Friday, September 30, 2011

SHOULD I READ IT? The Army of Crime

     “The Army of Crime” is a war movie that fits firmly into the French Resistance sub-genre. It is a French movie directed by Robert Guediguian. He intended it to be an homage to the FTP-MOI branch of the French Resistance. This group consisted mainly of Communist immigrants who conducted missions to kill Nazis in Paris in 1943.

     The movie opens with a preview of the end. Members of the group are on their way to torture and execution by the Gestapo. This probably worked well with a French audience which I assume knows the sad result of the Affiche Rouge affair, but for me it ended the suspense of who would survive. The rest of the movie is a flashback to how they got to that police van.

Marcel takes out another Nazi
     The movie follows several characters who eventually link up to work together. The leading character is an intellectual Armenian poet named Missak Manouchian (Simon Abkarian) who has a dedicated wife Melinee (Virginie Ledoyen). We first meet him as he is released from Gestapo captivity after he signs a document recanting his communism. Thomas (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet) is a Jewish student who joins the movement and brings a bomb to a party (in a hollowed out copy of Das Kapital, naturally) full of Nazi officers. Marcel (Robinson Stevenin) is a Jew whose father has been deported. He takes vengeance by offering German soldiers cigarettes and then shooting them. He is a loose cannon, but does not dispute this. They hook up when Manouchian forms a group to carry out terrorist activities.

     At first, Missak refuses to kill, but it does not take long for him to get his hands dirty. In a cool scene, he throws a grenade in the midst of some marching German soldiers and then Marcel finishes them off. Later, the group attacks a bus in an orgy of quick and efficient violence.

     The movie is consistently somber, but there is some levity in a scene where the crew plans to use a grenade to blow up a brothel frequented by Germans. The first guy returns after refusing to kill teenage prostitutes, then shockingly Marcel wimps out as well. To make matters comical, they lose the grenade pin and have to go home to Melinee to get a sewing needle to disarm the bomb.

     Their run of luck ends when Marcel’s girlfriend is bribed by the evil French policeman into ratting out the gang. The various members are rounded up with Missak unrealistically going down without a fight even though he must know he will be tortured and killed. Only Melinee survives. The Nazis put out a poster (Affiche Rouge) to discredit them as communist troublemakers. The title of the film comes from an accusation from the poster.

      “Army of Crime” is fairly accurate. The three main characters are actual historical figures and are realistically portrayed. Most of the violent episodes are based on actual events., but I found no evidence for the brothel grenade scene. It also appears that the traitorous girlfriend and her police paramour subplot was fictionalized. More disturbing, it seems that Manouchian was actually the one who turned in the others under torture. The executions and poster are based on fact. One controversial aspect of the film is the accusation that Guediguian makes that the French authorities considered the Communist Resistance to be a bigger threat than the Nazis and thus collaborated with the Germans. The French police are bigger villains in the movie than the Gestapo. The French public is depicted as apathetic about German occupation and even upset with the boat-rocking FTO-MOI. There is also the implication that the ethnicity of the group played a role in their lack of support from average French people. Ironically, these “foreigners” were more interested in dying for “liberte, egalite, fraternite” than the French were. It may be exaggerated, but it feels authentic.

     I liked this movie much more than the similarly themed “Army of Shadows”. It does not drag and the action sequences are well-paced. The cinematography is crisp in color. The acting is very good, especially Abkarian and Stevinin. The production design and costumes take us back to wartime Paris.

OVERALL - 9/10

Sunday, September 25, 2011

#49 - The Searchers (1956)

BACK-STORY: “The Searchers” is a “war” movie based on the eponymous novel by Alan LeMay. It was released in 1956 toward the end of the great period of black and white Westerns and is considered by many to be the best movie of that genre. It is marked by peak performances by director John Ford and his perennial star, John Wayne. Shockingly, although the film did well at the box office, it did not get a single Academy Award nomination. The casting was interesting. Natalie Wood’s sister plays the younger Debbie. Natalie was still in high school at the time of filming and you can imagine the stir when Wayne and/or Jeffery Hunter would sometimes come to pick her up at school. Fess Parker of “Davy Crockett” fame was set to play the Martin Pawley role, but Disney would not allow him to. He later said it was the biggest loss of his career. Buddy Holly got the idea for the title of his hit “That’ll Be the Day” from the oft used line in the movie.

OPENING: The film opens in 1868 Texas. A typical old cowboy song plays over the credits. We view the Texas prairie from through a doorway (a frequent motif in the movie) and then the camera moves outside to greet the return of Uncle Ethan (Wayne). This scene sets the theme of the indoors representing civilization and the outdoors standing for savagery. Ethan has been gone for several years. He was on the losing side in the Civil War, but is unreconciled. Where he has been since the end of the war is unclear, but he has a Mexican medal (which he gives to Debbie) and a lot of gold coins. Ethan is out of place in his brother’s home (civilization) and it is obvious from body language that there was something between Ethan and his sister-in-law Martha. Another interesting dynamic is the family had adopted a boy rescued from the Indians by Ethan. Because Martin (Hunter) is part Indian, Ethan is cold towards him which is our first inkling that Ethan is a racist. At one point he calls Martin “blankethead”.

SUMMARY: A posse of Texas Rangers led by Capt. Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond) arrives searching for some cattle thieves. Ethan and Martin join the group. They discover that the culprits are Comanche raiders on a “murder raid” and they have been drawn away from the farm. As Martin spurs his horse back, Ethan stops to rest his horse knowing it’s a long (and probably fruitless) return. He is accompanied by an addled Mose (Hank Worden).

     The scene at the farm is fraught with omens. Dusk is coming in reddishly and faux bird calls pierce the air. Aaron and Martha know they are doomed. The emotions of the family vary by age and adulthood. Martha sends Debbie to hide in the family grave plot (next to the tombstone of Ethan’s mother who was killed by Indians). Soon she is covered by the shadow an Indian named Scar.

     When Ethan arrives at the farm (he has passed up Martin who is afoot having run his horse to death) it is aflame and he finds what’s left of the family in a shed. What he sees is left to our imagination as the camera focuses on him looking in through the doorway.

look at his eye - acting!
     Ethan, Martin, and Lucy’s (the elder daughter) beau go after the two girls. The Rangers are along, too. When they locate the Indian camp, Ethan wants to go charging in (seemingly unconcerned with the consequences to the captives). Clayton insists on using stealth which fails. The tables are turned with the Indians chasing the smaller group of Texans to the river. The Indians use the typical Hollywood tactic of a frontal attack across the river and are predictably mowed down by the repeating rifles. Ethan revels in the killing.

costarring Monument Valley
     The trio continue on alone and Ethan discovers Lucy’s body in a canyon. When Brad asks for details Ethan snarls “What do you want me to do – draw you a picture?!” Brad commits suicide by charging into the Indian camp. Once again our imagination is required as all we hear is a series of gunshots.

     Time passes and Ethan and Marty return to Brad’s parent’s home. Brad’s sister Lori (Vera Miles) has been pining for her childhood sweetheart although Martin seems clueless about their unofficial betrothal. Brad’s parents have taken his death stoically – they are frontier folk. Ethan tries to leave Martin behind, but Martin insists on coming along because he fears what Ethan will do when he finds Debbie. A trader gives Ethan information about Scar’s whereabouts. That night Ethan sets up Martin as bait for the inevitable campfire ambush by the trader and his cronies. Ethan kills the three.

     Some comic relief is thrown in as Martin accidentally “purchases” an Indian wife. Ethan gets a big kick out of this, Lori does not. The wife runs off when they ask her about Scar and later they find her dead body in a village that has been sacked by the U.S. Cavalry. The white girls rescued by the Cavalry are all mentally scarred by their experience as captives, but none are Debbie.

Martin shields Debbie
     A Mexican leads them to Scar’s camp to parley and trade. Scar recognizes them as his pursuers and makes a point of showing scalps he has taken to avenge the killings of his sons by whites. It turns out he is a racist, too. Guess who one of his wives is? Except she is not looking like a typical captive. In fact, she looks like she is going to a Halloween costume party dressed as a sexy squaw. Ethan and Martin play it cool and camp nearby. Debbie comes out to meet them to urge them to go. She is content with her situation. Ethan wants to shoot her. Martin shields her with his body and an Indian hits Ethan with an invisible poison arrow. The duo flee and take refuge in a cave where they beat off, you guessed it - a frontal attack. (Indians don’t sneak up on surrounded and outnumbered enemies in most Westerns.) So close and yet so far, they return to the Jorgenson’s.

     Lori is fixing to get hitched to a rube named Charlie (Ken Curtis). The traditions of frontier weddings is depicted quaintly. Naturally, Marty and Charlie have to settle this with a fist fight because this is a Western and two guys cannot share one girl. Ethan is about to be arrested for the “murder” of the trader, when word arrives that Scar is camped nearby. Ethan, the Texas Rangers, and the Cavalry (led by Patrick Wayne) head for the camp.

CLOSE: The whites plan an attack at dusk. Ethan hopes Debbie is killed in the attack. Martin sneaks in early to try to save her. He finds her in Scar’s tipi and she agrees to go. This is an unexplained change of heart from the last time they saw her. Scar appears in the doorway and in an anticlimactic moment, Martin shoots him. Done. The gunshot initiates the assault on the village which catches the Indians sleeping, but appears to result in no casualties for either side. Ethan chases Debbie to a cave. She is doomed as her psychotic uncle catches up, but he lifts her in her arms and says “Let’s go home, Debbie.” All those who expected John Wayne to kill his niece in cold blood will be disappointed. In the iconic closing scene, Debbie is taken into the bosom of the Jorgenson home and Ethan is left standing on the porch. Still not civilization-worthy nor wanting to be.


Acting - 8

Action - 7

Accuracy - 8

Realism - 6

Plot - 8

Overall - 8

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? It depends on whether they enjoy Westerns. ”The Searchers” is well-balanced. The plot includes some female roles and some gentle humor. Two men fight over the same woman. Women love that. The action is not graphic. The themes should be interesting for women.
Natalie Wood as Debbie

ACCURACY: I was surprised to find that “The Searchers” is based on a true story or stories. Author LeMay did his research on Indian captivities. The one that most closely corresponds to the movie is the story of Cynthia Ann Parker (which happens to be the most famous one). Parker was nine years old when she was taken by the Comanche in 1836. She was taken among others when the Indians took Fort Parker in Texas. Her uncle spent the rest of his life and his fortune searching for her. She was treated much worse than Debbie was apparently treated in the movie. The treatment included torture, but like Debbie she was eventually married to a chief. Unlike Debbie, she gave birth to three children, one of whom became the famous Quanah Parker (the last great Comanche leader). She was not “rescued” until twenty-four years later when Texas Rangers attacked her village. Uncle Parker was not with them, but she was soon reunited with him. She was unhappy living in civilization and once escaped only to be “rescued” again. From the pictures, she does not look like Natalie Wood. Surprise! Another surprising historical accuracy is the loony Mose character. There actually was a half-crazy Mad Mose in Texas who had the reputation of being an Indian fighter and rocking chair lover. By the way, in the book at the end Debbie runs away from the village and Martin only catches up to her days later after she has collapsed from exhaustion.

CRITIQUE: “The Searchers” is a great Western. It has all the ingredients of a classic. The music fits the movie well. So do the typical Ford touches of humor. The directing is robust with Ford at the top of his game. His use of doorways to frame his theme of civilization versus savagery is genius. It’s not the bullshit of an auteur. It is obvious what he is trying to say and you wait for the next use of the motif and nod that you get it. The opening and closing of the movie with the doorway imagery makes it clear you have seen something special. The cinematography is amazing with Monument Valley standing in magnificently for Texas. The outdoors may symbolize savagery, but savagery has never looked so awesome. Admittedly, some of the sound stage scenes have a phony look, but they seem to enhance the scenes set in Monument Valley.

     The acting is strong across the board and is anchored by what most consider to be Wayne’s greatest performance (and his personal favorite). Wayne was notorious for avoiding roles that were not heroic, but he made an exception for Ethan (a similar exception was made for “Red River”). Ethan is an anti-hero predating the vogue of the sixties. Ethan’s racism and abhorrence of miscegenation was typical of a majority of white frontiersmen of the time, but still a daring portrayal for the Duke. One has to add, however, that the offensiveness of the character is diluted in the abrupt acceptance of Debbie when he “rescues” her. It appears that Wayne and Ford could only go so far in amending their previous depictions of the West and the Indians. I guess they were willing to settle for Purgatory instead of Heaven.

     The supporting actors are good and for lovers of old Westerns have a familiar vibe. Jeffery Hunter is only singed a bit by Wayne’s volatile performance. He does not embarrass himself. Ward Bond, Harry Carey, Jr., Ken Curtis, and Hank Worden are solid, as you would expect. It was probably a fun movie to make.

Martha and her brother-in-law
     The best thing about the movie is it is not the usual white hat/horse hero versus either bad guys or Indians. Don’t get me wrong, Scar is a classic villain. But Ford throws in the fact that he is avenging his murdered sons when he takes scalps. This mirrors the motivation of his foe Ethan. Speaking of Ethan, he is a fascinating character. The movie makes you think about issues deeper than your average Western. Should I empathize with an obvious racist? If my mother and the love of my life (Martha) were killed by Indians, would I feel the same obsession with vengeance? What is harder to empathize with is Ethan’s primitive take on miscegenation. It is hard for our tolerant society to fathom why Ethan would search for years for Debbie seemingly just so he could kill her for sleeping with a “buck”. The movie does not make it clear whether Ethan is principally motivated by revenge for Martha’s death or the purifying of his family name by eliminating Debbie. It is interesting to consider what would have happened if Scar had traded Debbie to another tribe. Who would Ethan have searched for then? Critics have introduced the intriguing theory that Debbie is actually Ethan’s daughter (the timing of her birth makes this possible). This just makes his objective more fascinating.

CONCLUSION: While certainly a great movie and possibly the best Western ever made, “The Searchers” is not even close to being a war movie. The editors of Military History magazine should not have included any movie that is a war movie second, another genre first. If they truly felt it was a war movie, it should have been ranked much higher (a similar situation to “Casablanca”).

the trailer

the opening scene

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

SHOULD I READ IT? Army of Shadows

     “Army of Shadows” (“L’Armee des Ombres”) is a French movie by acclaimed director Jean-Pierre Melville. It is based on the 1943 novel of the same name by French Resistance member Joseph Kessel. Originally released in 1969, it was hammered by the French critics for its supposed pro-De Gaulle slant. The backlash ended its chances for U.S. distribution until its reissue in 2006. It became a critical darling and made many critics’ Top Ten lists. Some had it as the best movie of 2006.

     The movie opens with a German band marching through the Arc de Triomphe in a long shot toward the stationary camera. (This scene was originally placed at the end of the film.) Nice start. It is October, 1942 and we meet the main character Gerbier (Lino Ventura) who is under arrest for Resistance activities. He is one cool customer. When he is transferred to Gestapo headquarters, he stabs the only guard and escapes. (This will not be the last implausible thing to happen in this movie.) Gerbier is part of a Resistance cell. Their lives are in constant danger, but they patriotically take it in stride. They live by a code and of course the worst violation of the code is to rat on one’s comrades. In one scene, they strangle a traitor because they cannot use a gun. Powerful.

     Gerbier recruits a young hot shot pilot named Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel). He joins the group that includes agents with cool nicknames like Le Masque and Le Bison. Unfortunately, Gerbier’s best friend Lepercq (Paul Crauchet) gets arrested while Gerbier is in England consulting with the British. He returns, parachuting from one of the most fake airplanes in cinema history. Mathilde (a matronly Simone Signoret) has a plan to rescue Lepercq from deep in Gestapo headquarters. Piece of cake, right? Meanwhile, Jardie takes it upon himself to get arrested hoping that the Germans will suspend logic and put him in the same cell as Lepercq. Mission accomplished! Mathilde’s rescue squad arrives disguised as an ambulance crew, but Lepercq has been tortured to the point of death and he can’t be taken so all this is for nothing. WTF? (And by the way, Jardie’s arrest plays no role in the success or failure of the plan.)

Gerbier (Lino Ventura) trying to stay awake

     Later, Gerbier is picked up in a routine raid. He and others are to be executed, but not by firing squad and before he can be tortured like Lepercq (wait, what?) It is not a simple execution thankfully. The victims are told to run down a corridor while a machine gun fires at them from behind. Luckily, Gerbier decides to be a coward and run instead of taking it like a man. I say lucky because Mathilde has somehow learned of the exact time of this bizarre event and is stationed on the roof of the corridor which conveniently has an opening for her to toss some smoke bombs to blind the machine gun and a rope to hoist Gerbier to safety. I am not making this up. Critics undoubtedly fawned over the lighting in this scene.

     Gerbier is whisked to a safe house where he must lay low for an incredibly long and boring time. Go use the bathroom and take a nap during this part of the film which feels like it is taking place in real time. While watching the paint dry in the house, Gerbier is visited by Le Grande Fromage who tells him Mathilde has turned her coat to protect her daughter. The code deems her death-worthy and so they do a drive-by on her. A post script tells us she is not the only one of our less-than-merry band to not collect their French Resistance pensions. This is not a feel good movie.

     I sometimes disagree with critics, but seldom as vociferously as with this movie. This movie is boring! It drags and is way too long. Some scenes seem to move at a snail’s pace. It is pretentious (which may explain some of the critical acclaim). It also has some ridiculous scenes which I have to assume were the author’s attempt to jazz up a novel that was supposedly about true events. I will admit the acting is good and the cinematography is well done, but that does not overcome the plot (or in this case, the plod). The incredible thing is I am way out on a limb on this one. Virtually no critic had anything bad to say about it. Normally I would admit I need to watch it again, but I’d rather take my chances trying to outrace a machine gun down a long corridor.


Saturday, September 17, 2011

FORGOTTEN GEM? Birdy (1985)


     “Birdy” is a different kind of war movie. It was directed by Alan Parker and is based on the novel by William Wharton (the novel is set in WWII). It has an interesting soundtrack by Peter Gabriel. It was awarded the Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes in 1985. In spite of critical acclaim, it is virtually unknown and made less than $2 million at the box office. It is one of the best examinations of the mental and physical aftermaths of war.

      The film is the story of two friends who go off to the Vietnam War and return scarred. Al (Nicholas Cage), who has facial wounds, visits his best friend Birdy (Matthew Modine) in a mental hospital and tries to break through to him. Birdy thinks he is a bird and is unresponsive. There is a striking shot of Birdy perched on his bed.

      During their sessions, the movie flashs back to events in their friendship. The vignettes are endearing and include rebuilding an old car and working as dog catchers until they find out the dogs and being made into food. It quickly becomes clear that although Al is an typical urban youth, Birdy is quite strange. He is obsessed with birds and even makes wings and tries to fly! (How did this guy make it into the Army?) The movie includes a remarkable sequence of Birdy dreaming he is flying around. We see this from a bird’s eye view accompanied by cool Gabriel music. This was the first use of a skycam in a feature film. It is the most memorable scene in the movie.

     The flashbacks from Vietnam are less effective. There is a confusing scene where Al gets wounded and is on the same helicopter as Birdy. Since they went to war separately, this seems a major coincidence. The copter is shot down and the area is napalmed, but we do not find out what happened to Birdy. The ending is equally weird and I won’t give it away, but it has justly been criticized for not fitting the film.

      Forgotten gem? While not a gem, this movie deserves to be seen. It’s a bit bizarre, but it holds your attention. The two leads are better than you would think. They were early in their careers, but you can see the potential. You get the good Nick Cage in this one. It is surprising that he has the less hammy role. Supposedly Modine read for Al, but was given the Birdy role by the director. It is intriguing to imagine how the film would be with the roles reversed. Modine is excellent in a physically demanding role. He does take on the mannerisms of a bird. Most importantly, you care about these two young men.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

#51 - The Informer (1935)

BACK-STORY: “The Informer” is a movie about the Irish Republican Army set in Dublin in 1922. It won John Ford his first Oscar for Best Director. It was based on the novel by Liam O’Flaherty. It was released in 1935 and although not a box office hit, it was critically acclaimed. It was nominated for Best Picture (losing to “Mutiny on the Bounty”). It won for Actor (Victor McLaglen), Screenplay (Dudley Nichols), Score (Max Steiner), and Director. The studio did not want to make the picture because of its depressing nature. When the execs were convinced that Ford was worth the risk, they insisted that he stay under a $250,000 budget. Ford gave up his salary, shot the film in 17 days and brought it in around $243,000.

OPENING: Gypo Owen (McLaglen) sees a wanted poster for his best friend Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford). He rips the poster down. The wind-blown poster will reappear in scenes coming up. British soldiers called “Tans” rove the streets intimidating the Irish. Gypo is down on his luck. He was recently kicked out of the IRA because he refused to execute a Tan. Frankie meets Gypo in a flop house and mentions he is going to sneak home to see his mum and sister. Gypo is tempted to claim the reward for Frankie because his girlfriend Katie (Margot Grahame) has turned to prostitution and dreams of starting a new life in America.

SUMMARY: Gypo succumbs to temptation and the fact that he is a dumb ox. He goes to the police station and rats out Frankie for the 20 pound reward. The Tans catch Frankie at his mother’s house and kill him in a fierce gun battle. Gypo, wracked with grief, buys some whiskey and starts a binge to end all binges. (Being Irish his alcohol consumption is remarkable only in its extreme quantity.) He lies to Katie, telling her he robbed a sailor for the new-found money.

"My best friend is worth 20 pounds!"
     Gypo goes to Frankie’s wake to try to look innocent, but being drunk and stupid and suddenly flush with cash is not a good combination for him. It does not take Sherlock Holmes to solve this case. He is called to see the local IRA commander, a man named Gallagher (Preston Foster). He is told he will be reinstated if he helps find the informer. It’s clear they suspect him, so he fingers a patsy named Mulligan claiming he had a grudge against McPhillip.

"Fish and chips, on me!"
     By this time the prodigious drinking has made Gypo careless and belligerent. He knocks out a snob and then a cop, but he buys the love of the crowd with fish and chips. That 20 pounds is going fast. Next Gypo and a sychophant visit a “gentleman’s club” that is not a brothel because all the girls are wearing hats. (The hats were Ford’s way of getting around the censors.) More money slips away. It’s rapidly approaching the point where Gypo and Katie will not be able to afford a cab ride across town, much less a trip to America.

     Gypo is summoned to a board of inquiry hosted by Gallagher. He accuses the befuddled Mulligan, but he has an alibi. The court turns its attention to the obviously guilty Gypo and he confesses after some grilling. He is thrown in a cell while Gallagher’s henchmen draw straws to see who will shoot him. The quivering, short straw drawer lets Gypo escape. He goes to Katie’s room. They’ll never look for him there, right? When Gallagher and McPhillip’s sister (Heather Angel – nominated for Best Actress) arrive, Katie pleas for forgiveness. No dice.

CLOSING: Gypo emerges from hiding and fights his way out only to be shot three times on the doorstep by one of Gallagher’s men. The bullets go through his clothing without leaving holes! The executioner conveniently does not stick around for any last words. Gypo stumbles into the nearby church where he finds Mrs. McPhillip and gets her forgiveness before he dies.


Acting - 7

Action - 5

Accuracy - 8

Realism – 6

Plot - 6

Overall - 5

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Possibly. There are some strong female characters. The violence is tame. It is firmly PG-rated. If they don’t like war movies, no problem here.

ACCURACY: The movie is set in the Irish War of Independence. This conflict began in 1919. The Irish Republican Army conducted a guerrilla war against the British authorities. Those authorities included the Temporary Constables, better known as the “Black and Tans” (or simply “Tans” in the movie). They were mostly WWI veterans recruited for counterinsurgency in Ireland. Not surprisingly, atrocity was met by atrocity as in all guerrilla wars. Both sides were big on reprisals. The Tans did pay for information and given the nature of the conflict, informers were not uncommon. Although the movie is not based on a true story, it could have happened. We can assume some of the informers were alcoholic dumbasses.

     The war lasted until 1921 when the Anglo-Irish Treaty was negotiated giving southern Ireland its independence and retaining Northern Ireland for the United Kingdom. At this point conflict broke out within the IRA between the pro and anti-treaty forces. And, of course, the insurgency moved into Northern Ireland. This would seem to indicate that either the timing or the location of the movie is historically inaccurate. It is set in Dublin in 1922. It should have been set in Belfast in 1922 or Dublin in 1921. This is a minor quibble, but still a perplexing mistake.

CRITIQUE: The movie is very dark and foggy. It takes place in one night and a foggy one at that. This fits the mood of betrayal central to the plot. It is impossible to imagine the movie being set in the daytime. Gypo is essentially Judas turning in his friend for 20 pounds instead of 30 pieces of silver. We sympathize with Gypo because he is a likable lug, but in some ways he is more despicable than Judas. At least Judas did his treachery out of misguided principle and committed suicide when the consequences dawned on him. Gypo is motivated by desire for the money and to impress a lady. He compounds his sin by fingering an innocent man. The movie makes it clear that the decision to turn in Frankie was spur of the moment and much of the subsequent actions are based on the effects of alcohol. I wonder if the movie would have been stronger if Gypo’s actions were not tainted by drunkenness.

     The acting is good with McLaglen the standout. However, I do not think his performance warranted an Oscar. It is a bit hammy. According to legend, Ford got this performance out of McLaglen through tricks like telling him he would have the day off knowing he would get drunk and then suddenly putting him in front of the cameras with a raging hangover. These tales are probably apochryphal. McLaglen made twelve movies for Ford and Ford once said that being drunk made it impossible to play a drunk. No doubt a sober McLaglen could play a drunk from experience. I know one thing, if McLaglen was drinking real whiskey during the filming, he would have died of alcohol poisoning! Gypo was super Irish.

      If I was covering this movie as part of my “Classic or Antique?” series, I would have to consign it to the antique bin. It is quaint. The acting is stereotypical. The death of Gypo sans blood or bullet holes is expected, but ridiculous. The fights are fake with missed punches. The city looks like Hollywood’s idea of an Irish town. The old school atmospherics and score hold up well, but overall the movie does not.

CONCLUSION:  I know I am beginning to sound like a broken record, but this is another movie that does not belong on the list because it is not a war movie and it is not even very good.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Counterfeiters (2007)

     “The Counterfeiters” is a war movie made in Germany and released in 2007. It was directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky. It is based on a memoir by Holocaust survivor Adolf Burger entitled The Devil’s Workshop. It is a true story revolving around the S.S. forging operation called “Operation Bernhard”.

Operation Bernard
     The main character is Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) who is a successful forger in Berlin before the war. He gets arrested and is sentenced to a concentration camp where his artistic ability gets him a job as a painter. After five years, the cop who originally arrested him gets him transferred to Sachsenhausen to participate in a secret counterfeiting operation called “Operation Bernhard”. Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow) is now an S.S. officer who is in charge of the counterfeiting the British pound note to help finance the Nazi war effort and cause economic problems in England. The skilled Jews are given special treatment by Herzog as an incentive to get the job done. They are also separated from the rest of the camp.

Adolf Burger (August Deihl)

     Sally quickly discovers that the survival of the entire group depends on results. Since survival is the main goal of all inmates and the treatment is good, there would seem to be no conflict. However, Sally inconveniently develops a conscience whereas he had previously been a narcissist. In two separate incidents he saves inmates from being shot. He helps perfect the pound and Herzog rewards the men with a ping pong table. Herzog moves them on to forging the dollar and Sally sees this as his greatest challenge. Plus creation of the dollar means survival for them all.

      Sally’s friendship with Adolf Burger (August Diehl) complicates matters. Burger correctly deduces that “Operation Bernhard” is helping the Nazi war effort. If the Nazis win the war and they have helped, that is worse than surviving. He tries to convince Sally to sabotage the dollar effort. Sally does not completely come over to his view, but does delay the completion until it’s too late for Germany. With the Russians just down the road, the Nazis pull out, abandoning the camp. Sally catches Herzog trying to leave with thousands of dollars he has hidden. Sally beats him up, but lets him go – without the money.

     “The Counterfeiters” is an admirably accurate film. Burger served as technical adviser on the film and was very hands-on.. “Operation Bernhard” is considered the largest counterfeiting operation in history. It was headed by Bernhard Kruger (Herzog in the film). Kruger was apparently a relatively benevolent Nazi as depicted in the film. (Striesow plays him as a yuppie who is more concerned with money than ideology.) He was not condemned for war crimes after the war and actually had several of the forgers testify on his behalf (although Burger insists he was a murderer). Obviously Burger’s character is true to life and so is Sorowitsch. The acting is outstanding, especially by Diehl and Markovics.

     This is not your typical Holocaust movie. The Jews are treated much better than we are used to seeing and although there is always the threat of violence, it seldom materializes. Even the rebellious Burger does not face the consequences of his sabotaging. The movie is suspenseful and thought provoking with its theme of conscience versus survival, but it does not truly explore this theme. This is the rare case of an historical movie where I would argue it would have been better if it had veered from the facts for dramatic effect. The truth is that the forgers know that the Allies are going to win the war so they know perfecting the dollar will have no impact on who wins. For this reason, there is no real conflict between survival and helping the Nazis. They can delay the finished product, but they never have to make the ultimate decision whether to complete the project. The movie would have had a stronger punch if it had left this knowledge of Germany’s situation out and fully debated whether survival under these circumstances was justified.

GRADE  =  B+

Sunday, September 4, 2011

#52 - Beau Geste (1939)

BACK-STORY: This is the 1939 version of the oft-made action/adventure film. Obviously it is considered to be best version. It is based on the novel by Percival Christopher Wren. The book was aimed at the teenage boy in all of us and the movie puts this to film. It was one of the first movies to link war and adventure. But in an entertaining twist, the book and film add a dash of mystery. It explores the themes of loyalty, duty, and honor. The movie was a big hit and helped launch the subgenre of the French Foreign Legion film. It is unique in that it features four actors that would subsequently win Oscars as Best Actors or Actresses (Cooper, Milland, Crawford, and Hayward). Interestingly, considering that line-up, the acting honors in “Beau Geste” go to Brian Donlevy as the sadistic Markoff. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

OPENING: A preface tells us this will be a manly movie by quoting an Arab proverb: “The love of a man for a woman waxes and wanes like the moon… but the love of brother for brother is steadfast as the stars and endures like the word of the prophet…” The opening scene is famous. A French Foreign Legion unit comes to Fort Zindernauf in the Algerian desert to find the ramparts manned by corpses. The bugler scales the wall, but then disappears. The Major enters the fort to find everyone dead and one clutching a note confessing to the theft of a precious jewel. Gunshots cause the unit to retire to a nearby oasis before the mystery can be solved.

SUMMARY: We flash back fifteen years earlier. The Geste brothers are playing naval war with some really nice wooden ship models. They are being raised in the upper class after being orphaned. Their benefactor Lady Brandon is in financial distress because of her wayward, spendthrift husband, but this does not stop the boys from reenacting a Viking funeral by torching one of the models. Beau avows that he wants to go that way when his time comes. Foreshadowing, anyone?

Digby, Beau, Isabel, and John
     Flash forward to the boys as young gentlemen. Beau (Gary Cooper) and Digby (Robert Preston) are gallant mouse catchers, but can’t bring themselves to kill anything cute. John (Ray Milland) is in love with Lady Brandon’s niece Isabel (Susan Hayward). Word arrives that Lord Brandon is coming to get the famed “Blue Water” sapphire to sell it. Beau asks Aunt Patricia for one last look at it and as they gather around, the lights suddenly go out and so does the sapphire. None of the boys will take responsibility, but the next morn, Beau is gone leaving a note confessing to it. Digby follows him into the French Foreign Legion. John lingers a bit, but the bonds of brotherhood overcome the bonds of love and he says farewell to Isabel to find them.

John (Milland), Beau (Cooper), and Digby (Preston)
     John arrives at the training depot where Beau and Digby are already proud legionnaires defending “millions of unfortunates” in the name of French colonialism. The new recruits are greeted by the 1939 equivalent of R. Lee Ermey. Sgt. Madoff (Brian Donleavy) calls them scum and vows to make them into men – yadda, yadda.

     It is still unclear who stole the jewel, but a slimeball named Rasinoffe overhears the Gestes discussing it and rats them out to Markoff. Markoff arranges to have Beau and John sent to remote Fort Zinderneuf where Markoff will be second in command. With the commanding officer ill, Markoff runs the show. His solution to the desertion problem is to send the deserters back into the desert with no provisions. When the humane CO dies with is boots off from a fever, the company plots mutiny. Beau and John refuse to be mutineers because it is dishonorable. Markoff gets wind of the rebellion and disarms the rebels. He is about to force Beau and John to execute them when the fort comes under attack from the Tuareg (Berbers). It seems these villainous ingrates don’t like having a foreign fort in their land. Don’t they want to be Christianized and civilized?

     Everyone mans the battlements. Remarkably, none of the mutineers decides to avoid execution by “accidentally” shooting Markoff in the back. Maybe they figure that would only make him angrier. Neither side ever misses a shot so there are a lot of Tuareg horses flopping and legionnaires dropping. Markoff is in his element and sees himself decorated for this last stand. He actually is a good leader and they do not question his orders. He comes up with the idea of putting the dead soldiers on the ramparts so the dim-witted Arabs will think the fort is fully manned. He literally places each man himself (exposing his fraggable back each time). He encourages the men by saying “the rest of the bullets you stop will not hurt as much as the first one.” Amazingly, none of the legionnaires is wounded. The Tuareg only use kill shots. No blood, no bullet holes = this is a pre-1960s movie.

     At one point, Markoff orders the men to all laugh to weaken the morale of the enemy. We are treated to one of the funniest deaths in war movie history as the hyena-laughing Rasinoffe is shot and then leaps (not falls) from the tower. By the time the enemy has had enough, Beau is wounded and only Markoff and John are intact. Markoff moves to rifle the “dead” Beau for the jewel and is about to shoot John when Beau throws off his aim allowing John to stab him. Beau dies in John’s arms after instructing him to leave the confession letter in Markoff’s hand. John flees the fort and the movie comes full circle with Digby (the bugler) arriving on the scene to find Beau’s body.

      Remembering Beau’s childhood dream, Digby gives Beau a Viking funeral complete with a dog (Markoff) at the foot of his byre (bed). John fires at the relief unit to get it to take refuge in the oasis. Digby joins John. Meanwhile, the cremation of Beau results in the torching of the fort. Beau and John hook up with two American legionnaire friends who have conveniently deserted conveniently with horses. They come to another oasis just as the quartet’s water has run out. Digby blows his bugle to chase off the Arabs, but a parting shot kills Digby. (Did I mention the Taureg are amazing shots?)

CLOSING: John is the only brother to return home which is fortunate for Isabel. He brings a letter for Aunt Pat from Beau. The mystery is solved. Beau had accidentally witnessed Lady Brandon selling the “Blue Water” years earlier to make ends meet. He stole the jewel to avoid her confrontation with Lord Brandon when he would have discovered the jewel in the case was a fake. What a beautiful gesture – “beau geste”.


Acting - 9

Action - 7

Accuracy - not applicable

Realism - 5

Plot - 9

Overall - 9

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Definitely. The leads are dashing and likable. The violence is PG–rated. The mystery aspect makes it more than a one-dimensional war flick. Plus ladies are less likely to be distracted by some of the ridiculous plot twists than guys might.

ACCURACY: The book and movie are not based on any historical events or people. Surprise! I did discover that the Tuareg were not noted for using rifles. That is one of the reasons the French overcame them – superior firepower. The French Foreign Legion is accurately depicted in its cosmopolitan nature. The FFL was created in 1831 to enlist foreign nationals. The intent was to remove troublemakers from French society. Anyone enlisting was taken no questions asked. The mission of the FFL was to protect and expand the French colonial empire, but the army saw action in most wars that France got involved in. It was stationed in Algeria and is most famous for its pacification campaigns there.

CRITIQUE: “Beau Geste” is old school entertainment. Check your intellect at the door, it will get in the way of your enjoyment of the film. Don’t think too much about the details after viewing, it might wipe the smile off your face and replace it with a look of perplexion. For instance, did all the legionnaires die with their eyes open or did Markoff pry them open before putting them on the ramparts? Who turned off the light so Beau could steal the jewel or did he just take advantage of a sudden power failure?

     The movie is very well acted. You would expect that from this cast. It especially works because the trio of Cooper, Preston, and Milland are adept at comedy. Their chemistry is apparent. It looks like the actors had fun making the movie. Donlevy is unintentionally funny in his over the top malevolence. His is a command performance. Get it?

     The key to making the movie a classic is the mystery that is integral to the plot. This makes it a rare war movie that doubles as a whodunit. The mystery is well done and the resolution will surprise most viewers. The structure of flash-backs and flash-forwards greatly enhances the mystery. The foreshadowing does not give away the mystery, but meshes nicely with the conclusion. The movie also has its suspenseful moments and fits well in the “who will survive?” subgenre.

      The movie is well filmed. It was nominated for Art Direction. The fort is a realistic setting. The scenes in the Brandon mansion also give a taste for upper class British trappings. The dialogue is not as trite as in most 1930s movies.

CONCLUSION: I was pleasantly surprised by this movie. Considering I love old movies, I had never seen it and now I wonder why. As those who follow this blog probably know, I do not fawn over the “classics”. Just because it’s old does not make it good and in fact, an old black and white movie had better be damn good to make up for the lack of technology and the unrealistic effects (e.g., no bullet holes, no blood). This is one movie that transcends those disadvantages. Plot and acting can do that. But mainly, the movie deserves to be in the Greatest 100 because it is so fun.

the trailer

Markoff and a ghost soldier