Friday, December 4, 2020

WOODEN CROSSES (6) vs. BATTLE OF NERETVA (11)


PLOT

                “Wooden Crosses” is a French war film set on the Western Front in WWI.  It was released in 1932.  It was based on a novel by a veteran of the war.  It is basically a buddy film focusing on the friendship on the newbie Gilbert and the veteran Sulphart.  Their relationship is reminiscent of Paul and Kat in “All Quiet…”  The plot moves smoothly from soldier life to combat.  The interaction of the small unit is natural, although it reflects the period before French poilu became disillusioned with the war.  It gets its anti-war bona fides from the whittling down of the unit and the horrendous combat scenes.  This is one of the great WWI movies.  GRADE  =  A (9)

                “The Battle of Neretva” is a huge budget Yugoslavian film released in 1969.  It deals with a battle between the Germans and partisans.  The plot is a collection of battle scenes connected by bombardments.  An international all-star cast is given some things to do, but there is no time (even though the movie is long) for character development.  It is often unclear what is happening and why, but I really didn’t care.  GRADE  =  C (7)

ACTING

                “Wooden Crosses” is basically a two man show.  Pierre Blanchard is fine as Gilbert, although the character does not undergo the usual naïve to cynical arc of a new soldier.  Gilbert fits in immediately and becomes a leader quickly.  Gabriel Gabrio is great as Sulphart. He is one of the great characters in WWI movies and very entertaining.  He even gets to sing.  The rest of the cast is fine and they do death well.  GRADE  =  A (9)

                “The Battle of Neretva” has some major stars who were attracted by the pay.  Orson Welles plays a politician, Yul Brenner gets to blow things up, Sergei Bondarchuk plays a partisan, Curt Jurgens and Hardy Kruger are Germans.  There roles are glorified cameos.  There are some female actors that make an impression, but the male stars seem to be just putting in the time, except Kurger, of course.  Overall, the acting is wooden.  GRADE  =  C (7)

CLICHES

                “Wooden Crosses” is built upon the cliché of the veteran soldier pairing off with the new guy.  The Sulphart character has been seen in many films.  He is resourceful and keeps spirits up.  Gilbert is not a stereotype.  He hits the ground running and his biggest personality trait is he reflects the conscience of the group.  This is unusual for the newest unit member.  Although a two-man focus, the movie is firmly in the “who will survive?” subgenre.  GRADE  =  B (8)

                Surprisingly, “The Battle of Neretva” has no glaring cliches.  It even avoids the classic fighter bombardment cliche by having the planes actually drop bombs!  It does not avoid the typical touchdown-signaling deaths.  GRADE  =  A (9)

COMBAT

                 The outstanding thing about “Wooden Crosses” is the combat.  It has both quantity and quality.  I have seen enough WWI movies to assure you that they seldom have very much actual fighting.  This movie manages to give good treatment to both the soldier life and the battles.  The attack on the village features twelve minutes of continuous balls to the wall combat. The bombardment effects are outstanding.  The movie makes you wonder why these men went over the top and makes it clear why later in the war French soldiers would refuse to.  GRADE  =  A (9)

                “The Battle of Neretva” has lots of combat, but quantity does not mean quality.  There is plenty of military hardware, including tanks.  There’s a lot of air bombardment to the point where it becomes redundant.  And then you have Yul Brenner’s character to blow things up.  Unfortunately, the climactic blowing up of the bridge is a fizzle.  In spite of blowing up an actual bridge twice (too much dust for the cinematography), the film had to use a model.  There is a cavalry charge in a WWII movie, but it can’t save the overall blah choreography.  GRADE  =  B (8)

FINAL SCORE:  Wooden Crosses 35  The Battle of Neretva  31

ANALYSIS:

                This outcome should not come as a surprise.  Few have seen both movies, but take it from me, “Wooden Crosses” is one of the best WWI movies and “The Battle of Neretva” was a Yugoslavian attempt at a battle epic.  While not as bad as “Battle of the Bulge”, it needs to be lumped with it.  It actually has a good reputation, although I can see no reason why.  Heck, it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.  (Keep in mind that “Army of Shadows” was released in 1969 and was not nominated.)  It has no scenes that match the best of “Wooden Crosses” which has a remarkable scene where the unit is in a dugout that they know is being mined.  It is a must-see movie where I would avoid “Neretva”.   

Thursday, December 3, 2020

TALVISOTA (5) vs. STALINGRAD: DOGS… (12)

 


PLOT     

                “Talvisota” is a Finnish war movie set in the Winter War versus the Soviets.  It was released in 1989.  It was based on a novel.  An infantry regiment is called up at the beginning of the war and we follow a group of men through the fighting.  They are sent to the front to occupy trenches and hold back overwhelming Soviet hordes equipped with tanks.  It’s a whittle down plot as few of the main characters will survive.  It has a WWI film feel as a lot of time is spent in trenches.  And there are trips to the home front.  There are several battles that are well-done.  Unfortunately, the plot is without nuance.  There is no dysfunction and the characters are two-dimensional.   GRADE  =  C (7)

                “Stalingrad:  Dogs, Do You Want to Live Forever?” is a West German film released in 1959.  It was based on a novel by a survivor of the Battle of Stalingrad.  The main character is a German Lt. Wisse who is sent as a liaison to the Romanian allies.  His adversary will be an officious, but self-serving Maj. Linkmann.  Wisse and his core group of mates will have to try to survive the hardships of the siege.  The movie was dedicated to the survivors and does justice to them.  It covers both the macro and the micro.  Narration gives the big picture and Hitler and Paulus make appearances to balance the portrayal of the average German soldier.  While not a documentary, it is the best edutainment on the battle.  GRADE  =  A (9)

ACTING

                Taneli Makela (Martti) won Best Actor at the Jussi Awards and Vesa Vierikko (Jussi) won Best Supporting Actor.  The rest of the cast is fine and no one stands out.  They are not really given the chance to shine because there is no dysfunction in the platoon.  Even the officers, with one villainous exception, are nice guys.  GRADE  =  B  (8)

                The acting is a real strength in “Stalingrad…”.  Preiss (who played Rommel in “The Longest Day”) is his usual solid self and adds some gravitas as the only recognizable actor for an American audience.  Did he make any non-war movies?  The rest of the cast is good, especially Hansen (Wisse).  It was a nice touch to have Paulus and Hitler portrayed by actors.  GRADE  =  B  (8)

CLICHES

                “Talvisota” starts off with the naïve recruits going off to war ill-prepared, but at least they are not enthusiastic about it.  There is one asshole officer who has it in for the main character, but otherwise the unit lacks dysfunction.  It is firmly in the “who will survive?” subgenre.  The trips to the home front prove that the citizens are clueless.  Overall, the movie manages to avoid most cliches.  GRADE  =  B (8)

                “Stalingrad: Dogs…” starts with the naïve, kool-aid drinking officer arriving at the front.  His arc is predictable, though realistic for many officers sent to Stalingrad.  He and his three mates are too small a group to make this a small unit movie.  There is no dysfunction as all are fighting for survival.  There is a clicheish relationship between Wisse and Linkmann -  the good officer versus the bad officer.  Given the unusual plot, the movie does not lend itself to tropes.  GRADE  =  B (8)

COMBAT

                The strength of “Talvisota” is in its combat.  It has both quantity and quality.  The bombardments are well-done, if unrealistically accurate at times.  The effects coordinator loved to blow up trees.  There is some visceral and graphic hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches of the modern “Saving Private Ryan” style. Unfortunately, it is marred by being too stagey in its choreography.  The vehicles and weaponry are either original or excellent replicas.  The producers got hold of some authentic Soviet T-26 tanks.  GRADE  =  B (8)

                “Stalingrad: Dogs…” almost did not make the tournament because of its lack of combat, but a siege is combat too.  It is excellent at showing the terrible conditions the German soldiers were subjected to.  The one combat scene is realistic.  A tank is taken out by an anti-tank gun.  GRADE  =  C  (8)

FINAL SCORE:  SDDYWTL  32  Talvisota  31

ANALYSIS

                “Talvisota” is a well-known and well-regarded movie, but I find it overrated.  “Stalingrad: Dogs…” is little-known, but possibly the best of many movies about the Battle of Stalingrad.  Judged just on quantity of combat, “Talvisota” has the edge, but overall as a war film, it is clearly not as good.  The plot is what separates the two. Both were meant as tributes to countrymen who defied incredible odds, but the plight of the German soldiers was more realistically depicted.  

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

 


MY WAY  (4) vs.  THE 9TH COMPANY   (13)

PLOT:

                “My Way” is a South Korean film released in 2001.  It is based on the story of a Korean soldier who supposedly served with the Japanese, was held prisoner by the Soviets and then fought for them, and ended up in Normandy fighting for the Germans.  The screenwriter took that acorn of an idea and grew an oak out of it.  Kim Jun-shik (Jong Dong-gun of “TaeGukGi”) is Korean and Tatsuo Hasegawa (singer Joe Odagiri) is Japanese and they are long distance running rivals.  Not friendly rivals.  The movie has an exciting marathon race that shows the Koreans can stage exciting things besides battles.  Jun-shik gets conscripted into the Japanese army and is sent to the Mongolian border to face the Soviet Army.  Tatsuo is his commanding officer and war does not help them bond, at least not for 2/3 of the movie.  They are on an odyssey that will take them from a Soviet prison camp to Normandy.  The plot is outlandish, but entertaining.  It has the usual gonzo combat, but the central conflict between the two characters has a nice flow to it, if predictable.  GRADE  =  B (8)

                “9th Company” is a Russian movie released in 2005.  It is a small unit dynamics movie that ends up as an outpost movie.  A heterogeneous squad of men bond in boot camp and then get sent to Afghanistan.  They have run-ins with the local mujahadeen and this builds to the big last stand set piece at the end.  You’ll be wondering who will survive early on. The plot reminds of “Platoon” but without all the dysfunction.  However, non-Russians will get a good taste of soldier life and behavior in Afghanistan.  The deaths are not predictable other than you know they are coming.  The characters are appealing.  GRADE  =  A (9)

ACTING

                “My Way” is a three man show.  Besides Jong and Odagiri, Kim In-kwon plays Jun-shik’s comic relief best friend.  He becomes a loathsome collaborator and keeps the movie from being a simplistic hero versus villain routine.  All three are good with Jong showing why he is such a big star.  Special credit has to go to Odagiri for making Tatsuo’s arc from hiss-worthy to empathy-worthy believable.  The rest of the cast is fine and the movie throws in Fan Bingbing (I couldn’t go without mentioning that name) as a Chinese sniper.  The role is ridiculous, but her performance is fine and it adds some femininity to an otherwise heavily testosterone plot.  GRADE  =  A (9)

                “9th Rota” is an ensemble affair.  All of the men in the core group are fine and no one stands out.  The roles are basically stereotypes, so there is not a lot of heavy-lifting.  There’s some charisma, especially from their PTSD drill instructor.  Mikhail Porechenkov could hold his own with R. Lee Ermey.   He won the Golden Eagle Award for Best Actor.  One of best performances is by the director himself.  Fedor Bondarchuk plays the group’s Warrant Officer in Afghanistan.  GRADE  =  B (8)

CLICHES

                The whole plot is based on the old enemies bond cliché.  This may be predictable, but the route is not standard.  They start off as marathon rivals and end up as buddies.  Jong-dae gets a redemption arc.  Otherwise the movie is pretty cliché-free.  GRADE  =  B (8)

                “9th Company” was meant to be Russia’s answer to foreign small unit movies.  This is obvious as one of the first scenes has the recruits having their hair sheared off.  Then we are introduced to the various personalities.  They are all recognizable, but none are from Brooklyn.  The drill instructor is hard as rock.  There is a training camp montage.  When they arrive in Afghanistan, they are met by outgoing, grizzled veterans.  There’s a party in the bunker.  And this all culminates in the last stand against the enraged natives.  GRADE  =  D  (6)

COMBAT

                If you’ve seen any South Korean war films, you know they have their own style of combat.  “My Way” is typical, but it has lower percent of combat than others like “Tae Guk Gi”.  Part of this is because of the long stay in the prison camp, but that experience is almost as intense as the action scenes.  The first battle does not occur until the 26 minute mark, but it’s worth the wait as tanks set oil wells on fire, among other things.  The second battle features suicide trucks versus tanks.  It is as gonzo as you can get.  The movie finishes with D-Day and although it is influenced by “Saving Private Ryan”, it manages to throw in every type of explosion in just five minutes.  GRADE =  A+  (10)

                It seems “9th Company” was influenced by South Korean war movies.  I have seen a lot of Soviet/Russian war movies and it looks like they took a turn toward modern combat staging and cinematography in the early 2000’s.  Some of the movies are cheesy, but the better budgeted ones stand up to Korean films.  The final battle lasts an astounding 45 minutes.  It does not have everything but the kitchen sink like in “My Way” and is thus more realistic, but no less intense.  GRADE  =  A  (9)

FINAL SCORE:  My Way  35  9th Company  32

ANALYSIS

                This was an unfortunate matchup.  I am a big fan of both of the movies.  I hate to see either leave the tournament this early, but because of the seeding system, they faced each other in the first round.  This is partly the fault of the IMDB rating system, which has “9th Company” underrated.  Also, the cliches category hurt it, which is unfair because it is unabashedly clichéish.  And its strengths were matched by “My Way”.  I do feel “My Way” is the better movie, but I can see why some would disagree.  “My Way” has the more interesting plot and that is because it is so unique.  It has better combat and that is what the tournament is all about.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

 NON-ENGLISH LANGUAGE COMBAT MOVIE TOURNAMENT

It has been a while since I did a tournament, but I am finally ready for the ninth one.  This time I will be determining the best non-English language combat movie.  Note the word "combat".  In order to compare 16 movies, they have to be similar in plots.  I needed movies that all had land battle scenes.  This means the tournament will not determine the best foreign language war movie because movies like "Waltz with Bashir" and "Grand Illusion" did not fit the criteria.  It was hard to find 16 movies that I could view and that were comparable, but I was able to do it.  I looked forward to the tournament because I was already a fan of foreign war films.  This blog has encouraged me to watch movies with subtitles and although I still think America is the gold standard for war movies, other countries have some excellent offerings.  I particularly enjoy South Korean and Soviet/Russian war movies.  I had actually seen most of the movies before the tournament started.  I used the same categories as my previous combat war tournaments:  plot, acting, cliches, combat, realism, character development, soldier behavior, entertainment value, effects, dialogue, strategy and tactics, and implausibilities.  I used their IMDB ratings for the seeding.  As with all the tournaments, I had no idea which film would win the tournament, although I certainly had my opinion on which was the best film.  The categories sometimes take things in surprising directions.  Here is the line-up:

1. Tae Guk Gi (The Brotherhood of War)

2.  The Bridge

3.  Unknown Soldier 

4.  My Way

5.  Talvisota

6.  Wooden Crosses

7.  Stalingrad

8.  Fortress of War (Brest Fortress)

9.  Front Line

10.  Westfront:  1918

11.  Battle of Neretva

12.  Stalingrad:  Dogs, Do You Want to Live Forever?

13.  9th Company

14.  1944

15.  El Alamein:  The Line of Fire

16.  Panfilov's 28

 

The Bridge (Die Brucke)  (2) vs.  El Alamein:  The Line of Fire  (15)

PLOT

“The Bridge” is a 1959 West German film based on a novel.  It is based on an actual event that occurred in the closing days of WWII.  In a town in western Germany that has largely been untouched by the war, seven teenage boys are suddenly called up to join the military and defend a bridge.  The bridge is scheduled to be blown up, so it should be a safe mission.  A veteran noncom is put in charge of these naïve, but enthusiastic, warriors.  Wait, is that the sound of American tanks?  And where is the sergeant?  The plot is well-executed.  The first half establishes the characters of the boys and their home situations.  Each has an interesting back-story.  The second half is the defense of the bridge which is appropriately grim and realistic.  GRADE  =  A (9)

“El Alamein:  The Line of Fire”  is a 2002 Italian film.  It is set in the Second Battle of El Alamein in 1942.  A naïve university student named Serra arrives at the front line, which consists of trenches similar to WWI.  He becomes acquainted with the platoon he is assigned to, especially his squad which is led by a veteran Lt.  They find Serra’s enthusiasm laughable and he quickly learns why.  The hardships include the heat, dysentery, critters, lack of food and water, etc.  The plot whittles down the core group, although Serra seems to be miraculously invulnerable.  There are a series of incidents leading up to a big battle and then the movie becomes something of an odyssey.  GRADE  =  B (8)

ACTING

The acting is not the strength of “The Bridge”, unless you appreciate sincerity.  The boys seem to be making their acting debuts.  The leader of the boys was an acting student.  This works well because it was easy for them to portray the naivete of the characters.  Most of the rest of the cast give the impression of being non-actors.   GRADE  =  C (7)

“El Alamein” is really a three man show.  Paulo Briguglia (Serra), Emilio Solfrizzi (Fiore), and Pierfrancesco Favino (Rizzo) are good as the neophyte, the cynical officer, and the tough guy.  It was Briguglia’s first big role.  Favino is a well-respected international star.  The roles are stereotypical, but the actors make them believable.  You feel empathy for the poor Italians.  GRADE  =  B (8)

CLICHES

“The Bridge” taps into the enthusiastic newbies trope.  And the boys are put under the charge of a grizzled veteran.  His exit breaks ground from movies like “The Big Red One”.  The plot falls comfortably into the suicide mission scenario in the second half and you have the cliché of wondering who will survive.  In a flipping of the script, the boys’ teacher is not spouting propaganda to encourage them to fight for the Fatherland (like in “All Quiet…”).   GRADE  =  B (8)

“El Alamein” leads off with the clicheish arrival of the rookie and his first taste of reality is dead bodies (like in “Platoon”).  Both movies are centered on heterogeneous small units, but this movie is more stereotypes.  It has a similar in that it is a “who will survive?” movie.  Nobody sweats in the blistering heat, like in most desert warfare movies.  GRADE  =  C (7)

COMBAT

In “Die Brucke”, there is no combat until the last act.  But that is a long scene and its worth the wait.  If you can overlook one of the most phony tanks in war movie history, the action is competent.  The skirmish is realistically done and avoids melodrama.  It does lack suspense in that you clearly know the movie is anti-war and has the message that death in the service of a bad cause is particularly tragic.  But at least, you don’t know HOW each of the boys is going to get it.  It’s certainly not graphic, but it is suspenseful and heart-tugging.  GRADE  =  B (8)

For a movie named after a famous battle, “El Alamein” is lacking in combat.  Of course, it is not intended to be reenactment of the battle.  It is a treatment of the effects of a battle on individuals.  The one battle scene takes place at night.  The preparatory bombardment on the Italian position is realistically hellish.  The sound of tanks is followed by an assault that overruns them.  It is average and disappointing.  GRADE  =  C (7)

FINAL SCORE:  The Bridge  32   El Alamein:  The Line of Fire  30

ANALYSIS:

Clearly the better movie won.  “The Bridge” is a special movie.  It won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and nominated for the Academy Award.  It is unique in its plot where “El Alamein” has been done before and better.  Both attempt to depict the effects of war on the young, but “The Bridge” goes all in by using actual teenagers as the main characters.  The seven are distinct individuals and their situations reflect common situations in Germany during the dark closing days of the war.  There are movies that showed the effects on children in Berlin (including soldiers), but seldom do we see boy soldiers in a town.  “El Alamein” is not a bad movie.  It does get a little boring towards the end and the combat does not satisfy, but it is the best movie about the experiences of Italian soldiers in North Africa.