Sunday, January 29, 2017

FORGOTTEN GEM? Between Heaven and Hell (1956)



                “Between Heaven and Hell” is a WWII movie based on the novel The Day the Century Ended by Francis Gwaitney.  Gwaitney wrote a screenplay that clocked in at nine hours so the project went to others including Harry Brown (“A Walk in the Sun”).  It was directed by Richard Fleischer (“Tora! Tora! Tora!”).  The score by Hugo Friedhofer was nominated for an Academy Award which means the film could claim to be nominated for an Academy Award! 

                The film is set on an undisclosed island in the Pacific in 1945.  PFC Gifford (Robert Wagner) is in a stockade for having assaulted an officer.  Gifford is a decorated hero so he is given the option of being transferred to a company of misfits in an isolated post.  The company is run by a Captain who insists on being called “Waco” (Broderick Crawford).  He is a tyrant who is hated by his men, except the two lackeys who lick his boots.  Gifford is not in Heaven or Hell, he is in Purgatory.

                A flashback informs us that Gifford was a cotton plantation owner before the war.  He treated his white sharecroppers like they were blacks.  He is married to the daughter of a Colonel and she thinks he is too harsh with his workers.  He tells her it’s just business.  When his National Guard unit is called up, he goes but for some reason he is only a sergeant.  (Shouldn’t a plantation owner be an officer?)    He has to share fox holes with cotton pickers – awkward!  Queue the empathy and comradeship.  Transformation complete when an upper class good ole boy friend sends Gifford and four of his new peers on a scouting mission. The Captain panics and opens fire killing three of the men and earning a butt stroke from Gifford and a trip to a punishment company.

                The movie morphs into a Western as Gifford is part of a squad that is put out as Jap bait and sure enough they take the bait.  It’s whittling time.  Gifford and his new best buddy Willie (Buddy Ebsen) are the last men standing.  Willie is a “cropper” and Gifford is one in spirit now.  This will impact his relationship with his workers when he gets home.  If he gets home.

                “Between Heaven and Hell” is a strange movie.  It appears to be making some type of social statement about the upper and lower classes in the South.  This being a Hollywood movie, Gifford finds redemption in war.  He learns the error of his ways when the crucible of war thrusts him into close proximity to the people who he had formerly looked down on.  It a small world for planters and croppers in the Pacific.  He sees what he was in the Captain that kills his friends and what he would have become in the guise of Waco.  All of this is very tritely played.  Fortunately the cast is strong and the acting is fine.  Wagner is his usual solid self and you can’t go wrong with Ebsen playing a cracker.  Who but Crawford to play a villain?  The biggest disappointment in the movie is his anti-climactic death.
 
                For a war movie, the film has some good action, but not enough of it.  The invasion of the island is well done with footage of shore bombardment and air bombardment.  There are lots of landing craft.  The assault is intense and realistic.  Later, there is a very furious mortar attack with better effects than most war movies.  The isolated squad sequences are basically of the enemy are sneaky variety.  Were we still at this stage eleven years after the war?  The infrequency of combat makes Gifford’s combat shakes hard to swallow.  The PTSD subplot seems shoehorned in.  Portraying combat fatigue is not really Wagner’s forte.  You would think romance would be right up his alley, but the romantic dialogue with his wife is sappy.  In fact, the whole script is lame.  Pre-war snob learns empathy through camaraderie and combat and returns to America to make the South a better place.  Gag!

                Forgotten gem?  The movie is an average WWII movie that tries to make a statement but does so ineffectively.

GRADE  =  C     

Monday, January 23, 2017

MY 600th POST!

           You would think that by the time I got to 500 posts there would be no significant war movies left to review.  You'd be wrong.  I am now at 600 and still have a long "to be watched" list.  Fortunately, I still love doing this blog and intend to keep going.  Hell, I haven't even started my 100 Best War Movies posts yet.  For my 600th post I have chosen two movies that reflect my love of war fiction and my belief that some of the best war movies are made for TV.

DUELING MOVIES:  Hornblower:  The Duel (1998) vs.  Sharpe’s Rifles (1993)


VS.



       I am very selective in my historical fiction reading.  I like to read series, but most are too historically inaccurate and don’t have enough action.  My two favorites are the Hornblower and Sharpe series.  Both are set in the Napoleonic Wars.  The first is in the very crowded Napoleonic naval warfare subgenre and the second is in the much rarer ground warfare subgenre.  Both are written by acclaimed authors – C.S. Forester and Bernard Cornwell.  Both are centered around a character who rises through the ranks.  Those of us who enjoy this type of historical war novels are blessed to have these two series and doubly blessed to have two outstanding TV series based on them.

                “Hornblower:  The Duel” (entitled “The Even Chance” in Great Britain) is the first in a series of movies produced by ITV and A&E.  This movie introduces Midshipman Horatio Hornblower (Ion Groffudd) as he joins the crew of the HMS Justinian in 1793.  “Welcome to Purgatory”, he is told as soon as he boards.  It will be closer to Hell for the seventeen year old rich kid.  The ship is commanded by an old and worn-out captain and the midshipmen are dominated by a psychopath named Simpson (Dorian Healy).  He makes it his objective to make Hornblower’s life as miserable as possible.  It gets so bad that Hornblower challenges Simpson to a duel.  However, another midshipman named Clayton (Duncan Bell) takes Hornblower’s place, so the rivalry continues.  Hornblower gets transferred to the HMS Indefatigable, which is commanded by the no nonsense Captain Edward Pellew (Robert Lindsay).  He forbids Hornblower to fight any more duels.  Hornblower is given command of a gun crew.  It is motley.  He will have to earn the tars’ respect.  And get on the good side of the captain.  Luckily, he is a quick study and a born leader.  The movie is episodic after the build-up.  Hornblower has a time dealing with a French prize ship.  Hornblower leads a boarding party that cuts out a French warship.  Hornblower rescues the Indy from attack by three corvettes.  The movie culminates with the return match with the dastardly Simpson.  Hornblower gets killed and the series ends with just one episode.  Just kidding.

                “Sharpe’s Rifles” was produced by ITV in 1993. I first saw it on PBS here in America.  In a move that changed the history of the world, Sean Bean replaced Paul McGann in the lead role after McGann was injured playing soccer.  It is impossible to imagine anyone else playing Richard Sharpe.  In fact, Cornwell changed the character in the subsequent books to reflect Bean’s portrayal.  The series starts in Portugal in the early stages of Wellington’s Peninsula War.  Sgt. Sharpe saves Gen. Arthur Wellesley’s life from some French cavalry and is “rewarded” with a field commission.  One theme of the film is how Sharpe’s lower class background makes him ill-fitted for the officer corps.  He will not be welcomed by the snooty upper class officers.  To spark his short temper even more, Sharpe’s promotion is greeted with skepticism by the enlisted men because they are conditioned to believe only their betters are capable of commanding scum like them.  Sharpe is given a special mission to find a banker carrying the army’s payroll and get him back safely.  He is given command of a small unit of riflemen called the “Chosen Men”.  It is a typically heterogeneous war movie group.  He’s going to earn their respect and he starts by winning a bare knuckle, eye-gouging duel with a big Irishman named Harper (Darrow O’Malley).  Sharpe may now be an officer, but he fights like a “proper bastard”.  Although bitter enemies, they won't stay that way.  This is the start of one of the greatest warrior duos in war movie history.  On the way to the banker, Sharpe hooks up with a Spanish guerrilla band led by a noble named Bas Vivar (Simon Andreu) and a female partisan named Teresa (Assumpta Serna).  They are transporting a sacred relic to a town to inspire the Spanish people to rebel against French rule.  Sharpe and Teresa do not get along at first.  That will change.

                “Hornblower:  The Duel” was a big budget production and it showed.  The Indefatigable is actually the Grand Turk (a replica of the HMS Blandford) which is a 22-gun corvette with twelve pound guns.  It is supposed to represent a 44-gun frigate with twenty-four pounders.  The film is lensed so the action appears to be on a larger ship.  The exteriors and interiors allow the movie to be nicely instructive on shipboard life.  The below deck set is authentic.  You can learn a lot about what is was like to serve on a British warship in the age of fighting sail.  The plot manages to hit on midshipmen training, burial at sea, firing sequence, boarding, women below decks in port, and of course, dueling.  But this is not a documentary.  The story is entertaining and the characters are intriguing.  The story revolves around two themes.  One is Hornblower’s growth as a leader.  The other is his conflict with Simpson.  The first follows a traditional arc, the second is what sets the movie apart.  Simpson is one of the greatest war movie villains.  The final duel closes the movie with a cherry on top.  The casting director deserved a bonus.  The actors are all perfect in their roles.  Hornblower dominates, but it is truly an ensemble movie. The movie launched Gruffudd to stardom and just like Bean as Sharpe, it is impossible to imagine anyone else playing the role.  Healy is not a cartoon villain and he makes his character’s death very fulfilling. Lindsay’s Pellew ranks among the great cinematic ship captains. And he gives life to one of the greatest Royal Navy heroes.  There is nothing TV about the production.  The dialogue is excellent.  The music fits nicely.  The sound effects make you feel you are on the ship.

                “Sharpe’s Rifles” lays the groundwork for the rest of the series.  Sharpe’s personality is firmly established by Bean and the series’ dynamic of Sharpe’s struggles with the officer system begins.  The characters are fleshed out nicely by a good cast.  This includes the fascinating Teresa.  She is a vengeance minded heroine who mentors Sharpe.  The romance is not Victorian and truly reflects the characters’ inner feelings.  Teresa will be a recurring character and their love is a real strength of the series.  As for as the bromance of Sharpe and Harper, the series opener nails that down.  The plot flows smoothly and the tying in of the two missions is well handled.  There is a villain (Harper) in need of redemption and a villain (Bas Vivar’s collaborator brother) in need of a sword stabbing.  Both of these arcs are satisfactorily rendered.  Considering its low budget, “Sharpe’s Rifles” does a great job with what it has.  The main thing it has is Sean Bean, but credit must also go to the screenplay which faithfully reproduces Cornwell’s novel.  The dialogue is noteworthy with plenty of soldier slang.  Don’t expect to hear any salty language or see any graphic violence.  This is not an HBO production.  Similar to “The Duel”, one can learn some interesting facts about the British army in this movie.  In general, we are enlightened about the classism in the army.  The movie passes on the historical simplification that all officers were effete snobs and all the infantry were the scum of the Earth.  Specifically we learn about the wonders of the Baker rifle. 
    
                Besides the historical period, there are some similarities between the two movies.  Both have a main character who has to grow into his job.  Hornblower uses his brain, Sharpe starts using his brawn and gradually learns to relate to the men.  They both have a nemesis, but the resolutions of the conflicts are very different, yet fitting.  Both main characters have tough task masters who are actual historical figures.  Both have to earn the respect of the men who they are put in charge of.  In both movies, you can learn a lot about the British military.  There are good battle scenes in each, although the budget of “Hornblower” allows for more realism and less of a made-for-TV feel.  The violence is not graphic in either.

                Considering the similarities, it is hard to judge the two.  “The Duel” has better action.  The character development is better in “Sharpe’s Rifles”.  You get to know Sharpe’s men better than Hornblower’s gun crew.  “Rifles” is stronger when it comes to covering history.  The situation on the Peninsula is clearer than the situation in the English Channel.  It has a subplot involving Bas Vivar and his brother that touches on the conflict between traditional values and the new Napoleonic emphasis on reason.  On the other hand, “The Duel” is more instructive on sailor life than “Rifles” is about soldier life.  In fact, the only movie that tops “The Duel” in presenting life aboard a Napoleonic warship is “Master and Commander”.  “Rifles” does a better job recreating the novel.  It follows the plot quite closely whereas “The Duel” deftly improves on several chapters from Mister Midshipman Hornblower.

                I have a hard time choosing between the two movies.  I am fonder of “Sharpe’s Rifles” as I am a huge fan of the novels and of Sean Bean.  However, from an impartial viewpoint, “The Duel” is probably the better war movie.  I would think most war movie lovers with no dog in the hunt would find it better.  There is no real reason to choose.  Both are extremely entertaining.  With that said, let me point out that when one discusses the best war movies, one should not be limited to theatrical releases.  Some of the best war movies were made for TV and yet most lists do not include them.  My list of the 100 Best War Movies will include any war movie, no matter the format.  These two movies will both be on that list.

GRADES  :  The Duel  =  A

                      Rifles       =  A-



Tuesday, January 17, 2017

All Quiet on the Western Front (1979!)



       Why not start the new year with a bang and disillusion my readers at the same time?  For this year’s annual post on the best movie I reviewed in the past year, I have chosen a movie that will surprise many.  The best war movie I reviewed this past year was the extended version of “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1979).  Before you book me for the insane asylum, be aware that the movie won the Golden Globe for Made for TV Movie.  It also was nominated for six Emmys including Outstanding Drama or Comedy Special.  It was directed by Delbert Mann.  He filmed the movie in Czechoslovakia, which was a rare locale considering this was before the Iron Curtain came down.

                SPOILER ALERT:  Because most of my readers will have already seen the original and/or read the book, I am going to summarize the movie and comment on the scenes.  Skip to the review if you are not familiar with the story.

                The movie opens with the opening statement from the novel:  “This story is to be neither an accusation nor a confession…”  We get a crane view of trenches.  They are zig-zagged, with barbed wire and sand bags.  A Czech field has been molded into an excellent no man’s land replete with the remnants of trees.  Paul (Richard Thomas) narrates and introduces his squad.  Some are Paul’s classmates, who are new to the war and see it as a bump on the road to their futures.  The other characters in the group are veterans like Kat (Ernest Borgnine) who have been scarred by the war.  It is obvious the movie will whittle down this band and it starts with an ambitious battle scene.  The Germans work their bolts as the French approach their position.  The sounds include the tinkling of the barbed wire.  The iconic shot of the severed hands on the barbed wire is recreated so you know there will be homage to the original.  The counterattack is followed by crane and tracking shots.  It’s made for TV scale.  The deaths are of the touchdown signaling type, but otherwise the scene is a harbinger of the film’s attempt to do justice to the source.  The war’s futility is embodied in this opening.

                The movie has a nonlinear format as it flashes back to Paul’s classroom where his teacher Kantorek (Donald Pleasence) exhorts his class to be “iron youth” and do their duty to the Fatherland.  In a bit of foreshadowing, Paul sketches a bird as Kantorek indoctrinates.  He personally pressures Paul as their leader.  Tapping the theme that war will corrupt, he offers Paul a cigarette, which he declines.  The boys march off to enlist enthusiastically.  As boys were wont to do in 1914.
 
                Paul and his mates visit Kimmerich in the hospital.  It is in a church and is crowded and busy, but too quiet.  Hollywood seldom gets the noises of war right.  Kimmerich (who was introduced as wanting to be a forester) was wounded in the leg in the opening battle and has had his leg amputated.  His death is the first and ends their innocence.  His boots are passed on.  The movie recalls Paul’s promise to Mrs. Kimmerich to keep her son alive.

                At the training camp, Paul and the others are introduced to Himmelstoss (Ian Holm) who is a cinematic drill instructor.  The recruits take umbrage to his methods (which actually are pretty standard).  A montage proves this.  Himmelstoss is a dick, but what DI isn’t?  He takes a personal dislike for Paul and punishes him for showing him up.  The core group wreaks revenge on their trainer and go off to war sated and ready to make the Fatherland proud.  As they march off as soldiers, a new cadre of cannon fodder arrives. Heavy-handed, but effective. In a reversal of the imagery, Paul and the others reach the front and confront wounded soldiers at the depot.  Sober up, boys!  They meet Kat who immediately tells them to forget everything they learned at boot camp.  Kat will become Paul’s mentor and friend.  He takes the men on their first night patrol.  They witness horses caught in a bombardment.  Man’s inhumanity is not limited to man.  At this point, the movie shifts to a series of vignettes from the book.

                Poison gas takes a replacement.  As veterans, Paul and the others are frustrated with the youngsters.  Himmelstoss arrives at the front in charge of some replacements.  His hardened trainees disrespect him.  Rank does not trump battle experience at the front.  In a dugout during a prolonged bombardment, rookies panic, but the vets take it in stride.  Other dugout scenes give a taste of life in the trenches.  Men sharpen entrenching tools to be used as weapons.  Some pick lice.  There is a game involving pay-back on the rats that plague them.  The movie has some nice touches of soldier humor.

                In a night action, Paul is trapped in a shell crater with a French soldier that he has wounded.  Paul delivers a soliloquy on war’s effects on the brotherhood of man.  It is a powerful indictment of war and very faithful to the novel.  The Kaiser visits and gives a speech that hearkens back to Kantorek’s classroom exhortation.  In a commendable bow to history, the actor portraying the Kaiser uses only his right hand to pin a medal on Himmelstoss.  (Kaiser Wilhelm II had a withered left arm.) 

                Paul and two of his buddies have their first sexual experience with some French girls in a chaste scene that reminds you that they may be soldiers, but they are still seeking normal maturation experiences.  Paul and Albert (David Bradley) are wounded in a bombardment and sent to a Catholic hospital.  The sisters have the thankless task of lying to the men to maintain morale.  War corrupts even the saintly.  Paul recovers and gets leave back home.  His mother (Patricia Neal) is dying of cancer, but is only concerned with his welfare. His home town is a world away from the war.  The citizenry is seemingly unaffected by it.  Paul’s father represents the clueless older generation that debates strategy over their ales.  A visit to Mrs. Kimmerich results in Paul swearing on his own grave that her son died without pain.  After all he has been through, Paul has kept his humanity.  A stop at his old classroom finds Kantorek still propagandizing.  Paul reveals that the impressionable young man has become a cynic when it comes to serving the Fatherland.  Before he returns to the front, Paul tries to write his mother a letter telling her what it is really like.  He has changed and now is more comfortable with his buddies in the trenches.  Death is now his life.  The home front section excellently contrasts the home front with its naivete to the war front with its brutality.
 
                When Paul returns to his real home, he finds that Kimmerich’s boots have now been passed on to Tjaden.  The squad has been reduced to a few survivors.  But the movie is not done with them yet.  Eventually it is just Paul and Kat.  Kat is wounded by shrapnel from a random artillery shell.  Paul carries him a long distance to an aid station only to find that Kat has passed away from more random shrapnel.  The poignant scene is handled subtly.  The movie closes with Paul having assumed Kat’s role. He is now smoking cigarettes. In a nifty reference to the classroom scene, Paul is sketching a bird when the end comes.

                How do you compete against the most revered war movie of all time?  That is the problem the 1979 version has had ever since it came out.  This is unfair because this version was simply an attempt to bring the classic war novel to a new generation.  A generation that was not keen on watching an old black and white movie.  It also was an attempt to bring the story to television.  When you consider the goals and don’t hold it to impossible standards, it is actually a very worthy interpretation of the book.  All of the scenes in the movie are straight from the novel and faithful to it.  Much of the dialogue is straight from the book.  No characters are added and the ones that appear are well developed.  The members of the squad are individuals and are fleshed out.  Obviously, Paul dominates, but it is a true ensemble effort.  Paul’s arc from na├»ve recruit to cynical veteran is powerful and reflects one of the novels main themes.  Note that Paul declines to smoke cigarettes throughout the movie, but in the final scene he has taken up the habit.  Richard Thomas is outstanding and deserves more credit for his acting than he got.  Many forget that he played two of the most iconic characters in war novel history since he also starred in the remake of “The Red Badge of Courage” (1974).  (This movie is one of my great white whales as it is exceedingly hard to find.)  The cast is uniformly strong with Ernest Borgnine outstanding as Kat and Ian Holm bringing gravitas to Himmelstoss.  Borgnine was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Emmy, as was Patricia Neal as Paul’s mother.  You can justify all you want the silent movie histrionics of the original film, but this version has no cringeworthy performances.
 
                Because of the nature of it being a made for TV movie, the combat scenes are not epic.  However, people forget that the novel does not emphasize battles.  Probably the most important scene in the book is Paul’s encounter with Pierre Duval in the shell crater.  This movie handles that scene perfectly.  Watch it and tell me Thomas is not Paul Baumer brought to life.  The effects are fine with the explosions and the sound effects showing a fidelity to war on the Western Front.  A lot of effort went into the exteriors and interiors.  The dugouts are claustrophobic and no man’s land is cratered.    The bombed-out villages contrast to the untouched home front locations.  Allyn Ferguson’s score is used sparingly and does not try to steer the audience’s emotions.
 
                It is hard to imagine that the new “All Quiet…” (starring Daniel Radcliffe) will be superior to this version.  It is due in 2018 so we have some time to get used to the idea.  Harry Potter’s casting is similar to the casting of John Boy Walton, so it could work out in spite of doubts.  However,  I am not hopeful for the script due to the fact that the writer-producers have proclaimed that it will be a Hollywood epic and they are adding new story-lines.  One of the strengths of the 1979 version is its faithfulness to the original and to the book.  Although I strongly recommend reading the book (as I have several times), the 1979 version is a great alternative for you non-readers.  Give it a chance.  Keep an open mind.  It is possible for a remake to be decent, albeit rare.  “The Thing” comes to mind.  Ironically, that remake has about the same death toll as “All  Quiet…”


GRADE  =  A+


Saturday, January 14, 2017

BEST REVIEWED: 2016



                It is time for my annual list of best movies that I reviewed this past year.  At this stage in my blog, I would have thought that I would have seen every war movie of consequence, but that is far from being true.  I still have many movies on my to-be-watched list for this year, so I think I’ll be able to do one of these lists next January.  This particular list is a combination of movies I have never seen before, movies I saw in the theater, and some older favorites that I was reviewing for the first time.

10.  Son of Saul (2015)  Just when you think you have seen every good Holocaust movie, you run into another one.  This movie is a Hungarian film based on an incident where a child was found alive in the gas chamber at Auschwitz.  A sonderkommando takes it upon himself to give the boy a decent burial.  The cinematography is the highlight as the lens focuses on Saul throughout.  The sound effects also stand out.  This is a movie for anyone who is interested in the Holocaust and who enjoys outside the box filmmaking.

9.    The Ascent (1977)  This is a black and white Soviet film set in WWII.  Two partisans go off on a foraging expedition and are captured by the Germans.  They both face the dilemma of collaborating and living or being patriotic and dying.  This is another movie with eye-popping cinematography.  The acting is great and the dialogue, although sparse, is thought-provoking. 

8.  Sharpe’s Rifles  (1993)  I am a huge fan of the Sharpe series of historical novels set in the Napoleonic Wars.  I recently rewatched the movie based on the first novel.  Although made for TV, it is an excellent recreation of the novel and introduces Sean Bean as Richard Sharpe.  Because of the low budget, it does not have a sweep to it, but it is excellent at character development and the story has several well-meshing arcs.  It includes a strong female character, which is rare for a war movie.

7.  Admiral:  Roaring Currents  (2014)  This is a South Korean film based on a naval battle in the late 16th Century.  The Korean navy took on a Japanese fleet, but the movie is not so much a history lesson as an excuse for some of that gonzo Korean action.  Your ass will be sore from the kicking the battle scene delivers.  It lasts 61 minutes!  There is an outstanding main character and a loathsome villain.  The music is epic and the cinematography matches it.

6.  Wooden Crosses  (1932)  This is the French answer to “All Quiet on the Western Front”.  A replacement joins a seasoned unit and witnesses the horrors of war and the comradeship that makes it tolerable.  The movie is a realistic depiction of trench warfare.  There is a quantity and quality to the combat scenes.  It’s real strength is in its portrayal of soldier behavior.

5.   The Grey Zone  (2001)  A second movie about the same incident – the discovery of a living soul in the gas chamber at Auschwitz.  Before you say “what an amazing coincidence!”, I watched “Son of Saul” as a companion to this.  This movie is less micro as it also covers the rebellion by the sonderkommandoes.  It is an excellent history lesson and very well-presented.  The acting is excellent, even by David Arquette.  It has a blend of cinematography.  Most importantly, it gives you a lot to think about.  What would you do?  This is one of the best Holocaust movies.

4.  The Execution of Private Slovik  (1974)  It took me a long time to find this gem.  I had seen it when it first appeared on TV.  It tells the story of the only American soldier in WWII to be executed for desertion.  In that respect, it tells a story that needed to be told and it does it quite well for a low budget effort.  It helps that the lead is Martin Sheen who is outstanding in the role.  The nonlinear flash backs to Slovik’s past work well in setting up his “crime”.  The movie does not preach, but it is excellent at taking us through the court-martial procedure that led to Slovik’s death.

3.  Hornblower:  The Duel  (1998)  Here is the second movie on my list that is based on a series of historical fiction.  Horatio Hornblower is in some ways the equivalent of Richard Sharpe when it comes to Napoleonic naval warfare.  This made-for-TV film introduces the character, played by Ioan Gruffudd.  The movie uses scenarios from several of the novels with the central arc of Hornblower’s conflict with one of the greatest war movie villains.  The production values are quite good for a television movie.  The acting is stellar and the characters are vivid and well-developed.  The movie is an excellent tutorial on the life of tars.  There is also some good action and not one, but two duels.

2.  Star Trek:  Rogue One  (2016)  I recently reviewed this so you know I was thrilled by it.  I treated it as a war movie and it works as such.  The motley crew gathering and subsequent questing is an entertaining lead-in to the kick-ass multi-battle finale.   I had fun finding references to famous battles.  The reason why it did not place first is I can’t be sure I did not overrate it because there hasn’t been a good Star Wars movie since Empire.  Relatively speaking, it is a masterpiece.
    

1.  All Quiet on the Western Front (1979)  Here is the third made-for-TV movie to make the list.  When I eventually get around to compiling my 100 Best War Movies list, it will include a number of television productions.  Most "best of" lists do not include this type of war movie, but I feel some of the best of the genre are made for TV.  In this case, I would argue that a television movie might even surpass the cinematic original.  The 1979 version is sadly forgotten by many, but it is an excellent retelling of the novel.  The battle scenes cannot match the original, but the acting is better and it obviously has a more modern feel to it.  This movie brought the greatest war novel to the “I only watch color movies” audience.  And it brought it in a remarkably underrated package.  My review is of the extended version.  That review will be my next post.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

FORGOTTEN GEM? Between Heaven and Hell (1956)




                “Between Heaven and Hell” is a WWII movie based on the novel The Day the Century Ended by Francis Gwaitney.  Gwaitney wrote a screenplay that clocked in at nine hours so the project went to others including Harry Brown (“A Walk in the Sun”).  It was directed by Richard Fleischer (“Tora! Tora! Tora!”).  The score by Hugo Friedhofer was nominated for an Academy Award which means the film could claim to be nominated for an Academy Award!
 
                The film is set on an undisclosed island in the Pacific in 1945.  PFC Gifford (Robert Wagner) is in a stockade for having assaulted an officer.  Gifford is a decorated hero so he is given the option of being transferred to a company of misfits in an isolated post.  The company is run by a Captain who insists on being called “Waco” (Broderick Crawford).  He is a tyrant who is hated by his men, except the two lackeys who lick his boots.  Gifford is not in Heaven or Hell, he is in Purgatory.

                A flashback informs us that Gifford was a cotton plantation owner before the war.  He treated his white sharecroppers like they were blacks.  He is married to the daughter of a Colonel and she thinks he is too harsh with his workers.  He tells her it’s just business.  When his National Guard unit is called up, he goes but for some reason he is only a sergeant.  (Shouldn’t a plantation owner be an officer?)    He has to share fox holes with cotton pickers – awkward!  Queue the empathy and comradeship.  Transformation complete when an upper class good ole boy friend sends Gifford and four of his new peers on a scouting mission. The Captain panics and opens fire killing three of the men and earning a butt stroke from Gifford and a trip to a punishment company.

                The movie morphs into a Western as Gifford is part of a squad that is put out as Jap bait and sure enough they take the bait.  It’s whittling time.  Gifford and his new best buddy Willie (Buddy Ebsen) are the last men standing.  Willie is a “cropper” and Gifford is one in spirit now.  This will impact his relationship with his workers when he gets home.  If he gets home.

                “Between Heaven and Hell” is a strange movie.  It appears to be making some type of social statement about the upper and lower classes in the South.  This being a Hollywood movie, Gifford finds redemption in war.  He learns the error of his ways when the crucible of war thrusts him into close proximity to the people who he had formerly looked down on.  It's a small world for planters and croppers in the Pacific.  He sees what he was in the Captain that kills his friends and what he would have become in the guise of Waco.  All of this is very tritely played.  Fortunately the cast is strong and the acting is fine.  Wagner is his usual solid self and you can’t go wrong with Ebsen playing a cracker.  Who but Crawford to play a villain?  The biggest disappointment in the movie is his anti-climactic death.
 
                For a war movie, the film has some good action, but not enough of it.  The invasion of the island is well done with footage of shore bombardment and air bombardment.  There are lots of landing craft.  The assault is intense and realistic.  Later, there is a very furious mortar attack with better effects than most war movies.  The isolated squad sequences are basically of the enemy are sneaky variety.  Were we still at this stage eleven years after the war?  The infrequency of combat makes Gifford’s combat shakes hard to swallow.  The PTSD subplot seems shoehorned in.  Portraying combat fatigue is not really Wagner’s forte.  You would think romance would be right up his alley, but the romantic dialogue with his wife is sappy.  In fact, the whole script is lame.  Pre-war snob learns empathy through camaraderie and combat and returns to America to make the South a better place.

                Forgotten gem?  The movie is an average WWII movie that tries to make a statement but does so ineffectively.


GRADE  =  C     

Thursday, January 5, 2017

CRACKER? Kilo Two Bravo (2014)



                It’s the Christmas Holidays so I have decided to try to clear out some of my Netflix streaming queue.  Since I have seen virtually every mainstream war movie at this point, my queue consists mainly of straight to DVD type films.  The kind of movies I have to force myself to watch, convincing myself it is what I signed on for with this blog.  “Kilo Two Bravo” seemed to fit into this category of justifiably forgotten movies.  I, at first, mistook it for a documentary and had put it on hold for my future documentary binge.  I am embarrassed to admit that my other misread was thinking it was fictional.  All’s well that ends well, however.  You don’t have to repeat my errors and hopefully will check out this forgotten gem.

                “Kilo Two Bravo” is a British film directed by Paul Katis.  It’s British title is “Kajaki:  The True Story”.  It was filmed at Al Kaferin Dam in Jordan.  The movie tells the story of an incident involving a unit of British soldiers guarding the Kajaki Dam in Afghanistan in 2006.  The film made a splash in Great Britain partly due to some controversy, but was less than a blip in America.

                The movie opens with a culture clash between the British and the locals, but that will not become a theme.  The movie is not going to comment on the situation in Afghanistan.  However, the opening scene does establish the question:  “what the Hell are we doing here?”  Officially, the unit is stationed at an observation post called OP Normandy.  They are guarding a dam and keeping an eye out for suspicious Taliban activity.  The arrival of a replacement offers the opportunity to tour the camp and meet the lads.  The newbie is accepted with no problems.  The men get along fine.  There is no dysfunction.  This is not a Vietnam War movie.  There is a lot of soldier banter and camaraderie.  The area of operations is quiet, so they spend most of their time finding ways to waste time.  Like in actual war situations.  A good bit of that time-wasting is ragging each other.  Watch the movie with subtitles if you want the full effect of the banter because the accents are very thick.  At one point, a dog is seen with a missing leg due to stepping on one of the millions of mines left over from the Soviet occupation.  Foreshadowing.  The only action occurs when they call in a night air strike on suspicious activity.  Midway through the movie and I am wondering if this is a reality show.  Then one day…  A sniper spots what looks like a Taliban check point.  Why not take a closer look?  Who wants something to do to relieve the boredom?  A trio head down a dry river bed and pretty soon everybody’s boredom is out the window when the sniper steps on a mine.  This random step sets in motion a chain of events that run the gamut of human emotions.

                Now that you have seen “American Sniper”, how about watching a realistic movie about modern warfare?  Not every soldier is a warrior and most days are boring.  Except for those rare days when the shit hits the fan and men are forced to man up.  This is the way the war really was like in Afghanistan in 2006.  This is the way soldiers behaved.  This is the way they talked.  This is how they killed time.  This is how some died.

                The cast is not stellar, but that is appropriate for a film that is about the men, not individuals.  The acting is fine.  The actors (there are no females in the movie) are an ensemble and no one is trying to scene steal or scenery chew.  There is some outstanding wounded acting.  Some of the best I’ve seen.  You really feel their pain.  The standouts are David Eliot as Mark Wright and Mark Stanley as Paul “Tug” Hartley.  Stanley plays the medic who uses his pack and some tension-filled leapfrogging to get to the wounded. He is spot on in portraying a man who is at first overwhelmed by a situation he never imagined, but snaps out of it and shows bravery he never imagined he had in him.  Hartley was awarded the George Cross for this bravery.  Eliot plays the team leader who is wounded by one of the mines and yet continues to take charge and keep morale up in spite of life-threatening injuries.  He also got the George Cross.

                The movie is well made considering the small budget.  The location shooting in Jordan lends itself to great scenery.  They managed to find a location that matched the actual site.  The dialogue is soldierly.  One of the wounded says “give us a fag, mate.”  There is plenty of slang, including “dick rot”.  The dark humor associated with soldiers is a feature of the film.  The wounded are cracking jokes between cries for more morphine.  It’s not just the talk, the characters also walk the walk.  They act and react like Anglo-American soldiers would.  The war comes to a screeching halt as the unit does everything humanly possible to rescue their own.  (In that respect, it has a Vietnam vibe to it.)  The movie also is effective in depicting how complacency can lead to disaster.  Another theme is the randomness of casualties.  Surprisingly, Katis is not interested in indicting the war or the one’s running it.  This is not “Black Hawk Down”.  The camera stays with the men, we do not cut back much to command decisions.  An investigation of the incident uncovered several systemic problems, but the movie only hints at them.  There’s another difference between the movie and a documentary.  It’s the appealing personalities of the men that draws the conclusion that these men’s bodies were not worth protecting a dam in Afghanistan.  Don’t get that confused with “they weren’t worth a damn”.  These guys were and the movie makes that clear.

                “Kilo Two Bravo” has its own niche in the modern war movie genre.  It deals with an incident that did not involve a single gunshot.  The enemy makes no appearance.  The explosions are not inflicted Hollywood style.  The suspense is not what is around the corner, it’s the next step.  All this is done with no music to push your buttons.  The buttons are pushed by the graphic wounds and the men’s reactions to them.  Not just the wounded men’s reactions, but their helpless, frustrated mates.  Before you sit in your recliner and get frustrated with the never ending Afghanistan War, remember what the men fighting the war are going through.

GRADE  =  A

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  It goes to show how little the media cared about the war in Afghanistan by 2006 that I had trouble finding information about the incident.  I will have to buy and read Patrick Bishop’s 3 Para to get the full story.  But until then, here is what I found.  3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment was assigned to guard Kajaki Dam.  One of the outposts was called “Normandy”.  On Sept. 5, 2006, a sniper team was ordered to get a closer look at a possible Taliban check point.  Although maps of the mine fields were available, Lance Corporal Stuart Hale took the trio into a dry river bed and stepped on one of the mines left behind by the Soviets.  His leg was blown off.  Hale later vouched for the accuracy of the movie.  Lance Corporal Mark Wright organized the relief force.  Unfortunately, Stu Pearson became the second victim in a manner and form similar to Hale’s.  A British Chinook Casevac helicopter arrived, but could not land near due to the mines.  The chopper was not equipped with winch equipment, which became a major controversy in the aftermath of the incident.  At this point, while trying to clear a path to the helicopter, Wright either stepped on another mine or the prop wash set one off.  Wright was wounded as depicted in the movie.  He had a bad arm wound and wounds to the neck, face, and chest.  In spite of this, Wright continued to supervise and keep morale up.  The medic, Paul “Tug” Hartley worked to keep the wounded alive.  The arrival of an American Black Hawk took several more hours, but it did have winches and the wounded were evacuated.  Wright died on the way to the hospital.


                The movie revived criticism of the British military’s role in the tragedy.  The movie does allude to the communication problems due to faulty radios.  The lack of a map is not clearly presented, nor the lack of mine extraction kits.  The winch problem was later explained by the Ministry of Defense as tragic bad timing as the theater winches had been shipped back to Great Britain because of issues with functionality.  Although the movie does not attempt to assign blame, the Ministry of Defense withdrew cooperation with the production after seeing the script.  It also sent a letter to Para members to avoid discussing the film in public and to not wear uniforms to showings.