Monday, October 24, 2011

#47 - Battleship Potemkin

BACK-STORY: “Battleship Potemkin” is a combination war movie / propaganda piece. It was meant to be one part of an eight part series on the Revolution of 1905. It turned out to be the only one in the series that ended up being made. It did not have the intended inspirational effect as it was not warmly embraced by the Russian people. It actually lost the box office to “Robin Hood” the opening week. It was a big hit outside Russia, however. The movie is justifiably famous and is considered Sergei Einstein’s masterpiece. It has been oft-copied by other directors. The film is divided into five parts: (1) “Men and Maggots” (2) “Drama on Deck” (3) “A Dead Man Calls for Justice” (4) “The Odessa Staircase” (5) “The Rendezvous with a Squadron”. Interestingly, the staircase scene was not planned as part of the movie and was added during production.

OPENING: Waves are crashing on a breaker. The screen tells us Russia is in revolution. “The individual personality, having hardly had time to become conscious of itself, dissolved in the mass, and the mass itself became dissolved in the revolutionary elan.” On board the Potemkin, two soldiers talk about supporting the workers. Vakulinchuk urges the men lounging in their hammocks to revolt against mistreatment.

SUMMARY: The men are upset about rancid meat, but the officers (including the doctor) insist it is edible. The men refuse to eat the borscht. In response, the Admiral orders the execution of those who are insubordinate. The rebels are gathered on the deck and a tarpaulin is thrown over them. A wild looking Rasputin-like preacher condones the execution. Vakulinchuk demands the firing squad back down and they do. The mutiny begins. There is mass chaos as the officers are thrown overboard. Unfortunately, Valulinchuk is shot and killed, thus becoming a martyr.

      Valulinchuk’s body is carried ashore at Odessa. A mass of people come out to view the body. The whole city apparently. There is a montage of various emotions. The anger builds, symbolized by clenched hands recurring. “Down with tyranny!” The crowd joins with the crew and raises a red flag of revolution. An armada of sail-boats comes out to bring food to the battleship while a crowd cheers from a stairway. Uh, oh!

      Next is the famous Odessa Staircase scene. Einstein shows off his innovative cross-cutting technique as he bounces from the robotic czarist soldiers advancing with bayonets fixed down the seemingly endless steps and the panicked civilians reacting to the tsunami of violence. Some of the focus is on a boy and his distraught mother. Another group tries vainly to reason with the soldiers. Most famously, a mother is shot and her baby carriage goes bouncing down the steps unguided. The violence is graphic for that time period of black and white / silent movies.

CLOSING: The fleet is coming! What will happen? The Potemkin will obviously be outnumbered and outgunned. The crew prepares for battle in a good tutorial of how a dreadnaught would be readied for naval combat. The music builds, the tension rises. At the last moment the squadron allows the Potemkin to pass through unimpeded to the accompaniment of cheers from the other crews who have refused to obey orders to open fire.


Acting - 6

Action - 6

Accuracy - 9

Realism - 6

Plot - 6

Overall - 6

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? It depends on if they a film buff. Everyone who claims to be a movie lover should see this movie. It is a true classic. It is not particularly macho and since it is not in smell-o-vision, females should be able to get into the story. Certainly the staircase scene tugs at female emotions as many of the victims are women.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The movie is surprisingly accurate for a propaganda piece. There was a mutiny on the battleship Potemkin in 1905 and it apparently started over the gross food. The movie does not give background (which makes the causes of the rebellion unclear), but the crew was already low on morale because of the aftermath of the terrible ass-kicking at the Battle of Tsushima. The Japanese fleet destroyed a Russian fleet and rumor threatened that ships like the Potemkin might be sent to the war zone. To make matters worse, the officer class had been diluted in quality to bolster the fleet that had been sent to Tsushima. The Potemkin’s officers would have probably been similar to the arrogant bourgeoisie of the film. However, it seems unlikely that Einstein’s heroic, saintly proletariat sailors were accurate representations of the actual crew.

      The mutiny did break out under circumstances similar to the film. A sailor named Vakulinchuk did foment the rebellion against the food. The sailors who were refusing to eat were being threatened by marines when Vakulinchuk started the mutiny. He was shot and fell into the sea, was rescued, and subsequently died. His funeral in Odessa was attended by a large crowd and incited more civil discontent.

      The movie has had such an impact that the staircase incident has been read into history. The fact is that it never happened. However, there were incidents in Odessa involving troops firing into crowds.

      Surprisingly, the sailing of the Potemkin through the fleet unmolested is true. The movie does not carry it from there, but the battleship took refuge in Rumania where most of the crew went into exile. The ship was eventually returned to the czarist government.

CRITIQUE: “Battleship Potemkin” is a remarkable movie. It is a classic that holds up well. You do not have to be a film historian to recognize the brilliance of Einstein’s direction. His innovations of montages and cross-cutting are apparent in their importance to the evolution of movie-making. The staircase scene alone is worth the price of admission. The story-telling is terse, but effective. The subtitles mostly explain instead of translate. To tell the truth, the film could have used more subtitles. The music is effective and matches the scenes well.

      Unlike other true classics (like Casablanca), the movie is not flawless. Some of the scenes linger too long. We get your point, Sergei! The movie also tends to be heavy-handed at times, but for a propaganda film it is remarkably restrained. The acting is mediocre. This is not surprising considering several key players were not professional actors.

CONCLUSION: Once again we have a movie that is obviously one of the “greatest” war movies, but not necessarily one of the “best”. It is interesting and does a good job covering an important historical event. It is very influential and is still studied. This influence has been basically on films in general, not particularly on war movies, however.

       I think the editors of Military History magazine got its ranking of #47 pretty right considering their apparent definition of “greatest”. There are many movies that I have already reviewed from the 100 Greatest that are better and more entertaining, but you have to give “Battleship Potemkin” some credit for being ground-breaking.

Monday, October 17, 2011

CLASSIC or ANTIQUE? Shenandoah


      “Shenandoah” is a war movie set in the Civil War starring James Stewart. It is set in the Shenandoah Valley and centers on the Anderson family with their patriarch Charlie (Stewart). They own a 500 acre farm and although they are Virginians they don’t own slaves and are not secessionists. Charlie growls “this war is not mine and I take no note of it.” Since Charlie is a dictator, he is preventing his sons from going off and having fun as soldiers. What a party pooper! Luckily, they live in a part of the South that was little touched by the war – the Shenandoah Valley.  (For those of you who don't get that snark, the Shenandoah Valley saw more action than any other area by far.)

      This idyllic life comes to an end when the war hits home. When a Confederate unit arrives “recruiting”, Pa turns them down and they are subsequently ambushed and wiped out. Not their problem. Later, a comical G-rated Hollywood fight breaks out when government agents try to confiscate some of their horses. A connection to the war is established when the Anderson daughter marries a Confederate officer named Sam (Doug McClure) who is called away right after the wedding. Things get worse when the youngest son, simply called "the Boy" (Phillip Alford), is captured by a Union patrol because he is caught wearing a Rebel cap. His best friend, a black kid named Gabriel (Eugene Jackson), ends up in the Union army.

     Pa and all the family except his married son and his daughter-in-law go searching for the Boy. They block the tracks to stop a train carrying prisoners. They free all the prisoners, but no Boy. Instead, guess who’s on board – Sam! Meanwhile, Boy escapes and joins a Rebel unit. He participates in a battle that must not have involved any reenactors based on the lack of authenticity. The ridiculous combat features soldiers loading their muskets with powder horns! Boy is wounded, but rescued by Gabriel who is fighting in an integrated unit. Too bad there were none in the Union Army.

     While the family is away, tragedy strikes back home when marauders kill James (Patrick Wayne) and his wife Ann (Katherine Ross). The movie has now grown as dark as Charlie’s mood. Another son is killed by a jittery sentry. Pa almost strangles him, but decides to leave it at a sermon demanding the soldier suffer mentally for the rest of his life. It looks like the quest is futile and they return home. An unhappy ending is avoided when the Boy appears at the back of the church on crutches during mass.

     This movie is like a tragic episode of “Bonanza” and has the same production values. It looks like a made-for-TV movie. The cast, other than Stewart, are second bananas (McClure and Ross were early in their careers). Stewart dominates as the crusty Charlie Anderson. You would not want to be that cigar he chomps on throughout the movie. This is all comparative because Stewart does not give one of his better performances.

      The movie is cheesy. The dialogue is corny. The situations are unrealistic. The Shenandoah Valley shows little of the devastation that was wreaked there. The action is ridiculous. There is one scene where Confederates hiding in trees ambush a Yankee unit. Their bullets cause wagons to explode! I hope those explosions were not the reason the movie was nominated for an Oscar for Best Sound. That’s right – this movie was nominated for an Academy Award! Oh, by the way, some people saw some analogies to the Vietnam War in this movie. Those hippies need to stop seeing what they want to see.

Classic or Antique? Dusty, old antique.


Monday, October 10, 2011

#48 - THE SEA HAWK (1940)

BACK-GROUND: “The Sea Hawk” was a remake of the 1924 silent classic, but while the original was loosely based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini, the 1940 version was inspired by the adventures of Sir Francis Drake. The film marked the tenth pairing of Errol Flynn and director Michael Curtiz (they made a total of twelve including “Captain Blood” and “The Adventures of Robin Hood”). The two brought out the best in each other although they did not like each other. The movie had a huge budget of $1.75 million and was a box office success. Part of the money went into building a sound stage that had a water tank that could hold two full-size ships (which were built for the film). The movie was nominated for four Academy Awards: Art Direction, Music, Sound Recording, and Special Effects. In an interesting decision, “The Sea Hwak” was filmed in black and white whereas the earlier “Adventures of Robin Hood” was in Technicolor.

OPENING: The movie opens in Spain in 1585 (three years before the Spanish Armada). King Philip II complains about the English “Sea Hawks” who are raiding Spanish treasure ships. Spain will defeat that “puny rock-bound island” and rule the world. The devious Philip sends ambassador Don Alvarez (Claude Rains) to assure Queen Elizabeth I that Spain is not plotting an invasion. Alvarez will bring his beautiful niece Dona Maria (Brenda Marshall) to be a handmaiden to the queen.

SUMMARY: Don Alvarez travels on a Spanish galleass (a hybrid of a galley and galleon) which is rowed by slaves or prisoners or captives. Whatever – they look straight out of “Ben Hur” with the whips and drum. An English ship is sighted so they realistically go to battle stations. There are soldiers on board armed with crossbows. The mysterious ship is the notorious “Albatross” captained by the swashbuckling Geoffrey Thorpe (Flynn). As a contrast, his crew of pirates is lacking discipline but full of panache.

     The Spanish fire a laughable broadside. We know it’s laughable because the pirates laugh at it. The “Alabatross” cannons are deadly accurate against the masts and rigging of the Spanish ship. It then rakes the Spaniard and comes around to the other side. This realistically depicts the British ability to sail circles around the slower, clumsier Spanish ships of the era. The pirates board using grappling hooks to pull the ships together and then swing over on ropes. The Albatross has enough ropes for every man to have his own! There is a frenzied melee climaxing in a duel between Thorpe and the Spanish captain, of course. Guess who wins? Thorpe encounters Dona Maria and it’s hate at first sight for her. It looks like there is no hope for any love developing between them, just like all the other Hollywood relationships that begin with mutual dislike. Sad. However, when Thorpe returns her jewels plus some, she begins to look at him in a different light. Errol Flynn + diamonds = ‘nuf said.

     At Queen Elizabeth’s court, the Sea Hawks are called to account for their inhospitable treatment of Spanish shipping. Thorpe sends his monkey on ahead and then makes a grand entrance (not that anyone could top a monkey, but what Queen can truly scold you with a monkey in the room?). Liz feigns indignation at the actions of the pirates and backs the nefarious Lord Wolfingham’s “Armada – what Armada?” policy. Behind closed doors with a bit of monkey-charming, Elizabeth wink-winks at Thorpe’s proposed raid on a Spanish treasure caravan in Panama. Unfortunately, Lord Wolfie (Henry Danell - Basil Rathbone being unavailable) and Don Alvarez snoop out the destination and send advance warning. As the “Albatross” prepares to sail, Maria rushes to see Thorpe for possibly the last time. In a nice unHollywood touch, she is too late and only gets to see his rear (calm down ladies, I’m referring to the stern of the ship).

     The ambush of the mule train in the tropical jungle is marked by mosquitoes, but little sweating. It is easy, perhaps too easy. Soon the ambushers become the ambushees. The Spaniards have a big advantage because their flintlock muskets require no reloading! Thorpe and the survivors flee into the “no one can survive in there” swamp. The appropriately bedraggled and now semi-sweating crew persevere and reach the ship which is ghost-like for good reason. Guess who is there to greet them and usher them into the grand world of Spanish galley rowing? The Spanish captain with the laughable broadsides and cheek to duel with Thorpe! If you think he is going to have the last laugh, stifle it.

     Thorpe is now a shirtless galley rower ala Judah Ben Hur. Ironically, the sweating is being done by the ladies in the audience. Thorpe starts a rebellion that gets the rowers freed and they did not even have to endure a ramming. They board an adjacent ship that just so happens to have the Spanish Armada plans – proof that Wolfingham is a traitor and support for the Sea Hawks’ farsighted policy of waving a cape in front of the Spanish bull. Wait till Liz hears about this!

     But first Thorpe has to fight his way into Elizabeth’s bed chamber. Naturally this involves a sword fight with Wolfingham. Since Danell is no Rathbone, the director wisely utilizes shadows to depict the duel. We are treated to a tour of the palace via sword-fight.

CLOSING: The film closes with a nifty bit of propaganda. Winston Churchill (oops, I mean Elizabeth I) looks at the camera and speaks directly to Hitler (oops, I mean King Philip) averring that England does not want this war. Her speech condemns the ruthless ambitions of one man. The Earth does not belong to any man. We are now ready to meet the Armada. We will create a Navy that will dominate the oceans for all time, including the 1940s, just in case another Philip comes along.


Acting - 8

Action - 7

Accuracy - 5

Realism - 6

Plot - 8

Overall - 8

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Are you kidding? It has Errol Flynn and a woman who does not look or act better than the average female viewer. Fantasize while increasing your self-esteem, ladies.

ACCURACY: The movie is very loosely based on the career of Sir Francis Drake. Hollywood – make a non-fiction movie about this dude! Flynn’s portrayal of Thorpe (Drake) is accurate personality-wise. I do not know how much of a ladies’ man he was. He was married, but probably had a girl in every port. The romance in the movie is totally fictional. He certainly was a swash-buckler. He buckled plenty of swash during his pirate days. He was a leading member of the Sea Dogs.

     Don’t ask me why they decided to rename them Sea Hawks. That was stupid. The Sea Dogs were a group of captains that included Drake, Martin Frobisher, Walter Raleigh, and John Hawkins. To the Sapnish they were pirates, to the British they were privateers sanctioned by the government. The movie accurately shows Elizabeth’s unofficial encouragement of the Sea Dogs.

     Flora Robson is spot on her in her portrayal of Elizabeth. Her feisty personality and scheming politics are realistic. She did try to walk a fine line between tacit support for the Sea Dogs and friendship with Spain. Her refusal to curb the Sea Dogs did motivate Philip to end their depravations by invading England. The movie conveniently leaves out the fact that Elizabeth benefited financially from the Sea Dog “acquisitions”. Wolfingham is probably based on Lord Francis Walsingham. However, this is character assassination as he was not a traitor.

      The raid on the gold train is based on an actual incident in the career of Drake. In 1573, he captured a mule train in Panama. They buried much of the gold. Under pursuit, they traversed eighteen miles of jungle-covered mountains to get to their boats. Unfortunately the boats were gone. Drake and two survivors sailed a raft back to the ship. By the way, unlike in the movie, Drake’s pursuers would not have had flintlock muskets and pistols.

      Thorpe being condemned to row a galley is not ridiculous. The Spanish did rely on convicts to row their galleys. It seems unlikely if Drake had ever been captured that he would have ended up behind an oar.

CRITIQUE: “The Sea Hawk” is definitely an old school swashbuckler, but it holds up well. The music is grand and fits the movie like a glove. It is one of the most acclaimed scores from that era. Erich Wolfgang Korngold had earlier won for a similar effort in Flynn’s “Robin Hood”. The cinematography is excellent. The costumes are wonderful. ( They were reused from the Curtiz/Flynn “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Exeter”.) The supporting cast is great, especially Robson. Alan Hale plays Thorpe’s first mate Carl Pitt and flirts with Una O’Connor as Maria’s handmaid. (They had similar roles in “Robin Hood”.) Flynn is at the top of his game which means he overshadows Brenda Marshall, but what do you expect? The sword fights are a bit disappointing, but the dialogue is better than average for this type of movie.

     The battle scene is one of the best and had an obvious influence on “Master and Commander”. Contrasting the two scenes from these movies that were made more than sixty years apart shows how technology gives modern movies an advantage, but gives you an appreciation for what Curtiz was able to accomplish with a lot less.

     The movie is not meant to be a history lesson. None the less, it gets the big picture fairly close and certainly does not claim to be more than pop corn entertainment. For anyone not familiar with Elizabeth and the Sea Dogs, you get a taste for their role in provoking Philip to send the Invincible Armada.

CONCLUSION: This is a fun movie. It is classic action/adventure and holds up surprisingly well. There are no sour notes. It is consistently strong across the board. Unlike recent members of the Greatest 100, “The Sea Hawk” is comfortable in the war movie genre. I would have to say that unlike some movies I have reviewed lately, this one is fairly placed at #48.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

CHICK WAR FLICK: Hanover Street


     This is the second on my wife and my journey through wartime romances. After Harrison Ford completed “Star Wars”, he made the dubious decision to sandwich in a war romance before playing Indiana Jones. The film entitled “Hanover Street” was released in 1979. It is your typical two soldiers are vying for the same girl plot.

      The movie opens in London in 1943 on Hanover Street. .A brash young American pilot named Halloran (Ford) bumps into and falls in lust for a perky British lass (Lesley Anne-Down). They get to know each other over tea. She is very reluctant to take the encounter further. They get separated during a daylight bombardment (in 1943?), then find each other for a kiss. It’s a ridiculous scene with sappy music and cheesy special effects. Halloran insists they meet at the same place two weeks later. Margaret says no.

     Halloran is a B-25 pilot and the movie uses five authentic Mitchell’s for the flight scenes.  (Probably the same planes used in "Catch-22.)  His crew includes Richard Masur offering a welcome dose of comic relief as a chicken bombardier. He belongs in "Catch-22" also. On this mission, Halloran plays the hard-ass who insists on completing the bombing run despite engine damage. When Halloran goes back to Hanover Street, Margaret appears in spite of her best efforts. She can’t help herself and they are soon in bed for one of those montages of groping arms and arching backs Hollywood likes in PG movies.

     It turns out that Margaret is happily married to a proper British gentleman named Paul (Christopher Plummer) and they have a precocious daughter. Paul is part of British intelligence and is training a man to go behind enemy lines to steal a list of double agents from Gestapo headquarters in Lyons. Meanwhile, the hard-core Halloran decides that he likes sex with Margaret so much that he should not risk it for something silly like a bombing mission. He begins to hear engine noises forcing them to scrub their mission. Guess what happens to the bomber that takes their place?

     Halloran’s commander, who despises his cynicism, “volunteers” him for the special mission of dropping Paul’s man near Lyons. Would it shock you to learn that Paul has decided to prove his manhood by going on the mission himself? It’s a small world (war). Wouldn’t you know it, the bomber is hit over France and all the crew is killed except Halloran and Paul! They parachute and hide in a barn where they witness a woman kill an amorous German soldier. She’s with the Resistance and thus can help them with their mission. Halloran has by now decided to not let this jolly good chap down. The two, disguised as a German officer and his aide case the Gestapo records room and then return for the heist. They acquire the papers in a scene that stretches credulity no more than every other WWII spy movie. They get away in a chase that features obvious Nazi crash test dummies.

     Back at the barn, Paul gushes over his wife and shows Halloran a picture of you-know-who and now so does Halloran. With the entire German army closing in, they hop a motorcycle ala Hilts in “The Great Escape” and jump a canyon (take that McQueen!). They end up on a foot bridge which collapses leaving Halloran clasping the arm of the wounded and soon to plummet, plucky Paul. It would be so easy to let Paul go and have Margaret to himself. What would you do, guys? (Ladies, stay out of this) This is Hollywood, not reality, so Halloran saves Paul saying “You die on me, I’ll kill you”. (A line written by Moe Howard.) Who gets the girl? You’ll have to sit through the movie to find out.

     Rachelle liked the movie, mainly due to the actors involved. The main actors had good chemistry. It was a bit slow moving in the beginning. The mission was implausible, but if you are able to suspend logic it is satisfactory. The romance was saccharine, but the upholding of moral values was refreshing. The movie is not graphic in its violence and there are no curse words to offend anyone.

     From a guy’s point of view, this is not a very good movie. The acting is average, although Lesley Anne-Down is lovely. Some of the dialogue is silly and I doubt Harrison Ford lists this film as one of his prouder moments. The special effects are below average and although the film has developed a reputation for having good aerial scenes, I found them to be unnoteworthy. The whole special mission is suspense-challenged and the chases are forgettable. The twists necessary to put this love triangle together, and resolve it in a way that the trio all enhance their Pearly Gates resumes, turn the plot into a pretzel.

     Guys, reward your significant other for her having to watch all those testosterone movies by enduring this estrogen flick. Keep your sighs and chuckles to a minimum please.

Rachelle - 6/10

Kevin - 4/10