Wednesday, June 20, 2018

FORGOTTEN GEM? The Great Locomotive Chase (1956)




                “The Great Locomotive Chase” is a Disney live-action film about a famous incident in the American Civil War.  The Andrew’s Raid was meant to help the Union offensive to capture Chattanooga in 1862.  Some of Andrew’s men were the first Congressional Medal of Honor recipients.  The movie stars Fess Parker who had recently reached superstardom in Disney’s “Davy Crockett” series.  Disney was hoping the movie would tap into the mania over the TV program.  The movie was also made because Walt Disney was a huge train nut.  The Disney company was able to find some antique locomotives to stand-in for the museum bound stars of the movie.  The General was played by the William Mason which was built in 1856.  The director was Francis Lyon (“The Young and the Brave”).  Parker’s co-star Jeffrey Hunter was just reaching stardom as “The Searchers” was released three months before “The Great Locomotive Chase”.  It may be the first Disney movie with cursing.  Several times Rebels say “Damn Yankee”.

                “This true life historical adventure is based upon a real incident in the American Civil War”.  The survivors of the Andrew’s Raid are receiving the Medal of Honor.  One of them, Cpl. William Pittenger (John Upton), takes us to a flashback to the event and narrates.  It all started when Gen. Mitchell summons a civilian spy named James Andrews (Parker) to outline a plan to aid his capture of Chattanooga.  He wants Andrews to lead a group of volunteers purloin a Confederate train and do so much damage to the line from Atlanta to Chattanooga that Confederate reinforcements will not be able to reach Chattanooga.  Andrews is game and he and his men head for Marrietta, Georgia.  One of the sixteen is a hothead named Campbell (Jeff York) who has a hard time concealing his antipathy toward Rebels.  He is allowed to volunteer for cinematic purposes.  At Marrietta, the men dressed as civilians board a Northbound train called The General.  At Big Shanty, they steal the train at a breakfast stop.  They begin their mission of breaking up track and cutting telegraph lines.  They have to conform to the strictly enforced train schedule, but everything seems to be going according to plan.  However, they had not factored in one William Fuller (Hunter).  Hunter was the General’s conductor and he was not going to give up his locomotive without a fight.  He starts chasing the train on foot, then on a hand-car, then on another train.  Meanwhile, Andrews is bluffing his way through stations and encounters with southbound trains.  The final stage of the chase has Fuller racing backwards in The Texas.

                “The Great Locomotive Chase” was the first Disney live-action film that dealt with an historical event.  It must have surprised audiences who were used to fantasies (“20,000 Leagues under the Sea” -1954) or childrens’ animation (“Lady and the Tramp” -1955).  Not only is it a history lesson, but the vibe was not light.  There is no humor and there is not a single cute animal (like the seal in “20,000 Leagues”).  On the other hand, no one dies.  The acting is fine (especially by Parker and Hunter), but the real stars are the trains.  Although the movie is not just aimed at young boys, it definitely catered to them.  It’s more of an adult movie than most Disney pics of that era.   The chase is exciting and Andrews and Fuller are worthy adversaries.  Yanks and Rebs had someone to root for.  Importantly, the movie is sympathetic towards both sides.  In fact, the movie concludes with a scene that is obviously meant to symbolize reconciliation between the North and South. The music is a plus and fits the script well. It is a mixture of Yankee and Rebel favorites like “Dixie” and “Tenting on the Old Campground”. Surprisingly, the dialogue is not rife with cornpone.   The main strength is its amazing fidelity to history.  You would not think that is 2017 the best source for learning about the Andrew’s Raid would be a Disney movie.  It is certainly better than Buster Keaton’s “The General”.  It takes no major liberties with the story, but it didn’t have to.  A documentary would be entertaining, this has Davy Crockett and real trains.

GRADE  =  B

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The movie is amazingly accurate.  Eight of the survivors were awarded the first Medals of Honor.    One was Cpl. William Pittenger who went on to write several narratives about the raid.  The plan was essentially as outlined.  Gen. Mitchell was planning an offensive to capture the key city of Chattanooga.  The scheme to hijack a train and wreak havoc on the line leading to the city was Andrews’.  Originally there were 24 men involved, but only 22 actually made it onto the train.  All of them were soldiers who volunteered, except Andrews and William Campbell.  Campbell was a civilian recruited by Andrews.  There is no reason to believe he was a jerk as depicted in the movie.  The group did rendezvous at Marrietta, Georgia and boarded the train there.  They hijacked the General in Big Shanty.  Fuller was the conductor and he (and two others) chased after his locomotive on foot, then a handcar, then two different trains.  The Raiders managed to stay just ahead of Fuller.  They pulled up tracks, cut telegraph lines, and attempted to burn bridges, but rains made the wood wet and they were not successful in flaming the structures.  They did manage to destroy some track to force Fuller back on foot.  Things turned when Fuller hooked up with the Texas at Adairsville.  He had to run the locomotive in reverse, but made good time (he got the locomotive up to 60 MPH) and gained on the General.  Although Andrews had done a masterful job of conning railway officials into believing the General was carrying high priority munitions, the military evacuation of Chattanooga created a lot of traffic going south and this slowed his progress considerably.  With the Texas in sight, the Raiders tried unhooking two boxcars but the Texas simply pushed them on ahead.  I found no evidence that the Raiders were able to set the boxcars on fire or leave a flaming boxcar on a bridge.  (Hollywood has to have its fire.)  The chase ended when the General ran out of fuel and Andrews ordered the men to separate and try to escape.  They did not make a stand and there was no cavalry arriving.  However, failure to cut one telegraph line had allowed for alerting the Confederate army in Chattanooga which sent soldiers who ended up capturing all of the Raiders.  The chase had lasted over seven hours and the Raiders had covered 87 miles.  They were only 17 miles from Chattanooga when they stopped.  Eight of the prisoners were executed – Andrews and Campbell for being civilian spies and six chosen randomly.  The prison breakout occurred later.  Ten of the survivors broke out and eight eventually made it back to the North.  Pittenger and five others were exchanged for Confederate prisoner.  All of the soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor.  Andrews and Campbell were excluded because they were civilians.  

Saturday, June 16, 2018

PICTURE, QUOTE, MOVIE #35


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is this quote from?

"Generals can do anything. There's nothing so much like a god on earth as a General on a battlefield. "

3.  What movie is this?


  It is based on a non-fiction book entitled Le Front de l’Art by Rose Valland.  The film was originally helmed by Arthur Penn, but co-producer and star Burt Lancaster axed him because Penn wanted to make more of a character study and Lancaster insisted the action be revved up.  The film was shot on location in France.  No models were used.  The air bombardment of the marshalling yard was symbiotic because the French government wanted the area cleared anyway.  (That less than one minute scene required fifty men wiring TNT for six weeks.)  Lancaster (51) did all of his stunts.  This included sliding down a hillside.  When he injured his knee stepping in a hole while golfing, it was written into the script that he would be wounded while fleeing under fire.  

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

CRACKER? Mine (2016)




                “Mine” is an Italian and American production directed by Fabio Guaglione and Fabio Resinaro in their debut.  It was filmed in Spain.  The movie was low budget and had limited release in America where it did not make a splash.

                The movie is set in an unspecified North African country.  A sniper named Stevens (Armie Hammer) and his spotter named Madison (Tom Cullen) are on a mission to assassinate a high value target.  Stevens is reluctant to take the shot because the target is part of a wedding party and there are children involved.   Madison argues for doing their job and a higher-up orders it, but Stevens still refuses.  The duo are spotted and only a sand storm saves them.  Unfortunately, their trek takes them into a minefield and Stevens steps on a mine.  Uh oh!  He started in a war movie which morphed into a Western (Indians chasing cowboys) and then evolves into a psychological thriller.  He’s gonna have to stay on that mine for 52 hours before any rescue can be attempted.  Tick-tock.  Those 52 hours will give him plenty of time to flashback to daddy issues. 

                “Mine” is a showcase for Hammer and he acquits himself well.  But it’s not like he is breaking new ground.  If you watch a fair amount of war movies, you’ve seen the old “caught in a minefield” scenario before.  This trope makes much of the movie predictable, but the movie puts a new spin by pushing the psychological element.  In a sense, Stevens spends time on a mine instead of a psychiatrist’s couch.  That is certainly more entertaining for us.  Throw in some surrealism and you have the horror element.  The movie is downright freaky at times as Stevens interacts with a Berber who stands in for a shrink.  He advances the theme that a person needs to move on from a traumatic childhood.  Stepping off the mine symbolizes moving on.  The movie tries to be deep, with some success.  It is also semi-successful in being entertaining.  It does make you wonder what you would do under similar circumstances.  However, because the movie is quite unrealistic, it is unlikely anyone would ever be in the situation Stevens gets himself into.  It’s pure Hollywood.

                “Mine” is a nice time-waster.  You would kick yourself for seeing it in a theater, but at home when you’re not in a binging mood, it should keep your eyes open.  I don’t want to discourage movie-makers from making war movies and at least it’s not one of those terrible straight-to-DVD crapolas.  

GRADE  =  C



Monday, June 11, 2018

R.I.P. John Wayne

John Wayne passed away on this day in 1979 at age 72.  Here are his top 5 war movies (in my opinion):

5.  

4.  

3.  

2.  

1.  

Sunday, June 10, 2018

WAR MOVIE LOVERS GROUP

Here's a sampler of content in my new War Movie Lovers group on Facebook.

WAR MOVIE QUOTE

.  “I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn’t find one of ‘em, not one stinkin’ dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like … victory. Someday this war’s gonna end.”  — Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore, “Apocalypse Now” (1979)
WAR MOVIE TRIVIA -  The Manchurian Candidate


menta     mentalfloss

1.  United Artists did not want to make the film because of the political controversy.  Frank Sinatra went to Pres. Kennedy who was a big fan of the novel.  Kennedy contacted the studio head and got him to change his mind.
2.  Angela Lansbury was only three years older than her “son” Laurence Harvey.
3.  The movie came out in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
4.  When Marco visits Raymond in his hotel room towards the end of the film, Sinatra is filmed out of focus.  Critics lauded this cinematography for showing Raymond’s distorted perspective.  Actually, the assistant cameraman screwed up the shot and director Frankenheimer was upset and wanted to reshoot it, but he could not get Sinatra to duplicate the performance.
5.  Sinatra wanted Lucille Ball for the Angela Lansbury role.
6.  Sinatra broke a finger in the fight scene with Henry Silva.  Later, when he was up for Dirty Harry, he could not grip the pistol properly and had to drop out.
7.  When Laurence Harvey jumped in the lake in Central Park it was so cold 
that ice had to be broken.
8.  The myth that the movie was pulled after the assassination of Kennedy was not true.  It was shown, but rarely because there was not a lot of interest in the film.

imdb

9.  In the novel, the relationship between Raymond and his mother is more incestuous and she even seduces him.  The movie could only go as far as a kiss on the lips.  (Surprisingly, the 2004 remake does not even have the kiss.)

Wikipedia

10.  Mrs. Iselin is #21 on AFI’s list of 100 Heroes and Villains.

WAR MOVIE BACK-STORY -  All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

The first great anti-war film was based on the greatest anti-war novel ever written.  Lewis Milestone took on the task of bringing Erich Remarque’s book to the screen and even considered casting Remarque as Paul Baumer.  Lew Ayres won the role and was so affected by it that he became a pacifist and jeopardized his career by claiming conscientious objector status in WWII.  His brave service as a medic helped regain much good will from the public.  Milestone had learned filmmaking in the Signal Corps during WWI.  He knew what war looked like from editing war footage.  He recreated no man’s land on a ranch in California.  Shell holes were blasted with dynamite and then filled with muddy rain water.  A French village was built on a back lot and included a canal that was dug for the swimming scene.  Twenty tons of black powder and ten tons of dynamite were used for the battle scenes.  One explosion resulted in Milestone being hit by debris and knocked unconscious.  2,000 extras were found in California by requesting help from American Legion posts.  The US Army could not provide soldiers because American doughboys could not appear in foreign uniforms on film.  The 99 day shoot was double the planned 48.  The $.9 million budget boomed to $1.4 million.  It paid off as the movie was a smashing success and won the Best Picture Oscar.  Milestone won Best Director and the film was nominated for Writing and Cinematography.  It was ranked #54 on AFIs original list of the 100 greatest movies, but did not make the revised list issued in 2007!  (See below for the list of war movies that made the list.)  It was not a smashing success in Nazi Germany, a country Remarque had been forced to flee for his life.  At its premiere, Goebbels had the Brown Shirts release mice, stink bombs, and sneezing powder to clear the theater.  The movie was pulled after a week and not shown again in Germany until 1952 ( the year Remarque returned to his homeland ).

Thursday, May 31, 2018

WAR MOVIE LOVERS Facebook group



Dear Bunkies,

          Just want to let you know that I have created a Facebook page for us.  It is designed for fans of war movies.   I will post recommendations and host discussions.  I plan to include trivia, back-stories, quotes, and pictures.  I will lead watchalongs.  Some of it will be similar to this blog, but there will be additional content and it will be more spontaneous and participatory.  Please join in and participate.  I hope you will post movies you like and comment on my content.   We want to create a vibrant community of war movie buffs.  Go to Facebook and search for "War Movie Lovers" group.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

FORGOTTEN GEM? The Thin Red Line (1964)


               
                “The Thin Red Line” was the first filming of James Jones’ novel.  It was directed by Andrew Marton (“Men of the Fighting Lady”).  It was filmed in Spain which was seemingly an odd choice for representing Guadalcanal.  The movie is not particularly well known and many think Terence Malick was the first to take on the novel.  Let’s see if the earlier movie was as bad as the new one.

                The movie opens with an Army unit on a transport off “the island”.  Sgt. Welsh (Jack Warden) is a hard-ass whose philosophy is that he needs to prepare his men for the insanity of war by modeling insanity.  “If it’s insanity they are going to face, get them ready for it now....  There is only a thin red line between the sane and the insane.”  Capt. Stone (Ray Daley) disagrees with this mantra,but is not sure if Welsh might not be right.  The movie’s plot will center around the dysfunctional relationship between Welsh and a private named Doll (Keir Dullea).  Doll is a soldier whose first priority is survival.  To that end, he steals a pistol while below deck on the ship.  This purloining gets Doll deeper into Welsh’s dog house.  For some reason, Welsh hates Doll.  Meanwhile, the other dynamic involves Lt. Col. Tall (James Philbrook – are you getting the impression that this movie’s cast does not rival the 1998 version?) questioning Stone’s toughness.  Tall feels Stone coddles his men. He is perturbed that Stone is not enthusiastic about a suicide attack against “The Elephant” (think “Ant Hill” from “Paths of Glory”).  The attack will include a trek through “The Bowling Alley” which is a mine-infested ravine.  Tall feels losing men is part of the effort.  Stone wonders why it has to be his men.  The rest of the movie deals with the attack and the evolution of the Welsh/Doll and Stone/Tall relationships.

                “The Thin Red Line” is a strange movie, but not in the same way as Malick’s opus.  Malick’s movie was marred by its pretentiousness, Marton’s is off-kilter because of its flawed character development.  Welsh just shows flashes of insanity, otherwise he’s just a jerk.  Doll never shows his survive at all costs mentality.  His transformation into the best warrior in the unit is not believable.  On the other side of the coin, Tall goes from Patton to Montgomery by the end of the movie.  The two character pairs don’t work and it does not help that the actors are not up to it anyhow.  Warden is the only one who acquits himself well, but he is not helped by the inconsistency of his character.  Dullea chews scenery and this is amplified by the fact that little of what Doll does makes sense.  Doll has a best friend named Fife (Bob Kanter).  In the novel, Fife was famously gay, but in a 1964 movie the closest they could come to that was having Fife dress up in some women’s clothing they find in a village.  Don’t ask.  The rest of the cast is low-rent and it shows.  Fortunately, the movie has lots of action to balance its philosophizing.  There are several combat scenes and they are all above average for a black and white WWII film.  One of them (after they capture a Japanese village, the enemy ambush them) is balls to the wall ridiculous, but fun and unique.  Naturally, the percent of dead to wounded is very high, but that’s par for the course in movies of this generation.  Needless to say, there is no blood or bullet holes.  We also get the usual touchdown signaling deaths.  The score is intrusive in its mood-setting sincerity.

                I don’t think we will ever get a good rendering of Jones’ novel.  “The Thin Red Line” in print is the story of a unit of soldiers.  Both movies have concentrated on just a few characters and ladled the philosophy on thick.  I prefer the 1964 version, not because it is a superior movie, but because it does not take itself seriously.  I hope not, anyway.  There are some bizarre scenes, so being a little drunk would enhance your viewing.  For example, at one point, the unit sends in a flaming jeep full of explosives to lead off an attack!  Just like what really happened on Guadalcanal!  So don’t watch this movie (or the other one) as a tutorial on the campaign.  Jones fought on the island and his book is semi-autobiographical, but little of that made it into the movies.  We still need a good movie on that campaign.  And how about covering the Navy effort as well.  I guess we’ll need a miniseries.

GRADE  =  C+

Saturday, May 26, 2018

PICTURE, QUOTE, MOVIE #34


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is this quote from?

"Nobody has ever escaped from [this camp]. Not alive, anyway."

3.  What movie is this?


It is an historical epic about the legendary Spanish medieval hero Don Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar. It was released in 1961 and was directed by Anthony Mann. The female star had a $200/week hairdresser allowance.  Her male co-star did not get along with her. The film was shot mostly in Spain. It was nominated for Academy Awards for Art Direction, Original Music Score, and Best Song. The movie was a box office hit and was well received by critics.

Monday, May 21, 2018

WTF? Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)




                “Aguirre, Wrath of God” is a West German film by Werner Herzog (“Rescue Dawn”).  The movie is best known for the collaboration of Herzog with Klaus Kinski.  This was the first of their five movies together and they had one of the weirdest relationships in cinema history.  Kinski was  mentally unstable individual and the circumstances under which the movie was made were not exactly conducive to stability.  Herzog insisted on filming on location in the rainforest of Peru.  His small crew of eight and his cast had to climb mountains, cut paths through the jungle, and raft down rivers and over rapids.  And without the comforts that a big budget might have provided.  The movie cost only $370,000 to make (and one-third of that was Kinski’s salary).  Part of that money went to a monkey catcher (the movie has a memorable scene involving a raft-load of monkeys).  When the contractor betrayed Herzog and was going to ship the monkeys to a buyer in America, Herzog intercepted them at the airport.  Pretending to be a vet, Herzog made off with his simian actors and later set them free.  If the lack of funds and biting monkeys were not enough to insure a difficult shoot, you had Kinski involved.  He and Herzog disagreed violently on how to portray Aguirre.  Kinski wanted to play himself, basically.  Herzog wanted Aguirre to be more sane.  To get the performance he wanted he would rile up Kinski and let him exhaust himself and then roll the camera.  That worked on set, but when they weren’t filming there was the problem with dealing with the unlensed Kinski.  At one point, Klaus fired three shots at a noisy tent and took off the finger tip of an extra.  Another time, Kinski was preparing to leave because he wanted a crew member fired.  Herzog pulled a gun and threatened to kill Kinski and himself if he left.  And yet, these two made four more movies together!  Not that Herzog is the most normal director either.  He wrote the script after reading about the real Aguirre in a book about adventurers.  He completed the script in two-and-a-half days.  Part of the writing occurred on a drunken bus ride with his soccer team.  At one point, a teammate vomited on several pages which Herzog proceeded to throw out the window.  This resulted in a gap in the original version of the story. 

                The movie is set in South America in 1560.  “After the fall of the Incan Empire, the Indians conned the Spanish into believing there was an El Dorado in the Amazon basin.” An expedition of conquistadors moves through the jungle to find this city of gold.  Gonzalo Pizarro, half-brother of the famous conqueror of the Inca, leads the expedition.  However, the lack of supplies and the difficulties that still lay ahead cause him to reconsider the march.  He decides to send a group of forty ahead to reconnoiter and report back the feasibility of proceeding on.  He appoints Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra) to command.  Don Lope de Aguirre is his second-in-command.  They bring Ursua’s mistress Dona Ines (Helena Rojo) and Aguirre’s fifteen year-old daughter Flores (Cecilia Rivera) .  Accompanying them is our narrator Brother Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro).  The motley crew is travelling by rafts.  It is not a pleasure cruise.  Not only is Mother Nature against them, but the natives are not welcoming.  When Ursua cools to the prospects of gold and glory, Aguirre overthrows him and declares a fat slob named Guzman to be the Emperor of Peru.  They continue on with Aguirre becoming increasingly megalomaniacal.

                “Aguirre, Wrath of God” is an acclaimed movie.  It is considered to be one of the great cult films.  Many critics place it among the best movies ever made.  It is certainly one of the most unusual movies ever made.  If you take away the involvement of Herzog and Kinski, I would doubt it would be the must-see film that it surely is.  Be aware that if you are not a cinephile, the movie might leave you scratching your head.  The cinematography is mesmerizing.  Herzog’s use of hand-held cameras for the raft scenes gives you the feeling that you are on board.  This can be disconcerting when the rafts are braving the rapids, but a lot of the journey is on a slow-moving Amazon.  The river moves slow and so does the movie.  The movie seems longer than it is and some of the scenes tend to drag.  It is obvious from the start that the plot will be a series of escalating calamities hosted by a mad man, so it is not exactly a feel-good film.  The entertainment is provided by watching the performance of Kinski.  Just his facial expressions alone are worthy of the cult following.  Aside from him, the rest of the cast does not stand out.  How could they when Kinski was sucking all the air out of the jungle?  This was Cecilia Rivera’s only film.  One wonders if her experience playing opposite Kinski soured her on the profession.  Another thing the movie is memorable for is the unusual sound track provided by the progressive/Krautrock band Popol Vuh.  It is choir-like and surreal.  The kind of music you could imagine Herzog playing on a boom box as the cast and crew labored through the jungle.

                “Aguirre, Wrath of God” is not really a war movie although it did influence Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”.  It also has a touch of the ‘lost patrol” subgenre to it.  I recommend you watch it if you love movies in general.  Just be aware that it is overrated as entertainment. 

GRADE  =  B-

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  Surprisingly, the movie is fairly accurate.  Herzog has melded two different tales.  In 1541, Gonzalo Pizarro sent a small force under Francisco de Orellana to scout ahead for El Dorado.  Orellana’s small force forged ahead on a small ship.  On board was a Dominican named Gaspar de Carvajal who kept a journal.  The real Carvajal was not the Indian-hater of the film and in fact, was sincerely interested in their conversion.  Orellana and his men disappeared into the jungle and were presumed lost, but eventually sailed all the way down the Amazon to the Atlantic.

                In 1560, the governor of Peru commissioned an expedition to explore for El Dorado.  It was led by Ursua and included his mistress Dona Inez.  His second in command was Aguirre who brought his teenage daughter Flores.  Along the way, Aguirre decided to take over and murdered Ursua.  He proclaimed a man named Fernando to be “Prince of Peru”.  Later, when Fernando balked at Aguirre’s goal of conquering Panama and Peru, Aguirre killed him, too.  By this time, Aguirre insisted on being called “Wrath of God, Prince of Freedom, and King of Tierra Firme.”  Others called him “El Loco”.  Aguirre and his men made war on the natives as they passed through.  When they reached the Atlantic, they captured Isla Margarita off the coast of Venezuela and killed much of the population.  This notorious conquistador was worse than in the movie, believe it or not.  His treasonous activities had reached the Crown and the government offered a pardon to Aguirre’s men if they would turn on him.  They did.  Before he was captured and executed, Aguirre killed Flores. 

Thursday, May 17, 2018

OVERLOOKED GEM? Men in Battle (2015



       “Men Go to Battle” is an independent film by Zachary Treitz.  It was made with a very low budget and earned less than $18,000.  Considering the look of the production, it may have actually made a profit.  The movie gained some good reviews from critics.

                The movie is basically a character study of two brothers who live in Kentucky during the Civil War.  Francis (Tom Morton) is the optimist and Henry (David Maloney) is the pessimist.  They live alone in a shack and are dirt farmers who are not good at farming.  They like to prank each other.  Their attendance at a party makes it clear that they are lower class individuals, but well-liked.  When Henry kisses an upper class belle, she runs off crying.  “I didn’t want you to be my first kiss.”  Ouch!  Henry runs off to join the Union Army.  The movie concentrates on his experiences and gives a minor dose of soldier life as portrayed by reenactors. 

                “Men Go to Battle” is one of those WTFWTCT movies.  As in what the fuck were the critics thinking?”  I have seen some amateurish movies in my time, but this one takes the cake.  I would not have been surprised to find that it was written by high schoolers and was filmed by a parent watching the production from a seat in the auditorium.  Actually, it appears to have been filmed by Trietz himself using a hand-held camera.  This may impress critics, but an entire movie of the main characters either walking toward the camera or away from it does not make for entertaining cinema.  And filming night scenes by candlelight because you can’t afford the lighting is not that impressive to me.  It just makes for a dark movie.  Speaking of low budget, the movie has no soundtrack.  Another thing Treitz could not afford, I suppose.  The movie is simple in every way.  The exact opposite of a blockbuster.  And also unlike a blockbuster, nothing happens.  Although technically a war movie, there is little action.  This is a bit surprising since Treitz had access to quite a few reenactors.  Why not take your hand-held camera and film the reenactment of a battle?  Because he was making a character study.  A character study of two boring characters that nothing much happens to.  How do you set a movie in war-torn Kentucky and not have any drama?

                It is hard to hate “Men Go to Battle”.  After all, I did not pay money to be the only person in the theater to see it.  It is more a movie to be pitied.  As much as I am in favor of increasing the quantity of war movies in this modern age, I still insist on some quality.  At least with the worst of the straight-to-DVD combat porn movies, you get some adrenalin flow.

GRADE  =  D-

Sunday, May 13, 2018

PICTURE, QUOTE, MOVIE #33


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is the following quote from?

"I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves. The enemy was in us. The war is over for me now, but it will always be there, the rest of my days."

3.  What movie is this a description of?

  The action takes place in the Taman Peninsula in the Caucasus in 1943.  The Germans are in the midst of their retreat from Stalingrad.  The film was the director’s last great feature and his only war movie.  He supposedly was heavily drinking during the shoot.  The movie is based on the novel "The Willing Flesh" by Willi Heinrich.  The movie follows the book fairly closely.   The movie was filmed on location in Yugoslavia with the cooperation of the Yugoslavian army.  Because the production ran out of money, the ending had to be improvised.  The release met with mixed reviews and it did not do well at the box office.  It’s reputation has been rising over the years, however.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

CRACKER? Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)



               
                “Judgment at Nuremberg” is another of Stanley Kramer’s “message movies” like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” and “Inherit the Wind”.  This time he decided to be one of the first to take on the Nuremberg Trials and the Holocaust.  He was inspired by a teleplay that aired on Playhouse 90.  He got Abbie Mann to adapt the screenplay for the big screen.  He then convinced Spencer Tracy to lead the cast.  Tracy loved the script and liked working with Kramer.  He made the film in spite of a kidney ailment and ill health due to years of alcoholism.  The cachet of Tracy brought several other all-stars to the production.  Most agreed to take substantially less of their normal salaries because of the social importance of the movie.  The cast included three actors who were problematic:  Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, and Montgomery Clift.  Dietrich was difficult on set and insisted on special lighting and wanted her lines rewritten, which Kramer denied.  Garland had not made a movie in seven years and had a reputation for being difficult.  She was uncharacteristically fine for this production.  However, she had trouble getting into character.  Clift binge-drank through his participation, which actually enhanced his performance.  The movie was a minor hit (but did not do well in West Germany because most Germans did not want to reopen old wounds).  It was critically acclaimed although there were some that questioned Kramer’s directing.  It was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and won for Best Actor (Maximilian Schell) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Mann).  Kramer received the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award.

                Mann based the screenplay on the Judge’s Trial of 1947.  This was one of the twelve U.S. military tribunals (known as the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials) that followed the main trials.  16 jurists and lawyers were on trial.  Most were members of the Reich Ministry of Justice and the others were prosecutors and judges of the Special Courts or People’s Courts.  The main charge was furthering the “racial purity’ program including eugenics. Specifically, the defendants were accused of judicial acts of sterilization and persecution of people for religious, racial, political reasons or for disabilities.  This particular trial was held from March 5-December 4, 1947.  Ten of the sixteen defendants were found guilty and most were given life sentences (although all got out in a relatively short time).  Mann also incorporated the Katzenberger Trial which involved an elderly Jew who attempted to seduce a sixteen year-old Aryan girl in violation of the Nuremberg Laws.  He was sentenced to death.

                The movie opens with the iconic shot of the blowing up of the swastika at Nuremberg Stadium.  The movie takes place in Nuremberg in 1948.  The trial is of what seems to be small fry – four Nazi judges.  Tracy plays the presiding judge Dan Haywood.  He is modest about his abilities and is determined to understand as well as judge.  As part of his process, he befriends the widow  (Dietrich) of a German general who was executed for his role in the Malmedy Massacre.  Haywood is not locked into finding the defendants guilty.  The prosecuting attorney is Col. Ted Lawson (Richard Widmark) who, in an emotional opening statement, makes it clear that all Germans are to blame for the depredations of the Nazis. On the other side, defense counsel Hans Rolfe (Schell) argues that the men had no choice because they would have been considered traitors if they had refused to carry out the laws.  Clift plays an intellectually-challenged man who was forcibly sterilized.  Garland plays a woman who was a sixteen year-old girl who had relations with a Jewish man resulting in his execution.  They both have memorable stints on the witness stand.  Lawson uses their testimony to nail the four judges who handled cases like these.  Lawson himself makes a trip to the witness stand to narrate footage of the liberation of the death camps.  The footage includes piles of naked corpses and bulldozers being used to inter them.  

                The climactic moment in the film is the testimony of Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster) who had been a famous and respected jurist and scholar before the war.  Janning is pleading guilty, but explains that good people went along with the Nazis because they thought the injustices would be temporary.  Rolfe uses his closing argument to reference how the Allies shit stank too.  He mentions Oliver Wendell Holmes defense of eugenics and Churchill’s early praise for Hitler.  And, of course, he can’t go without bringing up Hiroshima.  It’s up to Haywood and the other two judges to decide the fate of the accused.

                “Judgment at Nuremberg” is a thought-provoking film.  It explores several themes.  One is whether international law takes precedent over national law.  In other words, should the defendants refused to enforce laws they should have known were wrong.  Another is how can the Allies condemn actions that were not that much different than injustices they perpetrated.  Many American states had eugenics and/or miscegenation laws at the time.  The movie only hints at the hypocrisy of that situation.  After all, the movie was made during the Cold War and no studio would have financed an indictment of America.  In fact, the movie uses the breaking out of the Berlin Blockade to make the case that the trial was influenced by the desire to not offend West Germany too much during the crisis.

                The real strength of the movie is the acting.  Kramer makes great use of his outstanding cast.  This is definitely an actors’ movie.  The stunt casting of Dietrich, Garland, and Clift works, especially if you know their backstories.  Clift, in particular, is amazing given what he was going through in his personal life.  In fact, Kramer used his mental instability to get a great performance out of him.  It was a gamble.  Clift was drinking so heavily that he could not remember his lines.  Kramer allowed him to ad lib most of his testimony.  It worked.  Tracy glues it all together and gets to give a closing speech that was eleven minutes of one take.  But acting honors go to Schell.  He won the Best Actor Oscar even though he was fifth billed.  His nomination with Tracy was a rare double nomination and even rarer victory for one of them.  Speaking of great actors, Werner Klemperer recreated his role of the unrepentant judge from the Playhouse 90 production.  Klemperer was a Jew whose father’s family had fled Nazi Germany.  He insisted that if he played German roles they had to be negative characters or buffoons.  Col. Klink was the latter.

                The acting distracts from the length and preachiness of the movie.  It is typical Kramer.  Kramer was criticized by many for this aspect of his “message movies”.  I think this was unjust.  He took chances with his topics and those movies were significant.  They may seem tedious to some, but he was sincere.  He also took some grief for showy cinematography in this film.  Most famously for a shot where the camera makes a 360 degree circuit around Widmark during a monologue.  Kramer admitted later that it was a bit overblown.  I thought it was cool and I liked the frequent use of deep focus.  If you are not a critic whose job is to get upset about cinematography stunts, such shots can be interesting.

                Will “Judgment at Nuremberg” crack my 100 Best War Movies?  It could.  It is a must-see.  It is a rare war movie that makes you think and examine your conscience.  A key part of the script is that the audience wonders what Haywood’s final decision will be.  It could go either way.

GRADE  =  B+


Sunday, May 6, 2018

SHOULD I READ IT? As Far as My Feet Will Carry Me (2001)




                “As Far as My Feet Will Carry Me” is a German movie produced, directed, and co-written by Hardy Martins.  It is based on the eponymous book by novelist Josef Martin Bauer.  Bauer was telling the supposed adventures of Cornelius Rost (who changed his name to Clemens Forell to avoid KGB retribution). 

                Forrell (Bernard Betterman) is in the German army when he is taken prisoner by the Soviets near the end of the war.  He is taken in a freezing boxcar with no food or water to a Siberian gulag.  The prison has no fences or watch towers because escape into the wilderness would be suicidal (like in “Bridge on the River Kwai”).  Also, like that movie (and virtually every other prisoner of war movie), there is a sadistic camp commandant named Kamenev (Anatoly Kotenyov).  The men are forced to work in a coal mine.  Forell manages to escape, but it will be years for him to get back home.  The odyssey puts him through a variety of episodes and he meets a variety of colorful characters.  Kamenev is on his trail throughout.

                “As Far as My Feet Will Carry Me” is not really a war movie.  It is part prisoner of war movie and part chase film.  It is entertaining and can be heart-tugging.  There are flash-backs to his family life.  The scenery is beautiful.  If you love snowy scenes, this is your movie.  The score propels the movie well.  The acting is fine.  The problem with the film is it seems it perpetuates a lie.  Subsequent probings after Bauer’s book came out have cast severe doubts about Rost’s story.  For instance, records show that Rost was released two years before the escape depicted in the movie.  If you watch it, keep in mind that much of it is bullshit.

GRADE  =  C+

Friday, May 4, 2018

FORGOTTEN GEM? The Thin Red Line (1964)



               
                “The Thin Red Line” was the first filming of James Jones’ novel.  It was directed by Andrew Marton (“Men of the Fighting Lady”).  It was filmed in Spain which was seemingly an odd choice for representing Guadalcanal.  The movie is not particularly well known and many think Terence Malick was the first to take on the novel.  Let’s see if the earlier movie was as bad as the new one.

                The movie opens with an Army unit on a transport off “the island”.  Sgt. Welsh (Jack Warden) is a hard-ass whose philosophy is that he needs to prepare his men for the insanity of war by modeling insanity.  “If it’s insanity they are going to face, get them ready for it now....  There is only a thin red line between the sane and the insane.”  Capt. Stone (Ray Daley) disagrees with this mantra,but is not sure if Welsh might not be right.  The movie’s plot will center around the dysfunctional relationship between Welsh and a private named Doll (Keir Dullea).  Doll is a soldier whose first priority is survival.  To that end, he steals a pistol while below deck on the ship.  This purloining gets Doll deeper into Welsh’s dog house.  For some reason, Welsh hates Doll.  Meanwhile, the other dynamic involves Lt. Col. Tall (James Philbrook – are you getting the impression that this movie’s cast does not rival the 1998 version?) questioning Stone’s toughness.  Tall feels Stone coddles his men. He is perturbed that Stone is not enthusiastic about a suicide attack against “The Elephant” (think “Ant Hill” from “Paths of Glory”).  The attack will include a trek through “The Bowling Alley” which is a mine-infested ravine.  Tall feels losing men is part of the effort.  Stone wonders why it has to be his men.  The rest of the movie deals with the attack and the evolution of the Welsh-Doll and Stone/Tall relationships.

                “The Thin Red Line” is a strange movie, but not in the same way as Malick’s opus.  Malick’s movie was marred by its pretentiousness, Marton’s is off-kilter because of its flawed character development.  Welsh just shows flashes of insanity, otherwise he’s just a jerk.  Doll never shows his survive at all costs mentality.  His transformation into the best warrior in the unit is not believable.  On the other side of the coin, Tall goes from Patton to Montgomery by the end of the movie.  The two character pairs don’t work and it does not help that the actors are not up to it anyhow.  Warden is the only one who acquits himself well, but he is not helped by the inconsistency of his character.  Dullea chews scenery and this is amplified by the fact that little of what Doll does makes sense.  Doll has a best friend named Fife (Bob Kanter).  In the novel, Fife was famously gay, but in a 1964 movie the closest they could come to that was having Fife dress up in some women’s clothing they find in a village.  Don’t ask.  The rest of the cast is low-rent and it shows.  Fortunately, the movie has lots of action to balance its philosophizing.  There are several combat scenes and they are all above average for a black and white WWII film.  One of them (after they capture a Japanese village, the enemy ambush them) is balls to the wall ridiculous, but fun and unique.  Naturally, the percent of dead to wounded is very high, but that’s par for the course in movies of this generation.  Needless to say, there is no blood or bullet holes.  We also get the usual touchdown signaling deaths.  The score is intrusive in its mood-setting sincerity.

                I don’t think we will ever get a good rendering of Jones’ novel.  “The Thin Red Line” in print is the story of a unit of soldiers.  Both movies have concentrated on just a few characters and ladled the philosophy on thick.  I prefer the 1964 version, not because it is a superior movie, but because it does not take itself seriously.  I hope not, anyway.  There are some bizarre scenes, so being a little drunk would enhance your viewing.  For example, at one point, the unit sends in a flaming jeep full of explosives to lead off an attack!  Just like what really happened on Guadalcanal!  So don’t watch this movie (or the other one) as a tutorial on the campaign.  Jones fought on the island and his book is semi-autobiographical, but little of that made it into the movies.  We still need a good movie on that campaign.  And how about covering the Navy effort as well.  I guess we’ll need a miniseries.

GRADE  =  C+

Friday, April 27, 2018

SHOULD I READ IT? Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (1996)




                “Pretty Village, Pretty Flame” is a Serbian film about the Bosnian War.  It was directed by Srdan Dragojevic.  It was very popular in Serbia. It is based on a true story and attempts to explain why groups of Serbians turned against each other.

                The movie opens with the dedication of a tunnel connecting Bosnia with Herzegovina.  The ribbon cutter slices himself and bleeds profusely.  Rather crude foreshadowing, no?  Nine years later, two best friends stand in front of the abandoned tunnel entrance, but refuse to go inside because they are afraid an ogre is inside.  A metaphorical ogre, yes. Milan is a Bosnian Serb and Halil is a Bosniak Muslim. Would you believe they end up on opposite sides of the conflict?

                The plot is nonlinear, but is structured around Milan and some comrades being trapped in a tunnel under assault from Bosniak Muslims that include Halil.  The movie flashes back to life in Yugoslavia before the conflict and forward to Milan in a hospital.  The tunnel scenes are basically of the frontier fort under Indian attack variety.  Milan’s comrades are a heterogeneous lot.  They include a criminal, a druggie, a teacher, a family man, and a female reporter.  Apparently, Serbian filmmakers are aware of small unit tropes.  Naturally, this dysfunctional group gets picked off one by one.

                “Pretty Village, Pretty Flame” is an interesting little movie.  It effectively depicts the insanity of a civil war.  Neighbors turn against each other.  Best friends can end fighting each other.  War is hell and civil war is especially hellacious.  The movie is well acted and the dialogue is realistic for soldiers in their situation.  The nonlinear structure works fairly well.  There is some character development through the flashbacks.  What keeps the movie from being better are the unreal tactics.  Much of the incidents in the tunnel defy reason.  For example, the trapped group do not flee deeper into the tunnel and the attackers do not attack after dark or use the RPGs that they clearly have.  But hey, what fun would it be if the defenders were wiped out quickly?
 
                Should you read it?  Don’t put it high on your TBW list, but get around to it someday.

GRADE  =  B-

Thursday, April 19, 2018

CRACKER? Life is Beautiful (1997)




                Finally, a Holocaust comedy after all those depressing dramas.  “Life is Beautiful” is an Italian film that was directed and co-written by Roberto Begnini.  He also starred in it.  Begnini loosely based the movie on the book In the End, I Beat Hitler by Rubino Romeo Salmoni.  He also was inspired by his own father’s stories from WWII.  He was in the Italian army and switched sides when his country went over to the Allies.  Unfortunately, the elder Begnini was captured by the Germans and put in a labor camp.  He would tell his kids humorous stories to distract them.  The movie was a big hit and critically acclaimed.  It won the Grand Prix at Cannes. It was nominated for six Academy Awards and won Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film, Original Dramatic Score, and Actor.  Begnini got the title from a phrase Leon Trotsky wrote in his journal the day he was assassinated.

                The movie opens in Italy in 1939.  Two guys in a car without brakes barge into a gathering to greet the king.  This establishes the movies low-brow humor.  One of the clowns is Guido Orefice (Begnini) who has come to town to get a job as a waiter in his uncle’s restaurant.  He falls in love with his son’s elementary school teacher.  She is engaged to the local rich asshole, so he is going to have to be creative.  If pratfalls are your idea of creativity, then he is the man for you.  Spoiler alert:  the winning streak of charming buffoons over wealthy jerk continues.  Years later, the Orefice family is living a beautiful life when lil’ ole WWII comes along.  Because Guido and his son Giosue are Jewish, they are shipped to a concentration camp.  Dora (Nicolletta Braschi – Roberto’s wife) volunteers to join them.  He does not stop her!  She is put in a different part of the camp.  Guido sends her messages over the camp loudspeaker.  He convinces his son that the concentration camp is the elaborate setting for a game.  If his son does everything he says, he will earn points to win a tank.  Shenanigans ensue.  I bet you never thought you would hear the word “shenanigans” in a Holocaust movie review.  It’s that kind of movie.

                This is a really hard movie to judge.  I am certainly not against black humor and it has its place in cinema.  Obviously, it is unexpected in a Holocaust movie.  Perhaps the time was right for it.  God knows we have plenty of Holocaust movies that are depressing.  But depressingly accurate in depicting the horrors of the camps.  To his credit, Begnini took the approach that the movie would be like a fairy tale.  He did not try to compete with the serious Holocaust films.  The movie is best viewed as a fairy tale, otherwise you might gag a bit.

                Since the movie is a dramedy, it is something of a roller coaster ride.  Before it gets serious, the humor is head-shaking.  Is Begnini’s shtick the current state of comedy in Italy?  Since the film is a vehicle for Begnini, your enjoyment is directly related to your tolerance for his antics.  He is the Italian Robin Williams so factor that in when you decide whether to watch the movie.  To be honest, I am not a Williams fan so I was not enamored with Begnini’s performance.  In this respect, I disagree with the Academy’s choice of him as Best Actor.  Amazingly, he was only the second actor to direct himself to a Best Actor Oscar (the other was Laurence Olivier in “Hamlet”).  Begnini beat out Tom Hanks in “Saving Private Ryan” and Edward Norton for “American X”.  How in Hell did that happen?  Did Beatty/Dunaway read the envelope?  I found his brand of hilarity set in a Holocaust situation to be jarring.  Plus, it just is not funny under any circumstances.  This is a problem for a movie that is more comedy than drama.  It does not really show how bad the camp is.  Begnini pulls his punches in this respect or the movie would have been even more whiplashing.  But if you are in for a centesimo, why not be in for a lira?  I suppose you would not make millions of lira if you took that bold approach.

       Will “Life is Beautiful” crack my Best War Movies list?  No, because it is my list and I don’t care what the critics or the Academy Awards have to say.  I also reserve the right to opine that Roberto Begnini is not funny and this movie is a misfire.  Is it too soon for a humorous Holocaust movie?  It will always be too soon.

GRADE  =  C