Saturday, April 20, 2024

Liberation series (1970-71)


            “Liberation” was the Soviet  answer to western films like “The Longest Day” which did not even mention the Soviet contributions to the victory in WWII.  Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev wanted a “monumental epic” to commemorate the Great Patriotic War.  Yuri Ozerow was chosen to direct.  He had been drafted into the Red Army in 1939. He participated in several battles including the Battle of Moscow and made a pledge to himself that after the war he would make a film that told the story of the great Red Army.  After the war, he became a director at the Mosfilm studio.  His project was overseen by Brezhnev and his propaganda machine.  Movies like it reflected a more conservative portrayal of the eastern front.  This was a change from the “Khruschev Thaw” which had resulted in more realistic and truthful films like “The Cranes Are Flying” and “Ballad of a Soldier”. Movies like “Liberation” were part of the “Cult of the Great War”.  The movie was a joint Soviet, Polish, East German, Italian, Yugoslavian production.  It used 150 tanks.  They could not find any Tigers or Panthers, so replicas were manufactured.  2,000 artillery pieces were used and 5,000 extras, mainly Soviet troops.  Several actual locations were used, including the site of the 1944 Hitler assassination attempt.  The Kursk battlefield could not be used because of all the unexploded bombs and mines.  The site was recreated with 30 kilometers of trenches.  The series covered the Battle of Kursk, the Lower Dnieper Offensive, Operation Bagration, the Vistula-Oder Offensive, and the Battle of Berlin.

            PART 1 -  The Fire Bulge:  The series opens strong with a Tiger tank moving toward the viewer.  A T-34 puts a hole in it.  Hitler (Fritz Diez playing him for the fourth time) is there for this demonstration and postpones Operation Citadel (the attack on the Kursk salient) until the Tigers are uparmored.  Stalin meets with his advisers and Zhukov predicts the attack and guarantees victory.  Then comes the battle which is large scale.  Several characters are focused on.  One is a T-34 commander.  We follow the tank in an epic tank battle.  The movie jumps around to several locations, including the Yugoslavia front.  The film is a mixture of command decisions, battles and common soldiers/nurses/civilians.  One of the characters is a tank commander named Vasilev.  A nurse named Zola is another recurring character.  Lt. Yartsev is an infantryman and Tzvetaev is an artilleryman.

            The first film in the quintet.   The mixture creates a choppy narrative and some of the breaks from battles to command conferences are jarring.  It is fun to see historical figures like Stalin and Hitler depicted.  These characters are identified on screen.  The command scenes are shown in black and white to contrast to the fictional characters.   The film is narrated which gives it a documentary feel and maps are provided so you can follow the westward advance of the army.  The Germans (like Gen. Erich von Manstein) are surprisingly portrayed as worthy adversaries.  And the Soviets are not all  heroes.  One scene shows some of their soldiers running in panic.  The soundtrack is patriotic, but not pompous.

            The battles are the main reason for watching it.  The Battle of Kursk segments are awesome.  In one shot, you get 50 tanks.  The camera pans over the battlefield.  There is a reddish tinge and surreal music and some long takes.  We see the interior of a tank.  It uses its machine gun (a rare occurrence in a war movie).  It gets hit so it drives into a river.  The crew gets out and fights with a German crew!  This is some wild stuff.  If you love tanks, these movies is for you.  The films are full of tanks driving over fields.  Take a drink whenever that happens.  Unfortunately, the battle scenes jump to less interesting dialogue scenes. 


            PART 2 -  Breakthrough:  This part covers Hitler meeting with Mussolini and his rescue by commandoes led by Otto Skorzeny.  Orel is liberated.  The Dniepper is crossed.  Lukin’s regiment is sent forward as a diversion and it is wiped out.  There is some focus on an artillery piece and its crew.  The Battle of Kiev.  The Teheran Conference gives us the Big Three meeting.  One theme of the series is FDR and Churchill are undependable allies who are secretly negotiating with the Germans.

            This film is weaker than the first.  There is not as much action and the performances are mostly wooden.  The movie used 18 WWII era planes and some appear in this episode.  However, they look like trainers.  All the German tanks look like Tigers.


            PART 3 -  Direction of the Main Blow:  Fighting in Ukraine.  The nurse goes into no man’s land to help the wounded.  Stalin meets with his advisers to plan for 1944.  FDR  discusses D-Day with Eleanor.  Operation Bagration.  A French squadron flies with the Soviet air force.  A Russian flotilla attacks a German pontoon bridge and lands soldiers.  The Battle of Minsk.  T-34s attack a railway station similar to Odd Ball’s tanks in “Kelly’s Heroes”.  There is a long segment on Operation Valkyrie that includes a good reenactment of the explosion.

            Part 3 tends to be repetitive.  The big set piece battles are too  brief.  There is more fly on the wall at command meetings.  Churchill is shown talking about being glad that Hitler survived! Stalin is always depicted as a calm and reasonable leader.  He wants to show off all the prisoners that have been taken.  Footage is used to show POWs marching through Moscow.  Extensive use is made of archival footage throughout the series. 


            PART 4 -  The Battle of Berlin:  Stalin kindly agrees to move up his offensive to help the Americans when the Battle of the Bulge occurs.  We see tons of tanks moving over snowy fields.  Warsaw  is liberated.  At the Yalta Conference, Stalin scolds FDR for  having Allen Dulles meet with a German agent.  Jews are rescued from a train.  Stalin insists Generals Zhukov and Konev win the race to Berlin.  He pits the two against each other.  There is a surreal night attack using searchlights.  The Battle of Berlin.  Vasilev’s tank drives through the streets.

            The series has a shaky relationship to historical accuracy.  Ozerow used Zhukov (who was persona non grata among Soviet leadership) as an unofficial adviser.  Ozerow had access to Zhukov memoirs.


            PART 5 -  The Last Assault:  Street fighting in Berlin.  Lt. Yartsev’s infantry and Tzvetaev's battery are involved in the capture of the Nazi capital.  In a highly imaginative scene Yartsev meets Zola and her boyfriend in an apartment.  Josef Goebbels picks up a phone to prove phone service is still working and he randomly calls the apartment!  Hitler’s last days are reenacted, including his wedding.  The Soviet flag is raised over the Reichstag.

            This is the best episode.  It does not meander between battles.  It is focused just on the Battle of Berlin.  It is a pretty good history lesson on Hitler’s last days.  The three main common soldiers and nurse have made it to the end.  There are two great set pieces.


            The series does a good job balancing the soldiers with the generals, but it is still about 70% scenes of generals planning.  Zhukov gets the most screen time and is depicted positively.  He may have been ostracized by the politicians, but Ozerow did not get the memo.  Stalin also matches his wartime image.  The Khruschev Thaw was clearly over as Stalin is resurrected as the main hero of the Great Patriotic War.  The series is definitely  propaganda, but is not ladled on thick.  It is more of a patriotic film than a propaganda film.  Despite the historical flaws, it is a good history lesson, especially for westerners who are clueless about the Soviet Union’s role in the war.  You can fast forward through the FDR and Churchill scenes.  They clearly reflect the chillier Cold War during Brezhnev’s reign and uses falsehoods to stain their historical images.  But overall, the film achieves its goal of showing what happened on the Eastern Front.

GRADE  =  B-

Monday, April 15, 2024

THE 100 BEST WAR MOVIES: #66. Andersonville (1996)



                Ted Turner is a Civil War buff.  “Andersonville” was his third foray into the time period.  Most people forget that he produced “Ironclads” in 1991, two years before “Gettysburg”.  Like “Ironclads”, “Andersonville” was made-for-TV.  But unlike the earlier film, a lot of effort went into “Andersonville”.  Turner got John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, The Train) to direct.  Turner also opened up his check book so Frankenheimer could make the film as authentic as possible.  Frankenheimer won an Emmy for Best Direction of a Miniseries or Special.  The movie was nominated for six other Emmys.  The screenplay was loosely based on Andersonville Diary:  Life Inside the Civil War’s Most Infamous Prison by John Ransom.

            A group of Yankees is captured during the Battle of Cold Harbor in June, 1864.  They are shipped to Camp Sumter outside Andersonville, Georgia.  Their first taste (smell) of the camp includes vicious tracking dogs, dead bodies, and stockades with prisoners in them.  The camp has a fifteen-foot wall around it.  When they enter the camp, they are greeted by a seemingly empathetic character named Munn (William Sanderson).  He offers to befriend the “fresh fish” and help them survive.  Fortunately, Pvt. Josiah Day (Jarrod Emick), Sgt. McFadden (Frederic Forrest) and their mates are reunited with a former comrade named Dick (Gregory Sporleder) who clues them in on Munn’s fellow travelers known as the “Raiders”.  The Raiders are led by a bully named Collins (Frederick Coffin).  They prey on the other prisoners. They live fairly well in their sector of the camp by stealing from the vulnerable captives.  Besides the depredations of the Raiders, the camp is a hell hole because of things like lack of food, lack of shelter, lack of clothing, inadequate medical care to deal with diseases, horrible sanitation, and inhumane guards. Do not step across the “dead line”, you won’t be handed your baseball glove and get a stay in the cooler.  To make matters worse, the camp is run by the mentally unstable Capt. Henry Wirz (Jan Triska).  Day, McFadden, and the others hook up with a group led by Sgt. Gleason (Cliff DeYoung).  Gleason’s boys are digging a tunnel and let the new guys in on the digging.  If escape does not work, they will have to deal with the Raiders sooner or later.

ACTING:                      B

ACTION:                      N/A

ACCURACY:               N/A  there is one great fight and one gigantic brawl

PLOT:                          A

REALISM:                   B


SCORE:                        forgettable

BEST SCENE:  the battle

BEST QUOTE:  Limber Jim:  Who’s with me?!  Whoooo?!  

            For a made-for-TV movie, the amount of effort that went into the production is incredible.  The movie was filmed on location on a farm about one hundred miles from Camp Sumter.  A less than scale model of the camp was constructed.  It covered nine acres.  A panning shot reveals the painstaking effort to recreate the officers’ quarters, the stockades, the walls, the stream, and the “tents” of the captives.  The fact that it rained consistently during the sixty day shoot helped create the muddy environment that added to the horror of the story.  It was a difficult shoot for the cast and crew.  Plus the 4,000 extras that participated.  Many of them were reenactors, some of whom came from all over the country.  They lent an air of realism to the movie, although it was hard to reenact the emaciation of the prisoners.  You can’t expect reenactors to starve themselves for their hobby.  For the bigger scenes, 3,000 cardboard cutouts of men were used at a cost of $150,000.  (You can’t tell the fakes in the movie.)  Speaking of cost, several reels of film dealing with the trial were lost in transit to the studio and the trial set had to be rebuilt and the principal actors brought back in at a great expense.  If you watch the trial scene, you cannot tell the original footage from the new.

            The laudatory effort goes beyond the production.  The cast is outstanding.  Emick was making his first movie, but he had won a Tony on Broadway.  He does not take acting honors.  Those go to Forrest, Sanderson, Sporleder, and Triska.  Sanderson’s Munn and Coffin’s Collins are great villains.  Triska (a celebrated actor in Czechoslovakia) manages to create some sympathy for Wirz, a man who clearly was in over his head and lacked the personality to be humane.  Special mention goes to Jayce Bartok, who was so good as the drummer boy Billy that his role was expanded.  There is not a single woman in the film.

            David W. Rintals wrote the script and he deserves kudos.  The characters are memorable and the dialogue is fine.  The movie does not slump into melodrama.  The plot builds nicely to the battle between the Raiders and the Regulators.  The ensuing melee is provoked by the charismatic “Lumber Jim” (Peter Murnik) as he calls the victims to arms with his cry of “who’s with me?  who?”  I wanted to jump into the screen and join in.  The brawl is one of the best in cinema history and very satisfying.  It may be the biggest fight in war movie history.  The movie could have ended here, but the decision was made to tell the whole story.  Naturally, there is a denouement after the fisticuffs, but the trial does bring closure and more importantly, is based on fact.  The score is excellent and visually the film is intriguing.  Frankenheimer made good use of the Steadicam. There is a remarkable long take of the camp. The makeup is excellent in giving the actors the look of men deprived of humanity.

            The movie is not without flaws.  The characters are all good or bad, there is no in between. Heck, Dick is basically a Christ figure.  Rintals adds a visiting inspecting officer played by William H. Macy. Col. Chandler is highly upset with what he sees.   This may have been to show that not all Confederates were bad, but it does allow for a debate between Chandler and Wirz that foreshadows the war crimes trial of Wirz after the war.  The tunneling and escape are short-changed.  There are no underground scenes.  This movie is not “The Great Escape”.  There is no hospital scene, so the full bleakness of the camp is not shown.  It is a film that lacks humor, but having seen so many WWII prison camp movies that make the camp look like a summer camp for men, I can live with that.

            It is a shame that “Andersonville” is not better known.  It could not have been much better for a made-for-TV movie.  Not only is it an entertaining story that is well-acted, but it is a valuable history lesson.  Although fictionalized, you will learn a lot about the most infamous prison camp ever located in America.  I love movies that bring important, but not textbook-worthy stories to the public.  Sometimes those stories are botched and usually there is only one attempt at telling the story.  I’m talking about you “Windtalkers”.  This story was not botched.  It is definitely one of the 100 Best War Movies.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  Camp Sumter was built in Feb., 1864 to handle the large number of Yankee prisoners that were being captured after paroling ended.  Gen. Grant ended the exchange of prisoners partly because it benefitted the Confederate Army and the South refused to repatriate black soldiers.  (The movie has some members of the 54th Massachusetts in it.)  The camp was originally 16.5 acres, but was expanded to 26.5 soon after.  At its max, the camp held 30,000 prisoners.  That was way above capacity.  Of the 45,000 total, 13,000 died.  Most of the deaths were attributable to diseases like scurvy, diarrhea, and dysentery.  The diseases were amplified by the poor food, clothing, and shelter.  The lack of hygiene was mainly blamed on Stockade Creek which provided the water supply, but was tainted by human waste.  Thankfully, the movie only hints at the role of hygiene in the horrors of the camp.  It has been posited that membership in some type of social network was the most important factor in survival.  Loners tended to die soon.  The camp quickly divided into the Raiders and their victims.  The movie accurately depicts the Raiders and their methods.  Collins stands in for the group of “chieftains”.  Munn is based on another of their leaders.  He was not a lackey as depicted in the film, although the chieftains certainly had plenty of followers who were willing to do the dirty work.  This work included fleecing “fresh fish” and robbing others at night.  Sometimes they killed their victims.  The Regulators evolved in response to their depredations.  Matters reached a head when the Regulators went to Wirz and asked for authority to act as a police force.  Surprisingly, and to his credit, Wirz agreed.  The Regulators rounded up most of the Raiders, including a fight for control of the Raiders’ relatively cushy habitat.  Wirz allowed a trial where many were sentenced to stockades, ball and chain, or running the gauntlet.  Six were given the death penalty, including Collins and Munn.  In a reversal of the movie, Collins rope broke during the hanging and he tried to escape, but was reexecuted.  Munn expressed remorse on the scaffold.  As far as the tunnel, there were a 351 documented escapes, which is only .7%  Only a few avoided death or recapture.

            Henry Wirz was the only Confederate to be executed for war crimes after the Civil War.  The movie takes a balanced approach to this controversial figure.  While he undoubtedly could have done more for the prisoners, he was in a difficult position that he did not have the moral strength to deal with.  The food problem, for instance, was not his fault.  His own men were not eating well either.  However, he could have insisted on more humane treatment of the prisoners and more discipline from his own troops.  He appears to have been clueless to the internal dynamics of the camp.  The Chandler character is based on a Dr. James Jones, who spent a day at the camp and wrote a scathing report that got Wirz hung at his trial.