Tuesday, June 28, 2016

NOW SHOWING: The Free State of Jones (2016)




                “The Free State of Jones” is the newest war movie to hit the silver screen.  And it’s a summer release, imagine that.  The movie was written and directed by Gary  Ross (“Seabiscuit”).  It was filmed in the film-friendly state of Louisiana because we have some nice swamps and tremendous tax breaks.  (Who needs educational funding?)  It is based on the true story of Newton Knight and the secession of Jones County from the Confederacy during the Civil War.

                The movie opens with an ominous reference to the fact that the movie will cover the period from 1862-1876 - the Civil War and Reconstruction.  The movie begins with a short snippet of the Battle of Corinth, but it is combatus interruptus as we get the march to but not the payoff.  Newton Knight’s (Matthew McConaughey) job is to haul the wounded to the hospital.  A point is made that officers get preferential treatment.  This is part of the theme that “it’s a rich man’s war, and a poor man’s fight”.  Newt and his comrades are particularly incensed with the “Twenty Negro Law” that exempted slaveowners from conscription.  When his nephew arrives at the front, he decides they will escape by sneaking into no man’s land in broad daylight.  If this is not silly enough, their plot is foiled by three soldiers who want them to join in a bayonet charge!  The death of the nephew causes Newt to return home, easily.  Back at Jones County, Rebel soldiers are confiscating property and being dicks about it.  Lt. Barbour (Brad Carter) channels Bosie from “Cold Mountain”.  He’s a pretty lame opponent, unfortunately.
 
                When Newt’s son has a fever, he is cured by a slave woman named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).  Suddenly, it appears the projectionist has put on the wrong reel because we are in a court room 85 years later for a very brief taste of a descendant of Knight on trial for being black and married to a white woman.  After this brief, bizarre side trip, it’s back to the Civil War.  Because he stands up to the confiscators, Kinight has to take refuge in the swamps where he joins some runaway slaves and bonds with a Moses (Mahershala Ali).  Rachel keeps them supplied and there is some more bonding, naturally.  The fall of Vicksburg results in more deserters joining them.  Newt organizes them into a guerrilla band.  Another theme is that the poor farmers are in the same boat with the slaves.  There is a nifty skirmish at a church that leads up to a battle to take the town of Ellisville.  This results in the declaration of “The Free State of Jones”.  Article #4 – “every man is a man”.  When the war ends, Moses works to register blacks to vote and Newt supports his efforts.  The Ku Klux Klan makes an appearance. 
                I give “The Free State of Jones” credit for bringing an interesting, little known story to the masses.  It reminded me of “Defiance” (a superior movie) in several aspects.  I have read a lot on the Civil War, but I was not familiar with this story.  As I will point out, the movie is admirably accurate, if unrealistic.  The acting is average.  McConaughey sucked up most of the budget for salaries so the rest of the cast is unknowns except for the underused Keri Russell as his morose wife.  The movie is essentially a biopic (more than a war movie) and McConaughey is in virtually every scene.  He plays Newt as a grim saint.  (He rebuilds the church by himself.)  There is not a lot of emotional range on display.  When his son returns after five years, there’s nary a hug.  The dialogue is terse and occasionally pious.  For every nongraphic, brief action scene, we get a religious reference.  This criticism is diluted by the fact that Knight was very religious.

                The movie is competently made.  The soundtrack is not bombastic and actually is not noticeable.  There is some showy camerawork of the close-up, spin around the head to show confusion variety.  The sets are fine.  You can certainly find places in Louisiana that take you back to the 1860s.  The problem is with the screenplay.  I have absolutely no problem with long movies, but this movie is too long.  The movie builds to the declaration of statehood and then fizzles.  It tacks on the Reconstruction sequence which does bring some closure to the black rights arc, but is not satisfying enough to justify it.  The flash-forwards to the court case may have seemed like a creative way to show how things had not changed in 85 years, but they just don’t work and break the flow of the narrative.

                I have a soft spot for movies that bring light to interesting historical obscurities, so I cannot be too harsh on “The Free State of Jones”.   It flubbed an opportunity, but at least we now know the story.  And thankfully, the script did not have McConaughey saying “Our rights, our rights, our rights”.

GRADE  =  C


HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  Newton Knight is a controversial figure and some of his actions are legendary.  Obviously, Ross chose sources that were positive.  The negative sources could best be described as racist.   With that said, the script could have made Knight less saintly.  In fact, the movie is very light on conflict.  There are only cursory racial tensions among the deserters and runaways in the swamp.  And although Jones County was a likely anti-secession area (only 12% of its people were slaves and the county voted 374-24 against secession), the movie would have you believe no one felt that Knight and his band were traitors.

                Knight was religious, anti-slavery, anti-secession, and pro-Union.  However, he was not conscripted as the movie implies, but volunteered for the army.  One source claims he was enthusiastic about soldiering.  He became an orderly working with the wounded and was at the siege of Corinth.  He did desert, but there was no nephew involved.  His reason (and that of his right hand man, Jasper Collins) was the infamous “Twenty Negro Law” which exempted slaveowners from conscription.  The movie does a good job highlighting the resentment of some poor soldiers toward the dominant and privileged planter class.  However, soldiers from Jones County would not have been typical as most Rebel soldiers supported the slave system.  Upon returning home, Knight became acquainted with the depredations of the “tax in kind” policy.  The movie accurately depicts how farmers would be plundered of livestock and supplies.  Early in 1863, Knight was captured for desertion and probably tortured.  His farm was destroyed.  Deserters like Knight responded with looting and killing, presumably of pro-secessionists.  A Maj. McLemore (Col. Murphy in the film) arrived and started hunting down the deserters, capturing over one hundred.  McLemore was killed in bed, most likely by Knight.  Knight and his ilk encamped in the swamp at a place they called “Devil’s Den”.  Slaves like Rachel helped supply them.  Knight’s group became known as the Jones County Scouts and he was unanimously elected leader.  It is unclear how many of the unit were runaways, but it definitely was more of an anti-secession than anti-slavery group.  The movie probably overplays the poor whites are in the same boat as slaves theme, although Knight himself apparently believed this.

                There was a skirmish at a church.  It is highly unlikely that it started with a grieving widow shooting a Rebel soldier in the head.  There was a lot of Hollywood in that scene.  The Jones County Scouts conducted a guerrilla war that caught the attention of the Confederate government.  They gained control of the town of Ellisville, but there was no battle in the streets.  The Free State of Jones was proclaimed.  A Col. Lowry came with two regiments and quelled the rebellion by hanging ten and forcing the rest to take refuge in the swamps.  When Lowry withdrew, the guerrilla activities resumed.  The last recorded action was a skirmish at Sal’s Battery in Jan., 1865 won by Knight’s men.


                During Reconstruction, Knight supported the carpetbagger government.  This made him unpopular with many whites.  He did go on raids to free black kids still being held in slavery, but the Moses character is fictional.  Later, he was appointed head of a militia regiment of blacks to combat the Ku Klux Klan.  In his personal life, he had taken up with Rachel and had five kids with her as his common law wife.  Also living on the farm was his wife Serena who he had nine kids with.  They were never divorced.  He established a small, mixed race community that left him ostracized from white society and accounts partly for the negativity of some sources.  The subplot of his great-grandson’s trial for miscegenation is accurate.     

Sunday, June 26, 2016

FORGOTTEN GEM? A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958)



                “A Time to Love and a Time to Die” is based on Erich Remarque’s novel.  It is sometimes referred to as “All Quiet on the Eastern Front” although it is set in the second world war and bears little resemblance to the classic.  Remarque co-wrote the film and acts in it.  It was directed by Douglas Sirk (“Battle Hymn”).  It was filmed in West Germany.  Because of its sympathetic portrayal of German soldiers, the movie was banned in Israel and the Soviet Union.

                The film opens with a German unit retreating on the Eastern Front.  They billet in a vacant village where they uncover the frozen body of a comrade.  The men are exhausted and most are bitter and cynical.  The exception is a hard-core Nazi named Steinbrenner.  Every unit has one.  Some of the men are ordered to execute some civilians who have been determined to be “guerrillas”.  One of the men (a young Timothy Hutton) takes his own life because of this.
 
                Ernst Graeber (John Gavin) is given a furlough after two years at the front.  He returns home to find no home and no parents.  When he tells an old man that he has come from the front, the old man responds:  “This is the front.”  Graeber meets Elizabeth (Liselotte Pulver) and the relationship starts like every movie romance – rocky.  While searching for his parents, Graeber meets an old classmate who is now a Nazi official.  Binding (Thayer David) lives like prince in his mansion decorated with stolen art.  He is very chummy with Graeber, however.

                Ernst and Elizabeth dine in a fancy restaurant where the rich are unaffected by the war.  Until an air raid blows up the restaurant.  Air raids are a recurring theme of the movie.  If the actors did not speak German, you might think you wandered into a movie set in the Blitz.  Ernst and Elizabeth get married and even the bombing of her apartment can’t dampen their love.  What does put a damper on things is the fact that the Gestapo is searching for Elizabeth.  Her father had been shipped off to a concentration camp for criticizing the war.  Maybe Binding can help, plus this gives the plot the chance to introduce a loathsome Nazi (Klaus Kinski, probably not acting) who enjoys his work in the concentration camp.  These air raids are getting dangerous, lucky thing Graeber has to return to the front.  His respite from executing civilians is about to end.

                “A Time to Love and a Time to Die” is largely forgotten today because it is forgettable.  Most people don’t know there is another war movie based on a Remarque novel.  I have not read the book, but I would hazard that the book is as inferior to All Quiet… as the movie is to the movie.  It was impossible for Remarque to replicate the brilliance of his earlier novel and it is commendable that he did not try.  The movie is more of a romance than a war movie.  There is no combat and little of the soldier interaction that the first is noted for.  In exchange, we get a lame romance with lame dialogue.  It does not help that there is no chemistry between the leads.  Pulver plays Elizabeth as a bubbly, Bohemian in spite of her father’s fate.  Gavin is just a bad actor.  He is his usual wooden self.  (He is better than Lew Ayres, I must admit.)  The rest of the cast is not bad and Remarque (who plays a dissenting German teacher) is surprisingly good.  Acting honors go to Keenan Wynn who brings some needed levity as one of Graeber’s friends.  The movie strangely lacks suspense.  It does set up potentially interesting scenarios like the search for the parents and the Gestapo wanting to locate Elizabeth, but then does not pay off.  It also has a perplexing case of villain interruptus.

                With all that said, the movie was better than I expected.  I had never seen it and had no desire to see it, so I assumed it was a dog.  While not being a gem, it’s worth a watch if you are determined to see every decent war movie or you want to know the basic plot of another Remarque novel.  Or see a famous novelist playing in a movie based on his novel.  Or you are a big John Gavin fan.  Ronald Reagan probably watched the movie several times.


GRADE  =  C+

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

SHOULD I READ IT? Max Manus: Man of War (2008)



                “Max Manus:  Man of War” is a Norwegian film about a famous national hero.  It is a biographical war movie that is based on Manus’ biographies and other historical research.  The film was a major production and used 1,800 extras and 2,000 people behind the cameras.  Parts of Oslo were adapted to represent the 1940s including flying Nazi Germany flags above public buildings.  The movie was a big hit in Norway and won numerous awards.  It was Norway’s submission for Best Foreign Film for the Oscars.

                The movie opens with Manus (Aksel Hennie) fighting in the Winter War in Finland.  He is in the middle of a battle.  The movie then jumps to him in a hospital bed.  The plot is nonlinear and will return to the Winter War battle as a framing device.  When he returns to Norway, Manus joins the Resistance.  He and his buddies form a group and put out a propaganda paper.  They are like frat boys enjoying the adrenaline rush.  Many of those friends will not survive the war.  After being captured by the Gestapo, Max escapes to Great Britain.  In Scotland, he is trained in sabotage.  In particular, the new unit targets German shipping in Oslo harbor.  Operation Mardonius involves sneaking around the harbor after dark to lay Limpet mines.  The mines are hand-placed below the waterlines.  Every superhero needs a supervillain.  Gestapo agent Fehmer plays this role.  He hounds Manus and his Oslo Gang.  The pressure wears on Max and he shows symptoms of PTSD.  He is still able to go for one last big score.  The target is a munitions ship called the Donau.  Even a Norwegian movie needs a huge explosion, right?

                Based on my research, the movie appears to be accurate.  Of course, much of this depends on the veracity of Manus’ recollections.  Some have called into question whether he actually fought in the Winter War, but the consensus is that he did.  This is fortunate because the scenes flashing back to the battle juice up the film and are a good framing device.  The rest of Manus’ acts are believable.  His superhero actions are balanced with some luck.  For instance, he is lucky that the Gestapo was incompetent.  At one point he is left virtually unguarded in a hospital and he is able to escape.  This in spite of his being one of the most wanted men in Norway.  The sabotage efforts in the harbor take advantage of laughable security.  These missions must have been accurate, otherwise the screenwriter would have added more suspense to the film.  His trips back and forth to England are not fraught with tension.  Most of the tension in the movie comes from Manus’ reaction to the loss of friends.  One theme of the movie is survivor’s guilt.  Hennie does a good job portraying this.  The acting overall is fine. 

                “Max Manus” is a middle of the road Resistance movie.  It is certainly inferior to its closest relative “Flame and Citron”.  This does not make it a bad movie.  There is some interesting cinematography.  The dialogue is fine, if unmemorable.  As a history fanatic, the accuracy is a big plus, but is also a weakness since the movie lacks suspense.  To tell the truth, after watching the movie, I wondered why Manus is such a national hero. 

GRADE  =  B-

Friday, June 17, 2016

BOOK/MOVIE: War Horse


VS.



                The movie “War Horse” is based on a young adult novel by Michael Murpago.  It was first published in Great Britain in 1982.  This review will highlight the differences between the book and the movie.  Spoiler alert:  plot points will be brought up.

                In the book, Albert first meets the horse after his father buys him at an auction for 3 guineas (not 30 as in the movie and there is no bidding war with an evil landlord).  “Joey” is meant to be a second work horse as the family already has an elderly horse named “Zoey”.  The father is more of a mean drunk than in the movie.  There is no trouble training Joey to plow.  There is no evil landlord who is threatening to take the farm.  (It goes without saying that there is no landlord’s son to be a rival to Albert.)  There is a field plowing incident but it involves a simple bet between the father and another farmer.  There is no devastating storm that destroys the turnip crop. 

                Mr. Narracott sells the horse to Capt. Nicholls, much to the anguish of Albert.  At the military camp, Joey meets a large black stallion named Topthorn, but unlike the movie, the two horses become friends and are never rivals.  Nicholls and Topthorn’s owner, Capt. Stewart, are actually best friends.  The movie omits the tempestuous crossing of the English Channel.  The first combat is when the cavalry unit ambushes an infantry unit on the march.  Nicholls is killed and Joey is given to a private named Warren.  After a rough winter, the unit makes an attack across no man’s land that is disastrous.  Joey and Topthorn make it all the way, but Stewart and Warren are captured.  At this point, Joey and Topthorn become ambulance horses.  The movie adds the subplot of the two deserting German brothers.  Joey and Topthorn are stabled at the farm of Emilie and her grandfather.  Each day, after transporting the wounded, they come home.  They are treated well by the Germans and develop a relationship with the little girl.  When the hospital moves on, they are left behind.  Later, they are conscripted as artillery horses.  They are part of a six horse team.  It is not easy, but there is no villain and they are treated as well as could be expected.  However, Topthorn does die of exhaustion.  Immediately after this scene, there is a British attack involving tanks that creates panic and Joey is left behind.  He ends up in no man’s land, injured but not tangled in barbed wire.  Both sides are sympathetic and want the horse.  A soldier from each side comes and the Brit wins the coin toss.

                Joey is taken to a veterinary hospital where it turns out Albert is stationed.  He had entered the army and insisted on being assigned to a vet unit.  He recognizes Joey after cleaning off all the dirt and grime.  The book has a scene where Joey almost dies of tetanus.  When the war ends (as in the book), the horses are to be auctioned off.  All of the vet unit chip in to buy him for Albert.  Emilie’s grandfather buys him, but then gives him to Albert when he sees how much Albert cares about him and for the promise to keep Emilie’s memory alive.

                As you can see, the movie added quite a bit of melodrama to the story.  This is most likely because the movie was aimed at a mass audience whereas the novel was aimed at young adults.  Also, you have to factor in the fact that the movie was directed by Steven Spielberg.  It is a typical Spielberg emotion-tugger.  He throws in a comical goose as a sop to the kiddies, but adds a few villains to make the movie more serious than the book.  The book is strangely free of any villains.  Even the Germans are uniformly sympathetic characters.  Everyone loves Joey.  The biggest difference between the book and the movie is the book is told from the horse’s point of view.  This makes the novel unique and noteworthy.  Understandably, the movie does not take this perspective.  It is more cookie-cutting by Spielberg.

                Which one is better?  It is a bit hard to compare them because of who their target audiences are.  Each is effective entertainment.  Each is flawed for a war movie and war novel lover.  The book is definitely juvenile.  The dialogue is hard to read without grimacing.  Murpago writes too sincerely.  But the book does not have as many laughable scenes as the movie.  Spielberg throws in ridiculous scenarios.  The book is not as predictable, but it is more simplistic. 
  
BOOK  =  C

MOVIE  =  C

Saturday, June 11, 2016

FINAL: All Quiet (1979) vs. Paths of Glory

So it comes down to the two top seeds. This is the first of my tournaments that this has happened. Seems appropriate, however. I'm going to wait a couple of days so people can weigh in on which movie they feel is the better WWI combat film.


VS.


As per tradition, the finals are based on the previous categories partly because I can't think of four more categories that work.

PLOT                                              Paths = A+ (10)     All Quiet = A+ (10)
ACTING                                         Paths = A+ (10)     All Quiet = C (6)
COMBAT                                        Paths = A (9)          All Quiet = B (8)
ANTI-WAR                                    Paths = A+ (10)     All Quiet = A+ (10)
REALISM                                       Paths = A (9)          All Quiet = A (9)
DIALOGUE                                    Paths = A+ (10)     All Quiet = B (8)
SOLDIER BEHAVIOR                   Paths = B (8)          All Quiet = A (9)
ENTERTAINMENT                        Paths = A+ (10)     All Quiet = A (9)
EFFECTS, ETC.                              Paths = A (9)          All Quiet = B- (7)
INTERIORS/EXTERIORS            Paths = A+ (10)     All Quiet = B- (7)
CINEMATOGRAPHY                    Paths = A+ (10)     All Quiet = A (9)
CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT     Paths = A+ (10)     All Quiet = C (6)


PATHS OF GLORY = 115
ALL QUIET = 98

MATCH ANALYSIS: While the match-up was not a surprise, the results were. Most would agree that "Paths" and "All Quiet" are the two greatest WWI movies. You would think the final would have been closer, but if you look at the categories, "Paths" has few weaknesses and "All Quiet" has some of the weaknesses common to the classics of the early talkie days. This explains the low mark for acting and relatively low marks for technical aspects. Both movies are black and white, but the gap of decades makes "Paths" a modern war film. If you perfectly colorized it and released it today for the first time, I feel it would do well (and possibly be more successful than it was). The same could not be said for "All Quiet" (1930). For those who get upset with my view, remember the tournament was to determine the best WWI combat film, not the greatest.

Thanks to everyone who followed the tournament. Sorry it took so long, but it takes time to watch 22 movies. It was a labor of love, however.


Tuesday, June 7, 2016

#2 Paths of Glory vs. #11 The Lost Battalion


VS.



EFFECTS, SOUNDS, MUSIC:  “Paths of Glory” is not an effects driven movie. It only has the one combat scene, but it is outstanding.  It probably has the best bombardment sounds and effects of any WWI movie. The movie is sparse on music, but what it has is effective.  It was one of the first war movies to use snare drums as the dominant music.  The drum roll at the execution stands out.  GRADE  -  A

“The Lost Battalion” is a made-for-TV movie so you can’t expect outstanding effects.  It tries hard to reach the new generation of movie watchers.  The sound effects are loud and brash.  You hear bayonets going in to human flesh.  The machine gun noises are among the best.  The other effects are of the exploding trampoline style.  Explosions hurl stunt men into the air.  The flame throwers are the most memorable image from the film.  The sounds and special effects are really fiery.  There is also a horrific friendly fire bombardment that includes one of the most awesome effects I have seen in a war movie.  A shell literally blows Lt. Gaedeke up.  The film has little music.  Surprisingly, the music is not used to rev up the action.  GRADE  -  B

FIRST QUARTER SCORE:  Paths of Glory  -  9    Lost Battalion  -  8

INTERIORS AND EXTERIORS:  “Paths of Glory” makes a point of contrasting the exteriors of the generals to those of the soldiers and the same for the interiors.  The trench is well-constructed, if a bit too wide (probably for the famous tracking shot).  It has the best no man’s land of any WWI movie.  The craters and the barbed wire are strewn, as they should be.  Throw in the rubble of a house. There is even a crashed plane.  This is contrasted with the immaculate grounds of the chateau.  The inside is “splendid, superb” as Gen. Broulard marvels.  The movie was partly responsible for the public’s image of “chateau generals”.  Meanwhile, Dax stays in a Spartan bunker that looks authentic.  GRADE  -  A+

The trench in “Lost Battalion” looks like it was constructed for a made-for-TV movie.  It is too pristine.  No man’s land looks artificial.  It is small scale.  Most of the movie takes place in a forest.  Whittlesey’s bunker is generic, but the command bunker has some style to it.  GRADE  -  C

HALFTIME SCORE:  Paths of Glory  -  19    Lost Battalion  -  14

CINEMATOGRAPHY:  “Paths of Glory” is the crown jewel in Georg Krause’s long career as a cinematographer.  It is an outstanding effort.  The movie is a clinic on cinematography.  You have the famous tracking shots of Dax moving along the trench between the soldiers and then leading them through no man’s land.  The camera follows him through the chaos.  Later, the camera follows Broulard as he walks through waltzing guests at his chateau.  The court-martial features off-center shots and deep focus.  GRADE  -  A+

Jonathan Freeman is an award-winning television cinematographer.  He was obviously influenced by  “Saving Private Ryan” for the frenetic battle scenes.  The movie is very much in the new style of war movie visuals.  Lots of quick cuts, some hand held shots, some slo-mo, some shifting perspectives.  There is even an homage to “Paths of Glory” as Whittlesey reenacts the walk through the trench pre-battle.  GRADE  -  B-

THIRD QUARTER SCORE:  Paths of Glory  -  29    Lost Battalion  -  21

CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT:  “Paths of Glory” has an outstanding cast of characters and all the main ones are indelibly portrayed.  Two in particular deserve mention:  Mireau and Saint-Auban.  At first, Mireau appears to care for his men, but when a promotion is dangled in front of him, he sells them out.  Later, he threatens to open artillery fire on these same men.  His arc from ambitious to pure villainous is notable.  Maj. Saint-Auban is a forgotten figure, but he is the classic lackey kissing Mireau’s butt.  Every main character is a distinct person.   This is crucial for the condemned men.   GRADE  -  A+

“The Lost Battalion” tries hard to distinguish the main characters. The character development is a bit simplistic.  Whittlesey is the New York lawyer who grows into leadership.  He has a stoical veteran as his second-in-command.  Gen. Alexander is the stereotyped bullheaded brass.  The doughboys are stock characters, but they are distinct (if you watch the movie more than once).  Some of their deaths are tugging.  GRADE  -  C

FINAL SCORE:  Paths  -  39
                           Battalion  -  27


MATCH ANALYSIS:  The inevitable blow-out.  These categories left “The Lost Battalion” at a severe disadvantage.  Three of them were production-oriented and “Paths” was a major production.  Those same categories were influenced a lot by the directors involved.  “Paths” was directed by possibly the greatest war movie director of all time.  Stanley Kubrick was a master and Russell Mulcahy did several music videos for Elton John.  “Nuf said.  “The Lost Battalion” is the best WWI movie made in the last twenty years, but in this case, older was better.  Still, making the final four was quite an accomplishment for a made-for-TV movie.

Monday, June 6, 2016

#1 - ALL QUIET (1930) vs. #12 - ALL QUIET (1979)


VS.



EFFECTS, SOUNDS, MUSIC:  “All Quiet” (1930) has great effects for a movie released in 1930.  Like most WWI movies, the bombardment effects are impressive.  However, the effects director tends to have his bombardments appear as a perfect line of explosions.  No artillery barrage could have been that accurate.  There is certainly a lot of earth thrown around.  The sound effects tend toward noisy over quality.  Most of the shells whine.  There are some really cool staccato machine gun sounds.  As far as music, there is no soundtrack.  I believe it is better to have too little music than too much, but a little would have enhanced the film.  GRADE  -  B-

 “All Quiet” (1979) is a made-for-TV movie so you can’t expect spectacular effects.  The bombardment effects are fine.  The sounds are excellent.  When the men go through the barbed wire, you hear the tinkling.  Surprisingly for a modern war movie, there is not much of a soundtrack.  Alyn Ferguson was a well-respected composer for mostly TV productions.  He was not looking to win an Emmy for his work here.  The soundtrack does not tug at emotions or tell you how to feel.  Most scenes have no music.  GRADE  -  C

FIRST QUARTER SCORE:  1930  -  7    1979  -  6

INTERIORS AND EXTERIORS:  “All Quiet” (1930) is weak on interiors.  The dugouts are too simple.  There are no bunk beds evident.  This is not accurate for depicting the elaborate underground structures the Germans constructed.  The billets are fine, but lack much mise en scene. The military hospital is too pristine and quiet.  No one is screaming in pain.  There was no chaos.  No man’s land is excellently recreated.  There are plenty of shell craters and barbed wire.  The trenches are fairly generic and there is little evidence of the zig-zag nature of the real trenches.  GRADE  -  B-

“All Quiet” (1979) has a bunker scene with bunks.  It is sturdily built.  Several billets are in bombed out buildings.  The hospital looks more realistic than in the 1930 version as it is crowded and busy, but still too quiet.  The classroom and Paul’s home appear to have verisimilitude    No man’s land is medium scale, but a crane shot shows it as appropriately pock-marked.  The trench is zig-zag in configuration and a later scene even has a fire-step.  The towns in France show the effects of bombardment (but that just might be the Czechoslovakian locales the movie was filmed in).  GRADE  -  A-

HALFTIME SCORE:  1930  -  14    1979  -  14

CINEMATOGRAPHY:  “All Quiet” (1930) was nominated for Best Cinematography at the Academy Awards.  Arthur Edeson was one of the great Old School cinematographers.  He was fond of shots through doorways and windows.  As you watch the movie, you are aware of the movie’s composition.  It is one of the reasons the film is considered a masterpiece.  Although made in 1930, the big trench battle is a tour de force with tracking shots and the POV shots of the machine guns mowing down the fodder.  The movie is most famous for its shots of the French jumping into the trench.  GRADE  -  A

John Coquillon filmed the new version.  He also did “Cross of Iron” among many other movies.  His efforts are workmanlike and there are few bells or whistles.  I did not drop my jaw a single time.  It’s above average for a made-for-TV movie.  Some of the cinematography makes nods to the original, like the severed hands on the barbed wire and the hand-to-hand combat.  GRADE  -  C

THIRD QUARTER SCORE:  1930  -  23    1979  -  20

CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT:  There are ten significant characters in both movies.  The 1930 version does a great job on three of them:  Paul, Kat, and Tjaden.  Himmelstoss is one note.  We know he is a postman who lets power go to his head.  The squadmates are hard to distinguish without a scorecard.  GRADE  -  C 

The 1979 version spends more time establishing the various personalities.  In particular, the new version is much better at Paul’s arc from na├»ve schoolboy to cynical veteran.  Almost every scene centering on Paul is an improvement over the original in developing his character. A subtle theme is Paul’s eventual smoking of cigarettes. The movie makes a point of identifying his comrades in an early voiceover.  GRADE  -  A

FINAL SCORE:  1930  -  29
                           1979  -  29


MATCH ANALYSIS:  Wow, another tie.  I think under the circumstances I am going to advance the original.  Using a boxing analogy, if you want to take the crown from the champ, you have to beat them decisively.  I do not feel the categories were the right ones for determining which is the better movie, but I have to stick to the format.  I am working on a future post that will determine which movie is the better version of the novel. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

ALL QUIET (1930) (1) vs. OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR (9)


VS.



REALISM:  Erich Remarque, who wrote All Quiet on the Western Front, was a veteran of WWI.  The movie recreates the realism of the book.  This starts with the opening scene that reflects the enthusiasm of the German people for the war.  The training camp scenes give a taste of Prussian discipline.  At the front, director Milestone did a remarkable job with the trenches, dugouts, and no man’s land.  The film includes references to the rats, the lice, shell shock.  The battles are as realistic as one could expect with the technology available.  Paul’s trip home shows the cluelessness of the public to the facts at the front.  GRADE  -  A

“Oh! What a Lovely War” is not meant to be literally realistic.  In fact, much of it is surreal.  One scene has the cavalry as a merry go round.  The Brighton West Pier represents the home front.  Perhaps surprisingly, the front is earthy and unsentimental.  It throws in little touches like early gas masks and canaries to warn of gas attacks.  The most realistic aspect of the film is the depiction of the leaders.  They are damned by their own words and attitudes.  GRADE  -  C+

FIRST QUARTER SCORE:  All Quiet  -  9    Lovely War  -  7

DIALOGUE:  “All Quiet” is not a dialogue driven movie.  It has few famous quotes, but the soldier banter is natural.  There are two scenes where dialogue is strong -  when the soldiers discuss the war and when Paul returns to his old classroom and describes the war to the new potential cannon-fodder.  GRADE  -  B

“Lovely War” uses a lot of primary source material so the words coming out of the mouths of the kings and generals are real.  The rest of the dialogue is fine and not flowery.  If you count the numerous period songs, then the dialogue is outstanding.  The songs are an integral part of the story and are not just background or filler.  GRADE  -  A

HALFTIME SCORE:  All Quiet  -  17    Lovely War  -  16

SOLDIER BEHAVIOR:  “All Quiet” is one of the best movies in delineating German soldier life in WWI.   You can learn a lot about soldier life in WWI from this movie.  The movie is especially strong in its depiction of soldier camaraderie.  The bonds are forged in the furnace of the trenches.  The film throws in numerous details of the hardships the soldiers endured.  It hits many of the “lacks”:  food, female companionship,  sleep, hygiene   GRADE  -  A

“Lovely War” is not really focused on depicting soldier life.  The vibe is apt.  The arc takes the men from patriotic enthusiasm to jaded cynicism.  The black humor is relevant.  The very British behavior may be a little clicheish, but there was a certain stiff upper lip quality to the British soldiers of the Great War.  GRADE  -  B

THIRD QUARTER SCORE:  All Quiet  -  26    Lovely War  -  24

ENTERTAINMENT:  “All Quiet” is a faithful presentation of the most famous war novel.  The movie was a box office success and garnered the Best Picture award.  The plot is a near perfect imagining of the effect the war could have on a group of young men who volunteer with no real knowledge of war and end up tasting the fruits and ashes of that war.  It was smashing entertainment for the 1930s, but is a bit outdated today.  This is mainly attributable to the archaic silent movie style acting of much of the cast.  All things considered, it holds up remarkably well and can be viewed numerous times if you are a war movie fan.  GRADE  -  A

“Lovely War” is a unique take on the war.  It is probably the most female-friendly of the movies in the tournament.  The songs are numerous and very entertaining.  Unfortunately, you have to be historically literate to really enjoy the movie.  It is something of a niche film.  Since most people are only vaguely familiar with the history of the war, it is not entertainment for the masses.  It is more educational than entertainment.  GRADE  -  B

FINAL SCORE:  All Quiet  -  35
                           Lovely War  -  32

MATCH ANALYSIS:  This was an intriguing match-up between movies with contrasting styles.  “All Quiet” is justifiably considered to be a masterpiece, but “Lovely War” deserves to be considered one of the best WWI movies.  Certainly, “All Quiet” should have advanced in a tournament to determine the best WWI combat film.  It is the quintessential movie of its type.  “Lovely War” is a square peg in a round hole. As a musical set in the war, it is without peer.  My suggestion is to pair the movies up to get the full WWI experience.  Watch “All Quiet” for the foot soldier perspective and watch “Lovely War” to see how they got into that mess.