Monday, February 27, 2012

NOW SHOWING: Act of Valor


        “Act of Valor” is “based on real acts of valor” according to the opening of the movie and a deluge of commercials. The producers claim it is based on five actual missions. The movies big selling point is the use of actual SEALs in main roles. The Navy was totally on board for this. Check out that sub. Since the rest of the roles (with the slight exception of Rosalyn Sanchez) are played by no-names, the SEALs actually blend in pretty seamlessly. The overall plot is based on the rescue of a CIA operative and the subsequent quest to stop the infiltration of suicide bombers into the U.S.

       The movie is essentially a buddy film centering on LT and Chief, two veteran SEALs. We briefly are introduced to the other members of the team, but they make little impression. Having all eight try to act would be pushing it. LT narrates a letter to his best buddy’s unborn son. Every line is quotable. For instance, “being dangerous is sacred”. Hallmark meets SEAL. The narration will reappear throughout the film and close the movie.

       Things start rolling when a CIA agent named Morales (Sanchez) is kidnapped in the Philippines. The night drop (featuring the Navy Parachute Team) is cool. We are then on the ground with the sound track resting for jungle sounds, but kicking in full for the firefight. The infiltration of the camp where Morales is being tortured is aided by a Raven observation drone. The movie showcases several SEAL “toys”. The assault is very video-gamish and includes POV. The cinematography is exciting and not cartoonish. (It is also not quite as frenetic as “Battle: Los Angeles”. Feel free to visit the concession stand.) You do get a feel for being in the midst of it. As usual, the sniper gets top billing. The action builds to an exciting truck egress with several enemy vehicles in hot pursuit. This culminates in the arrival of the cavalry with Gatlings blazing. (Supposedly live ammunition was used in some spots.) The whole scene is spectacular.

        The rest of the action pieces are inserted into a story of international intrigue involving a Russian narco-arms dealer named Christo and his old friend Shabal who is a Muslim jihadist who’s every thought ends with “Death to America”. The actors do a good job portraying the sophisticated Christo and the malevolently unhinged Shabal. The film globe hops as they track the two. The use of high tech maps keeps the geography-challenged audience aware of locales. Little time is spent on command decisions. This is very much a small unit movie, which is fine. Less time for strategic analysis leaves more time for tactical pyrotechnics. Basically we learn that Shabal is buying some kick-ass suicide vests from Christo for use by terrorists who will cross the U.S.-Mexican border. The clock is running, of course. Other than that ticking clock the movie gives no time references. We have no idea how much time expires between missions.

       The next set piece is a sudden assault on Christo’s yacht. The audience is as much taken by surprise as Christo is. Nice touch. In a bow to the craft of acting, Christo is interrogated by a member of the team. These guys may be no-names, but they are not bad thespians. Like many money-grubbers would, Christo gives up his jihadist buddy. We don’t even have to torture him like Morales was tortured. We are the good guys, remember. Enough talking. It’s time to kick some ass in a Mexican village. Also time for a night mission so we can get some really cool night vision looks. The mission naturally turns chaotic and ends with LT taking an RPG in the chest. Fortunately his Bible stops it. Just kidding, it’s a dud. The Mexicans fare no better than the Filipinos Mission half accomplished because Shabal and the other half of the vest wearers have already left. Yippee! Keep your seat belts on.

       The last set piece is on the border. The SEALs link up with Mexican counter-terrorists. Can the bad-ass Mexican leader be trusted? The movie does not have time for any of that Hollywood bullshit intrigue. There is also no time for recon. Remember that ticking clock? How do you do the opposite of the stealthy approach to the Philippine camp? Try using dump trucks. All that big talk about what those vests could do. Wouldn’t it be cool to see one of them in action? Sit tight. How about some “Black Hawk Down”-style action? Check. Will both buddies survive? Hint: one of them is about to retire, has a baby on the way, and his best friend is narrating a letter to his son. Will Shabal survive? Well, if the Navy was really serious about recruitment based on this movie…

        I had been waiting for this movie for a while and as usual as the movie approaches (like “Red Tails”), you begin to pick apart the commercials and the press coverage and start lowering expectations. I have to say that unlike “Red Tails”, this movie held up. Most of the criticism is overblown. The acting by the SEALs is satisfactory. They are not asked to become George Clooney. I assume the two leads were the best actors of the real SEALs. They are a bit stiff, but the dialogue is not too cringe-inducing. Plus, if you know anything about the SEALs you know they are not Neanderthals. I could see them saying the things that are said in the movie. (By the way, the bad guy dialogue is subtitled – kudos for forcing your key demographic to read!) A big plus is the combat dialogue is appropriately terse and military. Contrast this to the laughable cockpit chatter of “Red Tails”. The film is not propagandistic or political, nor is it overly patriotic. However, it certainly is pro-SEAL. Get over it. In an aside, we don’t need effete Hollywood liberal critics bemoaning the dangers this movie might put the SEALs in or the secrets it is giving away. I’ll trust them to take care of themselves.

       This movie is going to be successful not because of the acting, plot, or dialogue. The action sequences are great. I looked forward to each after the first one showed the director knew how to stage them. Each one is different, but they all put the pedal to the metal. I feared they would be poorly connected, but the plot does flow logically to each. As to the historical accuracy of each, I cannot weigh in on this yet. (Watch for a future post on this issue.) I assume each mission was in actuality unrelated to the other and involved different personnel. However, I have to believe much of the movie is exaggerated. For instance, I think I would have heard about a SEAL getting the Medal of Honor for leaping on a grenade. Still, if the events weren’t quite real, you know the SEALs are.

P.S.  Check out that "Band of Brother"esque poster.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

CRACKER? Tigerland

      “Tigerland” is a Joel Schumacher (“Batman Forever”) film released in 2000. It was barely noticed when it was in the very few theaters it played in. Since then it has developed a reputation as one of the better Vietnam War films. Is this revisionism justified?

      The movie is loosely based on the Army’s advanced infantry training school located at Fort Polk in Louisiana. Tigerland was designed to mimic conditions in Vietnam and prepare grunts for combat in the Nam. The movie is set in 1971 which means the war is in its final stages and the soldiers have a widespread belief that the war is lost and dying in Vietnam will be useless. The brass is portrayed as interested in sending cannon fodder to Vietnam, but keeping them alive as long as possible.

      The main character is Roland Bozz (Colin Farrell) who is a charismatic troublemaker. He is insubordinate, disobedient, and insolent. He is an anti-hero in the mode of Sefton (William Holden) in “Stalag 17”. We first see him coming out of the stockade far from chastened. He befriends an enlistee named Paxton (Matthew Davis) who is in the Army for the “experience” which will lead to a book. He keeps a journal. The rest of the platoon is typically heterogeneous. Besides the boat-rocker and the intellectual, we get the psychopath Wilson (Shea Wigham), the country bumpkin Cantwell, the father’s disappointment Miter (Clifton Collins, Jr.), and a bunch of black guys. The drill sergeant makes Sgt. Hartman from “Full Metal Jacket” look like a pussy cat. He physically and verbally abuses the trainees, especially Bozz. It doesn’t help that Bozz yanks his chain at every opportunity.

Colin Farrell has exposed his ass again
     The movie takes us through the training. You get the impression that the Army has gotten very cynical at this point. There is a training session on how to torture prisoners. Apparently, the My Lai Massacre has not filtered down to Tigerland. The soldiers are often told they will return home in a box. The training appears to be aimed at taking as many gooks with you as you can before you inevitably get killed. Another theme seems to be that you create leaders by breaking all the obvious candidates until you arrive at the most unlikely. Miter is promoted to platoon leader and then given the impossible task of taming Bozz. When he fails, he is humiliated into a mental breakdown. Guess who is chosen to replace him? Guess who accepts this new role? If you can’t break them, put them in command.

      Bozz is a popular platoon leader because he voices what many of the men are feeling. His charisma draws them to him. It helps that the Army forgoes its usual policy of punishing the unit for the misbehavior of one troublemaker. The screenwriter does not allow Bozz to become Private Pyle from FMJ. Bozz is also popular because he has a knack of getting soldiers discharged. He is a “barracks lawyer” and gets both Cantwell and Miter sent home (which they both deserved). Why doesn’t he free himself? At one point he tells Paxton “I’m not that brave”. WTF Bozz’s motives are unclear throughout the film.

Scut Farcus changed his name to Wilson
      Bozz makes a enemy of the bigoted, super-patriot Wilson. (Wilson makes Animal Mother from FMJ seem stable.) Wilson tries to kill Bozz on the pistol range and only a miraculous misfire saves Bozz. The commander decides not to court-martial Wilson for attempted murder. Apparently the post My Lai Army needs as many psychotic killers as possible. At a time when we were drawing down in Vietnam , “Tigerland” would have us believe the Army was desperate enough to hang on to a Wilson type.

      In Tigerland, Bozz’s squad is given the task of masquerading as Vietnamese villagers. Surprise, the patrol that arrives tasked to find the VC in the village is led by Wilson! Not only has he not been court-martialed, he has been promoted! Tigerland should have been called Bizarroland. There is a dust-up that results in the fourth fight between Bozz and Wilson (if you are scoring, it’s Bozz 3 - Wilson 1). That night Bozz sneaks off to go to Mexico in spite of Pvt. Johnson’s guilt-tripping about leaving Paxton to Wilson’s mercies. Next morning, the squad awakes to Bozz’s abandoned bedroll. Psyche! Bozz comes strolling in from taking a pee. Guilt-tripping works on the idealistic. The day’s activity is another bout with psycho squad. In an ambush situation, Wilson removes his blank firing adaptor and puts in live ammunition. Will he finally kill Bozz? Watch and find out.

       It had been a long time since I saw this movie. A recent review by my bunkie at All About War Movies rekindled my interest. My first impressions were confirmed. It is an interesting little movie, but the implausibilities sink it in the end.

       The camera work makes it look like an independent film. There is a lot of quick cutting and hand-held. There is even some POV. The live-fire exercise has a “Band of Brothers” look to it. It is well acted although the characters are either one dimensional or two-faced (Bozz and Paxton).  Farrell makes a strong impression in his first significant role (and the first significent showing of his backside, ladies) . The villains are cartoonish, but the actors make the best of it. The friendship of Bozz and Paxton is realistic. Strange bedfellows.

      The movie is not so much anti-war as it is anti-military. The heavy-handed depiction of the brutalities heaped on the recruits is diluted by the films unbelievable depiction of the Army putting up with a psychotic (Wilson) and a cancer (Bozz). The brass come off as brutish, yet coddling. An unusual combination.

       Where the movie gets it right is in its feel for the state of the war in 1971. Morale was low even amongst the officers. The platoon reflects the draft net that tended to capture the poor and the down on their luck. The characters are appropriately depressed about their prospects and this explains their admiration for an anti-hero like Bozz. You do get the impression that the trainers are frustrated with having to prepare reluctant men to serve a country that is now reluctant to put much effort into the war. You can sympathize with both sides.

      The movie is definitely thought provoking. Most of those thoughts start with the word why. Why does the Army put up with Bozz and Wilson and even promote them? Why doesn’t Bozz free himself? Are we supposed to like Bozz?

      Is this movie going to crack the 100 Best War Movies list? No. It is worth seeing, but it is not in the front rank of Vietnam War movies. Full Metal Jacket’s boot camp half is still the gold standard.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

#56 - Scipio Africanus

Sorry about this being out of order, but it was hard to find and I ended up having to buy the DVD.

BACK-STORY: “Scipione L’Africano” (“Scipio Africanus”) was a propaganda extravaganza commissioned by Benito Mussolini to fire up Italians for the upcoming conquest of the new Roman Empire. It was produced by his twenty-one year old son Vittorio, but we can assume daddy was very hands-on. It was the most expensive Italian movie up to then as Benito spared no expense. It paid off as the movie won the Mussolini Cup at the Venice Film Festival. That must have been a shocker! Mussolini “convinced” the army to provide a division of extras. But more infamously, numerous elephants were used and some did not survive (the ones with poor agents). The soldiers were soon sent to Ethiopia after production ended. Hopefully the ones who wore wristwatches in their scenes were put in the front lines.

OPENING: A crawl explains that Rome is at war with Carthage and specifically mentions Hannibal’s crushing win at Cannae. Cut to Rome where Senators led by Cato are plotting to stop Scipio (Annibale Ninchi) from going to Africa. Scipio speaks to the Senate and a debate ensues. Lots are drawn and Scipio is assigned Sicily as his area of command. Lucky for him as that is the province he wanted. Suck on it, Senator Cato! He leaves the Senate proceeded by fasces. Get the connection? No, well perhaps you will recognize the Nuremberg rally-like atmosphere of the well-recreated Roman Forum. Or the fascist salutes from the crowd.

SUMMARY: The Carthaginians raid a Roman villa. They are brutes! The captives include a noble woman Velia (Isa Miranda) and her husband. (Note: I read a couple of places that this woman is supposed to be Scipio’s wife – I did not get that impression and hope it’s not true because that would be quite ridiculous.) Their poor treatment by the Carthaginians will be a recurring theme. The Carthaginians are depicted as barbarians. Prepare to hiss. Meanwhile in Sicily, the losing survivors from Cannae are given the chance to redeem themselves and get some payback by joining Scipio’s expedition to North Africa.

      At Hannibal’s (Camillo Pilotto) camp, the portly, eye-patched Hannibal argues with his cavalry chief Maharbal. Hannibal does not want to abandon Italy to return home to save his capital. Velia is fetched to his tent. She is feisty, but he is Hannibal. He grabs her, fade. Hiss.

      Scipio’s army arrives in some nice replicas of quinqueremes (complete with corvi). The Carthaginian Senate debates whether to accept Rome’s terms. Queen Sophonisba of Numidia (Francesca Braggiotti) convinces King Syphax to stay allied with Rome. She is a classic silent movie vamp.

      Before Hannibal arrives back in his homeland, Scipio attacks Syphax’s camp at night and sets it afire. Lots of fire, lots of chaos. Scipio’s Numidian cavalry, led by Syphax’s rival Massinissa, captures Syphax. Sophonisba seduces Massinissa with her vampish eyes. Scipio is not about to have his boy wrapped around a Carthaginian’s little finger so she has to drink poison.

       Hannibal has returned (with his Roman prisoners, i.e. Velia and her husband) and scolds the Carthaginian Senate for being ingrates. Scipio, feeling confident (back then Italian generals could have that feeling), allows Carthaginian spies to tour his camp. Scipio and Hannibal get some face time and Scipio turns down Hannibal’s offer to give up some territory to avoid a beat-down.

      The battle of Zama is epic. The elephant charge is amazing. The camera focuses on a baby elephant. They are pelted with arrows and spears (pila) and it looks like some of the elephants are being hit because they are! (Not the baby – that would be wrong.) Animal rights activists were upset with this movie. Mussolini did not care. His conquest of Africa would provide plenty of replacement pachiderms. Oops!

       Next comes the cavalry charge. Lots of clanging and thundering hooves. We are placed in the midst of the chaos. The Carthaginian cavalry is chased off. Round two also goes to the Romans.

      The main event – the infantry clash. The velites (Roman skirmishers) initiate contact with their gladii (short swords). Hannibal’s first line retreats, but his veterans close ranks and do not let them find refuge. In fact they bloodily force them to go around. Scipio reorganizes his force during this interlude and sends word for Massinissa and his cavalry to return. Dust. Stabbings. Death. We’re in the middle of it. Cavalry returns to take Hannibal in the rear. Literally and figuratively.

CLOSING: One of the generals returns home to great acclaim and patriotic music swelling. Guess which one.


Acting - 7

Action - 8

Accuracy – 8

Realism – 7

Plot – 6

Overall - 7

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? It is fairly well balanced in action to melodrama. There are two strong female characters. The Velia sub-plot goes nowhere, however. The male leads are not much to look at so there is not much appeal there. If your significant other is an elephant lover, be forewarned. On the other hand, if she has a grudge against elephants …

HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The movie is surprisingly accurate. Many of the Hollywood-type moments are based on actual facts. Here is an analysis, in chronological order.

1. Scipio did give the veterans of Cannae a chance to redeem themselves.

2. Hannibal did wear an eye-patch. He had lost sight in his eye from opthamalia early in his Italian campaign. There is no reason to believe he was chubby, however.

3. Hannibal was reluctant to return to Carthage and did give the Senate some grief over their lack of support.

4. Sophonisba did keep Syphax on the Carthaginian side with her feminine wiles.

5. Scipio did use fire during a night attack to destroy Syphax’s camp. The movie makes no reference to also defeating the Carthaginian army that came to the rescue from their nearby camp. Also, Massinissa did not capture Syphax that same night.

6. Sophonisba did seduce Massinissa and Scipio did convince him that she had to go poison-wise.

7. Scipio did allow two spies to tour his camp in an act of confidence and intimidation.

8. Scipio and Hannibal did meet before the battle although we are not sure what they discussed. The best estimate is that Hannibal reminded Scipio of the fickleness of fate and Scipio responded that he would take his chances.

9. The battle is basically the same as depicted. Scipio did open lanes in the Roman formation and the elephants were discouraged by missile fire. Some elephants were hit. The Roman cavalry was victorious and chased the Carthaginian horsemen away. The Carthaginian front line was repelled by the veterans. The movie skips the fact that this same thing happened with a second line. The Roman cavalry returns to finish the battle although Massinissa and Laelius did so on their own, not because they received orders from Scipio.

10. In a typical movie flub, the Roman soldiers are depicted as using their pila only against the elephants. The rest of their fighting is done with swords. You certainly cannot learn Roman tactics from movies.

CRITIQUE: If you did not know about Mussolini’s involvement and/or the propagandistic nature of the film, you might be more impressed with it. It is an impressive effort. Surprisingly, although the fascist imagery is a bit heavy-handed, the film is not overly patriotic. It could have easily been laughable, but isn’t.

      The battle is magnificently epic.  I plan to show the Battle of Zama scene to my Military History class.  Dictators are usually good for spectacles. Dictators can also slaughter elephants for authenticity. I must add that the paper mache elephants rolling along in the background do take away from the realism. The multitude of extras adds to the grandeur. Speaking of which, I would not be surprised if some of the soldiers weren’t killed in the filming. That would be authentic! If you are going to die for Il Duce, why not at Zama instead of Ethiopia?
       Other than the fake elephants, the recreations are great. The Senate and the Forum look real. The quinquereme is just like the real thing. Unfortunately, the corvus (boarding bridge) would have been out of style in the Second Punic War. Execute that technical advisor, Mussolini! The uniforms and equipment appear authentic.

       The acting is silent movieish. Lots of grand gestures and facial contortions. The actors who play Scipio and Hannibal are satisfactory. The cinematography is okay and is boosted by the remarkable shots from within the melees.

SUMMARY: “Scipio Africanus” is not well known and is hard to find. It’s worth the trouble if you can find it. It is definitely a spectacle. For a silent movie, it holds up well. It is probably seeded properly at #56. Having seen some of the silent movies ranked higher, like “Hell’s Angels” and “The General”, I can assure you it is better than some movies ahead of it. The key strength is the historical accuracy. As a huge Scipio fan, I can attest to the movie getting the highlights of the Battle of Zama correct. I did not expect it to be worthy of the man, but I was wrong. Plus I love seeing elephants get what they deserve – grey, wrinkly bastards! One of them killed my mother.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

DUELING MOVIES: The Blue Max vs. Aces High


       “The Blue Max” (1966) and “Aces High” (1976) are two movies about WWI air combat. Both are British and filled with dogfights. They both delve into squadron dynamics and the stresses of combat.

     “The Blue Max” (from the novel by the same name) is the story of Bruno Stachel’s quest for the Pour le Merite (nicknamed the Blue Max) which was awarded to any pilot who reached 20 victories. Stachel (George Peppard) starts out as modest and ashamed of his lower class origins, but quickly becomes a glory hound intent on upstaging the other upper class officers. When his first kill is unconfirmed, he spends hours in a rainstorm hunting for the wreckage thus establishing a reputation among his comrades and the enmity of his commanding officer Heidemann (Karl Voger). On his second mission, Stachel decides to mend his ways by forcing an observation plane down at the aerodrome. Unfortunately for our chastened hero, the gunner attempts to fire at him prompting Stachel to shoot the plane down in full view of his head-shaking comrades. This is the tipping point for Bruno and from here on, it’s all about the Blue Max.

     Stachel develops a rivalry with the squadron’s ace of aces, von Klugerman (Jeremy Kemp). They compete for kills and for the affections of Klugerman’s aunt by marriage and slut by choice, Kaeti (Ursula Andress). Kaeti happens to be married to the clueless General Count Von Klugerman (James Mason). The general is intent on building Stachel into a propaganda poster boy. He does not care that some of his victories are disputed.

     At one point, Stachel rescues the Red Baron. The love triangle loses a leg when Klugerman takes a dare from Stachel about flying under a bridge. He defeats the bridge, but not a tree. Stachel returns to base with the bad news and the good news that he has acquired two more kills (actually shot down by Klugerman). Heidemann knows he’s lying and the last straw is when Stachel disobeys orders and leads the squadron in a strafing run that results in losing half the pilots. Heidemann resigns in protest when the General refuses to give up his poster boy.

     Stachel finally gets the Blue Max, but the General finds about his affair with his wife when Kaeti apparently rats him out because he refuses to elope with her. The general orders Stachel to test-fly a new prototype that is obviously a death trap. The general encourages him to do lots of aerobatics.

      “Aces High” is based on the play “Journey’s End” by R.C. Sherriff. The main character is a hardened, alcoholic veteran named Gresham (Malcolm McDowell). He is perturbed when his classmate and boyfriend of his sister arrives all sparkly and enthusiastic. Croft (Peter Firth) is introduced to the fatherly, aristocratic “Uncle” Sinclair (Christopher Plummer) and the bitterly cynical coward Crawford (Simon Ward). Crawford is suffering from “neuralgia” and refuses to fly.

      The movie covers one action packed week. Croft’s learning curve is steep. On his first mission, he is saved by Gresham after being bounced from behind. Croft gets lost and makes a shaky landing to ask for directions. That night they party with a captured German pilot. Later, Croft and Uncle go on a dangerous reconnaissance mission. Uncle is killed. Another mission is against enemy balloons which results in a huge dogfight. Croft gets his first kill and soon after dies in a midair collision. Only Gresham returns alive. Three fresh young Fokker fodder arrive as replacements.

      Both movies have their strengths. Each has some excellent aerial combat which is fairly realistic. They use real planes – either other planes masquerading or replicas. The stunt work is well done. There is no CGI. “The Blue Max” gets the edge here partly because Peppard did some of his own flying and because it includes the flying under the bridge scene done by stunt pilot Derek Piggott in numerous takes. Some of the footage from “The Blue Max” was used in “Aces High”. “Aces” does have more quantity of air combat, however.

      The themes differ. “Max” concentrates on how the quest for glory corrupts and how the military-industrial complex misuses soldiers. “Aces” concentrates on how the stress of combat effects pilots. It also traces the evolution of pilots from green to veteran, if they survive long enough.

     The acting is much better in “Max” than “Aces”. “Max” is more of an actors’ movie because several of the characters are despicable – Stachel, Kaeti, and the General. The coupling of Bruno and Kaeti is one of two narcissists. Von Klugerman is your stock WWI politician/general. In “Aces” the stereotypes abound, McDowell as the jaded commander, Plummer as the stiff upper –lipped executive, Ward as the naïve rookie, and Crawford embarrasses himself as the cuckoo coward.

      Both are fairly realistic on life in the air force of WWI. “Max” concentrates on the selfish win-at-all-costs mentality of many of the aces, including Richtofen. “Aces” deals more with the camaraderie. There is an “eat, drink, and be merry” atmosphere between missions. There is lots of singing by the piano and a trip to a French night club where the women are easy (more stereotyping).

      “Aces High” and “The Blue Max” are must sees for air combat buffs, but are not in the front rank of war movies. “Max” is the better of the two with its advantages of plot, acting, and production values. Also, Ursula Andress gets naked. However, “Aces” probably does a better job depicting what WWI air combat was like.

“The Blue Max” - 7/10

“Aces High” - 5/10

Saturday, February 11, 2012

#43 - Hell's Angels (1930)

BACK-STORY:  “Hell’s Angels” is a WWI aerial combat war movie released in 1930 and memorably directed by Howard Hughes in his debut. The production is legendary. The movie was intended to be Hughes’ answer to “Wings”, but the advent of “talkies” prompted him to convert it to sound at great additional cost. At around $4 million, it was the most expensive motion picture released to that date. The switch to sound also necessitated the dumping of the thickly accented Greta Nissan and her replacement with Jean Harlow. Hughes insisted on going big so the famous dogfight scene used 70 pilots (many of them WWI vets) and many actual WWI biplanes. Three of the pilots died in filming and Hughes himself crashed and broke some bones filming a sequence none of the pilots would agree to attempt. The movie had one of the grandest openings ever at Grauman’s Theater and was a hit although it had difficulty recouping the cost.

OPENING: “Germany before the war”. Two college buddies are drinking at a beer garden. Cigarette smoke wafts as though produced by a fog machine. (There will be at least ten scenes with someone smoking.) Surprisingly for a Hughes movie, the flirty German bar maid does not display massive cleavage. Roy (James Hall) and Karl John Darrow) are joined by Roy’s wastrel brother Monte (Ben Lyon).

SUMMARY: Monte gets caught on a couch with a German aristocrat’s wife. The Pee Wee Herman lookalike challenges Monte to a duel which he skips town back to London to avoid in spite of his brother’s arguments for upholding the family honor. Roy takes his brothers place and is wounded in the arm by Pee Wee. The scene is shot from a distance and we see the duelists in silhouette.  Cool.

     Back at the frat house, Monte is unapologetic and carrying on like a frat boy. War is announced and Karl is despondent because being a German he might have to go to war against the country he loves – England. Sure enough, Karl gets a draft notice from the German military. Roy joins the Royal Flying Corps out of patriotism and Monte joins him after being recruited in exchange for a kiss.

     Monte and Roy go to a ball. The scene is colorized! Roy introduces Monte to his girlfriend Helen (Jean Harlow) who we just met coming out of the bushes with another gent. It quickly becomes apparent that Roy is the only bloke in England that does not know that Helen is a slut. Helen is wearing a dress presumably designed by Howard Hughes which ranks with Marilyn Monroe’s from “Some Like It Hot”. She boldly kisses Monte while Roy is off getting drinks. They go back to her apartment where she utters the famous line: “Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?” Flash forward to Monte feeling awfully guilty.

     The next scene is the famous Zeppelin bombing London scene. It is a night attack through hazy clouds and has a sci-fi look to it. The first view of the ship has a “Star Wars” opening feel. The German commander is scar-faced, naturally. Karl is a reluctant crew member. A listening post picks up the bomber and Roy and Monte’s squadron is scrambled. Karl is lowered in an “observer’s car” to play the role of bombardier. He cannot bring himself to bomb London, so he drops the bombs in a lake. When the fighters arrive, the pod is slowing the Zeppelin’s escape so the commander cuts Karl loose. We do not get to see Karl’s reaction to his sudden bout with gravity. Speaking of gravity, members of the crew robotically jump to lighten the craft in a chilling scene. Roy and Monte get shot down, but walk away from the crash. The last British fighter goes kamikaze, crashing into the Zeppelin which erupts like the Hindenburg in a fiery display of movie making. Would you believe it almost lands on Roy and Monte?

     Next, our heroes (or hero and brother actually) are in France where Helen is now a flirtatious canteen gal. She is still a slut (but now a patriotic one) and Roy is still a sap who is yet to sample her wares. He finally gets clued in when he catches Helen with another man and she proceeds to tell him she never loved him and basically he is an old stick in the mud. Way harsh! Monte’s sage advice is “Never love a woman, just make love to her.”

     Back at the officer’s club, the men are assigned to a hazardous night patrol. Monte (who already has a reputation as a slacker) refuses to go, ranting that the war is a “politician’s war” not worth sacrificing his future bed-hopping for. He is headed for a court-martial when he suddenly (and out of character) volunteers for a mission to fly a captured German bomber to destroy a munitions depot. Roy can’t let him go alone, of course. They spend the pre-raid hours not learning how to fly the foreign craft, but at a brothel getting drunk with some loose French women.  Are there any other kind?  (Sorry, Caroline) Monte, reverting to his yellow stripe, almost convinces Roy to go AWOL.

     Guess who is defending the ammo dump? The “Flying Circus” of Red Baron fame. Since Roy and Monte are “disguised” as Germans they are able to fly under the watchful eyes of the squadron and drop bombs on the depot. This results in a series of explosions that would put many modern explosion-fests to shame. It takes a little while, but the Huns figure out that the bomber is not German and they set off in pursuit. Things look bleak when here comes the cavalry in the form of a squadron of British fighters. The ensuing dogfight featuring numerous vintage WWI biplanes is awesome. There is a mid-air collision and we get to see facial views of the pilots as they are killed (some of them afire). It’s kind of creepy, but unique. It looks like the shot up bomber might make it when Von Richtofen himself swoops in and sends it into a death spiral. Well, not quite a “death” spiral since our duo improbably survive the crash. They are taken prisoner.

CLOSING: Roy and Monte are brought to German headquarters where guess who is the general. It’s Pee Wee! In a nod to the intelligent people in the audience, the screenwriters added a line about what a coincidence this is. Pee Wee wants information on the upcoming offensive. The brothers naturally refuse and are sent to their cell to think it over. An execution outside their window makes it clear what their fate will be. Monte turns chicken once again and wants to talk. Roy goes instead and convinces the general he will turn traitor, but wants to first silence his mate so he can’t rat him out after the war. Pee Wee gives Roy a gun with one bullet. I’m wondering what Roy will do with one bullet. Back at the cell, Monte still insists on saving his own skin over the thousands of British Tommies so Roy shoots him in the back! The biggest scene chewer in the movie is given an extended melodramatic death scene. Roy is led out and shot off screen. The offensive immediately begins.


Acting - 6

Action - 7

Accuracy –  5

Realism – 4

Plot – 7

Overall – 7

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?   If they are a flapper/hippy/women’s libber, yes. Helen is a modern girl and whether you agree with her morals or not, she is a fascinating character. The leads are okay and you have a choice between the ladies’ man (Monte) and guy next door (Roy). The movie is not overly graphic although some of the pilot deaths are squrm-inducing.

ACCURACY: The film is obviously not meant to be factual, so historical accuracy is not a major issue. The two big aerial combat scenes are a mixed bag. The Zeppelin bombing raid is well done and realistically staged. The Germans did bomb London at night using the airships. I was surprised to find that the “observation car” (sometimes called a “spy car”) was accurately depicted. The Germans did lower a crew member on a cable in a pod to a lower height so he could guide the bombing. A telephone connected him to the bridge, as shown in the film. Of course, there is no evidence of an Anglophile German purposely misdirecting bombs and no incident where crew members sacrificed themselves to save the ship.

     The big dogfight scene, while accurate in its chaos, is not based on an actual event. I have found no evidence that a captured German bomber was used on a raid like this. It’s pure Hollywood. I find it hard to believe that a pilot (Baldie) could communicate with Monte by yelling above the roar of the planes. A small, but significant, note about the portrayal of Von Richtofen. In the movie, he is shown as staying out of the melee and then closing in for the kill on the bomber. This is out of character for the Red Baron who was never one to avoid the opportunity for mixing it up.

CRITIQUE: “Hell’s Angels” can best be described as an entertaining old school war movie. What makes it a cut above similar classic black and white war movies is it is also an interesting movie. Hughes did some things outside the box that make the movie stand out and those unorthodox elements have allowed the movie to have a longer shelf life than most war movies its age. The money the eccentric millionaire spent was well worth it if he wanted the movie to live in posterity.

     The special effects are ground-breaking and well ahead of their time. The Zeppelin looks less like a model than many aircraft in more modern movies. It is not laughable like you might expect. The dogfight is, of course, done without the aid of CGI. Compare that scene using real planes and stunt fliers to similar scenes in “Flyboys” and you can see that Hollywood is still not capable of duplicating Hughes accomplishment. Then again, noone died making “Flyboys”.  (No, that is not a shame!) The cinematography justifiably got an Academy Award nomination, but the sound effects are equally impressive. I was not as impressed with the sound of the soundtrack which tended toward the schmaltzy score so popular back then.

     The acting is not outstanding, but it also is not terrible. Even Harlow, who took a lot of grief for her lack of thespian skills, is not cringe-inducing. I found Helen to be a fascinating departure from virtually every other female in black and white war movies. Unless you admire her “anything goes” philosophy, she is pretty dislikable. Hollywood would produce few Helen’s for a long time after this movie because Helen had a lot to do with the Hayes Code crack-down. The movie also had some salty language of the SOB variety during the dogfight scene that prompted the censorship. As far as the other actors, Lyon hams it up in a grating performance, but the character is supposed to be loathsome. Hall is solid as Roy. Lucien Prival as Baron Von Kranz (Pee Wee) previews the way Nazis will be handled in the 1940s – cool and malevolent.

     The plot is a weakness. It is your typical cliché-ridden lover’s triangle. You get the two friends (in this case brothers) torn by the same woman. One is good and the other bad. In a bit of a departure, the girl is bad, too. You get a heavy dose of “it’s a small world”. For example, meeting up with the Baron again. Or Helen working a canteen in France near the air base. Or Roy and Monte attacking Karl’s Zeppelin. The clichés include the redemption of the coward. Another is the noble sacrifice for the greater good.

CONCLUSION: “Hell’s Angels” is a special movie. It was revolutionary at the time and still stands out today. The Zeppelin scene and the dogfight are iconic. You have to admire Hughes for his commitment to making a great war movie. While the plot keeps it from being great, it is certainly memorable. It was a grand effort by Hughes and the film belongs in the trio of significant WWI air combat movies with “Dawn Patrol” (#38) and “Wings” (#11). As far as the ranking by Military History at #43, that seems overrated. Although entertaining in a hokey sort of way and marked by some remarkable scenes, it is not better than at least twenty of the movies I have already reviewed. It certainly belongs in the 100 Best War Movies list, just not as high.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Steel Helmet (1951)

     “Steel Helmet” was the first movie about the Korean War. It was released during the war in 1951. It was directed by WWII veteran Samuel Fuller. He also wrote and produced the film. It is a classic B-Movie which cost only $100,000. Fuller used a plywood tank and 25 UCLA students as extras. It made $6 million. The movie was “dedicated to the U.S. infantry”.

     The movie opens with the survivor of a North Korean prisoner execution (his steel helmet had deflected the kill shot) crawling from the site with his hands tied. Sgt. Zack (Gene Evans) is freed by a Korean orphan who he dubs “Short Round” (William Chun). Zack is a racist who refers to Short Round as a “gook”, but he lets him tag along. They meet up with a black medic named Thompson (James Edwards) and it turns out Zack is an equal opportunity racist. The trio runs into a patrol led by Lt. Driscoll (Steve Brodie) who Zack hates and disrespects. The three go off on their own, but return to rescue the patrol from an ambush by snipers. This is a good scene although it was obviously shot on a sound stage.

     The unit moves on to establish an observation post in a Buddhist temple. We have a typical heterogeneous unit including the black medic, grizzled sergeant, hick, conscientious objector, the quiet guy, the by the book officer, etc. Fuller can be excused for wanting his characters to represent the variety of the U.S. Army. Hiding in the temple is a Commie who knifes the quiet guy while the others sleep. They search the temple and Zack captures him. He turns out to be a Major who speaks English which comes in handy as he tries to persuade the minorities to switch sides. First he works on Thompson by pointing out the mistreatment of blacks in America. When this does not work, he reminds the Nisei Tanaka (Richard Loo) of the internment of Japanese-Americans in WWII. This was the first reference in a movie to this shameful episode in American History. Kudos to Fuller for rattling the cage.

Zack and Tanaka

      Surprise, Zack has bonded with Short Round. Unfortunately, the kid gets killed by a sniper. Zack shoots the Major out of rage in a scene that was protested by the Army until Fuller pointed out that the killing of prisoners was not unheard of. This action by Zach also caused outrage in parts of “Red Scare” America as conservatives called for Fuller’s arrest for treasonous production of an anti-American propaganda film. Double kudos to Fuller for standing up to McCarthyism.

      The Reds figure out that the temple is a forward observation post that is raining artillery fire on them. Fuller uses stock combat footage from WWII that does not blend well with the film. The enemy attacks in swarms. Weirdly, the indoor defense does not match up with the outside attack. The movie shifts to a “who will survive” mode. Being a 1951 black and white movie, the deaths come without blood or even bullet holes. (Is that the way Fuller remembered his war days?) If you bet on four surviving, you win. Zack is one of them. They hook up with a relief patrol, but first Zack replaces the helmet on Driscoll’s grave with his lucky steel pot. (Earlier Driscoll had asked Zack to trade and Zack had dissed him.)

      This is one gritty film, which is saying a lot for a movie made at a time that grit could not be combined with graphic. In some ways it reminds me of “When Trumpets Fade” with its anti-hero main character. Zack is a great character. How rare to anchor a war from this time period on a dislikable protagonist. Evans probably did the best acting of his career. The studio had pushed for John Wayne, but Fuller stuck to his guns (and his budget). The rest of the cast are B-Movie actors that rose above the class. Edwards and Loo are particularly strong. Both characters could not have existed accurately in a WWII movie. However, the Korean War-era Army was integrated.

     The movie is most reminiscent of a Western. The old surrounded-in-the-fort variety. There is a little “Stagecoach” in it as well. The biggest difference is no women to distract our warriors. Not saying that’s an improvement.

      Does “Steel Helmet” crack the 100 Best War Movies? It deserves consideration for the balls that went into making it. It is safe to say it is one of the greatest war movies ever made for just $100,000 and shot in ten days. 

GRADE  =  B+