Wednesday, June 29, 2011

#89 - Dunkirk (finally)

Hey gang, I finally got a copy of "Dunkirk" and it was worth the wait.

BACK-STORY: “Dunkirk” is a war movie about the famous “miracle” evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from France during the German invasion of 1940. It was released in 1958 and is a British black and white film directed by Leslie Norman. It is based on the novel The Big Pick-Up by Elleston Trevor and the book by Lt. Col. Evan Butler and Maj. J.S. Bradford.

OPENING: The movie opens as though you are in a WWII movie theater replete with the newsreel showing Prime Minister Chamberlain meeting with the French government during the “Phony War” and a cartoon making fun of Hitler. It is apparent that the British public is not taking the war seriously and the government and military are not prepared for the onslaught. We meet cynical reporter Charles Foreman (Bernard Lee) as he questions the veracity of military reports. His counterpoint is John Holden (a milquetoast Richard Attenborough) who brags about how much his business is making off of war orders. He has every intention of avoiding active involvement in the war.

SUMMARY: A small squad of British soldiers is lost and on the run in the chaos surrounding the invasion of France. They are trying to find their unit. When their commanding officer is killed, Cpl. “Tubby” Binns (John Mills) reluctantly takes over. He is the stereotypical enlisted man who doesn’t want “the stripes”. He and his four men pass through a line of refugees which is promptly strafed with the usual “it sucks to be a civilian” results. They hook up with an artillery battery and barely move on before Stukas arrive to destroy this finger in the dike.

     There is time to take refuge in a farmhouse and get a nice night’s rest including a meal of eggs and stale bread. These are not super soldiers so they get surprised by an early morning German attack that sends them spilling out the back door and results in Binns having to make the tough decision to leave a wounded man behind. Being a leader is tougher than being a follower. His back-slapping mates are now less than thrilled with him.

      Meanwhile back on the home front, Operation Dynamo has commenced with the British government confiscating private boats for the evacuation of soldiers trapped at Dunkirk. Holden is confident he will not be affected because his boat is six inches too short, but even after his wife begs him to stay home “for me and the baby”, he is shamed by Foreman into donating his boat. When the boatmen witness the returning wounded, Foreman leads them in demanding the Royal Navy allow them to participate. Under peer pressure, Holden agrees to go. Their little motley flotilla crosses the English Channel to stirring music.

      Back at the front there is a crisis in command when Binns insists the men move on, but they want to lounge around in a barn until the Germans arrive. Tubby is going to throw his hands up when his friend convinces him that being a horse’s arse is part of British leadership and he forces them to move. Too late. There are Jerries everywhere, but they cheekily walk right through their camp (with the aid of a distracting air raid) and then make a run for it (they do a lot more running than fighting in the movie) until they are picked up by a British truck that takes them to Dunkirk.

     Although newcomers to this evacuation, our heroes quickly get to the front of the line for evacuation via a destroyer. Unfortunately, almost as soon as they are on board the ship is hit and set afire. The ship sinks (using footage from “The Cruel Sea”) and they are now back on the beach which is periodically bombed by the Luftwaffe.

      Our two story lines intersect when Foreman’s boat gets sunk and Holden picks him up. The Heron develops engine trouble and guess which group has a mechanic that can help? This will take time, giving Foreman a chance to see what it’s like on the beach and to explain to Blinns how fouled up the war effort is. “The Germans knew war was guns or butter. They chose guns, we chose butter.” And it’s not a stick of butter than kills him. “Was he a civvie?” someone asks Binns. “What’s the difference?” retorts Tubby.

CLOSING: The survivors leave in the Heron, but when it breaks down it looks like they are Calais bound via the tide. The cavalry, I mean British navy, comes riding to the rescue and soon its home sweet home to fight another day.


Action - 7

Acting – 8

Accuracy – 8

Realism – 7

Plot – 7

Overall – 7

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Yes. The cast is strong, although there are no significant roles for women and one of them is a the stereotypical “put me before your country” type. The violence is noisy, but not graphic. There is no blood. Strafing does not even result in bullet holes. The home front gets equal billing with the battle front.

ACCURACY: The movie is pretty true to the facts. It glosses over the big picture, but the vibe is basically accurate. England was woefully ill-prepared both materially and mentally for the war. The movie begins in the “Phoney War” period before the German barged into France. Other than the rare Charles Foreman (none of the main characters are real), most Brits were clueless that a storm was about to hit. In fact, there was a bizarre overconfidence symbolized in the movie when we see the singing of “Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line” in a music hall juxtaposed with an animated map showing Germany engulfing northeastern France and encircling Dunkirk.

     Operation Dynamo is accurately depicted although the big picture is vague. I assume the filmmakers assumed the audience was well aware of the history. Boats were rounded up and many civilians did participate. Several destroyers were lost to the point that the Admiralty pulled them out temporarily until Vice Admiral Ramsey insisted on risking them. (A scene that appears in the film.) The lining up of the men on the beaches and the pier are true to the situation. However, the wooden pier that gets bombed with men falling into the water was in actuality a rather substantial stone pier.

      Two of the biggest inaccuracies are more along the lines of omissions. At one point in the film, a RAF pilot who was shot down and is now on the beach with the soldiers takes a lot of grief for his branch’s lack of effort. He lamely blames it on the lack of squadrons, but leaves the RAF on the hook for not protecting the beaches. In reality, the RAF put out an outstanding effort in the skies over Dunkirk. The problem was much of the dogfighting could not be seen by the soldiers and thus went uncredited. It is perplexing why a British filmmaker would perpetuate this canard.

       The other omission is the virtual exclusion of the French role in Dunkirk. The fact is that French army forces played a sacrificial role in holding back the Germans long enough for most of the British (and it must be said, many French to escape). It seems this fact could have easily slipped into the script.

CRITIQUE: “Dunkirk” is an above average war movie. It attempts to blend two stories and is successful. Foreman and Holden represent the two attitudes on the home front - the cynical, pessimistic patriot and the naïve appeaser. The movie is actually pretty critical of the British public during the “Phony War”. Holden is not meant to be a rarity. In fact, Foreman is the lone voice in the wilderness. Foreman is a bit preachy, but the movie is not blatantly patriotic. And by the way, what is he preaching about? The war has been over for thirteen years. You don’t suppose he is envisioning the Cold War, do you?

      The soldier story is reflected in Binns. He is meant to be a typical enlisted man and comes off as one. This includes his reluctance to accept the mantle of command. He is given little back story, but his character is fleshed out by the pressures he endures. This is more than can be said about the other members of his squad. We don’t get to know them very well. One of them talks like a girl, but that’s the only thing memorable about them.

      Binns offers a study in command. He evolves into a strong leader, but it’s a rocky road. He is mostly to blame for them getting caught with their pants down in the farmhouse (although I doubt the movie was trying to make this point). He makes the right decision to leave the wounded guy behind and he probably would have been on the other side of the argument if he was still one of the blokes. His big scene comes when the men rebel against moving on in the night. At first he wimps out, but then he grows a pair and accepts the hatred that goes with the stripes. (A typical movie scene that defies logic to make a plot point – those soldiers would have taken no convincing to keep ahead of the Germans.)

      The two stories intersect inevitably because this is a movie, after all. It’s amazing that for the first half of the movie, Binns’ group is wandering confused and lost in a big world and then in the last part it becomes a simple and small world where they can hook up with Foreman and Holden.

      Technically speaking, the movie is very good. It blends archival footage well, but not seamlessly. However, I’d rather have blurry Stukas over CGI Stukas any time. The movie has some of the best air and artillery bombardments on film. Those look and sound like real explosions. And we get a lot of them. Every time you look up, they’re getting bombed or strafed. The beach set is impressive. Lots of extras to run when the Luftwaffe appears. The score is stirring and not overused.

CONCLUSION: This movie is a classic, old school war movie. It is not great, but it does its job efficiently. The acting is appropriate and you will recognize many familiar faces (hey, that’s James Bonds’ boss!). It’s a comfortable movie that breaks no new ground. However, it deserves credit for calling out incompetence in the government and military and criticizing the British people for their behavior before the invasion of France.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

#60 - The Tin Drum

BACK-STORY: “The Tin Drum” is a 1979 German war movie based on the novel by Gunter Grass. The movie is set in WWII Danzig. It was directed by Volker Schlandorff. It is one of the most critically acclaimed war films of the 1970s. It shared the Palme d’Or with “Apocalypse Now” at Cannes and won the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. It was banned in Oklahoma because of an underage sex scene.

OPENING SCENE: The movie is narrated by a little boy named Oskar (David Bennett). He flashes back to his grandmother hiding his future grandfather from the police by allowing him to take refuge under her skirt. They get married and have a child, but later his grandfather disappears. This part of the film has the feel of a silent movie, but with color and sound. You know immediately that you are in for a wild ride.

SUMMARY: We see Oskar’s birth from his POV. He did not want to be born and is only happy when his mother gives him a toy drum at age three. Because he is disgusted with the adult world, he decides he does not want to grow up. To achieve this goal, he throws himself down the basement stairs and like magic, his body stops aging! But if you think this is a Disney movie, think again.

     This is one creepy kid. Imagine if Linus was to emit a piercing scream whenever anyone tried to take away his blanket. I’m talking glass shattering scream here. He also tends to beat the drum like a monkey on crack whenever things don’t go his way, which is often. Don’t get me wrong, the adults in his life are no saints. For instance, he catches his mom having an affair with her cousin (“Uncle Jan”). There is a ménage a trois taking place in his home. His father joins the Nazi Party and his “uncle” remains a loyal Pole.
      The film is a series of bizarre scenes. Oskar takes up with some circus midgets. He goes to a Nazi Party rally where his drumming causes the band to break into waltz music resulting in everyone starting to dance. One of the many WTF moments in this odd film. In another scene his mother commits suicide by eating too much raw fish. You’ll never want to pig out on raw fish again. Skip the popcorn for this movie.

      The war comes to Danzig and Oskar and “Uncle Jan” (his mother’s lover) are caught in the post office. They play cards as the building collapses around them. Jan and the other Poles are shot, but Oskar survives. Next, Oskar hooks up with a sixteen year old girl who comes to work for his father. He is also sixteen chronologically and hormonally. They have a very disturbing sex scene that is way beyond the morals of Oklahoma, but would creep out people living in Greenwich Village. Later, he catches Maria with his father (naturally). Maria gives birth to a child, but whose child?

     Oskar joins a group of midgets who entertain the troops. They dress in German uniforms. He falls in love with a little woman, but she is killed by a lone artillery shell when she goes back for one last cup of coffee before they escape the advancing Americans. Are you still with me? He returns home.

CLOSING: Russian soldiers arrive in Danzig. Oskar gets his father killed for no apparent reason in a scene that is ridiculous even by this movie’s standards. At the funeral, he throws his drum into the grave and vows to age again. This is accomplished by his being conked on the head with a rock by his brother (son?). Remember that cure if you ever fall down some stairs and stop aging.


Acting - 7

Action - 4

Accuracy - N/A

Realism - 4

Plot - 4

Overall - 4

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Certainly more than men (at least men who like war movies). It is bizarre, but not graphic. It can be disturbing, however. I do not recommend it for any pregnant women, by the way.

ACCURACY: Accuracy is not a factor in this movie. But for those of you who are on drugs while watching this movie (which might not be a bad idea), allow me to point some things out.. There are tin drums and they can be very annoying in the hands of kids. You cannot stop aging by throwing yourself down the stairs. Seriously, the attack on the post office and the execution of the captives is accurate. Danzig was occupied during the war, but it was largely destroyed by the time the Russians arrived, a fact that is not made clear in the film.

CRITIQUE: In 1979 at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, two war movies tied for the top prize. One of them is a great movie, the other is “The Tin Drum”. That’s right – just as many Cannes film experts chose this movie as chose “Apocalypse Now”!  I am not a film expert, I can only speak as a war movie lover who has seen a lot of war movies. “The Tin Drum” is like a bad poem that no one wants to groan at because they think it will make them seem uncultured. This situation reminds me of the old tale “The Emperor Has No Clothes”. I’m the guy in the crowd yelling “The Tin Drum” is naked!

      The main character is despicable and unlikable. He is the opposite of cute. If you encountered him you would have a hard time not punching him in the face and stomping on his little tin drum. I think the movie intends for us to root for him over the corrupt adults he is rebelling against. Mission not accomplished.  He is not a rebel, he is a brat.  He does not symbolize the loss of innocence brought on by the war, although people insist on seeing this.

      The film is visually striking. It does keep your interest. The acting is adequate and you have to admire the performance of Bennett. The look of Danzig (other than the lack of destruction) is authentic.

      Many of the scenes are ridiculously bizarre. And don’t tell me it’s supposed to be weird and allegorical. I got that, but there is effective bizarre and WTF bizarre. This movie is WTF bizarre. For instance, Military History magazine’s review praises the family dynamic as a satire of Hitler’s family. How is this similar to Hitler’s family? Is this something that Grass admitted to or is it something critics have “deciphered”? Either way, it is nonsense.

CONCLUSION: I am glad to report that “The Tin Drum” is not a bad war movie because it is not a war movie. It is an odd tale set in a war. Regardless, it’s placement at #60 is beyond comprehension.  (I am no big fan of the similar "Come and See", but it is a much better war movie than this.) It is in the running for least deserving member of the 100 Greatest list. I expect professional critics to be fooled by “art” like this, but the panel of experts put together by Military History magazine? Shame!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

CIVIL WAR READALONG: With Every Drop of Blood

     With Every Drop of Blood is written by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier. It is set in the Shenadoah Valley during the Civil War in 1864-5. It is told from the first person view of fourteen year old Johnny who is a farm boy. The war is closing in on the farm, At one point the Yankees come and steal their cow while the family hides in the woods. His father is off fighting in the Army of Northern Virginia while Johnny and his ma “plowed with the mules, planted, hoed, cut hay, and dug potatoes.” His father returns wounded from the Battle of Cedar Creek. He had enlisted because it’s what men did.

     Pa explains that the war is about states’ rights. Southerners don’t want the federal government to tell them what to do. The North is too bossy. Besides, slaves aren’t worth the cost to keep them so slavery can’t be a major factor. And no one we know owns any. Unfortunately this wise man passes away in a touching scene. Before going he makes Johnny promise not to fight in the war. Johnny gets around this by conning his ma into allowing him to use the family wagon and mules to join a supply train bound for Richmond. They can really use the $400. (I sure hope that is not Confederate money, because if so, he is risking his life for nothing.) He convinces himself it will not be dangerous because 50 of Mosby’s cavalry will be escorting.

     The wagon train is ambushed by Yankees. Surprise, they are darkies! (The authors also use the n-word.) Johnny is taken captive by a Private Turner. They immediately dislike each other. Johnny is confused and distressed by the fact that Turner does not fit his idea of how a slave is supposed to behave. Turner is uppity. He doesn’t show deference to him even though Johnny is white. Turner wants Johnny to teach him to read and Johnny agrees as part of his plan to escape. Turner has a copy of the “Gettysburg Address” that Johnny teaches from. Only Johnny is not exactly teaching all the words correctly. For instance, he substitutes “all men are created eagles”. He’s not about to help a darky become his equal. The book does a good job depicting the superiority attitude whites had with regard to blacks.

     A bond develops between the two teenagers. Johnny is learning to empathize with this ex-slave especially when he learns what Cush has gone through. Cush even saves Johnny from being sent to a prison camp by claiming he is needed to drive his mules. In the process of loading the wagon, Johnny changes into a blue uniform and then can’t find his clothes to change back after Cush points out Johnny will be considered a spy now. Things get even more complicated when Cush is injured in a bombardment and Johnny drives them to safety. Somehow this makes them both fugitives now. They are on the run in the wagon when some Rebel cavalry stop them and take Cush to Appomattox Court House. Johnny follows, determined to rescue his friend. He gets a home cooked meal at the McLean house and is there for Lee’s surrender.

     There are some really excellent historical young adult novels out there. Some of the best include Slopes of War, April Morning, and Fallen Angels. With Every Drop of Blood is not in their league. It is simplistic and shallow. The first and third parts are weak. The first third tends to be repetitive with its discussions of the causes of the war and the temperaments of mules. The only good part of the book is the middle third when Johnny and Cush are getting to know each other. The last third gets progressively silly. The whole teach Cush the wrong words to the Gettysburg Address scenario is lame. Cush deserting because he feels he will be seen as an accomplice to Johnny’s “spying” is unrealistic at best. The two ending up at Appomattox Court House is a stretch even for a young adult novel.

     Considering that one of the author’s is a historian, the book is surprisingly light on history. The Shenandoah Valley shows little of the devastation that four years of armies marching through it would have created. The siege of Petersburg is vaguely alluded to. The non-historical figures are fictional, but supposedly everything that happened to Johnny and Cush “happened to somebody”. That seems hard to believe. Mosby’s Rangers were active in this area, but I don’t know if they escorted any wagon train into Richmond.

     In conclusion, With Every Drop of Blood is satisfactory as a 6-9th grade novel, but it holds little appeal for an older audience. I think it has a positive effect on a younger audience and could teach empathy and tolerance. It is also a pretty good buddy story. It is endearing, if trite.  By the way, the title is deceptive - there is very little bloodshed.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Rearranging #100-61

It time to adjust the 100 Greatest list. After seeing 39 of the first 40 movies (still have not seen “Dunkirk”), it is obvious the Military History magazine’s panel of experts was off in its rankings. Here is how they should have been ranked:

99. Ben Hur (96) (not a war movie)

98. Foreign Correspondent (86) (not a war movie)

97. The Third Man (80) (not a war movie)

96.  Castle Keep (66)

95.  They Died With Their Boots On (68)

94. The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp (87)

93.  Hail the Conquering Hero (70)

92.  Braveheart (67)

91. To Hell and Back (77)

90. The Thin Red Line (100)

89. The Alamo (61)

88. Ballad of a Soldier (81)

87. Guadalcanal Diary (69)

86. Guns of Navarone (93)

85. Northwest Passage (97)

84. Henry V (75)

83. Run Silent, Run Deep (79)

82. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (98)

81. They Were Expendable (99)

80. Desert Rats (88)

79. The Desert Fox (78)

78. The Big Red One (71)

77. Battle of Britain (90)

76. Midway (92)

75. Manchurian Candidate (85)

74. Bridges at Toko-Ri (73)

73. Sahara (83)

72. El Cid (63)

71. Twelve O’Clock High (72)

70. Ran (76)

69. The Man Who Would Be King (77)

68. Cross of Iron (64)

67. A Walk in the Sun (82)

66. A Bridge Too Far (94)

65. Casablanca (65)

64. Dr. Strangelove (84)

63. The Train (62)

62. Breaker Morant (91)

61. Last of the Mohicans (95)

Based on what I have seen so far, I estimate that at least 20 movies on the 100 Greatest list will not make my 100 Best list. Here is a list of twenty that I feel will be worthy replacements. Feel free to suggest others.

Enemy at the Gates

Master and Commander

Three Kings

The Hurt Locker

We Were Soldiers


The Great Raid

Where Eagles Dare

Tora! Tora! Tora!

Midnight Clear

When Trumpets Fade

84 Charlie Mopic

Hamburger Hill

A Rumor of War

9th Company

Tae Guk Gi

Dances With Wolves

Son of the Morning Star

Hornblower: The Duel

The Beast

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

#61 - The Alamo

BACK-STORY: “The Alamo” is a war movie released in 1960 about the famous siege of 1836. It was directed and produced by John Wayne. He did not intend to star in his directorial debut, but the studio refused to back the project without Wayne starring. Wayne deserves a lot of credit for overcoming every obstacle to finish a project that was obviously important to him. He assembled a good cast and did a competent job as director. He also put a lot of his own money into it and did not recoup his investment. The movie did not do particularly well at the box office but did get Oscar nominations for Sound, Cinematography, Editing, Score, and Song. The money does show up on the screen with the recreation of the Alamo from the ground up at Alamo Village in Bracketville near the actual site in San Antonio. The set took two years to construct and looks more authentic than the original. Rumor has it that the fake Alamo has a basement.

OPENING: Introductory text implies that Santa Anna is marching into Texas to bring tyranny. The Texans “now faced the decision that all men in all times must face…the eternal choice of all man… to endure oppression or to resist.” Sam Houston (Richard Boone) arrives in San Antonio. He puts William Travis (Laurence Harvey) in command and orders him to delay Santa Anna while Houston creates an army. He asks Travis to put up with Jim Bowie (Richard Widmark) even though he is an alcoholic.

BFFs - Bowie and Travis

SUMMARY: When Travis and Bowie meet sparks fly immediately. Bowie calls Travis a “jackanape” which I’m pretty sure is an insult. Their personalities and strategic visions clash. Harvey plays Travis as a pompous ass who is not above lying to the men about the actual odds against them. He insists on being in command and holding the Alamo as a strategic point. Widmark does a convincing portrayal of a hard drinking frontiersmen who likes to have his large knife do his talking. He feels the Alamo should be abandoned. Into this power struggle comes Davy Crockett (Wayne) with his motley crew of Tennessean hunters. The group includes several recognizable faces who have provided comic relief in other Wayne films. It also includes teen idol Frankie Avalon for the teenage girl demographic. (Shockingly, Avalon, unlike Ricky Nelson in “Rio Bravo”, is not given a song to sing by the Duke.) They head immediately to the local cantina, naturally. Crockett gets on his soap box to make a speech about “republicanism”. “Republic. I like the sound of the word. It means people can live free, talk free, go or come, buy or sell, be drunk or sober, however they choose.” Gag! Save it for the Oscar acceptance speech. 

     This being a 1960 movie, you have to have a romance so Crockett makes the acquaintance of a Mexican senorita and saves her from the advances of a caddish gringo. Wayne’s stunt double beats up six lackeys with the help of Bowie. They bond over some whiskey which gives Bowie the opportunity to laud the Mexican people. It’s Santa Anna alone who is the villain. The movie is laudably sympathetic toward the Mexicans (at least they are not Indians).

     Crockett takes on the role of peacemaker between Travis and Bowie, who is threatening to leave now that Santa Anna’s large army is just down the road. He’s not the only one who is having second thoughts. Crockett’s solution (he was a politician) is to read an inflammatory forged letter to the men to get them riled up. Mission accomplished and even when Crockett reveals the authorship (why?), they still want to stay and fight. With the battle imminent, Crockett sends away the senorita. If you think they will reunite and live happily ever after, please retake American History.

     A surrender demand by Santa Anna is answered with a cannon shot by Travis. Game on. That night Crockett and Bowie disobey orders to raid the Mexican camp to disable le grande cannon. Relations with Travis worsen and Bowie plans to leave with his men, but Crockett gets him drunk and he changes his mind (what passed for therapy back then). With the Mexican army arrayed outside, Travis accepts Santa Anna’s offer to let the women folk leave. Mrs. Dickinson refuses to go because she is a soldier’s wife. We are treated to this gem: “Ma’am, I ain’t got no woman to say goodbye to, can I say goodbye to you?” To top that, a blind wife insists her husband stay. He then proceeds to hide in the wagon since she can’t see him, just kidding.

     The siege opens with an artillery duel and then an infantry assault resulting in many old school bloodless deaths of the Mexican sheep, I mean soldiers. One of the Texans proclaims “Even when I was killing them, I was proud of them.” Travis is wounded in the leg, but the Mexicans are thrown back by the remarkably accurate rifle fire.

     Word arrives that reinforcements will not be coming, so Crockett and Bowie get ready to lead their men out. Travis gives a speech thanking them and basically telling them they should not feel that they are cowards. No man is going to tell them they are cowards by insisting that they are not, dag nabbit! (What passed for reverse psychology back then.) They decide to stay. During the last night’s reflections there is time for a debate about God. God wins. Bowie sets his slave free, but he insists on spending his first and last day of freedom dying with his ex-master and new best buddy. Take that Civil Rights Movement.

CLOSING: Spoiler alert, do not read the rest of this paragraph if you do not want to find out if any of the Texans get killed (and please retake American History). The climactic battle opens with a single cannon volley and then the human toy soldiers are sent into the maelstrom. We get plenty of explosions and gunfire and Crockett knocks over a horse with his hands (but he does not punch him like Mongo did in “Blazing Saddles”). Travis is shot while sword fighting. Crockett is stabbed but manages to set off the gunpowder. Bowie is bedridden, but meets his executioners with a multi-barreled gun. He is bayoneted in spite of his ex-slave shielding his body with his own. Mrs. Dickinson rides off into the sunset.


Action - 7/10

Acting – C

Accuracy – D

Realism – C-

Plot - D

Overall – D

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Probably. The action is not intense or graphic. The leads are charismatic. There is a lot of talking – women can relate to that, right? There is a chaste romantic subplot. Of course, it must be admitted that the female characters are not exactly icons of feminism.

ACCURACY: The movie stumbles right out the gate with the false implication that the Texas Rebellion was brought on by tyranny. In actuality, the Americans who had settled into Texas were reacting to Santa Anna exerting more centralized control over the province of Texas. The Texicans had gotten spoiled with federalism which had allowed them to violate the laws against slavery and Protestantism. Santa Anna was more like a parent cracking down on spoiled brats than an evil tyrant.

     Sam Houston never came to San Antonio. He actually sent Bowie to the Alamo to evacuate the untenable position. The current commander talked Bowie into holding the fort. When Travis arrived, he pulled rank on Bowie. Eventually they agreed to share command. They did not disagree about the necessity of staying. The film is accurate in depicting the personality conflict. Two men could not have been more different. The movie does a bit of polishing of their images. Travis had abandoned his family. Bowie had been drinking heavily for about two years, ever since the death of his wife and kids to cholera (the movie has them dying shortly before the battle). The two men agreed to share command after Bowie won a vote of the men, but then he proceeded to lead a drunken debauchery that sullied his victory and resulted in the shared command.

     Crockett and his crew are supposedly in Texas to hunt, but actually they had come to settle. Crockett was looking for a new start after his political career had ended in the states. The romance was obviously fictional. There is also no evidence that he played peacemaker between Travis and Bowie.

     The arrival of Santa Anna’s army is fairly accurate. The surrender demand came in the form of a red flag signifying “no quarter”. Travis did respond with a cannon shot, but the film omits that Travis and Bowie tried to negotiate an honorable surrender and it was due to Santa Anna’s insistence on unconditional surrender that the siege continued.

     There were some raids outside the fort, but not like in the film. A cow herd was brought in, but this happened when the Mexicans first arrived and they were not stolen. There was no raid to disable a giant cannon because Santa Anna had only standard size field pieces.

     Bowie was not bedridden by a wound. He was actually out of action much earlier due to typhoid (or a drunken fall) and did not participate in the battle until the very end.

     In a movie that chose myth over reality, there is one curious exception. The movie has Travis addressing the ready-to-depart men and thanking them for staying that long. In most versions of the story, Travis is much more patriotic and sacrifice-encouraging. Shockingly, the movie omits the famous “line in the sand” moment where the men (led by the stretcher-bound Bowie) decide to stay. Why would you go with an inferior fictionalized version?!

     The final assault is pretty accurate, although there were actually three and they were pre-dawn. The Mexicans did swarm over the walls taking significant casualties. What we do not see is the two weeks of constant bombardment that led up to it. The deaths are a mixed batch. Travis actually was killed early in the battle while wielding a shotgun on the wall. Bowie probably died in the bed taking a couple of Mexicans with him by way of pistols. There was no multi-barreled gun and his slave Joe actually survived the battle. Crockett’s death allows some play because it is still under much dispute (some historians even have him being executed after surrendering!). However, we do know he did not set off the gunpowder – that was a different defender and he was killed before he could accomplish it. You don’t think Hollywood was going to forgo an explosion in lieu of the truth did you?

     Susanna Dickinson and her daughter were the only white survivors.

     By the way, the historical consultants (J. Frank Dobie and Lon Tinkle) demanded their names be removed from the credits.

CRITIQUE: "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend". Ironically this famous line was from a John Wayne western that came out two years after “The Alamo” (“Who Shot Liberty Valance?”). It could fit Wayne’s handling of the Battle of the Alamo. He made a movie about what people wanted to have happened at the Alamo, not what actually happened. This makes the movie a classic example of the age old question of whether a filmmaker has a responsibility to stay reasonably close to the facts. My position is that a filmmaker should not substantially alter history, especially when the real story is compelling to begin with. As you can see above, the revision of history that takes place does not add enough entertainment to justify the changes. It is especially egregious when the revision comes to sell a viewpoint.

     Wayne was being a Cold Warrior when he made the movie. The arch-conservative Duke was using the Alamo to represent America under siege by communism. His message was that we should be ready to die for democracy. Freedom or Death. I would argue that if you have that kind of agenda, either choose an event that more clearly exemplifies that idea or make a totally fictional movie like “Red Dawn”.

     The film is entertaining in an old school epic kind of way. The setting is grand and the Alamo itself is very authentic. You are transported back in time. In fact, the site remains a popular tourist attraction and was used for the filming of numerous other Westerns. The action sequences are well done, if a bit tame by current standards. The final assault is justifiably well regarded. The pageantry is Hollywood at its best with Wayne using 7,000 extras as Mexican soldiers, 1,500 horses and 400 longhorns. The score adds to the flavor of the film and a big hit came from the song “The Green Leaves of Summer”.

Oscar, please!
     The acting is spotty. Wayne does a fine John Wayne as Crockett. Harvey catches the essence of the tight-ass Travis. (At one point during the filming of a cannon shot, the recoiling gun broke Harvey’s foot. He stayed in character until Wayne yelled “cut”.) Widmark chews the scenery a bit, but someone has to in a movie like this. The supporting cast (including Wayne’s son Patrick) probably were entertaining when the cameras weren’t rolling, but were less than stellar on camera. It is unbelievable that Chill Wills was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar (and then proceeded to shamelessly campaign for it).

CONCLUSION: If the 100 Greatest list was compiled in 1961, “The Alamo” would belong on the list. But time passes and what was good then is not necessarily good any more. “The Alamo” pales in comparison to more modern epics that are unbelievably ranked lower in the rankings. You cannot seriously argue that this movie is superior to similar epics like “The Big Red One” (71), “Battle of Britain” (90), “Midway” (92) “A Bridge Too Far” (94), or “The Last of the Mohicans” (95). For that matter, I’ll be a little radical and argue that a similarly themed movie called “300” is superior. Regardless, “The Alamo” does not belong in the Top 100.

WHAT ABOUT THE 2004 VERSION? I followed up this review with a first viewing of the 2004 version to answer the question “is newer better?” The answer is maybe. The acting (Billy Bob Thornton as Crockett, Jason Patric as Bowie, and Patrick Wilson as Travis) is better overall and the men are portrayed closer to their actual personalities. Crockett in particular is a morose individual who uses humor and comradeship to cover the stress of being a legend. This is the revisionist Crockett. Santa Anna has a much bigger role and Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid doing the scene chewing) allows the movie to have more background and also close with the Battle of San Jacinto. This version has a happy ending!

      The set is outstanding, including the local town. It was the largest and most expensive set ever built in America. It is a more accurate recreation than in the original movie. The pageantry is similar with a comparable number of extras. No CGis. Some of the Mexican soldiers are given stories. The movie is much more balanced than the original. Travis’ and Bowie’s slaves are also prominent with one of them taking the opportunity to evacuate and the other staying with his master.

     The 2004 version’s big advantage is in accuracy. It is not perfect, but it definitely is closer to the truth. It is obvious the screenwriters consciously tried to avoid the myth. The climactic battle is outstanding. It is one of the best I have seen. It’s a shame few people have seen it (the movie was a huge bomb). Any teacher covering the siege would do well to show just that part in class. The fact that the assault takes place pre-dawn shows that often the best entertainment comes from sticking to the historical facts. I believe it also shows that modern movies have an advantage in technology. Wayne probably could not have shot the battle effectively in darkness.  (However, there is not a chance in Hell that he would have eschewed daylight anyway.) The deaths of the big three are laudably accurate with Crockett being executed as the sole survivor.

     So why is the answer “maybe”. Because 2004 is not as entertaining. The attempts to balance the dry historical facts with Hollywood moments come across as hokum. For instance, Crockett accompanies the Mexican band playing “De Guello” on his fiddle which awes the Mexicans into not bombarding them that night. Wait, what? Also, let’s face it. Billy Bob Thornton is not John Wayne and Jason Patric is no Richard Widmark. And who the hell is Patrick Wilson?!

Sunday, June 19, 2011


Identify the following movies and put your answers in the comments section.   Winner (first to get a perfect score) gets a shout-out on Arm Chair General Forums and Historum next Sunday as well as this site.  On Friday, the quiz shifts to matching.  Good luck!











Special thanks to the excellent web site imfdb, the Internet Movie Firearms Database, for the pictures.


Saturday, June 18, 2011


A new feature of my blog is previews of upcoming movies that I will be posting on.  I am hoping this will encourage people to watch the movies ahead of time and then contribute to the reviews.  Please periodically link to the site listed under "My Bunkies" labelled "War Movie Lovers forum".  Feel free to join the group, by the way.  Let's watch together!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

CRACKER? Centurion

Quintas Dias
     “Centurion” is a war movie set in Roman Britain at the height of the Roman Empire (117 A.D.). Text on the screen tells us the Romans are encountering fierce resistance from the Picts who are using guerrilla warfare to keep the Romans out of the north. The main character is a centurion named Quintus Dias (Micheal Fassbender). He serves under a charismatic general (“He’s a ruthless, reckless bastard and I’d die for him without reservations” says one of his men) named Virilus (Dominic West). Virilus is ordered by the Roman governor to end the Pict threat. He is loaned a mute scout named Elain (Olga Kurylenko) who definitely does not look like a typical barbarian woman. She is surly and hot and can’t talk (every man’s fantasy).

Etain mouthing a war cry
      The 9th Legion marches north. They march into a fog so you know nothing bad could happen. Surprise! They are ambushed and wiped out. The Picts roll balls of fire down on them (a Roman slave named Spartacus makes note of this). Speaking of Spartacus (the Starz series this time), the violence is graphic and splatterful. It turns out the Etain led them into a trap. The Romans killed her father, raped her mother, and cut out her tongue. For some reason, she hates the Romans.  Go figure. She is a villain because she has a mean look on her face and she wants to kill Micheal Fassbender.

General Varilus
     Varilus is taken prisoner and the seven survivors (led by Dias) go to rescue him. They infiltrate the Pict camp at night, but cannot unchain him. In the process, Thax accidentally smothers a boy. Would you believe it’s the chief’s son and he is irritated about it? The seven escape.  Virilus is dispatched in a pretty good duel with Etain. The movie now becomes a chase film with Etain and others (including another hot chick) tracking the seven. Will all seven survive? Is this a Disney movie?

the other hot Pict chick
      Things get desperate for our heterogeneous small unit. They kill and eat a deer raw to prove you can turn an audience’s stomach in more ways than just amputations and impaling. At one point they have to jump off a cliff into a river ala Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (and now there are six as one drowns). Their camp is raided while they raid the Pict camp (and now they are five). They are now separated with Thax and black guy Macros being chased by wolves. Thax treacherously hamstrings his buddy to appease the wolves (and now there are three). Meanwhile, Dias, Brick, and Bothos hide out in the hut of Arianne (Imogen Potts) who is a Pict who was banished for witchcraft. They hide under her floor when Etain visits, but she cannot smell them (for a change). After she leaves, Dias and Arianne make a connection (off screen – none of that mushy stuff to distract from the gore).

some slashing and hacking
     The trio reaches an abandoned Roman castra and defend it against Elain and her crew. Every possible sword and arrow wound is displayed as though the director has a check list. (Arrow in left eye – check. Right arm cut off – check.) Dias kills Etain in a duel. That will teach her for trying to avenge herself and her family and stand up against foreign invaders intent on enslaving her people! Now there are three (when Thax returns). They head home, but Thax attacks the righteous Dias who is intent on turning Thax in for his crimes. Guess who wins that fight. Now there are two. Bothos rides ahead to the Roman camp with a big smile on his face because there’s no way the Roman guards could mistake him for a Pict. Now there is only Dias. And the rest is not history.

     If you like B-movies with so much blood and gore you have to take a shower when you get done, this movie is for you. The wounds are graphic, the action is intense, and there are not one, but two kick-ass female warriors. It is fairly well acted.  Honors go to the ever reliable West and Kurylenko who has to emote without dialogue.  Fassbender is appropriately rugged and the rest of the cast is serviceable. It is predictable and cliché-ridden, but entertaining. As far as accuracy, it’s not as farfetched as you might expect. It is possible that the 9th Legion was annihilated in northern Britain (although the historical consensus is against this theory). The Roman camp is authentic. The Roman weapons seem realistic.  The settings do take you back to the wilds of Roman Britain.  So far it is the best movie about the lost 9th Legion, at least until the next one comes out.

     Cracker?  This is a fun movie, but does not belong in august company.

Monday, June 13, 2011

#62 - "The Train"

BACK-STORY: “The Train” is a war movie directed by John Frankenheimer that was released in 1964. It is based on a non-fiction book entitled Le Front de l’Art by Rose Valland. The film was originally helmed by Arthur Penn, but co-producer and star Burt Lancaster axed him because Penn wanted to make more of a character study and Lancaster insisted the action be revved up. The film was shot on location in France. No models were used. Those are all real trains crashing and getting blown up. The air bombardment of the marshalling yard was symbiotic because the French government wanted the area cleared anyway. (That less than one minute scene required fifty men wiring TNT for six weeks.) Lancaster (51) did all of his stunts. This included sliding down a hillside. When he injured his knee stepping in a hole while golfing, it was written into the script that he would be wounded while fleeing under fire. One scene where the train races into a tunnel to avoid a strafing Spitfire was added to have an additional action sequence. Frankenheimer was almost killed when the helicopter he was filming from came within ten feet of being hit by the Spitfire.

OPENING: The movie opens in Paris on August 2, 1941 (the 1511st day of occupation), just days away from Allied liberation. A German officer Col. Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) visits an art gallery where the Nazis have concentrated much of the French masterpieces they have stolen. The curator Mlle. Villard (based on the author Valland) thanks him for being a non-typical Nazi in that he admires art. He says “I’ve often wondered at the curious conceit that would attempt to determine taste and ideas by decree.” She is stunned when he suddenly orders the paintings to be crated up to be removed to a “safe place” in Germany.  It is unclear whether he is an art lover or simply a thief.

SUMMARY: Von Waldheim becomes obsessed with getting the train loaded with the art out of Paris. He considers it more important than military trains. We first meet his adversary Labiche (Lancaster) on a long tracking shot as he tries to flag down a train, slides down a ladder, runs along the tracks, and jumps aboard the moving train. Labiche runs the rail yard, but is also a leader in the Resistance. He is visited by Villard who makes a passionate case for delaying the art train because the art is part of the glory of France. Labiche is unimpressed and points out that his cell started with eighteen men and is now down to three. “I won’t waste lives for paintings.” Besides, their top priority is delaying a military train so it is still in the yard when a scheduled bombing raid takes place.

In a terrific scene, the bombardment catches both trains in the yard, but a crusty old engineer named Poppa Boule races the art train through the explosions to save the precious cargo. (This iconic scene used 140 explosions involving 3,000 pounds of TNT and 2,000 gallons of gasoline.) Boule (who has decided on his own to help Mlle. Villard) has sabotaged the engine, but he is discovered and executed. His death shames Labiche into taking on the task of delaying the train.

When the train heads for Germany, Labiche hatches an elaborate plan to fool the Germans by changing the names of stations they pass to hide the fact the train is actually heading in the wrong direction. Finally, Labiche cuts the engine loose and leaps free leading to the locomotive colliding head on into a disabled locomotive in a spectacular crash that destroyed several of the cameras filming it. Labiche takes refuge in a hotel where a jaded, but sympathetic French widow (Jean Moreau) aids him. “Men want to be heroes, but their widows mourn” says the war-weary Christine.

Word arrives from London that the art boxcars must be saved from an upcoming bombardment by having the roofs painted white so the bombers will bypass them. Labiche thinks this is crazy, but after some ranting, agrees to try it. During the night, a fake air raid siren causes the Germans to cut the lights allowing for the whitewashing of the roofs. This saves the art from the bombardment, but allows Von Waldheim to now move by daylight without being strafed.

Labiche blows up the tracks in front of the train, but the Germans repair it and add hostages riding on the locomotive to dissuade Labiche from further sabotage. Undeterred, Labiche loosens a rail causing the train to derail – end of journey.

CLOSING: Von Waldheim flags down a military convoy and tries to force the commander to replace his troops with the crates of art. The major is not cowed and refuses. He does pick up Von Waldheim’s men, however. Before the convoy moves on, the hostages are machine gunned. Von Waldheim stays behind for a final confrontation with Labiche. Labiche shows up, sees the dead hostages, and approaches Von Waldheim with a submachine gun. The German taunts him:

Labiche! Here's your prize, Labiche. Some of the greatest paintings in the world. Does it please you, Labiche? Give you a sense of excitement in just being near them? A painting means as much to you as a string of pearls to an ape. You won by sheer luck: you stopped me without knowing what you were doing, or why. You are nothing, Labiche -- a lump of flesh. The paintings are mine; they always will be; beauty belongs to the man who can appreciate it! They will always belong to me or to a man like me. Now, this minute, you couldn't tell me why you did what you did.

Labiche lets his machine gun do his retort. (In fact, Labiche only speaks once in the last 33 minutes of the film.)


Action - 9

Acting - 9

Accuracy – 7

Realism - 7

Plot - 9

Overall – 9

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Yes. The story is stirring, the action is suspenseful, and the acting is strong. There are two notable female characters. Burt Lancaster is a real man. The deaths are not graphic.

ACCURACY: The movie is surprisingly based on a true story. The book is supposedly a real nail biter, but in reality the Resistance used paper work and red tape to delay the departure of the train and then put it on a loop around Paris until the Allies arrived. The Spitfire attack was also based on an actual incident, but not involving the art train. The activities of a train station and marshalling yard are authentically depicted.  Other than Villard, all the main characters are fictional.

CRITIQUE: This is a remarkable movie. Frankenheimer described it as the last great action movie made in black and white. It is hard to imagine it in color and colorizing it would be a sacrilege on a par with “Casablanca”. The cinematography is crisp and the railway yard comes off as appropriately gritty and busy. The long tracking shots are awesome and you see a lot of the Frankenheimer style (interesting angles and close-ups) in the way the movie is filmed.

The acting is great. Lancaster is in top form. He portrays the complexity of Labiche. Labiche is cynical, yet patriotic. He becomes just as obsessed as Von Waldheim. Scofield is an effective foil. He is not your typical Nazi. He is cultural, yet ruthless. He disobeys orders and schemes. The rest of the cast is memorable, especially Michael Simon as Papa Boule and Jacques Marin as the stationmaster. The trains do a great acting job as well. The musical score by Maurice Jarre is fine, but it is overshadowed by the sounds of a working railway and the trains themselves.

The one flaw in the movie is it is pretty preposterous at times. The Germans have to be clueless to be fooled by the changing of the station names. The idea that bombers could avoid hitting some box cars because they are painted white gives too much credit to bombing accuracy. Although the French Resistance was probably not as efficient (or lucky), the movie gives a good look at the dedication of its members and the incredible risks they took. It is an homage to these brave men.

The theme of the movie is thought provoking. Is a nation’s cultural heritage worth men’s lives? This is the question Labiche has to answer. It is unclear, even at the end, what his answer is. Considering he is the only good guy left alive at the end, the viewer could come to the conclusion that the art was not worth it.

CONCLUSION: “The Train” is a very entertaining movie that shows how there are advantages to not having color or CGI. It has everything that makes going to movies an enjoyable experience. It is underrated at #62.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

"Cold Mountain"


     “Cold Mountain” is a war romance set in rural North Carolina during the Civil War. It is closely based on the best-selling novel by Charles Frazier. The movie is a big budget film directed by Anthony Minghella with an all-star cast.

     The movie opens with a recreation of the famous Battle of the Crater during the siege of Petersburg in July, 1864. The horrors of war are accurately displayed as a huge explosion from a tunnel dug under the Confederate trenches creates a massive crater that Union troops pour into only to be trapped with the Rebels firing down upon them from the ramparts. Some Rebels are even throwing bayoneted rifles like spears. The carnage is hellish. There is hand-to-hand combat in the crater. It is a great battle scene. The trenches, uniforms, and equipment are authentic. However, there are some flaws in the battle itself. The battle is partly famous for the participation of black soldiers (some of whom were given no quarter) and yet the movie has only one brief glimpse of a black soldier. This is border line offensive and cannot be excused by the fact that the Romanian Army, which provided the extras, had no blacks in it. Other factual errors are that the battle lasted a lot longer and there was little hand-to-hand. It would have been foolish for the Rebels to give up the high ground to go into the Crater!

Ada and Inman
     After this dynamic opening, the movie leaves the war movie genre to become a modern version of the Odyssey. A Confederate soldier named Inman (Jude Law), after being wounded in a skirmish after his participation in the Crater, decides to heed the pleadings of his girlfriend Ada (Nicole Kidman) to return home. A flashback fills us in on the chaste beginnings of their relationship. They had barely met when secession fires the breasts of the men-folk of Cold Mountain. They part with a kiss and the unspoken understanding that they are meant for each other. The rest of the movie jumps back and forth to tell their separate stories.

     Inman’s trek home brings him into contact with a variety of memorable characters. He hooks up with a sinful preacher (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who he prevents from killing an impregnated slave. They help a dirt-farmer named Junior (Giovanni Ribisi) with a dead cow and then in his home are seduced by his sluttish women while he steps out. Junior returns with the Home Guard and Inman and the preacher are arrested. Later, Inman escapes when the Home Guard comes under attack from some Yankees. Later, he spends the night with a Confederate widow Sara (Natalie Portman) and her baby. She tells him, “Knock on just about any door – man dead, woman left.” A good summation of the effect of the war on Southern women. When three Yankee soldiers come to the farm house, Inman kills two of them before they can rape Sara and she murders the third who was actually watching over her baby. War is Hell, even away from the front.

     While Inman is on his odyssey, Ada is dealing with problems on the home front. Her father dies, leaving her with a farm to run. Being a cultured city girl, she is overwhelmed. To the rescue comes a salty, hardscrabble farm girl named Ruby (the scene-chewing Renee Zellwegger) who learns her bout farmin’. They develop a close relationship and make the farm productive. This is the least of their problems as they have encounters with the evil Home Guard led by Teague (Ray Winstone) and his psychopathic henchman Bosie (a chilling Charlie Hunman). The Home Guard uses its commission to hunt down deserters and conscription-avoiders to prey upon families. They kill a farmer friend of Ada’s and torture his wife to reveal her two deserter sons who they then kill.

     Things get more complicated when Ruby’s estranged father Stobrod (Brendan Gleason) returns and reconciles with the embittered Ruby. Stobord is hiding in the hills with two fellow deserters including Jack White of the White Stripes. They happen to be musicians which gives the filmmakers the excuse to include some live blue grass to go along with the background songs that are noteworthy for their excellent rendering of period music appropriate for the rural South of this time period. (The movie was nominated for its Original Score and two of its songs.) Unfortunately, Teague comes upon their camp site and Stobord is mortally wounded. Ruby and Ada are nursing him back to health when Inman comes walking up like an apparition. He and Ada do not embrace (?), but after some tentative reacquainting, they consummate their love and live happily ever after. Not! There has to be resolution of the fact that Teague/Bosie are still around. Watch the movie to find out what happens. Have some Kleenex handy, ladies (and some gentlemen).

     First let me dispense with the question of whether “Cold Mountain” deserves to crack the Greatest 100 list. No, because it is not a war movie. It is a romance and road picture set in a war. With that said, it does a good job bringing to light the situation on the home front in the South. This makes it a very good historical movie. It is the rural companion to the upper class “Gone with the Wind”.

      The movie does not claim to based on actual events. However, Frazier did have an ancestor named Inman who deserted and had a confrontation with the Home Guard. Desertions were certainly common by 1864. There was a Home Guard and there were some bad things that happened to innocent civilians who were just trying to survive. I must add here that although the Home Guard deserves its reputation of using its power to settle scores and terrorize some families, many of the deserters were far from saintly. There were numerous deserters who became backwoods outlaws and participated in guerrilla warfare. The rules of war were often blurred in rural areas especially in areas where secession may not have been popular. The movie tends to be one-sided in its depiction of good versus evil. For instance, the incident where the farm mother was tortured is based on an actual occurrence, but the Home Guard had reason to be riled because some of their children had been killed in a raid involving the deserter sons.

      The acting is stellar. The leads have been criticized for having no chemistry, but the characters, Inman and Ada, are not flighty teenagers. They are also not opposites who attract in a typical cinema cliché. They have spent little time together and yet feel a bond. Their's is not a passionate union, but it is mature and there are many strong marriages like this in the real world (but not in Hollywood movies). The supporting characters, including the villains, make the most of their screen time. Zellwegger won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, which tends to show if you want to stand out in an all-star cast, you have to ham it up. The scenery is excellent and the movie was nominated for Cinematography. The music is similar to “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” in its mix of folk and blue grass.

      Definitely a very good movie that has elements to entertain both males and females. 

Rating – 8/10

Monday, June 6, 2011

#63 - El Cid

BACK-STORY: “El Cid” is an historical epic about the legendary Spanish medieval hero Don Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, known as El Cid. It was released in 1961 and was directed by Anthony Mann. It is in the same genre as “Ben Hur” and similarly stars Charleton Heston. His co-star Sophia Loren had a $200/week hairdresser allowance. The film was shot mostly in Spain. It was nominated for Academy Awards for Art Direction, Original Music Score, and Best Song. The movie was a box office hit and was well received by critics.

OPENING: The setting is Spain in 1080. The narrator explains that the Iberian Peninsula is divided between Christians and Moors. The evil Emir Ben Yusuf (Herbert Lom) scolds his fellow Muslims for being wimps and vows to conquer Spain, Europe, and then the world! We first meet El Cid as he rescues a cross from a burning church. How Christ-like of him, but not surprising from the most loyal, chivalric, and talented knight of medieval Spain.

SUMMARY: On his way to his wedding, Don Rodrigo captures two Moorish emirs in battle, then refuses to turn them over to the king’s representative. Instead, he sets them free with their promise not to take up arms against the king. One of them, Al-Mutamin, later saves Rodrigo’s life and becomes his friend. When he reaches the court, Rodrigo is charged with treason. He is reunited with his fiancé Jimena (Sophia Loren) and we get the corny romantic interlude typical of movies like this. He gets into a duel with Jimenez’ father and kills him in one of the best duels in filmdom. Lots of clanging. Jimenez is a hot-blooded Spanish senorita who naturally now hates Rodrigo and wants him dead.

ready for the joust
     When another king challenges Ferdinand to combat of champions to resolve a border dispute, Rodrigo volunteers to redeem himself. The charge of treason apparently having been forgotten, the king accepts. The joust is awesome. Possibly the best ever filmed. Guess who wins? Back in the king’s good graces, Rodrigo marries Jimena even though she still dreams of his death (it’s an honor thing).

     When Ferdinand dies, he is succeeded by his oldest son Sancho. Younger brother Alfonso and sister Urraca scheme for the throne. In a ridiculous scene, Sancho is assassinated by a traitor working for Urraca. Rodrigo forces Alfonso to swear he did not have anything to do with the killing, thus earning banishment by the new king. On his way into exile, the Cid helps a leper. What a guy.

    Several years pass before El Cid is recalled by Alfonso because Ben Yusuf is coming and the people of Spain demand their champion return. The tension with Alfonso is still apparent and the king refuses Rodrigo’s advice to avoid battle and instead lay siege to the key city of Valencia. They part company with El Cid heading for Valencia on his own. On the way he visits Jimena and his twin daughters (who he has never seen) at the nunnery. They have been living there during his exile. She loves him now. He is also joined by his Moorish friend Al-Mutamin.

     Alfonso gets his ass kicked off screen and then holds Jimena hostage to get El Cid to come to him. A previously villainous noble helps Jimenez escape and they join the Cid at Valencia. The impending arrival of Ben Yusuf’s fleet forces Rodrigo to hasten the siege. He catapults bread over the walls to incite a rebellion by the starving populace. They kill the evil Emir Al – Kadir and evict his minions, the Black Guard (this is one of those movies where all the bad guys where black).

     Now in control of the city, the Cid decides to sally forth and a huge, well-staged battle ensues. El Cid is wounded by an arrow in the chest.

CLOSING: The doctors tell Rodrigo he must have the arrow removed if he wants to live, but the recovery will prevent him from leading the morrow’s attack. Or he could leave it in and lead the attack, but die. After explaining his noble reasons to Jimena, he opts for choice number two. Alfonso arrives that night, he has seen the light and reconciles with El Cid. The Cid dies happy having remained loyal to this jerk of a king.

      The next morning, the Cid is tied to his horse and leads his army out the front gate causing panic in the Moorish attackers who believe either it’s a ghost or the live Cid, either way they are toast. It is easily the best acting of Heston’s career. If he were still alive, the Cid would have killed Ben Yusuf in single combat, but since he’s dead it’s left to his corpse-laden horse to trample Ben Yusuf to death. In Hollywood-think, that’s the next best thing. El Cid goes riding off into the sunset and into the mists of legend.


Action - 8

Acting - 7

Accuracy - 6

Realism - 6

Plot - 8

Overall - 8

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Of course. It’s a romance with two superstars. The interiors are breath-taking and so are the costumes. El Cid is a chivalric dream. The perfect man. The action is nongraphic. Plus, it’s not really a war movie, so sell it as an historical romance.

ACCURACY: The problem is that although Don Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar is a real person, El Cid is a legendary figure. The movie is definitely based more on the legend than the person. The historical consultant was Spanish historian Ramon Menendez Pidal who relied on the Poema de Milo Cid which is a medieval chansons de geste that has dubious historical value. The movie alters and simplifies the story. This is acceptable because the real Don Rodrigo was a complex individual. He probably was more chivalric than most knights, but he basically was a soldier-for-hire. In fact, he often served Moorish masters against Christians.

     Spain was divided along the lines presented in the movie. Ben Yusuf was a powerful emir from North Africa who invaded Spain. There is no evidence that Don Rodrigo paroled two emirs to earn the enmity of Ferdinand, but he did fight a trial by combat similar to the movie’s. He did not kill Jimena’s father. The whole dysfunctional marriage was Hollywood. In fact, Jimena was a niece of King Alfonso and it was apparently a political marriage.

     There was a power struggle between the siblings and the assassination was similar to that depicted in the film. El Cid did force Alfonso to swear innocence, but his banishment was more likely the result of his having been loyal to Sancho and resentment of his popularity. It is during this exile that he hires out, mainly for emirs like Al Mutamin. He did lay siege to Valencia and took control of it, but not for the good of Spain. He wanted his own fiefdom. He and Jimena ruled for three years before Ben Yusuf arrived. By that time, El Cid had died of natural causes. Also, the city ended up falling when Alfonso decided it was not worth the trouble.

CRITIQUE: “El Cid” was better than I thought it would be. Although I am a big fan of “Ben Hur”, most of the old-school historical epics seem so outdated and overblown. This movie has some of those characteristics, but it is highly entertaining and accurate enough to pass the sniff test. Its strengths overcome its flaws.

     Some of the flaws include a sappy love story and twirl your mustache type villains. Heston and Loren do not have much chemistry and the ups and downs are not realistic. I doubt Herbert Lom’s Ben Yusuf is considered politically correct in today’s Muslim-tolerant atmosphere. However, the movie is surprisingly even-handed in its depiction of the Moors. There is a nice balance of evil and good Christians and Muslims. The main flaw is El Cid is too perfect. He is unbeatable as a warrior, at one point he defeats a dozen knights virtually singlehandedly. He is totally loyal to his lords, even when they are corrupt and trying to kill him. He is the perfect mate, being understanding when his fiancé despises him and tries to have him killed.

     The strengths include the wonderful (if too brightly lit) castle interiors and the “Ben Hur” style score that does a great job setting the mood. The 70mm Technicolor is vibrant. The action is crisp and is three for three with the duel, the trial by combat, and the beach battle. The ending is memorable, even though its ridiculous.

CONCLUSION: “El Cid’ is a spectacle in the grandest sense of the word. It is epic in its scale. It is old-school Hollywood at its best, not its worst. It is not firmly in the war movie genre, but that makes it more appealing to a broader audience. Its placement at #63 seems about right. It is certainly better than most of the movies behind it and I suspect it will be superior to many of the movies ahead. One thing is for sure, it will be the only one where a dead hero wins a battle.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

DUELING MOVIES: The Enemy Below vs. The Bedford Incident

     Two of the best cat-and-mouse submarine movies were “The Enemy Below” and “The Bedford Incident”. They both feature a deadly duel between an American destroyer and an enemy submarine.

     “The Enemy Below” was released in 1957. It stars Robert Mitchum as Capt. Murrell, the new captain of the escort destroyer USS Haynes. He has recently survived a sinking by a u-boat and the crew is skeptical about his seaworthiness and his command ability. When a u-boat is picked up on sonar, Murrell becomes obsessed with tracking and destroying it. There are some shades of “Moby Dick” in the plot.

     The u-boat captain Von Stolberg (Curt Jergens) is not a fanatical Nazi (he’s the typical good German that you get in Cold War era movies). In fact, he is bitter and disillusioned (“They’ve taken the human out of war.”) Both captains are philosophical and good leaders. They are well-matched.

     The movie does not break much new ground. We get the clichéd depth chargings and torpedo dodging. At one point the sub releases oil to throw off the destroyers sonar (wait, what?) The u-boat descends to hide on the bottom, well below its maximum depth (wait, can it do that?). It springs leaks – get the wrenches! The chase is a lengthy one and very stressful, but you can’t tell it from the spiffy garb and proper grooming of both sides. Also, that is one spacious and pristine u-boat!

     The climatic showdown has the destroyer being torpedoed. Murrell lures the sub onto the surface by having mattresses set afire to give the impression the Haynes is a sitting duck. Von Stolberg takes the bait and surfaces resulting in the u-boat being rammed. In fact, the Haynes ends up on top of the sub. Both  are mortally wounded. Which of the two captains, who have grown to respect each other, will survive?

     “The Bedford Incident” was released in 1965 and is set in the Cold War. This time the duel is between the destroyer USS Bedford and a Soviet sub. The U.S. Captain Finlander (Richard Widmark) is tightly wound and chafing over a recent lack of promotion apparently for some jingoistic remarks. He considers his ship to be a hunter and a stalker. He says “there is something exciting about the hunt.” On board comes a reporter named Munsford (Sidney Poitier) who is determined to ferret out Finlander’s woodshed moment. They immediately butt heads and continue to. The ensemble includes former u-boat commander Schrepke (Eric Portman) who is an advisor from NATO. He is on our side now so he is the sanest and most stable person on board.

      Off Greenland, the Bedford detects a Soviet sub and Finlander decides to force it to the surface even though NATO orders him to back off. Finlander is a Curtis Lemay disciple – we shouldn’t be coddling those commies. He goes after the sub in spite of it being in international waters. We get a lot of control room scenes and pinging noises. Finlander gradually descends into Ahab territory. The crew is loyal to their charismatic leader, but Munsford, Schrepke, and the doctor Potter (Martin Balsam) are aghast. Finlander is one hardass SOB who is not interested in the pansies’ opinions. The tension builds until mutually assured destruction comes true.

     The movies have similarities beyond the cat-and-mouse plots. Both feature a “good German”. Both are claustrophobic. Both have a black characters (TEB has a messmate). The opponents are well-matched. They are both excellent studies in leadership – good and bad.  Interestingly, the command arcs are the opposite.  In TEB, new captain Murrell has to earn the respect of his skeptical crew.  He does that through cool, efficient decisions.  On the other hand, Finlander starts as a strict, but worshiped leader and turns into a tyrant. The acting is very good in both and both are anchored by strong performances by the American captains.  Slight edge to Widmark.

     They differ in themes. TEB is focused on the mutual respect that develops between worthy opponents. TBI is focused on the obsession of a Cold Warrior. It is also concerned with the effects of Cold War tensions and the big “what-if” – what if Mutually Assured Destruction is a flawed strategy? The movie definitely has a Dr. Strangelove (1964) feel to it. But none of the humor.

     It’s a close call, but “The Bedford Incident” is the superior movie. The themes are more engaging and suspenseful. It’s scarier because a Cold War audience would have related directly to what they were seeing. It also is less orthodox and cliché-ridden. Ironically, although it came out eight years later, “The Bedford Incident” is in black and white and “The Enemy Below” is in color. TBE actually looks better as the black and white cinematography really brings vividness to the icebergs that are frequent backdrops. Another advantage is it has Wally Cox as a radarman, not to mention a very young Donald Sutherland as a scientist that examines trash from Soviet subs.

      Watch both together like I did, they make a great doubleheader.  Watch "The Enemy Below" first, you'll see why.