will take the form of Operation Mad Dog which will target the port of Le Claire (rhymes with St. Nazaire)  /  the suicidal plan is to ram the dock with an explosives-laden ship – “It’s just mad enough to work!”  /  the Wilson family scenes are creepy as Wilson is tightly wound  /  Royal Navy is uncooperative  /  in training Wilson is a hard ass and the live firing exercise results in the wounding of the Royal Navy liaison – 8 men are killed in training!  /  the wounded liaison vouches for the operation and it is saved, but the new liaison Capt. Franklin (Andrew Keir) lost his son in the Dieppe-like raid and hated Wilson (command clash anyone?)  /  an air attack using models in a bathtub and Scyfy Channel special effects proves only an explosives-laden ship can accomplish the objective  /  fighter planes dropping bombs they don’t have  /  Wilson and Franklin really, really hate each other  /  in the German headquarters in Le Claire they are watching a porno!  What was evil then is commonplace today  /  the mission is launched and complications ensue – surprise!  The RAF will not be able to do the diversionary attack  /  Franklin disobeys orders and refuses to scrub – he’s on board now (get it?)  /  it is misting, but none of them are wet;  the camera bobs, but the cast doesn’t  /  the explosion is on a timer and Wilson has thrown away the key – there’s no turning back now  /  Wilson:  “Let’s start the minstrel show.”  /  boats are launched to land the commandoes  /  lots of running around and shooting from the hip  /  bloodless deaths  /  the ship is hit and aflame – no one seems to be worried about all that TNT  /  the ship rams the dock and there is more running around and hip shooting (everyone has a Sten)  /  the wire has been cut and Wilson is wounded;  Franklin returns to the ship but he is captured and taken to headquarters – this allows Franklin to say in your face to the Nazi commander when the pyrotechnics occur  /  Wilson reattaches the wire just as he is killed  /  huge explosion!  /  the commandoes break into the headquarters and rescue Franklin  /  England lives on music

ANALYSIS -  “Attack on the Iron Coast” is an Anglo-American production.  It is low budget and has a no name cast other than Bridges.  It is a B movie and very cheesy.  The score is average (some of it was “borrowed” from “The Dam Busters”) and so is the acting.  Bridges chews a lot of scenery.  The whole mission is even more implausible than the Raid on St. Nazaire.  Significantly, the movie had no technical adviser.  The movie hammers the theme that the mission is suicidal and that is true because there is no way in Hell the mission would have succeeded.


Grade =  D

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

CRACKER? The Lighthorsemen (1987)



                “The Lighthorsemen” was a film made as part of the Australian New Wave.  It was directed by Simon Wincer (“Operation Dumbo Drop”).   It was written by Ian Jones who was fascinated by the Australian Light Horse.  He made a trip to the site of their greatest triumph and did extensive research for the movie.  I like that.  It was certainly a story that begged to be told.  The movie was filmed on location in Australia which means the continent has locales that can stand in for the Middle East. 

                The movie begins with a crawl that informs us that on October 31, 1917 two regiments of the Australian Light Horse charged Turkish defenses at Beersheba in Palestine.  “This is the story of some of the men and horses that made it into history that day.”  The action begins with the chasing of wild horses in beautiful scenery and with stirring music.  From there it is off to Palestine where a glimpse of tanks reminds us that horse cavalry is now a thing of the past.  We are introduced to four mates.  Frank (Gary Sweet), Scotty (Jon Blake), Chiller (Tim McKenzie), and Tas (John Walton) are their names, but that is about all we learn about them.  Since this is a small unit movie, a newbie named Dave arrives who is not welcomed by the quartet.  Since five is a crowd, one of the core has to go and does after getting a Dear Jack letter.  Dave has a bad case of the Griff from “Big Red One” so he gets transferred to the medical corps.  He wins the lottery to have the requisite romance with a nurse played by Sigrid Thornton (the Australian Julia Roberts).  Romance and redemption – cha-ching!  The familiar face of Anthony Edwards appears  as an intelligence officer who tricks the Turks into thinking the attack on Beersheba is a diversion.  Actually he tricks the hissable German liaison into shiza-shizaing the attack.
 
                General Allenby’s (the devious jerk played by Jack Hawkins in “Lawrence of Arabia”) plan is to fix the Turks with an infantry dominated attack from the south while the cavalry works its way to the east and assaults Beersheba from there.  The dilemma becomes the lack of water due to poisoned wells on the way to the ingress point.  It is decided that an immediate charge is called for even though the light horsemen normally fight dismounted.  Is the charge worth the wait?  It’s bloody exciting, mate.  No CGI here and amazingly no horses were even injured in the filming.  Guess who foregoes his medical duties to participate in the charge? 
  
How historically accurate is the movie?  It gets the basics right.  The 4th Light Horse Brigade was part of the 1st Australian Imperial Force that was sent to the Middle East in 1915.  It participated in the Gallipoli Campaign before it was returned to Egypt in time to be part of the Sinai and Palestine Campaign which pitted the British against the Ottoman Empire (with the help of Germany).  The action started with a failed Turkish attempt on the Suez Canal which provoked the Brits to invade the Sinai.  They were at first successful, but then lost two battles near Gaza.  A stalemate ensued until Gen. Allenby initiated the offensive that resulted in the Battle of Beersheba in  October, 1917.  The movie does a fine job outlining the plan and even uses a map (unlike most war movies).  However, as with many movies of its ilk, the big picture is hazy.  Anthony Andrews character Maj. Meinertzhagen is based on the infamous intelligence officer / ornithologist.  The movie depicts the legendary “Haversack Ruse” in which Meinertzhagen supposedly left a haversack with false British plans to fall into enemy hands.  This story has been refuted, but it is acceptable that the movie included it.  The romance of Anne and Dave is based on a real couple that marries after the war.  The climactic attack is well-staged although it is doubtful the clueless German who refuses to destroy the city’s water wells is a real person.


“The Lighthorsemen” was part of the Australian New Wave movement.  Australian cinema had almost ceased to exist until the government reinvigorated it with funding for film production and the Australian Film, Television, and Radio School.  A large amount of films were the result, starting in the early seventies until the late eighties.  Many of these films were popular in the U.S.  The war movies included “Breaker Morant” and “Gallipoli”.  This genre had the common themes of Australian brotherhood, loss of innocence in warfare, and Australia’s emergence as a world player.

I had fond memories of this movie back from my early VHS days.  It was a difficult movie to find until recently or I would have rewatched it long ago.  Sadly, the anticipation was not rewarded.  The movie is curiously flat.  It does not flow well, possibly due to poor editing.  The acting is tepid and there is little character development which is puzzling for a movie that concentrates on only five soldiers.  The love story appears shoe-horned in, probably to get Ms. Thornton in.  It does have its strengths.  The scenery is nice and the cinematography is good, especially in the charge which includes some slo-mo and POV.  The intercutting between the Australians and Turks is a nice touch although only the German leader is developed.  The Australian accents are cool as is the slang.

I went into the review wondering whether “The Lighthorsemen” was on a level with “Breaker Morant” and “Gallipoli”.  It most certainly is not.  It will not make my 100 Best.  My advice is to fast forward to the charge.  It is one  of the better combat scenes in war movie history.



GRADE  =  C

Saturday, May 16, 2015

SHORT STORY READALONG: British Gunners as Cave Dwellers




                Our latest selection is a primary source about the Royal Artillery on the Western Front in WWI.  It is a story by Corporal E.H. Bean.  He served in combat until he was wounded and invalided back to blighty.  The story takes him from England through his return.  It is basically a collection of vignettes that give a taste of life in the artillery.  One day he is England, the next day he is at the front.  It happened that quick for many British soldiers.  Now that I think about it, that was not that different than what American soldiers sent to Vietnam went through. 

                Two things stand out in his tale.  One is that it sucked to be an artillery horse.  Bean makes it clear that horses were very vulnerable to artillery barrages.  Another memorable passage was the genesis of the title of the story.  His unit spends five days billeted in some caves near Soissons.  It was an eerie alternative to the trenches.  The overall vibe of the story is typically British.  Bean and his comrades have stiff upper lips throughout.  He even says “the British soldier has the happy knack of making himself at home in all kinds of odd places…”  When he is wounded he remains cheery.

                If the story was fiction, you would be groaning at times.  It is not very exciting, but it is educational.  You learn about the Royal Artillery and what it was like to be a horse pulling the artillery pieces.


GRADE =  C

Next selection:  The Canoe Fight

Saturday, May 9, 2015

FINALS: #1 Battle of Britain vs. #5 The Blue Max


VS.

      
                According to the rules of the tournaments, the champion is determined by performances in all the previous categories.

Dogfighting Quantity          BoB =  10          TBM =  10
Plot                                        BoB =  8           TBM =  8
Realism and Accuracy         BoB =  7          TBM =  8
Cliches                                   BoB =  7          TBM =  10
Dialogue                                BoB =  9          TBM =  8
Effects                                   BoB =  9          TBM =  8
Aircraft                                 BoB =  9          TBM =  10
Dogfight Quality                  BoB =  9          TBM =  8
Acting                                   BoB =  9          TBM =  7
Pilot Behavior                      BoB =  8          TBM =  6
Tactics                                  BoB =  8          TBM =  7
Entertainment                     BoB =  8          TBM =  8

FINAL SCORE
The Blue Max        101
Battle of Britain      98



                Well, the tournament finally comes to a close.  It took longer than I planned, but I decided to get it right rather than rush it.  I watched 23 dogfighting movies in the last month and probably will not watch another for a while.  All that reviewing resulted in an excellent matchup in the finals.  Looking back at the field, the most deserving two movies made it.  And it was an intriguing bout between a battle epic and a fictional pilot-oriented drama. 
         
It could be argued that “Battle of Britain” is the superior war movie, but “The Blue Max” is the better movie about dogfighting.  BoB is a movie with dogfighting in it, TBM is a movie about dogfighting.  Both films have an admirable quantity and quality of air combat.  Both set the gold standard for acquiring an air force representing their war.  The intangibles go to “The Blue Max”.  The characters are more developed and intriguing.  Where BoB has no villains other than the buffoonish Goring, TBM has no heroes.  The central character is a heel.   The stunt flying in TBM is more remarkable.  It is also more dramatic partly because you don’t already know the basic plot and outcome.  “Battle of Britain” is strong in historical accuracy, but this also is a weakness as it ends up being a bit stiff.  TBM is anything but stiff as it substitutes soap opera dynamics.


                Both accomplished their mission admirably, but with their flaws.  The truth is that we still do not have the definitive dogfighting movie.  This was the weakest tournament so far.  None of the movies will be in my 50 Best War Movies.  The great dogfighting movie is still waiting to be made.  Perhaps when CGI becomes more lifelike and less like what we got in “Flyboys” and “Red Tails”.  Until that day, let’s commend the finalists for their use of actual aircraft, stunt pilots, and cinematically choreographed dogfights.  We will never see their type again.  

Thursday, May 7, 2015

#1 BATTLE OF BRITAIN vs. #15 ANGEL'S WING


VS.




FIRST QUARTER:  Acting

                The acting in “Battle of Britain” is a bit stiff.  It has an outstanding cast of British thespians, including Sir Lawrence Olivier, but no one stands out.  Susannah York provides some nice eye candy and actually does one of the better jobs.  “Don’t you yell at me, Mr. Worrick!” is her most memorable line.  Robert Shaw and Michael Caine get plum roles but there is not enough screen time to go around.  The German actors aren’t given much to do other than be overconfident.  The British leadership is stoical and the British pilots are appropriately patriotic.  The movie tries to recreate the vibe of “The Longest Day”, but unlike that star-studded epic, this cast does not bring its A-game.   C
               
                “Angel's Wing” (1993) is dominated by Lambert Wilson as the main character and Francois Cluzet as his frenemy.  Wilson grows on you and ends up giving a compelling performance.  His character arc is well done and you can empathize with him.  Cluzet is just as good.  His character is more ambiguous.   The rest of the cast is not memorable.  B

FIRST QUARTER SCORE:
Angels Wing                      8
Battle of Britain                7

SECOND QUARTER:  Pilot Behavior

                “Battle of Britain” does not spend a lot of time on the pilots.  The pilots mostly sit around and wait to scramble.  The Germans lounge around living large as they wait to destroy the pesky Brits.  The Germans are cocky and the Brits are stiff upper lipped, of course.  That is actually fairly realistic.  There is not nearly enough coverage of what the pilots of both sides went through on the ground.  There is no range of personalities among the pilots of either side.  D

                “Angel's Wing” spends a lot of time on the mental state of the French squadron.  The problem is that if it is an accurate depiction of a typical squadron’s dynamics, it paints a very unflattering picture of French fighter pilots in WWI.  The plot revolves around the squadron’s animosity towards Henri because they think he is too lucky!  He is soaking up all the luck, leaving none for them.  Even more bizarrely, the men resent having to compete with him in fighting the enemy!  For a French film, the movie sure contributes to the view that the French military is a bunch of pussies.  I find it hard to believe that this is a realistic portrayal of French pilots in WWI.  D

HALF TIME SCORE:
Angels Wing                      14
Battle of Britain                13

THIRD QUARTER:  Tactics

                There is little indication of wingmen in “Battle of Britain”.  This is typical of a dogfighting movie, but is disappointing for a movie of this caliber.  The movie makes a point of reenacting the disastrous Goring decision of tying the Me-109s to the Stukas and bombers.  There is lip service paid to the dispute between Mallory’s “Big Wing” theory and Park’s intercept immediately tactic.  The movie wimps out and does not take a stand.  C

                “Angel's Wing” is basically a lone wolf movie so there is no need to show wing men tactics.  In fact, no one in the unit wants to fly with Henri.  Cluzet teaches Henri about air warfare, but does not show him on screen.  His advice rings true:  start high until you spot the enemy, attack from his blind spot, get in close.  Henri certainly follows that last piece of advice!  C

THIRD QUARTER SCORE:

Angels Wing                      21
Battle of Britain                20

FOURTH QUARTER:  Entertainment

                “Battle of Britain” was meant to be the air combat equivalent of “The Longest Day”.  It covers both sides and uses subtitles for the Germans (which is a good thing!).  It tries to balance the command decisions with the fighter pilots carrying out the combat.  The character development is weak and the deaths of several main characters are realistically random, but emotionally unmoving.  There is a lame romantic subplot thrown in to draw the ladies in.  The redeeming strength of the film is the dogfighting (including one long sequence sans music) and its historical accuracy.  It should have been much more entertaining, but it is a commendable attempt to bring the battle to the public.  B

                “Angel's Wing” is a tough movie to form an opinion on.  The movie starts slow and has you wondering where it is going.  When Henri wheedles his way into the air corps, you assume it will become predictable.  However, it is actually hard to figure out what will happen next.  This is accomplished at the expense of plausibility.  I think most viewers (especially those who have to read the atrociously inaccurate subtitles) would find the movie to be a head-scratcher.  It does not have much dogfighting, but what it does have is intriguing.  Although the time frame is very unclear, it appears to do a good job depicting the early air war.  C

FINAL SCORE:

Battle of Britain                28
Angels Wing                      28

OVERTIME:

                Another tie in the semi-finals!  In this case, I am going to let the tie-breaker be the fact the “Battle of Britain” is a true story and “Angel's Wing” is fictional.  I also must add that BoB has substantially more and better dogfighting in it.  And that’s what the tournament is mainly about.  Nice run by the huge underdog.  I hope its performance in the tournament encourages more to watch it.

FINAL MATCHUP:

# 1 Battle of Britain vs. # 5 The Blue Max   

Monday, May 4, 2015

DIDN’T MAKE THE CUT: The McConnell Story (1955)

 

                 While I wait for my copy of "Angels Wing" to come in so I can watch it again and finish my dogfighting tournament, I thought I would post a review of a movie that was considered for the tournament.  

                The Korean War had not been good to Hollywood.  The ambiguous nature of the conflict and the lack of a clear-cut victory made it a hard sell.  Most of the war movies made in the 1950s were basically WWII plots, but with an amping up of cynicism.  “Steel Helmet” is a good example of this.  It worked in that classic, but most of the infantry combat movies were second rate.  The only notable exception was “Pork Chop Hill”.  In the air, Hollywood’s record was little better.  “Bridges at Toko-Ri” was a stand-out, but mainly because of the big budget, big cast, and the source material.  James Michener’s best seller was fool proof.  The other significant film was “The Hunters”.  It made the tournament, but was a disappointing attempt to match “Bridges”.  Warner Brothers did not have such high hopes for “The McConnell Story”.  It is a standard biopic of an American hero.  Similar to WWI, fighter pilots maintained glamour in a war noted for stalemated ground combat.  The story had the added bump of the first jet versus jet combat.  Joseph “Mac” McConnell was the first American jet ace and ended the war as our “Ace of Aces”.  His score of 16 will obviously never be broken.  He was worthy of a movie and got what Hollywood was capable of churning out.

                The movie opens with a General telling us that America owes its freedoms to men like McConnell.  Remember the Cold War!  Alan Ladd plays McConnell as a rebel.  He leaves the base to get flight lessons and then parachutes to evade the MPs.  He ends up in the home of the vivacious  Pearl (June Allyson) and if you do not think they will get married from the moment they appear on screen, you are a moron.  He nicknames her “Butch” because June Allyson is not cute enough already.  After they get hitched, Butch immediately becomes the stereotypical pre-Vietnam military cinema wife.  She supports his dream of becoming a pilot, but it does not come easy.

                Mac gets sent to pilot school, but ends up as a navigator on a B-17 in WWII Europe.  On one mission, his bomber is bounced by Me-163 jets!   The mission concludes with a cool belly landing.  Unfortunately the war ends before he gets the requisite 25 missions to go back to pilot school.  A desk job makes him snippy and if this were a modern movie he would come home and beat Butch.
the entire romantic subplot
summarized in one still
 
                Cut to the Korean War and here come the F-86 Sabres.  The cast just got much better and the acting too.  MiG Alley is populated by F-84s disguised as MiGs.  Mac becomes an ace via montage.  Coming home a hero, he gets the White House and a new house.  When offered a test pilot gig, Butch does the “haven’t you done enough?” routine and actually convinces him and then she realizes that she is a 1950's military wife and changes her mind.  Cue the “missing man formation”.

                The problems with “The McConnell Story” starts with the casting.  Alan Ladd was a poor choice to play a rebel.  Of course, the way the movie depicts rebelliousness is so cornpone that who cares who portrays him?  Speaking of rebelliousness, who better to play that than June Allyson?  Answer – any actress.  Allyson does the opposite of stretching in this movie.  I like Allyson.  Who doesn’t?  But when you cast her, fast forward to the closing credit and save yourself some time.  If you do that, you’ll miss some tepid air combat.  It is really cool to see rare footage of Me-163 jets, although the footage is far from seamless.  The big dogfight scene is four minutes long and fairly well done with some POV.  Unfortunately, Ladd was afraid of flying so he is filmed in front of a screen.  No outside the box on anything in this movie.  Thankfully the movie inexplicably turns off the pompous Max Steiner score for the dogfighting scene.
and the best acting performance goes to - 


                As far as historical accuracy, the movie is adequate.  I would imagine that the courtship has been Hollywoodized, but I can’t prove that.  Butch being a supportive military wife is probably true, if lame.  My mother was a fighter pilot's wife from that era and she was perky and cookie-baking, too.  McConnell was a navigator in WWII, but it was on B-24s.  He flew a total of 60 missions so his failure to get into flight school was not due to lack of missions.  He did become a fighter pilot after the war and in time for the Korean War, but he did not make it to Korea until 1952 and all of his kills came in a remarkable four month run in 1953.  His success in dogfights is accurate, although dealt with cursorily.  He did receive the Distinguished Service Cross from President Eisenhower.  He and Butch were given a new home by their community.  His death is substantially the same as in reality.  (It occurred when the movie was being produced and was added into the script.)  The closing image of the “missing man formation”made that military tradition famous with the public.

                Joseph McConnell deserved a movie.  He is a legitimate hero, but not the saint depicted in this movie.  The movie takes his story, which probably had some tension and drama to it, and makes it into a boring and predictable biopic with little action for the war movie fan.  But doing otherwise would have made it an anachronism for a 1950s movie.  It was aimed at a na├»ve 1950s audience that knew what it was getting when they saw Ladd and Allyson on the marquee.  I can’t imagine they were thrilled with it however.  There is no doubt that it was not worthy of being in the tournament.


GRADE  =  D