Thursday, June 28, 2012

200th POST!

This being my 200th post I thought I would revisit my first and edit it to reflect where I have ended up.

MISSION:  The mission I have undertaken is to watch and critique each of the films on Military History magazine’s list of the “100 Greatest War Movies” in reverse order.  I hope to watch one movie each week which means this project will take about two years.  Well, maybe not one a week, but I pledge to be consistent and finish someday.

THE LIST:  The editors of Military History magazine put together a diverse panel of experts which included historians and movie critics to determine the greatest war movies.  The movies that made the list reflect the full spectrum of films that could be described as war movies.  It includes spy movies, movies set on the home front, and even comedies.  “What lifts the films reviewed…at least a cut above the rest is the revealing light they shed on the paradoxes that shape human nature…. They take us to places where the reality and unreality of war intersect.”  These qualifications mean there are some movies on the list that many war movie fans will shake their heads at.  One of my goals as a war movie buff is to keep an open mind as I review the questionable inclusions on the list.  In other words, I will watch some movies that are not only not war movies but are terrible - all the way to the end.

MY QUALIFICATIONS:   I teach Military History at New Iberia Senior High School.  Sadly, the school no longer offers my course.  All I have now is this blog.   I created the course and used war movies as part of the course.  I have always loved military history and have read extensively in the field, both nonfiction and fiction.  I have been watching war movies since I was a child ( my favorite movie as a boy was “The Great Escape” ).  I have also read extensively on the subject of war films.  I have seen an enormous amount of war movies and had already seen most of the movies on the list.  I have the ability to determine what is Hollywood and what is real history by doing research.   

THE FORMAT:  I will watch one movie per week (or so) starting with #100 and working to #1.  I am on #34 (with only #37 - "Napoleon" unwatched.  Pat on the back)  My review will include back-story, the opening scene, summary,  the closing scene ( spoiler alert! ), and the critique.  I will grade the movie on action, acting, accuracy,  realism, and  plot.  Most importantly, I will weigh in on how accurate the movie is.  I will also include a section entitled “Would Chicks Dig It?” in which I will suggest whether women would like the film.  I will conclude with my opinion on how I would rate the movie and whether it deserves its spot on the list.  I welcome debate.

THE OUTCOME:  You and I (actually, just me) will adjust the list so it is the actual 100 greatest war movies of all time.  Later I will come up with a new list entitled The 100 Best Movies of All Time.  I mention you because I welcome your input.  I also welcome suggestions of what movies did not make the list, but should have.  I will watch these movies and let you know what I think.
ADDITIONAL FEATURES:  I will also be reviewing movies not on the Military History list in the following categories:
CRACKER?  -  movies that could end up on the 100 Best
SHOULD I READ IT?  -  foreign films with subtitles
WAR CHICK FLICKS - movies I watch (i.e. sit through) with my wife
BOOK / MOVIE - comparison of books and the movies based on them
CLASSIC OR ANTIQUE?  -  does an old movie hold up?
FORGOTTEN GEM?  -  obscure movies
NOW SHOWING -  movies I see in the theater
LIVE -  movies I review in stream of consciousness
Thanks to all my followers, especially Caroline.  Here's to the next 200.  I guarantee that will happen.  I love this project and I'll never run out of war movies.  I'll keep "War Birds" by the Sci-Fi Channel on my DVR just in case.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

CRACKER? Alexander

              In 2004, Oliver Stone released his take on Alexander the Great.  Historians and other intelligent people feared what the “JFK” director might do to another historical topic.  It turned out “Alexander” was closer in integrity to “Born on the Fourth of July”.  I would hate to think that was a reason why “Alexander” was a flop.  Perhaps people prefer outrageous raping of history as in “JFK” to bland retelling like in “Alexander”.
                The movie opens with a quote from Vergil – “Fortune favors the bold”.  However, the movie makes a stronger case that fortune favors the sexually dysfunctional.  The movie opens like many a biographical epic by depicting the death of Alexander (Colin Ferrell), thus preventing the terrible shock to the audience if the hero was to die at the end.  An old man, Alexander’s friend Ptolemy, narrates from here.  We find out that Alexander was the product of squabbling parents.  Philip (Val Kilmer) and Olympias (Angelina Jolie) are in lust, but definitely not in love.  Poor little Alex.  On the plus side, he does have the greatest tutor in history (Aristotle) and the best horse (Bucephalus).  After hitting these three points, the movie suddenly jumps to the final battle with the Persians – the Battle of Gaugamela.  Ptolemy uses a map to get us there, but neglects to mention that two major battles and a famous siege proceeded Gaugamela.
                The Battle of Gaugamela is the big set piece.  It is epic in scale as seen literally from an eagle eye’s view.  The battle is a mixture of accuracy, inaccuracy, and accurate, but wrong battle. The phalanx (portrayed by 1500 trained Moroccan soldiers) is authentic as are the weapons and equipment.  Philip’s scythed chariots are dealt with tactically using the disputed “mousetrap” tactic.  The movie shifts from right, center, to left so it can be confusing,  especially for a battle that is confusing even for military historians.  There is a lot of “fog of war” here, or I should say “dust of war”.   Alexander experts will sniff that he did not fight on foot, his life was not saved at this battle by Cleitus (that was Granicus), Alexander does not throw a spear at Darius III, and Darius escaped on a horse instead of a chariot (that was Issus).  Still, its an acceptable rendering of a complicated battle.
                From this peak the movie grinds to a halt in Babylon with a lengthy discussion between Alexander and his more than BFF Hephaestion (Jared Leto).  Hephaestion is less than thrilled when his boyfriend marries a seductress named Roxana.  The movie has Roxane working hard to kindle Alexander’s heterosexual urges when the reality was that Alexander was more asexual than anything else and lost interest in Roxane soon after the marriage.  She was more of sad lamb than the determined tigress of the film. 
                At this point, Stone jettisons the linear structure and begins to bounce around hitting some of the greatest hits of Alexander lore.  We get hits like:  the executions of Philotas and Parmenion, Philip’s wedding banquet, and the killing of Cleitus.  All of them are admirably accurate.
                This leads up to the other big set piece battle which is not identified but is obviously the Battle of Hydaspes in India.  For some reason (probably to contrast with Gaugamela’s dusty plains), Stone stages this in a  jungle instead of on open ground along a river.  This is not the only dubious decision.  The elephant charge on the phalanx is well done.  The combat is frenetic and chaotic.  Alexander leads the cavalry to the rescue when in reality the elephant-fearing horses had to be rescued by the steady foot soldiers.  The cinematography is blood tinged and the action is surrealistic.  The climax is Alexander’s duel with an elephant which results in his and Bucephalus being wounded.  In reality, Alexander took an arrow during a later siege and he did not agree to return to Babylon because of the close call with death.  The movie concludes with Alexander’s death.
                The movie did not deserve the critical beating it took.  Some of that was probably residual animosity towards the pompous Oliver Stone who is actually pretty restrained here.  The task he undertook was daunting.  Alexander deserves a mini-series instead of a greatest hits montage.  And by the way, who chose to leave out the “Gordian knot” episode?  The movie is flawed because of the overemphasis on Alexander’s sexuality, something that would have puzzled Alexander and the Macedonians in general.  The screen time given to Roxane and Olympias is overblown as are their depictions.  Obviously Stone forced Angelina Jolie into more than was justified (especially considering she stayed clothed).
                The all-star cast is a disappointment.  Colin Ferrell is not up to the task of portraying one of the most charismatic figures in history.  The best comparison would be to Brad Pitt in “Troy”.  Pitt was much better in playing a similar personality.  Val Kilmer and Angelina Jolie are almost stunt casting.  The sets (especially the palace in Babylon) are awesome and the costumes match them.  The score was forgettable.  The action is epic, but there is also a lot of exposition and soap operaish moments.
                Cracker?  Sorry, no.  Alexander is still awaiting a great movie.
Rating -  6/10

POSTER -  It does have some of the main characters featured prominently and Ferrell mimics the side profile that Alexander favored.  It's a bit busy though and some of the peripherals are unclear.  It does refelct the movie fairly well.  Grade - B
the trailer

Roxane dance scene


Sunday, June 24, 2012

#36 - Battleground

BACK-STORY:  “Battleground” was the first significant WWII movie to come out after the war and it proved there was still an audience for war films provided they were excellent and realistic.  The film wisely avoided the flag-waving of pictures made during the war.  Because of the timing and the grittiness, the studio was skeptical about its potential and it almost was not made.  The suits proved wrong as the movie was a huge hit and is now considered a classic.  It was released in 1949 and directed by William Wellman (“Wings”, “The Story of G.I. Joe”).  Robert Pirosh based the script on his own experiences in the Battle of the Bulge.  Twenty members of the 101st Airborne were used as extras. They were put through acting boot camp.  The film won Oscars for Cinematography and Original Screenplay (Pirosh).  It was nominated for Picture, Director, Editing, and Supporting Actor (James Whitmore).
OPENING:  A crawl quotes a German general in stating that Bastogne has to be taken for the German offensive to proceed.  This is the story of the “Battered Bastards of Bastogne”.  That story begins in an Army camp somewhere in France in December, 1944.  A replacement named Layton (Marshall Thompson) is thrust into a tent full of veterans.  This will be a small unit movie.  The unit is the typical mix of heterogeneous Hollywood soldiers:  the intellectual (Jarvess), the ladies’ man (Holley), the hick (Abner), the old dude (Pop), the Hispanic (Rodrigues), the malingerer (Kippton), the newbie (Layton), and the gruff sergeant (Kinnie).  Surprisingly, no one is from Brooklyn.
SUMMARY:  The members of I Company are looking forward to leave in Paris.  They are just as surprised as Eisenhower when the party-pooping Germans launch their offensive in the Ardennes Forest.  They pile into a trucks grumbling.  “We get all the dirty details”.  It really sucks for Pop (George Murphy) who is scheduled to go home.  He is joined in dead meat land by the guy who showed the picture of his wife and kids (Hanson).  On the way to Bastogne, they spent the night in the home of a buxom Belgium named Denise (Denise Darcel).  “Hubba, hubba” resounds through the theater.  Holley hits on her, naturally.  Will the movie overcome this forced attempt at sex appeal?
                Before leaving the town, the paratroopers have their obligatory encounter with demoralized retreating Americans.  The movie now adds “who will survive?” as a theme.  When they reach the outskirts of Bastogne, they are ordered to dig in.  Before finishing their fox holes, they are ordered to move and dig in again.  This is the Army, after all.  Soon the snow comes.  Rodrigues (Ricardo Montalban) is from California and is thrilled to see his first snowfall.  There is a brief, but realistic bombardment.  You can compare this to the effects in the “Band of Brothers” Battle of the Bulge episodes to see how far effects have come.  People sitting in a 1949 theater would have crapped in their pants.  One of the group, Bettis (Richard Jaekel), runs away and gets a cushy job in Bastogne slinging hash.  By now Layton has taken up smoking – Hollywood’s symbol of coming of age.
                A patrol is sent out and Rodrigues is wounded.  They are forced to leave him hidden in a snow fort under a wrecked jeep.  Wouldn’t it be ironic if he freezes to death in the wonderful snow?  The surviving members of the unit are now guarding a railroad line when they come under attack.  Holley, who is now in command, panics and runs but comes to his senses and sets up a flanking attack that gets pay back for the whittling down of the unit.  The fire fight is intense, but brief and the Germans give up too easily.
                The next scene is in the appropriately rubbleized Bastogne.  There is a ridiculous (but mercifully short) reunion with Chesty McBelgian that is used to show that Layton is not only a smoking veteran, but a “playa” as well.  If you’ve seen the “Bastogne” episode of “Band of Brothers”, you can guess what happens to the only female character.
                This being a movie about the Battle of the Bulge, the “Nuts” Reenactment Requirement Act of 1945 comes into play as the required reenactment of McAuliffe’s famous quote is thrown in.  The producers also complied with the amendment to the act which requires appearance of the Germans disguised as Americans causing trouble behind the lines.  The Germans drop propaganda leaflets similar to those dropped in “Pork Chop Hill”.  Give up and get hot chow!  Alas, no appearance by "Axis Sally". 
A chaplain conducts a mass for a group of soldiers (including a black!).  You may have heard there are no atheists in fox holes.  The theme of the sermon is “was this trip necessary?”  Answer:  yes.  Reason:  the Nazis started this war and thus we had to fight it to stop fascism.  By the way, it would be better to stand up to them earlier next time.  Do you hear me, Cold War America?  Amen.
Things are getting desperate.  Bastogne is bombed to rearrange the rubble and bring the ironic death of Bettis.  The men are down to their last bullets.  It’s beginning to have a Custer feel when suddenly the sun comes out, immediately followed by the air force.  C-47s air drop supplies.  Spam – are you f****** kidding me!  Oh, here’s some ammo, too.  Now we can counterattack through a montage using actual footage of Americans kicking ass.
CLOSING:  Spoiler alert:  we win the Battle of the Bulge.  Our surviving heroes (including the two dead meat candidates) wearily watch the reinforcements marching eastward.  They march westward singing about Jody (WWII soldier slang for home front Don Juans) stealing their girlfriends.  This brings the movie full circle from an earlier scene that seems to have inspired “Stripes”.
Acting -  8
Action -  5
Accuracy -  6
Plot -  8
Realism -  7
Overall -  7
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  It is a good, old-fashioned war movie.  That might appeal to some females, but probably they need to be over 50 years old.  There is nothing offensive in it, unless you consider the inclusion of a big-breasted blonde for obvious reasons to be offensive.  The cast is appealing.  Thompson and Johnson were the Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp of that time.  Okay, perhaps that is an exaggeration, but they were leading men and cute.
HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The movie is not meant to be about the Battle of the Bulge.  It is instead the story of the soldiers who fought in that battle.  In that respect it is accurate.  The soldier talk and grumbling is PG-13 authentic.  The little touches like digging a fox hole and then having to move and dig another one are realistic (but certainly not unique to the Battle of the Bulge).
                The movie is accurate in the general aspects of the unit's experience in the battle.  The 327 Gliderborne Infantry was rushed by truck to Bastogne.  It was stationed along the southern perimeter.  The German surrender ultimatum did come through its lines and it was a 327th officer who interpreted "Nuts!" to mean "Go to hell!" for the Germans. 
                The movie fails as a history lesson when it comes to the battle.  The Germans are too passive which results in a dearth of action.  The rare action scenes are too brief and too pat.  In reality the 327th had numerous intense fire fights and serious fighting defending the village of Marvie.  They sometimes confronted German tanks, a fact that the movie chooses to overlook.  The movie gives the impression that what the soldiers went through was not nearly as bad as it actually was.  The movie does accurately reflect the snow and the fear, but not the combat.  The movie implies that it was the sun and the spam drop that caused the Germans to give up.  There is no reference to Patton’s army cutting its way through to the town.  Lastly, contrary to the much deserved relief the survivors get at the end, the 327th was sent eastward as part of the American counterattack.
                The appearance of the German commandoes was obligatory because they were a fixture of the battle,  but inaccurate because they were nowhere near Bastogne.  The “Nuts!” incident is faithfully rendered, however.
                A minor quibble would be with the scene where the men throw away their gas masks as they enter the battle.  That would have occurred long before.
CRITIQUE:  The movie is very entertaining.  It achieves its objective of humanizing the soldiers.  The soldier interaction and talk are the best thing about the movie.  What they say and how they react are realistic given the restraints of 1940s movies.  None of the main characters are gung-ho.  They complain a lot.  They have a stock phrase – “I’ve found a home in the Army”.  They all have their moments of human weakness.  Several run away or think about running away at various moments.  As Jarvess (John Hodiak) says, “things just happen and then afterwards you try to figure out why you acted the way you did.”  The unit is slightly dysfunctional, but they are comrades.  This is not "Platoon".  It is much closer to "A Walk in the Sun".
                The movie has some themes.  One is the fog of war.  Jarvess sums up their involvement in the biggest battle in American History thusly:  “I guarantee my wife knows what’s going on in the battle.  All I know is what’s going on in the 2nd Squad of the 3rd Platoon of I Company." Veterans watching this movie in the theater must have nodded their heads in agreement. Another theme is the veteranization of Layton, but his taking up smoking and womanizing is too quick (compare this to the more realistic arc of Paul Baumer in "All Quiet on the Western Front").
                The greatest strength of the movie is the actors.  The ensemble is very likeable.  Several of the main characters have a trait that is endearing.  Abner sleeps with his boots off.  Kippton clicks his false teeth.  (Douglas Fawley lost his teeth to an explosion on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific.)
                The dialogue stands out as well.  Pirosh, being a veteran, knew how soldiers talked.  He obviously had to clean up the language, but he gets the complaining and humor down pat.  There is a cute running gag involving Holley and some eggs that taps into the futility of trying to live a normal life in war. These guys say some funny things which is appropriate because American soldiers have a reputation of maintaining their sense of humor in the most trying circumstances.  Here is an example:
Holley:  Yeah, they really shoulda sent out a bigger patrol.
Rodrigues: Do you want to goof off?
Holley: Who said anything about goofing off?
Rodrigues: Nobody. I'm just saying, the best way is to tell them you heard voices talking in German.
Jarvis: Let's say we heard voices talking in Japanese and let G-2 figure that out.
By the way, I just watched “MASH”.  It also won the Oscar for Best Screenplay.  However, much of the dialogue in that comedy was improvised by the actors.  Although the movie is funny, the funniest lines are coming from actors trying to be funny.  Army doctors in Korea were not that funny.  The “Battleground” actors are reciting dialogue from a veteran and it sounds more authentic.  It's not forced.
            The cinematography also won an Oscar, but the blending in of archival footage is not seamless.  Some of the real footage is mundane.  The producers made the decision to shoot the movie on a soundstage which is remarkably lifelike, but still obvious.  There is little sound track which is unusual, but refreshing.
CONCLUSION:  “Battleground” is fondly remembered by many war movie lovers.  Some have it in their top 10.  Some go so far as to call it superior to “Saving Private Ryan”.  When it came out in 1949, it certainly deserved the acclaim it received.  It’s now sixty years later and I have to say it is overrated.  The action is lacking and is unrealistic.  It has its charms and is a must see, but does not belong at #36.

POSTER:  I am trying out this new feature.  I have noticed that with many war movies you can't judge a film by its poster.  As a service to my public I will tell you how close the poster is to the actual movie.  This one is a howler.  First, Denise gets prominent placement in spite of her limited screen time.  Also, why is she wearing a ballroom dress?  Second, there are no helmet waving charges in the movie.  Third, are those two upper guys dancing a jig?  Lastly, the tag line of "the guts, gags, and glory of a lot of wonderful guys" is completely off message and must have caused Wellman to vomit.  Grade:  D

the Chaplain answers "what are we doing here?"

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Tora! Tora! Tora!

            “Tora! Tora! Tora!” is the epic retelling of the attack on Pearl Harbor told from both points of view.  It is from the war epic genre that includes The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far, and Midway .  It fits comfortably in that group, but differs from them because it is less character driven.  Of the group it has the most documentary feel and the most fidelity to historical accuracy.  It also does not have an all-star cast.
            TTT was released in 1970.  It was a joint American-Japanese project with separate directors and production.  The two separate “films” were then intertwined to create the finisled product.  The movie bounces back and forth between the opposing sides seamlessly.  The screenplay was written by two Japanese and an American, The screenplay was based on the eponymous nonfiction book by Gordan Prange and “The Broken Seal” by Ladislas Farago.  Prange vetted the script.  There were numerous technical advisors including Japanese who participated in the attack. TTT strives for authenticity, sometimes at the expense of entertainment.  The Japanese dialogue is subtitled which is helpful in understanding the Japanese psyche.
            The early part of the film details events leading up to the attack.  It is an excellent tutorial on the political and strategic machinations prior to the attack.  One flaw is the lack of a clear time line for events before Dec. 6.  The movie offers a brass-eye view from the governmental and military levels.  The main American characters are Gen. Short (Jason Robards) and Adm. Kimmel (Martin Balsam).  We also get a large dose of Yamamoto, Hull, Stimson, and Nomura.  The movie forgoes the grunt level characters like Duhon (A Bridge Too Far) or Garth (Midway).  There are no major fictional characters. 
            TTT fits in all the “greatest hits” of the Pearl Harbor story.  These include: the code-breaking effort, the radar pick-up, Taylor and Welch in their P-40s, the U.S.S. Ward versus the Jap sub, Dorie Miller, the Hull-Nomura interchanges.  Any fan of the battle will not be disappointed.  Fans of faux dramatics will be.  This movie is very different from “Pearl Harbor” in that respect.
Dorie Miller
            The attack is spectacularly done.  It features real planes.  B-17s and P-40s were available and American planes like T-6s were mocked up to play Zeros.  The stunt flying is well done.  The dog- fighting acrobatics are commendable, but you do get the fake looking shots from the front typical for air combat scenes from that era.  The attack on Hickam Air Field is noteworthy as is the explosion of the Arizona.  There are plenty of explosions in this movie, but that is appropriate of course.  The movie won the Academy Award for Best Special Effects.  It was a s good as you could get pre-CGI.
the attack on Hickam Field

            TTT resembles "The Longest Day" in its impartial treatment of both sides.  In fact, it could be argued it may be a bit too sympathetic to the Japanese.  The movie was a bigger hit in Japan than in the U.S. (where it bombed).  Contrast that with “Pearl Harbor”.  Another key theme is the rehabilitation of the reputations of Short and Kimmel who were made scapegoats in the aftermath of the disaster.  The movie makes a strong case for complacency being the major flaw of the American leadership. not malfeasance.  That plus the incredible luck the Japanese had.
            The obvious comparison is to “Pearl Harbor” and whichever one you prefer tells  a lot about you as a viewer.  If you are like me and prefer accuracy at the expense of entertainment, you would pick TTT.  I have to say that most of my students would prefer the more splashy (and pompous) PH and would find TTT boring, especially in the lead-up to the attack.  The best thing to do is to watch them as companion pieces.  You can avoid reading up on the attack if you take that approach.
Cracker?  Probably.
Rating - 8/10

Saturday, June 16, 2012

#38 - The Dawn Patrol

BACK-STORY:  “The Dawn Patrol” (1938) was a remake of a 1930 film and even uses a lot of the aerial footage from that film.  The plot is from the short story “The Flight Commander” by John Monk Saunders (who also wrote the “Wings” story).  It was the third teaming of Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn and once again they play antagonists.  Rathbone was a decorated WWI veteran and wore his decorations in the movie.  The film used 17 vintage aircraft (and 15 crashed during production).
OPENING:  The 59th Royal Flying Corps squadron is stationed at a base in France in 1915.  Col. Brand (Rathbone) awaits the return of a flight when he receives a call from headquarters.  Based on his end of the conversation, Brand is irritable, disillusioned, and insubordinate.  You know – a WWI squadron commander.  He counts the returning planes – 5 of 7.  Brand:  “You know what this place is?  It’s a slaughterhouse, and I’m the butcher.”
Scott and Courtney
SUMMARY:  Two survivors are BFFs Courtney (Flynn) and Scott (David Niven).  Who did we lose?  Oh well, let’s get drunk!  And let’s sing our favorite song:  “Hurrah for the Next Man Who Dies”.  However, when Courtney meets with Brand he is livid about Brand sending them on suicide missions.  The dude is just doing his job (like Savage in "Twelve O'Clock High").  They both draw their swords.  Oops, wrong movie.
                Replacements arrive.  Young, enthusiastic, naïve, cannon fodder.  They can’t wait to shoot down some Heinies.  Who needs training?  On the next mission, Scott is shot down.  This time Courtney is not in a partying mood.  His mood changes when the German who shot down his BFF arrives as a captive and being a fellow knight of the air and just doing his job, let’s party!  Hollister (who also had lost his best friend) accuses Courtney of crassness and tries to throttle the Hun.  Who is behaving more realistically?  Scott returns in the middle of the party.  Turn it up!
                A German plane drops a pair of boots with a taunting message.  Brand forbids Courtney and Scott to retaliate.  Would you believe they disobey him?  The raid on Von Richter’s field catches the Germans with their pants down.  You’d be amazed how many explosions a couple of WWI fighters can create.  After numerous strafing passes without a scratch, Courtney gets hit by ground fire and Scott lands and picks him up.  Then Scott gets hit and they crash in “no man’s land”.  You know, a typical day.
                When they return to base, Brand is chewing them out when a phone call arrives from a general in a chateau promoting him due to the success of the raid.  As if that is not satisfying enough, he can choose his replacement.  He gleefully bumps Courtney up to most-hated-man-in-the-squadron.  See how you like putting young men in “canvas coffins”. 
                Courtney quickly learns that command is a bitch.  He’s not the cool guy anymore.  When Scotty’s kid brother Donnie arrives as a typical gung-ho replacement, Courtney has to treat him like dead meat like everyone else.  Scott breaks their friendship over Courtney not showing favoritism toward his brother.  Courtney is now Brand, how ironic.
                On the next mission, Scott watches Von Richter shoot down Donnie.  Scott, who apparently is clueless about the dynamics of the war, calls Courtney a “butcher” and claims he killed Donnie.  Courtney points out accurately that it is a “rotten war”.
                Brand arrives with a big ole smile on his face.  The brass wants a suicide attack by one plane (?) on an ammo dump.  Scott volunteers, naturally.  Suddenly, Scott and Courtney are reconciled.  While Scotty catches some winks, guess who abandons his command responsibilities to steal the mission?
CLOSING:  Unfortunately for Courtney’s life expectancy, the entire German army is ready for him.  He drops a bomb on a train and blows it up.  That’s accurate for a fighter pilot!  Would you believe there are numerous explosions when he bombs the ammo depot?  I’m pretty sure he drops more bombs than his plane carries.  It’s dogfight time as Von Richter (boo! hiss!) arrives.  Courtney shoots down the not-the-Red-Baron, but is wounded and crashes.  Ladies, man your hankies.  Guess who is the new squadron commander?  New replacements arrive.
Acting -  9
Action – 7
Accuracy – 6
Realism -  7
Plot -  8
Overall -  8

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  Probably.  The cast is certainly appealing.  It is definitely not graphically violent.  However, there is not a single female character in the movie.
HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The movie does not claim to be based on true events.  There was a 59th Squadron, but it was a reconnaissance unit and it did not arrive at the front until 1917.  The incident where Scott and Courtney  attack the aerodrome is similar to the great Billy Bishop’s Victoria Cross exploit.  The nature of air combat is realistically portrayed.  Life expectancy was definitely low, especially for the new guys.  Based on my knowledge of WWI in the air, it seems that the scenarios and vibe would be better placed later than 1915.  The main problem with accuracy in the movie is the fact that the producers believe a fighter plane is the same thing as a bomber.  This seems to be a common misconception in WWI movies.  And some WWII movies, witness fighter jocks Rafe and Danny participating in the Doolittle Raid.
CRITIQUE:  If this movie was made today, it would be considered a comedy because of the clichés.  However, in 1938, it was breaking new ground.  It’s main themes are going to be reused in numerous other war movies.  One theme was the hard-drinking fatalism of the fighter pilots as seen in “The Longest Day”, “Fly Boys”, "Aces High", "The Blue Max", etc.  As the son of a fighter pilot (my father flew F-105s in Vietnam), I can attest to that mentality.  Another theme is the dead meat nature of replacements.  This cliché branched off into other services like the infantry in “Platoon”.  A third theme is the pressures of command and the stress of sending young men to their deaths.  See "Twelve O'Clock High" as the best example.  A similar theme is the insensitivity of higher command as seen in “Paths of Glory”.  The movie is not heavy-handed in pushing these themes.
                The movie holds up well.  Mush better than many old WWI movies.  The acting is outstanding.  Flynn and Rathbone were at the peak of their careers and Niven considered it the movie that gave his career a boost. With that said, his Scott’s reaction to his brother’s death did not ring true.  He would have known to blame the brass, not Courtney.  I especially liked Rathbone’s portrayal of the tormented Brand.  His change of personality when he no longer had to make life or death decisions was fun to watch.
                The cinematography is eye-opening.  The aerial scenes are well done although you have to give a lot of credit to the earlier film.  The vintage aircraft are obviously superior to modern CGI.  The air combat looks more realistic than in “Flyboys”, for instance.  The close-ups of the pilots are too clearly filmed in front of a screen, but this was common back then.  The sound is excellent.  The special effects (e.g., the explosions) are good for that era.  However, I have to say that the small bombs used in the film result in exaggerated explosions.
                The script and dialogue are good, but the movie is a bit predictable.  Courtney’s promotion and Donnie’s death are hardly surprises.  There are several scenes that strain credulity (e.g., the crash in “no man’s land”), but nothing that is LOL.  The movie is commendably anti-war and not propagandistic.  You have to admire the cynicism of a movie made with the U.S. moving closer to involvement in WWII.    At one point, Courtney describes the war as “a great big noisy rather stupid game that doesn’t make any sense at all.  None of us know what its all about and why.  Here we are going about it with hammer and tongs and I bet those fellows over there feel the same way.”  The treatment of the captured German pilot indicates this.  One wonders if the movie was made two years later, whether the movie could have had that camaraderie.
CONCLUSION:  “The Dawn Patrol” deserves its place on the list because not only is it an important film which created several air combat conventions, but because it is simply a good movie.  Some of the other movies that made Military History’s 100 Greatest list are important films (e.g., “The General”), but they are just not good movies.  “The Dawn Patrol” manages to influence future movies and fit comfortably into that future. 



Wednesday, June 13, 2012

CRACKER? The Eagle Has Landed

                “The Eagle Has Landed” is an action/adventure war movie released in 1976  It is firmly in the suicide mission subgenre.  It was directed by John Sturges ("The Great Escape") and was his last film.  It is based on the novel by Jack Higgins.   It opens with a reference to Otto Skorzeny’s daring rescue of Mussolini from captivity.  This inspires Hitler to try to capture “his greatest enemy” – Churchill.
                The head of military intelligence, Admiral Canaris (Anthony Quayle), is assigned the task of implementing Hitler’s dream.  He meets with an officer named Radl (Robert Duvall), but denigrates the whole fantasy and wants to just go through the motions.  However, Himmler (Donald Pleasence) gets involved and green-lights the project.  Radl warms to the possibilities when information arrives that Churchill will be visiting an isolated British village.  Radl chooses a decorated war hero named Steiner (Michael Caine) to lead the mission.
Steiner does not like Nazis
       We meet Steiner (the same Steiner who appears in "Cross of Iron") as he bucks authority by trying to save a Jewish woman from the S.S.  Steiner is insubordinate, anti-Nazi, anti-brass, cynical, and worshiped by his men.  He ends up getting court-martialed and he and his men are sent to a penal colony.  Similar to the plot of “The Dirty Dozen”, they are promised forgiveness if they undertake the suicide mission.  Radl also recruits an IRA operative named Devlin (Donald Sutherland) to participate.  He considers himself an Irish patriot, not a traitor.
                Devlin goes on ahead and makes contact with a sleeper agent, a woman named Gray.  He also meets and charms a lass named Molly (Jenny Agutter) who inexplicably falls so hard and so quickly that she kills her beau when he is going to rat out Devlin.  Granted, he was a lummox, but her treason for love is a bit too pat.
                Steiner and his men parachute into England dressed as Polish soldiers.  The sleepy villagers are welcoming and then grateful when one of the Germans saves the life of a local girl.  Unfortunately, the gratefulness is short-lived as the incident results in discovery of their true identities.  The populace is quickly rounded up and held hostage in the local church.  One of the townspeople manages to escape and goes up the road to inform an American Rangers unit led by a buffoonish Colonel Pitt (Larry Hagman)  His daddy must be a general.  He looks at the situation as a chance for glory and disregards the sane Capt. Clark’s (Treat Williams) advice to go slow.
a bazooka in a cemetery - shame
                Pitt does his Custer imitation resulting in a nicely staged fire-fight that features graphic wounds and lots of fireworks including some nifty bazooka work.  It’s a disaster and Pitt can’t even defeat Mrs. Gray.  His encounter with the spy has a twisted ending that almost compensates for the tomfoolery.
                Capt. Clark arrives with reinforcements and a brain, so now the German’s are trapped with the hostages in the church.  Steiner, being a human being, not a Nazi, releases the hostages.  Molly shows him a secret passage out of the church so he can go kill Churchill (the things a British girl will do for an Irish spy she just met).  Steiner’s crew offer to stay behind to delay the Rangers and provide us with more violence.  Devlin also escapes.
the last thing Churchill saw?
                Steiner, now disguised as an American, manages to get to Churchill.  Does he win the war for Germany?  Hey, if the Inglorious Basterds can kill Hitler, why not?
                “The Eagle Has Landed” is not on a level with “Guns of Navarone” or “Where Eagles Dare”.  It is even more implausible than most of the suicide mission subgenre.  The romance that is thrown in is ridiculous as well.  The acting is a strength.  Caine ably fills James Coburn’s shoes as Steiner.  He has a lot of charisma and it is easy to see why his superiors are enraged by him and his subordinates are willing to die for him.  Paired with “Cross of Iron”, Steiner is one of the great anti-heroes of war movies.  Quayle is good as Canaris and accurately portrays his disgust with Nazi schemes.  Although the movie is pure imagination, Canaris was a leading figure in the resistance against Hitler and even collaborated with the Allies.  His involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler cost him his life.  Devlin is a nice addition and offers a different perspective.  Sutherland plays him as a charming rogue.  The one false note is Hagman as Pitt.  The sudden injection of comic relief is a bit jarring in an otherwise serious movie.
                The movie was filmed in an English village, so the setting is picturesque.  The action set pieces are well done, but too brief.  The weapons appear authentic except the bazooka is a later model..  The score is typical for this type of movie.  It is satisfactory, but does not stand out like in “Where Eagles Dare”.  The intrigue is also inferior to WED.  It lacks real suspense.  You know Steiner will not hurt the hostages, for instance.  One questionable element is the introduction of American Rangers into a story that should have been limited to Germans and British.  This seems to be a marketing decision to help with the box office.  It is reminiscent of Sturges’ “The Great Escape” where three Americans characters were inaccurately added.  Can’t the British defend their own Prime Minister?  I suspect American’s would have been upset if a plot against FDR was foiled by British forces.
               In conclusion, "The Eagle Has Landed" is entertaining, but certainly not one of the 100 Best War Movies.  Kurt Steiner will have to be content with his "Cross of Iron" making the list.  But then again, he probably would not give a damn about such a list.
Rating -  6/10
Here is my updated ranking of the great suicide mission movies:
       1.  Where Eagles Dare
                2.  Kelly’s Heroes
                3.  Inglorious Basterds
                4.  The Dirty Dozen
                5.  Guns of Navarone
                6.  The Eagle Has Landed