Sunday, October 31, 2010

#84 - Dr. Strangelove

BACK-STORY: The full title is “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb”. It was released in 1964 at the height of the Cold War. The director was the esteemed Stanley Kubrick using a screenplay adapting the thriller Red Alert . The movie was originally meant to be serious, but Kubrick transformed it into a black comedy. The production revolved around Peter Sellers (the film was done in England because Sellers could not leave due to divorce proceedings) as Columbia Pictures insisted on him playing four roles. Sellers was removed from the Kong role because of a fortuitous sprained ankle (he was uncomfortable with the Southern accent and did not want to play it). The movie is a satire of real Cold War personalities and paranoia. The U.S. Air Force did not cooperate with the production because of the screenplay.

OPENING SCENE: The movie opens with a disclaimer from the USAF stating that safeguards would prevent the events shown in the film (true). A narrator tells us that the Russians are rumored to be working on a “doomsday device”. We see a B-52 bomber refueling to the strains of soothing music. At an air base, Gen. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has his men on red alert claiming a shooting war has begun. He sends a message in code to the orbiting B-52 force initiating their flight into Russian to nuclear bomb strategic targets.

SUMMARY: A British liaison named Mandrake (Sellers) is appalled to find the clearly mad Ripper bent on starting a nuclear war. Ripper rants about the fluoridation of water as a Communist plot to contaminate our “bodily fluids”. He pulls a gun on Mandrake and holds him hostage.

Pres. Muffley
In the “War Room” in Washington, Gen. Turgidson (George C. Scott) explains the situation to Pres. Muffley (Sellers). It seems that an obscure war plan allows a commander such as Ripper to initiate a nuclear attack on his own initiative. Turgidson argues that now that the plan has been put into effect the U.S. should go all in and destroy Russia. “I’m not saying we won’t get our hair mussed – at most 10-15 million deaths. Tops – depending on the breaks”. Muffley is portrayed as a typical pacifist, liberal, Democrat. He is appalled at Turgidson’s proposal. Instead he orders the Army to assault Ripper’s base to get the recall code from him and then calls Russian Premier Kissoff via the “Hot Line” to apologize and help diffuse the situation by coordinating the shooting down of the bombers. The ensuing phone conversation is one of the funniest in film history.

Dr. Strangelove

The Russian ambassador arrives to inform Muffley about the Russian Doomsday Machine which is designed to end life on Earth for the next 93 years if Russia comes under nuclear attack. This was developed because of a perceived doomsday device gap. Dr. Strangelove (Sellers) is called in for his expertise on nuclear strategy. He is obviously an ex-Nazi who has trouble controlling his right arm (it sometimes does the Nazi salute or tries to strangle him). This results in some funny physical comedy. Strangelove, in his heavy German accent, explains the deterrence of the Doomsday Machine.


Meanwhile, the Army assaults Ripper’s base. The scene has a documentary look to it as hand held cameras were used. Some of it looks like footage from Vietnam which would have been prescient given the future. Ripper fires a machine gun through his window and then commits suicide.

the bomber crew

After passing its “fail safe” position, the B-52 “Leper Colony” piloted by Maj. Kong (Slim Pickens) survives a Russian anti-aircraft missile which knocks out its communications so it cannot receive the recall order. The plane looks fake on the outside, but realistic on the inside. “Johnny Comes Marching Home” plays in the background as Kong switches to an alternate target that is undefended thus circumventing the President/Premier defense cooperation. To make matters more suspenseful, the bomb bay doors won’t open, forcing Kong to open them manually. This results in the iconic bomb-riding scene that is justifiably famous. “Wahoo!”

FINAL SCENE: In the War Room, word arrives that one of the bombers has detonated a bomb on a Russian target thus supposedly triggering the Doomsday Machine. Dr. Strangelove suggests putting 100,000 people in mine shafts to ride out the radioactivity and repopulate America. He recommends 10 nubile females for every young, healthy male. Sellers does a screamingly funny battle with his evil arm. Turgidson pipes in that we have to avoid a “mine shaft gap”. Suddenly the Doomsday Machine activates resulting in a montage of atomic test footage to the song “We’ll Meet Again”. Amazingly, Kubrick thought about ending the movie with a pie-fight in the War Room!


Action - 5 the battle at the air base is pretty intense

Acting – 10 especially the multi-talented Sellers

Accuracy - 7

Realism - 7

Plot - 10

Overall - 9

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? There is only one female character (Turgidson’s girlfriend) and she is not there for the female audience, if you get my drift. However, the movie is not your standard macho war movie so it appeals to a broader audience. The humor is black and intellectual so factor that in. I feel most intelligent women would enjoy this movie. It is a masterpiece that everyone should see.

CRITIQUE: Once again we have an all-time great movie (like “The Manchurian Candidate”) that does not fit comfortably into the war movie category. If it did, it would be ranked higher than #84 because it truly is a masterpiece. It is better classified as a political satire set in the Cold War. It taps in skillfully to the paranoia of the early 60s. Keep in mind that the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred just a year before filming began. Somewhat surprisingly, considering that it was set and produced in a thankfully bygone era, it holds up very well for modern audiences. It is still very funny. It has some of the greatest lines in movie history including President Muffley quelling a scuffle by saying “Gentlemen, you can’t fight here. This is a war room.” It also has several famous scenes including Keenan Wynn’s assault on a Coke machine.

The acting is great. Seller’s performances are a tour-de-farce. He ad-libbed many of his lines as well as the evil arm stuff. It is unbelievable that he lost the Oscar to Rex Harrison of “My Fair Lady”! The cast is uniformly grand in its ability to keep a straight face throughout (the same could not be said for the crew, from what I have read). The directing is outstanding, as is to be expected from Kubrick.

ACCURACY: The screenplay is based on a novel and thus is not based on any incident from the Cold War. As far as we know, there was never any accidental launch of a nuclear attack. Plus the scenario that exists in the movie with a rogue general ordering bombers to proceed into Russia was impossible because of safeguards put in by the civilian-controlled government. Only the President could give launch orders. There were some scary moments, but they were due to technology errors, not human errors. The Hot Line was only used once, and not because of a nuclear incident.

The movie is realistic in many aspects. Mutually Assured Destruction was the policy of both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., so a single nuclear strike even by accident could have triggered a massive retaliation that would have ended life as we know it. Although there was no “Doomsday Machine”, there were literally thousands of ICBMs that would have brought doom, including 100 megaton behemoths in the Soviet arsenal.

We did have B-52s on alert throughout the 60s including some that were always airborne just in case. By the way, although the Air Force understandably gave no assistance to Kubrick, he was able to create a mock-up of the inside of a B-52 that was quite accurate. The idea that they would have been sent on a preemptive strike is far-fetched, but the probable reaction of the President (especially a Democrat) is spot on. I can envision the President using the “Hot Line” to apologize and help shoot down our own planes. Having the military leadership argue for taking advantage of the situation also seems logical, albeit stereotypical.

Since the movie was released there has been an ongoing debate about who each of the main characters is based on. Dr. Strangelove appears to be an amalgam of Nazi scientist Werner Von Braun who helped develop our space program and Edward Teller who is considered to be the Father of the Hydrogen Bomb and was not totally against its use. Pres. Muffley behaves like you would have expected an Adlai Stevenson to have behaved under similar circumstances. Scott could be channeling Curtis Lemay in his portrayal of Turgidson.

Two seemingly made up ideas in the movie are actually accurate. The John Birch Society of the 1960s pushed the idea of fluoridation of water being a Communist plot. Believe it or not, there actually is a condition called “alien hand syndrome” (sometimes called “Dr. Strangelove syndrome”) that causes a person to lose control of their right arm!

CONCLUSION: It will be tough to determine a place for “Dr. Strangelove” on my amended list because although it is an unquestioned classic, it is not truly a war movie as I define them. Apparently the panel put together by Military History magazine had this same conundrum. How else do you explain classifying it as a war movie and then ranking it behind lesser movies like “Guadalcanal Diary”?

The other question is: is it the funniest war movie of all time? It has competition from others on the “Greatest” list like “Hail the Conquering Hero”, “The General”, “MASH”, and “Duck Soup”. It seems unlikely that those others will induce the laughs that “Strangelove” brought out. Plus, unlike many dated comedies that are not funny today, Kubrick’s humor still seems fresh. It is also a movie that bears repeated viewings. Certainly, every movie fan and every war movie buff should see it at least once.

NEXT UP:  #83 - "Sahara" 

FORGOTTEN GEM? 'The Fighting Sullivans"

    "The Fighting Sullivans" is the "true" story of the five Sullivan brothers who enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor and went down with their ship during the naval Battle of Guadalcanal.  The movie was released in 1944 and is a classic example of a propaganda film meant to boost home front morale.  The first 83 minutes deal with the raising of the boys.  It's typically unsubtle.  In one scene, they find an old boat and go sailing in it.  It springs leaks and they abandon ship.  Their mother makes them swear not to set foot in another boat until they grow up.  This is Hollywood's notion of irony.
     The mother is doting, the father is gruff, the boys are rambunctious - all requirements of a 1940s movie.  There, of course, has to be a sentimental romance thrown in.  The youngest sibling meets a girl who is "swell", but his brothers sabotage their date.  The whole family apologizes and everything is fine.  They get married and baby makes three.  When word of Pearl Harbor comes, the four bachelors run off to enlist and Al's wife insists he go, too!  Never mind me and the baby, dear.  Your country comes first.  They insist on being put on the same ship.
     In the only action scene in the entire movie, their ship is hit and George is wounded and sent to sick bay.  The special effects are decidedly fake. The four others insist on going to George's side.  There is a loud blast and the screen goes black.  At least they died together and quickly.
     Back at home, their recruiter arrives all cheerful (?).  Oh, by the way, all five of your sons are dead.  Can I have some more coffee?  The movie closes with the launch of the U.S.S. The Sullivans as the five march away in the clouds.  That is the only thing about this movie that reminded me of "All Quiet on the Western Front".
    This is not really a war movie.  Only about ten minutes qualify.  It is kind of schmaltzy.  The acting by the child and adult actors portraying the brothers is uniformly bad.  There is some propaganda, but it is not overblown.  It was actually nominated for the Best Story Oscar!
     The movie is not very accurate.  They did enlist together and insisted on the same ship.  The USS Juneau was sunk by one torpedo, not gunfire.  Three of the brothers were killed instantly, but Al drowned the next day and George lasted for four days before succumbing to grief and the conditions (or possibly sharks).  The parents were informed by two officers and a doctor.  Like the movie, the father did ask "which one" and received the response "all five".  George was survived by a wife and son.  The navy did name a destroyer after them.
     The story, not the movie, inspired "Saving Private Ryan".  That is the only similarity between the two movies.
     The five Sullivans should not be forgotten, but this movie should be.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

SHOULD YOU READ IT? "Come and See" (1985)

     "Come and See" is a Russian film that was released in 1985.  It is a horror war movie that is set in Byelorussia during WWII.  The Germans are occupying this area of the Soviet Union and partisans are fighting back.  The protagonist is a teenage boy named Florya who joins a partisan unit against the wishes of his mother.  He developes a relationship with a girl named Glasha and they return to his village to find it a ghost town.  The survivors have taken refuge on an island which Florya and Glasha have to wade through a bog to get to in one of the slimiest scenes in movie history.
     Florya leaves to find food with three of the villagers.  His adventure includes carrying around a German dummy for no apparent reason and the stealing of a cow.  He ends up in another village which becomes the target of an Einsatzgruppen.  The Nazis round up the villagers and herd them into the church.  What happens next is horrific, including the reaction of the Germans to their handiwork.  The scene bears comparison to some of the scenes in "Schindler's List".  This part of the film is replete with eerie music, haunting images, and the use of speeded up film adds to the bizarre nature.
     Florya, having escaped the mayhem, wanders into the aftermath of the partisans' ambush of the Germans.  Several Germans have been taken captive, including their commander.  He pleads innocence, but one of the Nazis brazenly states that the Russians are inferior and will be exterminated.  The "trial" has a predicatable verdict, but the punishment does not ring true.  Florya notices a portrait of Hitler which he proceeds to shoot as footage of Hitler's life unwind in reverse order culminating with the baby Adolf.  This is really cool.
     This is a highly regarded film, but I found it pretentiously bizarre (some type of heron pokes around as Florya and Glasha cavort in the woods) until the attack on the village when it really takes off.  There are lots of close-ups and facial expressions do the talking.  The rookie actor portraying Florya overacts a bit, but he is very memorable.  Glasha is also an interesting character and it would have been nice to have found out what happens to her.
     The movie can be compared to "Apocalypse Now" because parts seemed to be filmed under the influence of LSD.  It is definitely not in a league with Coppola's film, however.
     By the way, did you know the Nazis were evil?  Did you realize that war corrupts children?  Were you aware that war is hell on civilians?
     Read it, but skip to the Einsatzgruppen scene.


FORGOTTEN GEM? "Wing and a Prayer"

"A Wing and  Prayer" was a propaganda picture released in 1944 that tells the fictional story of a bomber squadron on an aircraft carrier.  The movie tries to explain to the wartime audience why the U.S. Navy "appeared" to be on the defensive after Pearl Harbor.  It turns out that it was part of a shrewd plan to lure the Japanese into a decisive defeat!  This must have worked pretty well considering the actual circumstances leading to the Battle of Midway would have still been secret.  Today, the plot comes off as silly.

     The plan is for "Carrier X" to conduct raids throughout the Solomon Islands area to fool the Japanese as to how many carriers we have and when confronted to retreat in order to convince the Japanese that we do not want to fight.  The new bomber squadron led by Lt. Commander Moulton (Dana Andrews) has trouble with the order to behave "cowardly" in contact with enemy Zeros and has a tense relationship with the hard-nosed Flight Commander Harper (Don Ameche).  Harper insists they follow orders and they, being hot shot pilots, chafe at the constraints.  Somewhat surprisingly, the movie sides with Harper's insistence that the the good of the fleet supersedes the good of the individual air crews.  It pulls its punches a bit when Harper refuses to turn on lights to guide in an out-of-fuel bomber.  Not to worry, the crew is picked up by a destroyer.

     The strategy works and it leads to the Battle of Midway.  The Americans attack a fake looking fleet of models.  (For some reason, there are only three carriers instead of four.)  They drop torpedoes on the decks of the carriers!  (Earlier in the film they practiced as dive bombers.)  We follow the battle by way of air chatter picked up by the carrier communications.  It sounds like you are listening to an old-time radio serial.  Very phony-sounding.

     Cliche alert #1:  One of the pilots has a picture of his wife that he moons over each night before he falls asleep.  Guess what happens to him?  Cliche alert #2:  A pilot who had crashed after coming back too soon from battle fatigue spots a torpedo heading for the carrier.  Guess how he finds redemption?

     The movie was originally intended to be the factual story of Ensign Gay and Torpedo 8 in the Battle of Midway.  I guess Hollywood decided a movie where all the pilots get shot down without any torpedo hits to show for it would not be good for home front morale.  The finished screenplay took care of that problem of accuracy.

     This movie was actually nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar.  It must have seemed unpatriotic to point out how ridiculous the plot is.  This "gem" should remain forgotten. 

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

#85 - The Manchurian Candidate

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.





OPENING: A truck pulls up to a bar/brothel and the unpopular Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey) ruins the fun by demanding his men accompany him on a mission. On the mission, their South Korean guide (Henry Silva) walks them into an ambush. Although Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) is skeptical of the tactical foolishness of proceeding single-file, he inexplicably follows the guide’s advice! The ambush is unrealistically easy with no shots fired.

SUMMARY: Back in the States, Shaw returns to acclaim as a Medal of Honor winner. His manipulative mother (Angela Lansbury – only three years older than Harvey!) and his buffoonish stepfather intend to use him to further the stepfather’s quest to become Vice President. Sen. Iselin is a Joseph McCarthy clone and in case you can’t figure that out he accuses the administration of harboring card-carrying communists (eventually settling on 57 because of a Heinz 57 bottle).

Marcos, now a Major, is having nightmares and begins to question whether the unlikeable Shaw is really “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life”. Another of the survivors, a black soldier (the first significant moment in Hollywood that a black actor has a non-specific black role) is having the same nightmare. This results in the famous tour-de-force brainwashing scene where Frankenheimer intercuts shots of the evil commie brainwashers with a ladies’ garden club that the hypnotized men are perceiving. Shaw robotically strangles one of his mates on command from the garden club lecturer.

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Shaw murders on of his squad while under hypnosis

The trigger mechanism for Shaw is the queen of hearts playing card. His brain-washer (Oriental villain-for-hire Khigh Dhiegh) gets him to prove himself by murdering his boss. This proves that normal Americans are weakened by “guilt and fear”, but not Shaw with his dry-cleaned brain.

Marcos meets a pretty blonde on a train. They have one of the strangest conversations in movie history. (Surprisingly taken directly from the novel.) She must be a communist operative, right? Wrong! Or maybe she is? But then again, … Oh hell, let’s just say that was one weird conversation. So weird that she falls in love with Marcos and immediately breaks up with her fiancĂ©. This is apparently for real!

Marcos goes to Shaw’s and gets into a vicious karate fight (supposedly the first in screen history) with his valet who happens to be the guide. He does not recognize the guide, he just recognizes that Henry Silva is always a bad guy in movies (just kidding). (Sinatra broke a finger in the fight). Marcos gets Shaw drunk and Shaw pathetically recounts his romance with his mother’s most bitter political enemy’s daughter, Joycelyn Jordan. The pinko Sen. Jordan happens to be a neighbor of the red-baiting Iselins. It’s a small world. Mrs. Iselin breaks up this Romeo and Juliet union.

Shaw after walking off a pier

Mom invites Shaw to a costume party to trigger him via the queen of diamonds. Shocker – she is a communist agent and is going to use her son to overthrow the government! At the climactic moment of playing solitaire with him, she is called away. Guess who appears improbably costumed as the queen of hearts playing card? Joycelyn, wearing the most popular Halloween costume of 1953. Ray and Josie run off to marital bliss and they live happily ever after. Not really.

In another plot contrivance, Shaw returns home to confront his loathsome step-father which, of course, allows his mother to resume the solitaire game leading to Shaw murdering Sen. Jordan and guess who?

Marcos has figured out the card-connection and uses it to break the spell on Shaw, but then he unbelievably allows him to part company. Nothing to worry about, he’s cured! Shaw goes to his mother who outlines the assassination plan. She plants a decidedly unmotherly kiss on his lips (which is a lot less than she does in the novel).

the Queen of Hearts
FINAL SCENE: At a chaotic nominating convention in Madison Square Garden, Marcos frantically searches for Shaw. He is disguised as a priest and perches in a sniper’s nest high above the floor. He suspensefully waits for his cue to assassinate the presidential nominee thus propelling the gallant Sen. Iselin ("the Manchurian candidate") into the White House. Will Marcos get to him in time? I don’t recall. The scene is justifiably acclaimed as Frankenheimer parodies American conventions and our messy democratic process and channels Hitchcock to boot.


Action - 5

Acting - 9

Accuracy - 6

Realism - 5

Plot - 8

Overall - 8

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? This movie is less of a war movie than it is a political spy thriller. This means it would be more appealing to most females. There are three major female characters – a rarity for war movies. Each represents a different type of female. Momma Iselin is your typical incestuous bitch traitor. If your significant other can relate to her, break it off. Joycelyn Jordan is the girl next door who is too good to be true. Jenny is your enigmatic stranger on a train/enemy agent who falls madly in love with a shell-shocked ex-POW/her pawn. You could argue that all women fall into one of these stereotypes. Women viewers should be able to relate to one of the three.

CRITIQUE: Although lots of things have to fall into place, this is still an intriguing movie. There are some interesting plot twists that come as surprises to even the most jaded viewers. It is a perceptive indictment of the McCarthy era even though Sen. Iselin makes Joseph McCarthy look like a brainiac. One wonders if the producers would have had the guts to make the movie when McCarthy was at the height of his power.

The movie features two bravura scenes. The brainwashing scene is amazing. Cutting back and forth from the old ladies to the communist puppeteers is very effective. The cold-blooded murders of two comrades is chilling given the bonding that typically occurs in small combat units. The convention scene is very tense and suspenseful. Edge of your seat worthy. The film also leaves you with two memorable questions: what the hell was up with that train conversation and who the hell wear’s a queen of hearts playing card costume?

The acting is outstanding, especially Lansbury. She steals the show and justifiably was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar (losing to Patty Duke of “The Miracle Worker”). Her character is one of the great villains in movie history. She is truly scary and despicable. If she reminds you of your mother, go immediately to a psychiatrist! Sinatra is better than usual and gave a finger to the movie. Wait, that did not come out right.

ACCURACY: The movie reinforces the belief that American POWs in Korea were brain-washed by their Chinese captors. This is a common misconception. In reality, the communists did not use the technique shown in the movie. There were American POWs who collaborated with their captors, but they did so mainly because of horrible conditions that could be mitigated by cooperating. This cooperation did not rise to the extremes of political assassination, but instead resulted in the famous false admissions to germ warfare. Some political indoctrination succeeded in the form of continuous monotonous lectures which resulted in parroting of communist dogma, but once the POWs were restored to an American environment the “brainwashing” was rinsed away. No POW is known to have pressed his new found love of communism on his homeland, much less used violence against the capitalist system. It is true that 21 American POWs refused repatriation after the war because they wanted to live under communism, but all but a couple eventually returned to America and not as sleeper agents.

With that said, the movie is not meant to be a tutorial on Korean War brain-washing. It is totally fictional and entertainingly so.

CONCLUSION: 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.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

FORGOTTEN GEM? "The Secret Invasion"

     "The Secret Invasion" is a B war movie by Roger Corman that was released in 1964.  It is your basic suicide mission involving convicted criminals who will be pardoned if they survive.  The theme predates "The Dirty Dozen" by three years.  Although not in a league with the DD, it has its charms.
     The British recruit a heterogeneous crew which includes a forger, an explosives expert, a master of disguise, an assassin, and a master criminal.  They have various degrees of surliness and reluctance to go.  They are led by a proper British officer (Stewart Granger) who has an ulterior motive of revenge for the death of his brother on an earlier mission.  This mission involves freeing an Italian general from a fortress prison so he can get the Italian army to switch sides.
      In a scene similar to "Guns of Navarone", their fishing boat in stopped by a German patrol boat and guess who wins the confrontation.  They link up with partisans including a pretty widow with a baby  (Corman throws in a gratuitous breast-feeding).  The assassin and she hit it off, but in a scene I eerily remembered from childhood, he accidentally smothers the child while keeping it quiet when Germans are near.  The mom takes it stoically and the hardened criminal breaks down.  The asassin is played well by the usually evil Henry Silva, one of the great villain character actors of the 60s. 
     Mickey Rooney as the IRA explosives expert handles the comic relief better than you would expect.  When he is digging a tunnel under the fortress, he cracks "a few more days of this and I'll be able to get a card in the mole union."  As an Irishman, he naturally is always looking for his next drink.
     They get surrounded and allow themselves to be taken captive because that will get them into the fortress.  They each are tortured under the orders of your stereotypical urbane Nazi.  The torturing appears half-hearted and is just your basic beatings,so they have time to plot not only their escape, but the rescue of the Italian general.  They walk out in disguise and when they are discovered it initiates an extended fire-fight with a large German unit.  Luckily, a partisan army comes to their rescue and enough blanks are expended to make several war movies.  The submachine gun should have been given a credit in this movie.
     You probably can guess that not all of the team survives the escape. Here is the order of deaths: 1.  machine gunned while rear-guarding (redemption)  2.  catches a grenade to save the others (self-sacrifice)  3.  blows himself up using a grenade to take out a machine gun nest (live by the sword)  4.  dies from loss of blood after removing his tourniquet to lure the German bloodhounds away from the others (leadership)  5.  killed by Italian soldiers after he pretends to be a German soldier assassinating the Italian general (who turns out ot be loyal to the Germans) to get the Italian army fired up (thinking outside the box).  Mission accomplished!  If you are counting, that leaves only one survivor.  (Someone has to survive to tell the story so a historical movie can be made about it years later.)
     This is a fun movie.  Sometimes you just want to chill out and watch some fluff that is not pretending to be anything but.  Much of the plot is ridiculous, but what suicide mission movie does not rely on suspension of disbelief?  Corman is famous for doing a lot with a little and it shows here.  The cast is not all-star, but they are recognizable for my generation.  You even have teenage heartthrob Edd Byrnes (not surprisingly the weakest of the cast).  The action is entertaining and the dialogue is not too cringe-inducing.  Do not forget that it came out before "The Dirty Dozen" so I guess you could accuse the DD of  being a knock-off!   

Thursday, October 14, 2010


       Now that my blog is off to a flying start, it is time to do some tweaking.  First, a note to  my readers.  I am well aware that the posts are longer than your average blog and as a high school teacher I am painfully aware that most people do not like to read much.  However, I am writing this blog mainly for myself and I do not plan to change the length of the posts.  I suggest that readers treat each review as a collection of topics.  Read just the sections you are interested in.  If you have not seen the movie, skip the summary.  If you have seen the movie, read the summary to compare my experience to your own.  If you want to check on the accuracy of the movie, read that section, etc.
      Second, I have gone beyond the original parameters of the blog.  I still intend to review one of the Top 100 per week until I reach #1.  Thanks to input from some of my loyal readers, I have included several additional review topics.  1.  DUELING MOVIES - comparisons of related war movies  2.  CRACKER?  -  reviews of movies that might be worthy of making the Top 100  3.  SHOULD YOU READ IT? -  reviews of foreign war movies with subtitles  4.  FORGOTTEN GEM? -  reviews of obscure war movies to determine if they deserve to be obscure  5.  CLASSIC OR ANTIQUE?  -  does the war movie classic hold up for a modern audience

Saturday, October 9, 2010


BACK-STORY: “Foreign Correspondent” was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and was only his second American production (after “Rebecca”) and was released in 1940. The film has an incredible 14 writers which can be explained by the desire to keep up with current events during the filming. It was a critical and box office success. It was nominated for 6 Academy Awards including Best Picture (ironically, it lost to “Rebecca”), but won none. The events and characters are fictitious, but obviously Hitchcock meant it as a commentary on the storm clouds rising in Europe. It was dedicated to “those forthright ones [foreign correspondents] who early saw the clouds of war while many of us at home were seeing rainbows…”.

OPENING SCENE: The movie opens in an American newspaper office in August, 1939. The publisher is complaining about the lack of facts from his reporter in Europe. Let’s send an old-fashioned crime reporter like Johnny Jones (Joel McRea). Since Jones is clueless about events in Europe, he has “a fresh, unused mind”. He is told to go dig up some news by interviewing a Dutch diplomat named Van Meer who is a leading peacenik. Before he leaves, they change his name to Huntley Haverstock.

SUMMARY:   In London, Haverstock meets Van Meer in a cab, but does not get an interview. He attends a luncheon hosted by the Organization of Peace and Understanding which is led by a peace activist named Fisher. He meets Fisher’s daughter Carol (Larraine Day) and they get off on the wrong foot (surprise!).

Later at a peace conference in Holland, Haverstock meets Van Meer again, but he does not recognize Huntley – strange. Soon after, in a famous scene full of umbrellas, Van Meer is assassinated. Haverstock is the only one who sees the assassin and he gives chase (“follow that car!”) The car happens to hold Carol and her boyfriend Scott ffolliott (spelling of the name being one writer’s contribution apparently). We get an old-fashioned car chase filmed in front of screen. Fast and the Furious, it isn’t.

Scott, Carol, and Huntley

The car chase takes us to the famous windmill scene. While Scott and Carol go for the police, Scott stays to snoop unarmed (except for his lethal notebook). Inside the windmill he finds a drugged Van Meer. He hides in plain sight from the bad guys until he can climb out a window to get the police. Meanwhile the villains flee in a plane just before the cops arrive. (Surprise!) When he gets back with the cops, the windmill is empty so they think he’s nuts (naturally).

Huntley Haverstock in a windmill

Back at the hotel, Haverstock avoids being taken by two henchmen by climbing into another hotel room’s window. Guess whose room it is? She does not believe him, but he plays on her sympathies and she melts (surprise!) They board a ship just before the bad guys can get on board (phew!) Considering they have known each other all of a couple of days, it’s time to get married. Haverstock proposes – “I’m in love with you, and want to marry you”. Carol – ditto. Huntley: “Hmm…that cuts down on our love scene quite a bit, doesn’t it?” This proposal was supposedly based on Hitchcock’s proposal to his wife Alma. (I would like to think Hitchcock’s was not as precipitous.)

It turns out Huntley’s fiance’s dad is dirty and he tries to bump off Haverstock by arranging for a detective to “protect” Huntley. The hitman lures HH into Westminster Cathedral to view the city and then pushes him out of a window. End of movie. No wait, HH turns at the last second and the bad guy plunges to his death (surprise!)

In the London office, Scott reveals he is a British agent after Fisher’s gang. His plan is to “kidnap” Carol and offer her in exchange for Van Meer. Robert Benchley joins the cast for some comic relief as a besotted newsman. HH takes Carol off for some treacly romance replete with sappy music so Scott can con Fisher into revealing Van Meer’s whereabouts. Carol gets upset with HH and comes home right at the moment Fisher is going to give up Van Meer. What timing! End of movie, right? No, because Scott overhears Fisher’s instructions to the cab driver taking him to Van Meer.

George Sanders as Scott ffolliott

They are torturing Van Meer with bright lights and swing music (I am not making this up) when Scott is brought in with a pistol in his back. Fisher wants to know what “Clause 27” is. Scott interrupts to keep Van Meer from caving. Why do the villains allow him to intervene? No telling. Eventually they torture Van Meer off screen and he talks in seconds. Next thing we know, Scott is fighting his way out. Apparently the bad guys’ guns have no bullets in them. The police arrive and VM is rescued but Fisher escapes. End of movie, right? No.

The main characters happen to all be on a transoceanic flight together. Over the vast Atlantic Ocean, the plane passes over a German warship (apparently sent to shoot it down!) and gets hit by flak. The plane crashes in a famous scene which must have looked awesome in 1940, but not so much today. The survivors (i.e. the main characters – sorry extras) huddle on one of the downed plane’s wings. Someone must get off to balance the wing. Guess who decides to redeem his honor and avoid prosecution as a spy by slipping off to a watery martyrdom? One wonders if the villain had been Japanese whether he would have been allowed such an honorable death. The rest are picked up in minutes by an American ship which is promptly sunk by the German warship. Just kidding!

the plane crash

From on board their savior, Haverstock sends the story with Carol’s permission because she is a patriot first, daughter second, damn it! HH is now a “soldier of the press”.

FINAL SCENE: Because Hitchcock made a trip to London pre-Blitz and pre-release, he tacked on the ending with HH broadcasting from a British radio station Edward R. Murrow-style. Hello, America. Hang on to your lights, they are the only one’s on in the world. The “Star Spangled Banner” plays over the credits in case you did not get it the propaganda message yet.


Action - 5

Acting - 8

Accuracy - N/A

Realism - 5

Plot - 6

Overall - 6

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Probably more than most war movies. There is romance and attractive leads. There is peril and suspense, but no graphic violence. Considering the marriage proposal scene, men might want to be careful watching it with impressionable girlfriends. (Honey, why can’t we do that?) Believe or not, there is no cursing or gratuitous sex.

CRITIQUE: First, let me get something off my chest right away. This is not a war movie by my definition of a war movie. I would classify it as a spy thriller. Second, I do not even think it is a good movie, period. It escapes me why it is critically acclaimed. (Aside from my theory that critics tend to love movies about writers because they are writers too. This might explain the unbelievable triumph of “Shakespeare in Love” over “Saving Private Ryan” for Best Picture) I am a big fan of Hitchcock, but I could name at least five of his movies that are superior to this movie.

The love story is phony. Only from Hollywood do you get such unrealistic handling of human relationships. Even if the courtship and proposal mirrors the Hitchcocks, it does not mean it’s true to life. Much of the plot relies on incredible luck. Large parts of the movie are unrealistic. You have to turn your brain off to swallow some of the whoppers. Even the famous set pieces are unreal. In the assassination, the assassin gets away with ridiculous ease. In the windmill, Haverstock moves around in plain sight without being seen. The villains are wimpy, which is unusual for Hitchcock.

Finally, what was the big deal with keeping Van Meer’s treaty clause secret? The war happened anyway.

ACCURACY:  This category does not apply to this movie. Thank goodness.

CONCLUSION:  What the hell is this movie doing at #86 on Military History Magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest War Movies? It is not a war movie and not a great movie. It is another example of the critics’ love of the old classics. It is a little infuriating that a fictional movie that lionizes war correspondents is considered to be better than much superior films that honor actual soldiers. Sorry “Breaker” Morant, Huntley Haverstock’s movie is considered by the “experts” to be better than yours.

Next:  #85 -  The Manchurian Candidate

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

SHOULD I READ IT? "Joyeux Noel"

      This is the first in my series of reviews of foreign-made and foreign-spoken war movies.  The idea is to provide analysis that will help American war movie lovers decide if the movie is worth the effort of putting up with a movie with subtitles.
     "Joyeux Noel" (Merry Christmas) is a French film released in 2005 that is based on the famous X-Mas Truce of 1914.  It was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foriegn Language Film.  Here is the historical background:  On Christmas Eve on the Western Front spontaneous cease-fires broke out along parts of the front.  They started in some cases with the Germans putting up Christmas trees and candles along their parapets and singing carols like "Silent Night".  The British or French responded with their own songs and then the mood caused some brave souls to go into No Man's Land to fraternize.  Gifts, food, and drinks were exchanged.  In one case, a soccer (football) game was played between a Scottish unit and a German unit.
     The movie tells a fictional story of one of the truces.  It centers on characters in the French, British (Scots), and German armies.  The five main characters are the French lieutenant Audebert, the German tenor Sprink and his soprano girlfriend Anna, a Scottish soldier named Jonathan and his parish priest Palmer.
     The movie opens with schoolchildren from each of the main participants reciting jingoistic poems of hatred toward their foes.  It is an effective way of reminding the audience of the nationalism that brought on the war and sets up the amazing pause in the hatred that the truce represents.
     We get an early scene that shows the Allies going over the top with graphically violent results including the death of Jonathan's brother.  Leaving his mortally wounded brother behind changes Jonathan and hardens him.  This is really the only combat action in a movie that is basically about pacifism.
      The film decides to have the truce begin with a stretch.  The tenor and his girlfriend give an impromptu concert in the trench and when a Scottish bagpipe joins in, Sprink proceeds into No Man's Land to initiate the cease-fire which is agreed to by Audebert and the Scottish and German officers.  The film recreates many of the incidents of fraternization associated with the truce.  The Scottish priest even says a short mass.
     The next day bodies are collected and buried and a soccer match breaks out.  There is more comradeship which reflects that on some parts of the front the truce lasted up to a week.  The movie gets a little off the historical path when on the second day, the Germans warn their foe/friends of an impending bombardment and offer to shelter them in the German trench.  This is more than a bit far-fetched, but in for a penny... Naturally a counterbarrage is coming so the French/Scots return the favor!  Since the trenches are about 50 yards apart, that's some extremely accurate artillery.
      The movie accurately reflects the reactions of the higher ups to pacifist decisions made from the ground up.  All three officers suffer the consequences of their terribly unpatriotic actions.  Even the priest gets demoted by his bishop because he is not preaching the "sword and crusade" theme and pushing the idea that the Germans are not the children of God and we must kill them.
      I liked the movie.  It is a bit heavy-handed (I read criticisms of it being overly sentimental, but I did not find it so), but it is well-acted and takes acceptable liberties in bringing an interesting historical incident to light.  I had heard of the Christmas Truce many years ago and tell it as an anecdote in my history classes. Of course, I emphasized the soccer match.  It was neat to see the event recreated.  There is so little positive to be found in the Great War that you have to take what you can get.
      I do not think it will make my Top 100 list, but I do recommend it.  Also, it's a great date movie.  There are not too many war movies that qualify for that.  Guys, get your significant other to read the sub-titles to you.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

#87 - The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

BACK-STORY: “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” was released in 1943 and was directed by the legendary team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (The Archers). They also directed the respected “49th Parallel”. It was the most expensive British movie made up until then. The movie was shot in vibrant Technicolor. It is about as British as you can get. Although the movie is usually said to be inspired by the comic strip character, in fact the idea came from a scene cut from The Archers’ previous film (“One of Our Aircraft is Missing”). A character says “You don’t know what it’s like to be old”. Film editor and future great director David Lean suggested a movie be constructed around that line.

            Interestingly, Churchill tried to stop the film and did not allow the British military to cooperate. He felt it perpetuated the stereotype of Blimp-like British officers. Some suggest he was standing up for his peer group. The film went through anyway, but did not do well mainly because the British public in 1943 was not keen on the sympathetic German character that appears in the film.

OPENING SCENE: The film opens with a motorcycle messenger arriving at headquarters. The orders are to prepare for a pre-invasion practice. The commander decides to pre-empt the defense by attacking early. The cheating leader captures the elderly Gen. Candy (Robert Livesey) at a steam-bath to make the point that the enemy does not play by the rules (a theme that will return later). Candy blubbers that “the war starts at midnight!” The young officer (a younger version of Candy) insults Candy for being old and orthodox. Candy punches him and they fall in the pool.

SUMMARY: The movie flashes back to 1902. Clive Candy has just returned from the Boer War with a Victoria’s Cross. He goes off to Berlin to confront a spy who is spreading lies about British atrocities in South Africa. He meets Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr), whose letter had encouraged him to come to Berlin to confront the scoundrel. At a restaurant, Candy punches the villain and insults the German army resulting in a duel with a German officer named Theodor Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). But first the diplomats have to negotiate the rules of the duel using a handbook in a scene which reveals the ridiculous formality of dueling. We are all set up for a rousing sword fight when the movie inexplicably cuts away. Boo!! (Oops, bravo – leave it to our imagination. Genius!)

this is a s far as we get

Theo, Edith, and Clive

Candy ends up in a hospital along with Theodor. They become friends, naturally. Edith hangs out with them and Theodor falls in love with her. Candy gives his hearty approval, but later realizes he is in love with her. Too late. Time passes by (1903-1914) by way of the interesting technique of showing the accumulation of big game animal heads on the wall of Candy’s study.

Next we are in 1918 Flanders. Candy is a general, but we do not know what he has been doing thus far in the war. He arrives at headquarters in appropriately nasty weather. The sound stages are nicely done, but still fake looking. In a dugout, Candy looks the other way while his men mistreat German prisoners to get information. This contradicts his “fight fairly” philosophy.

We flash forward to Candy’s country estate after the war. He is married to Barbara, a woman with a remarkable resemblance to Edith (maybe because she is also played by Kerr). This comes off as a bit creepy. He and Mrs. Candy go to visit Theo in a prison camp, but Theo shuns them. Later, Theo apologizes and dines with them. They assure Theo that England will deal fairly with Germany. On his trip home, Theo gloats that the British are wimps and implies that Germany will come back because of British naivete. This emotion is out of character for him. It should have been played with head shaking, not lip curling.

The years pass by way of a flipping photo album. Barbara has passed away. How? Who cares, apparently. It is now 1935 and Theo is trying to enter England as a political refugee. (Edith has died, ditto.) Apparently when he gloated about the comeback of Germany, he thought it would be done by sophisticates like him, not by Nazis. Candy arrives to vouch for him and takes him home. Theo can’t help but notice that the portrait of Barbara (on the wall near his trophy heads – get it?) looks like his Edith. They now realize why Edith/Barbara would disappear every other week – just kidding. He is doubly amused by the fact that Candy’s driver Angela Cannon (who he picked from 700 potentials) looks like Edith and Barbara. She is also played by Kerr (who was chosen from 700 actresses to play Cannon).

General Candy of the Home Guard
Candy has a radio speech gig, but it is cancelled at the last minute because the powers that be find out his theme is going to be that England should fight fair. (Apparently he has forgotten his role in the prisoner interrogation.) Theo had tried to warn him by pointing out that England “lost” the Great War (huh?) because it behaved like gentlemen and allowed Germany to rise again. He is forced into retirement, but returns to command part of the Home Guard. He should have stayed retired .

FINAL SCENE: We come full circle to the opening. Candy humiliates himself in the Turkish bath and realizes that time has passed him by.  There is no room for good sports in this war.  He, Theo, and Angela salute a group of the Home Guard as it marches by. Clive and Theo then have wild sex with Edith/Barbara/Angela.


Action - N/A

Acting - 8

Accuracy - 7

Realism – 5

Plot – 6

Overall – 5

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Some women might like this movie. (Not if they look like Deborah Kerr). Possibly even some non-British women. Kerr is a great actress and her characters are strong, although you have to wonder if Barbara knew about Edith when she married a man 20 years older than her. Discuss the creepiness factor with your significant other after viewing. The story is interesting and no need to worry about any graphic violence, or any other action, for that matter.

CRITIQUE: This movie has caused me some soul-searching. As a war movie lover, I have assumed that I know a good war movie when I see one. Granted, I did not go to film school, but I am intelligent and have seen many war movies. So why don’t I “get” this movie? I actually read a critic saying this is the greatest British movie ever made. If I believe he is right, I need to stop reviewing war films because I am embarrassing myself. Fortunately, I have high enough self-esteem to feel I can represent the layman war movie lover and speak to the average viewer. So here goes.

This movie is not a “masterpiece”. At least it would certainly not seem so to an American audience. I doubt many Englishmen under age 50 would argue that it is. It’s not really a war movie. It is more of a social satire. It is a period piece. Blimp represents the snobby, uppercrust British officer class. Our officer class has not been traditionally from the nobility, so most would not recognize Blimp as a stereotype. In fact, you need to be British to get a lot of the cultural references (and to understand some of the slang). Most Americans will not “get” this movie.  I could not get ten minutes into this film before my Military History class would be begging to be euthanized.

With that said, it is not a bad movie. It is interesting to see the evolution of Candy from a young, impetuous lieutenant to an old, moss-backed general. However some of this character evolution does not seem realistic. His pre-WWII sentiments of fair play belie his apparent conduct in WWI. The movie is well-acted, especially by Walbrook, but even his character contradicts himself. The first half of the movie moves along briskly, but after the trio breaks up it goes downhill. It is also a good example of a propaganda film with the message being that England should not be required to fight fairly against the Nazis. Give The Archers credit for having a sympathetic main character argue for the opposite. (The city of Dresden can tell you which argument won). There are references to German atrocities in WWI and the stated fact that the British were the good guys in the war, albeit naively good. There is some humor, but it is very British.

            My main complaint is the flashing back and forward skips over what should have been the most interesting parts of the movie. I know critics will chastise me for wanting to see the duel, but who’s with me on this? We watch the negotiations for the duel, but not the duel itself? Are you kidding me?! I know you might want to leave something to the imagination, but when the actual scenes are action-free, why not substitute a scene that shows what Candy was doing from 1914-1917?

ACCURACY: The movie is fictional, so historical accuracy is not really an issue. The one possible inaccuracy that stands out is – would the Home Guard have been practicing to repel an invasion as late as 1943? I doubt it, but it is possible. There were Germans who fled because they disagreed with the direction the Nazis were taking Germany, so Theo’s immigration to England is plausible. I am sure there was a debate in England of how dirty to fight the Nazis. Obviously, the dirty-fighters won that argument as the movie implies by Candy’s fall from grace.

CONCLUSION: It should be obvious that I do not think “Blimp” belongs in the Top 100. I just watched “In Which We Served”, another British WWII movie, which is much superior to it in every way and probably will make my 100. I am not an Anglophobe, quite the opposite, old chap. However, I feel compelled to point out that in the case of “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”, the emperor has little clothes.

Watch it for yourself and choose a sideline to be on – the professional critics or the common sense war movie lovers. See you on my side! You British viewers get a pass on this one. It’s okay for you to love it.