Monday, April 30, 2012

LIVE: King Arthur (Director's Cut)

       I am trying something new with this one. It’s called a “Live Review”. As I watch the movie, I jot down my feelings and observations. I suppose it works best for the reader of this blog if you have already seen the movie. You then can agree or disagree with my take.  Roll it!

        Words on screen – “recent archeological evidence sheds light” – oh, good, this is going to be historically accurate! Narration with map – Rome is greedy. They conquer the Sarmations (never heard of them) and force their young ‘uns to be in their cavalry. The narrator is Lancelot. The year is 452. I don’t think Rome controlled Eastern Europe at that time. Epic music. Now we are in Britain. Beautiful scenery. Now we meet Arthur (Arturius - Clive Owen). His father was a commander in the Roman army.

        It’s 15 years later. That would be 467 (Rome fell in 476) – wow, that’s very close to the end. Was Rome still in Britain? Arthur and his “knights” are watching a Roman convoy from the woods. Is this a Robin Hood movie? Woads (never heard of them) attack the train (it carries a bishop). Graphic violence. Each knight gets kill coverage. Frenzied. Some slo-mo. One of Arthur’s men has a composite bow (very unlikely) and shoots a guy in the eye! Arthur spares one of the enemy. Will he meet him again? Duh! The Woads were sent by Merlin. Wait, he’s a bad guy? A reference to Excalibur. The bishop was disguised as a Roman soldier, so he survived.

        They return to a Roman castra (fort). There is talk of them getting their discharges and returning to Sarmatia. This is going to be a short movie. Arthur wants to make a trip to Rome and see the Pope. He is religious. Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd) is a ladies’ man. Bors is gruff. Gawain and Galahad are buddies. Tristan is weird.  Dagonet is sensitive. Will something prevent their discharge? Duh! Arthur has a round table with many vacancies. The bishop back stabs them and orders them on a suicide mission to rescue the next pope north of Hadrian’s Wall. They are upset, but realize we will not have a movie if they don’t go. Lancelot argues against it, but remains loyal to his BFF. He asks that his body be cremated if he is killed. Crap, Lancelot is dead meat! Now we have a suicide mission movie on our hands. Who will survive?

       Who’s this Viking looking dude? He’s a Saxon and he is mean and a racist (no raping British women, only killing). He does some things to prove it. He has a evil lackey son with a weird chin rat-tail. Our heroes are off on their quest. Dead guess – all but Arthur and Bors (he has a family). They are ambushed in the woods, but the woads don’t do anything to them. Why? Will Arthur link up with them to fight the greater of two evils? Duh!

        They arrive at a walled estate north of Hadrian’s Wall. What are Roman’s doing north of the wall? Ridiculous! The Roman noble is a jerk who abuses his serfs. Will he get his just reward? Duh! Arthur puts a stop to the abuses. Free will, blah, blah, blah. His priests are torturing pagans. One of them is a woman. It’s Guinevere (Kiera Knightley)! Arthur decides to take all the serfs along back to Roman safety.  He's humane.  He does not belong in the Dark Ages.

         Trek music. It’s snowing. It has to get cold so a lake will freeze. It freezes very rapidly. Guinevere is a woad! She and Arthur make a connection over dislocated fingers. Romantic. She accuses Arthur of going Roman. There is tension, will they get married? Duh! There is a traitor advising the Saxon king. Will he get his? Duh! Lancelot sees Guinevere bathing. Here we go! Lancelot and Guinevere flirt. She asks him if he is from the Black Sea. Guinevere knows her Roman Empire geography. Will this become a love triangle?  Duh!

         Merlin offers an alliance. Apologizes for killing Arthur’s mother. Flashback: during Woad attack, boy Arthur pulls Excalibur from his father’s gravesite. Will Arthur hook up with the woads? Duh! The evil noble seizes a boy in order to kill one of Arthur’s knights. Wait, why? It gives Guinevere the chance to kill him with an arrow thus revealing her badassness (and remarkable recovery from her torture stint).

        The knights fight a rearguard action against chin rat-tail on a frozen lake. The constant creaking tells us the ice is unstable. All of Arthur’s knights are great archers! Jacks of all trades. They shoot the wings to get the Saxons to mass their weight in the middle. Genius! But it doesn’t work. Dagonet runs out and uses his axe to break the ice.  Literally. Will he die nobly in the process? Duh! One down. Cool shots from below the ice and then of the ice breaking. Mass chaos. Arrows hitting Saxons under the water. Hello, “Saving Private Ryan”. Suddenly, they are back at home. Only one dead on the suicide mission. I am stunned. They get their discharges. The bishop was not lying! Is the movie over? Meanwhile, the Saxon king demotes his son and slashes his cheek and chuckles. Hiss!

        Arthur and Guinevere start pawing each other. Damn, Saxon interruptus! Arthur decides to stay and fight the entire Saxon army by himself. His men are determined to leave with the rest and enjoy their freedom. Who can blame them? Will they change their minds? Duh! The drums of war. Horses paw the ground. Looks exchanged, but no words. Next thing we know they are all dressed as cataphracts (except Tristan who is a Mongol) and riding with Arthur. Game on! 5 versus 1,000. Sounds fair. Parley with Saxon king. They are both badasses. I think one of them will not survive. The battle opens with Tristan shooting an arrow over the wall to kill the traitor who is in a tree. Come on! LOL Most ridiculous moment in the movie.

       Arthur lures the Saxon infantry through the open gate while the Saxon king waits where he cannot see what will transpire. Convenient. Someone magically closes the door behind them. The fields have hay stacks on fire. Why? How will 5 guys take them? Wait, Guinevere and her boys (and girls) launch a blizzard of arrows. The knights swoop in and slash away in the smoke from the fires. (Oh, now I get the fires) Blood spraying. No good guys wounded, all bad guys killed.

        The rest of the Saxon army charges through the gate. There is no big pileup. They are very polite.  After you, no I insist. What exactly was the purpose of that wall? I thought it was to keep barbarians out. The Saxon army is undefeatable unless Arthur has something up his sleeve. Does he? Duh! In the grand tradition of Hollywood epics (Spartacus, Gladiator), it’s fire! The pitch spread on the battlefield is set afire by fire arrows. Fire – the great equalizer. Let the melee begin. Guinevere (nice costume, but boy is she flat-chested) and the Woads switch to swords. Mucho slashing and splashing. This is not your usual Guinevere. Cue the fireball throwing trebuchets. Explosions – check! Quick cuts between the heroes hewing. Now they start taking wounds, but fight on. Guinevere takes down the second in command (with the help of her girlfriends). Tristan versus the king. There is no way Tristan will win – doesn't he know the king’s death is reserved for Arthur? Two down. Lancelot rides to the rescue of Guinevere, but chin rat-tail uses a crossbow (not a manly weapon) to mortally wound him. Lancelot throws a sword to impale him. Three down.  No sequel.

       Saxon king versus Arthur. Clang, clang!  Repeat numerous times.   Round one: Arthur. Round 2: Saxon. Round 3: Arthur. Round 4: Saxon. Round 5: Arthur. Suddenly the battle is over. Lancelot is cremated. Narrator mentions the Battle of Badon Hill. Wedding of Arthur and Guinevere. Woads and Britons unite. Arthur is proclaimed king. Three horses running free. Sappy! Death rate of knights – 50%.

        “King Arthur” purports to be a more accurate historical retelling of the Arthur legend, but much of it is as hard to swallow as the legendary tales. The plot is predictable, with a few interesting surprises like the suicide mission being less than suicidal. There are numerous clichés. For example, Lancelot has to die nobly to clear the way for the wedding. The villains are all very hissable, although the Saxon king has some gravitas.

         The movie is not bad as an action epic. The violence is graphic and intense. The acting is very good. The dialogue is fine, if a bit trite and these people speak very well for early medieval types. Arthur also has a very liberal view of democracy for someone who will be a king. He is too good to be true. The characters are pretty well developed. They get their moments although Gawain and Galahad are short-changed. The music is typical for an epic which is not bad.

         I know it may not come across, but I actually liked the movie.  It is fun and I like taking the legend and removing the magic (kind of like "Troy").  It is a good companion to "Excalibur", although I like "Excalibur" better.

Rating - 7/10

How historical is it?

1.  It is set in the Early Middle Ages which is appropriate.  No knights in plate armor.
2.  Arthur being based on a Romano-Briton chief is based on the best estimate we have.
3.  Rome was out of Britain by 410.
4.  The Picts were not called Woads.
5.  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions a Saxon Cedric and his son Cenric coming to England (but southern England, not north of the wall) and establishing the kingdom of Wessex.  However, they were not killed at the Battle of Badon Hill.
6.  The Sarmatians were Roman auxiliaries in Britain.  They were equipped as cataphracts (roughly what they are depicted as in the last battle).  The theory that Arthur and his knights were Sarmatians is disputed.
7.  Saxons did not use crossbows and trebuchets were not in Britain then.  There were no stirrups yet.
8.  Archbishop Germanus actually died twenty years earlier and was actually a holy man.
9.  The opening claim that recent archeological evidence has cleared up some of the legend is a stretch.
10.  Knightley's breasts are not as big as on the poster.


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

DUELING MOVIES: Passchendaele vs. The Trench

        “Passchendaele” is a Canadian movie written, directed, and starred in by Paul Gross. It was the most expensive Canadian movie when released in 2008. The movie begins with an impressive set piece that has Sgt. Michael Dunn’s (Gross) unit in house to house fighting. With “Saving Private Ryan” type cinematography, the action is intense. It culminates with Dunn stabbing a German in the face and then being wounded by an artillery shell. He ends up in the hospital as the sole survivor. This incident was based on a story told to him by Gross’ grandfather. The story inspired the movie.

       Mike is sent back to Canada to recuperate from shell shock and to recruit. He meets a nurse named Sarah (Caroline Dhavernas). She is a morphine addict who has been ostracized from the local community because her father joined the German army and died at Vilmy Ridge. Her brother David (Joe Dinicol) wants to enlist to clear the family honor, but is prevented by his asthma. The head of recruiting is a loathsome super-patriot named Dobson. He hates Mike (a coward) and David (a Hun). He enlists David, but Sarah mistakenly blames Mike. He returns to combat to protect him. Three months later, the foursome is on the Western Front. It’s a small world!

       The Battle of Passchendaele arrives with Mike and David in the front lines. Specifically, a shell crater full of muddy water. Their unit is ordered forward, but in a misunderstanding the unit they are reinforcing assumes they are being relieved and withdraws leaving the much smaller unit in the front. It’s back to SPResque action. A soldier loses an arm, there is a stretch without sound. The blood and guts and mud and rain are realistic, but the artillery fire is much too accurate. Those Germans could hit a fly! The violence is very graphic, especially the hand-to-hand with whatever weapon is handy.

The scene takes a bizarre turn when David goes running to the German trench and leaps in. Is he a traitor or does he want to negotiate an end to the war? Before we can find out, an explosion lifts him out of the trench and onto a crucifix-shaped wooden form. Mike goes after him with every German on the Western Front shooting at him. One of them hits, but the German commander orders the army to cease-fire. The entire battle stops as Mike carries the cross back to his lines. He is doing his best Jesus imitation. Cue the rain ceasing, sun coming out, hawk soaring overhead.

      “Passchendaele” is an entertaining, but implausible movie. You really have to suspend disbelief to enjoy it. The acting is pretty good and you have to admire their ability to keep a straight face. The combat is some of the best filmed and is a worthy Canadian attempt to replicate the feel of “Saving Private Ryan”. What sets the movie apart is the overt religiousity of the crucifix scene. Did I say overt? I meant heavy-handed and ridiculous.

      “The Trench” is a British movie released in 1999 and written and directed by Paul Boyd. It stars a pre-superstardom Daniel Craig. The movie is set in the Somme valley in 1916 in the days leading up to the battle. The action is confined to a trench and the movie has the feel of a play to it. It is fairly realistic in its look, but too sanitary and lacking in mud. It also has a lot of talking like a play. The soldiers sit around and chat in their thick British accents.

       A British soldier looks through a loophole and describes the bucolic no man’s land. The trench faces a green hill. You wouldn’t think there would be snipers in all that green. Oops! The Colonel arrives to boost morale and get filmed doing it. He assures them “you’ll be able to go over the top with a walking stick”. Sure! Then we get more conversating. Unfortunately, most of it is boring. The soldiers are mostly stereotypes. Sgt. Winter (Craig) is gruff, of course. The captain is alcoholic and disillusioned, of course. Cliches are on display. For instance, Winter shows off a picture of his wife and kids. Several women in the audience faint from foreboding.

       As the battle approaches, tensions rise. They will be in the first wave. The captain gives each company a soccer ball – first to kick it into the German line wins beer. One soldier shoots himself in the calf. I guess he doesn’t like beer. The bombardment begins which is bad enough, but the rum ration gets destroyed. The lieutenant provides his private stash of whiskey to give the men “Dutch courage”. Now it’s all about the waiting. The audience also waits to see if there will ever be any action in this movie.

         “The Trench” would be better as a play. That way you would not expect any action. However, you would expect better dialogue and acting. The soldier talk is trite and boring and gives little insight into soldier life. The acting is average and even Daniel Craig is not at his best. He does dominate over the rest of the cast, however. The scenario is not realistic. The trench is too wide and pristine. They are supposedly in a very dangerous position, but other than a sniper shot, nothing really happens.

        “Passchendaele” is a better movie than “The Trench”. They approach the war from different perspectives. “The Trench” wants to be about the soldiers. “Passchendaele” is aiming more at the stress of combat. It also is more melodramatic and romantic. Subtle, it isn’t. “The Trench” is too subtle. More importantly, “Passchendaele” does a better job giving the viewer an idea of what that battle was like than “The Trench” teaches about the Battle of the Somme.

WINNER:  Passchendaele

Passchendaele - no man's land

The Trench - sniper scene

Saturday, April 21, 2012


BACKSTORY: “The Best Years of Our Lives” is one of the most beloved movies of its time. It was directed by the acclaimed William Wyler and released in 1946. Wyler had earlier done the famous documentary “Memphis Belle”. Producer Samuel Goldwyn wanted to make a movie about returning veterans so it is set in the period immediately after WWII. It is based on a blank verse novel by MacKinley Kantor and was adapted into the screenplay by Robert Sherwood – two heavyweights. The movie was a box office smash in America and was actually even more popular in England. It won seven Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Frederic March), Best Supporting Actor (Harold Russell), Editing, Adapted Screenplay, and Original Score. AFI ranked it as the 37th best motion picture of all time. The movie is famous for the casting of Harold Russell a a disabled vet.  Russell had lost his hands due to a faulty fuse setting off some explosives during a training session. He is the only actor ever to win two Oscars for the same performance. The Academy felt he would lose for Best Supporting Actor so they gave him an honorary Oscar. Besides Russell, Wyler insisted on the film crew being veterans.

OPENING: We are introduced to the three main characters as they meet on a flight home. Homer (Russell) is a disabled sailor who has mechanical hook prostheses. He is returning to his fiancé. Al (March) was a sergeant in the infantry. He is returning to his wife and children. Freddy (Dana Andrews) is a decorated bombardier. He is returning to a wife he married just before leaving. Each is facing their reunions with trepidation. Al says “it feels as though I’m going to hit a beach.”

SUMMARY: Part one: the reunion section. Al’s reunion is surprisingly joyful, but he feels awkward at home so he takes his wife Milly (Myrna Loy) and adult daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) out for drinks. He gets drunk. A vet with a drinking problem – actually kind of daring for a movie made in 1946. Guess who they meet at Butch’s bar? It’s a small world. March and Andrews do good drunks. What’s going on with Peggy and Freddy? There’s some chemistry there. When Freddy sleeps off his drunk at Al’s he has a nightmare involving a bombing raid.  (It looks like Freddy is the one who is going to have PTSD.)  Peggy is there to comfort him.

Freddy finally finds his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) and she is surprisingly thrilled to see him. This feeling will not last. Marie is a tramp and is used to independent life and has a night club job and a night club personality. She is unimpressed when Freddy is forced to take a deadend job at a drugstore.

Part two: the job section  Al is back at work at his bank. Freddy is selling perfume at the drugstore. Freddy has lunch with Peggy. It costs $.85. They kiss. This does not bode well for Marie’s character development. She’s going to have to get trampier for this to work cinematically. Al gets in trouble with his banker boss when he humanely makes a loan to a vet who has no collateral. The war has apparently thrown off his banker mentality. He sardonically says  “Last year it was kill Japs, now it’s make money.” Al follows this up with a drunken speech at a business dinner. He finishes strong with a plea to gamble on small business owners. Listen up, bankers in the audience.

       Peggy double dates with Freddy and Marie to try to get rid of those pesky feelings, but instead she discovers that Marie is quite the trollop. Peggy then resolves to break up the marriage. When Al learns what is going on, he confronts Freddy like grown men should. The dialogue is great in its adultness. Freddy agrees to not see Peggy.

      Freddy gets fired from his perfume job when he punches a customer who is spouting about how the war was a waste because we were fighting the wrong countries. Huh?  Shaky plot development. This seems too early in the Cold War for him to be talking about the Russian communists. This opinion would have been bizarre for 1946 so it seems like a weird way to advance the plot.  Why not punch him because he is deriding chumps who went off to war when the economy was booming?

Homer tickles the ivories
      Meanwhile, Homer’s problems are not on the job front. Things are very awkward at home with his parents. Homer feels he is not good enough for his fiancé Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) and he tries being mean to her to get her to move on with her life. Wilma is an American girl-next-door type so she is not easily dissuaded. (Plus she knows many girlfriends of disabled vets will be watching the movie and she will be a role model on how to handle this situation.) Hollywood has her do the right thing. In a great scene, she puts Homer to bed without flinching and when he finally hugs her, the look on her face is priceless. Upping the heart-tugs, Homer sheds a tear when she leaves.

      Part three: marching into the future  Freddy catches Marie with another man. She wants a divorce. Problem solved! And she comes off as the bad guy.  Mission accomplished. Freddy plans to leave and start a new life. While waiting on his flight, he wanders into an airplane graveyard (symbolic of the vets?). The contractor that is going to use the planes for materials for building homes offers him a job.

CLOSING: Homer and Wilma get married. He screws up the vow, but they get through the ceremony. (Russell actually flubbed the lines and Wyler left the take alone – very nice!) Freddy and Peggy rekindle with a kiss. It looks like everyone will live happily ever after.


Acting - 9

Action - N/A

Accuracy - N/A

Realism - 8

Plot - 8

Overall - 8

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Absolutely. It is not a typically macho war movie. It even has some romance. The female characters hold their own. Myrna Loy and Virginia Mayo were highly respected in their day. The film has just the right dose of smoochiness. The ladies will have their hanky moments and the guys will be able to tolerate them.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY: Accuracy is not really an issue here. The story is fictional. However, the three main characters do fit many of the returning veterans.

CRITIQUE: It is easy to see why “The Best Years of Our Lives” is so beloved. It was the perfect movie for its time. It really struck a chord. People were making the transition from wartime to peacetime and the adjustment was difficult. Millions of veterans were returning to lives that were not only different from Depression-era America, but drastically different from their military experiences. Some came home disabled and wondering about their place in society. Some came home to stable families and jobs, but found that boring and unfulfilling. Some came home to faulty wartime marriages and unclear occupational futures.

     The movie is very well made. Wyler is at the top of his craft and used his experience filming “Memphis Belle” to get a realistic veteran vibe. The movie has a different look to it. Wyler insisted on a type of cinematography called “deep focus”. When you watch a scene, everything in the background and foreground is in focus. It gives the scenes incredible depth. The framing is also nicely done. Many of the scenes feature doorways like in “The Searchers”.  Although Wyler did not like the score, it matches the moods well.

       The cast is all-star. The acting is top notch. Just the facial expressions alone are amazing. Russell is the standout because of his background. He does real well for a rookie. (Wyler insisted he not take any acting lessons.) Of course, it helped that O’Donnell is a poor actress and anyone would look talented opposite her.

      The movie holds up surprisingly well considering it came out right after the war. You would expect a good bit of patriotism and sentimentality. It keeps those elements to a minimum. The way characters in the movie behave is true to life. The one problem is the tidy ending is not true to life. It is asking too much of 1940s Hollywood to have a depressingly realistic ending. All three story arcs portend positive futures. That’s 100%. It would have been nice if 100% of actual WWII veterans had bright post-war lives.

CONCLUSION: “The Best Years of Our Lives” is one of the best of the small subgenre of post-war home front movies. It is an excellent companion to all the good American WWII movies. Many of the survivors in those movies would have had experiences similar to Al, Freddy, and Homer. It’s almost like a sequel to many of those movies. It is definitely a must-see, but a bit overrated because of its overly optimistic ending. Contrast it to the second half of “The Deer Hunter”. But then again, perhaps that movie was too pessimistic.  "The Best Years of Our Lives" seems to be appropriately placed in the Greatest 100.



Wednesday, April 18, 2012

CRACKER? Cromwell

       “Cromwell” is a biopic of Oliver Cromwell released in 1970. It is a good example of how it’s not just American filmmakers that abuse their nation’s history. (In this review, the blue notes are the true history.)

      The movie opens with Cromwell (Richard Harris) as an ex-member of Parliament at home living the life of a country gentleman. He is upset with the taking of common land by the nobility and the king’s encouragement of Papism. He threatens to emigrate to America. When a delegation from Parliament arrives and tries to enlist his support against the king, Cromwell throws them out of his house. In reality, Cromwell was already a member of Parliament and there is no evidence he thought of going to America. He was upset about the king’s policies, but was reluctant to rebel. Later, Cromwell goes psycho in his local church because of the Catholic trappings. Cromwell was a fanatical Puritan who was very anti-Papist.

       King Charles I (Alec Guinness) calls Parliament to raise funds to deal with a Scottish invasion. When Parliament demands reforms in exchange, Charles (influenced by his queen) responds with “divine right of kings” and attempts to arrest Cromwell and other key members of Parliament. Cromwell was not one of the five. The English Civil War begins.

       At the Battle of Edge Hill, Cromwell brings pre-battle negotiations to an abrupt halt by firing a cannon. (Did Mel Gibson copy this idea for “Braveheart”?) The Roundheads attack, but cannot break through the Cavalier pikemen. The king’s infantry advances and Prince Rupert (Timothy Dalton) leads a cavalry charge. Cromwell counterattacks to restore the stalemate and later, the Roundheads withdraw. The battle is fairly realistic with musketeers using rests and pikemen pushing. It is also appropriately chaotic. The battle did open with a cannon fired by Parliament, but it was not fired by Cromwell because he did not reach Edge Hill until after the battle. Rupert actually launched the first attack followed by the infantry. The Roundhead commander (Essex) did order a retreat. BTW the battle lasted longer than the five minutes in the movie.

       Cromwell returns home to raise his famous Ironsides unit. We get a training montage, naturally. The movie skips the very important Battle of Marston Moor in which the Ironsides were a factor for the first time. I guess they did not want the movie to run an extra five minutes. At the Battle of Naseby, Cromwell is outnumbered. It was the opposite. Cromwell opens the battle with a charge. Rupert responds with a countercharge and Cromwell uses feigned retreat to lure Rupert into the musketeers and pikemen. Cromwell returns and Rupert retreats and the battle is won. Almost total bull shit. Rupert opened the battle with a charge on the opposite flank from the Ironsides which carried him off the battlefield. The opposing infantries were toe to toe when Cromwell ran off the Cavalier cavalry on the right and then wheeled inward to take the king’s infantry in the flank. Sadly, Cromwell’s son is killed in the battle. Just as sadly, but not heroically, he died of small pox a year earlier.

       Cromwell is appointed Commander in Chief of the New Model Army. He was second in command to Thomas Fairfax. With the war won, he arrests the king. Charles was handed over by the Scots. Cromwell takes over Parliament by force. This probably references Pride’s Purge which Cromwell was not part of. Cromwell tries to negotiate with the king to get him to accept a constitutional monarchy and when the king proves to be intransigent, Cromwell demands his head. There was no negotiation and the king was condemned because he had plotted the Second Civil War. The trial and execution are well done.

        Cromwell retires to his home for six years. This is a bit different than him going off to conquer Ireland! A delegation arrives to persuade him to become king. Cromwell laughs, then rails against them and their preposterously undemocratic idea. Actually, he toyed with the idea and decided against it because the army was opposed. Cromwell returns to Parliament and reluctantly dissolves it. He takes power by military force and vows to bring good government. Pretty close. Movie post script: he did! Most historians agree.

       This is more of a biography than a war movie. You can’t really be called a war movie when your two battles last about five minutes each. The truth is that it is not even a good biography. Harris overacts, as usual. He does capture Cromwell’s stick up his arse personality, however. Guinness is outstanding as the king and brings quiet dignity to the stubbornly incompetent monarch. As a period piece, it does take us back to 17th Century England. It won the Academy Award for Costume Design. The Roundheads are invariably dressed much more commonly than the Cavaliers when in reality there was little differential. Also, the New Model Army is wearing black and gold coats instead of the iconic red coats. To set the mood, we have to listen to some truly pompous music and hymns.

       In conclusion, are the British as historically illiterate as Americans or did they recognize the numerous errors in this movie? I would hope they were upset with the finished product. What is perplexing is the deviations are so blatant they would appear to be insulting to British history. The Battle of Naseby, which is probably in the top ten most important battles in British history, is reenacted almost the opposite of what actually happened. Hurray for Britain’s equivalent of Hollywood!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

#41 - SPARTACUS (1960)

BACK-STORY: “Spartacus” is a famous historical epic released in 1960. It is based on the book by Howard Fast. Kirk Douglas was fascinated by the novel and wanted to ease his disappointment over losing the starring role in “Ben Hur”. He recruited Olivier, Laughton, and Ustinov. When Fast proved unable to make the jump to screenwriter, noted commie Dalton Trumbo was brought in. This was a daring move as Trumbo was, at that time, blacklisted as a member of the Hollywood Ten. He had run afoul of the House Unamerican Activities Committee during McCarthyism and was writing screenplays under pseudonyms. After completion of the film, Douglas insisted Trumbo be credited by his real name – a move that ended the blacklisting movement. Kudos! The first director (Anthony Mann) did not meet Douglas’ standards so he was replaced by Stanley Kubrick. It was not exactly smooth sailing after the change. The massive egos of the stars made each scene difficult. Kubrick looked back on the film with far from fond memories. Based on his recollections, you would think the movie was terrible. He wanted the movie to be more gritty and less a hagiography. He wanted more battle scenes, but test audiences reacted negatively (boo!). The movie was the most expensive to date ($12 million).

OPENING: A Roman lanista (gladiator school owner) named Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) arrives at a mine in Libya and buys a slave named Spartacus (Douglas) who is not only rebellious, but has good teeth. Perfect gladiator material.

Draba versus Spartacus
SUMMARY: At the gladiator school in Capua, Spartacus begins training under the brutal Marcellus (Charles McGraw). We get a training montage. Spartacus makes a love connection with a servant named Lavinia (Jean Simmons). Crassus (Laurence Olivier), the richest man in Rome, arrives with two “ladies” who insist on watching pairs fight to the death. Spartacus loses to “the big black one” Draba (Woody Strode) who inexplicably tries to kill Crassus and is himself dispatched by a “brilliant dagger stroke”. The resulting bad blood leads to a rebellion in the kitchen with Marcellus finding out the soup is not always good food.

       Spartacus halts the pairing of Roman nobles, swearing he will never witness a gladiator match again. He convinces the rebels to form an army and battle their way out of Italy. Slaves join up from the countryside and the “army” encamps on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius. When six cohorts of the Roman garrison approach under the command of Crassus’ boy Glabrus (John Dall), Spartacus ambushes his unsecure camp (off screen unfortunately).

      Back in Rome, Crassus has dreams of bringing law and order to the untidy democracy of the late Republic. A dictatorship would be more efficient and guess who he thinks the dictator should be. Representing that democracy is the portly Senator Gracchus (Charles Laughton) whose hedonistic lifestyle represents the immorality of democracy. He is determined to thwart the power-hungry Crassus.

       The slaves are on the move and defeat several Roman armies off screen. Spartacus and Varinia smooch enough to get Varinia pregnant. A pretty slave youth named Antoninus (Tony Curtis) who does magic and sings songs joins them. He had escaped Crassus’ villa after deciding that he does not like snails and oysters.

       The rebels make contact with Cilician pirates and make a deal to get passage out of Italy. In Rome, Crassus wins the power struggle with Gracchus and gets himself appointed dictator to deal with the slave menace and restore patrician authority. He pays off the pirates to abandon the rebels at the port of Brindusium. When Spartacus learns of the betrayal, he determines the only strategy is to march on Rome and confront the lion in its den. He gives a heartfelt speech to his mob emphasizing the value of freedom. The scene jumps back and forth to a speech given by the pompous Crassus to his robotic legions. He lauds the old Roman virtues of discipline and patricianness and promises the head of Spartacus.

Spartacus is not about to stab his horse
       The climactic battle is epic. Kubrick used 8,000 Spanish soldiers for the legionaries. They ominously approach the mass of rebel warriors (men and women) in their famous checkerboard formation. The rebels are supposed to be intimidated, but they have a trick up their tunics. Fire rollers! (Future epic movie makers take note. Fire is cool.) The velites panic and then Spartacus leads a mass assault that threatens to swamp the legion. While Crassus leads from the rear, Spartacus is in the thick of the fighting and even severs a soldier’s arm in the only graphic moment in the scene. Things take a turn for the worse when two other Roman legions arrive to doom the rebels. Cut to a field strewn with corpses.

Crassus woos Varinia
        Varinia is taken by Crassus and shipped to his villa. He is determined to identify Spartacus and feature him in his triumph. An offer of leniency to the slave who fingers Spartacus results in the iconic “I am Spartacus!” scene. They refuse to name names (“get it?”, says the blacklisted Trumbo) so the survivors will be crucified along the Appian Way. Gracchus (his name is at the head of a list of the “disloyal”) also refuses to kowtow and kiss Crassus’ ring (“get it?”, says Trumbo). Before he has a rendezvous with a dagger and a bathtub, he gets Batiatus to rescue Varinia and her baby.

CLOSING: Crassus is upset that Varinia is not charmed by his wealthy good looks so he decides to pair off Spartacus and Antoninus. One of them is better than him and preferred by Varinia and the other did not want to eat his snails. Spartacus and Antoninus decide to both avoid the crucifix by stabbing each other. Just kidding, how unHollywood would that have been? Those of you who bet on the magician/singer – you lose. Spartacus wins the right to be crucified. In the last scene, Varinia comes upon the dying Spartacus and he gets to meet his newborn who will grow up free.


Acting - 10

Action - 7

Accuracy - 6

Realism - 7

Plot - 9

Overall - 9

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Definitely! Partly because it is not really a war movie. Note the cutting of the battle scenes. There is plenty of romance and scantily clad gladiators. There is a strong female character who tells her soulmate that he’s “strong enough to be weak”.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY: There are a lot of gaps in the historical record concerning Spartacus. This should allow Hollywood to fill in the gaps. Unfortunately, Hollywood takes some of the known facts and changes them. We do not know exactly who he was before the rebellion, but most likely he was a Thracian soldier who deserted from the Roman army and possibly became a bandit until he was captured and sold at a slave auction in Rome. He was purchased by Batiatus and trained at his gladiator school in Capua. The training was probably similar to that depicted in the movie. The rebellion did break out in the kitchen, but the cause is unknown.

       The rebels did make camp on the slopes of Vesuvius and they were joined by local slaves. A Roman unit (a hastily recruited militia, not the Roman garrison) led by Glaber was sent to put down the rebellion and did leave its camp undefended. The movie does not specify how the slaves surprised the Romans, but in reality they made vine ropes to climb down the slope. The original plan was to march north to escape over the Alps, but Crixus argued for staying and continuing to plunder Italy. Spartacus acceded, but remained in command. The movie does not clearly depict the disagreements between Spartacus and Crixus.

      In the second year of the war, the army split with most going northward under Spartacus and the rest staying in southern Italy under Crixus. Crixus was defeated and killed. At the funeral games for Crixus, Spartacus honored him with gladiatorial bouts between Roman prisoners. This is just one example of how Spartacus was not as saintly as the movie would have you believe.

      Spartacus defeated a Roman army on the way to the Alps, but again he turned back for reason unknown. After yet another Roman defeat, the Romans turned to Crassus who raised an army of six legions. Crassus’ motivations were not as broad as the movie suggests. He was mainly interested in the power that would come with rescuing Rome from the slave menace. After a subordinate violated orders and allowed part of the army to be brought to battle and got his ass kicked, Crassus used decimation (killing one-tenth of an embarrassed unit) to show his men he meant business. Crassus defeated Spartacus, but not decisively. Spartacus did negotiate with Cilician pirates for passage to Sicily, but they took the money and sailed off. Most likely they were not bribed by Crasssus, but simply were being pirates. A desperate attempt to build rafts to float to Sicily ended in failure.

      Meanwhile, Crassus constructed a line of fortifications to trap Spartacus in the toe of Italy. Spartacus had a Roman prisoner crucified in no man’s land to show his men what awaited them if they gave up. The stalemate caused the Senate to recall Pompey from Spain and Lucullus from Macedonia (a strategy alluded to in the film). On a snowy night, Spartacus launched an attempt to break through the Roman line. This was only partially successful with less than half his army reaching safety on the other side. For some reason, the slave army splintered again and the non-Spartacus part was caught by Crassus and had to be rescued by Spartacus. A second surprise attack on the splinter group resulted in its destruction a few days later.

      Spartacus headed for Brundisium, but Lucullus landed ahead of him. The slaves spanked the van guard of Crassus’ approaching army and overconfidently insisted on a pitched battle with Crassus. Spartacus must have expected the worst because before the battle he made a show of killing his horse in a victory or death analogy. In the subsequent Battle of Silarus, there is no reference to fire rollers, of course. And the movie does a poor job on Roman weaponry as it does not have the Romans using their pila (javelins). Also, Crassus won the battle with no intervention by Pompey or Lucullus. Spartacus apparently was trying to cut his way to Crassus when he was killed. (How did Hollywood resist that?) In one version, he was abandoned by his retinue and surrounded. In another, he was wounded in the thigh after dispatching two centurions and was finished off as he fought from one knee. Obviously he was not crucified and in fact his body was not identified.

      The movie does accurately show the crucifixion of 6,000 survivors along the Appian Way. In a post script neglected by the movie, Pompey finished off the fleeing remnants of the army and was able to falsely claim the lion’s share of ending the slave threat instead of it going to Crassus. Crassus does not go on to become dictator as the movie implies, but instead joins Pompey and Caesar in the First Triumvirate. The movies prediction that Spartacus’ rebellion would inspire slaves to eventually overthrow the empire was fantasy. In reality, the Spartacus rebellion was the last serious slave rebellion in Roman history.

      As far as the love story, there is little evidence to base it upon. Varinia is almost pure fiction. It is possible Spartacus was “married’, but his spouse would have been a Thracian. (In fact, Rome had not conquered Varinia’s Britain at this point.) She may have been a priestess. They probably knew each other before the rebellion. There is no evidence of a child. It seems very unlikely that he was the sensitive lover the movie depicts.

CRITIQUE: “Spartacus” is one of the all-time great epic films. It has all the ingredients necessary for grand entertainment. It has action, suspense, romance, and a little humor. The acting is stellar and the score is outstanding. The plot is well thought out. The dialogue is crisp.

       With a cast such as it is, no surprise the acting is great. Kirk Douglas is perfect in the role and it is obvious he put his soul into the role. The heavyweights (Olivier, Ustinov, and Laughton) do not disappoint and they chew the scenery less than you would expect. Ustinov is especially effective as Batiatus. He justifiably earned the Best Supporting Actor trophy. Some of the minor characters shine. Charles McGraw is great as the menacing trainer. Woody Strode brings gravitas to a key role. The only sour note is provided by John Dall as Glabrus. It appears they ran out of salary money and grab a guy off the streets.

       The soundtrack by Alex North is one of the best ever. He was a six time Academy Award winner, but was only nominated for this one. The music is epic as befits the movie. He used antique instruments for a unique feel. The music attached to the lead-up to the last battle is awesome.

       For those not familiar with the Third Servile War, the movie is suspenseful because it is not clear what the outcome will be. It’s a great movie to be seeing for the first time. It is unorthodox in that the hissable villain survives and thrives. If you end up depressed by this, try reading up on the rest of Crassus’ life. You’ll feel better, trust me.

      The romance is well done. I’m not much for mushy stuff, but if Kirk Douglas is okay with the script – fine with me. Jean Simmons is excellent as Varinia. Their opening scene is powerful and although unrealistic. It introduces the characters well. Compare their chaste relationship to the sexual escapades on the recent Starz series (which I am a big fan of) if you want to see how far morals have come since 1960. That series clearly answers the question “what would Hollywood do with Spartacus if it was remade today?” Conversely, how about that “snails and oysters” scene? There is an example of how Hollywood was too prudish in 1960.

        One flaw in the movie is the lack of actual combat. Spartacus fought numerous battles with the Romans, but only one is depicted. It is pretty standard in an epic of this type to have a victory in the first half and a loss at the end. The skipping over the attack on Glabrus’ camp is head-scratching. As much as I despise “Braveheart” (Gibson clearly was inspired by “Spartacus”), it does a better job on this. Another problem is that the final battle is overrated. It has ridiculous elements (the fire rollers) and does not accurately depict Roman tactics.

CONCLUSION: “Spartacus” is great entertainment, but is it a great war movie? It does not fall comfortably into that genre, but it is certainly a better fit than “Ben Hur”. It’s closest comparison would be to “Braveheart” which it is infinitely superior to. “Spartacus” is a good example of how you can tamper with history and not make it ridiculous.

"I am Spartacus!"

Wednesday, April 11, 2012



         “Dr. Strangelove” is ranked #3 on AFIs list of 100 Greatest Comedies. It is one of the most famous comedies of the 1960s. It has characters, performances, and lines that are considered among the best of all time. The image of Kong riding the nuke like a bronco is iconic. It is a satire which makes it more important than an average comedy. It’s theme of the insanity of Mutually Assured Destruction was very topical for the Cold War. When it came out, just two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, it certainly struck a chord.

       “Tropic Thunder” is too recent to have established a place among the great war comedies and it is unclear what mark it will leave. Given the nature of critics, it is doubtful it will make the next AFI 100 Funniest movies. If there is any justice, it will get some credit for being the best satire of war movies ever made. It does not have a lot of competition in that respect, of course. It also deserves recognition for bringing war comedies into the 21st Century.

First half score: Dr. Strangelove - 50 Tropic Thunder - 38


      “Dr. Strangelove” is not really a laugh out loud movie. I counted less than ten times that I chuckled. It is more interested in jabbing you in the ribs than having you slap your thigh.

       If you are open to crass comedy, “Tropic Thunder” can be hilarious. I counted 52 times that I laughed out loud. I guess that shows my sense of humor. The interesting thing is the humor is consistent throughout and is varied. There is satire, silly, slapstick, and sophomoric humor. Something for every “Maxim” reader – not so much for females.

Second half score: Dr. Strangelove - 34 Tropic Thunder - 48


       When I started this tournament, I had no idea how it would turn out. I watched all 16 movies in a three week stretch. I had seen all of them before, but some I had not seen in decades. I discovered that the critics (as represented by Rotten Tomatoes) can be very wrong when it comes to war comedies, but for the most part the seeding was pretty accurate. I do have to point out that a #13 seed made it to the finals.

       The key thing I discovered is that the older the movie, the less likely it would be found to be funny today. It is a real testament to the greatness of “Dr. Strangelove” that it made it to the finals and lived up to its #1 seed. What is also stunning is that although the Cold War is over and the threat of nuclear war is no longer a daily nightmare, the humor stands up. Of course, it helps if you are old enough to remember the things that are being satired. I doubt that many under age 30 would really enjoy it.

       “Tropic Thunder” ended up winning because it not only is very funny, but it effectively pokes fun at other war movies. It also takes on movie production and actors in general. It has action and explosions. What more could you ask for?




Monday, April 9, 2012




        “Dr. Strangelove” begins with an insane general sending a flight of B-52s to drop nuclear bombs on the Soviet Union. The rest of the plot involves the attempts of the two leaders to avoid nuclear war and the attempt of one bomber to complete its mission. The movie shifts from scenes on the bomber to scenes in the War Room. A subplot involves an assault on the rogue general’s base to recover the recall codes. The tone shifts from suspensefully claustrophobic on the bomber to farcical discussion in the War Room. The taking of the base has the look of news footage from Vietnam. The plot flows well and builds to a satirical crescendo.

        “Good Morning. Vietnam” begins with the arrival of Cronauer in Saigon. He immediately starts rocking the boat at the radio station and butting heads with the old school leadership. Meanwhile, Cronauer falls in lust with a Vietnamese girl and takes over an English class to get to know her. He also gets to know her brother who turns out to be a Viet Cong agent. The plot shifts back and forth from the romance to the dysfunctional station. The plot is inconsistent because the romance and the other serious moments pale compared to Williams’ manic radio performances. Kudos to the film for not having a happy ending to the radio stint or the romance.

First half score: Strangelove - 48 GMV - 38


The second half will consist of comparing memorable quotes showcased on IMDB.


Ripper: I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.

Turgidson: Mr. President, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.

Muffley: Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room. (#64 on AFIs greatest movie quotes)

Sadetsky: There were those of us who fought against it, but in the end we could not keep up with the expense involved in the arms race, the space race, and the peace race. At the same time our people grumbled for more nylons and washing machines. Our doomsday scheme cost us just a small fraction of what we had been spending on defense in a single year. The deciding factor was when we learned that your country was working along similar lines, and we were afraid of a doomsday gap.

Strangelove: Mein Führer! I can walk!

Turgidson: Mr. President, we must not allow a mineshaft gap!

Strangelove: Regrettably, yes. But it is, you know, a sacrifice required for the future of the human race. I hasten to add that since each man will be required to do prodigious... service along these lines, the women will have to be selected for their sexual characteristics which will have to be of a highly stimulating nature.

Total: 47

“Good Morning, Vietnam”

Cronauer: I just want to begin by saying to Roosevelt E. Roosevelt, what it is, what it shall be, what it was. The weather out there today is hot and shitty with continued hot and shitty in the afternoon. Tomorrow a chance of continued crappy with a pissy weather front coming down from the north. Basically, it's hotter than a snake's ass in a wagon rut.

Cronauer: Goooooooood morning, Vietnam! Hey, this is not a test! This is rock and roll! Time to rock it from the Delta to the D.M.Z.!

Cronauer: Excuse me, sir. Seeing as how the V.P. is such a V.I.P., shouldn't we keep the P.C. on the Q.T.? 'Cause if it leaks to the V.C. he could end up M.I.A., and then we'd all be put out in K.P.

Cronauer: The Mississippi River broke through a protective dike today. What is a protective dike? Is it a large woman that says "Don't go near there! But Betty- Don't go near there! Don't go down by the river!"... No, we can't say "dyke" on the air, we can't even say "lesbian" anymore, it's "women in comfortable shoes. Thank You."

Cronauer: Here's a news flash: Today President Lyndon Johnson passed a highway beautification bill. The bill basically said that his daughters could not drive in a convertible on public highways.

Cronauer: What is the difference between the Cub Scouts and the military? Bzzzzzt! Cub Scouts don't have heavy artillery!

Total: 57

      When it comes to memorable lines, Strangelove has the quality and GMV has the quantity.

Second half score: Strangelove - 46 GMV - 42


       “Strangelove” wins mainly based on a superior plot. The three part structure works well and is a blend of action and humor. The tone shifts are not whiplashing. GMV’s plot is more problematical. The love story seems to serve the purpose of getting Cronauer out of the station and giving Williams a chance to show off his acting. A trip into the jungle is just silly. As far as memorable lines: the GMV lines are memorable because they are funny, the Strangelove lines are famous.


Dr. Strangelove - 94

Good Morning, Vietnam - 80



        MASH begins with the arrival of Hawkeye at the hospital. The rest of the movie is basically a series of vignettes leading up to the football game. The scenes include the suicide of “Painless”, the exposure of “Hot Lips”, the trip to Japan by Hawkeye and Trapper John. The structure works and fits a film about the ebb and flow of a surgical hospital in a time of war.

        Tropic Thunder begins with the shooting of a Platoonesque scene. The first part of the movie deals with problems with the production of the film. The movie then shifts into the jungle for a dysfunctional trek by the main actors. It concludes with the “assault” on the drug camp which is full of gunfire and explosions.

First half score: MASH - 43 Tropic Thunder - 45



Trapper: Watch out for your goodies, Hawkeye. That man is a sex maniac; I don't think Hot Lips satisfied him. Don't let him kiss you, Hawkeye.

Hot Lips: I wonder how such a degenerated person ever reached a position of authority in the Army Medical Corps.
Father Mulcahy: He was drafted.

P.A. Announcer: Attention. Attention. Friday night's movie will be The Glory Brigade. Rock'em sock'em kisses you never got. It's Uncle Sam's combat engineers charging side by side with Greek hand bags. Showing the world a new way to fight as they use bulldozers like bazookas, bayonnets like bazook - bullets. Starring Victor Mature. That is all.

Gen. Hammond: Henry, I have some reports here from your Major O'Houlihan that I frankly find hard to believe.

Colonel Blake: Well, don't believe them then, General. Good-bye. [hangs up]

Trapper John: Look, mother, I want to go to work in one hour. We are the Pros from Dover and we figure to crack this kid's chest and get out to golf course before it gets dark. So you go find the gas-passer and you have him pre-medicate this patient. Then bring me the latest pictures on him. The ones we saw must be 48 hours old by now. Then call the kitchen and have them rustle us up some lunch.

Frank Burns: I don't drink.
Hawkeye Pierce: Jesus Christ, I think he means it.

Total – 87

Tropic Thunder

Kirk Lazarus: I don't read the script. The script reads me.

Tugg Speedman: [as Simple Jack] Goodbye mama, now you can have ice cream in heavan! I'll see you again tonight when I go to bed in my head movies. But this head movie makes my eyes rain!

Lazurus: Same thing happened to me when I played Neil Armstrong in Moonshot. They found me in an alley in Burbank trying to re-enter the earth's atmosphere in an old refrigerator box.

Alpa Chino: That's the theme song for the Jeffersons!
Kirk Lazarus: Man, just cause it's a theme song don't make it not true.

Lazarus: Check it out. Dustin Hoffman, 'Rain Man,' look retarded, act retarded, not retarded. Counted toothpicks, cheated cards. Autistic, sho'. Not retarded. You know Tom Hanks, 'Forrest Gump.' Slow, yes. Retarded, maybe. Braces on his legs. But he charmed the pants off Nixon and won a ping-pong competition. That ain't retarded. Peter Sellers, "Being There." Infantile, yes. Retarded, no. You went full retard, man. Never go full retard. You don't buy that? Ask Sean Penn, 2001, "I Am Sam." Remember? Went full retard, went home empty handed...

Lazarus: I know who I am. I'm the dude playin' the dude, disguised as another dude!

Grossman: Cockburn, from now on my fist is going to be so far up your shithole that every time you have a thought, it's gonna have to tiptoe past my wedding ring...

Tayback: In the Winter of 1969, an elite force of the US Army was sent on a top secret assignment in Southeast Vietnam. The objective: rescue Sgt. Four Leaf Tayback from a heavily guarded NVA Prison Camp. The mission was considered to be near-suicide. Of the ten men sent, four returned. Of those four, three wrote books about what happened. Of those three, two were published. And of those two, only one got a movie deal. This is the story of the men who attempted to make that movie.

Kevin Sandusky: [to Jeff] I got a baaaad feeling on this one there, Fats.
Jeff Portnoy: [as Fats] Our asses don't get fragged in this bullshit valley, first thing I'm doin' is payin' my two bucks so I can watch Brooklyn bust his cherry on a sweet little mama son's dinky-down poon-tang!

Lazarus: And the Oscar goes to. Yes! Tugg Speedman for "Tropic Blunder: The True Story Behind The Making Of The Most Expensive Fake True War Movie Ever"

Total: 102

       TT has the quantity. As far as quality, it depends on your sense of humor. MASH’s lines are PG-13 (some would have been edgy for the 1970s) and Tropic Thunder’s are definitely R. Personally, I find the TT lines much more hilarious.

Second half score: MASH - 38 Tropic Thunder - 45


       This is a battle between 1970s humor and recent humor. Both plots serve their films well. MASH is more episodic and Tropic Thunder has a more traditional structure. As far as the comedic lines, MASH is more subtle as the movie is more situational humor and obviously the situation is more serious. It’s hard to play surgery for laughs. Tropic Thunder has no restrictions and absolutely pushes the envelope. The jokes are unceasing and often crass, but a good bit of them are satirical and not simply aimed at a cheap laugh (and then there are quite a few that are).


Tropic Thunder - 90

MASH - 81

Friday, April 6, 2012


Dr. Strangelove (1) vs. Duck Soup (3)


        “Dr. Strangelove” has one insane character – Gen. Ripper. He is upset that fluoridation is harming our “precious bodily fluids”. He sends a flight of B-52 bombers to bomb the Soviet Union. Gen. Turgidson is a Curtis Lemay type jingoist who wants to win a nuclear war. Dr. Strangelove is a Werner Von Braun type of ex-Nazi scientist who has trouble remembering that the President is not der Fuhrer. The rest of the characters are normal people thrust into abnormal situations.

      “Duck Soup” has three outlandish characters. Groucho plays the President Rufus T. Firefly as an insult hurling cad. Chico plays Chicolini as a punning imbecile. Harpo plays Pinky as a adult brat. In other words, the same characters they always play. The other characters are all stock. The real standout is Zeppo as Bob Roland. What an incredibly complex character. Just kidding.

First half score: Strangelove - 46 Duck Soup - 40


        “Dr. Strangelove” is considered to be one of the great satires of war and nuclear war in particular. It was so cutting that some conservatives accused it of being leftist in its condemnation of Mutually Assured Destruction. The debates in the War Room on how to handle a nuclear crisis are hilariously chilling because they anticipate the insanity of an actual crisis.

        Surprisingly, “Duck Soup” has a similar theme: how a crisis can escalate into full-blown war. Of course it takes a different path to get to the explosions. The overall satirical theme is exploited for silly wordplay, sight gags, and slapstick, but in all the frantic action the point is made in a bludgeoning sort of way. Where “Strangelove” is Aristophanesesque, “Duck Soup” would make Plautus proud.

Second half score: Strangelove - 50 Duck Soup - 38


        You will laugh more at “Duck Soup”, but that does not make it a better comedy. The characters are stronger in “Strangelove” and the satire is sharper. They are very much of their time period. “Strangelove” could not have been made in the 1930s and “Duck Soup” would have flopped in the 1960s. Neither would do well today. Most moviegoers are not smart enough to get satire like “Strangelove” (note the performance of “In the Loop”) and people do not want messages with their silliness as in “Duck Soup”.






      “Mister Roberts” has four main characters. Roberts is the noble warrior wannabe who cares for the crew and battles with the captain on their behalf. The captain is an incompetent martinet. The Doc is wise. Ensign Pulver is comic relief as the wolf in sheep’s clothing. The rest of the crew are comfortable stereotypes. Although all the main characters have been seen before, they fit the plot perfectly.

      “Good Morning, Vietnam” has one amazing character – Cronauer. Of course, the character is actually Robin Williams playing himself, so a lot depends on if you like his schtick. Tuan is an interesting character as the Viet Cong friend. He puts a sympathetic face to the enemy. Hauk is crucial as the humor-impaired superior. Dickerman (the station manager) is a cliché of the villainous, stick in the mud officer (excuse me, non-com). The most unorthodox character is General Taylor who is not portrayed as incompetent or hide-bound. He is refreshingly open to Cronauer’s antics because it boosts morale.

First half score: Mr. Roberts - 42 Good Morning, Vietnam - 40


       “Mister Roberts” is not really a satire, it is more of a service comedy. There is some satire of the officer class, but it is subtle and obvious. No new ground is broken, but that was not the intention of the movie. The movie does not make you squirm and it has no message to convey. It is meant to entertain and does that admirably.

      “Good Morning, Vietnam” is not purely a satire, but it definitely has satirical elements. It has a martinet, old school superior (Dickerson) similar to the Captain in “Roberts”. We’ll call that a tie. GMV goes beyond MR by satirizing conservatives versus liberals and pro-war versus anti-war. Of course, the movie is clearly liberal and anti-war. When it’s not masquerading as a Williams’ stand-up act, it has some shots to take at the War, but I think most of its audience did not leave the theater thinking they had seen a satire.

Second half score: Mr. Roberts – 32 Good Morning, Vietnam - 35


This was a tough call. The movies are so different and both do their job well. Their main characters are equally strong. It comes down to the fact that GMV is funnier than MR and has more to say about the military and war. It is not necessarily a better film, it is simply a better war comedy.




STRIPES (8) vs. MASH (6)


       “Stripes” revolves around two screw-ups who do not adjust well to the Army. Winger (Murray) is a glib troublemaker and Ziskey (Ramis) is his smug straight-man. They remind me of Hope and Crosby. The rest of the unit are your typical heterogeously humorous mixture – the hick, the psycho, the jolly fat guy, etc. Capt. Stillman is from the officers are incompetent buffoons school. No extra points there. Sgt. Hulka is your typical Hollywood drill sergeant, but the movie deserves credit for pulling a character from a serious war movie (e.g., “Full Metal Jacket”) and not making him comical.

       “MASH” has more well developed characters. Hawkeye, Trapper John, and Duke are similar in their anti-military attitudes to Winger. The supporting characters are better developed than in “Stripes”. Major Burns and “Hot Lips” are good foils for the trio. Father Mulcahy, Lt. Col. Blake, and Radar are not as strong as in the TV series, but make more of an impression than most of Winger’s comrades.

First half score: MASH - 46 Stripes – 40


       “Stripes” is not a satirical film. It is mainly aimed at 14 year old boys and that audience is not known for getting satire. “Stripes” is low-brow humor and it is undeniably entertaining, but it has no important message to convey. With that said, it does poke fun at boot camp and incompetent officers. It also features an armored, multi-weapon RV designed for urban warfare. It is doubtful that the screenwriters meant that to be criticism of the Army’s Research and Development, however.

       “MASH” is a satirical, dark comedy. It is clearly anti-military. All the “positive” characters are unhappy with rules and regulations. All the “negative” characters (Burns, Hot Lips) are military toadies. The movie treats the Army apologists brutally. The movie uses the setting of a military hospital to criticize the insanity of war. The darkness is a deep shade of red.

Second half score: MASH - 45 Stripes - 33


      You can argue that “Stripes” is a funnier movie. Of course, that depends a lot on your tolerance for Bill Murray. However, this tournament is to determine the “best” war comedy, not necessarily the funniest. It is clear that “MASH” is a better movie. It is a more important movie and that deserves some consideration. The makers of “Stripes” would probably admit that they had no message to deliver and were not trying to make the greatest war comedy of all time.


MASH - 91




       “To Be Or Not To Be” has a variety of interesting characters. Josef Tura stands out as the hammy actor. His wife Maria is not exactly loyal to him, but she is bravely helping the Resistance. Sobinski is a bit boring as the Maria-infatuated pilot. Ehrhardt is the buffoonish Gestapo commander. Silitsky is appropriately slimy as the traitor.

       “Tropic Thunder” goes over the top with most of its characters. Speedman is the action star who is trying to revive his stalled career and is full of actor insecurities. Lazarus is the method actor who immerses himself in his role to the point of getting his skin tinted. Portnoy is the drug addicted funny man. The list goes on. Virtually every role is a parody.

First half score: To Be or Not to Be - 42 Tropic Thunder - 47


       “To Be or Not to Be” satirizes acting troupes and Nazis. That’s an odd combination, but it works well. Benny’s Tura pokes fun at many leading men and their enormous egos. His marriage to Maria is a satire of Hollywood marriages. The movie daringly makes fun of Nazis at a time when the Germans dominated Europe. It makes them malevolent, yet laughable.

       “Tropic Thunder” is a biting satire of actors also. It takes on several stereotypes as mentioned in the character section above. It paints with broad strokes, but there must have been some actors squirming when they watched it (I’m talking to you Schwarzenegger/Willis/Stallone and Crowe/Day-Lewis). The movie also brilliantly satirizes war movies, in particular Vietnam War movies like “Platoon” and “Apocalypse Now”.

Second half score: To Be or Not to Be - 44 Tropic Thunder - 48


       This is a battle between old school satire and modern satire. “To Be or Not to Be” was actually controversial when it came out. That is hard to believe today. It appears pretty tame compared to recent satires. In comparison, “Tropic Thunder” is the most recent film in the tournament. My how far war satire has come! Your opinion on which of these movies is a better comedy will tell a lot about your sense of humor and your age. In my opinion, the characters in TT are hilariously outlandish and that is acceptable in a satire. In addition, TT is the best (only?) satire of war movies and the skewering of sacred Vietnam War movies is spot on.




Monday, April 2, 2012

Dr. Strangelove (1) vs. 1941 (16)


       “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the Bomb” is a dark comedy set in the Cold War.  It was directed by Stanley Kubrick and released in 1964. An insane general launches a nuclear bomber attack against the Soviet Union to protect America’s “precious bodily fluids”. In the War Room, the President and his advisers try to prevent the Soviets initiating their “doomsday device” by recalling the B-52s or helping the Soviets thwart the attack.

       “1941” is a period comedy set in the week after Pearl Harbor. It takes place in California. It was directed Steven Spielberg and released in 1979. The plot revolves around a Japanese sub that is attempting to bombard Hollywood. There are several subplots including the stationing of an artillery piece in a families front yard, a love triangle between a tanker, a Zoot Suiter, and a dance hall girl, and a rogue fighter pilot searching for enemy aircraft. Mayhem ensues.


      “Dr. Strangelove” features a tour de force by Peter Sellers. He plays British Group Captain Mandrake, President Muffley, and ex-Nazi scientist Strangelove. It is an amazing performance and earned an Academy Award nomination.  (He lost to Rex Harrison of "My Fair Lady"!) He is ably supported by the supporting cast. George C. Scott plays the bellicose Gen. Turgidson. He was told by Kubrick to do over the top practice takes and then Kubrick used those takes in the film (much to Scott’s chagrin). Slim Pickens was told the movie was a drama which results in his scenes as Capt. “King” Kong on his B-52 being very taut.

       “1941” has a large cast of recognizable faces. It’s an odd mixture of dramatic actors trying to get in the spirit (Ned Beatty, Warren Oates, Robert Stack) and comedians trying too hard to stand out. It is obvious they are trying too hard. Noone stands out. John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd were given the meatiest roles, but both end up flailing about trying to overcome the weak script.  It gets to the point where Ackroyd's character suffers a concussion so he can spout gibberish. The stand-out performance is given by, believe it or not, Slim Pickens as the Jap captive Hollis “Holly” Wood.

First half score: Strangelove – 49 1941 - 35


       “Strangelove” is one of the most highly regarded Cold War satires. It was nominated for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar (losing to "Becket"!). It skewers the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction. It gleans laughs from the insanity of nuclear war. It is seldom laugh out loud funny and in fact parts are suspenseful. It is a classic of dark comedy. The best word to describe it would be “biting”.

       “1941” seems to have started out as a standard farce and then degenerated into a frantic, chaotic mess. The film gets off to a good start with a parody of the opening of “Jaws” (with the same actress) and includes a hilarious scene with “Holly” Wood on the Japanese sub. Most of the rest is forced. The dialogue is pedestrian and the second half substitutes physical mayhem for subtlety. There are several scenes reminiscent of the last part of “The Blues Brothers” – destruction as comedy.

Second half score; Strangelove - 44 1941 - 35


        This was a match-up between a classic comedy and a cult favorite. “Dr. Strangelove” is ranked #3 on AFIs list of 100 Greatest Comedies and is considered one of the most important war comedies ever made. On the other hand, “1941” was a miscue by Spielberg. It was generally considered a flop when it first came out and (just as with some other justifiably frowned on movies) has somehow been rehabilitated into cult status. It has its fans who find the desperate flailing attempts at humor to be amusing. However, no one in their right mind could argue it belongs in a conversation with “Dr. Strangelove”.

Dr. Strangelove   93
1941                    70