Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Miracle at St. Anna


     When “Flags of Our Fathers” came out, director Spike Lee took Clint Eastwood to task for not portraying any black soldiers in his movie. At the time, Lee was in Cannes promoting his own WWII movie entitled “Miracle at St. Anna’s”. Lee had made the counter to movies like “Flags” which he feels overlook the African-American military contributions in WWII. It is based on the novel by James McBride (who wrote the screenplay). McBride sets his tale in Italy in 1944 and centers it around four members of the 92nd Division. The unit, known as the “Buffalo Soldiers”, was an all-black unit in the segregated Army.

     The movie opens in Harlem in 1983 with the murder of a man in a post office by a veteran. The cops find a famous Italian statue in the shooter’s apartment. In jail, Negron Laz Alonzo) cryptically tells a reporter “I know where the sleeping man lies.” Flash back to Italy in 1944. Negron’s unit, the 92nd Division, is attempting to breach the Gothic Line. An assault across the Serchio River ends limb-severing disastrously when their racist commander orders an artillery barrage that takes them under fire. Four survivors are caught behind enemy lines. They stereotypically mixed group consists of the average Juan (Negron), the playa (Cummings), the stolid Uncle Tom (Stamps), and the spiritual giant (Train). They hook up with a little boy who has an imaginary friend named Arturo. Train (Omar Benson Miller) takes the boy under his rather large wing and things he has religious powers.

Angelo, Train, Cummings. Stamp, Negron

    The quintet ends up in an Italian village where they are taken in by a family which includes the hot Renatta (Valentina Cervi).   Stick around guys, it will be worth the gratuitous wait. Cummings (Michael Early) and Stamps (Derek Luke) immediately begin pawing the ground. Surprisingly, Renatta ends up bedding the obnoxious Cummings. The G.I.s roam around the village seemingly unconcerned with Germans or collaborators and unconcerned with their orders to bring back a prisoner for interrogation. A bigger concern is the fact that blacks are being mistreated back in America. They recall an incident in a Louisiana malt shop where the racist owner caters to German POWs, but not blacks. It is ironic that they are treated better in Italy than back home!

     We find out about the second half of the title of the movie (we never do find out what the miracle was) when the movie has a graphic reenactment of the massacre of civilians by the S.S. The murders are retaliation for the village of St. Anna supporting partisans. The scene is horrific, but does not go far enough in accurately depicting the actual incident where 560 women, children, and old men were machine gunned and grenaded. No one survived. In the movie, about fifty are killed and Angelo escapes with the help of a German deserter. His brother Arturo is one of the victims. One of the partisans is a traitor who aided the German atrocity. By the way, some Italians protested Lee’s decision to blame the partisans for bringing on the massacre when the official explanation is the evil Nazis did not need a reason.

     A partisan group led by the famous "Butterfly" arrives in town with a German prisoner. It’s the guy who saved Angelo! This seemingly solves their prisoner-to-interrogate problem until one of the partisans kills him and then the Butterfly. He’s the traitor and guess who Negron recognizes in line for stamps at his post office years later? Full circle, anyone?

     The plot thickens as our gang of future civil rights activists are caught between their arriving racist commander and the Germans assaulting the village. Rather than defect to the more black-friendly Nazis, our guys battle it out in the streets in a scene filled with action and desperately wanting to be the equivalent of the “Saving Private Ryan” beach scene. Everyone is killed except Negron who is saved by a good Nazi who gives him a gun. Before he dies, Train is identified as “the sleeping man”. The miracle of the title refers to whether you can figure out what the hell that means.

     Flash forward to the present where the out on bail Negron meets a wealthy patron on a beach. Guess who it is? Oh, and do not wonder what the incredibly guilty-of-murder Negron is doing out of jail. I guess he was freed because he was mistreated as a black soldier. Justice.

    There is naturally a debate about which is the better film – “Flags of Our Fathers” or “Miracle at St. Anna”. Anyone who chooses Spike Lee’s film is either black or wants to get into Heaven. Although Eastwood’s film is flawed, it is clearly superior historically and cinematically. For God’s sake, Lee has “Axis Sally” broadcasting live from the battlefield, asking the blacks why they are fighting for their racist oppressors. There is no such laughable moment in Eastwood’s flic.

     It is not surprising that Lee has an agenda in this undertaking. Commendaby, that agenda is film-worthy. There is no arguing that black soldiers have been short-changed in WWII movies. Lee makes his intentions obvious early as Negron watches “The Longest Day” (an Eastwoodesque film with no black actors) and says “Pilgrim, we fought for this country, too.” (Note to Lee, when you are making your first war epic, don’t start by reminding the audience of a truly great war film.) In typical Lee fashion, he beats the audience over the head with this theme. The scene in the Louisiana malt shop and the bigoted commander are examples, but they are accurate. The surprising theme is the religiousity of the film. This is overt and soggy.

     The movie is overly long and poorly written. Much of the dialogue is ridiculous, especially the words comin’ out the mouf of Cummings. The movie lacks realism. Renatta choosing Cummings over Stamps is illogical. The idyllic nature of the village is another example. The ending is twisty in a stupid way. Parts of the movie, starting with the title, make little sense and God help us if it takes the director’s cut to clear them up. The violence is over the top and reflects the desire by an inferior action director to match Speilberg’s groundbreaking “Saving Private Ryan”.

     One must give Lee credit for choosing to highlight the role of African-American soldiers. However, the movie is not really about the trials and contributions of the 92nd Division. It does piggy-back on the racism that unit definitely faced, but little of the combat trials of the unit are alluded to. In reality, the “Buffalo Soldiers” had a less than sterling record in Italy. A truly risk-taking director would have examined the dynamics in their treatment and performance. Hopefully, the upcoming “Red Tails” will do a better job.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

#53 - Ministry of Fear (1944)

BACK-STORY: “Ministry of Fear” is a classic film noir by the acclaimed Fritz Lang. It was based on the novel of Graham Greene which is noirier than the screenplay. The movie was released in 1944 and is black and white. It is partly Lang’s reaction to Nazis dominance of Europe. Lang, a German, had been offered a job in the Ministry of Propaganda by Josef Goebbels and immediately fled from Germany.

OPENING: A clock ticks on a wall (Lang liked clocks). Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) is waiting for release from Lembridge Asylum. His two year sentence for the mercy killing of his terminally ill wife is up and he is a free man.

SUMMARY: Neale stops at a charity festival hosted by the Mothers of Free Nations. He is urged to see the fortune teller. She tells him the correct weight of the cake in the cake-weight guessing contest. He wins the cake, but soon after a man arrives and accosts the fortune teller and insists the cake is his. Neale hasn’t had a good cake in two years so he leaves with it.

     Neale boards a train and a blind man sits in his berth. Or is he blind? He steals the cake! I mean literally, he purloins the cake. Neale chases him through the moor and he is eaten by a giant hound. Whoops, wrong movie. He is hit by a bomb and the cake does not fare well either.

     Neale continues on to London where he visits an eccentric private eye named Rennit to assist him in solving the puzzle of the cake. Neale goes to the offices of the Mothers of Free Nations with Rennit shadowing him, just in case. He meets Willi (Carl Esmond) and his sister Carla (Marjorie Reynolds) who appear to be nice people. He tells his story and Willi agrees to take him to the fortune-teller’s home.

     The fortune-teller is not the same woman that was at the fair. She is a statuesque Mrs. Bellain. He is invited to sit in on a séance. The cake claimant, a man named Cost (Dan Duryea), is in the circle. A spirit accuses Neale of murder, the lights go out, a shot rings out, Cost is dead, Neale is standing with the murder weapon, he escapes. Cool scene, but not exactly ground-breaking.

     Rennit’s office has been ransacked and Neale is being tailed. He hooks up with Carla and they take refuge in the subway during a bombing raid. This gives them the time to fall in love and also the time for Neale to tell us the true story of his wife’s death. He was planning to euthanize her, but she actually took her own life. Carla takes him to a bookstore which will be a safehouse. Neale and Carla figure out the charity is a front for Nazi spies!

     The bookseller asks them to deliver a suitcase of books as long as they are going out. Unfortunately, the case is a bomb which nearly eliminates the couple. Neale awakens in the custody of Scotland Yard. An agent named Prentice is on the case. It seems someone has murdered Rennit. Neale (who is just out of an asylum) tells him an insane story about a cake. Prentice swallows it (the story, not the cake) and agrees to take Neale to the bomb site. There is a really fake bomb crater at the site, but no cake until Neale finds it in a bird’s nest. It turns out the cake contained some microfilm that reveals convoy embarkation plans and minefields. It is deduced that a tailor named Travers had access to super secret War Ministry information. It’s always the tailor!

     When Prentice and Neale go to the tailor’s shop it turns out that Travers and Cost are the same guy. When he is confronted, he runs away and commits suicide (a very un-Duryea thing to do, in my opinion). Neale escapes and goes to see Carla who he now suspects as a spy. However, she is innocent, but Willi is not. Willi pulls a gun, but Carla throws a candle stick which disarms him. Two stunt men fight. Willi flees but Carla shots him through the door. Nice touch.

CLOSING: Neale and Carla are chased by the Nazi spy ring to the roof-top. A gun battle ensues which ends when Prentice appears and takes out the Nazis. The brief concluding scene has Neale and Carla on the way to their wedding. Neale insists the ceremony be cakeless. Ha ha!


Acting – 7

Action – 5

Accuracy – not applicable

Realism – 5

Plot - 5

Overall - 5

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  Yes. Especially if they are into film noir or wacky mysteries. Neale and Carla make a nice couple. The villains are tame. The violence is 1940s style. No blood.

ACCURACY: The movie is not based on a true story, so accuracy is not an issue. I can comment on its accuracy in depicting the novel. The movie differs from the book in significant ways. The hero in the book is named Arthur Rowe. I have no idea why his name was changed. In the novel, he does poison his wife to put her out of her misery, but he is partially motivated with the desire to be free of her. Hence, the novel’s character is torn by guilt feelings. Clara is not as innocent in the book. In fact, the book goes beyond the exposure of the spy ring to show that Arthur and Clara are not exactly living happily ever after. In fact they are constantly watching over their shoulders. There is no gun battle at the end of the book and Willi commits suicide. It appears to me that being more faithful to the book would have made the movie better and more film noirish. It looks like Lang went with a tamer, Hollywoodized crowd-pleaser.

CRITIQUE: Sadly, “Ministry of Fear” is nothing special. It is not a great war movie and it is not even great film noir. The acting is satisfactory, but not up to the great film noir classics. Arguably the most interesting actor (Dan Duryea) is underused. Marjorie Reynolds is a light weight. She is good looking, however. The music is typical film noir dark. The cinematography is also on the dark side, but not noteworthy.

     The plot has holes and bizarre aspects, but you expect that from film noir. There are several why? moments. Like why did the original fortune teller give him the incorrect weight of the cake and then give him the correct weight when Cost was supposed to win the cake? For that matter, why didn’t they just slip Cost the cake to begin with? Why did the microfilm have to be in a cake? You could hide it in the palm of your hand and slip it to Cost easily. Why send Neale and Clara to deliver a suitcase bomb when they could have been killed so much more simply? Last, but not least, what kind of security does the British War Ministry have when a tailor can steal super secret documents?

     It is a fun movie and entertaining. There is some suspense as to whether Carla is a spy. Unfortunately, everyone else is obvious. For instance, the blind man and Cost (did Duryea ever play a good guy?) It is easy to empathize with Neale. Milland does a good job making him likable, but hardly an action hero.

CONCLUSION: Once again I eagerly anticipated a highly ranked war movie only to find that it is a war movie only in the loosest definition of war movie. This is another head-scratcher. It is clearly film noir and not even a great one. Even Fritz Lang was not happy with it. Here is my final comment to the “experts” on the Military History magazine panel. Casablanca is #65 and “Ministry of Fear” is #53. WTF

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


     This blog recently marked its one year anniversary.  This started off as a simple project to watch consecutively the Military History magazine's Greatest 100 War Movies.  See my mission statement.  I got the idea from the movie "Julie and Julia".  Ironic that a chick flick inspired me to watch so much testosterone!  Later, I realized that just doing the Greatest 100 was too limiting, so I altered the mission statement to allow me to branch out.  This includes going to war movies in theaters to do "now showing" reviews.  This is so cool, but unfortunately a rare experience these days.
      I went back and counted the number of war movies I have watched since starting this project and was surprised to find the number was 172.  That is close to one every other day for the last year.  You would assume I have no life, but I did manage to teach six history classes and coach a high school soccer team, among other things, during that year.  It has been fun and I look forward to the next year as I continue to view and review the Military History 100 Greatest War Movies and others.  I should be in the top ten by this time next year.  Hopefully the quality of the top fifty will be better than the bottom fifty.
     I have to thank my wife Rachelle for putting up with this obsession of mine.  She does not share my love of war films, but she puts up with me.  She does sigh and shake her head a lot, however.  This is what she did when I took her to our first war movie ("The Thin Red Line"), by the way.
     I also owe a debt to my colleague Caroline of All About War Movies.  Her advice and support has been important to this blog.  She was my blog's first "friend" and is still its best.  You meet the coolest people in the blogosphere (at least in the parts I hang out in).  That's a shout-out to all my other bunkies.
     In honor of my anniversary, I thought I would share my favorite movies over the past year, and my least favorites.

1.  Waltz with Bashir
2.  Last of the Mohicans
3.  Oh! What a Lovely War
4.  In Which We Serve
5.  Dr. Strangelove
6.  Where Eagles Dare
7.  Three Kings
8.  Cross of Iron
9.  Enemy at the Gates
10.  Black Hawk Down

1.  Braveheart
2.  The Tin Drum
3.  Castle Keep
4.  Beach Red
5.  Siege of Firebase Gloria
6.  They Died With Their Boots On
7.  Army of Shadows
8.  Journey to Shiloh
9.  A Wing and a Prayer
10.  Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

Saturday, August 20, 2011

#54 - Ulzana's Raid (1972)

BACK-STORY: “Ulzana’s Raid” is a revisionist Western by Robert Aldrich which was released in 1972 toward the end of the Vietnam War. It was filmed on location in Arizona and Nevada. It is not based on a true story.

OPENING: On the San Carlos Indian Reservation sometime in the 1880’s, a group of Chiricahua Apaches led by Ulzana (Joaquin Martinez) steal some horses (considering their need for horses later, maybe they should have taken more than one each) and leave on a raid. A messenger arrives at Fort Lowell and the word spreads that “Ulzana’s gone out!” Grizzled Indian scout MacIntosh (Burt Lancaster) is sent to the agency to gather information.

SUMMARY: The commanding officer at Fort Lowell assigns a green Lt. DeBuin (Bruce Davison) to lead the pursuit with twenty troopers and two scouts – MacIntosh and a Chiricahua named Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke). Ke-Ni-Tay happens to be Ulzana’s brother-in-law. Besides pursuit, there are settler families that need to be warned. One crusty codger sends off his wife and son, but stays to defend his homestead. The woman and boy are ambushed at the same time a trooper arrives on the scene. He shoots the woman and then himself to avoid the inevitable torture. The Indian braves do the next best thing by cutting out his heart and tossing it around. These are not noble savages. Later, DeBuin’s unit finds the husband’s body tortured.

     DeBuin is new to the West and wants to learn about the Apache’s and their culture. He is empathetic at first. After seeing the tortured corpse, he asks Ki-Ni-Tay “Why are your people mean and cruel?” The response is “it’s how they are.” Torturing a man means you acquire his power. Why did Ulzana leave the reservation? "Ulzana is at agency long time. His power is very thin. He had old smell in the nose. The smell of dog, of women, of children. Man with old smell in the nose is old man. Ulzana wants new smell. The smell of bullet. Pony running. For power!"  (We married fathers have Hooters, they had the open plains.) MacIntosh encourages DeBuin to be realistic. “Hating Apaches is like hating the desert for not having water.” He also tries to teach the young LT how to fight the Apaches. “Remember the rules, first to make a mistake gets to bury some of his people.”

     Ulzana is a classic guerrilla warrior. He tries to get an advantage over his pursuers by dismounting most of his men and having two warriors run the ponies in a loop to exhaust the bigger cavalry horses. This would probably have worked except that not only do the whites have the Yoda of Indian scouts in MacIntosh, but the T1000 of trackers in Ke-Ni-Tay. They see through the Indian ploy and do not fall for it. In fact, MacIntosh heads off the pony string killing one of the braves and depriving Ulzana of his horses. Although he has lost his empathy for the Apaches, DeBuin does stop some troopers from mutilating the Indian corpse.

     At another farm, they find a raped woman who has been left alive by Ulzana so that the cvalry will be forced to split, sending some men with the woman back to the fort. Since MacIntosh sees through this strategy, he and DeBuin come up with a counterplan. MacIntosh and a few men (and the woman) will walk into the inevitable ambush and then DeBuin will swoop in and catch Ulzana with his loin cloth down. The humane DeBuin seems unconcerned with sending this distraught rape victim into an ambush which will be suicidal for at least some of the bait. Considering she is dressed as a soldier, you would think a soldier could have masqueraded as her.

     The plan hinges on Ke-Ni-Tay eliminating the Indian who will be watching the main group. He is so good he is able to follow tracks over bare rock! Due to miscommunication, DeBuin moves prematurely and Ke-Ni-Tay has to catch up to the Indian before he warns Ulzana. Being super-tracker as well as super-warrior, Ke-Ni-Tay kills his prey in time.

Jaekel as the Sarge
     Meanwhile, MacIntosh is ambushed in a canyon with predictable results for the poor bastards that are the bait. Mac, the sergeant (the ever-reliable Richard Jaekel), and the woman are forced to take refuge under a wagon. The sarge is killed and Mac is gravely wounded. Ulzana, who holds all the cards, orders two of his men to charge in the open and they are gunned down by MacIntosh. Wait, aren’t they guerrillas?

     DeBuin arrives with bugle blaring (so much for surprise). Instead of flanking the Indians, he comes charging up the canyon. However, this tactic is sufficient to win the “battle” and rescue the few survivors.

CLOSING: Ke-Ni-Tay tracks Ulzana, but can’t locate him. Just kidding. The two confront each other and it looks like it will be a classic Western duel, except with Indians. Think again. Ke-NI-Tay shows Ulzana his son’s (and Ke-Ni-Tay’s nephew’s) bugle.  This is the Apache way of saying I killed your son.  Opting against vengeance, Ulzana sings his death song and kneels for Ke-Ni-Tay to shoot him in the back of the head. MacIntosh insists DeBuin leave him behind to die.


Acting - 7

Action - 6

Accuracy - 6

Realism - 7

Plot - 5

Overall - 6

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Highly unlikely. There are no significant females in the movie and those that appear mostly have very bad things happen to them. This is very much a guys’ movie. It does not have a lot of violence, but some of it is graphic. It is definitely not a feel-good movie. If you took a date to it when it was in the theaters, the dinner better have been outstanding and even then don’t expect much after you leave the cinema.

ACCURACY: The film is not based on a true story which is a crying shame. Why make up Ulzana when there were similar and better actual historical figures like Cochise, Mangas Coloradas, Geronimo, and my choice – Victorio? Any one of their stories would have been more interesting and given Aldrich the opportunity to explore the same themes.

     As far as Apache culture, the movie is fairly accurate although it does not cover anything but warrior culture. The discussions between DeBuin and Ke-Ni-Tay are enlightening as to how the warriors thought and fought. Their guerrilla tactics appear to be realistic, but if they were the great guerrilla warriors respected by historians, some of Ulzana’s decisions seem weak. The Apaches certainly knew the value of horses so the decision to go on the warpath with just one mount per raider is suspect. The ploy of dismounting and leading the pony string around looks like a Hollywood plot invention to me. Ulzana was well ahead of his pursuers and lengthening the distance. Giving up that gap does not strike me as something an intelligent Apache would have done.

     There is little doubt that the Apaches could be hard on prisoners. They certainly tortured and mutilated prisoners, including other Indians. I cannot vouch for the “take their power” explanation. I do know that Indians tortured their foes because they expected the same treatment and saw it as a way to show their bravery. I have never run across reference to cutting the heart out and tossing it around. They did tend to cut off genitalia and stick it in the victim’s mouth, however.  (You're welcome for that fun fact.)

     The Apache did have a tendency to leave the reservations to conduct raids which were hard on white settlers. Geronimo and Victorio were good examples of this.

CRITIQUE: “Ulzana’s Raid” has the feel of a made for TV movie. It looks low budget and the cast (other than Lancaster) is underwhelming. Lancaster is his usual strong force and gives the film gravitas. Davison is surprisingly good as the naïve lieutenant. Jaekel is his reliable self and gets a meaty supporting role. Luke stands out as the stoical Ke-Ni-Tay. The rest of the cast is below average.

     The score is stereotypical Western music. If you only heard the music, you would know immediately you were watching a Western. Some of it borders on ridiculous. The cinematography is fine, but although the terrain is similar you will not mistake this for a John Ford oater. The vistas are impressive.

     The movie has been described as revisionist. This is spot on. Before you give it too much credit on this account, remember this was the seventies when most Westerns were outside the box. By revisionist, I mean it portrays both sides as shades of gray. However, there is no doubt who the bad guys are. The same bad guys as in most previous Westerns – the Indians. The revisionism is in the respect they are shown in their depiction and the less than saintly portrayal of the cavalry. Ulzana’s motives are briefly outlined, but not really debated. The torturing of victims dilutes any sympathy the audience might have for him.

     Davison’s character is supposedly the conscience of the film. He is the opposite of the clichéd Indian hating officer. He wants to understand the Apache. As the film progresses his Christian principles are challenged by what he witnesses. Aldrich does a good job of not predictably going all the way down this path. DeBuin ends up a realist, not a racist. It is telling that at the end, instead of bringing Ulzana’s head back as proof or a trophy, he insists on burying the corpse.

     The most memorable aspect of the movie is the relationship between MacIntosh and Ke-Ni-Tay. Their laconic friendship is like that of an old married couple. A nod is enough some of the time. Their mentoring of DeBuin is refreshing. They do not treat him as a rube, but there is some head-shaking. Ke-Ni-Tay is a strong character in his own right. He is loyal to his employer – the U.S. Army. He is super-Indian when it comes to tracking. I can’t help but point out that he is a traitor to his own people and chose the wrong side. He helps track down an Apache leader (and his own nephew) who are fighting for their way of life. And he kills them.

     The film has been described as an allegory on the Vietnam War. I do not know if this is something the critics deduced or was an intention of Aldrich. If he intended the movie to comment on the war, he missed the target. Ulzana does not do a good impression of a Viet Cong. They did torture and mutilate, but I would think that is not the point Aldrich would be trying to make. A liberal, anti-war statement would have portrayed the Indians in a more positive light and the whites as more imperialistic and racist. It seems more likely that Aldrich was more interested in making an iconoclastically realistic Western.

CONCLUSION: I know I am beginning to sound like a broken record, but… Just as with "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon", this movie is a Western first and nothing else second. Perhaps the critics that decided it was an allegory on the Vietnam War insist that it then has to be a war movie. Sadly, regardless of what genre it is placed in, it is not a particularly good movie.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

CRACKER? Hamburger Hill

     “Hamburger Hill” is a war movie about the famous Vietnam War battle.  It was released in 1987 and chronicles the 101st Airborne’s assault on Hill 937 in the Ashau Valley in May, 1969. The script was written by a “Screaming Eagles” veteran who served in Vietnam in 1968-69. The director, John Irvin (who did the stylistically similar “When Trumpets Fade”) had done documentaries in Vietnam. He cast a group of unknown actors, some of whom have gone on to big careers.
Dylan McDermott playing army man

     The movie opens with Company B evacuating the Ashau Valley with their tail between their legs. Five replacements (FNGs) arrive to the typical cold shoulders, but they quickly blend in. The movie fits squarely in the who-will-survive sub-genre. It is also a typical small unit dynamics film. It displays some similarities to "Platoon" in this respect except that the unit is not divided. The squad has some black/white issues, but realistic to a front line unit they are tamped down by the more pressing need for group respect for survival purposes. There are two sergeants like in "Platoon", but they are not adversarial. One is gung-ho (Worcester – Steven Weber) and the other is cynical (Frantz – Dylan McDermott), but they are best friends. There is also a green LT, but he is not a worm and does not figure in the film.

the face of "Nathaniel Victor"
     The first half of the film is basically a tutorial on the indoctrination of a “cherry”. The five FNGs are taught hygiene and to respect “Nathaniel Victor” (the North Vietnamese). They are taken to the local brothel. They quickly learn a second language – the grunt slang combined with Vietnamese phrases. The unit even has its own pet phrase – “It don’t mean nothin’”. (To be followed by “Not a thing”.) This phrase is said seventeen times in the movie. This dialogue includes most of the greatest hits of grunt slang. The movie should have captions for those who are not familiar with Vietnam War lingo, however.

one of these actors was ill-used, but had the last laugh
     The second half deals with the assaults up Hill 937. This is combat at its rawest followed by periods of down time for more camaraderie. Each post-assault scene has a defining moment. One of these is the tuning in to “Hanoi Hannah”. Another has Biletsky (Tim Quill) listening to a tape from his patriotic girlfriend (apparently the only pro-war civilian left in America). More typical of the film’s theme is a “Dear John” letter to Bienstock (Tommy Swerdlow) from an ex who has been brainwashed by hippies.  The film hammers away at the implication that the soldiers have been abandoned by the home front.

Frantz is bayoneted
     The battle begins on May 11 and it is obvious from the start that few in the squad will survive. The movie covers the battle by days. The fighting each day is tragically similar. Frontal attacks uphill against a fanatical enemy who has the advantage of the high ground and bunkers. Although the full force of American firepower is brought to bear in the form of aerial and artillery bombardment (this is a loud movie), every assault except the last is thrown back. The deaths are brutal and graphic. Heads blown off, etc. Most of them are random and quick, but the medic “Doc” (Courtney Vance) gets an old school send-off that is well played. One of the assaults is memorable for its slog up the muddy hillside and the subsequent sliding back downhill by the men. Finally, the hill is taken in an “I’ve had enough of this shit!” charge. Our surviving three main characters sit exhaustedly under what’s left of a tree.  One of the survivors is Biletsky who two days earlier had been evaced for a serious wound.

NVA in a bunker

     HH is considered by some to be the best Vietnam War movie. It isn’t, but it is certainly in the top five. It is also lauded by many as the most accurate Vietnam War movie. It has a stronger claim to that title. The recreation of the battle is as close as you could ask for. It even has one (there were at least three) of the friendly fire by choppers incidents (although in reality the fire was rockets, not machine guns). Although you might assume the high casualty rate was Hollywoodized, the battle was actually very brutal and costly. Read about it and wonder if we would accept a repeat in Afghanistan. Irvin gets the sights and sounds right. One flaw is you get none of the big picture. What is the plan? Why this hill? What are the other companies doing? The movie also does not put a face on the enemy. They are obviously tough and worthy opponents, but that is all we know.  Another similarity to "Platoon".

"Hello, I'm calling to confirm my 10 o'clock hair appointment"
     The acting is satisfactory. One head-scratcher is the waste of the best actor in the group (Don Cheadle) in a small part. One thing you will notice is the compromise made on battlefield griminess. The men do sweat and have dirt on their faces, but nice hair. (Memo to the make-up artists: don’t touch the hair.) The actors relay what a screenwriter thinks a grunt would say, but you get the impression they do not understand all the phrases.  They're just mouthing phrases. The movie works best in this respect if you have not seen a lot of Vietnam War movies. I found some of the dialogue to be forced and cringe-inducing.

     There are some clichés as is to be expected from a movie of this type. We get the “a fight breaks out because a guy make’s a sexual remark about a girlfriend picture”. However, the guy who showed the picture does not end up dying so that cancels it out. Unfortunately, someone violates the rule about bragging about their future plans with predictably dire results.

war is a dirty business
     One thing that sets this movie apart from most other Vietnam War movies is it is anti-anti-war. There are several sledgehammer moments where the home front is crucified for not supporting the troops. In one piling on monologue, Worcester recounts a trip back home. 1. He had dog feces thrown on him by hippies. 2. His wife was screwing a pacifist. 3. His friendly bartender was being harassed as the father of a deceased “baby killer” and became a heroin addict. We get it! The proof of this thematic goal is the unbelievable lack of a post script explanation that after all the effort to take the hill, it was abandoned to the enemy. Since most of the audience would not have known this, the omission is a clear admission by Irvin of his political agenda. In this respect, it strays furthest from its cousin “Pork Chop Hill”.

     “Hamburger Hill” is a good movie. Unlike most of its competitors (Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket), it deals with an actual battle. This makes its main rival “We We Were Soldiers”. In that respect, it does a better job on grunt life. The combat is not as good, however.

Cracker?  Probably.  It is much better than some of the crap I have had to watch.

GRADE  =  B- 

"It don't mean nothin'"

Monday, August 8, 2011

#55 - She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

BACK-STORY: “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” is a western/war movie released in 1949. It was the second of John Ford’s cavalry trilogy and the only one in color. The other two were “Fort Apache” and “Rio Grande”. All three starred John Wayne. The movie was set in Monument Valley. Ford used the paintings of Frederick Remington for inspiration and ideas. The title is a song associated with the U.S. Cavalry and alludes to the cavalryman giving his love a yellow ribbon. One of the stars is the horse “Steel” ridden by Ben Johnson. This horse was popular with western stars. The movie was awarded the Oscar for Best Color Cinematography to Winton Hoch. The film was a big hit.

OPENING: The movie opens with the iconic theme song. A narrator informs us the story takes place after Custer’s Last Stand. Word spreads via the telegraph and Pony Express. The Indian tribes are in rebellion and are uniting “in a common war against the U.S. Cavalry”. At Fort Stark, the elderly Capt. Nathan Brittles (Wayne) is only six days from forced retirement. Sgt. Quinncannon (Victor McLaglan) is also near the end. He is Irish so he drinks a lot, but in a humorous way.

SUMMARY: The death of the paymaster by Indians clues the fort in to the fact that the Southern Cheyenne are on the warpath. They know it’s the Southern Cheyenne due to the markings on their arrows. That night Brittles make his nocturnal visit to his wife and kids’ gravesite. In a touching scene, he talks to her. The commanding officer decides his wife Abby (Mildred Natwick) and niece Olivia (Joanne Dru) need to go back east via the stage coach. He orders Brittles to escort the ladies to the stage station and shoo the Indians back to their reservation. Olivia is wearing a yellow ribbon, but for who? Her suitors are Lt. Cohill (John Agar) and Lt. Pennell (Harry Carey, Jr.). Cohill is the career trooper who is not romantic and Pennell is the wooing easterner who is willing to leave the Army for Olivia. The one time they are going to duke it out over her, Brittles breaks it up. Guess which one she ends up choosing? Hint: the one she argues with the most. Snippiness = love in Hollywood.

Cohill and Olivia hating each other
      The mission takes the unit through some beautiful scenery and they even encounter a buffalo herd. The Indians feel the return of the buffalo is a sign that their medicine is working. Brittles sends ex-Rebel Sgt, Tyree (Ben Johnson) and his horse (Steel) to locate a patrol. When asked for his opinion on matters, Tyree famously responds with: “My mother didn’t raise any sons to be makin’ guesses in front of Yankee captains.” Surprise, Tyree runs into a passel of whooping Indians (the Indians whoop a lot in this movie). There is an exciting chase scene that ends with Steel jumping over a canyon. The patrol also gets chased by Indians, but finds refuge with the column. One of the men is wounded which requires a bullet extraction in a moving wagon with the back drop of a lightning storm. This was not part of the filming schedule, but Ford insisted over the protest of Hoch that the situation be used. Great call!

"Troop, halt!"
     The stage station has been raided, so no stage coach for the gals. One of the dead is an ex-Confederate general serving as a private. The U.S. Cavalry was an institution of reconciliation after the Civil War. Brittles and a few others sneak up on an Indian camp to witness the Indian agent selling repeating rifles to the warriors. Things go bad for the villainous whites and Brittles stoically watches the torture of one of them. Does anyone want a chaw of tobacco?

     The mission is a failure and the unit has to cross a river to return to the fort. Brittles leaves Cohill and two squads behind to guard the ford. The unit slogs back into the fort and the next day Brittles awakes to his last day in the Army. The movie needs a dose of humor and fisticuffs so Brittles has Quinncannon put on his “monkey suit” and go to the canteen for a drink and then orders his arrest for being out of uniform and drinking. (I did not quite follow the reasoning behind this – something about Quinncannon would be better off spending the rest of his enlistment in the brig. Anyway, it was an excuse to have a barroom brawl). The Quinncannon versus six fight is entertaining and worth the ridiculous setup.

Brittles with his watch
     Brittles gets a sentimental farewell from Company C that includes a silver pocket watch. Touchingly, he has to pull out his spectacles to read the inscription. He is off to California (with just the clothes on his back?), but ends up joining Pennell who has been sent to rescue Cohill. Cohill doesn’t need rescuing (in a missed opportunity for gratuitous shooting of whooping Indians off their horses), but there is still that Southern Cheyenne problem. Fortunately, Brittles still has four hours available. He rides into the Indian camp to smoke the pipe with old friend Pony that Walks (Chief John Big Tree in an endearingly eccentric performance). The chief tells Nathan that he has no control over the young men. Oh well, enough talk.

     Brittles locates the Indian pony herd and stampedes it through the Indian village that night. Although it is a surprise, the Indian braves come running out of their tepees fully clothed. No troopers are even wounded and I did not see any Indian casualties either. Indians without horses must return to the reservation. Insurrection over.

CLOSING: Brittles rides off into the sunset (literally) which would be an appropriate ending, but a letter arrives promoting him to Lt. Col. of scouts and Tyree rides off to bring him back. His return interrupts the celebration of the engagement of Cohill and Olivia. Brittles goes to update his wife on his promotion.


Acting - 8

Action - 6

Accuracy - 6

Realism - 6

Plot - 6

Overall - 6

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Probably. It is definitely not hard core. What little violence there is, is tame. The love triangle is lame, but it does not consume the movie. Millard Natwick as Abby is feisty and has some good moments (e.g., the wagon operation scene). Joanne Dru is out of her league here, but is adequate.

ACCURACY: The movie is not based on an historical event, but the opening narration could give that impression to a gullible audience. The narration starts the movie off on a shaky historical footing. The only thing it gets right is Custer was defeated. The Indian tribes seem to be randomly selected. The Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache were not involved in the Battle of Little Big Horn and the statement that the various tribes were united against the U.S. Cavalry is laughable considering the inability of the tribes to unite on anything. There was no Indian uprising. The Indians were simply fighting against white encroachment into their lands.. Custer’s Last Stand did not result in tribes leaving the reservations. The ones that were at war either were already off their reservations or, more likely, had never been confined to one (yet). The reference to the Pony Express spreading the word is very sloppy history. It had ceased to exist fifteen years earlier.

     The depiction of the cavalry is pretty realistic, although a bit idyllic. Ford is paying tribute to the “dog faces” and their thankless task of taming the West, but it is a no warts portrayal. All of the troopers are respectful gentlemen who are dedicated to their duty. They all are dressed for parade. There is no salty soldier talk and that’s not just because Quinncannon tells them to “watch them words”. (Followed by an anonymous “watch them grammar”.) There are no negative characters in the unit. The two suitors are respectful of each other. Brittles gets along well with his commanding officer. There is little tension. The ex-Confederates don’t even get teased. Only one trooper is a drinker and he is shown in a positive light. A typical western fort would not have been as “clean” as this.

     As far as the Indians, they are typical John Ford caricatures. They are all dressed for the Hollywood warpath. Lots of reds and war bonnets. These are the best dressed Indians on the Plains. No poverty here. One accuracy is the inability of the elderly chiefs to control the young men. And there is a travois in one scene.

"Is that whiskey on your breath?"
CRITIQUE: “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” is a good Western. Ford is Ford. Wayne is not Wayne. Both of those statements are a good thing. This being a typical Ford movie, the use of Monument Valley is awesome. The theme of the selflessness of the cavalry is well done, if a bit overdone. The characters are stock, but entertainingly so. The movie does not force a heterogeneous, multi-ethnic unit on the audience (which is actually not realistic to the post-Civil War Army, by the way). Wayne fans will be comfortable with the familiar faces in the cast, especially McLaglan.

     The movie is well acted. Wayne is outstanding in playing against type. He was only 41, yet plays a 61 year old. Brittles is a grizzled veteran, but he has not been hardened by his experiences. He is a father figure to his men. He takes Olivia under his wing and mentors Cohill and Pennell. He is a loyal friend to Quinncannon. He was obviously a caring husband and father. There is no strutting here and in fact Wayne adds nice touches like arthritis in the joints.

     The score is hit and miss. Invariably, when the Indians appear, we get generic Indian music. You could have your eyes closed and be able to tell who is on screen. However, the music is tempoed according to the action which adds to the scenes that have movement. The theme song is effectively used at strategic moments.

     The movie is beautiful to watch. The cinematography is outstanding. The reds are a bit distracting though. The use of the lightning storm was clever and it is ironic that Hoch complained about the lighting considering that scene probably helped win him the Oscar.

     It is commendable that Ford does not go for mindless action and wanton killing of redskins, but he perhaps went too far. Other than the Indian agent, I cannot recall anyone getting killed. He strands Cohill and the forlorn hope at the river crossing with the implication of dread, then there is no payoff. The stampede of the herd through the village is thundering, yet bloodless. Even the fight between Cohill and Pennell is aborted. The only real fight is a comical one.

CONCLUSION: “She Wore Yellow Ribbon” is an entertaining Western, but it is not a war movie and does not belong on this list. I have a problem with taking a movie that is firmly in one genre and then putting it on a list of great movies in another genre. There are few Westerns that I feel can clearly be considered war movies and Westerns. A rare example of this hybrid would be “Son of the Morning Star” which is specifically and accurately about a battle in the Indian Wars (the Battle of Little Big Horn).

Friday, August 5, 2011

Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)


“Oh! What a Lovely War” is a different kind of war movie. It was released in England in 1969 and has an all-star cast of familiar British faces. It is based on a play and was directed by Richard Attenborough in daring style. It is without doubt the best war musical ever made, not that it has much competition. The script uses actual songs and quotes from World War I.

     The film opens with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and we know this will be a different movie because it is depicted via a group photograph of the leaders of Europe. The photographer hands the royal couple red poppies and they fall dead. It is a not a good thing to get handed a poppy in this film. It helps to know the basics of the war, but the movie works hard as a tutorial. For instance, one scene has the world leaders discussing the run up to the war while standing on a map of Europe. Actual quotes are used very effectively and chillingly.

     The movie uses a ballroom for the upper class and leader scenes, but the most important set is the Brighton West Pier which stands in for the home front and the jumping off point for the war. On the pier, Gen. Haig sells tickets to the war including to the five Smith brothers who we follow through the movie. The film jumps between these sets and the Western Front. It also jumps into songs – all of which are authentic to the period. The first is cavalry on a merry-go-round. The best is set in a music hall where beautiful girls sing patriotic songs encouraging young men to enlist. “We don’t want to lose you, but we think you ought to go.” Maggie Smith seals the deal by coming on and crooning sexily “take the king’s shilling and I’ll make a man out of you.” It turns out that sex sells war as well as tooth paste. By the way, when the new enlistees go up on stage they find out Maggie is not so beautiful and in fact is caked with make-up. Get it?

     The movie is very harsh on the upper class. They are twits who are out of touch with reality. They watch fireworks and drink champagne and the movie transitions to the trenches. But it’s the brass that are damned and by their own words at that. When Haig discusses the Battle of the Somme, it is chilling. He watches the war through binoculars from the pier. A scoreboard tallies the casualties. The lower officers do not come off well either. They are callous and clueless. On the other hand, the Tommies (including the Smiths) are the heroes of the movie. They literally sing their way through the maelstrom of the war. Interestingly, several of their songs are depicted as they may actually have taken place (unlike when the leaders are singing).

     The film is a series of vignettes. The ones with the soldiers are the best, the ones with the generals and upper class are the most incisive. The vignettes include the Christmas Truce which is nicely done. There is an extended religious scene which makes fun of the role of religion in condoning the war. It turns out that all the various religions blessed the killing. There is a powerful scene of anti-war activist Sylvia Parkhurst quoting George Bernard Shaw to a heckling crowd of naïvely patriotic civilians. The Americans arrive via the pier singing “Over There”. “And we won’t come back – we’ll be buried over there.” Guess how many of the Smith brothers survive the war.

     The songs are wonderfully rendered and there are a lot of them. It’s like the greatest hits of WWI. The acting is good, especially John Mills as Haig. Laurence Olivier was nominated for a BAFTA for portraying Gen. French. In fact, the movie was nominated for six BAFTAs. It is a very British movie so it is not well known in America even though you would think it would have struck a chord with the anti-Vietnam War crowd. Most war movies are anti-war, but few are as anti-war as “Oh! What a Lovely War”. Kudos to Attenborough for going out on a limb to bring the play to the screen. He managed to recruit an outstanding cast. The sets are amazing. The use of the pier is genius. The scenes set on the Western Front are appropriately hellish. The movie concludes with an awesome tracking shot of a white cross laden cemetery. Attenborough had 16,000 crosses hammered into pre-dug holes for the shot.

     I am a big fan of this movie. If you have seen a lot of war movies, you need to watch it because it is so different. If you don’t see a lot of war movies, watch it because it is not a typical war movie.


the Christmas Truce

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

CRACKER? "The Beast"


      “The Beast” (also known as “The Beast of War”) is a war movie set in Afghanistan in 1981 in the second year of the Soviet invasion. It was directed by Kevin Reynolds. It is based on an off Broadway play. William Mastrosimone adapted his play entitled “Nanawatai”. The movie opens with a poem by Rudyard Kipling; “When you’re wounded an’left on Afghanistan’s plains / An’ the women come out to cut up your remains. /  Just roll to your rifle an’ blow out your brains. / An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier”.

     Soviet tanks assault a Pashtun village. The scene is intense with lots of explosions and violence. Besides using HE on the buildings, the Soviets employ flame throwers and satchel charges. Innocent civilians get targeted including a captured Afghani who is executed by being squashed by the tank. The movie shows just enough to convince you to never get run over by a tank. The tank driver, Koverchenko (Jason Patric) reluctantly obeys the orders of his hard-ass commander Daskal (George Dzundza). The women of the village witness this atrocity and vow revenge. One is killed by poison gas while banging on the turret with a rock.

    Next thing we know, the tank is by itself and lost. Meanwhile, the local mujahadeen return to the village to find the destruction. Taj (Steven Bauer) is now the village Khan (leader). His cousin insists they get revenge on the tank. Akbar (Kabir Bedi) is a guerrilla leader akin to the early Bin Laden (back when he was our boy). He wears sun glasses which symbolizes he has been corrupted by modernity. Taj does not like him, but agrees to the chase. The vengeance-minded women, led by Sherina (Shoshi Marciano), are forbidden to come along.

     The tank crew is your typical Hollywood heterogeneous small unit. Daskal is hardened by his war experiences which go back to Stalingrad where he was called “Tank Boy” for his teenage tank destroying exploits. Korvachenko is the conscience of the group. He is Elias to Dansel’s Barnes. Also onboard is Kominsky (Don Mooney) playing the psycho Bunny role. He drinks the brake fluid to get high. Golikov (Stephen Baldwin) is the sniveling coward ala Junior (to stick with our “Platoon” analogies). They are accompanied by an Afghani collaborator named Samad. The tank is the real star of course and hopefully was paid more than Baldwin. It is appropriately grimy, claustrophobic, and mechanically challenged. Technical adviser Dale Dye made sure the workings are realistic. The movie also gets the noises right.

     Samad plays a crucial role in explaining the code of Afghani honor. There are three key concepts: 1. hospitality 2. revenge 3. sanctuary (“nanawatai”) – which must be given if requested. Samad has turned his coat because he wants Afghanistan to move into the modern world (like the Spaniards who collaborated in the Peninsular War). Daskal distrusts him as a traitor, plus he just plain hates Afghanis. His attempts to put Samad in harm’s way fail so he murders him.

     Because Korvalenko threatens to turn Dansel in, Daskal has him chained to a rock with a grenade behind his head as a booby trap. He is discovered by the women (who being Hollywood’s version of Afghani women) have disobeyed orders and joined the pursuit. They start stoning Korvalenko who vainly yells “nanawatai”. Taj arrives and rescues him. He ingratiates himself to his captors by repairing the RPG-7 that they will use to “ kaboom tank”. Taj and Korvalenko bond as Korvalenko does not take long to experience Stockholm syndrome. He joins in the chase.

     The tank’s problems are seemingly solved when they flag down a helicopter, but instead of abandoning the tank and flying to safety, Daskal insists on refueling and returning to base by reversing their route through a “please ambush me” ravine. Guess what happens? Although wheezing and leaking oil, the Beast is home free after the RPG round fails to disable it. Suddenly an explosion-induced avalanche wrecks the tank. It’s the women! Watch the movie to find out what happens next.

     It is hard to explain why this movie is almost unheard of. On Rotten Tomatoes, it has only one review. It made less than $1 million at the box office. It certainly looks like Columbia Pictures dropped the ball. It deserved better. Part of the problem may have been the stupid title. Although the tank does resemble a beast, the title must have thrown viewers off. The film is not great, but it is a good effort. It is well acted, especially by Dzundsa as the despicable commander. He has the best line when he summarizes Russian tank doctrine: “out of commission, become a pillbox; out of ammo, become a bunker; out of time, become heroes.”

     Any movie that is not sunk by Stephen Baldwin is noteworthy. The main characters tend to be stock, but they are well-played and appropriate to the tale. It has an interesting female character in Sherina. How often do you see a woman in a war movie who vows to get revenge? The Afghanis are sympathetically portrayed which is probably because the movie was made during the Cold War and not after 9/11.

    Although not based on a true story, Dale Dye saw to it that the military aspects of it are authentic. He personally purchased two old Soviet tanks from the Israeli army to stand in for the T-62 called for in the story. Dye insisted the tank have realistic recoil which was accomplished through the use of shells where water replaced high explosives. The weaponry is real.

     In conclusion, this movie could crack the 100 Best list. It is undoubtedly better than most of #60-100 on Military History magazine’s list.

GRADE  =  B+