Monday, May 30, 2016

PATHS OF GLORY (2) vs. WESTFRONT, 1918 (7)


VS.


REALISM:  “Paths of Glory” is a realistic depiction of the state of the French army in 1916.  Although not a true story, it is an accurate indictment of French command and tactics.  The big battle is as close as a WWI movie comes to the horrors of crossing no man’s land under a torrent of shot and shell.  The subsequent court-martial of three soldiers is designed to punish the unsuccessful unit.  This is not particularly realistic, but did happen.  All of the armies used the threat of execution to “motivate” the men.  Where the movie is strongest is its portrayal of the brass.  Generals Broulard and Mireau represent the crass attitude some French generals had toward their charges.  The pigheaded frontal tactics are spot on.  The execution of men for cowardice in spite of extenuating circumstances is sadly not an aberration.  GRADE  -  A

“Westfront, 1918” does a good job enlightening the audience about conditions on the Western Front.  Director Georg Pabst was famous for his sober realism.  The trenches and no man’s land look like you might see in a documentary.  The movie adds little touches that indicate the screenwriter knew his war.  There is a messenger dog.  The soldiers spend time picking lice.  A main character gets shell shock.  GRADE  -  A

FIRST QUARTER SCORE:  Paths  -  9    Westfront  -  9

DIALOGUE:  The dialogue in “Paths” is crackling.  This is a good thing because the movie is mostly a courtroom drama which means it is dialogue driven.  Broulard is a loathsome character not just for what he does, but also for what he says.  The whole cast gets to share in the many quotable lines in the film.  When Broulard asks if his men are men or mice, Dax responds:  “If I had the choice between mice and Mausers, I’d take the mice.”  When Paris ruminates about his life prospects compared to a roach, Ferrol smashes the roach and says:  “Now you have the edge on him.”  The contrast between what the idealist Dax says with regard to the war and what the generals say leaves little doubt about the nature of the war.  GRADE  -  A+

“Westfront” is not dialogue driven.  It has a dearth of standout quotes, although the final conclusion of “it’s everyone’s fault” is a great summation of the war.  The movie is more interested in depicting the soldier experience at the front and in combat than in giving them voices.  Considering this, we can be thankful that what dialogue there is is not sappy.  The men talk like soldiers probably because many of the actors were veterans.  GRADE  -  B

HALFTIME SCORE:  Paths  -  19    Westfront  -  17

SOLDIER BEHAVIOR:  “Paths” is not a movie about soldier life.  It spends much of its time on the behavior of the commanders.  The three condemned soldiers well-represent the common poilu.  However, there is little coverage of the men in the trenches.  The behavior of the men pre-battle, during the battle, and after the battle is a tutorial on the French army in 1916.  The “lambs led to slaughter” aspect is predictive of the mutinies that roiled the army one year later.  The most telling scene is the final scene where a hooting crowd at a cantina is silenced and brought to tears by the singing of a German chanteuse.  GRADE  -  B

“Westfront” was released the same year as “All Quiet” and has similar themes.  It concentrates on a small group of men, too.  An advantage “Westfront” had was it was a German movie about German soldiers.  That might explain why it is more cynical and bitter than Milestone’s film.  It is just a matter of degree as both films are excellent in showing the bonding and comradeship that occurs in the trenches.  “Westfront” depicts the reluctance of soldiers to volunteer.  A rare occurrence in a war movie.  It also gets the exhaustion of war right.  GRADE  -  A

THIRD QUARTER SCORE:  Paths  -  27    Westfront  -  26

ENTERTAINMENT:  It is amazing that “Paths” was not a big hit when it was released.  It is a classic mainstream war movie.  It has the big battle scene for combat junkies. It is drama without the melo.  The acting is great, as is the dialogue.  It tugs the emotions of the audience effectively.  It has no weaknesses.  You are entertained when you watch it, but you also feel you have accomplished something by watching it.  It is a bucket list movie.  GRADE  -  A+

“Westfront” is also a must-see war movie.  A must-see for war movie fans.  Unlike “Paths”, it was not aimed at the general public.  Pabst could not have conceived of the project as a box office magnet.  His direction ended up making the movie very entertaining from my perspective, but the unremitting grimness reduced its allure to the average viewer.  Note that it came out the same year as “All Quiet” and yet many less people have seen it.  This is a shame, but not surprising considering that “All Quiet” is more traditionally entertaining than Pabst’s work.  Part of the reason for this is “Westfront” does not flow smoothly from scene to scene.  It is a character-centric film that lacks in character development a bit.  GRADE  -  B

FINAL SCORE:  Paths of Glory  -  37
                           Westfront, 1918  -  34

MATCH ANALYSIS:  This was a match between two of the best WWI movies.  Hopefully,  the game performance of “Westfront” will encourage more to watch it.  It probably deserved to go further in the tournament, but ran into a behemoth.  “Paths” will be tough to beat, but the upcoming categories might uncover some weaknesses.  So far, it has shown no chinks in its armor.  It is telling that both these movies offended the powers that be in the nations of the armies they depict.  Kudos to both of them for this badge of honor.   

Sunday, May 29, 2016

ALL QUIET (1979) (12) vs. SGT. YORK (4)


VS.



REALISM:  “Sergeant York” is as realistic as you can expect for a movie made in the Forties that was aimed at lauding a true American history.  The movie has verisimilitude in its interiors.  The country store and the York home are examples of the attention to detail put in by the set designer.  The hillbilly characters and life style is also real.  The movie is realistic in its portrayal of the ignorance of the backwoods to events in Europe and the pacifism that turned to patriotism upon U.S. entry.  The military scenes are less true to reality.  Boot camp is depicted as similar to a fantasy camp.  The movie is not interested in making the military look like a questionable occupation.  The combat is fine in showing the attack York participated in.  A lot of effort (and explosives) went into recreating no man’s land.  York’s individual exploit is fairly close to what actually happened with some Hollywood touches that war movie lovers will notice right away.  GRADE  -  B

“All Quiet…” is as realistic as Remarque’s book is.  The film takes all its scenes from the novel.  Although it was a made-for-TV movie, effort has gone into making the sets realistic.  The trenches, bunkers, and no man’s land are outstanding.  The arc of Paul and his classmates from naïve patriots looking forward to a great adventure to jaded veterans is appropriate.  The attitude of home front civilians also rings true.  No movie could better present the effect of the war on the German soldiers’ morale.  It is also outstanding in portraying the strong bonds between soldiers, especially those who go to war together.  GRADE  -  A

FIRST QUARTER SCORE:  All Quiet  -  9     York  -  8

DIALOGUE:  “Sergeant York” is full of hillbilly talk.  It is truly quaint, but the actors pull it off and it adds to the feel of the film.  A typical line is “war is agin the book”.  It helps that the actors, led by Gary Cooper, manage to pull off the accent with aplomb.  Being a patriotic movie, the dialogue is not biting.  However, it does not make you shake your head much.  The worst it gets is the exchanges between York and the cliché Brooklynite.  GRADE  -  B

“All Quiet…” mirrors the dialogue of the book which is all you need to know.  Paul gets the lion-share of the lines and also does some narration.  The narration is appropriately somber and cynical.  “My knowledge of life is limited to death”.  The banter is natural.  The bond between the men is apparent from the way they talk to each other.  GRADE  -  A

HALFTIME SCORE:   All Quiet  -  18    York  -  16

SOLDIER BEHAVIOR:  “Sergeant York” does not have much on soldier behavior.  Heck, it does not even get to boot camp until the 1:15 mark of the film.  The movie is a biopic so it concentrates on one soldier.  And he is not a typical soldier.  He has to be convinced to fight.  GRADE  -  C

“All Quiet” tells the tale of a small unit of German soldiers from boot camp through the last days of the war.  Remarque was a soldier in the Great War and we can assume he put his personal experiences into his book.  The training camp scenes show that the German experience was similar to other armies.  Paul and his mates do not robotically shed their civilian attitudes toward authority which shows that German young men were not that different to other nationalities going through cinematic boot camp.  When they reach the front they are taken under the wing of the veteran Kat and learn the real deal.  The movie is best when it is in the dugout with the men.  They deal with the rats, lice, and other problems.  What they endure cement their bonds to where when Paul returns home, he realizes his real home is at the front.  GRADE  -  A

THIRD QUARTER SCORE:  All Quiet  -  27    York  -  22

ENTERTAINMENT:  “Sergeant York” was perfect entertainment for its time and audience.  It is old fashioned, but pushes all the right buttons.  The main character is a hero who overcomes personality flaws by finding the Lord.  It is a classic redemption story.  There is a romance that is predictable, but heart-warming.  The movie is filled with interesting characters and anchored by Cooper’s spot-on portrayal of Hollywood’s version of a backwoods hero.  Along with the character study, we conclude with a thrilling combat scene.  What is not to like?  Especially if you are old.  GRADE  -  A

If you consider the novel to be entertaining, and I suppose some people find it too depressing to be entertaining, you have to like “All Quiet” (1979).  The movie takes many of the scenes from the book and commendably recreates them.  The cast is outstanding and Richard Thomas gives best performance of his career.  Keep in mind that this movie brought the novel to the small screen so it was free entertainment.  The flash back format gives the narrative some pizazz. The theme of lost innocence is clearly explored.  It is an anti-war movie for the Vietnam generation.  GRADE  -  A

FINAL SCORE:  All Quiet  -  36
                           Sgt. York  -  31

MATCH ANALYSIS:    I have made no secret that I feel the remake of the classic original is shamefully underrated.  I do not understand why people disrespect it.  It is possible to like the 1931 version and appreciate the updated version.  There is something to be said for modern war movies if the plot is good and the acting is satisfactory.  The technology gives them an advantage in translating the war experience to the screen.  In “Sergeant York” we have an example of a classic that holds up well over the years, but in this tournament it was hurt by its being predominately a biography more than a war movie.  It barely made the second round due to that fact.  It stood little chance against a competent rendering of the greatest war novel ever written.   


Friday, May 27, 2016

THE BIG PARADE (3) vs. THE LOST BATTALION (11)

Well, we are now through the first round and there were some upsets. We have a #12 seed moving on - All Quiet (1979). Here are the second round match-ups.

#1 - All Quiet (1931)
#9 - Oh! What a Lovely War

#12 - All Quiet (1979)
#4 - Sergeant York

#11 - Lost Battalion
#3 - The Big Parade

#7 - Westfront, 1918
#2 - Paths of Glory


VS.




REALISM:   “The Big Parade” is weak on realism.  The soldiers go through little hardship, other than stale cake from home.  The first part of the combat payoff has the Americans advancing in lines through a forest.  This is actually a true depiction of the naivete of the American army in its early battles.  We had learned little from the experiences of the British and French.  And the filmmakers had learned little of the effects of machine gun fire on lines of men.  The night attack is also shown in lines which would have been appropriate even in crossing no man’s land, but it is staged at night.  This would have been uncommon.  The artillery fire is the most realistic thing about the combat.  GRADE:  Big Parade  -  C

“The Lost Battalion” is above average in realism.  The weak moments can be attributed to its made-for-TV nature.  The trench and no man’s land are authentic, but some of the fighting defies logic.  For instance, in some of the fighting, the Americans leave cover to confront the superior German forces in the open.  During artillery bombardments, they do not hunker down.  There is more hand-to-hand fighting than would have occurred.  On the other hand, the hardships the men went through are accurately depicted.  The film includes the lack of food and ammunition and the suffering of the wounded. GRADE  -  B

FIRST QUARTER SCORE:  Battalion  -  8    Parade  -  6

DIALOGUE:  Being a silent movie, the dialogue that makes the title cards is sparse.  Most of the dialogue spoken by the actors must be inferred.  This is a good thing because I can guess that if we had to listen to all of it, it would not be an improvement.  At least it is not flowery.  It just is not special.  The attempts at jokes are uniformly lame.  GRADE  -  C

“The Lost Battalion” throws in a lot of faux soldier banter.  The screenwriter picked up a copy of “Early 20th Century Brooklyn Slang” and sprinkled his research throughout the film.  The interchanges between Gaedecke and Rosen smack a lot of those between Rivera and Friedman in “A Walk in the Sun”.  The combat may be R-rated, but the dialogue is decidedly PG-13.  Much of it is pious.  The words put in the German officer’s mouth are what Hollywood can imagine a sympathetic German saying about the amazing Americans.  GRADE  -  B-

HALFTIME SCORE:   Battalion  -  14    Parade  -  13

SOLDIER BEHAVIOR:  “The Big Parade” skips over training and plunks the trio on the Western Front.  Their billeting at a French farm is all fun and games.  Like living in a frat house, there are pranks and ribbing in a lame sort of way. Their naivete is not far from the cluelessness of the newcomers from across the Atlantic.  The movie gets the camaraderie right and the way the war brought men of different backgrounds together. However, the film is not really interested in giving the audience an accurate picture of what the soldiers went through.  Go to France, make some friends, fall in love!  GRADE  -  C

“The Lost Battalion” does attempt to show how the soldier’s lived.  The movie splits time between command decisions and soldier interaction before going full combat mode.  The comradeship is apparent.  The movie makes a point of having the veterans instruct the newbies.  Much of this is patronizing to anybody familiar with the AEF, but for the average viewer it is instructive.  The screenwriter gets the brash attitude of the Yanks down.  But some of the characters are not gung-ho.  GRADE  -  B

THIRD QUARTER SCORE:  Battalion  -  22     Parade  -  19

ENTERTAINMENT:  “The Big Parade” is mainly a romance set in war with a buddy picture aspect thrown in.  It is not aimed at the macho combat groupies.  It is pretty good entertainment for a silent movie that wants to please both males and females.  If the men can sit through the character and relationships development, they get a fairly kick-ass combat payoff.  It holds up well over the years, but it is not something you could show students with any success whatsoever.  You must like classic films to like “The Big Parade”.  GRADE  -  B

“The Lost Battalion” is almost the exact opposite movie from “The Big Parade”.  For instance, there is not a single female in the movie. It is definitely a movie aimed at a male audience.  Unless you are a female who is hot for Rick Schroder.  Some of the movie comes close to combat porn.  It is amazingly intense and graphic.  If you enjoyed the opening to “Saving Private Ryan”, you will enjoy much of “The Lost Battalion”.  The fact that it is a true story accurately rendered makes it more entertaining than it otherwise might be.  GRADE  -  A

FINAL SCORE:  Lost Battalion  -  31
                           Big Parade  -  27

MATCH ANALYSIS:  I am a big fan of all war movies, no matter the era.  “The Big Parade” is one of the best silent movies set in WWI.  I was impressed with it the first time I saw it, but it does not improve with repeat viewings.  It is Old School which can be a good thing.  However, since the plot is dusty, it has a hard time going up against a modern war movie with a competent plot.  A movie like “The Lost Battalion” (even one with a made-for-TV budget and the constraints of that medium) has huge advantages in cinematography and effects.  When you look at the quantity and quality of the combat and the surprisingly good acting, it is not surprising that it won comfortably.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930) (1) vs. PRIVATE PEACEFUL (16)


VS.



PLOT:  “All Quiet…” is a faithful rendering of the most famous war novel.  This makes the plot outstanding.  For those of you who are reading this from another planet, the movie is the story of Paul Baumer and his mates as they try to survive on the Western Front.  Paul goes from naïve schoolboy to cynical veteran.  The men go through boot camp and then it’s off to the front to experience what the war is really like.  Under the tutelage of a wizened old vet, Paul and the boys learn the ropes.  Along the way they find out that war sucks and few survive.  It’s heart-felt and heart-breaking.  It has several iconic combat scenes.  GRADE  -  A+

“Private Peaceful” is based on a young adult novel.  It is the tale of two brothers and the girl they both love.  She chooses the older Charlie which breaks Tommo’s heart.  The war separates the couple, but reunites the brothers.  Tommo and Charlie are lower class lads who go off to the Western Front where they are harassed by evil sergeant Hanley. He is a stock villain who does everything but twirl his mustache.  The plot builds to the execution of one of the boys for disobeying orders.  It concludes with a trite twist ending.  GRADE  -  C+

FIRST QUARTER SCORE:  All Quiet  -  10    Peaceful  -  7

ACTING:  The only real flaw in “All Quiet” is in the acting.  The cast is not special.  Lew Ayres was not a big star and did not get top billing.  His performance is much too overwrought.  Top billing went to Louis Wolheim who played Kat.  He and Slim Summerville (Tjaden) are the only main actors who don’t chew scenery.  There are several moments in the film where the acting causes giggles.  Although a talkie, the film is distinctly silent in its acting.  Even Ayres, who became a star from his role as Paul, is cringe-inducing at times.  GRADE  -  C

“Private Peaceful” stars the up and coming Jack O’Connell as Charlie and he brings a lot of charisma to the role.  The rest of the cast is not well known, but they are fine.  John Lynch foams at the mouth as the despicable Hanley, but the role was written for that.  GRADE  -  C

HALFTIME SCORE:  All Quiet  -  16     Peaceful  -  13

COMBAT:  It may surprise many that “All Quiet” has only 11 minutes of combat. The quality is high, however.  The big set piece trench warfare scene is a classic.  It is the best at showing the back and forth of trench assaults.  The French evict them in spite of their machine guns and rifle fire, they retreat to their reserve trench, a barrage forces the French back, the Germans counterattack and take the French trench, but they withdraw and everyone is back where they started from!  The scene features some vicious hand-to-hand fighting and one indelible shot of severed hands on the barbed wire.  Combat is secondary to the hardships and rare moments of humanity that Paul and the others undergo.  GRADE  -  B

“Private Peaceful” has only 5 minutes of combat and what there is is small scale.  It is also unrealistically staged.  The no man’s land is merely a field.  No shell craters.  No reason to scare the kiddies.  Besides, it’s a tale of two brothers and their girl friend.  The only part combat plays is to set up the court-martial.  You would think it was a play.  GRADE  -  D

THIRD QUARTER SCORE:  All Quiet  -  24    Peaceful  -  18

ANTI-WAR:  “All Quiet” is based on the most famous antiwar novel ever written.  And the movie surely brings the vibe to the silver screen.  This theme that the war was a terrible mistake kicks in from the very first scene and is consistently permeating the film throughout even the home front scene.  The movie includes Paul’s stay in the hospital which is another form of horror.  The body count is reflective of an anti-war movie.  The anti-command sub-theme is exemplified by the Himmelstoss character.  By the way, Lew Ayres became a conscientious objector in WWII due to his involvement in the movie.  GRADE  -  A+

“Private Peaceful” is meant to be anti-war in a lecturing sort of way.  Being aimed at a young audience, the theme is simplified and unsubtle.  The movie does not really show the horrors of trench warfare.  The big tear-jerking moment is the result of villainy that could have been found in civilian life.  If anything, the movie is more anti-upper class.  The Peaceful family is trod upon by their local landlord.  GRADE  -  C

FINAL SCORE:  All Quiet  -  34
Private Peaceful  -  24


MATCH ANALYSIS:  Hey, I had to go through the motions, okay?  This was truly a mismatch.  It was a lightweight up against a heavyweight and it got pummeled.  “All Quiet” is a classic that is arguably still the best WWI movie ever made.  “Private Peaceful” will be forgotten soon.  Not that it was the 16th best movie in the tournament.  There were definitely worse contenders.  

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

THE BIG PARADE (3) vs. FIGHTING 69th (14)



VS.




PLOT:  “The Big Parade” is a home front to war front romance.  It is also a buddy film.  The main character Jim is a rich boy who leaves his fiancé to go to war.  He meets “Bull”, the bartender, and “Slim”, the construction worker.  The trios’ unit is billeted in a French barn.  Jim makes a love connection with a feisty mademoiselle named Melisande, but then it’s off to the front for a battle that consumes the last part of the movie.  Many of the scenes go on too long.  The plot is decidedly silent movieiesh.  There are some lame stabs at humor.  The plot builds slowly to the climactic battle which is the highlight of the movie.  GRADE  -  C

“The Fighting 69th” is a fictional story involving the famous American 69th Infantry Regiment.  The story centers around the attempts of Father Duffy to reform a street tough named Plunkitt (Jimmy Cagney).  The plot takes the unit from boot camp to battle with Plunkitt’s antics keeping Duffy busy and giving him grey hairs.  It is all very predictable.  It is also blatantly religious and patriotic.  It features an unlikeable central character who doesn’t deserve, but gets, redemption.  A movie like this could not be made today.  That’s a good thing.  The only positive is the portrayal of some real heroes like Duffy, William Donovan, and Joyce Kilmer.    GRADE  -  D

FIRST QUARTER SCORE:  Parade  -  6    Fighting 69th  -  5

ACTING:  “The Big Parade” stars John Gilbert who was a major silent movie star and was a rival of Valentino as a sex symbol.  He is fine for a silent movie role.  You have to expect a lot of mugging.  There is some chemistry with Renee Adoree.  The rest of the cast was not noteworthy at the time although Adoree made a big splash in the film.  She is adorable.  I know the mugging was considered acceptable back then, but today the performances seem very dated.  Plus, the actor who plays “Slim” is difficult to watch.  He is a bizarre looking dude and his biggest talent is spitting tobacco juice.  His look is as disgusting as Plunkitt’s personality.  GRADE  -  B-

“The Fighting 69th” stars Cagney and Pat O’Brian so it is strong in its leads.  Cagney could be great, but the character and script let him down.  He chews the scenery like he hasn’t had a decent meal in years.  O’Brian is overly pious, of course.  The rest of the cast is wooden.  GRADE  -  C

HALFTIME SCORE:  Parade  -  13    Fighting 69th  -  11

COMBAT:  “The Big Parade” has 17 minutes of combat.  There is a lot of trite before you get to it, but it is worth the wait if you don’t expect ‘’Saving Private Ryan”.  The big combat scene starts with the Americans marching in lines through a forest where they encounter snipers and machine gun nests.  The machine guns do not mow them down but instead pick off individuals!  Then the action transitions to an assault across no man’s land.  There are plenty of explosions and after darkness, the renewal of the attack is nightmarish.  In between, the trio takes refuge in a shell crater and have their own little adventure.  It’s all very micro and does not stand out as one of the outstanding combat scenes.  I do not show it in class.  GRADE  -  B

“The Fighting 69th” has about 9 minutes of combat and it’s mostly of the bombardment of troops in no man’s land.  It is also micro and concentrates mostly on the actions of Plunkitt.  It is also laughably unrealistic.  It tells you a lot when a WWI movie stages its combat  mostly at night.  GRADE  -  D

THIRD QUARTER SCORE:  Parade  -  21    Fighting 69th  -  16

ANTI-WAR:  “The Big Parade” is average when it comes to condemning the war.  It tries to earn its badge by inflicting hardship on its main characters.  Two of the three soldiers are killed and one is maimed.  Melisande becomes a refugee.  However, this is diluted by a happy ending.  There is no criticism of command or the war in general.  Jim’s decision to go to war is not questioned.  GRADE  -  C

“The Fighting 69th” is one of the few WWI movies that is pro-war.  The main character is the only one who questions the war and that is because he is a coward.  All the other soldiers are enthusiastic.  One theme is that war brings the country together.  I guess you can’t laud a unit and criticize its war at the same time.  GRADE  -  F

FINAL SCORE:  Big Parade  -  27
                           Fighting 69th  -  20


MATCH ANALYSIS:   I liked “The Big Parade” better the first time I watched it. This time I found it quite the antique.  The scenes linger way past their expiration date.  It is more of a romance than a war movie.  Thank God for the big combat scene which saves the movie in the end.  It also has a great ending, although its schmaltzy.  I do believe it is overrated and was seeded too high.  But that is because IMDB judged it as a movie, not as a war movie and it got the ”classic” bump.  It had an easy first round opponent in the mediocre “Fighting 69th”.  It may be a talkie, but it is even more of a dinosaur than “Parade”.  I like Cagney, but he embarrasses himself in this movie.  Instead of concentrating on Donovan and Kilmer, we get Plunkitt.  And Duffy does not come off well as he continues to support an a-hole. 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

PATHS OF GLORY (2) vs. PASSCHENDAELE (15)


VS.



PLOT:    “Paths of Glory” is a court room (court-martial) drama set on the Western Front in 1916.  Although a fictional tale, it realistically portrays the state of the French army at the time and the incompetent and merciless leadership of the high command.  A French unit is forced to make a suicidal attack by a general seeking a promotion.  When the attack predictably fails, he insists on putting three random soldiers on trial for cowardice.  Their humane commanding officer defends them in the trial.  The plot is outstanding.  Although mainly concentrating on the trial, it does manage to set the scenario up with one of the great combat scenes as the unit makes its futile assault across a very realistic no man’s land.  Never have the machinations of WWI commanders been portrayed as perceptively.  GRADE  -  A+

“Passchendaele” is a romance set in WWI.  A Canadian soldier performs heroically on the Western Front, but his post traumatic stress disorder lands him back in Canada on recruitment duty.  He falls in love with a nurse.  In a parallel plot line, her brother is attempting to get himself sent to the front partly to win the hand of a local girl.  When he succeeds, the hero goes back to watch over him.  The nurse also ends up near the front lines.  “Passchendaele” is obviously not a true story as it bends itself into a pretzel to facilitate the plot arc.  It is very unrealistic, but does feature a balls to the wall combat scene at the end.   GRADE  -  C+

FIRST QUARTER SCORE:  Paths  -  10    Passchendaele  -  7

ACTING:  “Paths of Glory” has no weak performances.   Douglas is his usual charismatic self, even more so because he was passionate about the project.  His Dax is one of the great anti-authority figures in war movie history and ahead of his time in the genre.  He runs the gamut of that stereotype.  Sarcasm, slow-burns, seething, and finally snapping.  The supporting cast is not intimidated.  MacReady and Menjou are all-time slimy.  Two great villains in one movie.  Morris (who was a highly decorated ace in WWII) creates one of the great cowards in war movie history.  Ralph Meeker does his best work in an underrated career.  The most fascinating character is Ferol.  The eccentric Carey plays him to the hilt and his scene stealing aggravated the rest of the cast.   GRADE  -  A+

“Passchendaele” was written, directed, and starred in by Paul Gross.  Gross made a name for himself in the cult show “Due North” and brings some charisma to the role.  He’s no Kirk Douglas, but he is not bad.  The rest of the cast is far from stellar.  Credit is due for keeping a straight face through some of the ludicrous aspects of the plot.  Although the movie was the most expensive Canadian production up to that time, it does not show in the acting.
GRADE  -  C+

HALFTIME SCORE:  Paths  -  20    Passchendaele  -  14

COMBAT:  “Paths of Glory” is not a combat movie.  It only has about seven minutes of combat.  However, it uses two combat scenes to set up the court-martial.  The first is a night raid that is short on action, but is crucial for character development.  The highlight of the movie is the iconic assault through no man’s land.  Stanley Kubrick is at his best in this fabulous scene.  The bombardment effects are noisily realistic.  The camera tracks Dax as he leads his men through the shell-cratered landscape.  It is probably the most authentic rendering of the doomed assaults associated with the war.  I show it every year in class to prepare my students for their trench letter assignment.  Watching the scene leaves no doubt as to why the French army would face a mutiny problem.  GRADE  -  A

“Passchendaele” seems to have realized that it needed to compensate for its lame romance with some high octane action.  It has a total of 21 minutes of combat which puts it among the leaders in that category of quantity.   Surprisingly, the quality is not bad.  The final battle goes on for fifteen minutes and is graphic if cartoonish.  It is in the style of “Saving Private Ryan”.  There is even a bout of hand-to-hand with any weapons available.  You won’t be eating your popcorn during this scene.  It is far from realistic, but entertaining for the guys who brought their chicks to see a romance.  Hell, the Germans charge into no man’s land to meet the Canadians!  The movie is really strong on artillery fire, but so are most WWI movies.  GRADE  -  B

THIRD QUARTER SCORE:  Paths  -  29    Passchendaele  -  22

ANTI-WAR:  Have you seen “Paths of Glory”?  If so, you know where this is going.  Some WWI movies are famous for the Nazis banning them.  “Paths” was not banned in France, but the French government discouraged its debut there for two decades. It is easy to see why.  The movie is an indictment of the French brass that crassly sent thousands to their deaths while sipping claret in their chateaus.  The movie is more anti-command than anti-war.  No major character dies in combat.  It is the best movie ever made to show how the war was made horrific not only by the use of modern weaponry, but this was compounded by incompetent, uncaring generals who refused to adjust tactics to the realities of trench warfare.  GRADE  -  A+

“Passchedaele” is not the first WWI movie that comes to mind when you think of war criticism.  However, it actually is not just a feel-blood kind of movie.  The main character is cynical and only fights for love of Sarah.  The movie makes a point of showing the naivete of the new recruits and the recruiting head is a main villain.  The pressure to join the adventure is a theme.  The ending is heart-tugging.  GRADE  -  A

FINAL SCORE:  Paths  -  39    
                Passchendaele  -  31


MATCH ANALYSIS:  Everyone saw this outcome from a mile away.  “Paths” will be a strong contender for the championship and is one of the all-time great war movies.  “Passchendaele” is a relatively unknown movie that had no pretensions to grandeur.  I’m sure it was just happy to make the tournament.  It put up a decent fight, but never stood a chance.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Sgt. York (4) vs. The Lost Patrol (13)



VS.



PLOT:   “Sergeant York” is a biopic about the most decorated doughboy of WWI.  It introduces Alvin York as a hell-raising hillbilly who is a disappointment for his God-fearing mama.  The first part of the film covers York’s evolution from ne’er do well to born again Christian doing his best to win the heart and hand of his country sweetheart.  U.S. entry into WWI results in York being drafted.  At first he refuses to fight because thou shalt not kill, but thankfully for the audience he is convinced otherwise.  The last of the film reenacts his famous Medal of Honor exploit.  The plot is traditional.  York overcomes obstacles with the help of others.  Much of it is hokey by modern standards.  It is overtly religious.  GRADE  -  B

“The Lost Patrol” is also Old School.  It set the template for the subgenre of lost unit movies.  In this case, a British squad is cut-off at an oasis in the Sahara.  It also created some clichés like never climb a tree in a war movie.  The men are being picked off by an unseen enemy so it fits the “who will survive?” style.  It also is a small unit dynamics movie as the group of men has a variety of personalities.  Although the movie set standards for future war movies, the plot has not held up over the years.  There is a lack of reality to much of what happens and the supposedly seasoned soldiers make some stupid mistakes that perceptive viewers will find aggravating.  GRADE  -  C

FIRST QUARTER SCORE:  Sgt. York  -  8    Lost Patrol  -  7

ACTING:   “Sgt. York” is anchored by superstar Gary Cooper who won Best Actor Oscar for his performance.  He does a great job even if his age is distracting.  The rest of the cast has some recognizable faces like Walter Brenner as the local pastor.  He garnered an Academy Award nomination, as did Margaret Wycherly as York’s mammy.  The movie is basically stock characters played by stock actors.  There’s no scene-chewing, but there is an oversincerity.  GRADE  -  C

“The Lost Patrol” is an ensemble piece with Victor McLaglen at the center.  He and several other cast members were WWI veterans.  McLaglen is particularly good as the crusty sergeant and most of the rest are fine, but the overall rating is brought down by a grating performance by Boris Karloff as the religious fanatic in the unit.    GRADE  -  C

HALFTIME SCORE:  Sgt. York  -  15    Lost Patrol  -  14

COMBAT:  “Sgt. York” being a biopic, does not have much combat in it.  In fact, there is only one scene.  It’s a two parter with first a standard attack across no man’s land featuring some of the most laughable deaths in any war movie.  I have shown the assault in class so it is instructive, but not in the upper tier of WWI combat scenes.   This dynamic scene is followed by York’s individual action.  For some reason, this reenactment comes off inferior to the actual way the event played out.  GRADE  -  D

“The Lost Patrol” is not really meant to be a combat film.  The fighting consists of occasional sniping and the enemy is seldom seen.  What little action there is is painfully unrealistic.  Most of the men die because of a lack of common sense in securing their position.  The movie implies that the men are doomed, but that is only because of incompetence and due to the plot demanding it.  GRADE  -  F

THIRD QUARTER SCORE:   Sgt. York  -  20    Lost Patrol  -  18

ANTI-WAR:  “Sgt. York” is one of the few WWI movies that was actively pro-war.  It came out in 1941 and had a purpose of preparing the American public for involvement in the Second World War.  The last thing the producers wanted was for audiences to leave the theater horrified by the idea of another world war.  York goes from conscientious objector to patriotic warrior and becomes a celebrity.  The only sop to “war is Hell” is the death of one of York’s friends.  GRADE  -  F

“The Lost Patrol” is more anti-getting surrounded than it is anti-war.  It does feature likeable men (not counting Karloff’s Sanders).  Hell, Alan Hale gets killed!  There is little of the cynicism you get in lost patrol movies.  No one questions command decisions.  The cavalry arrives in the end.  GRADE  -  C

FINAL SCORE:  Sgt. York  -  24    

                           Lost Patrol  -  24


MATCH ANALYSIS:  So this pillow fight ends up in a tie.  No one wanted to win.  These are two overrated war movies, in my opinion.  “Sgt. York” is so much of its time that it has a lot of fans due to nostalgia.  It is firmly Old School.  It is as good as you could expect for when it was made.  It is effective in lionizing an authentic American hero and the audience ate it up with none of the groans that it would elicit in a theater today.  “The Lost Patrol” deserves credit for helping create an entire subgenre, but it seems quaint today.  It also established some clichés that we have had to deal with ever since then.  I recognize its importance, but it just is not a good movie.  Neither movie deserves to move on.  However, we have to have a winner and I am going to give it to “Sgt. York” because in a tournament to determine the best combat movie, it has a combat scene in it that is fairly good.   

Wooden Crosses (5) vs. All Quiet on the Western Front (1979) (12)


VS.





PLOT:  “Wooden Crosses” (“Les Croix de Bois”) is a French film set on the Western Front. The main character (Demachy) joins a heterogeneous small unit.  The men go through various trials including a night patrol and two major bouts of combat.  In between they try to maintain their humanity.  They have difficulty maintaining their existence as the unit is whittled away.    GRADE – B

“All Quiet on the Western Front” is the made-for-TV remake that stars Richard Thomas as Paul Baumer.  The plot follows the original and the book closely.  The movie uses a flashback format to look back at training camp.  Although there is some combat, the movie is primarily the tale of a group of friends and their comradeship on the Western Front.  The tale of the squad interlocks with Paul’s evolution from naivete to seasoned to cynical.  In some ways the plot improves upon the original.  Plus it is based on the greatest WWI novel.  GRADE -  A+

FIRST QUARTER SCORE:  All Quiet  -  10    Wooden Crosses  -  8

ACTING:  Although “Wooden Crosses” came out in 1932, the acting is not the typical scene-chewing left over from the silent movie era.  In fact, the acting is remarkably good.  The cast is full of notable French actors from the 1920s and 1930s.  Pierre Blanchar as Demachy and Gabriel Gabrio as Sulphart are the stand-outs, but all of their comrades are comfortably played.  GRADE  -  A

“All Quiet…” has a decent cast with the big three of Thomas, Ernest Borgnine as Kat, and ian Holm as Himmelstoss.  Thomas is surprisingly good and a big improvement over Lew Ayres.  If you have read the book, he embodies Paul Baumer.  Borgnine and Holm are also perfect for their roles.  The rest of the cast of soldiers, while little known, do a good job portraying characters from the book.  GRADE  -  A

HALFTIME SCORE:  All Quiet  -  19  Wooden Crosses  -  17

COMBAT:  “Wooden Crosses” has about 22 minutes of combat.  The night patrol is in a realistic no man’s land with nice lighting from flares.  Later, an attack on a village starts with a bombardment that makes you wonder how anyone would go over the top.  The attack is similar to “Paths of Glory”.  There are great sound effects with explosions and machine gun fire. This is a noisy movie. There are lots of grenades.  The scene goes on for an amazing twelve minutes.  The deaths are random as the French drop like flies.  GRADE  -  A

“All Quiet…” opens with the Germans defending their trench against a French attack.  Paul and his mates fire their bolt-action rifles at the advancing enemy.  The Germans then counterattack and are themselves repulsed. You know, a typical WWI skirmish.  This scene, although well done, is the only sustained combat in the film.  It does have some bombardment,  poison gas, and even a flamethrower, but these are basically to set up character centric scenes like Paul in the shell crater with the dying Frenchman.  It appears the budget did not allow for recreation of some of the big battle scenes from the original.  GRADE  -  C

THIRD QUARTER SCORE:  Wooden Crosses  -  26    All Quiet  -  26

ANTI-WAR:  “Wooden Crosses” is surprisingly not bitterly anti-war.  There is some cynicism, but the soldiers do not question the war.  Although it is about a French unit that undergoes terrible hardships in battle, there is no hint of the mutiny that is on the horizon.  There is a very high mortality rate, but the futility of the war is not laid on thick.  The movie is not interested in questioning the generalship.  GRADE  -  B-
“All Quiet…” is based on the most famous anti-war novel of all time and it is competent in rendering the book to the screen.  It has a similar mortality rate to “Wooden Crosses”, but the deaths have more of an impact due to better character development.  It also closes with one of the iconic deaths in war movie history.  Himmelstoss represents the inflexibility of command and Paul’s trip to the home front reveals the cluelessness of the civilian world.  Paul’s time in a hospital incorporates the horrors experienced by the wounded.  GRADE  -  A+

FINAL SCORE:  All Quiet  -  36  Wooden Crosses  -  34


MATCH ANALYSIS:  This was an exhilarating contest between two relatively unknown films. I had never seen “Wooden Crosses” before the tournament (the only one of the competitors that I had never seen) and have to thank whoever suggested it because I was very impressed with it.  It is one of the top ten movie about WWI.  It is a great movie, but it ran into a movie that I feel is unjustly disrespected.  “All Quiet…” (1979) took the greatest war novel and brought it into the modern age.  As a history teacher, I can guarantee you it is much better received by high school students than the original.  In this match, it came down to the winner translating the books plot and anti-war vibe effectively.  “Wooden Crosses” put up a great fight with the quantity and quality of its combat, but was let down by its luke-warm indictment of the war.   

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

GALLIPOLI (6) vs. THE LOST BATTALION (11)


VS.


PLOT:  “Gallipoli” is an Australian war film by Peter Weir.  He originally meant to cover the whole campaign, but decided to concentrate on two blokes and one battle.  The two buddies are track stars who volunteer for the Light Horse and are sent to Egypt for training and bonding with their mates and then it is off to the Ottoman Empire.  The battle they participate in is your typical Sommelike suicide attack.  The movie has clear themes of the naivete of rookie warriors, the comradeship of soldiers, and the incompetence of command.  The plot flows smoothly to the inevitable ending.  The characters are well-developed. Inexcusably for a director who intended to shed light on a campaign, Weir takes some liberties with the facts that he later had to apologize for.  GRADE  -  B

“The Lost Battalion” is the true story of an American unit that gets cut off from the main American force during an attack in the Argonne Forest.  The movie covers the entire incident from planning through rescue.  The plot balances coverage of the officers (especially Col. Whittlesey) and his men.  There are some clichés and it cribs from some other WWI movies like “Paths of Glory”.  The plot is what you would expect from a made-for-TV movie in that it is a straight-forward war tale with no frills.  It is an outstanding history lesson and covers its subject admirably.  GRADE  -  B

FIRST QUARTER SCORE:  Gallipoli  -  8    Lost Battalion  -  8

ACTING:  The cast in “Gallipoli” is average in make-up.  The star is a young Mel Gibson (post-“Mad Max”) and he does brash well.  His partner Mark Lee was making his film debut and he is shaky.  It is clear which one of the leads would become a superstar.  The supporting actors handle their stock characters adequately.  GRADE  -  B

“The Lost Battalion” has a made-for-TV cast.  The only recognizable face is Rick Schroder as Whittlesey.  The second-billed Phil McKee has no significant roles to his credit.  Both are excellent and get their historical persons pat.  Schroder is especially impressive and reminds of Matthew Broderick’s turn as Robert Shaw in “Glory”.  The doughboys are amateurish, but sincere.  GRADE  - B

HALFTIME SCORE:  Gallipoli  -  16    Battalion  -  16

COMBAT:  For a movie named after a battle, “Gallipoli” has very little combat.  The story builds to the climactic attack, but the actual fighting lasts less than two minutes.  It is a micro view and simply consists of men going over the top to be slaughtered by machine guns.  GRADE  -  D

“The Lost Battalion” has some of the highest quantity and quality of combat of any WWI movie.  There is about 21 minutes of it.  The opening attack across no man’s land into the forest is a tour de force.  It is surprisingly graphic for a TV movie.  That scene is filmed in the “Saving Private Ryan” style.  There is an intense bombardment where a main character literally is blown apart.  There is also a variety of combat.  There is a lot of hand-to-hand combat with bayonets commonly used.  The Germans even bring in flamethrowers.  GRADE  -  A+

THIRD QUARTER SCORE:  Battalion  -  26    Gallipoli  -  21

ANTI-WAR:  “Gallipoli” builds to one of the most poignant anti-war moments in war movie history.  Weir reenacts Robert Capa’s iconic photo from the Spanish Civil War entitled “The Falling Soldier”.  The movie is more anti-British than anti-war.  It’s the pig-headed British colonel who orders the fatal attack.  GRADE  -  A

“The Lost Battalion” is aimed at lionizing a unit, not condemning the war that put them in a sack.  It has a happy ending, but there are some heart-tugging deaths along the way.  Similar to “Gallipoli”, it indicts command.  It is the rare WWI movie that you do not come away from thinking how horrible the war was. 

FINAL SCORE:  Battalion  -  32
                            Gallipoli   -  30


MATCH ANALYSIS:  This result comes as no surprise to me.  I have always felt “Gallipoli” is overrated, but the tournament format hurt it.  In particular, in a tournament comparing combat movies, it just does not have much combat.  “The Lost Battalion” is a very underrated movie.  It is also not well known.  It is incredible to me that it was made for TV.  It has some of the most kick-ass combat of any war movie.  And it honors a famous unit of heroes.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Westfront 1918 (7) vs. Beneath Hill 60 (10)



VS.



PLOT:  “Westfront 1918” is the story of four German soldiers in the closing days of the war.  They are in the same unit and are stationed on the Western Front.  Two of them have romantic scenarios.  One falls in love with a French mademoiselle and the other has wife problems when he returns home on leave.  The plot effectively depicts soldier as well as civilian life  It includes the extended home front scene, a cabaret scene and several combat scenes.  It is unpredictable other than the clear implication that things will not end well for the main characters.  Director Georg Pabst brings a sober realism to his work.  A fact that was not appreciated by Joseph Goebbels.  GRADE  =  A

“Beneath Hill 60” is the true story of Australian mining engineer Oliver Woodward and his mining unit on the Western Front in 1916.  Their claustrophobic endeavor is to dig a tunnel under German lines to literally blow a hole in the enemy defenses.  The movie features dueling arcs as we follow Woodward’s courtship of a lass through flashbacks while the movie advances toward the climactic explosion.  Along the way, the small unit of diggers is fleshed out and the soldier experience is realistically portrayed.  GRADE  =  A

FIRST QUARTER SCORE:  Westfront  -  9    Beneath  -  9

ACTING:  “Westfront” has a limited cast of solid German actors.  There are really only four main roles in the film and yet there is not a lot of character development for the actors to work at.  The acting is noted only for what it is not.  It is not the typical scene-chewing style of the early talkies.  None of the performances are squirm-inducing.  Karl the cuckold (Gustav Diessl) and the jolly Bavarian (Fritz Kampers) stand out, but the acting is not what makes the movie memorable.  GRADE  -  C

“Beneath Hill 60” is well acted, especially by Brendan Cowell as Woodward.  He has a lot of charisma, but underplays the role.  He makes Woodward a likeable character who has some tough decisions to make.  The supporting cast provides excellent work.  You care about the men and some of the deaths are powerful.  GRADE  -  A

HALFTIME SCORE:  Beneath  -  18    Westfront -  15

COMBAT:  “Westfront” has about 13 minutes of combat.  There is a French raid on their trench that has more grenades than any other WWI movie that I can recall.  The masterpiece comes at the end of the movie when the French make a major attack that goes on for over eight minutes.  This scene has more grenades, but throws in some lumbering tanks.  It is realistically chaotic and the shell-shock the lieutenant gets is well-earned.  GRADE  -  A

“Beneath Hill 60” also has 13 minutes of combat. Although the movie concentrates on the tunnel construction, it does manage to get some action in.  In fact, there is even some combat underground as both sides are countermining.  The director throws in a nifty night raid on a German machine gun position.  GRADE  -  B-

THIRD QUARTER SCORE:  Beneath  -  25    Westfront  -  24
  
ANTI-WAR:   Goebbels’ banning it should tell you something about “Westfront 1918”.  It is one of the most anti-war movies ever made.  The death rate of the main characters is very high.  One of them is killed in a man-to-man death match in a shell crater.  When his body is later seen by his buddies, all they see is one of his arms above ground.  They toss some dirt on it.  The movie gets bleaker as it moves along. Even the home front scene is depressing.  In the charnel house of a hospital in the closing scene, a character sums up the horrific war with the line: “It’s everyone’s fault.”  GRADE  -  A+

“Beneath Hill 60” is not designed as an overtly anti-war film.  There are some heart-tugging deaths, but they are not of the futile variety.  The movie is more anti-command, as it has the clueless general you see in so many WWI movies.  There are no suicidal attacks.  GRADE  -  B-

FINAL SCORE:   Westfront 1918  -  34     Beneath Hill 60  -  32

MATCH ANALYSIS:  I am a big fan of both of these films and it is a shame either has to exit the tournament this early.  I have a feeling that because of the seeding we will have at least one movie that makes the second round that will be inferior to “Beneath Hill 60”.  It just ran into a classic that holds up even against a modern war movie.  I do not reflexively bow before the old school “masterpieces”, but “Westfront 1918” is a great movie that has unfortunately been overshadowed by “All Quiet on the Western Front”.