Friday, December 31, 2010

#77 - To Hell and Back

BACK-STORY: “To Hell and Back” is an autobiopic released in 1955. It is based on the book by the same name. It stars Audie Murphy as himself. It was his 16th movie. He had come to Hollywood after WWII on the urging of his friend James Cagney. This movie was his biggest hit in a career dominated by B westerns. He also starred in the acclaimed war movie version of “The Red Badge of Courage”. Murphy was reluctant to play himself because it smacked of self-promotion. He wanted Tony Curtis for the role. Studio execs and friends convinced him to take the part. They were right.

     The movie was a critical and box office success. In fact, it was Universal’s biggest hit until “Jaws”. It was not a hit with Murphy, however. He felt that even though he had acted as technical adviser and tried to get things right, the studio sanitized the blood and gore of combat. He also felt the movie muted the unpleasantness of war and the negative emotions it brings out. He noted that the climate conditions that he actually fought in (mud, rain, snow) were usually depicted as nice, sunny weather.

OPENING SCENE: General Bedell Smith opens the movie with a monologue. He points out that soldiers have to adjust from civilian life to military life. Some of these men go beyond the call of duty. The movie is the story of the foot soldier as seen through the eyes of one of them.

SUMMARY: The movie begins in 1937 in rural Texas. Audie is part of a poor family in the Depression and things get worse when his father abandons them. Audie has to drop out and get a job. His mom dies and his siblings are put in an orphanage. He enlists, but is turned down by the Marines, Navy, and paratroopers because of his puny stature. He ends up as a lowly grunt. He is only 17.

     In an interesting decision, the movie skips the obligatory boot camp scenes and plops Murphy down in North Africa as a replacement. He is acting sergeant. We are not told how he got this promotion. In a scene that appears out of sequence, his commanding officer calls him in and wants to transfer him to a noncombat role because he is not cut out to be a soldier (why did he get promoted then?). Audie convinces him that he wants to be in combat.

     Murphy sees his first combat in Sicily. They walk into an ambush which the Germans inexplicably spring long before the unit is in the kill zone. Three themes have reared themselves at this point. One, soldiers in this movie do not die realistically. They die like soldiers in a 1940/1950s war movie – twirling, arms outstretched, bloodless, and overly dramatic. (War Movie Cliché #29)  War Movie Cliches Two, Murphy likes to charge into danger, but not for glory. Instead, he does it for the good of his men. Third, Murphy (and his comrades) do not want to be promoted. They like being regular “dogfaces”. He is promoted to Second Lieutenant anyway.

first base only, dogface!
     In Italy, the squad sees more action. They engage the enemy along the Volturno River. Murphy continues to get promoted due to battlefield valor. It’s not all fighting. Since this is an old school war movie, we have to have the bar scene where they encounter another branch and a fight breaks out. Surprise! (War Movie Cliché #15) The unit gets some R&R in an Italian town which allows for some chaste interaction with females. One soldier hires a prostitute to listen to him rhapsodize about his girlfriend! Audie hooks up with a nice girl (but terrible actress) who takes him home for a home-cooked meal. The scene closes with a kiss.

     One good set piece is an attack on a farm house. We get more overly dramatic deaths with no visible wounds. When Johnson (Marshall Thompson) gets hit in a C-Ration can, he actually says “well I’ll be a dirty word”.  I bowel movement you not. They take the farm house and inside Murphy shoots his own image in a mirror. This obvious nod to combat stress is not explored in the film. One of the men gets killed when the stove he was just bragging about gets caught on some barbed wire he is crawling through. Add that to things not to do in a war movie – do not brag about your girlfriend or your stove! Murphy unrealistically takes out a German tank with a grenade launcher (why not a bazooka?). A point is made that veterans do not want to get friendly with new guys because it is too gut-wrenching when they buy it.

     They leave Italy for southern France. They are ambushed again and Murphy goes forward with his BFF (who he has been protecting throughout the movie) to take out the machine gun nest. His friend, Brandon (Charles Drake), actually says “they can kill us, but they can’t eat us – that’s against the law”. What? That is one bizarre line. Brandon gets killed when he assumes the Germans are surrendering and he exposes himself for them to treacherously blast him. At least there’s some blood this time. With revenge music swelling, Audie Murphy goes Rambo on several German machine gun nests. They messed with the wrong Ami.  The scene actually simplifies this remarkable action which resulted in the Distinguished Service Cross.

FINAL SCENE: The final combat scene is the famous Medal of Honor performance. This takes place during the Battle of Holtzwihr in a forest in France. His squad encounters a large German force of infantry and tanks coming across a field. Murph sends his men back for reinforcements and stays as the forward observer to call in artillery. The incoming rounds scare off the tanks, but the infantry keeps coming, so our hero jumps on an abandoned Sherman tank and uses its .50 caliber machine gun to slaughter a host of krauts. The tank is on fire, but he keeps firing away until he jumps off right before it blows up.  (This one man battle actually lasted about two hours!) The reinforcements arrive and he launches the counterattack before collapsing from a wound that ends his military career.

     The movie closes with his Medal of Honor ceremony which is observed by ghostly images of his buddies (in an homage to the end of “All Quiet”?).


Action - 7/10

Acting - C  (Murphy is good, the others are not)

Accuracy - B

Realism - C

Plot - C

Overall - C

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? There is nothing offensive in this movie. It is pretty tame for a war movie. If your significant other cannot stomach modern war films like “Saving Private Ryan” because of their grit and gore, a 40/50s war film like THAB might be her cup of tea. The cast is likeable and Murphy has a lot of charisma. There is the one romantic scene which your grandma might like.

ACCURACY: You would think that with Audie Murphy starring as himself in a movie based on his autobiography, accuracy would not be an issue. Unfortunately, either Murphy was not insistent enough or the studio overrode some of his objections. Based on his comments after release (“ a western in uniform”), it was the latter. You cannot really fault him for losing some of these battles. He was being paid as an actor, not historian. Plus, the studio bosses knew what elements of a war movie sold tickets in the 1950s. For instance, the book stops before the Medal of Honor ceremony, but the movie includes it. That does not excuse the producers for bending the facts.

     The main events are accurate. The film covers two of Murphy’s medal-winning exploits (but skips his two Silver Star exploits) and other than the sanitized nature of the scenes, they appear to be close to what happened. One small fudge was the use of a Sherman tank instead of a tank destroyer in the Medal of Honor scene. The deaths of several of his friends are authentic, if overly dramatic.

     What are inaccurate are the small details. The soldier banter, complaining, and ragging are very lame. Soldiers do not talk like the characters in this movie. The combat environment is usually too pristine. But hey, it’s a 50s war movie. What do you expect?

CRITIQUE: “To Hell and Back” has everything you would expect in a 50s war movie. You get the clichéd bar room brawl and the lame attempts at humor. You also get the deaths with no bullet holes or blood. The special effects are primitive. It is obvious the artillery explosions are charges placed in the ground. The burning tank looks fake. It is sincere, but quaint.

     The editing leads one to believe a lot ended up on the cutting room floor, perhaps to control the length of the film. There are several scenes that end early. These scenes leave the audience wondering what happened next and do not bridge well to the next scene. There is little attempt at character development, even for Murphy. Why do the vets accept the baby-faced Murphy as their leader? How does one of the youngest members (Murphy) become mother to these hardened veterans? Some themes are underdeveloped. Examples being Murphy is young, but overcomes it and don’t befriend new guys. More bizarrely, the movie uses maps to trace the movements of the unit, but does not do this for the invasion of southern France.

     The squad is stereotypically heterogeneous. There is a ladies’ man, Polish guy, Indian, jokester, Italian, country boy (Murphy), etc. Their banter is forced and interaction is not realistic. No WWII G.I. would use the phrase “I’ll be a dirty word”! This is a PG movie before there was such a thing.

     On the positive side, the movie is refreshingly not overly patriotic or propagandistic. The sound effects are good. There is plenty of old school action. The acting is adequate with Murphy carrying the load well. He dominates every scene even though several quality actors like Marshall Thompson share the screen. This was probably his best work along with “Red Badge of Courage”. You cannot downplay the kick you get from seeing a great warrior play himself in a war movie. That is pretty unique!

CONCLUSION: I hate to do this to one of my heroes, but “To Hell and Back” is very overrated at #77. If Murphy did not make the movie special by playing himself, it would be run of the mill. It would be an average 1950s combat film. It has many of the clichéd elements of that decade.

     What is disappointing is it could have been much better. Murphy should have stuck to his guns (sorry, pun not intended) and insisted the film explore the themes he wanted examined. As a victim of post traumatic stress disorder (he slept with a gun under his pillow), he could have easily portrayed the effects of combat and the deaths of friends. Supposedly one of the combat scenes caused him to have a flash back where he thought the scene was real. He was an advocate for recognition of PTSD as a disease, so you would think he could have used the platform of the movie.

     Murphy also knew better when the movie sanitized soldier life and combat. That would have been a harder battle to win with the studio given that the movie was meant to be a family film. This movie would be radically different if remade today. in other words, this movie is pre-“Patton” in psychology and pre-“Cross of Iron” in realism.

     With that said, watch it because it teaches you about the most decorated American soldier of WWII.  Audie Murphy really gets into the characters head.  It's like he knew the guy.  I heard he spent years preparing for the role.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

SHOULD I READ IT? "No Man's Land"

     “No Man’s Land” is a Bosnian war movie set in the Bosnian War. Most Americans are not familiar with this terrible war that broke out after the break-up of Yugoslavia. The confict, which raged from 1992-1995, is complicated. Basically, it was a war between the Bosnian Muslims of the newly created Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Bosnian Serbs who were supported by the country of Serbia which had desires for territory in Bosnia. Anyway, before your head starts spinning – you do not need to understand the conflict to enjoy the movie. The story is a universal one of enemies thrust together and forced to coexist. It could have taken place in any war (in movies anyway).

     The movie opens with a squad of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) getting caught in a fog and wandering close to Serbian lines. They are wiped out in a sudden and graphic rain of violence. One (Ciki) survives, but he is stuck in a trench in no man’s land. The Serbs send out two men to check on the situation. The Bosniak hides in a dugout and kills one of them and wounds the other (Nino). They argue over who is to blame for the war. It is a war that featured ethnic cleansing, mass rapes, and even genocide. Of course, it’s the other side that is evil.

     To make matters more interesting, a companion of Ciki suddenly awakens from the dead. The problem is that Nino’s partner had placed a Bouncing Betty mine under his body earlier as a booby trap and now he cannot move without disastrous results. Ciki and Nino make an uneasy truce. They manage to signal both lines and the U.N. peacekeeping force (called “smurfs” because of their blue helmets) is called in. Before Lt. Marchand and his comrade can rescue the men, they are given an order by the U.N. commander to withdraw immediately. Nino is going to go with Marchand, but Ciki shoots him in the leg to keep him in the trench as insurance against a Serbian attack.

     At this point, the international press in the form of an intrepid female reporter (Jane Livingston) sniffs out the story. She intimidates the U.N. commander into allowing Marchand to go back with her in tow (and the rest of the press – so much for her exclusive!). In a nice and necessary touch, a news report chronicles the war up to this point (an important tutorial for the ignorant American audience). Fearing adverse press coverage, the U.N. now decides to save the men including sending in a bomb disposal expert. They arrive just in time to save Ciki from being knifed by Nino.

      The bomb guy is appropriately sweating and in a tense scene (with no music), he discovers that the bomb cannot be defused. I won’t give away the rest.

     “No Man’s Land” is highly acclaimed. It won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in an upset over the popular “Amelie”. It won a total of 42 international awards. The set (the trench) is realistic. The situation is believable, if a bit contrived. It is full of surprises. In a normal movie, the bomb would be defused. The rapprochement between Ciki and Nino would bear fruit.

      Did you guess the movie is anti-war? It is also instructive of how horrible most civil wars are. It takes some legitimate swipes at the press, stressing its desire for sensational stories. The indictment of the U.N. high command is a bit cliché. We’ve seen corrupt, Machiavellian officers in plenty of movies.

      “No Man’s Land” is a bit overrated (possibly out of sympathy for the Bosnians), but still well worth the viewing. Watch it for the interesting dilemma it revolves around and watch it so you won’t feel so guilty about sleeping through a war that killed at least 200,000 people and featured many atrocities.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


     I was discussing how I do not feel that most older war movies hold up well with my bunkie (allaboutwarmovies), when I got the idea to do a personal survey of the 1940’s movies I have seen since launching this blog. I looked each up on Rotten Tomatoes to get the critics ratings and then thought about whether, in my opinion, the ratings are justified. Here is what I came up with:

They Were Expendable (88 % of reviewers gave it a positive review) - that’s about right

30 Seconds Over Tokyo (100) – overrated

Northwest Passage (100) – very overrated

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (91) – very overrated

The Fighting Sullivans (100) – laughably overrated

Foreign Correspondent (93) – very overrated

Sahara (100) – slightly overrated

The Third Man (100) – appropriate

A Walk in the Sun (100) – appropriate

Henry V (100) – appropriate

They Died With Their Boots On (80) - overrated

12 O’Clock High (100) – appropriate

Command Decision (100) – overrated

Hail the Conquering Hero (94) – very overrated

Five Graves to Cairo (100) - overrated

In Which We Serve (92) – appropriate

A Wing and a Prayer (75) – overrated

Casablanca (97) – underrated

Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (90) – appropriate

To Be or Not To Be (97) – appropriate

49th Parallel (88) – very overrated

     That is 21 movies and in my opinion, 10 (almost half) are overrated. Another way of looking at it would be about half of all 1940’s war movies that were rated positively do not hold up today. They may have been considered good when they came out, but relative to recent positively reviewed war movies they are inferior.

Friday, December 24, 2010

#78 - The Desert Fox

BACK-STORY: “The Desert Fox” is a war movie that was released in 1951. It is a biopic of the last years in the life of the famous German General Erwin “Desert Fox” Rommel. Rommel was a celebrity even during WWII and certainly a likely candidate for film treatment after the war. The movie was controversial because coming only six years after the war, it’s sympathetic portrayal of an enemy commander was greeted with anger by some critics and a number of veterans. One theory that has surfaced to explain the positive spin on Rommel is the U.S. was in the Cold War and there was a need to show that there were good Germans. Regardless, the movie was a big hit and James Mason was lauded for his portrayal. Interestingly, because of the criticisms, Mason’s portrayal of Rommel in “The Desert Rats” several years later is less sympathetic. (See my review of “The Desert Rats”

OPENING SCENE: The film is off to a rousing start with a British commando raid on Rommel’s headquarters in 1941. They sneak up and break in, killing a lot of Germans, but having to retreat losing most of their men and all for naught because Rommel was not even there. The scene is very effective and gets the adrenalin flowing without the use of a blaring soundtrack. This scene was ground-breaking because it was the first time a film began with an action scene before the credits. This is, of course, standard today.

SUMMARY: We meet the narrator as a prisoner of the Germans in North Africa. Desmond Young (playing himself) will go on to write a biography of Rommel after the war with emphasis on determining the actual cause of his death. (The German government having perpetuated the falsehood that he died due to injuries suffered when his vehicle was strafed.) The movie flashes forward to Young visiting Rommel’s wife and son after the war. From his interviews with various Germans, he pieces together the true story.

the real Rommel

     The movie flashes back to the aftermath of defeat at El Alamein. Rommel’s Afrika Korps is being starved of supplies and overwhelmed by Montgomery’s 8th Army. The movie intersperses real combat footage (taken from the documentary “Desert Victory”) to good effect. In a crucial scene, Rommel receives a no retreat order (“Victory or Death”) from Hitler. He is stunned at the insanity of the order which is basically ordering the sacrifice of one of the great armies of history. His subordinates argue for disobeying the order and Rommel eventually agrees, but only after giving Hitler the benefit of the doubt and blaming his toadies. The film makes it clear that Rommel is very reluctant to disobey orders from a leader he once admired. After this scene, the movie makes a jarring leap to the German surrender in Tunisia.

     Rommel is not at the surrender. Instead, he has been forced back to a German hospital for health reasons. He is visited by an old friend, Dr. Strolin, who tries to lure him into a conspiracy to remove Hitler. Rommel is not interested.

     Rommel is appointed to defend the beaches of northern France against the anticipated invasion. He meets with the overall commander in France, Field Marshal Von Rundstedt.. They commiserate on the poor state of the defenses. Rundstedt refers to Hitler as the “Bohemian corporal” and denigrates his grasp of strategy. He is very sarcastic and it is obvious Rommel is not ready to go as far in his questioning of Hitler’s sanity and that the two men dislike each other. The portrayal of Von Rundstedt by Leo Carroll is spot on.

     Dr. Strolin makes a return visit and this time is more open about the plot. Rommel is still not interested and is offended by the criticism of der Fuhrer. Rommmel: “A soldier has only one purpose – to obey orders.” The scene is powerful and well acted.

     The D-Day invasion is handled through archival footage (of mostly American soldiers) in montage format. There is no narration, just music (including, bizarrely, the Marine Corps Hymn). In a nice touch, the filmmakers assume the moviegoers do not need to be told the facts about Overlord.

     Rommel meets with Von Rundstedt post-invasion. They discuss Hitler’s refusal to release forces defending Calais even though at this point it is clear the Normandy invasion is not a diversion. Von Rundstedt insists Hitler’s decisions are being made under the influence of his astrologer. Rommel reveals the plot, but the elderly Field Marshal declines saying he is too old to be a rebel.

     Rommel decides to lend his support to the removal (but not assassination) of Hitler, but hopes that by meeting with Hitler he can get him to see reason. At the tension-packed meeting, Luther Adler (a Jewish actor!) plays Hitler with appropriate histrionics. He accuses Rommel of defeatism and not knowing the big picture. The new V weapons will win the war, he rants. Rommel bites his tongue and is now fully on board for the coup d-etat. Unfortunately, soon after he is wounded when his vehicle is strafed. He is in the hospital when the assassination fails three days later. Three months later, his involvement catches up with him while home convalescing.

FINAL SCENE: Gen. Burgdorf, a Hitler lackey, arrives at the Rommel home with an arrest warrant for treason. Hitler, because of his hero status, offers Rommel a state funeral if he takes poison and does not insist on a trial which would result in death by garroting. Rommel leans toward the trial until the loathsome Burgdorf implies that Rommel’s wife and son will suffer the consequences of Rommel embarrassing the regime. The parting of the Rommel’s is touching and realistic. He tells her to be brave. It will be quick and painless. He drives off with Burgdorf. The movie closes with a eulogy by Winston Churchill, a warrior who recognized a noble and worthy opponent.


Action – 4 (not much after the opening)

Acting - 9 (Mason is awesome)

Accuracy - 9

Realism - 8

Plot - 7

Overall - 7

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Since the movie is not your typical action flick and instead is something of a character study, most women would probably like it. Rommel was a good husband and father. Lucie Rommel (Jessica Tandy) has a major role. The movie has its poignant moments. The domestic scenes are well done and ring true.

ACCURACY: “The Desert Fox” is admirably accurate. Mason’s take on Rommel is true to the man. One thing that can be criticized is he does not go far enough in showing how Rommel was quite loyal to Hitler until events caused him to reluctantly break with him. But that is a minor quibble.

     The main events in the movie all happened and pretty much the way depicted. Even the pretense for the movie – Desmond Young’s quest to set the record straight is true. The one exception is the opening action scene which is not based on fact. There was a Dr. Strolin and he did eventually convince Rommel to support the plot. The movie may have exaggerated Rommel’s role a bit, but he definitely lent his name to it. The depiction of the assassination is authentic (except that the actor portraying Von Stauffenburg has his eye patch over the wrong eye).

     The movie implies that both Von Rundstedt and Rommel thought Hitler’s insistence that the invasion would come at Calais as foolish. In reality, Operation Fortitude (the Anglo-American deception effort) fooled most German generals including Von Rundstedt and Rommel. The movie is accurate in reflecting that after the invasion occurred both men were not able to convince Hitler it was not a diversion. It would have been more accurate and interesting if the film had concentrated on their disagreement on where to station the Panzers. Rommel wanted them close to the beaches to stop the invasion cold. Von Rundstedt wanted them further inland to be used to counterattack. Hitler chose a compromise position. We will never know which general was right.

     Rommel’s death is accurately depicted. It was as is shown. In that respect, the movie does Young’s job well in setting the record straight. This is not surprising since Mrs. Rommel served as a technical adviser and Desmond Young was actually in the movie.

CRITIQUE: “The Desert Fox” is your standard 1950s biopic. It stands out because of Mason’s iconic portrayal of Rommel. The acting is uniformly good. Leo Carroll as Von Rundstedt and Luther Adler as Hitler are quite effective. The criticism of the filmmakers for being overly sympathetic is too harsh. Rommel was no saint, but he was a noble adversary and did the right thing in the end for his country. The movie does not sugarcoat his reluctance to turn against der Fuhrer. It accurately portrays his temper and his ethical dilemma when being tugged between obedience and sane tactics.

     The movie does not reach great status and is overrated at #78 partly because it falsely promises more on combat in North Africa in its dynamic opening and then does not deliver. It also would have been better if we got to see Rommel’s rise as well as his fall. We do not find out why Rommel was a military genius. We do find out what kind of human being he was.

CONCLUSION: While a bit overrated, “The Desert Fox” is still a fine movie. As a biography instead of a standard action-oriented war flick, it delivers. It is interesting to imagine what this movie would have looked like if it had been made around the time of “Patton”. A sixties take would have been radically different from the fifties version. Considering the similarity of the subject matter, it is telling that “Patton” is much superior to “The Desert Fox”. Another example of how, in my opinion, modern war movies are generally superior to older ones because they can be more unorthodox.

UP NEXT:  1940s War Movies - Overrated?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


     “Time Limit” was released in 1957 and is one of the few decent movies about the Korean War. It falls in the prisoner of war genre. It is also an example of a court room drama similar to “A Few Good Men”. It was the directorial debut of Karl Malden and was the only film he directed. It is based on a play and much of it looks stage-bound as much of the action takes place in a JAG office. It makes a good companion to “The Manchurian Candidate” as both are about Korean War brainwashing.

     The movie opens in a North Korean prison camp. A prisoner is shot trying to climb the fence ala “The Great Escape”. From there we cut to the JAG office where Col. Edwards (Richard Widmark) is prepping for the Cargill case. Cargill (Richard Basehart) is accused of signing a germ warfare confession and making anti-American radio broadcasts. It seems to be an open and shut case as Cargill does not dispute the facts and refuses to testify. A general whose son died in the camp insists on swift justice.

     Edwards does some investigating and discovers that the truth is more complicated. Several survivors recite identical stories about deaths of comrades (a device used in “The Manchurian Candidate”). As to the general’s son, his death was not exactly heroic. In fact, he is strangled by a fellow prisoner because he ratted out another prisoner who was planning an escape. The Communist commander (played by who else but Khigh Dhiegh) gets Cargill to cooperate by promising not to harm any more of the prisoners.

     When the general is told the shocking news about his traitorous son, we have an interesting exchange between the general and Cargill. Cargill argues that there is a “time limit” to how much a man can be expected to take. “You can’t ask a man to be a hero forever, there has to be a time limit.” Interestingly, the general’s rebuttal is also persuasive, leaving the viewer to ponder the issue. The general argues that there is a sound reason for the military code section that applies to cooperation with the enemy. Cargill was looking out for 16 men, but think of the thousands that were adversely affected by his confession to a crime that the U.S. Air Force did not commit and it was used for very adverse propaganda against the U.S.

     Although a work of fiction, “Time Limit” does touch on some history. The Communists did coerce American airmen into admitting to fictitious germ warfare. There is a “Code of the U.S. Fighting Force” (known as “the Code”), but it was not issued by Pres. Eisenhower until after the Korean War and obviously in response to it. The code insists POWs resist to the best of their ability, try to escape and aid others in their attempts, and not accept favors from their captors. They should also avoid answering questions “to the best of their abilities”.

     This gem should not be forgotten. The acting is outstanding and the plot deals with moral dilemmas that need to be confronted not just by the military, but also the public. The ambiguous ending lends strength to the film. It leaves you thinking.

CRACKER? "9th Company (9 Rota)"

     “9th Company” is a Russian movie released in 2005. It was “inspired” by events surrounding the defense of Hill 3234 in Afghanistan by 9th Company, 345th Guards Airborne Regiment in January, 1988. The movie was a big hit in Russia because it emphasized the heroic sacrifices made by Russian grunts in a forgotten war. The film won the Russian equivalent of the Best Picture Oscar. It could be described as Russia’s answer to “Platoon” and “Full Metal Jacket” with a dash of “Hamburger Hill” thrown in.

     The movie introduces us to a typical war movie squad which is heterogeneous including the sensitive artist and the psycho. They bond during boot camp which is similar to the cinematic American boot camp. The drill sergeant is mean and takes the approach that they are not human, they are s***, but he will make them into men. They go through the usual obstacle course (one even crushes his nuts on a beam ala “Stripes”), crawling under wire, bayonet drill, and the rifle range. There is no fat guy that everybody hates, but there is a sensitive guy who almost quits. The movie does a good job showing how soldiers bond. It may be cliché, but it’s realistic. The soldier talk rings true because no matter the nationality, soldiers talk about the same things.

     Before being shipped off to Afghanistan, they are lectured briefly on the conditions there. Muslims have different views on life and death, you are safe in the villages because of the rules of hospitality, and oh, by the way, no one has ever conquered Afghanistan. See ya!

     They arrive at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan 153 days after induction. When they arrive, a departing veteran gives one of them his lucky amulet. Sucks for the other people on the plane because you can guess what happens next. Cliches cross borders, apparently.

     When they arrive at their outpost, their sergeant is like a clone of the boot camp DI. He beats up a soldier who falls asleep on guard duty. The men are “savages”, but of course our boys will not end up like them. The Afghani army are called “greenies” and remind you of the ARVN (our equally dependable allies in Vietnam). The mujahideen are called “muj” and remind you of the Viet Cong. In an interesting scene, they catch the local muj leader (who they actually respect as a fellow warrior) and as he is backing away he trips and one of them kills him. (I keep saying “one of them” because to tell the truth, it is hard to distinguish the characters.)

     The movie has several pyrotechnical, balls to the wall, combat scenes. One is a convoy ambush where much ammunition is expended. The squad chases the muj who disappear into tunnels (ala the Viet Cong). They follow underground into the village where one of them is killed by an innocent-looking child (like Vietnam). Rockets destroy the village (like Vietnam).

     The big set piece is the siege of the hill. They are choppered in to set up a position on a hill overlooking a road that the Soviet high command is determined to open up to friendly traffic. The mujahideen attacks in waves. There are lots of graphic hand-to-hand combat and shocking deaths. If you watch the movie with someone else, bet before hand on how many of our boys will survive. (Tip: do not bet that all of them will live happily ever after.) The testosterone level is very high. Americans will doubly enjoy this scene because we can enjoy all the killings! (Sorry, I forgot we are friends with the Russians now.) The movie ends with them winning, but abandoning the hill (ala “Hamburger Hill”) and being forgotten by the Russian public.

      This is an excellent war movie for certain guys. You know who you are. Unfortunately, the core audience for this type of film usually does not like to read, so the subtitling creates a dilemma. As a war movie aficionado, it is fun to see the elements that harken back to beloved Vietnam War movies. You get three for the price of one with this movie:

Platoon – camaraderie of the soldiers / drunken carrying on / human wave attacks / tunnels

Full Metal Jacket – boot camp

Hamburger Hill – victory thrown away / who will survive?

     As far as accuracy, the movie gets a B. There was a battle on a Hill 3234 and the strategic situation was as the movie implies. The enemy did make 12 human wave attacks (possibly under the influence of drugs). All of them were repulsed. Contrary to the movie, the unit was consistently resupplied and medevaced. Also, the movie (surprise!) amps up the casualties. It was bad enough in reality with 34 of the 39 either killed or wounded. The hill was abandoned after the battle. By the way, there apparently was a Snow White who “entertained” the troops before they left boot camp.

     The acting is okay. It is hard to follow who is who. (Maybe Russians say the same about “Platoon”.) The combat is intense, but kind of Hollywoodish. The soldier life is realistically portrayed which supports my theory that all soldiers are basically the same, no matter the nationality.

     Will it crack the 100 Best War Movies of All Time? Possibly. For now, watch it as a companion to “Charlie Wilson’s War” and “Restrepo” and you will understand the wars in Afghanistan better. Then e-mail your Congressman and urge him to do the same.

GRADE  =  B+

Sunday, December 19, 2010


     “Restrepo” is the movie companion to the acclaimed best seller “War” by Sebastian Junger. Junger was a reporter who embedded with an infantry platoon in Afghanistan in 2007-8 to get an eyewitness look at the fighting. What came out of his experience is a grunts-eye view of the war that takes the viewer into a very foreign world where American boys are fighting a forgotten war. If you feel guilty about having forgotten about their sacrifices or if you want to know what is going on over there, you should watch this outstanding documentary.

     The movie is seen through the eyes of the cameramen (Junger and Tim Hetherington) who lived with the soldiers interspersed with frequent interviews with the troops after they got back. The men belong to the Second Platoon, Battle Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment which was sent to the most dangerous place in Afghanistan – the Korengal Valley. They were deployed for 15 months and three of them did not come back including Juan “Doc” Restrepo. Their mission was to provide security for a road-building project that would benefit the obviously ungrateful residents. But based on the book and film, it is apparent their mission was to deprive the Taliban of control of the valley and kill as many of them in the process as possible.

     The movie is intense and personal. You have to admire the cameraman who was right there with the soldiers when they were taking fire. In fact, early in the movie we get an inside the Humvee view of what it is like to be blown up by an IED. Most of the action takes place at an outpost named after their beloved medic Restrepo. The commander named Kearny comes off as an intelligent officer who is trying to rectify mistakes made by the previous leadership which now make it harder to win “hearts and minds”. His decision to establish Outpost Restrepo turns the tide in the valley. (In a postscript, it is revealed that after all the effort in the area, the Army abandoned the valley. See “Hamburger Hill”.)

     Here are some of the things you will learn: 1. Afghanistan is a beautiful country with some truly ugly men. 2. The volunteer army concept is working. These boys are much more motivated than Vietnam War soldiers filmed under similar circumstances in 1969 would have been. 3. One of our main tactics is to make contact by drawing enemy fire. Sucks to be the guy who draws the fire. 4. If you want Americans to expend one thousand rounds, fire a few shots into their compound. 5. Life in an outpost can be so boring that you look forward to fire-fights. One soldier described fire-fights as like crack. 6. We are spending billions of dollars in Afghanistan, but we won’t pay for a farmer’s cow that “wandered into the barbed wire” and became steak. 7. Soldiers in Afghanistan do not curse as much as I thought. 8. This country and our army are not prepared mentally for losses comparable to Vietnam, much less WWII. The platoon lost “only” three men in 15 months, but because of the bonding, the deaths were gut-wrenching. 9. Being reasonable with Afghani elders is probably not going to work. 10. It is possible to make a realistic, informative movie about the war in Afghanistan without taking a political stand.


Saturday, December 18, 2010


BACK-STORY: This movie is based on the best seller by Edward L. Beach, Jr. (a WWII sub commander). It was produced by Burt Lancaster and cast him (a rising star) with Clark Cable (whose start was fading). The two reportedly did not get along well during the shoot with Gable upping the cost of production with his 9 to 5 work rate. This dysfunction may have added to the realism of the movie which is based on a personality conflict between the two leads. The technical advisor was a retired Rear Admiral. The movie had the full cooperation of the U.S. Navy including use of a sub for exterior shots, equipment for interior shots on the set, and submariners to train the actors.  It was released in 1958 to critical acclaim, but less than boffo box office.  It is in black and white.

OPENING SCENE: We are in the Bungo Straits off the coast of Japan in 1942. We see a Japanese convoy through a periscope. Two torpedoes are fired, but a Japanese destroyer suddenly appears and although the sub makes a crash dive, the next thing we see is the crew shipwrecked.

SUMMARY: The movie resumes one year later. The sub commander Richardson (Gable) has a desk job but is obsessed (Capt. Ahab style) with “Bungo Pete”, the destroyer captain who sank his boat (and others). The admiral decides to give Richardson command of the U.S.S. Nerka whose captain is retiring. The problem is the executive officer Bledsoe (Lancaster) is deserving of the command and popular with the crew. Bledsoe is naturally resentful of being bypassed.

     Richardson announces to the crew that they are going to Area 7, the most dangerous patrol area. This is in spite of specific orders to avoid the area. (Why did the Navy give him command and then forbid him to hunt his whale?) The crew is not happy. (It includes Don Rickles in his film debut). They are even more unhappy when Richardson turns out to be a martinet who drills them constantly (“dive! dive!”) The crew becomes mutinous when Richardson avoids easy targets because he wants to enter the Bungo Straits undetected.

     Part of the training has been to be able to pull off a risky and difficult “rapid bow shot” on an incoming destroyer. The idea is to approach the destroyer head-on, dive and then put a torpedo up the enemy’s throat. When the opportunity arrives, they sink a Japanese tanker and destroyer in a scene that features realistic acquisition of targets and firing sequences. Not unique for a sub movie, but well done. Suddenly, the crew is a big fan of the captain. Nothing like success to change warrior’s minds.

     Things go sour again as Richardson, having proven the bow shot will work, returns to his strategy of avoiding contact until they find Bungo Pete. Bledsoe confronts Richardson about violation of orders relating to not entering the straits. Richardson argues that a captain can “redefine” orders. It is obvious he is out for revenge. Bledsoe fears his obsession is putting the crew at risk. However, Bledsoe squelches mutinous talk among the officers.

     They locate a convoy escorted by Bungo Pete’s Akikaze. Even though a plane is picked up on radar, the captain insists on attacking on the surface. They sink a tanker, but have to crash dive as the plane attacks. They fire the bow shot at the Akikaze, but the torpedo doubles back and nearly hits them. The sub undergoes your standard cinematic depth charging (better than most) during which Richardson suffers a skull fracture. They release trash and three dead crewmen through a torpedo tube to make the Japanese think they are goners. The Japanese (having not seen any American sub movies) fall for this cliché.

     The captain is now physically unable to command, but refuses to step down. (According to inside reports, Gable balked at his character being removed from command for mental incapacity because that was not Clark Gablesque, so the director gave his character the skull fracture.) Richardson threatens court-martial when they get back, but Bledsoe assumes command and turns the boat around.

     In the ward room, Tokyo Rose announces the sinking of the U.S.S. Nerka. Bledsoe decides to go back now that the Japanese think they are dead. They attack a convoy on the surface in daylight! They sink the Akikaze, but suddenly here comes a torpedo that barely misses. It turns out that the earlier runaway fish was actually fired by a sub working with the Akikaze. What follows is a cat and mouse game between the two subs. Each is running silent, running deep. Finally, the Nerka surfaces to force the issue by sinking several tankers. The Jap sub illogically surfaces also. It hides behind a tanker, but Bledsoe determines that the ship is shallow draft and thus a torpedo could go under her and hit the sub, which it does.

FINAL SCENE: A plane attacks dropping bombs as they crash dive with Richardson collapsing after yelling “clear the deck”. Next thing we see, the captain is being buried at sea! They must have run out of film. By the way, the captain’s death conveniently avoids the messy court-martial.


Action – 7

Acting – 9

Accuracy – 7

Realism – 7

Plot – 7

Overall – 7

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Probably more than most war movies. The leads are famous for their appeal to females. They are definitely most women’s ideal of a man. The personality conflict dynamic might be interesting to females who are not interested in a movie that would be all action. However, the movie has no significant female characters and no romance (unlike the book).

CRITIQUE: “Run Silent Run Deep” is overrated. The acting talent awed many critics into overlooking the many unrealistic elements in the plot. The movie does an outstanding job showing the inner workings of a sub, but is shaky on tactics. There is too much surface attacking in daylight. This would have been suicidal with warships escorting a convoy (and planes in the vicinity). Especially against a foe like “Bungo Pete”.

     Little things pile up in this movie. Depth charges exploding as close as those in the movie would have been devastating. Giving a clearly revenge-minded officer a new command and then telling him to stay away from his obsession, strains credulity. The mood swings of the crew are a little perplexing. I do not feel a WWII sub crew would have whined about going into a dangerous area. The Jap sub would not have surfaced to protect the convoy. Five Japanese planes on two passes cannot hit a sitting duck?

     Although the special effects were supposedly cutting edge in 1958, They look decidedly fake today. The subs are obviously models in a swimming pool. Any competent remake of this movie would be superior to the original.

ACCURACY: The movie is based on a novel which is not about any particular submarine or incidents in WWII. The screenplay makes some significant changes from the plot of the book. The book covers a longer span of time starting with Bledsoe and Richardson being captain and exec on an earlier boat. There is a romantic subplot involving the triangle of the two men and Bledsoe’s wife. Bledsoe is something of a cad in the book. Bledsoe dies on another sub before Richardson takes on Bungo Pete. After sinking the villain, Richardson rams the life-boats. The movie skips the atrocity for obvious reasons.

      There was an Akikaze which was a destroyer that escorted convoys. She went down when she blocked a torpedo aimed at the carrier Junyo. However, the idea of a special Japanese unit consisting of an elite destroyer working with a sub flies against history. The Japanese were notoriously poor in anti-submarine tactics. Beach’s book gives them way more credit than they deserve (including a ship filled with ping pong balls so it was unsinkable), so the movie is just amping it up for entertainment value.

     The below the surface inner workings of a sub are commendably portrayed. The setting is appropriately claustrophobic. The effects of a depth-charging on people in a metal coffin are realistic. However, the tactics are wrong in some instances. Subs did not have the capability of firing torpedoes at each other if both were submerged. It would be impossible to sink a sub by firing a torpedo under a ship. No regular ship would have a shallower draft than a sub! If the torpedo could pass under the ship, it would definitely also pass under the sub.

CONCLUSION: “Run Silent, Run Deep”  was one of my favorite books as a teenager. This movie does not do justice to the book. The movie became a showcase for two legendary actors.  In fact,  the acting by the whole cast is noteworthy. Rickles even adds some humor. (He gets to offer a guy “a cookie”.)  However, the acting and melodrama to not completely overcome the inaccuracies and unrealistic tactics. The movie is certainly entertaining and better than average in the submarine subgenre. Speaking of which, here are some of the classic sub clichés you get in this movie:

1. The captain and the exec disagree on how to run the boat.

2. The captain is obsessed with his target.

3. During a depth charging, the sub springs leaks.

4. To fool the enemy, debris and dead bodies are shot out of a torpedo tube.

5. Two subs pass perilously close under the water.

6. Someone gets caught on deck during a crash dive.

Next up:  #78 - The Desert Fox

Thursday, December 16, 2010

DUELING MOVIES: “The Dam Busters” vs. “633 Squadron”


     These movies have a lot of similarities. They both are British and deal with special missions that will “hasten the end of the war” and are suicidal. TDM deals with a bombing raid on some German dams to flood the Ruhr Valley and 633 deals with an attack on a German rocket fuel factory in Norway. Both cover the training for the mission and end with a very suspenseful attack. TDM is about an actual historical event whereas 633 is loosely based on the exploits of Mosquito squadrons (there was no 633 Squadron or raid on a rocket fuel plant). Both open with iconic theme music. ( I prefer 633 on this ).

     TDM spends more time on the scientific development of the special bombs to be skipped into the dam faces. A main character is the scientist in charge of the project. It intersperses training scenes with scientific experiments. 633 includes the obligatory training sequences, but throws in a romance between the squadron commander Grant (Cliff Robertson) and a resistance leader’s sister. It also ramps up the action by adding scenes involving the Norwegian resistance.

     The bombing scenes are well handled in both movies. Similarly, both squadrons must run a gauntlet of German anti-aircraft fire through a narrow valley. Interestingly, apparently George Lucas was influenced by both movies for his attack on the Death Star in "Star Wars".

     Although it was made 9 years later and had access (you would assume) to better movie technology, 633 looks more fake than TDB. 633 had authentic Misquitoes available and used them, but the attack scene is obviously models. 633 also revs up the melodrama, but not to good effect. The whole subplot with the resistance hero Erik Bergman (a miscast George Chakaris – chosen for his appeal to teenage girls, apparently) is ridiculous. The raid to kill him in Gestapo headquarters before he can talk is just an excuse for some more aerial action. 633 also ups the suicide quotient to top TDB. Of course, since it’s not based on an actual raid, they can kill anyone they please. They can also throw every obstacle to success you can think of. For example, Bergman gets captured. Another example, the Resistance is not able to take out the defenses.

     633 has more female appeal. Not just because Chakaris was so dreamy. You have several female characters and some romance, albeit schmaltzy. There is even a female Gestapo agent and Rosie the barmaid (hey, teenage boys need someone to watch ,too). TDB is more of a “just the facts, maam” movie.

     It will come as no surprise that in both films success comes down to the last bombers. Both end with a requiem for the fallen. Question: was it worth it? Answer: TDM – they knew what they were risking. 633 – you can’t kill a squadron.

Winner: “The Dam Busters” is much superior to “633 Squadron”.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

#80 - The Third Man

BACK-STORY: “The Third Man” is a classic film noir released in 1949. It foreshadowed the boom in that genre in America in the 50s. It is a British film, however. It was directed by the acclaimed Carol Reed and is considered his greatest film. The screenplay is by Graham Greene. The British Film Institute in 1999 designated it the greatest British film of the 20th Century. It was awarded the top prize at Cannes and won an Academy Award for Cinematography (a no-brainer) and was nominated for Director and Editing. It was set and filmed in Vienna, including the scenes in the famous sewer system. The remarkable score is done with a musical instrument called a “zither”. The opening theme was an international hit. The movie was a hit with both critics and audiences. The rumors that Orson Welles actually directed are not true. He did have a lot of influence over the dialogue of his character, however.
Holly Martins (thanks C)
OPENING SCENE: A narrator explains that the American novelist (pulp Westerns) Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) has come to Vienna to meet his old friend Harry Lime (Welles). Martins arrives at a train station and goes to Lime’s home to be told he is dead from being hit by a lorry. He goes to the funeral and there is an intriguing female there (naturally). A British Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) gives him a ride back to town and Martins reveals that he and Lime had been childhood BFFs. Calloway breaks the news that his BFF was a notorious black marketer. “He was about the worst racketeer that ever made a dirty living in this city”.

SUMMARY: Martins meets a creepy “Baron” who describes the accident, but Holly is suspicious. Later, he hooks up with Lime’s girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli), the female at the funeral. She thinks his death was not an accident. An eye-witness ( a porter) tells them there was a “third man” at the death which contradicts the Baron. Holly now suspects murder.

     Meanwhile Anna is taken back to Calloway’s office because she has false papers that allowed her to move from the Russian zone to her present apartment. She is grilled, but released. They go to a bar where they encounter the Baron and a guy named Popescu (the second man) who insists there was no third man. The porter tells them to see him later that night and he will tell them more. Surprise, he is murdered right before Holly and Anna arrive and they have to flee a menacing crowd after a little boy fingers them. Holly is whisked off in a car which leaves the audience feeling he is being taken for a ride – he is, but just to a lecture he has agreed to give. He has to flee again when Popescu implies that he better stop his snooping. He runs through the bleak streets of Vienna. (There is a lot of running in this movie.)

     Holly goes to Calloway with his story, but being a typically arrogant British officer, he is unreceptive. He goes into detail about Limes racketeering. It seems that Harry was selling stolen penicillin and to make it worse, he diluted it leading to deaths and mental illnesses. A slide show convinces Holly that Harry is evil.

Harry Lime
     Holly goes to Anna’s. Her cat leaves. Anna says it only liked Harry. Holly follows the cat and in one of the great moments in film history, the cat goes to a smiling man in the shadows of a doorway – it’s Lime making his first appearance in the movie. Lime runs away (of course) and Martins loses him. It turns out that Harry has a secret entrance to the sewer system and he travels through the tunnels under the city.

     Calloway now believes Lime is alive and it is proven when his body is exhumed and it is someone else. Anna is arrested to coerce her into revealing Lime’s whereabouts, but she refuses to cooperate. Martins and Lime meet at the famous Vienna Ferris Wheel that dominates the sky-line. They talk while riding. It turns out that Harry is a sociopath. He wants Holly to join his enterprise and when Holly shows pangs of morality, Harry points to the dots of people below their feet and asks why should they care about them. He is charming, but creepy and menacing. He sums up the situation in the war-ravaged Vienna in a classic quote (added by Welles). “You know what the fellow said; in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace – and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock”. Good point – if it wasn’t for WWII we would not have penicillin (or the atomic bomb). They part unamicably.

     Martins makes a deal to rat out Lime in exchange for the release of Anna. When she finds out what her freedom cost, she leaves Holly at the train station. Harry is having second thoughts so Calloway brings him to a hospital to show him child victims of the tainted penicillin. He is back on board as their “dumb, decoy duck”.

the Vienna sewers
FINAL SCENES: Anna warns Harry when he comes to the rendezvous with Holly and he flees to his lair. The police are ready for this and the noose tightens as Harry runs through the tunnels in one of the most famous scenes in movie history. In one brilliant take, Lime stops and listens to the echoes of footsteps to try to decide which tunnel to take. Harry is like a caged animal and he shoots a British sergeant before being shot himself by Calloway. Lime tries to pry open a grate to get out and we see his fingers (actually Reed’s since Welles refused to film in the sewers) touching freedom, but no more. Martins reaches him and Harry nods as if to say “go ahead, finish it”. Holly does.
     In the final scene, Martins waits for Anna at the funeral, but in a refreshing departure from the typical Hollywood ending, she walks past him without acknowledging him.

Action - 5
Acting – 10
Accuracy – N/A
Realism – 7
Plot – 8
Overall – 9

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? It depends on whether your significant other is into film noir or mysteries or great acting or excellent film-making. If she hates war movies, have no fear because this is not a war movie. Convince her it is on a list of great war movies, let her enjoy it and then you might get her to watch a few real war movies before she figures out they are not like “The Third Man”.

CRITIQUE: I do not care what anyone says, this is not a war movie by any stretch of the definition. It is a movie set in post-war Vienna, true. I can accept movies set on the home front during the war, but not after the war. I make exceptions for movies like “The Best Years of Our Lives” because they deal with the after effects of a war on warriors. Neither Martins nor Lime appear to have fought in the war and even if they had, it is immaterial to the movie. The movie could be described as a Cold War movie, but then a ton of spy movies would have to be included as war movies. I cannot agree to that. It is my opinion that Military History magazine made a bad decision to include this movie.

     With that said, this is undoubtedly one of the great movies of any genre. The score, the cinematography, the setting, the acting; all great. The contrast of the main characters is fascinating. Martins is a naïve, bumbling gumshoe wannabe. Lime is a charmingly amoral villain. He reminds me of the current Bernie Madoffs of the world. Or, cinematically, Gordon Gecko. Our modern Harry Limes do not scuttle around in the sewers, however. Anna is in love with a dead man and then still loyal to his resurrected but evil real persona. Theirs is a doomed love triangle. Calloway is the dogged, proper British officer who needs to bring sick children into the picture to convince Martins and the audience to turn its back on the disarming Lime.

     One major negative – there is no way Harry Lime walks into that ambush. When he last talked to Holly it was obvious Holly was not going to join him. For the script to build him up as a criminal mastermind and then have him naively put himself in jeopardy is not realistic!

ACCURACY: Accuracy is not really an issue in this movie. The setting is true to life. Vienna was divided, like Berlin, into four occupation zones. The city was in sad shape and a thriving black market undoubtedly existed. I am sure there were unscrupulous racketeers like Harry Limes. It has been posited that Greene based his character on the real-life British spy named Kim Philby. Philby turned out to be a Soviet double agent that defected to the Soviet Union. The fictional Limes bears little resemblance to Philby, however. No big deal.

     In an interesting historical touch, Vienna did have a special police unit that patrolled the sewer system hunting criminal activities. The producers of the film used some of these off-duty officers in the sewer chase scene.

CONCLUSION: Do not watch this movie because it is a great war movie. Watch it because you love movies and want to be able to say you have seen one of the masterpieces of film history. Enjoy the weird camera angles and zither music. Try finding another movie that has both of those.

Next:  #79 -  "Run Silent, Run Deep"

Monday, December 6, 2010

#81 - Ballad of a Soldier

SUMMARY: "Ballad of a Soldier" is a Russian movie set in 1942 on the Eastern Front. Alyosha becomes a hero by destroying two German tanks. His reward is a pass to return home. Thus begins an odyssey which sees him interact with various people. The young, humane soldier has a positive effect on those he meets. The backdrop is the desperation of the Great Patriotic War. His most significant encounter is with a young woman named Shura. They have an awkward, chaste, and endearing "affair". He finally arrives home having used up all of his leave getting there.

“Ballad of a Soldier” was a Soviet film released in 1959. It is a significant example of the movies made during the period after the death of Stalin and the rise of Khrushchev. The new Soviet dictator loosened the reins on Soviet cinema which resulted in some remarkably non-doctrinal films. In the case of “Ballad”, it helped that Khrushchev was a fan of the director Grigori Chukhrai and allowed even more leniency in censorship. Chukhrai made the daring decision to cast two inexperienced leads, but it paid off. The movie quickly acquired international acclaim including an Oscar for its screenplay. It is one of the most beloved Soviet-era films.

CRITIQUE: This is not so much a war movie as a movie set in war. It is certainly interesting and well worth the viewing, but I think it is a tad overrated. It almost seems the critics went overboard in accolades in order to encourage the new cinema that was coming out of Khrushchev’s Russia. Plus, compared to the pompously patriotic films under Stalin, this movie must have been bracingly refreshing.

There is some good cinematography, but some of it is a little artsy. We get lots of close-ups of stoical Russian faces. There are numerous long shots. There is lots of scenery from moving trains.

Some of the characterizations are not true to human nature. For instance, one of the guards Alyosha encounters is armed with a rifle and bayonet, yet turns out to be a pushover who can be bribed with  canned meat when he could clearly have taken whatever he wanted. But most perplexing is the portrayal of the Russian officers, starting with the general. I’m not saying all Russian officers were tyrants, but certainly a majority were. The movie has all of them being nice to the enlisted men. This strains credulity.

On the plus side, the main characters are likeable. We want Alyosha and Shura to fall in love and live happily ever after. We root for him to get back to his mother. We cheer when the crippled soldier’s wife welcomes him back without flinching. We are incensed that Pavlov’s wife is cheating on him. The movie takes some unexpected turns. It does a great job showing the spirit of the Russian people.

ACCURACY: “Ballad of a Soldier” is fictional so accuracy is not really an issue. My only complaint is the portrayal of the Russian officers.

CONCLUSION: I would never have watched this movie if I had not started this project, so I am thankful for having been exposed to something different. Watching a Soviet war movie was not on my list of to-dos. I definitely enjoyed it, but I do not think it is a great war movie. I am not even sure if it is a war movie. It certainly fits better into the journey genre. It’s not the Iliad, it’s the Odyssey.


Action = 4/10
Acting = C+
Accuracy = D
Realism = C+
Plot = B+

Overall = C+

I have now worked my way through the first twenty (actually 19 because I still have not seen "Dunkirk") on Military History's 100 Greatest War Movies.  Here is my reworking of the list (with the Military History rank in parentheses):

99 – Ben Hur (96)

98 - Foreign Correspondent (86)

97 - The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp (87)

96 - The Thin Red Line (100)

95 - Ballad of a Soldier (81)

94 - Guns of Navarone (93)

93 - Northwest Passage (97)

92 - Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (98)

91 - They Were Expendable (99)

90 - Desert Rats (88)

89 - Battle of Britain (90)

88 - Midway (92)

87 - Manchurian Candidate (85)

86 - Sahara (83)

85 - A Walk in the Sun (82)

84 - A Bridge Too Far (94)

83 - Dr. Strangelove (84)

82 - Breaker Morant (91)

81 - Last of the Mohicans (95)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Cinema Code of Conduct

Thanks to All About War Movies for sending this to me.  Below is what All About posted.  Here is what he said: 

"As most of you will be aware, Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo are the hosts of the finest film show that the UK has to offer. The former is a film critic who’s words have graced the pages of numerous newspapers and magazines, is a regular presence on the nation’s TV screens and has even been lampooned by Vizcomic and had his huge, flappy hands mocked on The Thick Of It. Simon Mayo is perhaps one of Britain’s most recognisable and popular radio presenters. Many of us spent our youth listening to him on BBC Radio 1 only to follow him to his afternoon slot on BBC Radio 5 Live and then to BBC Radio 2 where he currently presents the popular Drivetime show. Mayo has also been slightly maligned on The Thick of It. The two doctors present Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review; two hours of film discussion, interviews, reviews and the home of the occasional ‘Kermodian rant’ – wittertainment at its finest.

     Over the past few weeks they have been inviting listeners to help them compile a code of conduct for watching films in the cinema, a list of rules that many of film bloggers would agree with, and have even had the decency to provide a poster…"

     Each web site is asked to add their own #11, so here goes.

#11 - No snickering!  Do not laugh at ridiculous moments in serious movies.  Just because you are intelligent enough to recognize something is implausible or inaccurate, do not ruin the experience for the average viewer.  We want to be entertained, not educated!

     Anyone who follows this site knows I am one of those know-it-alls that this rule is aimed at.  In my defense, I always try to cover my mouth to stifle my laughter.  For example, when the villains landed via Higgins boats in the recent "Robin Hood".  Guffaw!

Visit the original site at

Saturday, December 4, 2010

#90 - Battle of Britain (finally)

BACK – STORY: “Battle of Britain” was released in 1969 and was specifically meant to be a tribute to “the few”. The movie fits into the sub-genre of old-school all-star epics with vignettes supporting the main story line. It’s sisters are “The Longest Day” (1962) and “The Battle of the Bulge” (1965). In some ways it can be viewed as England’s response to those earlier films. It was directed by Guy Hamilton of “Goldfinger” fame. The screenplay is based on the book The Narrow Margin by Derek Wood and Derek Dempster. The book gives a traditional retelling of the Battle of Britain and thus the movie stands as the definitive film treatment of the battle. It is not a revisionist film.

The film was big budget and it shows. Not only did the producers round up most of the great British actors of the time, but they went to a lot of trouble and expense to round up military hardware appropriate for a 1940 air battle. They assembled 12 Spitfires and 3 Hurricanes to represent the Royal Air Force. The Spanish Air Force cooperated with 17 ME -109s, 32 Heinkels, and 2 Junker 52s. The total of around one hundred aircraft made the movie the 35th largest air force in the world at the time. During the filming, more bullets (in the form of blanks) were fired than in the actual Battle of Britain.

The movie has a very impressive list of technical advisers which included famous aces Adolf Galland and Robert Stanford Tuck. Several airfields that were part of the battle were used in the film. The scenes at RAF Fighter Command were filmed at the headquarters of Fighter Command. Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding's original office was used.

OPENING SCENE: We see refugees moving down a road in France in 1940. At an air base nearby, British pilots are informed that the Germans are just down the road. They hurriedly take off leaving the “lame duck” aircraft to be strafed by German fighters.

SUMMARY: Air Chief Marshal Dowding (Sir Laurence Olivier) decides that sending more aircraft into the meat-grinder of France would be waste of precious resources needed for the upcoming battle for control of the skies over England. The German ambassador visits his British equivalent in Switzerland and gives the typical “surrender and avoid destruction” ultimatum. The British diplomat keeps his upper lip stiff and responds with "We're not easily frightened. Also we know how hard it is for an army to cross the Channel — the last little corporal to try it came a cropper. So don't threaten or dictate to us until you're marching up Whitehall! ...and even then we won't listen!" This exchange establishes a theme of the movie: the bulldog British versus the hubris-filled Germans. These national characteristics are personified by Dowding and Goring in the film.

At a British air field one of our trio of Squadron Leaders, “Skipper” (Robert Shaw), is training a new pilot. He takes him up for a mock dogfight. When the rookie hears Shaw’s “takatakatakataka” in his headphones he knows he is dead. Another theme is established: England is in a race against time to get enough qualified pilots in the air to replace its losses.
real Heinkels
In the inevitable romantic subplot, we meet Squadron Leader Colin Harvey (Christopher Plummer) and his wife Maggie (the lovely, but acting-challenged Susannah York) who works in command and control. He wants her to leave her position and transfer with him to Scotland. She does not want to (being a patriotic feminist) and they part coldly. Unfortunately, this is not the last time we peak in on their relationship.

the airfield bombing
At a German briefing on their strategic situation, it is revealed that the RAF has to be destroyed before England can be successfully invaded. It is decided that the RAF will be destroyed on the ground. The first attacks are by Stukas on radar stations. Because the Spanish Air Force did not have any Stukas, radio-controlled models had to be used for this scene. Spitfires pounce on them and without exception the models blow up on cue. There is even a mid-air collision and a fake-looking dive into the ground. Luckily for the movie, the Germans quickly withdrew the Stuka from battle because of its status as a sitting duck. This means the rest of the movie will feature actual planes in combat. By the way, the Stukas are shown leveling off to drop their payloads which is inaccurate because they were dive-bombers and thus would have released during a 60-90 degree dive path.

Next, even though the radar stations have not been taken out of commission, the Germans shift their focus to the air fields. We witness one of those bombings with a series of impressive fireworks. “Skipper” scrambles during the raid, but in a strange screenplay decision, his unit sees little action other than a rookie getting lost and shot down.

The next scene is a jump of I don’t know how many days. One of the problems of the film is we are not told when the next scene is taking place. A related problem is the characters are not clearly identified. In the combat scenes, for instance, all the pilots look alike with their headgear. The scene is probably set on August 15 (Eagle Day). the official start of the all-out German effort. German Heinkels from Norway join in the assault thinking the RAF can’t be in two places at one time. They are wrong and suffer heavy losses in a nice scene that features shots from inside the bombers. The bombers are unescorted in the movie because the producers could not find any ME – 110s to be totally accurate.

In a move similar to “The Longest Day”, the movie switches back and forth to give the British and German command perspectives. The audience learns that there is a disagreement in British Fighter Command on how to deploy the fighter units. Dowding and Air Vice Marshal Park (Trevor Howard) favor using the fighters to defend the air bases and intercept bomber formations as quickly as they can be scrambled. This means smaller formations making contact with the German bombers. On the other hand, Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory pushes the “big wing” tactic of attacking the bombers with large formations.

Leigh-Mallory: "It's better to shoot down fifty bombers after they hit their targets than ten before."

Park: "Remember that the targets are my airfields, Leigh-Mallory, and you're not getting fifty, you're not even getting ten!"

This debate is accurately depicted in the film, but there was no actual confrontation between Park and Leigh-Mallory as acted out.

Back to the smoochy stuff. Wake up girls! The Harveys meet in a hotel. They are still arguing, but do kiss. This is where their relationship is left at – unresolved and we don’t care! A bombing raid on London occurs because of an accidental dropping by a German bomber. Here the movie does a good job of teaching how a mistake by a wayward enemy bomber provokes Churchill to launch a raid on the lit-up-like-a Christmas-tree German capital (which the German pilot and co-pilot just so happen to be visiting). Goring had promised Hitler that if Berlin was ever bombed “his name would be Meier”, so he shifts the focus of the air campaign from destroying the RAF to fulfilling Hitler’s desire for revenge by terror bombing London. Goring visits his fighter command and is told by the cigar-chomping Major Falke (modeled after Galland) that what he needs is “a squadron of Spitfires” (an actual quote from Galland).

In an excellent scene, the Blitz comes to London. We get views from within and above the city. The city is on fire and the firefighters are doing their duty. A pilot Sgt. Andy (Ian McShane) returns home to find his family in a shelter. He goes off to help a trapped family and returns to find the shelter has been destroyed. Tragic, but effective. He keeps a stiff upper lip and returns to combat.

The Polish get their props as we see them going up for training and then disobeying orders to weigh into a German bomber unit. This is one of the few humorous moments in an otherwise somber film.

We are treated to several dogfights that are among the best in non-CGI war movie history. This includes a magnificent extended scene which is basically silent except for the score and some radio chatter. It appears the filmmakers decided the audience needed a break from the somewhat redundant dogfight scenes. Nice call. It is the best scene in the movie and most memorable.

FINAL SCENE: The Germans pull their invasion force back from the French ports. Dowding gazes at a clear sky. Churchill: “This is not the end; it is not even the beginning of the end, but it may be the end of the beginning”. Another version of the film uses the more appropriate: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few".


Action - 8

Acting - 7

Accuracy - 9

Realism - 7

Plot - 6

Overall - 7

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? I doubt it. Other than the wimpy romantic subplot, this is pretty much a guy movie. I do not know very many women who are into air combat.

ACCURACY: “Battle of Britain” is a commendable attempt to pay homage to the RAF pilots and commanders who saved England during one of the darkest hours in its history. Anyone who knows little about the event and the participants will come out of the film with a basic knowledge of the battle. However, it helps if you already know some of the facts because in some instances the movie assumes you know the big picture already.

The chronology is accurate, but we are not clearly given an idea about the dates of events. It is hard to determine how much time has transpired between some scenes. For a movie that prides itself on having the German characters speak German, it seems odd that subtitles could not have been used to identify the various historical people and the dates of events.

I have a problem with the composite characters. Are you telling me there were not enough true to life participants to build a movie around? Why have a Major Falke when you could have Adolf Galland himself? Where is Robert Stanford Tuck? How about Douglas Bader?

The movie is justifiably famous for its air combat scenes. These are accurately depicted to the best of the film-makers ability. The aircraft are as close to the real thing as could be expected. The ME-109s look a little strange with their Spanish noses, but they are versions of the famous fighter plane. We do see more of the Spitfires than is warranted (Hurricanes did 60% of the heavy lifting in the battle), but this is due to the fact Hamilton had a lot more Spitfires to work with. Similarly, the movie has Spitfires and Hurricanes together in units going into combat, which is not actually the way the units fought.

CRITIQUE: “Battle of Britain” is a good movie, but probably does not deserve the fondness many war movie buffs have for it. As a tutorial, it does a fine job in informing about this important event in history. It is fair-minded and does not treat the Germans as evil and the British as saints. In fact, it is not even very patriotic, which is surprising considering it was made in England in the 30th anniversary of the beginning of WWII. It covers both strategy and tactics so you get the pilots perspective as well as what the commanders were thinking.

Some of the weaknesses are the unclear time-line and the cursory character development. The movie jumps around from character to character and even from the English to the Germans that you do not learn much about any one person. This, of course, is a common problem for movies like this. “The Longest Day” did a great job with its minor characters, but few other all-star epics have been able to pull it off. In this respect, BOB is closer to “Midway”. In fact, it even has a distracting romantic subplot like “Midway”. Unlike “Midway”, BOB makes better use of its cast. The heavy-weights (with the exception of Olivier) are put in officer rather than high command roles. This allows Shaw, Plummer, and Micheal Caine (Squadron Leader Canfield) to put their stamps on their roles. They are all effective.

The dogfights are spectacular, but tend to be repetitive as the movie goes along. The stand-out is the “silent” scene which is almost surreal. Interestingly, the score for this scene is from the original composer and differs from the more bombastic, patriotic music that backs the rest of the movie. Unfortunately, given the state of war movies in the Sixties, the bloodshed is not realistic. The deaths are basically your ketchup bottle exploding variety. Sometimes men are wounded by bullets that leave no holes where they would have had to penetrate the plane!

CONCLUSION: “Battle of Britain” is the best movie on its subject. It could have been better, but it could also have been much worse. The producers tried hard and deserve to be credited with a game effort. You can learn a lot from this movie and if you hate to read it’s the best tutorial you will get. However, I feel it is overrated at #90 or at least I can confidently say that some of the movies I have seen on this journey are better than BOB. For instance, “Tora! Tora! Tora!” is similar, yet superior to it. Tora’s air combat is just as good, if not better. It has no silly love story. It covers more of the “greatest hits” of its event and does it more clearly. It also balances the opposing sides’ views and screen-time better.