Thursday, November 15, 2018

CONSENSUS #99 Bridges at Toko-Ri

SYNOPSIS: "The Bridges at Toko-Ri" is an air combat movie set in the Korean War. The main character (William Holden) is a naval fighter-bomber pilot who has been drafted away from his idyllic family. The commander of his carrier (Frederic March) is a father figure who has to send men like him to their deaths for the good of the noncommunist world.  The climactic mission is a very dangerous one to take out some bridges in North Korea.  To remind you what Brubacher is risking, he is visited by his wife (Grace Kelly) on R&R in Japan.  Mickey Rooney has a showy role as a rescue helicopter pilot.

BACK-STORY: The Bridges at Toko-Ri is a war movie based on the novel by James Michener. The movie was released in 1955, just one year after the book was published. The movie was a hit and got an Oscar for Best Special Effects for John Fulton.  He used miniatures for the bridge attack. The producers had the full cooperation of the U.S. Navy which allowed the use of nineteen ships. The credits mention that the movie was made as a tribute to U.S. Navy pilots. William Holden and Grace Kelly had an affair during the filming.

            TRIVIA -  imdb, Wikipedia, TCM
1.  William Holden learned how to taxi a jet on the carrier deck for close-ups.
2.  The US Navy cooperated with 19 ships, including the USS Oriskany ( and when it was no longer available, the USS Kearsarge).  The Oriskany was later sunk as an artificial reef off Pensacola, Florida and is a popular diving site.
3.  James Michener wrote the novel after spending time on the USS Essex during the Korean War.  Neil Armstrong was a pilot at the time.  The incident involving the bombing of bridges and the rescue of a downed pilot was based on actual events.  However, the downed pilot and his attempted rescuer were actually captured and survived the war.
4.   Holden’s brother was a navy pilot in WWII who was killed in action.
5.  In the book, the jet is the F2H Banshee, not the F9F Panther.  The Panther was probably substituted because it was more photogenic.
6.  Holden insisted the novel’s ending be retained.  He did not want the typical Hollywood happy ending.  This worked well because although the movie came at the end of a wave of WWII/Korean War formulaic offerings, it stood out.
            7.  The movie won the Oscar for Best Special Effects and was nominated for Best Editing.
8.  Holden and Grace Kelly conducted an affair during the shoot.  This was not uncommon for him, even though     he was married.  When Kelly invited her to her home, her father shook his fist at Holden and evidenced his displeasure with the affair.  Holden left the house upset.  The affair did not continue after the movie was finished.
9.  Mickey Rooney got the role partly due to his friendship with Michener.  One day, Rooney was needed for an unscheduled scene, but could not be found.  He turned up later as co-pilot of a jet having bribed the pilot to fly him to Tokyo for the horse races.

Belle and Blade  =  2.5
Brassey’s              =  3
Video Hound       =  3.8
War Movies         =  4.4
Military History  =  #73
Channel 4             =  not on list
Film Site                =  yes
101 War Movies  =  no

OPINION: Although the novel is short, if you do not like to read this movie will give you the classic novels plot in cinema form. It follows the book religiously. It also accurately reflects the novels themes of self-sacrifice, loyalty, and the senselessness of war. But most significantly, the movie does not change the downer of an ending just to suit the audience. Kudos for that! In some ways it is the All Quiet of the Korean War.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

NOW SHOWING: Overlord (2018)

                I had been waiting for this movie for a while.  We don’t get many war movies these days and a war / horror hybrid sounded intriguing.  Actually, the movie is technically a mash-up of the commando raid subgenre and the zombie subgenre.  It came from the mind of co-producer JJ Abrams and was directed by Julius Avery.  It has gotten a major release and some positive reviews.

                A platoon of paratroopers is sent on a dangerous mission to destroy a radio jamming tower that could prevent air support for the D-Day invasion.  Like all other commando mission in war movie history, the mission is crucial to winning the war.  They jump in a totally gonzo scene where their transport plane is hit by anti-aircraft fire.  Only five of the unit (oops, make that four) survive to go after the radio tower.  They are led by the mysteriously laconic Cpl. Ford (Wyatt Russell) and include the everyman Boyce (Jovan Adepo), the wisecracking sniper Tibbet (John Magaro), and the useless combat photographer Chase (Iain De Gaestecker).  They hook up with a local female named Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier) who will provide refuge in her house and intel on the village and nearby German compound.  It turns out that Chloe is being “kept” by the local evil Nazi Capt. Wafner (Pilou Asbaek).  She has an adorable younger brother Paul who is destined to be put in peril.  Boyce makes an unplanned recon of the German compound and discovers a secret laboratory where an evil scientist is developing a serum to create super-soldiers.  Not surprisingly, the serum has not been perfected yet and has some horrible side effects.  Saving the invasion’s air support becomes secondary to preventing an army of Nazi zombies.

                I don’t watch a lot of horror movies, but I recognize the clichés when I see them.  Specifically, there is a lot of “Aliens” in this movie.  The Chloe/Paul dynamic reminds of Ripley/Newt.  Heck, Chloe even gets to wield a flamethrower. Not that I am complaining.  Who doesn’t love a cinematic chick with a flamethrower?  “Overlord” breaks no new ground in the horror genre.  It also is rife with the standard commando mission clichés.  Mission creep.  Redemption of the jerk Tibbet.  Ticking bomb / save yourself.  Rescue someone before completing the mission.  It is all pretty predictable.  Fortunately, it is done with some verve, although nothing tops the opening scene.  Unfortunately, the monsters are nothing special and are nowhere near as bonkers as those in the similar “Frankenstein’s Army”.  The final act intercuts between your standard action pieces involving explosions and ammo-expenditure and the creepy corridor capers in the compound.  Firearms above ground, freakish forearms below.  There is some suspense and the action is continuous, but it does not have you watching through your fingers. 
                The movie is technically well-done, but it does have a B-movie feel to it.  This is in spite of some effort.  The opening drop scene used a C-47 model on a gimbal with stunt men.  Asbaek’s make-up took five hours.  The acting is clearly B-movie.  I applaud casting an African-American as Boyce (even though it is historically inaccurate to have a black paratrooper), but only if the actor is better than the alternative.  None of these actors will be moving on to A-movies.  The special effects are also B-movie.  It’s fun to see monsters in a war movie, but they did not make me reassess my lukewarm feelings toward horror movies.  I actually have seen a few horror war movies and “Overlord” is in the middle of the pack.  It is not as good as “Dead Snow” or “Dog Soldiers” and if you want to watch a similarly plotted movie, you would be better off with “Frankenstein’s Army”.  



Sunday, November 11, 2018

STREAMING: Outlaw / King (2018)

                Netflix recently blessed us with a war movie.  I originally got Netflix so I could watch an enormous amount of war movie DVDs.  Then Netflix started streaming some war movies.  And now, they are making some war movies!  We are truly living in a golden age.  Not counting everything else.  “Outlaw / King” was co-written, produced, and directed by David MacKenzie (“Hell or High Water”).  It was filmed in Scotland and England.  The movie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.  After that, MacKenzie cut twenty minutes.

                The movie leads with the claim that it is “based on historical events”.  It starts in Scotland in 1304.  Title cards inform us non-Scots that the Scots had recently rebelled against the occupation of King Edward I.  This rebellion was led by William Wallace.  But Wallace has been defeated and now the Scottish lords are prepared to submit to Edward.   At the siege of Stirling Castle, Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine) joins other nobles in witnessing Edward’s triumph (facilitated by one bad-ass trebuchet hurling Greek fire) and then bending their knees.  Edward forces Robert to patch things up with John Comyn.  Exiting the tent, Robert is challenged to a frenemy duel by Prince Edward (Billy Howle).  Clanging within five minutes!  This is a good sign.  The king arranges a marriage between Robert and the daughter of a loyal ally.  Elizabeth (Florence Pugh) is comely, but Robert is either a gentleman or doesn’t like the political strings.  I couldn’t tell which.  But I could tell that this separate rooms situation would not last.  (That’s right, I’ve seen a movie.) Her feistiness will overcome his frostiness.  Just like his patriotism is going to overcome his placating.  If you are Scottish, you know where this is heading and are wondering how it will be depicted.  If you are an American, you are wondering how kick-ass the battles will be and whether the movie will live up to “Braveheart”.

                Let’s get this over with immediately.  It is not as good as “Braveheart”,  as entertainment.  Chris Pine plays Robert as lacking charisma.  He does have the saintly demeanor of Wallace.  Except when he murders his rival in a church of all places.  But he was justified and the clergy backed him, so keep cheering.  The romance with Elizabeth should not scare away the guys.  In fact, when they finally consummate, there is some Netflix Original nudity for both male and female viewers.  Florence Pugh is fine (both acting and body wise) as Elizabeth, but Pine doesn’t seem to be having much fun.  That might be appropriate because for the first three fourths of the movie, I wouldn’t give this guy’s problems to a monkey on a rock.  The movie definitely sets him up as a massive underdog against the all-powerful Edward (Stephen Dillane).  Unfortunately, those twenty cut minutes must have dealt with how he climbed out of the pit of despair.  The movie jumps from spider legend (you Scots will know what I am talking about) to rousing combat porn finale in the blink of an eye.  And then slaps on the obligatory romantic reunion.  The happily-ever-afters kick in pre-Bannockburn.  Maybe that’s where the twenty minutes were.

                “Outlaw / King” does not really engage the viewer.  The events are depicted without panache and Pine’s performance does not add spice.  To balance his morose portrayal, the charismatic James Douglas gets scene-chewing portrayal by Aaron Taylor-Johnson.  Black Douglas deserves his own movie.  The battle scenes are the highlights and they are very graphic. Basically they are the melee style that you see in every modern medieval movie.  There is also a drawing and quartering to remind of “Braveheart” and top it grossness-wise.  Speaking of which, this is in some ways a sequel to that film.  Someone must have wanted to redeem Robert. And Edward and his son.  King Edward here is less supervillain and more Machiavellian medieval king.  Dillane’s Edward is much closer to the real Edward.  You will not recognize his son.  I am guessing that the real Prince Edward was somewhere between flaming and enflaming.  The movie makes a big mistake not concentrating on Valence as the main villain. 

                It turns out (see below for details) the movie is fairly accurate.  Certainly more than “Braveheart”, but what isn’t.  It tries hard to get the period details right.  There is a lot of mud.  Politics are also dirty.  Love will survive.  Scotland has some awesome scenery.  This all enfolds in an acceptably entertaining way.  I don’t want to discourage Netflix from making more war movies and I did learn a lot about a great warrior.  It turns out he is not the weasel “Braveheart” left us with.

                SPOILER ALERT! HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  (Keep in mind that I am not Scottish, so I may be off in some of this analysis.)  The movie starts in 1304 at the siege of Sterling Castle.  Nice touch having the huge trebuchet.  It was called Warwolf and was reputedly the largest trebuchet in history.  It is true that Edward postponed accepting the surrender until he could use it.  It seems unlikely it hurled Greek fire.  It did lob up to 300 pound rocks.  Edward did accept submission of the Scottish nobles at this time and Robert would have been one of them.  However, he had been on board for some time and (as “Braveheart” depicted) was basically allied with him.  Robert had a tense relationship with John Comyn.  Both wanted to be King of Scotland.  Comyn was the most powerful noble in Scotland and had more support due to his having been more consistently anti-British.  The movie downplays that Robert was less than patriotic before he rebelled.  Robert tried to broker an agreement with Comyn where Comyn would accept Robert as King in exchange for some concessions.  Apparently, Comyn ratted the Bruce out to Edward and Robert was forced to flee from the King’s court.  He returned to Scotland and arranged a meeting with Comyn.  The meeting was similar to what is depicted in the movie, except that Robert would have already known of Comyn’s duplicity, plus the murder may have been more due to the rivalry for power.
                After the murder (for such it was), Robert rushed to Bishop Wishart for absolution and the clergy came on board for the rebellion.  (Robert was excommunicated by the Pope.) He was hastily crowned king.  Robert’s rebellion was not really a response to Wallace’s death (since he was hardly a fan), but more the result of seeing the hand-writing on the wall with regard to Edward becoming increasingly suspicious of Robert.  Robert was already married to Elizabeth (since 1302) and although her father was an ally of Edward, I found no evidence that it was a political marriage.  (I don’t think Robert waited to consummate.)  Robert had a daughter named Marjory from his first marriage.

                The Battle of Methven is fairly close to reality.  Robert did face Valence (Earl of Pembroke) who was Edward’s military commander in Scotland.  He was sent with the vanguard and it was he that Edward instructed to raise the dragon banner.  The Prince followed later with the main army.  The Prince did take the Oath of the Swans, so that bizarre moment was reality!  Rpbert and Valence did meet the afternoon before and agreed to wait to the next day.  They did not agree to a duel.  Valence surprise attacked at dawn, but it was less perfidy than just taking advantage of Robert’s unbelievable lack of sentries or scouts.  It was a massed cavalry attack and probably did not involve fire arrows. 

                Robert escaped the disaster with around 500 men.  Along the road they encountered Jack Douglas as shown in the movie.  The movie does a good job showing Edward dissing Douglas earlier.  Douglas had petitioned for return of his lands, but when Edward learned who his father was, he threw him out.  The movie does a pretty good job with the Battle of Dalrigh which was when the MacDougalls ambushed Robert.  It was in a field, not on the shore.  According to legend, things were so hairy that at one point Robert avoided being dragged from his horse only by loosening his brooch and giving up his cloak.  This marked the low ebb as Robert sent his wife and daughter to KIldrummy Castle.  However, when the castle was besieged, she was no longer there.  She was captured at St. Dulhoc by the Earl of Ross who gave her to Edward.  Robert’s brother Niall was captured at Kildrummy and drawn and quartered, but not by Prince Edward.  The spider incident occurred during this period when Robert was on the run and taking refuge in caves, etc.  Supposedly he witnessed a spider trying several times to complete a web and recognized the moral of “if at first you don’t succeed”. 

                Robert inaugurated a guerrilla war that consisted of hit and run attacks.  He retook his own home and Douglas captured his own castle in the Douglas Larder incident where he and a small group of men slaughtered the garrison in the chapel.  Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Marjory were being held under house arrest.  Marjory was sent to a nunnery and Elizabeth was moved around periodically.  She never spent any time in a wooden cage, but this did happen to one of Robert’s sisters.  Robert built up his support with his successes in the guerrilla war and was ready to take on the king’s forces.  He faced off again with Valence at the Battle of Loudoun Hill. The Prince was not there.  The movie reenactment is acceptable. Robert did take advantage of marshy ground to funnel the British cavalry into his pikes and ditches.  Obviously, there was no duel at the end.  Edward I actually died after this battle.  Elizabeth was not reunited with Robert until 1314.

CONCLUSION:  My first take was that the movie was a misfire, but after looking at the history I am a little more forgiving.  Not that it is perfect historically.  It takes some major liberties, but most are artistic license that make sense.  I was particularly impressed with the inclusion of the Warwolf, the Oath of the Swans, and the Douglas Larder incident.  The three battles are fun and surprisingly accurate.  I abhor “Braveheart” and was hoping this movie would prove that a great movie could be made about the First War of Scottish Independence.  “Outlaw / King” is not a great movie.  But it is a war movie and it tries hard.


Friday, November 9, 2018


This is my attempt at a statistical analysis of the greatest war movies.  Here is the methodology.  I found four 100 Greatest War Movies lists that I feel are knowledgeable on the subject.  Two of those lists (Military History magazine and Channel 4) rank the movies.  The others are Film Site and the book 101 War Movies You Must See Before You Die.   I also used three books that rate war movies:  Video Hound’s War Movies, Brassey’s Guide to War Films, and The Belle and Blade Guide to Classic War Videos.  (Since I did my research I received my copy of War Movies by Brock Garland.  I did not redo the data, but I have included its grade in the ratings list.)  The reason why the list is limited to only movies from the 20th Century is because not all of the sources include 21st Century movies. 

 I won’t bore with the details, but basically I used a combination of the average rating from the ratings books and a rating based on the ranking from the two ranked lists (on a scale of 1-5).   I grouped the movies based on how many lists they made so only movies that were in both Military History magazine and Channel 4 made the top 43. 

 I must emphasize that this list does not reflect my opinions.  In fact, I find some of the positions ridiculous.  I have seen and reviewed all of the movies on the list.  Some are not war movies, in my opinion.  Others are very overrated.  It is also apparent that foreign movies got short-changed.


SYNOPSIS: "The Manchurian Candidate" is a Cold War thriller. An American patrol is captured by the North Koreans and brainwashed. One of them (Laurence Harvey) is the step-son of a rabid anti-Communist Senator. He becomes an unwitting sleeper agent when he returns to America after the war.  His mother (Angela Lansbury) is part of a plot to use her "hero" son to assassinate the President so his step father can take over the Presidency. One of his brainwashed comrades (Frank Sinatra) is in a race against time to foil the plot.

BACK-STORY: “The Manchurian Candidate” is a political thriller released in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis which is appropriate because it taps into the Red Scare hysteria of that time. It is based on a novel by Richard Condon and is faithful to the book. It was directed by John Frankenheimer and showcases his style of unusual camera angles and symbolism (notice all the images of Lincoln). The movie was supposedly taken out of circulation because of its proximity to the Kennedy assassination. There is also the possibility that Oswald saw the film and was inspired by it.  It was remade in 2004 starring Denzel Washington in the Sinatra role.

TRIVIA - mentalfloss, imdb, wikipedia

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.
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.)
10.  Mrs. Iselin is #21 on AFI’s list of 100 Heroes and Villains.
11.  It was nominated for two Academy Awards:  Editing and Supporting Actress (Lansbury).  She lost to Patty Duke in “The Miracle Worker”.

Belle and Blade  =  3 
Brassey’s              =  4 
Video Hound       =  5
War Movies         =  4.4 
Military History  =  85 
Channel 4             =  not on list
Film Site                =  yes
101 War Movies  =  no

OPINION: I am not sure if “The Manchurian Candidate” is really a war movie. It certainly fits more comfortably in the political thriller genre. As such, it has the usual unrealistic plot twists and unbelievably fortuitous occurrences (e.g., Joycelyn showing up in the queen of hearts costume). What would be faulted in a war movie is par for the course in a thriller. As a political thriller it is cracking entertainment full of suspense and great acting. As political satire, it is a devastating indictment of McCarthyism.