Monday, February 28, 2011


    My second read is Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith.  It won the Newberry Award in 1957 and is a famous young adult novel.  Keith interviewed veterans to add to the authenticity of the story.  He sets the novel west of the Mississippi in Kansas and Oklahoma.  Keith deserves credit for bringing some exposure to this forgotten theater.
     The main character is Jefferson Davis Bussey.  He comes from an anti-slavery family living in Kansas.  Kansas is being torn between pro and anti-slavery forces.  Early in the book, his family joins together to evict two bushwhackers.  Jeff's father agrees to his going off to war at the tender age of sixteen.  This sets Jeff off on a series of adventures that last through the war.  Along the way, we meet various interesting characters including the main villain - Major Clardy.  Clardy is as hissable as you would expect in a young adult novel.  He is out to get Jeff from the moment he hears Jeff's first and middle names.
     Jeff is your typical teenage boy in that he can't wait for combat.  The book leads off with the Battle of Wilson's Creek, but it's a big tease because Jeff is sent to the rear and misses the battle.  He also misses the Battle of Pea Ridge while on a road crew.  It's almost like Keith is uncomfortable with writing about combat.  Finally, Jeff is in the thick of the Battle of Prairie Grove.  Lines like "What funny music the rebel Minie balls made.  Some of them mewed like kittens.  Others hummed like angry hornets or whined like richocheting nails" prove Keith is capable.  He also perceptively writes "bayoneted muskets carried at the ready, they strode blindly forward to whatever fate awaited them.  Angrily, Jeff thought of how little control a soldier in the ranks had over his own destiny".  The combat is well done with the exception that Jeff unrealistically fights from a prone position.  After the battle there is a poignant reunion between Jeff and a drummer boy who is mortally wounded from being run over by a caisson.  Keith makes clear the tragedy of war by killing off several characters.
     This being a YA novel, there has to be a love interest and she has to be seemingly out of Jeff's league.  He falls in love with Lucy Washburne who not only is in a slave-holding family, but her father and brother are fighting on the other side.  Predictably, she does not care for Jeff at first.  She warms to him after he sees that her brother (executed by firing squad for being a spy) is returned for burial.  Living in the small world of young adult fiction comes in handy for Jeff.
     The second half of the book has Jeff unwillingly switching sides and joining General Stand Watie's  cavalry regiment. Jeff makes friends with several of the likable rebels as he looks for the opportunity to return to Union lines with valuable information.  He even participates in battles.  He bonds with these enemies as he discovers they are not bad dudes after all.  He might have stayed if he hadn't discovered that the evil villain that is selling Union repeating rifles is, drum roll please, Major Clardy!  Surprise, not.
      Before he escapes Jeff runs into Lucy (small world, remember) and she melts in his arms agreeing that he can't remain a rebel and still look himself in the mirror.  He barely makes it out of camp after Clardy spots him.  It is a long trek cross-country back to Union lines.  Fortunately, when the vaunted Rebel bloodhound discovers him, Jeff improbably convinces the dog to switch sides and join him.  The dog is a traitor!  By the way, this dog makes the third dog that plays a role in the story.  If you love dogs, this book is for you.  I won't give away the end, but it is satisfying and not as trite as you might expect.  I cannot resist quoting Jeff's buddies when they encounter him - "Gosh all fishhooks! It's Bussey!"
     I would not recommend Rifles for Watie to anyone doing the Civil War readalong, unless you are a teenager.  Keith is a competent writer, but does not wow you.  The book is very long for a YA novel at 332 pages.  I cannot imagine the book is read much by today's teenage boys.  You may have to blow the dust off the library copy like I had to.  There are some flaws.  There are several huge jumps in the chronology.  There is not enough combat for my liking.  But most disconcerting is the uncomfortable feeling that Jeff is a spy who befriends the rebels, is cared for by them, and then abandons them.  The fact is that if he had been captured and executed by firng squad, noone could argue that would have been an injustice.  However, the book does a service to the history of the Civil War west of the MIssissippi.  The battles are real, if cursorily covered.  The soldier life and attitudes ring true.  Stand Watie is a fascinating historical figure.  I should add, however, that he never tried to acquire repeating rifles.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

#71 - The Big Red One

BACK-STORY: “The Big Red One” is a war movie set in WWII – Europe. It follows a sergeant and his squad from North Africa to Sicily to D-Day and beyond. At the end they liberate a concentration camp. The movie is loosely based on the writer/director Samuel Fuller’s experiences with the 1st Division in WWII. The character Zab represents Fuller. The movie was released in 1980 with a substantial amount left on the cutting room floor. In 2004, the director’s cut was released almost doubling the length of the film.  It was entitled "The Big Red One:  The Reconstruction".  This is the version that I am reviewing. The movie stars Lee Marvin in arguably his best role. Marvin was a veteran of WWII.  He served in the Marines and was wounded at Saipan.

OPENING SCENE: In stark black and white, the movie opens on the last day of WWI. A black horse attacks the Sergeant (Marvin) and soon after a German soldier approaches trying to surrender, but he stabs him to death under a wooden crucifix. When he returns to an accurately depicted dugout, his commander informs him the war has been over for four hours. Oops! Maybe that’s why the German was not threatening me in any way. Oh, well, "c'est la guerre" (or that was la guerre five hours ago).

Griff prepares his gun for safe sex
SUMMARY: The movie jumps 24 years to a troop transport involved in Operation Torch. Narration is provided by Private Zab (Robert Carradine) who is a member of your typically heterogeneous rifle squad led by the Sergeant. They are sweating! They talk like soldiers do before they are going to risk their lives. Lots of ribbing and bravado. They authentically place condoms over their rifle barrels to keep the sand and seawater out.

the gruff, but lovable, Sergeant
     The movie follows the exploits of the Sergeant and his “Four Horsemen”. Besides the aspiring novelist Zab and the sharpshooter who refuses to shoot humans Griff (Mark Hammill), there is Vinci (Bobby DiCicco) playing the obligatory Italian-American and the farm-boy Johnson (Kelly Ward). Our heroes need a villain so their paths will cross those of a fanatical Nazi named Schroeder. We know he is a bad-ass when we meet him he has a potato-masher in his boot and he murders another soldier for criticizing the war effort.

     Since the film was low budget, the Torch landing is a little cheesy and unrealistic. This is compounded by a silly exchange between the Americans and the Vichy French via megaphones. From here the film settles into its episodic nature. Scenes of the squad chilling and soldier-bantering are interspersed with action scenes. One of the themes is revealed to be the inability of Griff (Mark Hammill) to kill. The Sergeant opines that “We don’t murder, we kill. You don’t murder animals, you kill ‘em.”
     Some of the episodes are surrealistic. At one point the squad is rescued by a French cavalry charge in a town! They battle the smallest tank in war movie history which despite its miniature size blows up like the Fourth of July when Zab tosses in a grenade.

     At the Battle of Kasserine Pass, our boys bury themselves to survive the overrunning Panzers (actually Israeli Sherman tanks, but the other equipment and uniforms appear authentic). Griff panics and runs precipitating a rout in which the Sarge is wounded by Schroeder. When he returns from the hospital, there is a touching reunion with his four charges and we are introduced to the theme that these five are inseparable and unkillable. The same cannot be said for the replacements who periodically grace the screen for brief life spans. They should have come with “dead meat” stamped on their foreheads.

the squad stalking Schroeder
     In a typically bizarre scene, the five hide in a cave during a German counterattack and when a naval bombardment causes Germans to take refuge in the cave (one at a time), they kill each as they enter like in an old Three Stooges flick. In another, a boy with his dead mother’s body takes them to a German gun position in exchange for a decent burial for his mom.

     From Sicily, they move on to Normandy. The low budget makes the invasion look like it was done by one squad, but this fits the squad-level view of the movie. You won’t mistake this scene for “Saving Private Ryan”. In a scene similar to one in “The Longest Day”, they use a Bangalore torpedo relay to open up the beach. No covering fire, the rest just watch as each relayer gets shot. Griff is #8 and goes chicken again so the Sarge has to shoot at him. Tough love, but it works because when the explosion occurs the battle is won and we can move on to the next scene.  The movie conveniently ignores that the busting of the barbed wire was followed by the scaling of the bluff and the taking out of bunkers, etc. to actually open up the beach.

     In probably one of the most famous scenes, Schroeder sets up an ambush at the very same crucifix from the opening! The Germans lay around a tank playing dead while Schroeder hides behind Christ. Somehow Schroeder has figured out this is the one unit in the American army that will not plunder dead German bodies for souvenirs and important papers. The Sarge is not fooled and uses the tank’s machine gun to wipe out the krauts. Schroeder escapes, of course. A Frenchman on a motorcycle arrives with his pregnant wife and the GIs assist the birth inside the tank using ammo belts for stirrups.  In a move to get giggles from 12 year old boys, the guys encourage the woman to push the baby out by chanting “poo-say” (hee! hee! get it?).

"I am one of you, I am sane"
     Next, our heroes go after some Germans using an insane asylum as a forward artillery observing post. A fire-fight breaks out during which one inmate grabs a machine gun and opens random fire proclaiming “I am one of you, I am sane”. Heavy-handed, much?

     In the Heurtgen Forest, they undergo tree bursts, but do not deign to dig in. The theme of a crass attitude toward the dead is explored. They take out one small artillery piece with a bazooka and suddenly the bombardment ends. The longest lasting replacement (Keiser) is killed in a foggy forest by a sniper who presumably passed up chances to kill the other five.

FINAL SCENE: The guys help liberate Falkenau concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. They have to assault the camp and kill the guards. Griff corners a Nazi hiding in one of the ovens and empties a clip into the German's face. Griff finally can kill! It’s a powerful scene partly abated by the fact that Mark Hammill cannot act.
     Meanwhile, the Sergeant befriends a little Jewish boy who he walks around on his shoulders until he dies. Very poignant. It’s full circle time as Schroeder appears (small world, eh?) ready to surrender. This is the same fanatical Nazi who had murdered a German woman he had just slept with for criticizing Hitler. He is clearly unarmed and has his hands up, but the Sarge knifes him anyway. Would you believe the Sarge is immediately informed that the war is over? This has to be the least surprising case of déjà vu in war movie history. This time the Sarge makes amends for his senseless murder in WWI by working feverishly to preserve the life of the despicable Schroeder. Go figure. In a line straight from Moe Howard, the Sergeant proclaims that “you’re going to live if I have to blow your brains out!” Zab (Fuller) adds the postscript: “I’m going to dedicate my book to the survivors. Surviving is the only glory in war, if you know what I mean.”


Action – 7

Acting – 7

Accuracy – 6

Realism – 7

Plot – 7

Overall – 7

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Possibly. The cast is attractive. Lee Marvin is a commanding presence. The violence is not graphic. There are a few female characters including a French Resistance fighter in the insane asylum. The movie has a light touch at times and has emotional moments involving children.

ACCURACY: “The Big Red One” is a personal story and a small unit tale, so historical accuracy is not really a factor.  Much of the historical incidents are handled in a simplistic manner.  For example, the Torch invasion where the French open fire, but once their commander is killed, it's all hugs and kisses between the new allies. One could argue that the landing at Omaha Beach was much busier and complex than the movie implies, but the low budget of the film and the emphasis on following just five soldiers makes that a moot point. The 1st Division did fight in the different locales shown in the film. It did liberate the concentration camp.  The arms and equipment (with the exception of the German tanks) are authentic.

CRITIQUE: “The Big Red One” plays as a series of weird vignettes. They are all interesting and move the narrative along and although each of them may have been based on an actual incident, it is highly unlikely than any squad would have had all these incidents happen to them. In fact, some of the scenes (e.g., the tank birth and the insane asylum) seem unlikely to have happened to anyone. The movie gets cred because supposedly it is autobiographical, but it is telling that the companion book by Fuller is a novel. Two minor incidents are based on Fuller’s experiences: when Zab discovers Keiser reading a novel written by Zab and when Zab acts as a runner to inform their colonel that they have broken through on Omaha Beach. That’s pretty puny to back up the claim that the movie is based on fact.

     The film is strongest in its depiction of soldier life. The dialogue rings true. The relationships are realistic, including the paternal attitude of the sergeant and the refusal to bond with replacements. Fuller throws in little details that make the movie feel authentic. Things like the condoms on the rifle barrels, salt peter in the food to lower libido, and an “appearance” by “Axis Sally”.

     Fuller has a sparse style. Some scenes end abruptly. It gives the movie something of an episodic feel. One begins to wonder what mess the squad will get into next. The battles are small-scale and end quickly. The battles are meant to be gritty, but the movie is firmly in the old school style, pre-“Saving Private Ryan”. Deaths are usually bloodless and of the “hands throw in the air” variety. In the D-Day landing scene, we get a shot of a soldier whose intestines are exposed, but zero other graphic shots.

     The use of the Schroeder character to have a foil for the five is misguided, but typical of a B movie (which the movie has been described as). It reminds me of the main German character in “Saving Private Ryan”, but Speilberg did not go overboard like Fuller does. Meeting up with this one Nazi several times really strains credulity. Another problem is the important theme of Griff’s cowardice is never resolved. Another theme, war is brutal and arbitrary in dealing out death, is undercut by the survival of all five. In fact, only the sergeant even gets wounded. The movie would have much more powerful if one of the five had been killed. The deaths of most replacements is exaggerated, the invulnerability of the five is unrealistic.

CONCLUSION: “The Big Red One” is an entertaining and in many ways amusing war movie. Marvin is marvelous and the young actors are competent. It does a good job of informing the viewer about what it was like to be in a rifle squad in the 1st Division in WWII. However, on close examination, the movie does not hold up well. Much of it is implausible. Some of the incidents seem unlikely to have happened to any squad, much less to the same squad. This would be less of an issue if the movie was not touted as based on Fuller’s experiences.  It's a fun movie, but undoubtedly overrated by many critics.

Next up:  #70 -  Hail the Conquering Hero

Sunday, February 20, 2011

NOW SHOWING: "The Eagle"

      “The Eagle” is a war movie that is currently in theaters. It is based on the novel “The Eagle of the Ninth” by Rosemary Sutcliffe. It stars Channing Tatum as Marcus Flavius Aquila (the Roman word for “eagle”). It is set in 140 A.D. in Northern England. As background, we are told that twenty years earlier the 9th Legion was wiped out in the area of Scotland and its eagle standard was lost to the barbarians. Marcus’ father was in command (as a centurion – what?) and thus was his family’s honor besmirched. The movie accurately reflects that the Romans would actually be more concerned with the loss of a standard than with the loss of 5,000 legionaries. Sutcliffe bases this foundation on the disappearance of the 9th from the historical records after its expedition into Caledonia and the finding of a broken eagle in an archeological dig. However, the loss of an entire legion would have been clearly chronicled and the eagle turned out to have been from a statue so the premise is shaky.

     Marcus gets assigned to command of a castra (fort) near Hadrian’s Wall (which the movie implies was built as a result of the loss of the 9th) even though he is just a centurion and younger than all the other officers. The castra is authentic looking, but unfortunately the movie does not spend much on camp life. We get a paltry training and repairing montage.

     The first set piece is a surprise night attack which is not a surprise because Marcus hears in his sleep something that none of the guards hear so he calls out the garrison. The assault is in the new cinematic chaotic battle scene style. It does give you the impression of the “fog of war”. I was surprised how non-graphic the action was. There was no blood spurting that we have come to expect with movies involving swords. The movie is rated PG-13. This being a movie about Roman warfare there has to be the obligatory use of fire (see “Spartacus” and “Gladiator”, for instance). I guess since you cannot logically have explosions, fire is the next best thing. The imaginative (read: not historically accurate) use of fire in “The Eagle” involves pouring oil into the ditch surrounding the fort so it can be set ablaze during the assault.

     Our next action scene revolves around the capture of a Roman patrol. The Celts arrive outside in a large and belligerent mob led by a crazed chieftain who proceeds to behead a prisoner (off camera) to provoke a Roman attack. Marcus obliges by leading a unit out (without their pila – what?). His big tactic is to convert into a testudo upon contact with the enemy. The Romans form the “tortoise” and survive the enemy literally throwing themselves onto it. This is military nonsense as the testudo was designed to be used against missile attacks, not shock charges. Besides, this formation would have been easily carved up by a mob of warriors because the sides and back of the formation were completely exposed. The Romans manage to reach the captives and rescue them, I think, but have to retreat when scythed (inaccurate) chariots (accurate) attack. Marcus is wounded and ends up under the care of his Uncle Aquila (Donald Sutherland acting rings around Tatum).

     Marcus meets his to-be-bonded-with mate when he witnesses a gladiator show in the local amphitheater. The slave Esca (Jamie Bell) refuses to fight a nasty cuss and the crowd demands his death. For some reason, Marcus takes a liking to this coward and convinces the blood-lusting crowd of yahoos to reverse their thumbs to the upward position. Realistic? Not. Since Marcus saved his life (the same life that he did not want to fight for), Esca is now beholding to Marcus and must do whatever his despised Roman master wants. This is mighty ethical for someone whose family was killed by the Roman army.

     Since Marcus has been given an honorable discharge due to his wound, he has nothing better to do but go across Hadrian’s Wall to find the needle (eagle) in the haystack (Scotland). And by the way, the haystack is full of very hostile barbarians. It’s doable because he has Esca as his guide and interpreter. Rogue warriors ambush them at their campfire resulting in a good, but brief, frenetic action scene. Later, the buddies encounter a survivor from the 9th named Guern. He knew Marcus’ father and describes the ambush which is basically the Battle of Teutoberger Forest set in Britain. In a bit of foreshadowing, Guern mentions the worst of the ambushers were the Painted Warriors of the Seal People who liked to eat human hearts. If you are wondering if Marcus and Esca will encounter them, you have not seen any movies.

     Sure enough, the boys are captured by the Painted Warriors, but Esca claims that Marcus is his slave and they buy it. They are taken to a village that is straight out of an American western. The kids have very little resemblance to their fathers which implies the wives have been very naughty, but since there is no DNA testing… When all the men get drunk and dance like some Indians, Marcus spots the eagle and runs to it only to be knocked out. When he comes to, he finds that being knocked unconscious by a club is an advantage over being knocked out by whatever these dudes were drinking. He and Esca rescue the eagle and kill the evil king in the process. The audience is supposed to cheer his death and overlook that he is simply trying to preserve his peoples’ way of life under threat of extermination by the Romans.

     The chase is on as our horse-riding heroes cannot open a gap with their foot-bound painted hunters. At one point, Esca skins a rat and they eat it raw. Believe it or not, this is the grossest visual in the movie. Marcus cannot go further because of his old wound so he sets Esca free. Will Esca abandon this Roman or go get help? He decides to abandon his ex-master. Just kidding. Esca returns with not only Guern, but a whole band of 9th veterans who see this as their opportunity to restore their honor after they ran away rather than have their hearts eaten in a hopeless battle. Cowards! You’ll have to watch the movie to find out what happens next, but don’t expect to be shocked.

      I was sure this movie would be better than its closest counterpart – “Centurion”. I was wrong. It actually got some good reviews, although most of the reviews have been bad. Looking at it from an historical point of view, it does not hold up well. It does not appear that Sutcliffe or the screenwriters bothered with much research. Even the slightest reading would have revealed that a centurion would not be in command of a legion! I have pointed out several other historical inaccuracies. These would be excusable if the story was good, but it isn’t. The script is implausible and the acting is bad. Sadly, it is not even a guilty pleasure.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

#72 - Twelve O'Clock High

BACK-STORY: “Twelve O’Clock High” is a war movie dedicated to American bomber crews and command in England in 1942. It is based on the novel by Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay, Jr. It was made with the full cooperation of the Air Force which provided several B-17s and combat footage including from the Luftwaffe. The movie was a hit with the critics and won two Academy Awards (Jagger for Best Supporting Actor and Best Sound Recording) and was nominated for two others (Best Picture and Peck for Actor). It takes its name from the slang for enemy fighters being spotted above and straight ahead.

OPENING : The film opens in 1949 with a Major Stovall (Dean Jagger) in London. He spies a Robin Hood mug in a store and immediately buys it. It inspires him to visit his old air base at Archbury. To the tune of “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” (the movie does a good job of including some vintage songs), he strolls the weed-covered runways and flashes back to 1942.

SUMMARY: Bombers are returning from a mission. One has to make a “wheels up” belly landing (done by acclaimed stunt pilot Paul Mantz for the unprecedented sum of $4,500). The pilot, Bishop, is later awarded the Medal of Honor for this act of heroism. The unit is the 918th Bomber Group and it has a reputation as a “hard luck’ outfit having sustained substantial casualties in America’s new daylight bombing campaign. Its commander, Col. Davenport (Gary Merrill), feels the unit is being pushed too much. When he hears that they have to go on a fourth mission in as many days and at a dangerously low altitude, he goes to headquarters to visit his friend Col. Savage (Gregory Peck) to complain. Savage reports to Gen. Pritchard (Milliard Mitchell) that Davenport is “overidentifying” with his men and is about to crack.

     In a visit to the base, Pritchard confirms Savage’s diagnosis as Davenport refuses to can a navigator who was incompetent. Pritchard remarks that “a man has only so much to give and you have given it”, so he relieves Davenport and replaces him with Savage. Savage is told that the success of daylight bombing is hanging in the balance and he must shape up the unit pronto. Savage decides on a tough love approach and immediately starts pushing the men to the limits. (Reminiscent of Patton’s arrival in that film.) He is one tough bastard. When he learns the navigator committed suicide, he doesn’t even flinch. Savage reams the slacker executive officer Gately and assigns him to a bomber full of misfits which will be named “Leper Colony”.

     When Savage meets with the crews he tells them that they will be better off by realizing they are already dead and should stop making plans for the future. In a meeting with the unit’s doctor, Savage accuses the doctor of coddling the men and insists that any man who is physically capable of flying must go up. The doctor is appalled by Savage’s lack of sensitivity and unconcern for the mental aspect of combat. Savage believes that what the men need is not a shoulder to cry on but pride and grit. The unit’s initial reaction to Savage’s discipline is close to a mutiny. Even Bishop requests a transfer. Savage sneakily slows the transfer process to give his tough love approach time to bear fruit. Stovall, the group adjutant, dislikes his new boss, but gradually warms to him. Jagger does a great job as the good angel on Savage’s shoulder.

     At one point, Savage disobeys orders to turn around and goes on to successfully bomb a target when all the other groups had turned. However, the pilots (represented by Bishop) continue to question the bombing of German targets in broad daylight which is akin to suicide in the long run of trying to survive 25 missions. Savage plays the duty card, but with seemingly no effect. The Inspector General arrives to meet with the pilots about the transfers and Savage packs his bags. Surprise, the men have changed their minds! (cliché #19 war movie cliches) Savage’s reaction is relief and a quick return to being a hard-ass.

     The movie now begins to focus more on the missions. We get the familiar ground crews awaiting the return of their charges and the ground personnel (including Stovall) stowing away on board for a little combat action (cliché #36). Bishop’s bomber gets blown up, but Savage can’t show any emotion although it obviously tears him up. Gately redeems himself by flying several missions in terrible pain from an injury (cliché #2). Savage visits him in the hospital and, in a refreshing scene, they have a very awkward conversation during which Savage cannot bring himself to apologize. Surprisingly (but realistically), Gately does not thank Savage for forcing him to be a man.

     The first combat scene comes in a mission to destroy a ball-bearing factory. The integration of archival footage is flawless. There is realistic radio chatter. There is no intrusive sound track and the actual sounds of air combat justify the Academy Award for Sound. Numerous bombers go down, but the target is hit. Upon return to base, Savage is strangely cheery and does not react to the death of his second in command Cobb. Stovall is drunk and laments that he “can’t see their faces” referring to his deceased comrades. A return mission is scheduled for the next day, but Savage cannot lift himself into the cockpit and suffers a breakdown that leaves him so catatonic that he refuses a cigarette! (There is a lot of smoking in this movie, naturally.) The doc remarks that a lightbulb is always brightest before it burns out.

CLOSING: Savage sits in a daze awaiting the return of the mission. As the number ticks up to 19 of 21 successfully back, he comes out of it. His mission is accomplished as the unit has been able to carry on successfully without their belt-wielding daddy. He is put to bed and tucked in by none other than Davenport. We are left to wonder about his fate.


Acting – 9

Authenticity – 9

Accuracy – 8

Action – 5

Plot – 8

Overall – 8

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Probably. It has no graphic violence. It is a character study and the issues of stress and leadership are interesting. The actors are appealing. However, there is no romance and not a single female character (a romantic subplot in the novel was decided against by the producers). It should lead to a good debate after because most men will probably side with Savage and most women will lean toward Davenport.

ACCURACY: The screenwriters, Bartlett and Beirne, were associated with the 8th Air Force during the period the movie is set in so they know of what they wrote. This gives the movie a special authenticity. Most of the main characters (with the notable exceptions of Stovall and Gately) are based on real people. Davenport was Col. Charles Overacher who was removed from command of an underachieving 306th Bomber Group. The writers treat Davenport better than his real-life counterpart deserves, ironically. It appears that Overacher was actually a poor leader and disciplinarian (the scene where Savage is not saluted or identified when he visits the base is based on an actual incident). His last straw was turning back from a mission for no good reason. He was shipped back to the states after criticizing Gen. Eaker (Pritchard in the film).

     Savage is close to Col. Frank Armstrong who did take on the task of straightening out the 306th. Like his character in the film, Armstrong had earlier led the first B-17 strike in Europe. A major departure from the truth is that the real Armstrong did not suffer a nervous breakdown. The incident was based on another respected commander. After his short ship-up task was accomplished, Armstrong returned to headquarters. By the way, in the book, after his breakdown Savage is promoted to command of 2nd Air Force. Bishop was based on John Morgan who won the Medal of Honor for a landing similar to that shown in the film. That’s the only similarity, however. For you history buffs, Cobb resembles Paul Tibbets of “Enola Gay” fame.

CRITIQUE: “Twelve O’Clock High” is the best movie of its type ever made. Of course, there are not that many movies about leadership and stress in WWII bomber operations. But you can compare it to the inferior 1948 “Bomber Command” starring Clark Gable to gauge its quality. You might also want to compare it to “Memphis Belle” to see how newer is not necessarily better. (“Belle” does make a good companion piece to “High” because it gives more of a crew perspective). TOH is so good at its subject that for years it was shown in American officers’ courses as a study in leadership. The military calls the ability of a leader to send young men to their deaths for the greater cause “moral courage”. Savage is meant to exemplify this command trait. The contrast between Davenport’s style and Savage’s is instructive and can lead to productive discussions on how to handle an underperforming unit in a stressful environment.

     The movie gets the little details right. Eglin Air Force Base in Florida is a good stand-in for the fictional Archbury and the producers found a weedy old tarmac in Alabama for the take-offs and landings. The use of B-17s in the filming is a big plus and is obviously preferable to CGI. In a related note, Technicolor was available for the movie, but the makers wisely decided to go with a crisp black and white so they could blend in the combat footage.

     The acting is outstanding across the board, especially Peck and Jagger. The story of a hard-ass that drives himself to a breakdown seems possible. The complete change of attitude of the transfer-requesting pilots is a bit pat, but typical of a movie plot. The cliché of the desk-bound officer (Stovall) stowing away on a mission is to be expected and is based on reality.

     The movie is admirably nonpatriotic. This is probably a reflection of the timing of its production. The war had been over for four years and the soul-searching could begin. The mental toll of the war on the warriors could be examined. However, the movie was made too soon after the war to reflect the later questioning of the daylight bombing strategy. The movie basically accepts the Air Force line that the daylight, precision bombing of Germany was a war-winning proposition. Recent scholarship has called this into question. The Davenports have had the best of the recent arguments.

CONCLUSION: “Twelve O’Clock High” is the gold standard for movie about the stress of command. It is well-executed and based on actual events and people. This makes it not only authentic historically, but also true to human nature. It pulls no punches with several main characters perishing and the protagonist suffering a nervous breakdown. Although not overtly patriotic, it does give Americans a sense of pride in what our boys went through in the aerial war with Germany. If you ever wondered why air crews were allowed to go home after 25 missions whereas the infantry were in it for the duration, this movie clues you in to the role of stress on combat effectiveness. It also makes it clear that 25 was an unreachable goal for many.

Next:  #71 - The Big Red One

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


     “Beach Red” is a war movie released in 1967. It is based on the novel by Peter Bowman. It was directed by Cornel Wilde and he stars in what was obviously a project dear to his heart. The timing of the movie during the Vietnam War was not coincidental. It is meant as a commentary on that war. It is very much a pacifist film.  I could be described as the antidote to John Wayne's "The Green Berets".

     “Beach Red” is set on an unnamed island in the Pacific in WWII. It was shot in the Philippines and the Philippine army provided soldiers to play the Japanese. It is supposed to represent any of the small islands we assaulted in 1943-1944.
"Don't clown my fake mustache!!"

     The movie opens with Marines waiting to board landing craft. We hear the men’s thoughts, which is the first indication that this will not be a traditional war movie. We also get the first of a recurring shot of a cock roach about to be stomped. (If you have to ask why, you just don’t get it, man.) Wilde is directing outside the box. The landing uses actual combat footage interspersed with Wilde’s action. There is lots of action and the actors are realistically sweating. However, this was pre-boot camp for war movie actors, so the actors look like actors playing war. We get the old school fake, bloodless deaths. Invariably, men throw their arms up in the air as they go down from bullet wounds. One guy loses his arm in a shot that supposedly influenced “Saving Private Ryan”.

     From the beach, they proceed into a grassy meadow that does not do a good job portraying a jungle. Doesn’t the Philippines have some jungle they could have used? They proceed inland with some clearly too-modern tanks (actually M41 Walker Bulldogs – post WWII). We continue to hear the thoughts of the men and see flashbacks to civilian life. The flashbacks are shown via still photos (WTF) and some home-movie like shots. Interestingly, the Japanese also get their time on screen, but without subtitles. The Japs stand in for the Viet Cong, apparently.

     The commander is a Capt. MacDonald (Wilde) who is a reluctant warrior type who is sensitive and humane. His subordinate Gunnery Sgt. Honeywell (Rip Torn) is the opposite. He growls lines like “That’s what we’re here for. To kill. The rest is all crap.” He chews the scenery as much as his cigar. Geneva Convention? What Geneva Convention? In one act, he breaks both arms of a prisoner.
     A group is sent out to capture prisoners. This results in some unrealistic hand-to-hand fighting. Later, a patrol is sent out to recon. They bring a spool of communications wire which they unspool as they twist and turn through the jungle! They find the Japanese planning a counterattack and head home. The Japs are wearing Marine uniforms. Can they do that? All’s fair in love and war. Of course, you have to wonder how in the hell they acquired the uniforms. MacDonald calls in an air strike so the Japanese are slaughtered by phony planes dropping nonexistent bombs. The Japanese commander commits hari-kari, naturally.

     Two BFFs – Cliff (Patrick Wolfe) and Egan (Burr DeBenning) – are featured in the movie. Cliff is a middle-class college boy type. Egan is a yokel who loves canned beans. Cliff must have a bad sense of smell. Did you know that opposites attract? At one point, they encounter one of the Japanese characters and there is a ridiculous fight scene to close the movie.

     I went to Rotten Tomatoes to check out the reviews. There were only three and shockingly they were all positive. One supposed movie critic actually claimed that “Beach Red” was a better movie than “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Thin Red Line”! Drug use is a bad thing. Another reviewer theorized that Wilde’s film influenced those other movies. That’s right, Speilberg and Malick copied Cornell Wilde! They are frauds.  For some reason, Speilberg and Malick did not borrow Wilde's idea of having a sappy song (see clip below) recur throughout their movies, go figure.

     This movie is laughably bad. Literally. It is a ridiculous blend of old school war movie with avant-garde gimmicks. It is unrealistic, inaccurate, and badly acted. When your third and fourth bills are Patrick Wolfe and Burr DeBenning, you know you are not in Oscar territory. If you insist on watching it, have a six pack at hand and take a drink every time someone says something stupid or something pretentious happens. You’ll be drunk soon and will enjoy the movie better. Afterwards, you can argue with your friends about how “Beach Red” is superior to “Saving Private Ryan”. “Screw you, dude, there never would have been a Thin Red Line if it hadn’t been for the genius of Cornel Wilde”. Swings punch, misses, falls over coffee table, arms up in the air, fake blood.

what should be done to copies of this movie


Friday, February 11, 2011


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

Panthers taking off
OPENING: Task Force 77 is patrolling off the coast of North Korea in November, 1952. The fleet is centered around the U.S.S. Savo Island (actually the U.S.S. Oriskany). A rescue helicopter launches in preparation for returning flights. One of the F9F Panthers has to ditch and the helicopter crew of Mike (Mickey Rooney) and Nestor (Earl Holliman) pick up Lt. Harry Brubaker (William Holden) before he freezes to death in the very frigid waters.

SUMMARY: Brubaker meets with Admiral Tarrant (Frederic March). Tarrant views Brubaker as a surrogate son because he reminds him of his son who was killed in the Battle of Midway. Brubaker is bitter because his reserve unit was called up and he had to leave his wife, two daughters, and his law practice. He is a veteran of WWII and a crack pilot, but he shows signs of being a pilot about to crack. Brubaker sees no good reason for the war (echoing the feelings of most of America in 1952). Tarrant spouts the party line that “if we don’t stop the Koreans here, they’ll be in Japan, Indonesia, and the Philippines, and then on to the Mississippi”. And you thought the Domino Theory started with the Vietnam War. The admiral thinks that knocking out the strategic bridges at Toko-Ri could win the war.

     The Task Force arrives in Japan for some R&R. The air group commander Lee visits the admiral to complain about the captain of the ship using the airplanes props to help maneuver the ship into its berth. He feels the pressure on the engines will reduce their effectiveness. He backs down when Tarrant points out the bigger picture is what’s best for the carrier. When he leaves chastened, the admiral decides not to recommend him for promotion because he backed down.

     The stay in Japan allows Brubaker’s wife and kids to visit him. Romantic music swells. Tarrant visits them in the hotel bar. He reveals his career has been blocked ever since he blamed the Russians for supporting North Korea. He is now persona non grata in Washington. Brubaker is called away because Mike is in jail after a ruckus he created upon learning his Japanese girl friend has jilted him. Mike is Irish, so he is a mean drunk, of course. Plus, everyone knows that sailors on shore leave always get in trouble with the MPs ( war movie cliche #34).

     While Brubaker is gone bailing out Mike, the Admiral has time to deliver some pearls of wisdom to his wife. Mrs. Nancy Brubaker (Grace Kelly) is your typical clueless, fear-stricken pilot’s wife. Tarrant senses this so he gives her one of the great pep talks in war movie history. He tells her when his son was killed his wife and daughter-in-law went insane. This could be you, too. His point is you must face the reality of the war and maybe you won’t be like them. You women are “ignorant and defenseless”. You can’t understand why men go to war. The best you can be is supportive and prepared for your husband’s death. Mr. Sensitivity, he ain’t. When Brubaker returns, Nancy insists on finding out about the bridges. Harry pulls no punches in describing the dangers of the mission.

tell me about the bridges, darling

     Back at sea, Lee has to go on a recon mission with Brubaker as his wingman to get photos of the bridges. They fly over beautiful mountainous scenery. Lee makes his pass and they head back. Landing on a bobbing postage stamp is difficult so Lee has a rough touch-down. Brubaker’s is even scarier as he has to land on a shortened deck. Up the anxiety level going into the big mission. Watching the film shot by Lee doesn’t do much for morale, either. Tarrant is aware of Brubaker’s fragile psyche and since he loves him like a son, suggests he sit this one out. Brubaker admits he is a coward and accepts the offer – just kidding. Brubaker is a red-blooded 1950s movie American warrior so he knows what duty means. Those two cute daughters will understand.

      The attack on the bridges is anti-climatic as they knock them down without a scratch. What to do with these unused bombs? Let’s go on to the secondary target – an ammunition dump. Good idea considering what awesome Hollywood explosions you get with the blowing up of an ammunition dump! Cue explosions, courtesy of Brubaker. Unfortunately, our hero gets a bullet in the fuel tank and the leakage prevents him from making it back to the carrier. He crash lands in a commie field. It’s go time for Mike and Nestor.

      The Irishman arrives, but is promptly shot down. Nestor is shot and killed upon exiting the chopper. Mike manages to join Harry who is hiding in an irrigation ditch. Communist troops are closing in. Things look bleak.

CLOSING: Brubaker gets philosophical and tells Mike “you fight simply because you are here”. Although in a hopeless situation, they vow not to be taken alive and open fire on their potential captors. Of course, having witnessed the strafing of lots of their mates by the rescue patrol, these commies might not have been in a prisoner taking mood anyway. Mike is killed by a grenade and Harry is gunned down, but not before he opines “The wrong war in the wrong place, and that’s the one you’re stuck with.” These words echo Omar Bradley’s famous sentiment about Korea.

could you throw us a rope?
     Back on the carrier, we see a role reversal as Lee breaks the news of Brubaker’s death to Tarrant. Tarrant is questioning the mission’s worth until Lee stands up to him pointing out it was a good and worthwhile expenditure of human life. (After all, the destruction of the bridge wins the war, remember.) Tarrant promotes him because he has learned to put the missions ahead of the men. The movie closes with the famous question by Tarrant: “Where do we get such men?” (Perhaps overlooking the fact that, in the case of Brubaker, the nation got him by forcing him to leave his family and law practice.) Luckily, patriotic music drowns out any cynical thoughts.

you take the fifty on the right and I'll take the fifty on the left

war is hell


Action - 7

Acting - 9

Accuracy - 7

Realism - 8

Plot - 8

Overall - 8

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Yes. I think women would be able to relate to the Grace Kelly character. She is meant to represent a typical military wife. However, they might be offended by the condescending treatment of her by the men, especially the admiral. This movie was made before women’s lib. The action is not bloody or graphic. The story is not overly macho.

ACCURACY: Michener was on board the U.S.S. Essex and U.S.S. Valley Forge as a war correspondent during the Korean War. He based his novel on two rescue missions of downed pilots which were similar to the two referenced in the book and movie. The two rescues occurred on the same day, however. And the year was 1951, not 1952. Also, the second one did not result in the deaths of the pilot and helicopter crew. They were taken captive, but presumed to be dead at the time by the Navy and thus Michener.

     The attacks were based on bombing raids on bridges at Majoni-Ri and Changnim-Ri. They were not bridges over the Yalu River as was the bridge in the movie. They were in central North Korea and downing them would not win the war. The attack aircraft were Skyraiders, not Panthers.

     The landing and take-off scenes are accurate and very instructive of carrier operations. The rescue tactics are well done. The incident where the planes are used to berth the ship was based on an actual occurrence.

CRITIQUE: “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” is a good, but not great movie. The plot is interesting. It is not overly patriotic or gung-ho. The main character is a reluctant warrior. This probably reflects the fact that the movie was made after the war was over and had in the public’s mind been labeled a misguided effort. In which case, Brubaker would have represented the general feeling of the public. One wonders how the audiences in the theaters felt when Tarrant opines that the fall of South Korea would have a domino effect.

     There is welcome comic relief from Rooney. He was a good actor and he gets into the role with gusto. Holliman also turns in one of his better performances as a loyal yokel. Holden is Holden, nuff said. Kelly is asked to look lovely and vulnerable and succeeds. March is good as the paternal admiral. He brings gravitas to the role and the picture.

     The action is crisp and realistic. The carrier operations have a tutorial feel to them. The aerial scenes are exciting and do not have that fake look common for old air combat movies. The movie does not get overly melodramatic with the downing of Brubaker. It is treated stoically as would be true for an American pilot’s crash in the Korean War.

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

the trailer
the ending

Next up:  #72 -  Twelve O'Clock High

Friday, February 4, 2011

"Gallipoli" (1981)


     “Gallipoli” is a war movie by Peter Weir. It was part of the wave of Australian classics of the 1980s that included “Breaker Morant” and “The Lighthorsemen”. Weir was inspired by the story of the ANZAC (Australian - New Zealand Army Corps) contribution to the British effort in the Gallipoli campaign of WWI. Early on the project evolved from a study of the entire campaign to a more personal study set in a brief period of the campaign. It stars Mel Gibson (coming off of “Mad Max”) and a debuting Mark Lee.

     The movie begins in western Australia (lovely vistas) in May, 1915. Archy (Lee) is a promising sprinter, but longs to enlist in the Light Horse. He represents the stereotypical naïve patriot. “If we don’t stop them [in Turkey], they could end up here” (the Australian “Domino Theory”?). His family is against him going to war because he has a bright future being alive. They relent, of course but not before his uncle/mentor reads the scene in “The Jungle Book” where Mowgli decides to leave the jungle saying “Now I will go to men.”

     Archy befriends Frank (Gibson) who represents the stereotypical reluctant, cynical warrior. “It’s not our bloody war! It’s an English war. It’s got nothing to do with us”. He bonds with fellow runner Archy and through their friendship and the application of the wonders of peer pressure, he enlists too. They go into different units, but are reunited in Egypt for the training/whoring scenes obligatory for a war movie. There is some local color featuring a bazaar and a brothel. The lads are seeing the world.

     Then it’s off to the Gallipoli beachhead and a wonderfully staged nighttime landing. The Australians are trapped along a narrow stretch with the Turks holding the high ground where they are dug in with artillery and machine guns. Fortunately ladies, the Bruces insist on bathing in the ocean with shrapnel roiling the water. This is fortunate because Mel Gibson exposes his bare butt. The life in the trenches is realistically depicted. The soldiers eat hard tack and there are flies! Critters in a war movie, imagine that.

     The big battle is coming and it is to be a diversion for a British landing at Suvla Bay designed to break the deadlock. Those dastardly Brits are going to use the colonials in a suicide attack to suit their own purposes! If the landing succeeds, it’s on to Constantinople to knock Turkey out of the war which will lead to the defeat of Germany. Just like the Somme! Oh, and not to worry Aussies, the preliminary bombardment will make the attack a cake walk. Just like the Somme!

     The bombardment is cinematically short, but realistically violent. The first attack is futile against the Turkish machine guns as is the second. Major Barton (representing the stereotypical sensitive officer like Col. Dax in “Paths of Glory”) wants to get the attack called off, but the telephone wire has been cut. He needs a really, really fast runner to rush the request to Colonel Robinson. Lucky for him Frank is a very fast runner. He runs to new ageish music which sounds like “Chariots of Fire”, but clashes with the rest of the mostly classical sound track. Col. Robinson (a stereotypical British twit reminiscent of Gen. Mireau in “Paths”) refuses to cancel the attack so Frank is sent to the general. The general decides to cancel the attack, but meanwhile the line is repaired and even Frank cannot outrun a telephone call from the colonel that orders the attack.

     The soldiers, including Archy, are unaware of the race against idiocy. They prepare for death by leaving mementoes in the trench. Archy leaves a track medal (lost potential) and a watch (lost future). The movie ends with Archie reenacting Robert Capa’s iconic Spanish Civil War photo entitled “The Falling Soldier”.

     “Gallipoli” is well done and was influential on war movies of the eighties. It is fairly accurate, but piles on the British to elicit nods from its core audience which still resents Britain’s misuse of the ANZAC. In actuality, Col. Robinson was a Col. Antill who was Australian, as was the general who planned the attack. Also, the Battle of the Nek was a diversion for a New Zealand attack, not the British landing at Suvla Bay. It is obvious Weir changed the facts to enhance the anti-British theme. He had to apologize later.

     The acting is okay, if a bit over the top. Gibson is a young Mel Gibson, nuff said. Lee is a little e bland, but so is his character. It’s themes of the loss of innocence and the futility of war are commendable. It is definitely anti-war. It is a buddy picture with some hints of a bromance between Archy and Frank which I feel it’s safe to say escaped Gibson’s notice when he read the script. I do think some critics have overemphasized the homosexual angle. Although the unrealistic way the cynical Frank runs off to a war because of his friendship with Archy gives ammunition to their argument.

     Not a bad movie, but not as good as "Breaker Morant" and not worthy of the 100 Best.

GRADE  =  B-

Thursday, February 3, 2011

CIVIL WAR READALONG: "The Sword of Antietam"

I am participating in the Civil War Readalong hosted by War Through the Generations.   My plan is to read several young adult novels on the war and comment on their quality and accuracy.  The first book is The Sword of Antietam  by Joseph Altsheler.  It was published in 1914.  Altsheler was a prolific writer of youth fiction.  He did series of books on the French and Indian War, Great West, Young Trailers, Civil War, World War, and Texas.  The Sword of Antietam is part of the Civil War series.  There happens to be a copy in our school library so there you have it.

The book is what you would expect from a book for teenagers written in 1914.  The prose is workmanlike and a bit repetitive.  The soldiers talk floridly which was probably fairly authentic, but still cringe-inducing.  The main character is Dick Mason, a Yankee soldier from Kentucky.  He is an officer in Winchester's Regiment.  Being an officer, he is not only in the thick of the fighting, but also privy to some of the strategic discussions of command.  He is also too good to be true, as you might expect.  So are his friends.

The book is pretty accurate and a teenager can learn a lot about the Civil War in 1862 from it.  Altsheler obviously has done his research.  He even includes the entire text of Lee's famous "Lost Order".  The book covers Second Bull Run, Antietam, Perryville, and Murfreesboro.  You do get a feel for the movements of the armies.  The combat is not graphic, but you do get the impression that they were very bloody.  You also get a clear picture of tactics.

The main drawback of the book is it gives you the feeling that the Civil War was an incredibly small world.  There are  thousands of men involved, yet there are some incredible coincidences and contacts.  Dick finds a wounded friend's body at night in a corpse-covered field within minutes with the help of a Rebel who he had met earlier on picket duty!  Dick meets his BFF who is now in the Rebel army a couple of times during the campaign.  Guess who finds the "Lost Order"?  Dick's mother shows up to help find his injured body at a later battle!  Men are getting killed in seemingly suicidal frontal charges into the mouths of cannons and volly fire and yet none of the main characters gets killed.  Realism is not a strength of this book.

This book is definitely not for adults who love literature.  A teenager could learn from it, but it is fairly long at 340 pages.  I would be surprised if anyone had opened it up in twenty years at our school.  The prose is as dusty as the book was.