Thursday, September 30, 2010

FORGOTTEN GEM? "Platoon Leader"


 I recently finished reading for the second time one of my favorite Vietnam War books - Platoon Leader.  The book is the memoir of Lt. James McDonough.    It is a good study in command.  It is the Company Commander of Vietnam.  I recently went to Amazon and of 25 reviews, 21 were 5 stars (the other 4 were 4 stars).    The movie is loosely based on the book with a few scenes borrowed, but most of the characters are changed (for the worse) and the main character is renamed Jeff Knight.

      The movie opens with the green LT (Michael Dudikoff) arriving at a base camp outside a ville that is under its protection.  The men are ill-disciplined and some are smoking dope. They are sure Lt. Knight will hide in the bunker like the previous leader.  He insists on going out on patrols and has the usual learning curve which results in him stepping on a mine and being medevaced.  To the surprise of the men, he returns (and they sneak back all his stuff they had "appropriated").  There are more patrols and more firefights.  They used a lot of blanks in this movie!   There is a lot of shooting from the hip.  On one patrol, they catch some VC drinking in a river and throw what seems like 50 grenades down on them from a cliff.  They got some!

     There are several stock characters.  You have the druggie troublemaker who overdoses on heroin during a pee break on a patrol.  Sgt. MacNamara uses full automatic to make it look like he was killed by the VC after the obligatory "Oh, God, no!" moment and the BFF's "Wake up, you SOB!" scene-chewing.  There is also the gizzled veteran/killer who describes the war as "all gooood!" and does not mind silencing prisoners.

     The big battle occurs at night as a swarm of VC assault the camp.  They catch hell from the platoon and helicopters that rain rockets on them. The rockets and grenades are filled with gasoline (a fact I was not aware of) which make for pretty explosions.

     They go on a daytime operation during which MacNamara gets badly wounded.  "You don't die on me, you bastard!" pleads Knight.  Oscar please!  Lots of slo-mo deaths.  A M-60 gunner fires his weapon like Rambo.They get back too late to save the ville (moral:  the war is hopeless).

      I had remembered this movie fondly since I had last seen it around 1990.  I am disillusioned.  It was cheesy and very poorly overacted.  It would have been better if it followed the book more closely although I could vaguely recognize some stuff from the book.  There is lots of mindless action to satisfy those who complained that "Platoon" did not waste enough gooks.

      Sadly, it should remain forgotten.  Read the book instead! 

FORGOTTEN GEM? "The Hunters"

     Last night I watched an old Korean War air combat movie entitled "The Hunters".  It stars Robert Mitchum as Robert Mitchum, I mean Maj. Cleve (Iceman) Saville.  He has wangled an assignment flying F-86s in combat even though he is a little old for it, but its his job and "it's the only war I got".  Before he even gets to Korea he falls in love with another pilot's wife, but it's okay because the other guy is a coward + an alcoholic + a cad.  Surprisingly, when the wife reluctantly turns back his advances, he agrees to watch over her husband.  At the new squadron, Saville meets the younger version of himself in the form of "hot shot' Ed Pell (played by a young Robert Wagner) who talks like a beatnik, daddy-o.
     Pell starts his rise to acedom by abandoning his wingman's damaged plane to get his first kill.  The wingman proceeds to switch into a F-100 for a horrific crash landing.  (Too bad the poor sucker killed in the actual footage didn't think to fly a F-86.  That's okay - all jets look alike.)  Saville tries to get Pell removed from his flight, but his old squadron boss basically says boys will be boys and you were like that once, so shut up.  Saville settles for punching Fell which, of course, substitutes for therapy in war movies.
     The husband, ever the cad, offers a deal to Saville.  Let him go 1v1 against the Chinese ace "Casey Jones" and you can have my wife.  Saville refuses, but Abbot does it anyway and gets shot up by the commie.  Saville shoots down Casey and then searches for Abbott.  When he spots his parachute in a tree, he does what anyone would do.  He crash lands behind enemy lines to rescue a guy who he doesn't even know is alive and whose wife he wants to marry.  Oh, and he despises the guy.
      The same Chinese that killed Brubaker in "Bridges at Toko-Ri", come after Saville and the wounded Abbott.  Pell returns, although low on fuel and strafes the commies, but gets shot down by ground fire.  He unites with the other two (North Korea is a small country) and they eventually get back to friendly lines.  Not without incident, of course.
      My father flew the F-86 in Korea (not during the war), so the movie was personal for me.  I am glad to say, the best acting is by the plane.  It looks fast and sounds fast.  The aerial scenes are great and the dogfights look realistic except the Migs always expode.  One plus is the F-86s have the pilot's names on them so we know who we are watching.  We also know who Casey Jones is because he has a "7-11" and dice painted on his fuselage.
      The movie is historically accurate in pointing out that the Migs had a sanctuary in China by simply crossing the Yalu River.  Although there was no "Casey Jones", both Korea and Vietnam produced legendary fighter foes.  The movie also alludes to the unpopularity of the war.  Even the pilots wonder what they are fighting for, but they are professionals so they do their job.  The Migs are protrayed by F-84s, but that is acceptable since I do not think Mao Zedong and Kim Il Sung were interested in the movie.
       The plot brings the movie down.  The romance is not true to human nature.  Certainly not fighter pilot nature.  The movie gets positively ridiculous after the trio crashes.  Enjoy.  The real reason for the average viewer to see this movie is to witness the performance of Robert Wagner.  He totally hams it up and the words the screenwriter puts in his mouth are so bizarre that you laugh while your jaw drops.  Feel free to use some of his hepcat slang.  His character's lingo would have been an improvement to his dialogue in "Austin Powers" and fit in better than in this movie.  This was apparently how old men lured teenagers to war movies in 1958.  Great drinking game - take a shot every time Pell says something a faux beatnik would say.  Bottoms up!

Saturday, September 25, 2010


In my last post, I made reference to some war movie cliches.  In my opinion, no movie genre has as many cliches as war movies.  One of the things I look for in my reviews is recurrences of these cliches.  The general idea is that the less cliches - the better the movie.  However, one of the appeals of war movies for some is they are formulaic.  This can be comforting.   Here is my list which is pretty much off the top of my head so I would welcome suggestions.

1.  If you show a picture of your girlfriend or wife, you are dead meat.
2.  A shamed soldier will redeem himself, often at the cost of his life.
3.  At least 1/3 of suicide mission members will not return. 
4.  If you brag about going home soon, you're going home in a box.
5.  In a tight situation, if you are an extra or unknown actor, you are going to die.
6.  Stupid officers survive.
7.  The fat guy always dies.
8.  All small units are heterogeneous.  The Southern guy is a rube.  The shortest guy is a jerk.  The Italian is a killer.  The college guy is too smart for this group.  The oldest guy is wise.  One will be from Brooklyn.  The fat guy is hopeless as a soldier.  One of them is a writer.  One of them was the class clown.  One of them loves animals more than people.
9.  Soldiers do not sweat, even in the tropics or desert.
10.  Enemy uniforms always fit, in case you need a disguise.
11.  A soldier who taks about getting married will not live to reach the altar.
12.  New replacements are dead meat, don't befriend them.
13.  Every unit has a "scrounger" who can find anything anywhere.
14.  Kids and dogs can not be killed in a barrage or bombardment.
15.  If two branches are represented in a bar - there will be a brawl.
16.  All subs can go way below their maximum depth.
17.  A bullet in the arm will not prevent you from using that arm.
18.  The overly strict officer will go soft at a critical moment.
19.  The tough disciplinarian will be hated at first, but will earn the respect of his men.
20.  Boot camp enemies will become friends.
21.  Innocent and naive soldiers will become disillusioned.
22.  When a sub is undergoing depth charging, it will release a recently dead sailor through a torpedo tube to fool the enemy.
23.  A bomber crew will witness the destruction of another crew that they befriended - there will be no parachutes.
24.  The featured bomber will lose at least one engine and have at least one crewman wounded.
25.  The featured tank will have engine trouble.  If it is an American tank, someone in the crew will fix it with a wrench.
26.  If the movie features a pair of BFFs - one will die and usually saving the other.
27.  A reciever of a "Dear John" letter will lose his will to live.
28.  Heavy machine guns can be fired constantly with no fear of damaging the barrel.
29.  If the movie was made before the 1960s, wounds will not bleed.
30.  Main characters never get caught by MPs.
31.  The schemer in boot camp will save the day later.
32.  Parents always take death notices stoically.
33.  Rivets will pop during a depth charging.
34.  Sailors on shore leave will always get in trouble with the MPs.
35.  Radio operators always wear glasses.
36.  Ground personnel will stow away on a bomber to get a taste of combat.  They will get chewed out by their commander, but he'll understand.

#88 - The Desert Rats

BACKSTORY:   “The Desert Rats” is a black and white old-school war film released in 1953. It is an unofficial sequel to the biopic “The Desert Fox” and James Mason portrayed Rommel in both. “Rats” is set in the siege of Tobruk in 1941. It lauds the 9th Australian Division’s role in the defense of the port. It was directed by Robert Wise who later won Oscars for “The Sound of Music” and “West Side Story”. It stars Richard Burton in only his seventh film.

OPENING SCENE:   The movie opens in the Libyan desert in 1941. Rommel arrives at headquarters and plots the conquest of the Suez Canal, but the port of Tobruk must be taken first. The narrator informs us that we are about to witness the story of Tobruk and the “Desert Rats” who defended it.

SUMMARY:  At the headquarters of the 9th Australian Division, the general (never identified as Major General John Lavarack) goes over his plan. He thinks he knows where the next attack will come and plans to let the German tanks penetrate then hold them with infantry and counterattack with his tanks. He sends “Tammy” MacRoberts (Burton) to take command of a newly arrived green company.

Richard Burton as MacRoberts
MacRoberts finds that his new unit is ill-disciplined and is shocked to be reunited with his old schoolmaster Tom Bartlett who was canned for alcoholism and ended up enlisting although he has neither the mentality nor the skills to be a good soldier.

Our first big set piece is a German tank attack set in a sand storm. The audience can feel the grit in their teeth. The sound effects are also good. The Australians allow the Germans to penetrate as per the plan and then open fire. The movie blends actual footage with the action. Burton gets to play action hero as MacRoberts gets in a damaged tank and destroys a German tank to force the enemy to retreat.

MacRoberts is hard on the men and they gripe about it. He wants to court-martial an officer named Carstairs who left his position to try to rescue another officer. He believes you must follow orders with no sentiment. The schoolmaster informs MacRoberts that he is a coward (as well as a drunkard), but he wants to stay with the unit. He argues that the officer should not be court-martialed, but should be given another chance. Mac reconsiders. This is an interesting scene with its debate of orders versus human nature.

Mac is promoted to command over the battalion. The film shows a montage of raids behind enemy lines to keep the Germans off guard. These are small affairs until Mac proposes a raid on an ammunition dump to foil an anticipated offensive. 53 men in captured Italian trucks sneak into the depo. There is lots of action. MacRoberts is wounded and Carstairs comes back to him set off an explosion but is killed. (War movie cliché #2 – redemption of the shamed soldier) Mac is captured.

James Mason as Rommel
Mac is being treated by a German doctor when a wounded Rommel (Mason) arrives. They discuss the siege and the British captive cheekily argues that the Germans will not take Tobruk. Rommel is irritated by MacRobert’s gall, but respects him. This scene was supposedly put in the movie after the backlash from veterans over the sympathetic treatment of Rommel in “The Desert Fox”. This explains why Mason plays Rommel as a villain here and gives him a thicker German accent.

The truck transporting MacRoberts and other prisoners is strafed allowing him and Sgt. “Blue” Smith to escape. They walk back to friendly lines through the desert.

The narrator informs us that the siege has now gone well past the two months the Australians had been told they would have to last. MacRoberts’ battalion is given the task of taking and holding a hill that is the key to keeping the anticipated relief route open. The movie skips over the first eight days of the fight on the hill and focuses on the ninth day. The men have been under intense pressure and Mac is given the option by headquarters to withdraw if he sees fit. He sees fit, but Bartlett argues that the men will stay and fight for him even though they don’t like him. Here we encounter once again the war movie theme of a tough disciplinarian earning the respect of his men. Not surprisingly, the men refuse to leave the hill.

FINAL SCENE: The Germans open a ferocious barrage on the hill. The men take refuge in their holes which is realistic to what actually happened at Tobruk when German artillery opened fire. The film shows how men can survive under bombardment. When the explosions end, the men fix bayonets to meet the attack, but they hear bagpipes signifying the arrival of the relief column and a happy ending.


Action - 7

Acting - 7 Burton is good, the rest are average

Accuracy - 7

Realism - 7

Plot - 7

Overall - 7

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?    Highly unlikely. There are no female characters. It is an old-school, guy action film.

CRITIQUE: “The Desert Rats” is a classic of its type, but does not hold up well over time. It does its best with the effects available back then. The bombardments are realistic and the sounds are appropriate. Your ears feel like they are in a battle.  The cinematography is very good and the fact that the movie is black and white makes no difference since there would have been little color in the scenes anyway.

The soldiers and their situation are portrayed realistically, although the movie does not violate cliché #9 (soldiers do not sweat). Especially commendable is how the movie shows that humans can survive a vicious bombardment by burrowing.

MacRoberts is a typical movie officer and his transformation from hard-ass to a leader who is willing to listen is believable. He exemplifies clichés #18 and 19. #18 insists that a strict officer will soften at the critical moment of the film. #19 holds that harsh disciplinarians will earn the grudging respect of their men by the end of the film. He also serves as something of a role model for future officers. Not West Point study-worthy, but I could see myself highlighting his evolution as a leader in my Military History class.. Having the schoolmaster thrown in is a bit of a stretch, but necessary for Mac’s transformation. The character fits well into the wise, elderly noncom stereotype. If you are older than the rest of the unit usually you kept getting demoted for misbehavior, but here he enters old as a result of alcoholism. Nice touch.

As a history lesson, the movie has its flaws – beginning with the title! The “Desert Rats” were the British 7th Armoured Division. I wonder what their veterans thought of the movie. When Rommel laid siege to Tobruk, the Germans referred to the British/Australian forces as being “caught like rats in a trap”. The 9th Australians proudly adopted the name “Rats of Tobruk”. Obviously the producers felt “Desert Rats” had a better ring to it and evoked “The Desert Fox”.

The raiding is accurate and did result in preempting several attempts at penetration. However, I could find no evidence of a large raid on an ammo depot. As to the ending, the relief that came from Operation Crusader arrived after the 9th Australian Division had been withdrawn from Tobruk for much needed R&R.

Other than the unnamed Australian general and Rommel, none of the characters are real people (as far as I can tell). MacRoberts is a stock movie character, but carried off with panache by Burton.

CONCLUSION:   “The Desert Rats” is an entertaining old school WWII movie. The acting is pretty good and Richard Burton shows why he was such a big star. It is fairly realistic and does not go over the line on historical accuracy. Given the available war movie effects technology, it does an okay job depicting combat. However, if you are expecting “Saving Private Ryan”, forget it.

It is a good example of how pre-1960’s war movies rarely hold up. There are numerous recent war movies that did not make the Top 100 that are better movies than “Rats”. Once again, I must insist that just because it’s old does not make it better than “Enemy at the Gates”, for instance. And I can assure you from personal experience that no audience of today’s youth would prefer to watch “The Desert Rats” over “Enemy” or “When Trumpets Fade” or “300” or pick a recent war movie that did not make the Top 100.

You will note I skipped #89 - Dunkirk.  I can not find a copy of it to watch.

Next up - #87 - The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Coming soon:  Dueling Movies:  "The Desert Fox" vs. "The Desert Rats"

Friday, September 24, 2010

Dueling Movies - Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo vs. Memphis Belle

     When I did my review of #98 "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo", it reminded me of the recent "Memphis Belle".  They both cover a famous mission and concentrate on one bomber.  Which one is better?  Let's see.
     As you can read in my review, Tokyo is very accurate (maybe too accurate for a modern audience's tastes), but is marred by its silly romantic subplot.  It was a great movie in its time, but does not hold up as well today.  It is definitely old school.
     "Memphis Belle" is based on the famous documentary about the first B-17 crew to complete 25 missions, thus earning the right to go home.  The "remake" is a prime example of how Hollywood loves to bastardize a true story to fill seats.  They took the basic seed of the story and added your stereotypical cast of cute male actors representing different ethnic and social groups (at least they did not have the guts to put an African-American in the crew).  More brazenly, the screenwriter decided to add every air combat cliche he could think of into one movie.  (Making it the air combat equivalent of "U-571")  The most cringe-worthy being the imperiled ball turret gunner.  A single bomber could have gone through an entire 25 missions without having all the crises the "Memphis Belle" goes through in this one mission!  In reality, the 25th mission of the real "Memphis Belle" was a milk run.  I do not blame Hollywood for jazzing up a boring mission, but do you have to lard it on so thick?  And seriously, inventing the notion that a squadron leader had the power to turn the formation around and reattack a target because on the first pass the target was obscured?  Are you kidding?  All of those crews were trying to make it to the magical and depressingly difficult-to-attain 25 mark.  Do you expect us to believe they would have gone back into the maelstrom of German fighters and flak when they had a secondary target they could go to, no questions asked?!  I'm not saying the crews would have disobeyed an order, but that leader would have had some "splainin'" to do back at base.
     Still, I am glad they made the movie simply because we do not get very many air combat movies and it is well made.  The actors are likeable.  Hopefully it motivated some people to Google the real "Memphis Belle" - those guys deserve the recognition.  It certainly gets more positive reaction when I show it to my Military History class than I would get by showing "Tokyo".  And before you ask why I'm hating on a movie that I show in class - I can not show R-rated movies which means the pickings are so slim I sometimes show "Memphis Belle".

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Cracker? "Five Graves to Cairo"

This is the first in my series of war movies that might deserve entry into the Top 100.  I call them "crackers?" because they might crack the Top 100.  I start with "Five Graves to Cairo" because it happened to be on TCM tonight.  I had heard of it, but had never seen it and had no idea what it was about.  I'm glad I watched it, but...
      The movie is legendary director Billy Wilder's second movie and he was already in fine form.  The film was released in 1943 and is set in 1942 North Africa with the British army on retreat after the fall of Tobruk.  It begins far-fetched and seldom strays from it.  The main character, a British corporal named Bramble, is the only survivor of a tank that is plowing across the desert.  He ends up in a hotel in a "ghost town" which soon becomes the headquarters for Rommel.  Rommel is protrayed by Erich Von Stroheim as pompous, domineering, yet charismatic.  It is a jarring portrayal after seeing James Mason's iconic Rommel.  The real Rommel is probably somewhere in between, but I suspect closer to Mason's.  Keep in mind this movie was made when Rommel was still our enemy instead of a defeated worthy foe.
      The movie revolves around Bramble masquerading as a German spy/waiter who is trying to ferret out information about Rommel's plans.  In particular, he is determined to uncover (get it?) the location of Rommel's five buried supply caches (the five graves).  Complicating matters is the hotel maid (Anne Baxter as a French woman named Mouche) who wants to wrangle the release of her POW brother.  She ends up doing the right thing by taking responsibility for Bramble's killing of a German officer who had discovered his identity so Bramble can get the plans back to the British.  Not to worry, once he's gone evidence will be provided to exonerate her.  A good montage of future events has the British defeating Rommel (because he doesn't get his supplies) and counterattacking so Bramble is able to return to the town carrying a parasol as a present for his future wife Mouche.
       You have to swallow a lot in this film, but it goes down easy.  It is not meant as a history lesson and no one could mistake it for one.  The idea that the Germans would have buried massive supply depots long before the war is ridiculous, but not laughable.  Bramble taking on the identity of the German spy is unbelievable, but this is Hollywood 1943.  Audiences bought stuff like that.  The acting is good and Baxter is lovely.  There's an Italian general who is stereotypical - the buffoonish lacky.  He sings songs because this is a 1940's movie (it was required).
      The movie is distinguished by two scenes.  First, Rommel hosts some captured British officers and allows them to ask 20 questions.  He discusses strategy, tactics, and why he is winning.  It's "Dinner with Erwin" and pretty cool.  Where are the caches happens to be question #21!  Rats!  Totally implausible scene, but neat.  Second, the ending which breaks the Hollywood mold, but should not come as a surprise if you figure in the propaganda nature of a 1943 movie.  Still, kudos to Billy Wilder.
      Worth a viewing, but not Top 100 worthy.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Evaluation of #100-91

Now that I have watched my way through the first ten movies on the list, I would like to rerank them and get opinions.  Just ranking these ten movies I would place them in the following order:
10.  Ben Hur (which I have already determined is not a war movie)
9.  The Thin Red Line
8.  Guns of Navarone
7.  Northwest Passage
6.  They Were Expendable
5.  Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo
4.  Midway
3.  A Bridge Too Far
2.  Breaker Morant
1.  Last of the Mohicans

Of these, I can see "Breaker Morant" and "Last of the Mohicans" being ranked substantially higher in my final standings than they are ranked by Military History Magazine.  Some of the others (and obviously "Ben Hur") will not make my Top 100.  I can't wait to add deserving movies to the Top 100, but that is far in the future.  The journey is well under way, however.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

#91 - Breaker Morant

BACK-STORY: “Breaker Morant” was released in 1980 and was the first of three films made in Australia that marked the arrival of Australian cinema as a force in war movies. The other two films were “Gallipolli” (1981) and “The Lighthorsemen” (1987). The film was directed by Bruce Beresford, has an all-Australian cast, and was shot in Australia. It is based on the play by the same name which tells the story of the court-martial of Harry “Breaker” Morant, a well known warrior/poet. It was a box office success in America and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

OPENING SCENE: The movie begins with text explaining that the war is set in the Boer War (1899-1902). The war was between the British Empire and the Boers (mostly Dutch settlers) in South Africa. The year is 1901 and the British occupied most of Boer territory, but is having trouble with the mobile Boer guerrillas. “The issues are complex, but basically the Boers wished to retain their independence from England”.

A military band plays in a gazebo in Peitersburg in Transvaal, South Africa. The movie cuts to a court of inquiry involving three soldiers. One of the three, “Breaker” Morant recounts his military career to let the audience know he is a volunteer from Australia who was a distinguished officer. He takes full responsibility for his actions, but claims he was acting under orders.

SUMMARY:  The film flashes back to the incident that touches off the inquiry. A small unit of Bushveld Carbineers (a commando unit created by Lord Kitchener to fight the Boers on their turf with their tactics and methods) launches an attack on a farm house supposedly harboring some exhausted Boer guerrillas. It’s an ambush and Capt. Hunt is mortally wounded and left by the retreating British.

Back in the present, at Kitchener’s headquarters in a beautiful mansion, the commander-in-chief meets his hand-picked prosecutor for the upcoming trial. Kitchener tells Maj. Bolton that the Germans are protesting the death of a German mercenary that Morant is implicated in the death of. The Germans are threatening to enter the war to aid the Boers, but really (according to Kitchener) they have their eyes on South Africa’s gold and diamonds. Bolton, with a twinkle in his eye, comments that the Germans “lack our altruism” toward the Boers indicating the hypocrisy of the British position. It is obvious the three colonials will have to be sacrificed for international relations.

the defendants and defender
A Maj. J.F. Thomas (Jack Thompson) arrives to be defense attorney. Besides the multi-talented Morant (he is a published poet and famous horse-breaker), he also will defend the naively patriotic Lt. George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) and the roguish debt-escaper Lt. Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown). The trio are bemused to find out that not only has Thomas never handled a court-martial, this will be his first case, period. Indeed, the next morning’s first day of the trial has Thomas looking like an incompetent buffoon until he cross-examines the first witness. At this point the eye-rolls of the defendants turn to looks of admiration. The Carbineers ex-commander had just described the mostly Australian unit as being undisciplined and accuses Handcock of placing train-cars of Boer prisoners in front of trains to stop IEDs. Thomas lays into him getting Robertson to admit the Carbineers were designed to fight like the Boers. And, oh by the way, Robertson had not stopped the practice because it was working.

In another flashback, Morant goes after the killers of Hunt and is visibly upset when he views the badly mutilated body of his friend. He vows revenge and when the find the Boer camp, he leads an immediate charge that results in some intense action and ends with the deaths of several Boers and the capture of one wearing Hunt’s jacket. Morant orders the execution of the prisoner named Visser citing Kitchener’s order pertaining to Boers captured wearing British kit. It is clear, however, that Morant is more motivated by revenge than policy.

At the trial, Morant takes the stand (chair) and maintains that the Carbineers fight by a new set of rules appropriate for this new style of warfare. They did not carry military manuals into the field. As far as the execution, they used the “rule of 303” (a reference to their .303 caliber Enfields) which the audience is left to figure out for itself. Good luck, ladies. (Sorry, I guess that was sexist.) Morant’s killer line is “it is customary in war to kill as many of the enemy as possible”. At this point in the movie, the audience is so firmly in Morant’s corner that most will overlook that Morant is arguing that it is okay to kill enemy prisoners.

The next flashback shows that Hunt had ordered the killing of prisoners and at first Morant had balked until Hunt confirmed that the orders came from Kitchener. The next witness is the Fort Edwards intelligence officer Taylor who testifies that it was common practice to execute prisoners. His testimony is tainted by the fact he is also on trial for executing prisoners.

the accused defending their jail
The next dawn, the Boers launch a surprise attack on Pietersburg. This is a great scene with lots of gunfire (which seemingly never misses) and some dynamite being thrown by the Boers. One of the Boers is a woman. The trio are released to help in the defense. Handcock shoots a TNT holding Boer who is atop the wall – he blows up. Morant uses a machine gun to stymie the attack. Amazingly no horses were harmed in the filming of this scene, in reality and on the screen.

One of the charges is the murder of a German missionary named Hesse by Morant and Handcock. The missionary has the reputation of collaborating with the enemy. He arrives at Fort Edwards at an awkward moment – Morant has just ordered a firing squad for a group of Boers who had come in under a white flag. When Morant sees Hesse talking with the prisoners, he is enraged and sends Handcock off on a “mission”. Hesse is found dead. The prisoners are stood up against the wall despite the protest of Witton.

When Handcock is called to testify, his alibi for the Hesse murder is he was “entertaining” some ladies at the time. The two ladies are married and to Boers at that. The tribunal of stuffed shirts are appropriately morally repulsed by Handcock, but believe him. Back in jail, Witton is shocked when Handcock admits he killed Hesse. Morant counters Witton’s naivety with a proclamation that “it’s a new kind of war. It’s a new war for a new century.” This new war includes killing civilians, even missionaries. Who do moviegoers side with on this – Witton or Morant?

Thomas’ summation is an anti-war classic. I can’t avoid reproducing part of it here.

"The fact of the matter is that war changes men's natures. The barbarities of war are seldom committed by abnormal men. The tragedy of war is that these horrors are committed by normal men in abnormal situations, situations in which the ebb and flow of everyday life have departed and have been replaced by a constant round of fear, and anger, blood, and death. Soldiers at war are not to be judged by civilian rules, as the prosecution is attempting to do, even though they commit acts which, calmly viewed afterwards, could only be seen as unchristian and brutal. And if, in every war, particularly guerilla war, all the men who committed reprisals were to be charged and tried as murderers, court-martials like this one would be in permanent session. Would they not? I say that we cannot hope to judge such matters unless we ourselves have been submitted to the same pressures, the same provocations as these men, whose actions are on trial."

Although the trio is found innocent on the Hesse charge, they are thrown overboard for the Visser execution and the firing squad of the Boer quitters. In a powerful, sparse scene the three are informed of their fates individually. Death at dawn for Handcock and Morant and a life-time of penal servitude for Witton. Morant sums it up for Witton: “Well, Peter, this is what comes of empire building.”

THE FINAL SCENE: In probably the greatest execution scene in war movie history, Morant and Handcock are led to two chairs in a field. When asked about comforting by a priest, Morant tartly replies that he is a pagan. Handcock: me, too. Morant (ever the Renaissance man) references Matthew 10:36. (“And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household”) With an actual Morant poem in the background, they face their executioners. Morant tells the squad “shoot straight, you bastards. Don’t make a mess of it.” They obey.


Action - 6

Acting - 10

Accuracy - 9

Realism - 9

Plot - 8

Overall - 9

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  I think many females would enjoy this movie. Although it has no female characters of note, it is also not overly macho. The action is not bloody or graphic. For instance, we do not see the mutilated body of Hunt. The leads are handsome and charismatic. The anti-war message could have a sort of “I told you so” feel for many women. The courtroom drama aspect of the plot should be appealing.

CRITIQUE:  I’ll go out on a limb and proclaim that this is the best movie ever made about the Boer War. You get a feel for the war, although looking it up in an encyclopedia will help with the big picture. It also helps if you are familiar with the Vietnam War because you can transpose that war for much of ”Breaker Morant”. The closing speech by Thomas could have been given by Lt. Calley’s lawyer at his My Lai trial.

In fact, the parallels to the My Lai Massacre (although probably unintentional) are eerie. Calley was also “just following orders”, but could not prove it. Many feel he was made a scape-goat by his superiors. (Like Witton, his sentence was also commuted due to public outrage). Few of Calley’s men refused to obey his orders even though they were obviously inhumane. At least the carbineers were not encumbered emotionally by the Nuremberg dictum that you must disobey unlawful orders to kill prisoners.

The American boys, like Morant, had been changed by the war. If a sophisticated poet like Morant can be corrupted, what can be expected of a nineteen year old grunt? Morant was set off by his best friend’s death, Calley’s men were reacting to recent losses to booby traps. Although Calley’s unit was not the Green Berets (the Vietnam equivalent of the Carbineers), they were fighting the enemy the way he fought them. How many American policy makers in the Vietnam War were familiar with the Boer War? I get the impression America thinks it invented counter-insurgency. The Morant court-martial was known before this movie brought it to the general public. Was it studied at West Point? Did the British Empire look backwards before the Boer War? Were we the new British Empire in the sixties? Are we still?

“Breaker Morant” is also one of the great anti-war movies. I recently got into a debate about whether all war movies are anti-war. Realistically, they should be, but actually a lot glorify war without showing any of the seamier side. The themes of prisoner abuse, never-ending guerrilla war, and scape-goating lower echelon soldiers resonate today. I sure hope this movie is being shown at West Point these days! It would not hurt for cadets to be told to focus on the “war corrupts good men” theme. Officers coming out of West Point are in many ways our “Breaker” Morants. It is the second best “soldiers on trial as scape-goats for command decisions” movie. After watching “Breaker Morant”, pair it off with its sister – “Paths of Glory”.

The only problem I have with the movie is if you really think about it, Morant was guilty of war crimes. Before the death of Hunt, he was clearly conflicted about the verbal orders from higher-up to kill prisoners. When he takes over, he did not have to obey those orders even if he thought they were official and it is clearly implied he became vengeance-minded. It is one of the strengths of the movie that even the death of the missionary seems like a railroaded charge when, of course, it was an egregious breech of the rules of war. How many in the audience see it as it is accurately depicted – an assassination of a priest for choosing the wrong side and for potentially informing on a war crime?

ACCURACY:  This all comes down to whether George Witton’s book Scapegoats of the Empire is truthful. Witton obviously had an axe to grind, but since the transcripts to the trial vanished, he’s our only real source for the trial. His story rings true and most historians have accepted it. The movie is remarkably faithful to the book which means that if you accept the authenticity of the book, the movie is one of the most accurate in war movie history.

The non-trial flashbacks are accurate. Hunt did die in a similar fashion, but he was buried before Morant could see the body. He certainly was told about the mutilations so his anger was certainly accurate. Ironically, historians have since determined that the mutilation was most likely done by black witch doctors! Another slight alteration from the facts was that Visser was not captured wearing Hunt’s jacket, but instead had some British kit in his possession. This makes the real “Breaker” Morant even more unjustified in executing Visser. The dawn attack on the fort did occur and the trio did perform brave enough to get them pardoned, under normal circumstances. The movie includes three of Morant’s poems as proof he was the real deal.

The filmmakers get the little details right. In one scene, a British soldier takes a bath in a wash-tub. Some of the British soldiers wear kilts. The Enfield rifles are accurately depicted. The Boers were famous for their sharp-shooting, although probably not as dead-eye as in this movie. Heck, even the British seldom miss.

CONCLUSION:  This is a great movie. The scenery is beautiful as Australia stands in for the unbroken horizons of the Transvaal. The acting is fantastic. In the courtroom scenes, watch the facial expressions of the actors. You can read a lot from those faces! Woodward is seething, Brown is roguish, Fitz-Gerald is naïve, and Thompson is outraged. Denny (the head of the tribunal) and Kitchener are appropriately hissable.

Director Bruce Beresford made a film that is interesting to watch. He uses a stationary camera effectively. He also often has the actor off-center in the frame. He does not use a swelling soundtrack to tell us how we are supposed to feel.

As a history lesson and a lesson in military ethics, the movie is valuable and should be viewed by a public that is at war in a war (Afghanistan) similar to the Boer War.  Clearly the film should be mandatory viewing for soldiers involved in a counter-insurgency situation and for the leaders who are fashioning that counter-insurgency policy.

Next up:  Battle of Britain

Sunday, September 12, 2010

#92 - Midway


“Midway” was released in 1976 and was meant to be the definitive treatment of the turning point battle in the Pacific in WWII. In some ways it is a dinosaur marking the end days of the epic old school war movies like “The Longest Day”. Similar to that film, it features an all-star cast and tells the story from both the American and enemy perspectives. Unlike “The Longest Day”, it is not based on a book by Cornelius Ryan and thus does not have Ryan’s deft blending of commanders and grunts roles. It also takes it easy on its audience by having the Japanese speak English. The movie was a disappointment at the box office in spite of its revolutionary Sensurround technology that was supposed to make the audience “feel” the battle. (It was one of only 4 movies made with this dead-end technology).

The producers made the decision to make as much use of actual war footage as possible. In addition, combat footage from other war films like “Tora! Tora! Tora!” are used. Admirably, the cinematographer tried to reduce the quality of the modern film to be more seamless with the circa WWII footage. It is an uneasy blend, however. The navy provided the U.S.S. Lexington (commissioned in 1943) which served for both the American and Japanese carrier scenes.


The movie opens with a written reminder that Midway was the turning point in the Pacific. It posits the theme that battles are a mixture of “planning, courage, error, and chance”. The audience is informed that they will be seeing actual combat footage. We then see the “Doolittle Raiders” taking off and bombing Japan in a seeming example of this. (Actually the footage is from the movie “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo”.)

The first scene is in Hiroshima on April 18, 1942 at the home of Admiral Yamamoto (the great Toshiro Mifune). He sees the raid on Japan as an opportunity to initiate his plan to destroy the American fleet in a decisive battle.


Cast members standing by a Hellcat playing a Wildcat
Matt Garth (Charlton Heston) arrives at intelligence headquarters at Pearl Harbor to see if they know where the payback for the Doolittle Raid will come. Intelligence nerd Rochefort tells him “something is stirring”. Garth’s son Tom (Eddie Albert) surprises him with his arrival at Pearl as a naval fighter pilot. The reunion is awkward as they have a dysfunctional relationship probably due to the Garths’ divorce. Tom has fallen in love with a local girl, but because her family is Japanese, they have been interned. Matt growls that he is not a bigot, but Tom’s timing is poor.

Yamamoto goes over his plan. It is very ambitious and accurately reflects the overconfidence and aggressiveness of the Japanese high command at this stage of the war. Some of his subordinates are leery, but he insists they must destroy the American fleet before America’s industrial might kicks in.

At Pearl Harbor, CINC Chester Nimitz (Henry Fonda playing him again after “In Harm’s Way”) gets briefed on the Battle of Coral Sea. The cryptanalysts led by Rochefort have determined the next Japanese target codenamed “AF” in Japanese messages. They concoct a scheme to get the Japanese to reveal that AF is Midway. The movie gives props to the code-breakers that made the victory possible.

Matt Garth meets the Nisei fiance Hiroku who explains that she is not a subversive. Not surprisingly, her parents are opposed to the marriage. In a later scene, Garth visits an intelligence officer and swallows his pride to successfully get the girl and her parents released. He then confronts Tom and cheesily tells him “you better shape up, Tiger or some hot-shot Japanese pilot is going to flame your ass!”  Cringe!

The movie now turns to the battle. It accurately walks through the main events interspersing combat footage with command decisions by both sides. The Japanese bombard Midway Island in a scene with lots of explosions. Meanwhile, both fleets have scout planes out looking for the other. However, the Japanese in their hubris do not think the Americans can be anywhere near. Commander Watanabe argues for a renewed attack on Midway. Adm. Nagumo reluctantly agrees necessitating switching the planes from ship-killing torpedoes to airfield-cratering bombs. In a seemingly screenwriters’ fiction (but in fact based on fact), the last Japanese scout plane discovers the American fleet causing Nagumo to reverse the order.

The American strike force is on its way led by the torpedo bombers. We see actual footage (albeit of later types of planes) blended with close-ups of the actors in front of a screen. The scene concentrates on George Gay who survives the suicide attack to end up bobbing in the middle of the battle. We hear the usual war movie radio chatter. Tom Garth is shot up and badly burned. Nagumo gives props to the American air crews by saying “they sacrifice themselves like samurai”.

a Japanese carrier gets hit
As the last torpedo plane splashes with no hits to show for their sacrifice, the dive bombers arrive above the four Japanese carriers. In moments three models of carriers are in flames. One of the bombers radios “Scratch one flattop!” (Wrong battle – the quote is from Coral Sea) The Hiryu is unhit for no reason since it is plainly visible. (In actuality, it was miles away in a squal.)

The Americans return with Tom in a lot of distress. He crash lands on the carrier deck, but survives. The filmmakers use famous footage of a Hellcat crashing. (Tom was supposed to be in a Wildcat and the actual pilot walked away from the crash.)

There’s still that one Japanese carrier out there and planes from it have hit the Yorktown so another strike force is organized. One of the hits is by a kamikaze in a cool shot of the plane coming right at the bridge. Pilots are needed for the strike force and guess who volunteers? If you guessed Charleton Heston, you have obviously seen some war movies. Heck you have seen some movies, period.

Garth leads the attack on the Hiryu, but he misses. Just kidding. His bomb lands smack in the middle of the deck causing the model to catch fire. Like son, like father, Matt has plane problems and crashes, but burns on return. He’s a martyr!

Back at Pearl, Tom is put in an ambulance. Hiroku is there, but oddly shows no emotion. Nimitz wonders “were we better or just luckier?”


Realism - 8

Action - 7

Acting - 8

Accuracy - 9

Plot - 7

Overall - 7


Doubtful. The tacked on love story does not overcome the fact that most of the movie is old white guys playing army (or in this case navy).


The movie is commendably accurate. If you want to learn about the Battle of Midway and do not want to read, it is a good tutorial. The main facts and chronology are factual. The actors portraying real historical figures get the personalities right. The little things like the AF code-breaking gambit are incorporated with good effect and show the filmmakers cared about getting things right. The Japanese point of view is shown with sympathy. They are not demonized like in a 1940’s or 1950’s movie. In fact, the characters are portrayed as able and intelligent, which is what they were. Their hubris brings them down.

The love story involving the Issei parents and the Nisei daughter manages to bring the unfortunate mistreatment of Japanese-Americans into the film. Although the internment policy has nothing directly to do with the Battle of Midway, I can forgive the makers for reminding us that we were not perfect as a country in WWII. However, although it is a fact that Japanese-Americans were put in internment camps in America, very few of the families were interned in Hawaii and those that were were segregated by sex (unlike Horoku’s parents).

The most obvious inaccuracies in the movie have to do with the combat footage. Any person knowledgeable of WWII aircraft will notice planes that did not fight in the Battle of Midway. For instance, there are numerous times when F6F Hellcats are portraying F4F Wildcats. Tom Garth takes off in a Wildcat and crashes in a Hellcat. Heck, there are even some British and German planes in dogfight scenes that were shot for the movie “The Battle of Britain”. Also, the U.S.S. Lexington is not the right class of carrier. With that said, I do not think your average viewer cares and the makers deserve credit for trying to use as much real footage as possible.

Some experts quibble about the kamikaze hitting the bridge. The fact is kamikaze attacks were not policy at the time of the Battle of Midway. However, there were examples of individual Japanese pilots deciding to crash into the enemy earlier in the war. Usually it was when their plane was crippled. There is no evidence this happened in the battle. It’s the coolest visual in the movie so let’s cut it some slack.

When I saw “Midway” in a theater in 1976, I can remember leaving the theater outraged that the movie concluded without reference to the sinking of the Yorktown. It seemed an attempt to make the victory perfect instead of great. For me this cancelled out a lot of the fairness of the movie. Looking back, I may have been too historically fanatical, but I still think it was a flawed decision by the filmmakers to not mar the feel-good ending.


“Midway” begs to be compared to its sisters “The Longest Day” (1962), “Tora! Tora! Tora!” (1970), and “A Bridge Too Far” (1977). They are all epics with all-star casts. Each looks at both sides of the battle. Each wants to be the definitive account of an historical event and they succeed. They all concentrate on command decisions. The most obvious comparison is to “Bridge” (#94). They are only one year apart. They each concentrate mainly on leadership characters, although “Bridges” has its Dohun representing the average Joe and “Midway” has Gay. “Bridge” forgoes the fictional main character and the cheesy love story. It has more lusty action scenes which could be because its more visceral to witness boots on the ground than planes in the air. I will have to watch “Tora!” again to compare it to “Midway”, but I feel “Bridge” is a better movie than “Midway”.

As far as “The Longest Day”, no comparison. It amazes me that while “Midway” owes its existence to the granddaddy of all-star battle epics, it ignores the formula that made “Longest” special. “The Longest Day” has the generals, but also the privates so you get the full spectrum. Most of the enlisted men are portrayed by second tier actors, but they hold their own with the John Waynes. Remember Red Buttons’ character? It also has some humor. There is no humor in “Midway” and the bit players are pretty bad. Eddie Albert as Tom Garth is cringe-worthy. TLD did not build its plot around a fictional character, either.

This is not to say the movie is bad. It works hard to be accurate. It is fair to the Japanese. The score by John Williams is not overly patriotic. It tells the story of an important event in history in a more interesting way than a documentary would. You get to see lots of actual combat footage. Best of all - Charlton Heston dies.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

#93 - The Guns of Navarone


            “The Guns of Navarone” was released in 1961 and was the top box office attraction of that year. It is based on the popular novel (1957) by Alistair MacLean, although the characters underwent major changes by screenwriter Carl Foreman ( for instance, there are no major female characters in the book ). At $6 million, the film was one of the most expensive up to that time. It paid off as the movie was a smash hit and critically acclaimed. It served as a template for the James Bond series with its mixture of action, characters, and exotic locale. It is often linked with similar movies from that time period, specifically with “Bridge on the River Kwai”, “The Longest Day”, and “The Great Escape”. It was nominated for 7 Academy Awards and won for Best Special Effects. It was awarded the Golden Globe for Drama. One of the Oscar nods went to Foreman for his first credited screenplay since being blacklisted as a Communist. The movie was filmed mostly on the island of Rhodes which hosted an all-star cast. One of whom, David Niven, almost died during filming because of immersion in a pool of water for the explosives on the elevator shaft scene.


                In a tutorial similar to “A Bridge Too Far”, a narrator explains that it is 1943 and 2,000 British soldiers have been marooned on the Aegean Island of Keros. They have a week to live because the Germans plan to invade the island and wipe them out as a show of force to intimidate Turkey into entering the war. The only way to rescue them is for a fleet to pass by the island of Navarone. Unfortunately, Navarone has some big-ass cannons mounted in a cave on a cliffside which are capable of sinking the rescue flotilla. You are about to watch a movie featuring those forgotten titans of naval warfare – the shore guns! (For the average viewer: a shore gun was a long-range, large caliber gun guarding the entrance to a harbor. They would outrange any enemy ships plus they usually had an altitude advantage which made them unhittable by warships. It was close to suicidal to take them on).

"Who wants to go on a suicide mission?"
            The first day begins at an airfield where a famous mountain climber named Mallory (Gregory Peck) meets the head of the secret mission Franklin (Anthony Quayle). A group of bomber pilots angrily claim that trying to take out the guns by air bombardment is a “bloody” waste of time and lives. Mallory believes the alternative of doing it with a commando group is suicidal. When Franklin points out 2,000 men are depending on him, he still refuses to go. Just kidding. A team is put together which includes Miller (Niven) as the explosives expert, “Butcher” Brown (Stanley Baker) as the knife guy, and Spyros Pappadimos (James Darren) as the young gangsta and singer of songs. This places the movie firmly in the suicide mission sub-genre. This means you can place your bets on how many of the team members are going to be killed. (All those betting either none or all, get real!)


            There is still one more member of the team to be revealed. Mallory meets a survivor of the Greek army named Stavros (Anthony Quinn) in a hotel. Mallory and Stavros had been on missions together, but there is obviously bad blood between them. The team leaves via fishing boat in disguise. Of course the voyage includes an encounter with a snoopy German patrol boat. The team opens fire on the boarders and kills all the Germans and even blow up the German ship. Even though the ships are next to each other, the fishing boat suffers no damage or casualties from the massive explosion.

           During the trek, Mallory reveals to Miller that Stavros is planning to kill him after the war for inadvertently causing the deaths of his family. It’s going to be a tense mission. Mallory weighs in on warfare with “the only way to win a war is to be just as nasty as the enemy”. (This anti-war theme is going to fly over the heads of most moviegoers.)

"I will not let you kill yourself"
             They reach the island during a terrible storm and crash into the rocks. In one of the wettest scenes in movie history, they wade ashore. There is no dialogue, just the stormy sound effects for 14 minutes of screen time! Nice touch. (Note the scene-stealing Anthony Quinn with his red shirt.) They then have to scale the cliffs. At one point Mallory slips and guess who grabs his arm – Stavros. (He wants him alive so he can kill him later.) Mallory and Stavros reach the top where Stavros knifes a German on guard duty. The German’s last thought – “what the hell am I doing patrolling the top of an unscaleable cliff in the midst of a storm?” Franklin slips and badly damages his leg. They debate what to do with him. Stavros wants to silence him, others want to leave him to the German’s to care for. Mallory insists on bringing him, arguing that capture would lead to Franklin talking about the plan under torture. Later, Mallory prevents Franklin from committing suicide.

           They escape a German patrol by taking refuge in an old temple. In some ways the movie is more of a chase film than a war film. There they are joined by Pappadimos’ sister Maria who is a resistance fighter. She is accompanied by Anna, a pretty blonde who is mute due to torture by the Gestapo.

           On the fourth day, they escape strafing by Stukas and enter the town to seek help for Franklin. Stavros, Maria, Franklin, and Brown are captured at the doctors. The others try to blend into a wedding party. A Greek sings a Greek folk song which of course is the cue for James Darren to join in ala Ricky Nelson in “Rio Bravo”. The Germans recognize his singing voice as that of an American pop star (jsut kidding) and they are captured, too.

           At German headquarters, the team is questioned by a “good cop” German officer and then a blonde hair, blue eye (naturally) S.S. officer arrives to be “bad cop”. Stavros pretends that he is a reluctant participant and plays the sniveling coward which distracts the Germans although they know exactly who he is (they have his picture for God's sakes!). The act works and they disarm the Germans and put on their uniforms. They have to leave Franklin behind but Mallory has planted a false invasion story so when Franklin gets truth-serumed, he will tell the Germans a different plan. They steal a vehicle and go to a monastery. Miller goes off on Mallory for “using” Franklin. Miller represents the conscience of the group, although earlier he was in favor of leaving Franklin to the Germans with the plans for the mission intact in his head which would have gotten them all killed. Later, Mallory and Anna spoon.

             The last day starts with smoke from the town indicating retribution for sheltering the commandoes. The Nazis are evil. They arrive at the fortress-town and see the guns for the first time. Meanwhile, Franklin talks and the Germans rush out of the fortress to counter an expected invasion. Unfortunately the lack of defenders is matched by the team’s sudden lack of explosives since someone has tampered with them. Miller suspects Anna and demands to see her scars from the torture. The 1961 audience gets to be titillated by the bare, unscarred back of Anna. If that is not shocking enough, Anna is also not mute! She is a collaborator who switched sides because “I can’t stand pain”. Miller insists Mallory do his duty, but Maria shoots the traitor before Mallory can do it. Interestingly, the no dialogue scenes have now been balanced by some very verbose ones.

the big-ass cannons
            Stavros and Pappadimos start the diversion by ambushing Germans and Mallory and Miller sneak into the fort as German tanks (obviously not actual WWII German tanks) are leaving. Mallory and Miller enter the gun emplacement and lock the massive doors behind them. The Germans will have to cut their way through. Meanwhile, Maria and Brown steal a boat but ironically Brown gets knifed to death (“live by the knife, die by the knife”). Pappadimos dies in a machine gun duel with a German right out of the Old West (if they had had machine guns).

             Miller places explosives (where did he get them?) on the guns, but figuring they will be found he also places some at the bottom of the elevator shaft to be triggered by the descending elevator. Mallory and Miller go over the cliff by rope and then swim to the boat. They pick up Stavros with Mallory offering him a hand up like in the earlier scene. The Germans find the explosives on the guns using metal detectors that are apparently not distracted by all the metal in the vicinity.


                The elevator keeps coming down, but not down enough to trigger the explosives! We are on the edge of our seats, but I have to admit I did want to see those guns fire at least once. Our wishes are granted as the guns fire twice at the sitting ducks British armada before the inevitable explosion occurs. It’s a big one! The entire top of the mountain is blown up and the guns plunge into the sea. The fleet lets loose with its horns and the crews cheer. If there had been high-fiving in 1961, audiences would have been out of their seats. I guess they settled for a rousing “Bravo!”

              Stavros decides to let bygones be bygones as he stays behind with Maria who he has fallen in love with. Did you think they would spend the rests of their lives sad and lonely? They will now be happy together killing Germans. It’s very romantic. Miller apologizes to Mallory for being something of a British twit distracted by human feelings. They arrange to meet again for “Force Ten from Navarone”, but few cared.


Realism - 6

Action - 8

Acting - 9

Accuracy - 5

Plot - 8

Overall - 7


              It is not really a date movie, although the box office receipts indicate women did go to see it. There is a strong female character (Maria) and Foreman must have changed two male characters’ gender to make the story more female-friendly. Plus, James Darren was a teen idol type probably chosen to appeal to a female audience. (Certainly he does not sing for the males in the audience!) The movie is more character driven than many war movies. It is not graphically violent. It is not pure action and if you like talking (some women do), there are some very talkative scenes.


                The book and movie are loosely based on the Battle of Leros. In 1943, after the Italian government capitulated, the British seized several Aegean islands in the Dodecanese Campaign. It was a classic case of overreach, however. The Germans had a preponderance of forces in the area and did not sit back. They regained the islands including taking back Leros in an amphibious assault that resulted in the loss of the British occupiers who were not rescued as the movie implies. MacLean built his story around this incident, but he obviously did not mean for it to be a history lesson. In fact, you have to dig a lot to discover that there is any link to an actual event.


             Although considered one of the great manly films, “Guns” is probably a bit overrated. It has some ridiculous moments like the escape from the German arresters and Pappidamos’ machine gun duel. Not to mention squeezing a song into a war movie! It also has several standard movie clichés like Stavros finding a woman in the end to restart his life. The Germans are depicted as not so much evil as stupid. The movie is also a little slow and talkie at times. When compared to a similar MacLean inspired movie, “Where Eagles Dare” (which did not make the list), it comes up short in almost every way.

             However, as an example of an old school action movie set in war, it is pretty good. It has the old-fashioned soundtrack, stellar acting, and the twist of the mute collaborating girl. Most people will not see that coming. I also appreciated the scenes where the action did the talking. Speaking of talking, another nice touch was the Germans spoke German without subtitles. The audience is left to figure out what they are talking about. Imagine that. Of course, today most viewers are probably just thankful they don’t have to read and to hell with what they are saying.

              By the way, if you bet that 3 of the 6 team members would die (assuming the Germans kill Franklin), you win! 50% - not bad for a cinematic suicide mission.


              I suggest you watch "Inglourious Basterds" along with this movie to see how suicide mission war movies have evolved over the years.  I think you will find that the modern version is quite a bit more extreme.  I would argue audiences today want more bang for their buck from their war movies.  "Guns" seems very tame today.  I am not sure this is a good trend.  However, when it comes to standard fare like "Saving Private Ryan" we may find in our cinematic journey that modern war movies are generally better than the old school types like "All Quiet on the Western Front".  We shall see.