Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Best WWII Comedy

My recent review of  as the #70 movie "Hail the Conquering Hero" on the 100 Greatest War Movies list got me thinking about what is the best WWII comedy. Besides “Hail”, other contenders would be:

“The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek”

“The Great Dictator”

“Buck Privates”


“Mister Roberts”

“Operation Petticoat”

“At War with the Army”

“Father Goose”

“What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?”

“Two Men Went to War”

“On the Double”

     In this post I am going to make the case for “To Be or Not to Be” as the greatest WWII comedy. TBONTB was released in 1942. It was directed by the acclaimed Ernst Lubitsch and stars Jack Benny and Carol Lombard (in her last film before her death in a plane crash on a war bond tour). It is set in Warsaw in 1939. Josef Tura (Benny) and his wife Maria (Lombard) are members of an acting troupe performing “Hamlet”. They have a typically dysfunctional acting-spouses relationship. Maria is having an affair with a dashing Polish pilot named Sobinski (Robert Stack) who comes to her dressing room each performance when Josef begins his “to be or not to be” soliloquy. Josef is very upset with this insulting distraction, resulting in the following exchange with Maria:

Josef: Someone walked out on me. Tell me, Maria, am I losing my grip?

Maria: Oh, of course not, darling. I'm so sorry.

Josef: But he walked out on me.

Maria: Maybe he didn't feel well. Maybe he had to leave. Maybe he had a sudden heart attack.

Josef: I hope so.

Maria: If he stayed he might have died.

Josef: Maybe he's dead already! Oh, darling, you're so comforting.

     Poland is invaded and months pass via a montage of Polish resistance. Sobinski is flying for the Royal Air Force. He meets a Professor Siletsky who is supposedly connected to the Polish underground, yet does not know who Maria Tula is. Sobinski goes to his superiors with his suspicion and is parachuted into Poland to alert the resistance. In turns out that Maria is working with the underground. She goes to Siletski’s hotel and pretends to be attracted to him. One of the acting troupe arrives disguised as a German soldier and takes Siletsky to Gestapo headquarters (the theater in disguise) to meet “Concentration Camp” Ehrhart (Josef in disguise). They have a hilarious exchange, but when Siletsky figures out he is being played he flees but is killed by Sobinski.

     Josef, disguised as Siletsky, goes to the spy’s room to get some papers from his trunk, but is intercepted and brought to meet the real Ehrhart. He finds out Hitler is coming to Poland the next day. Meanwhile, Siletsky’s body is found, so Ehrhart invites Josef back and shows him into a room with the dead Siletsky and closes the door. Ehrhart thinks being in the room with the corpse will cause him to crack and talk. Instead, Josef shaves off Siletsky’s beard and puts a spare fake beard on his chin. He then gets Ehrhart to pull on the beard and scolds him for not doing it earlier!

     A play is to be performed for der Fuhrer and the troupe plots a way to escape from Poland on Hitler’s plane. One of the actors (Bronski) does an excellent Hitler so they play like Hitler and his entourage are leaving the play early and thus commandeer his car. They have to pick up Maria, but when Bronski walks into her room he finds Ehrhart seducing her. Bronski immediately leaves, but Ehrhart is horrified to realize he is messing with Hitler’s girl. Maria adds to this by running after Bronski yelling “Mein Fuhrer!” They escape in Hitler’s plane. Bronski orders the two pilots to jump out without parachutes, which they do robotically.

     “To Be or Not to Be” is a true classic, but that fact was not recognized at the time of its release. The timing had something to do with this. The public and critics were in no mood for a comedy about the Nazis. The tragic death of Lombard also dampened enthusiasm for the film. Now that time has passed, the movie has taken its rightful place among the greatest comedies. AFI ranked it #49 on its list of greatest comedies. The only WWII comedy rated higher is “The Great Dictator” at #37. In my opinion, it is a much better film than Chaplin’s. It is certainly more laugh out loud funny. It is also less dated. The cast is great. Lombard is at her best and she definitely goes out at top of her game, sadly. Benny was never better. The dialogue is crisp and funny. There is taut suspense rare for a war comedy.

Monday, April 25, 2011


BACK-STORY: “Braveheart” is a war movie that was released in 1995. It stars Mel Gibson as the Scottish patriot William Wallace. Gibson did not want to act in the movie (he felt he was too old for the part), but the studio refused to finance it without the superstar appearing. Gibson also directed the movie. It was a critical and box office success. It won the Best Picture Oscar and Gibson was awarded Best Director. It captured a total of five Oscars. The movie was filmed in Scotland, although most of the extras for the battle scenes were from the Irish territorial army. The screenplay was written by Randall Wallace who also did Gibson’s “We Were Soldiers” script. He based the story on a medieval poem about Wallace by Blind Henry. Wallace claims to be a descendant of the hero. The movie was going to be rated NC-17 due to graphic violence, but Gibson made some cuts of the gorier shots.

NOTE: As with “They Died With Their Boots On”, I will insert the historical corrections into the summary because there are so many of them.

OPENING: The movie begins in Scotland in 1280. The narrator claims that the King of Scotland has died without heir so the “pagan” king of England, Edward I (Patrick McGoohan), has decided to conquer Scotland. (The Scottish king was still alive and had two sons. Edward was a Christian.) Edward invites the Scottish nobles to parley and then treacherously hangs them. (No such meeting or executions occurred.) Wallace, a farmer’s son, finds the bodies. (Wallace was the son of a lower knight.) His father goes off to war and returns dead. Wallace is adopted by his uncle.

SUMMARY: In London, Edward forces his flamingly gay son to marry a French princess. (Edward II may have been bisexual, but he had 5 kids by his two wives.) Edward orders the practice of primo noctae (the right to sleep with the bride first) to encourage British nobles to settle in Scotland. (Ridiculous, plus there was no such thing in England.)

     Wallace returns from a pilgrimage and reacquaints himself with his childhood sweetheart Murron. They secretly marry. He only wants to live in peace as a farmer. (If Wallace ever married it was after he was already an outlaw.) He rescues her from being raped by a loathsome British soldier. He escapes, but she doesn’t. The local baron slits her throat to lure him back. (all bull shit) Wallace comes riding back in with some nunchucks (I kid you not) hidden behind his back. The bloodletting commences ending with the throat-cutting of the baron and now Wallace is the leader of a rebellion.

     Robert the Bruce (Angus Macfadyen) is the logical heir to the throne. His father is a Machiavellian who is made repellant by his leprosy (untrue). The father convinces the Bruce that compromise with the British is the best route, so Robert does not join Wallace.

     Wallace faces the British at the Battle of Stirling (actually the Battle of Stirling Bridge, but since Gibson did not want a bridge interfering with his battle…) Wallace’s force waits for the British on a hill (like Spartacus). He gives a fiery speech (like in Henry V). Wallace’s men lift their kilts to moon the British. (The Scots did not wear kilts at this time in history.) When the British cavalry (wearing scaled armor?!) charges, Wallace’s men produce his secret weapon – pikes (which they had hidden where?) to impale the horses. The battle becomes a melee (like Spartacus without the graphic violence). The Scots win when the Scottish nobles flank the British with their cavalry. Wallace beheads the enemy commander. 90% of the British are killed. No main characters on Wallace’s side dies. (Nothing about this battle remotely recalls the Battle of Stirling Bridge which was an ambush of the British army as it crossed a bridge. The pikes were used at Falkirk, not here.)

     Wallace is knighted (untrue) and leads an invasion of England featuring the siege of York (he did sack some towns, but did not attack York). Meanwhile, Edward I is so upset he hurls his son’s gay lover out a window (Gibson was justly accused of homophobia for this scene). (The supposed lover was actually exiled, but not under these circumstances.) He decides to send the Princess Isabelle (Sophie Marceau) to negotiate with Wallace (I am not kidding) while he sneakily prepares an army. Wallace turns down the offer of title, lands, and gold (surprise!), but there is some chemistry between him and the Princess (surprise!) (Do I need to point out all this is bull crap?) Edward marches with a large army including Irish mercenaries (actually, there were no Irish in his army). The Princess sends warning to Wallace.

     In the Battle of Falkirk, the Irish open the attack, but when they reach the Scots, they shake hands and switch sides (I am not making this up). Wallace has fire arrows fired to set the oil spread the night before in the field afire (like Spartacus). This prevents the British cavalry from charging, but we still get an infantry melee. At the crucial moment, the bastard Scottish nobles leave the field thus dooming Wallace. Edward orders his archers to fire into the melee, not caring who gets hit. He then sends in reinforcements (like Spartacus). (In the actual battle, Wallace’s men were in hollow squares armed with pikes. Edward bombarded the fixed squares with arrows which won an easy victory.) Wallace sees Edward leaving (he decides not to stay to the end?) and goes after him like in a Western. He is dehorsed by a knight if full plate armor. Guess who is behind the visor? Robert Bruce! Bruce saves Wallace from capture. (Never mind!) The movie should have ended here, but then Mel would not have been able to get tortured (or torture history buffs some more).

     Mel goes Lethal Weapon on the two main treacherous nobles, killing one by riding his horse into the poltroon’s bedroom and smashing his head in with a flail! He drops the other’s corpse onto the Bruce’s dining table. (AYK) Edward sends the Princes to lure Wallace into a trap, but instead she allows herself to be impregnated in a romantic cottage. (A neat trick considering they never met and she was not even married to Edward II until two year after Wallace’s death. Plus she would have been nine years old at the time.) Wallace: “Why do you help me?” Isabelle: “Because of the way you are looking at me now”. (Gag, then barf!)

     Wallace goes to meet the Bruce, but he is captured because the leper sold him out so Robert could be king. (He was actually betrayed by a Scottish noble.) Robert is guilt-ridden about this and turns against his father.

THE CLOSING: The Princess begs Wallace to confess and thus avoid torture. Wallace agrees. (Just kidding) “Every man dies – not every man really lives.” (A quote from a different William Wallace.) And finally, the moment Mel has been waiting for – the torture scene! But not simple torture. First, lifted with a noose. Second, stretching. Third, pain inflicted on a cross shaped table (Christ imagery anyone?). Finally, because he responds with “Freedom!” instead of “mercy”, they mercifully behead him (wait, what?) (Actually, Wallace suffered worse in being drawn and quartered.) Meanwhile, Edward lies dying nearby. (He died two years later.) The last thing he contemplates is the Princess whispering that she carries Wallace’s child who will be the next king (provided it’s a boy, of course). (Alas, the fictional child was still-born.)

     We have to have a happy ending, so the movie implies that the immediate result of the killing of Wallace was Robert the Bruce leading an uprising that resulted in perpetual independence for Scotland at the Battle of Bannockburn. (Actually fought nine years later and eventually Cromwell conquered Scotland.)


Action – 8

Authenticity – 6

Acting – 8

Accuracy – 2

Realism – 4

Plot – 5

Overall – 5

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? It depends if they care about history or realism. If they don’t, they will probably enjoy the love story and they can close their eyes during the battles. The costumes are well done. Mel is a sensitive hunk.

ACCURACY: You know you are in trouble when even the title of the movie is inaccurate. The name “Braveheart” was actually applied to Robert Bruce. You get a preview of what is to come when the lies start flowing in the introductory narration. I do not want to beat a dead horse, but this movie is pure garbage! It could not have been more inaccurate than it is. Virtually everything is a mockery of the actual people and events. To make matters worse, Randall Wallace and Gibson had the nerve to defend its historical accuracy. Wallace is, of course, more to blame. He bases the story on the very dubious Blind Henry poem. This could justify taking liberties with Wallace’s early life (of which we have little knowledge), but not the raping of well documented events like the two battles. To have the Battle of Stirling Bridge depicted with no bridge in sight is infuriating. But in spite of the total disregard for history, many critics praised the film for its entertainment value. Have we reached the point where laughable cliches and ridiculous occurrences pass for entertainment? I could not help breaking out in laughter when the Irish switched sides in the middle of a charge or when Wallace and the Princess have a tryst between enemy lines. Unbelievably, Wallace got a nomination for Best Original Screenplay!

CRITIQUE: The movie is not terrible. The musical score by James Horner perfectly sets the mood throughout the film. The scenery is awesome. The environment is appropriately medievally grotty. The acting is very good. Gibson is more than competent. McGoohan makes Edward I as slimy a villain as you could imagine. Marceau is lovely and feisty. Macfayden is good as the conflicted Bruce. The supporting cast is above average (you might find the insane Irishman aggravating).

     The two battles, although inaccurate, are rousing. Especially the Battle of Stirling. The mechanical horses that get impaled are so lifelike that the ASPCA supposedly complained. As far as I know, no humans actually had any limbs hacked off, but there is so much hacking a mistake could have happened. However, it is obvious Gibson was ripping off films like “Spartacus”. But then again, several movies have done that. Speaking of “Spartacus”, you can’t beat the original and “Braveheart” does not even come close.

     You can see the future of Gibson (e.g. “The Patriot” and “Passion of the Christ”) as a film maker here. All the elements are there – over the top villains, getting tortured, unbelievable atrocities, Rambo-like heroics, and disregard for history or realism.

CONCLUSION: I’ll be truthful. I have passionately hated this movie since I first saw it in a theater. I tried watching it several years later thinking I was being overly harsh, but I could not get a third of the way through. Having to watch it all the way through for this blog project was the biggest chore I have encountered since I began. I won’t repeat what I said in my  "They Died With Their Boots On" post about history versus Hollywood. I do find it ironic that I had to review two of the most egregious trashings of history back to back. I do have a hard time deciding which movie is worse. You can make a strong case for “Braveheart” because besides its incredibly high rate of inaccuracies, it also has some of the most ridiculous plot elements and clichés ever to be found in a modern movie.

     This movie does not belong on a list of the greatest war movies compiled by any history magazine, much less Military History magazine. Shame.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

#68 - They Died With Their Boots On

BACK-STORY: “They Died With Their Boots On” is an old school war movie from 1941. It was directed by Raoul Walsh and was the eighth and last screen pairing of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. It was a huge box office hit. Two stunt men were killed in the filming of charges. One impaled himself on his sword as he fell from his horse.

NOTE: Because of the nature of the film, I have decided to intersperse comments on realism and accuracy throughout the summary rather than wait for the accuracy section.

OPENING: Custer (Flynn) arrives at West Point in 1857 dressed as a European Hussar and leading a pack of dogs. (Custer was poor and would not have looked like a rich boy when he arrived.) He is arrogant and has a prank pulled on him by an upperclassman named Sharp (Arthur Kennedy). After punching Sharp at parade, he is brought before Superintendent Sheridan (He was never Superintendent of West Point.) Sheridan recognizes something special in the plebe and becomes a guardian angel for him. This is useful because a montage highlights some of Custer’s demerits. (Ironically, most of the demerits were for pranks.)

the dashing Hussar

SUMMARY: The Civil War breaks out and Custer graduates ahead of schedule despite poor academics. Before he leaves, he meets the niece of Sheridan, Elizabeth Bacon (There was no relationship between the two and they did not meet at West Point.) Their romance gets off to a rocky start which is 1940s Hollywood’s way of foreshadowing their marriage.

     A chance meeting with Gen. Winfield Scott gets Custer appointment to a cavalry regiment in time for First Bull Run. (Custer’s assignment was normal and did not involve Scott.) Guess who is in command of the regiment – Sharp. Surprise! Custer disobeys Sharp’s orders and leads a charge which gets him wounded and decorated. (Custer did perform bravely, but as a messenger. He did not lead a charge. He did not get a medal and the medal shown in the movie was not created until 42 years later.)

     On leave Custer hears “Garry Owen” for the first time in a saloon and takes a liking to the tune. He insults a gentleman that turns out to be Elizabeth’s pompous father. Later, Bacon throws him out of the house during a visit with Libby. (Mr. Bacon disliked Custer because he was from the lower class.) Custer returns and proposes. They agree to marry when he becomes a general. He’s romantic and ambitious!

Libby and George

     Custer is accidentally promoted from Lieutenant to Brigadier General right before Gettysburg. (The promotion was for gallantry, not accidental. It was from Captain to General.) During the battle he saves the Union flank by leading his regiment against JEB Stuart. No Rebels appear in this scene. We just see Custer leading three charges. It is like watching a tennis match with one player.

     After the war, Custer returns home and gets married that same day with the approval of Mr. Bacon, now the father-in-law of a hero. Unfortunately, the boredom of civilian life causes Custer to become an alcoholic. (Custer actually did not smoke or drink.) Libby visits Gen. Scott and pleads with him to give her husband a western command. Scott promotes Custer over numerous senior officers because “the nation owes him.” (Scott was no longer in command and had nothing to do with the promotion.)

     On the trip to Fort Lincoln, Custer fights a duel with Crazy Horse (“Chief of the Sioux”) and takes him captive. (Do I have to point out this is bull shit?) At the fort, Custer finds his command to be a mess. Surprise! This is due to the post bar run by guess who? Sharp! By the way, Sharp is also openly selling repeating rifles to the Indians. (I am not making this up.) Not to worry, Custer shuts down the bar and teaches the men “Garry Owen” which instills discipline in the unit. Suddenly, the 7th Cavalry is worthy of their great leader.

     Meanwhile, Crazy Horse has escaped and a montage tells us there is a war going on with the whites. The conflict is fueled by discovery of gold in the Black Hills encouraged by Sharp’s railroad company. Custer meets with Crazy Horse (sporting a war bonnet that would shame a cigar store Indian). (Crazy Horse did not believe in showy dress and never met Custer.) Crazy Horse: “We will give up everything but the Black Hills.” (Crazy Horse opposed giving up anything.) Custer: “If the Great White Father gives the word, Long Hair will defend the Indians’ right to the Black Hills.” (Custer led the expedition that discovered gold in the Black Hills and then personally exaggerated the amount of gold leading to a gold rush.)

     Custer goes to Washington to rat out the corrupt Sharp and his cronies who are abusing Indian rights. He is being threatened with court-martial for insubordination, but barges into Pres. Grant’s office and demands reinstatement to his regiment. Of course, Grant agrees. (Custer got in trouble with Grant for testifying about scandals in the Indian bureau which involved Grant’s brother. Grant reluctantly reinstated Custer at the last moment because of prodding from Sheridan and others, not because of a meeting with Custer.)

      Custer can now participate in a campaign against the Indians with the hope of giving them justice. (I am not making this up!) They depart the fort with schmaltzy romantic music swelling and Libby fainting. Guess who he brings along to get redemption? Sharp! Custer to the greedy Sharp: “You can take glory[not money] with you when it’s your time to go.” On the march, Indian scouts spy on them. (The Indians had no idea Custer was coming.) When an old coot reports that Gen. Crook’s unit has been wiped out, Custer realizes that he must sacrifice the 7th Cavalry to prevent the same thing from happening to the main force led by Gen. Terry. (Custer did not know of Crook’s defeat, which was not a wipe-out. He did not think he would lose. He attacked, not to save Terry, but to get the glory before Terry could arrive.)

     Approaching the Indian village, Custer is ambushed by the Indians. (Custer was attempting to ambush a sleeping village and kicked a hornet’s nest instead.) In an epic scene, the soldiers fight on foot against a swarm of Indians (most wearing war bonnets). The music alternates between Indian and cavalry themes. There are the typical bloodless deaths, including the ever popular being-dragged-by-the-stirrups. Some of the troopers have swords. (No one, including Custer, had sabers at the battle.  Oh by the way, Custer had shorn his famous golden locks before the campaign.) Custer is the last white standing, naturally. He is shot by Crazy Horse in a moment of poetic justice. (Custer most likely was killed early in the battle. He was almost positively not the last to die. The chances of Crazy Horse firing the kill shot is approximately one in however number of Indians were participating.)

the last man standing

CLOSING SCENE: Libby Custer visits Gen. Sheridan. She brings Custer’s last letter, which because it has his dying words is considered to be unassailable and admissible in a court of law. He indicts the corrupt railroad company and pleads for fair treatment of the Indians. Sheridan promises to carry out Custer’s dying wishes and guarantees that Crazy Horse can keep the Black Hills. (This is the same Sheridan who famously said “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” As we all know, Custer’s death was the turning point in treatment of the Indians. They lived happily ever after. I think they still own the Black Hills.)


Acting – 7

Authenticity – 6

Accuracy – 2

Action – 5

Plot – 6

Overall – 5

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? What woman can resist Errol Flynn? The movie has a strong romance in it. The action is sanitized. There is definite chemistry between the two leads. It is not a hard core war movie and was obviously very popular with ladies.

ACCURACY:  I have already pointed out the numerous inaccuracies, but let me point out a few accuracies. Custer was a glory hound. He would fit in perfectly in our current celebrity-obsessed culture. He was a poor student and did accumulate a record number of demerits at West Point. He did have influential patrons throughout his career. His marriage to Elizabeth Bacon was one for the story books. He once went AWOL, abandoning his unit, to rush to her side. He did fight Stuart at Gettysburg. He was killed at the Little Big Horn. That’s about it.

CRITIQUE: “They Died With Their Boots On” is a classic example of entertainment trumping historical accuracy. The movie scored well with critics and has an 80% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Several reputable war movie critics gave it positive reviews. The movie is undeniably entertaining in a 1940s sort of way. It has something for everyone. The romance, the action, the humor, the pompous score,… Flynn and de Havilland. Kudos for the sympathetic, if patronizing, treatment of Native Americans. It is no surprise it was a big hit. What is surprising is that supposed fans of history can overlook the raping of history that occurs in this film. Specifically, how could the editors of Military History magazine place this movie in the Greatest 100, much less at #68?!

      More books have been written about the Battle of Little Big Horn than probably any other battle in American History and yet most Americans probably have a view of the battle and of Custer similar to what is depicted in this movie. And without a doubt many of the generation that grew up with this movie probably viewed it as an accurate retelling of the story. It is bad enough for Americans to learn their history from Hollywood screenwriters, it is inexcusable for people who know history to abet this. The movie should have been crucified by historians. Instead, many of them took the approach that while it is inaccurate, it sure is entertaining. Shame on them.

CONCLUSION: TDWTBO is to old school war movies what “Braveheart” is to modern war movies. Both films are terrible trashings of history. I would have to say TDWTBO is the worst of the two because it brazenly twists a well-chronicled event and person. At least with “Braveheart”, hardly anyone knew about William Wallace and many people were encouraged to find out the truth about him because of the film. He certainly was a positive personality so Gibson’s portrayal was realistic. Wallace really was a hero. Although the two battles in that movie are laughably inaccurate, they were not well known. On the other hand, Custer as portrayed by Flynn is a dashing hero, when in reality he was an egotistical jerk who was an incompetent Indian fighter. He deserved to die, but his men did not. To suggest that he was a friend of the Indians and that his death resulted in better treatment of them is beyond contempt. The simplistic depiction of one of the most famous battles in American History and its aftermath is a disservice to history and to its audience.

     As a defender of the integrity of history as depicted in war movies, I refuse to back down in my view that movies like “They Died With Their Boots On” and “Braveheart” are pitiful movies no matter their supposed entertainment value for the ignorant masses.

Friday, April 22, 2011

BOOK / MOVIE: "The Horse Soldiers"

     This will be my first foray into reviewing a book and its companion movie. Recently I read “The Horse Soldiers” by Harold Sinclair and then watched the old John Ford / John Wayne movie of the same name. Not surprisingly, the movie differed substantially from its source novel. Some war movies actually improve on their books. Is “The Horse Soldiers” one of them? Is the book an accurate and entertaining retelling of a true story?

     Sinclair retells the story of one of the most celebrated cavalry raids in American History. Grierson’s Raid took place during the Civil War in 1863. It was part of Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign. Col. Benjamin Grierson penetrated 300 miles into enemy territory to destroy a key rail station and generally cause distractions to support Grant’s siege of Vicksburg. He then continued on another 300 miles to reach safety in Baton Rouge.

     The book starts with Grierson (called Marlowe in the book) being briefed by a Gen. Hurlbut about the mission. We learn quickly that Marlowe is cynical and speaks his mind even to superiors. He openly questions Hurlbut’s suggested return route and it is obvious that he has contempt for the “desk-bound army”. It is also clear that Marlowe is going to do whatever he thinks is right once his command is on its own. Sinclair knows how the military works. Throughout the book he has insightful observations like: “A corps commander’s judgment is, according to the book, presumed to be sound because of what he is, not what the judgment is.” Marlowe accepts the assignment stoically, but we know it is going to be very risky.

     Marlowe dominates the book, but Sinclair develops several interesting characters. Mostly he concentrates on the officers – Secord, Bryce, and Gray. The novel is a good study of leadership traits – strengths and weaknesses. Marlowe is given the back-story of losing his wife to medical incompetence. He drinks too much, but has it under control. He is a typical civilian drawn into the war who makes the best of it and shows great aptitude for command. Sinclair: “For most men… the war was an interruption of their normal lives, something for which they momentarily turned aside, as though to put out a fire in the house of a neighbor.”

     Marlowe’s first big decision is to send back one of his three regiments on a circuitous route to confuse the enemy pursuit. Col. Blaney is unhappy with the order, but Marlowe is not to be dissuaded. The good of the many come before the safety of some is his philosophy. Blaney runs into a Rebel unit blocking his path. Sinclair digresses to put us in the boots of the Rebel commander Col. Barteau. This is an interesting view, but Sinclair largely abandons the approach for the rest of the book. Blaney charges through the block and on to safety in a scene lacking much combat. This trend continues throughout the book as Sinclair concentrates on command decisions and the mundane facets of a raid. This is realistic, but leaves the action-lover a little bored.

     Marlowe has to make another tough decision when he sends his most trusted officer (Capt. Bryce) on a side raid to further distract the enemy. Neither man expects to see the other again. Sinclair on this paradox of war: “Those who can least be spared must be offered to preserve the less deserving”. Marlowe keeps the incompetent Maj. Gray with him.

      The attack on the rail station at Newton is a bit anticlimactic. The small force of Confederates happen to be in the town are easily disposed of. The destruction of the rail facilities and trains are interesting, especially a vignette about the blowing up of a moving train. The big plot development is Marlowe putting Doctor Keller under arrest for neglecting the wounded to help with the problem birth of a Southern woman. Marlowe forces Keller at gunpoint to abandon the birthing, leaving us to wonder if the mother and child survived. The reader is left to ponder who is right in this dilemma.

     Meanwhile, Bryce is having some interesting diversions of his own. One involves a slave family with a three year old who sports an erection when the troopers arrive. Bizarre, but interesting. Another is their encounter with an addled Southern matron. They lose a trooper to a sniper who is not found. They spend a good amount of time trying to catch back up with the brigade. It is suspenseful reading. Sinclair includes a helpful map so you can follow the brigade and Company A. (Why don’t more historical novels do this?)

      Gray screws up when he is sent ahead to check out the next town and then forgets to send word to Marlowe that it is safe to proceed. Marlowe is incensed, but leaves Gray twisting in the wind. Later, Gray impulsively leads a charge across a bridge getting himself killed. Suicide to avoid demotion? At the same bridge, Marlowe’s life is saved when a bullet hits his pocket watch. A little trite. There is a small skirmish at this last Confederate barrier, leaving some wounded which Keller, naturally, offers to stay behind with even though it means captivity. By this point, Marlowe and Keller have developed respect for each other. Cliché alert! The book concludes with the exhausted brigade sleep-riding into Baton Rouge to be greeted by Gen. Wayne (seriously).

     “The Horse Soldiers” is an excellent study in command. Marlowe is a soldiers-leader. He does not care about the petty bull shit. However, he is very firm with his officers and his men. He realizes that leaders have to make decisions that will cost men their lives. He leads by example, getting less sleep than any of his men. At one point he falls asleep on his horse and is separated from the unit. He recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of his subordinates and uses this knowledge in assigning tasks. Marlowe is now one of my favorite literary characters.

     The book gets high marks for realism and accuracy. Sinclair in his “Author’s Note” proclaims that the book is “fiction, not history” and makes a point of not claiming to be historically accurate. He is being overly modest because in reality he has written one of the most historically accurate novels I have ever read. Unfortunately, the accuracy is liable to disappoint action fans. The fact is that the raid was blessed with incredible luck and benefited from the incompetency of the Confederates so there were no major battles. Only three Yankees were killed in the raid. Credit goes to Sinclair for not inventing combat scenes, but instead stressing the mud, dust, rain, exhaustion, etc. Grierson’s Raid deserves to be better known and this novel does a great service to it without going overboard. Sinclair does what I want from an historical novel. Put me in the head and shoes of historical characters. Imagine their thoughts and conversations, but don’t tamper with the historical facts.

     As far as the movie, it is obvious the producers found the book boring. The screenwriters jazzed up the story a lot to attract a non-historically inclined audience. There are numerous differences from the book. Keller (called Kendall in the movie) is given second billing and the conflict with Marlowe is ramped up and fills several scenes. A female character (Hannah Hunter) is added in the form of a Southern belle who is forced to come along after overhearing the plan to go on to Baton Rouge. But, of course, the biggest change comes in the addition of several combat scenes in no way related to the actual raid.

     In the movie, there is a ridiculous battle in Newton when Rebels arrive by train and then make a frontal charge down the main street to be slaughtered by the troopers firing from behind barricades. (Most fire revolvers and the few with carbines never reload.) More egregious is a scene where the cadets from a local military academy are called out to try to halt the cavalry column. The writers attempt to reenact the Battle of New Market from the Shenandoah Valley of 1864, but in a Hollywood way. The Rebel lads’ charge causes Marlowe to beat a hasty retreat to avoid killing any kids. How sweet. In reality, at New Market the VMI cadets (who were ages 15-24) were used to plug a gap in the line and then led the counterattack that won the battle. Ten were killed.

     Marlowe’s character is similar to the book. The movie makes it clearer that the conflict with the doctor is based on the loss of his wife. This is fleshed out in a laughable scene where Wayne gets drunk (Ford had forbidden him to drink during the shooting and he must have forgotten how to be drunk) after condoling a dying trooper. The tension between Marlowe and the doctor is ramped up. The arrest of Kendall comes after he successfully helps a slave give birth, thus removing the tension of the book version. It gets so bad that the two leads resort to a fist fight to settle their differences. Pure Hollywood hokum.

     Secord becomes a blow-hard politician on the make who questions every decision by Marlowe. Gray is a buffoonish actor wanna be, but not the major foil of the book. There is no Bryce. The decision to remove Bryce and add Hannah Hunter was a poor one. But hey, this is 1950s Hollywood – there has to be romance. Anyone that does not see love blossoming in the weeds of hatred between Hunter and Marlowe has not seen enough old school movies. Cliché alert!

      The acting is competent. Wayne is playing Wayne, as usual. William Holden (Kendall) does a better job and gets to be snarky and idealistic. Constance Towers (Hunter) chews the scenery at every opportunity. You are left praying they will shoot her. There is little chemistry between her and Wayne. In a patronizing casting move, Wimbleton champion Althea Gibson gets the humiliating role of Hunter’s loyal slave. As an actress, she is a good tennis player. Late in the movie, two bushwhackers fire on the column of hundreds of men and manage to kill the only black woman! It’s a pity that they didn’t hit the only white woman. One wonders if Lukey was eliminated before the brigade reached freedom. Hmmm.

     A few interesting asides. A stuntman named Fred Kennedy, who was a friend of Ford, was killed in a fall off a horse. This caused Ford to suspend filming and finish the film at another location. Both the book and movie use the fear of Andersonville when in fact the infamous prison camp had not been built yet. Both have racist undertones, but in different ways. Sinclair uses the “n word” freely and Ford avoids any commentary on slavery.

     In conclusion, read the book and skip the movie. Unless you finish the book and crave the action that was simply not there in Grierson’s Raid. In that case, by all means get Hollywood’s amped up look. Just don’t forget which one is reality.


Book  =  B-

Movie  =  C

Thursday, April 21, 2011

DUELING MOVIES: "In Which We Serve" vs. "The Cruel Sea"

     “In Which We Serve” and “The Cruel Sea” are two British war movies set in WWII. Both are set in WWII during the Battle of the Atlantic and follow the exploits of escort warships. The main characters are ship commanders, but the crews also get screen time. Both are proudly British in a stiff upper lip sort of way.

     “In Which We Serve” was released in 1942. The movie is dominated by Noel Coward who stars as Capt. Kinross and also wrote the screenplay, wrote the score, and directed. In what might be the shortest opening narration the movie opens with “This is the story of a ship”. The ship is the HMS Torrin which is sunk during the Battle of Crete fourteen minutes into the movie. Some of the crew, including Kinross, take refuge in a lifeboat. The film then settles into a series of flashbacks relating the stories of Kinross, Ordinary Seaman Blake (John Mills), and others. The various flashbacks contrast the lower, middle, and upper class strata on a ship. The scenes of family life are authentic and emotionally real. One highlight of the film is X-Mas dinners of three of the crew showing how the classes dealt with the war. It is apparent in each family gathering that the sailors love their ships more than their women and the women accept it.

     All the characters are proper British. A sailor who cowardly flees his post (Richard Attenborough) is forgiven by the Captain and later redeems himself before dying from a dastardly German strafing while in the life-boat. When one of the officers is informed that his wife and mother are killed in the Blitz, he takes it stoically.

     This is a great movie. It is extremely well-written, not surprising from Coward. The conversations ring true. The people talk like real people, not characters in a movie. The action scenes, filmed by David Lean, are well done. There is an interesting and instructive blend of sailor’s lives and the lives of their women. It is not overly propagandistic which is amazing considering the timing of its release.

     “The Cruel Sea” was released in 1953. It is based on the popular novel by Nicholas Monsarrat. The narrator tells us it is the story of the Battle of the Atlantic, of two ships, two crews, and the villain – the sea. The main characters are Lt. Commander Ericson (Jack Hawkins) and his Executive Officer Lockhart (Donald Sinden). Their first ship is a corvette, the HMS Compass Rose. The ship does convoy duty in bitter weather. Montages depict burning merchant ships and shipwrecked sailors. The sea is indeed cruel.

     The movie examines command decisions. At one point, Ericson risks the ship to rescue survivors. In another, he plows through others to chase a u-boat they have located on sonar. He is stiff upper-lipped saying “we have to do these things and say our prayers at the end”.

     When they return to port, they find it has been bombed. The chief had earlier told a mate that he was going to marry the sailor’s sister thus dooming one of them. (It turns out to be the sister whose houses is bombed.) Just like in IWWS, the chief takes the news stoically.

     On their next cruise, the Compass Rose is suddenly hit by a torpedo and they abandon ship in appropriate chaos. This is one of the great ship-sinking scenes in cinema. The survivors spend the night in a raft until rescued. Ericson and Lockhart are assigned a new ship, a frigate. They go on the Murmansk run. The film uses real ships, not models. They track down and sink a u-boat. Upon picking up survivors, Lockhart remarks that they “don’t look very different from us, do they?”

      “The Cruel Sea” is a good movie. It is not rip-roaring which makes it a realistic depiction of sometimes boring convoy duty. The sea does play a major role. The weather is the biggest problem the crews face. This is one of the wettest movies ever made. It is a good examination of command and command relationships. Ericson and Lockhart grow to respect each other and form an effective team. The cinematography is excellent. The acting is very good.

      These two movies make a great double feature if you want to learn about the British naval experience in WWII. They accurately reflect the dangers of convoy duty. They are realistic in their depiction of the class structure on board a small warship. “In Which We Serve” concentrates more on the home front and the women in the men’s lives and “The Cruel Sea” concentrates more on shipboard life and tactics. They are both realistic in their combat scenes.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

DUELING MOVIES: Twelve O'Clock High vs. Command Decision

      There are two war movies that deal with leadership of WWII bomber squadrons. “Twelve O’Clock High” deals with the stress of reforming an underperforming unit. Col. Savage (Gregory Peck) comes in and cracks the whip which results in at first rebellion and eventually respect. The tough love has the desired effect of restoring pride and discipline to the unit. The effort causes Savage to suffer a nervous breakdown. See my full review at Twelve O'Clock High
     “Command Decision” gives a bigger picture than “Twelve O’Clock High”. It examines the strategy of daylight bombing and questions about whether the losses were worth the results. Brigadier General Dennis (Clark Gable) has to deal with the stress of ordering missions that lead to heavy losses of B-17 bombers. He commands an entire bomber division, but his headquarters are with a bomber group and the movie concentrates on this unit. Meanwhile, he has to deal from pressure from the press, from the brass above, and from a congressional committee.

     The film takes place almost completely at the command level. There are no air combat scenes like in “Twelve O’Clock High”. Dennis is similar to Savage in that he is a hard ass and is very brusque. His men do not think he cares about them. In particular, a pilot named Jenks refuses to fly because he is “not going to get killed to make your record”. He is also getting grief from above. He is visited by his superior Gen. Kane (Walter Pidgeon) who is accompanied by Gen. Garnet (Brian Donlevy). Kane wants him to ease off to assuage the press and Congress. This differs from Savage’s dilemma since he had the backing of his superior.

     Both movies show their protagonists having to deal with the smaller picture. Dennis at one point tries to talk down a damaged bomber which ends up crashing and burning. For the most part, “Command Decision” stays on the operational level. When Dennis’ unit accidentally bombs the wrong target, Kane wants to spin it as helping the Navy by bombing a torpedo plant. He also wants to put a hold on Operation Stitch which is halfway toward destroying Germany’s jet fighter program, but is resulting in heavy losses. Dennis insists on carrying on and hearkens back to the unjust treatment of Billy Mitchell’s precision bombing strategy after WWI. Dennis gets Kane to continue the operation by threatening to out Jenks (whose uncle is on the congressional committee).

     The next mission of the operation is led by the bomber group CO and good friend of Dennis and Garnet, Col. Martin. Before the mission, he learns he is going to be promoted and he has a baby on the way. Of course, that makes him dead meat. When Dennis insists on going after the last target in spite of heavy losses including Martin, Kane relieves him and replaces him with Garnet. Will Garnet change the missions to “milk runs” for the short-term benefit of lower losses or continue Operation Stitch for the long-term benefit of shortening the war?

     “Command Decision” does a good job of reviewing the arguments for and against daylight precision bombing. It is a lot of talk and some of it is repetitive. The role of the press, the brass, and Congress are portrayed accurately, but melodramatically.

      Compared to “Twelve O’Clock High”, which it preceded by one year, it is an inferior movie. The Dennis character is less believable than Savage. Both leads do a god job, but Peck has the stronger performance. The supporting cast in “High” is also better. “Command Decision” is not as much of a psychological study and thus is less interesting. It has more of a top down perspective and the air crews are not really part of the focus other than being pawns.

Friday, April 15, 2011


      “Across Five Aprils” is a young adult novel by Irene Hunt. It won the Newbery Medal. It was published in 1964. It is set on a farm in southern Illinois during the Civil War. The main character is Jethro who is nine at the time of the first April. Hunt was inspired by stories told by her grandfather Jethro Creighton. As a result of the war, he sees his family broken up as his brothers go off to war.

     The Creighton family is living a typical life in 1861. But the war clouds are on the horizon. At a family meal, they debate the causes. Cousin Wilse Graham stirs things up by spouting the Southern point of view. The industrial North should leave the South alone. They are trying to keep us down. Slavery has always existed. Our slaves are better off than Northern factory workers. He manages to hit all the talking points. The Creighton view is simple – it is wrong to own another human being. This passage foreshadows the tutorial nature of the book. Hunt juggles the family drama with frequent references to events in the war.

     Jethro has the wide-eyed enthusiasm for the war that a nine year old would have. “War meant loud brass music and shiny horses ridden by men wearing uniforms finer than any suit in the stores of Newton; it meant men riding like kings, looking neither right nor left, while lesser men in perfect lines strode along with guns across their shoulders, their heads held high like horses with short reins.” He learns the realities of war over the next four years, but in a Disney sort of way.

     Jethro’s older brothers go off to war with his favorite (Bill) joining the Rebels. This plot development makes little sense. Bill’s reasoning that parrots cousin Wilse is unconvincing. Hunt obviously wants to balance the sides a bit. This also allows for some conflict with yahoos who torment the family because of Bill’s status. Unfortunately, Bill disappears for much of the remainder of the book so we do not get the Southern military perspective.

     Since the book stays with Jethro, there is no combat to liven things up. There is a subplot involving a hothead who resents Bill’s side-switching. Jethro is saved by an enemy of the family in an act of redemption. Pretty lame. When Mr. Creighton is disabled by a heart attack, Jethro is forced to become the man of the family. “Now he was to know labor from dawn to sunset; he was to learn what it meant to scan the skies for rain while corn burned in the fields, or to see a heavy rainstorm lash grain from full, strong wheat stalks, or to know that hay, desperately needed for winter feeding, lay rotting in a wet quagmire of a field.”

     Jethro keeps track of the war through newspapers and letters home from his brother John and his eventual brother-in-law Shad. Unfortunately, the letters are not particularly enlightening about soldier life. This is a missed opportunity by Hunt. We learn a lot about farm-boy life through Jethro, but little about what his brothers are going through. For example, Shad writes from the Antietam battlefield, but we learn nothing about the battle or his role in it. He does manage to opine on Gen. McClellan (a recurring subject in the book).

     An interesting subplot is Jethro’s encounter with his cousin Eb who has deserted and regrets it. Jethro writes to Lincoln pleading Eb’s case and naturally Lincoln responds that he has initiated a policy where deserters can turn themselves in and return to their units. At least Hunt does not have Jethro initiating the policy. This does conform with Lincoln’s personality and position on this issue.

      There is romance as Shad is wounded at Gettysburg and Jethro’s sister Jenny goes to nurse him and they marry. John writes a descriptive letter about the Battle of Missionary Ridge which stands out in the book. For the most part, Hunt does a good job keeping us posted on the military events, but seldom delves deeper than the big picture. Surprisingly, the book takes a turn at this stage toward more coverage of the war and less of the home front. It appears to be a rush to the finish line. We learn that Bill is a prisoner of war. Jethro is crushed to learn of the death of Lincoln. There is the obligatory happy ending with the return of the newlyweds in the fifth April.

      “Across Five Aprils” is an acclaimed young adult novel. It appears to be overrated, however. This might be due to its age. I would imagine the same plot today would be a bit more realistic in its handling of the cruel realities of war. As an educational experience, it is commendable. A young adult would learn the basics of the military events. Heck, with this generation, it is a plus that they would learn which side won the war. Hunt drops a lot of names of battles. (You might want to follow on a map). You also learn a lot about the attitudes of the people of southern Illinois toward McClellan, Grant, and Lincoln. It is excellent in its coverage of farm life, specifically through the eyes of a boy. In conclusion, I would not recommend it to any adults, especially those who already have a knowledge of the Civil War. However, it is a good, safe story for teenagers.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


BACK-STORY: “Guadalcanal Diary” is the rare war movie made during a war that is not laughably propagandistic and unrealistic. In fact, it was probably the first American-made realistic war movie to come out during WWII. It helps that it was true to its source. The film is based on the famous book by war correspondent Richard Tregaskis. He was with the Marines on Guadalcanal so he was eye-witness to the events depicted. The movie came out within a year of the victory in the Solomon Islands. The producers expressed their appreciation for the Marines, Army, Navy, and Coast Guard, but the movie is dominated by the Marines. The credits are backed by the Marine Corps Hymn. The movie stars many recognizable faces including Richard Jaeckel in his first role.

OPENING: A narrator tells us we are on a troop transport somewhere in the South Pacific. A Mass is taking place and Marines are singing hymns. God is on our side. There is the usual scuttlebutt and chatting among the leathernecks. The talk is realistic, but of course G-Rated. They are not sweating in spite of the tropical heat.

SUMMARY: We go below decks (still no sweating) and the quarters are spacious. The scene is reminiscent of “Thin Red Line” except with the cheesy narration. The chatter continues to be appropriate for their home front mamas to hear.

The transports hook up with their escorts. Some of the footage is actual combat footage which is a plus. Sgt. Malone (Lloyd Nolan) preps them by describing their mission which is to take an airfield. We hear the usual wisecracks. Capt. Cross (Roy Roberts) shows off a picture of his wife (cliché alert). The unit we will follow into combat is heterogeneous with an Irish Catholic priest, arrogant New Yorker, baby-face, tough NCO, feisty Hispanic, etc. No new ground broken here.

August 7, 1942 – “the great day itself”. The men nervously wait to disembark. They clearly care a lot about each other. No dysfunction in this group. This ain’t “Platoon”. There is footage of the bombardment of the island, but it lasts an unrealistic few minutes before they land. The landing is uncontested. They reach a village without any contact other than taking three prisoners. The Japanese are referred to as “monkeys”, but our medics humanely treat them. We are the civilized ones, after all.

The airfield is taken without a fight. One guy brags and bets “there isn’t a Jap within a thousand miles of here!” Guess who is soon after killed by a sniper? They dig in (still no sweating) and sing as they do it. Did all movies made in the 40’s have singing? As of August 13, there has still not been any contact.

We finally get some action when Capt. Cross is sent with a squad to capture some Japs who are ready to surrender. A Jap sub opens up on their craft, but a shore battery sinks it. They walk into an ambush. The dastardly Nips were lying. The Marines die bloodlessly. Cross dies clutching the photo of his wife, naturally. Only Alvarez (Anthony Quinn) escapes into the surf to report the atrocity.

It’s payback time as they go after the Japs through jungle that looks more like a forest. There is a realistic mortar barrage followed by a charge. They show no mercy because “those ain’t people”. One soldier uses Sgt. York’s turkey gobble technique to get a sniper to reveal himself and it’s “scratch one squint-eye”. They are veterans now and look the part as they return.

At mail call, one gyrene does not get a letter from home and is crestfallen – come on audience, write to your boys! The airfield is bombarded, but again the timing is too short. Here is a typical exchange: “Since when did you start smoking cigarettes?” “I’m starting right now.” On Oct. 10, the Army arrives. They are welcomed with open arms. We all know how much the Marines and Army love each other. I guess it would have been different if there was a bar for them to meet in.

Now the fighting evolves into ferreting out the remaining Japanese. A good scene has Malone and Potts (William Bendix) using grenades and a satchel charge to blow up Japs hiding in a cave. An Oct. 13 naval bombardment sends them diving into bunkers. The bombardment is intense and noisy. One character is given the privilege of saying “anyone who says he ain’t scared is either a fool or a liar”. Well, someone had to say it. Potts makes a “there are no atheists in foxholes” speech which is kind of corny, but heartfelt.

The night before the last battle, the soldiers sit around singing “Home on the Range” (they sang in “Platoon” too as I recall). Some of the men write letters home and we hear what they write. Nice touch.

The final battle is a frontal charge firing from the hip. The usual throw your arms up in the air as you go down deaths. They are supported by Stuart tanks. The Japs run into the surf and are slaughtered without mercy because they don’t deserve it. This is a good action scene.

CLOSING: On Dec. 10, their last day, they march off with smiles on their faces. Mission accomplished. One squint-eyed monkey infested island down.


Acting – 7

Authenticity – 7

Accuracy – 7

Action – 7

Plot – 7

Overall – 7

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? It would be inadvisable to subject your significant other to this movie unless she really likes old school war movies. There are no female characters. It is a very male movie. The leads are attractive in a 1940s way. The language and action are not graphic so there is nothing offensive in it. Heck, watch it with your grandma. She can tell you how much of a crush she had on William Bendix (the George Clooney of that day).

ACCURACY: The movie is fairly accurate for a war movie made almost current to the events it is covering. It is faithful to the book and as such offers more of a depiction of events in Tregaskis diary than a tutorial on the Battle of Guadalcanal. We learn what this particular unit went through, but get a hazy picture of what happened strategically on the island once we get past the first week. That first week is accurately depicted. The landing was unopposed and the airfield was taken easily. A modern movie would probably jazz up the action, but you could not get away with this in 1943. The audience would have been familiar with the basics of the battle.

The accuracy breaks down after the first week. For instance, you get none of the major Japanese assaults on the airfield perimeter at night. These intense banzai charges were probably beyond the ability of the director to accurately depict. Even if Tregaskis’ unit did not have to fight off one of these suicide attacks, some reference could have been made to them. The movie gives the impression we were never on the defensive and hard pressed during the battle. It definitely downplays the tactical and environmental problems the troops faced in a tropical jungle against fanatical soldiers. But then again, do we really need to see the epidemic of dysentery?

The American equipment is accurate. The Marines are armed with bolt-action Springfields, instead of M-1's which had yet to be issued. Stuart tanks were also used in the jungle terrain. Not surprisingly, the Japanese soldiers use American weapons. No complaint there.

The scene where the squad under Capt Cross is ambushed is an accurate relating of a famous incident in the battle.

One thing that is accurately cringe-inducing is the overt racism toward the Japanese. This would not have shocked a 1940s audience and reflects the attitude of not just the Marines but the American public. In a bizarre reversal, the G-Rated comments about the apelike and slant-eyed Japs would not be allowed today.

CRITIQUE: “Guadalcanal Diary” is very much a product of its times. It was probably the most realistic and accurate war movie made up until that time. Because it cinematically reproduces a very popular book, it was constrained in how much over the top adrenalin-fueled action it could show. In some ways this makes the movie disappointing to many war movie fans. Most war movie fans are not interested in seeing the actual ratio of combat to downtime. You have to give the producers credit for sticking to what the men actually went through

The movie is cliché –ridden and some of it is embarrassing now, but perhaps not back then. It is more excusable to have a variety of stock characters in a small unit movie in 1943 than in a 2011 movie, after all. I’m pointing the finger at you “Battle: Los Angeles”. Maybe when the captain shows off his wife’s picture the people in the theater did not nudge each other and say “dead meat” in 1943.

The acting is tolerable. The dialogue is your great grandma’s version of how soldiers talked. It has its humorous moments or what passed for humor in 1943. The action scenes are actually pretty good. Just don’t expect to see blood splatter or the bayoneting of wounded Japanese.

CONCLUSION: I am beginning to realize that the panel for the Military History magazine’s 100 Greatest War Movies defined great as partly historically important. That would be the only way to explain the ranking of this movie. Admittedly, it was ground breaking for its time since it covered realistically our first ground victory in the Pacific. It does a good job covering a best-selling book. However, I have read the book and would have to say it is pretty boring. It is overrated and so is the movie based on it. Few viewers under age 60 would find it exciting. Before you excuse its obvious clichés, remember these clichés were old even for a movie made in 1943. After all, there were plenty of WWI movies that had established the heterogeneous unit cliché, for instance. These clichés were probably comforting for an audience in the 1940s, but they seem silly today. I am no fan of “The Thin Red Line”, but it certainly is a better movie about Guadalcanal. But to really see how far we have come, watch the episode of the miniseries “The Pacific” that deals with John Basilone and then try to convince me that “Guadalcanal Diary” is the 69th greatest war movie.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

FINALS: Master and Commander (6) vs. Black Hawk Down (4)

Enough analysis. Let’s go to the point totals and see who wins the title of Greatest American War Movie of the 21st Century. And truthfully, I did not know the winner until I got out the calculator.

                                                    MASTER                      BLACK HAWK

Acting                                                 9                                        9

Realism                                            10                                        9

Accuracy                                           10                                       9

Entertainment Value                          9                                       9

Character Development                    9                                       7

Dialogue                                             9                                        9

Plausibility                                          8                                      10

Plot                                                      9                                        9

Action                                                  7                                      10

Sound and Visuals                             10                                      9

Soldier Behavior                                 9                                       9

Educational Value                               8                                      10

TOTALS                                         107                          109

Congratulations to you “Black Hawk Down” fans. You really know your war movies.

SEMIFINAL: Master and Commander (6) vs. We Were Soldiers (7)

ACTION: “Master and Commander” has some great action scenes. It also has some more dramatic scenes. It is a masterful blend of character development and plot evolution. When it does rev up into action, the action is intense and realistic. The boarding of the French ship is one of the great set pieces in war movie history. “We Were Soldiers” is similar to “Black Hawk Down” in that it unfolds into a second half that is pure action with the home front wives scenes interspersed. The Battle of Ia Drang matches Master's climatic battle in intensity, but it covers a longer time frame.

Score at the end of the first period: Soldiers - 9 Master – 7

SOUND AND VISUAL EFFECTS: Master won the Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and Sound Effects. It was nominated for Best Sound Mixing and Best Visual Effects. Sound designer Richard King and director Peter Weir went to great lengths to get it right. They went to a lot of trouble matching sounds mentioned in the Patrick O’Brien books with scenes in the movie. The visual effects were also outstanding. The ship battles, replete with flying splinters, are amazing. The storm scenes (this is one of the wettest movies ever made) make you very happy you are sitting in your recliner. Soldiers does not have the pedigree of Master, but it is competently done. Since it is a throwback to old school war pictures, it forgoes the bells and whistles of CGI. The helicopter scenes are well done as are the air support.

Halftime score: Master – 17 Soldiers – 16

SOLDIER BEHAVIOR: Master spends a lot of time below decks with the common tars of the British navy. Their behavior and banter is authentic. The movie also takes us into the world of the officer class and does a good job contrasting the differences between the sailors and the officers. The various activities on a wooden warship are accurately depicted. Special props for the subplot of the midshipman who is saddled with being the Jonah scapegoated for the ship's bad luck by the superstitious crew. Soldiers follows the 7th Cavalry through training into the big battle. We do not learn as much about the soldiers as we do in Vietnam War movies that are more small unit oriented (e.g. Platoon, Full Metal Jacket), but Soldiers also does not go over the top like them. It is after all a movie about a battle and mainly focuses on the two commanders – Moore and Nguyen.

Score at the end of three periods: Master – 26 Soldiers – 23

EDUCATIONAL VALUE: Master is not a true story, but as a tutorial on Napoleonic ship combat and life it cannot be topped. You learn about life above and below decks. It covers leadership and strategy and tactics. It also is excellent in giving the audience a feel for what it was like on a man-of-war during a storm or in battle. This is an area of history that has been woefully neglected up until recently with this movie and the Hornblower movies. Soldiers performs the service of teaching about our first battle in Vietnam – Ia Drang. Most people would not be familiar with this key historical event. The movie is very instructive about the battle and even gives insight into enemy strategy and tactics. It is a true story and faithful to the book. However, the educational value is diminished by the ridiculous Hollywood kickass ending and the omission of the aftermath of the battle which included the ambushing and annihilation of an American unit marching out of the combat zone.

FINAL SCORE: Master – 34 Soldiers – 31

Master battle scene

Soldiers battle scene

Thursday, April 7, 2011

SEMIFINAL: Black Hawk Down (4) vs. The Hurt Locker (1)

ACTION: “Black Hawk Down” is one of the most action-packed war movies you can find. Once the Battle of Mogadishu begins, there is hardly a dull moment. The fact that the Somalians were high on khat probably explains the intensity of their action. The movie is like watching the results of hitting a bee hive if the bees are on drugs. “The Hurt Locker” is more suspenseful than action-packed. The set pieces mostly involve men vs. inanimate objects (IEDs). Sadly, the bombs are not on khat. There is the sniper scene, but it is, after all, a sniper duel. Great scene, but not much action. If we accept suspense substituting for action, we can appreciate THL more.

Score at the end of the first period: BHD – 10 THL – 8

SOUND AND SPECIAL EFFECTS: BHD is a big budget movie by Ridley Scott who knows something about blockbusters. The helicopter ingress is an homage to “Apocalypse Now” with all the best sound effects available. The use of satellite imagery to bring variety to the views is well done. The shots of the Black Hawks going down are amazing. The movie won the Academy Award for Best Sound. It was nominated for Best Cinematography. THL had a much smaller budget, but the effects are still outstanding. The opening bomb explosion is jaw dropping. It won for Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing. It was nominated for Best Cinematography. However, it is more character driven than effects-laden.

Half time score: BHD – 19 THL – 16

SOLDIER BEHAVIOR: BHD spends a good bit of time with the soldiers before the battle. The banter seems realistic. The emotions as they prepare for potential combat rings true. The chaos of urban combat is reflected in different coping mechanisms. Not everyone is Rambo. The role of peer pressure and comradeship in motivating American soldiers is clearly apparent. The film also does a great job depicting the natural tensions between different units. The Delta Force and Rangers have different philosophies and SOPs. This is reflected in the leadership conflicts between Steele and Fichtner. THL confines itself to a limited range of soldiers – bomb disposal techs. The main character is supposed to represent a typical maverick, adrenaline junky of a bomb disposer. His loose cannon behavior and disregard for common sense safety protocols makes his actions seem unrealistic. The other two members of the team are more believable. Mackie is justifiably incensed by James’ recklessness and even considers fragging him. Eldridge is appropriately confused by the power struggle going on between his superiors. This dysfunctional team is probably not typical.  I hope.

Score at the end of three periods: BHD – 28 THL – 23

EDUCATIONAL VALUE: BHD tells the story of the Battle of Mogadishu. This battle was fought in Somalia which is in Africa. Strike one as far as American knowledge. It was part of a humanitarian effort involving the United Nations. Strike two. We lost. Strike three. This was a battle that deserved historical recognition. In particular, Shugart and Gordan (Medal of Honor recipients) deserved their portrayal. The movie is also outstanding as a lesson in what not to do in urban combat. THL gives the audience a look into the world of bomb disposal. These incredibly brave soldiers deserve recognition. The film does an excellent job depicting the situation in Iraq in the period after major combat operations ceased. You learn a lot about IEDs. However, as a tutorial on how bomb disposal works, it takes some liberties for character development.

FINAL SCORE: Black Hawk Down – 38 The Hurt Locker - 31

the sniper scene from BHD

the sniper scene from THL