Sunday, July 29, 2012

BOOK / MOVIE: Arrow in the Sun / Soldier Blue

                 The Western novel “Arrow in the Sun” by Theodore Olsen became the basis for the screenplay of a revisionist Western entitled “Soldier Blue”.  The movie was directed by Ralph Nelson and released in 1970.  The movie is a classic example of taking a book and then veering off the plot into totally new territory.  Or in this case, taking a book with one theme and turning it into a movie with a totally different theme.
                “Arrow in the Sun” is a revisionist tale in that its heroine is far from the typical Western female.  Cresta Lee has been held by the Cheyenne Indians for two years before escaping.  She is being transported to Fort Reunion to be reunited with her fiancé, a cavalry officer.  She is part of a paymaster convoy that gets ambushed by warriors led by her “husband” Spotted Wolf.  She escapes and is joined by the only soldier survivor – Private Honus Gant.  While Honus is a typical Victorian Age male, Cresta is decidedly not a typical female.  She accepted captivity without either going insane, rebelling, or going native.  She did what she had to do to keep Spotted Wolf happy - you can figure that out for yourself.  She plotted for two years to get away.  That’s not the only plotting.  Her engagement to Capt. John McNair is not for love, it’s for money and status.  But that’s not the most feminist thing about her.  She speaks her mind and not in ladylike language.  She is obnoxious and abrasive.  And very sexy in a feral way.
                The arc of the Honus/Cresta relationship breaks no new ground, but Cresta does not go mushy quickly.  The first half of the book reads like a buddy story.  They are trekking through the wilderness to try to reach Fort Reunion when they encounter an old coot named Cumber who they discover is an arms dealer who is going to trade Winchesters for the paychest Spotted Wolf took in the ambush.  In the process of escaping Cumber, Honus is wounded and they end up hiding in a cave.  Cresta reluctantly nurses Honus back to health.  Reluctantly because she is a survivor and he is cramping her style.  Sparks begin to fly, naturally.
                Honus insists Cresta continue on to the fort to report Cumber’s activities.  She runs into a cavalry patrol which includes her fiancé, who surprisingly is not the jerk you assume he will be.  In fact, he is the only fiancé/husband I have ever encountered in this type of story who is willing to overlook his girl’s sexual history with Native Americans.  He’s even willing to accept that she was marrying him for nonromantic reasons.  What’s not to like about this guy?
                The novel lurches back into predictability as Cresta is recaptured by Spotted Wolf and rescued by Honus.  In between the Indians ambush McNair’s unit and surround them on a hill.  Cumber arrives to aid his customers and things look bleak.  We get the only appearance of Coehorn mortars that I have ever encountered in a Western.  Which of her suitors will Cresta choose?
                The movie starts out as a standard retelling of the novel.  The opening ambush is essentially the same with only minor differences.  Cresta (Candice Bergen) has saltier language (the first thing we hear from her is “Don’t just stand there, get your ass up here.”), but is not as prickly and domineering as in the novel.  Honus (Peter Strauss) is the same stick in the mud as in the book.  The movie begins to veer away from the book with its theme of mistreatment of Native Americans.  Cresta represents the “it’s their land and whites commit atrocities, too” school.  She wants the Indians to get the Winchesters.  Honus is your patriotic supporter of Indian policies.  He goes so far as to call Cresta a traitor.
                After a faithful rendering of the Cumber affair and the cave incident, the movie loses all contact with the book because director Ralph Nelson has some messaging to do.  Cresta goes off and runs into a much larger unit than in the book.  McNair is more of a horny milquetoast.  The unit is led by a John Chivington-like “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” type who is on a  mission to destroy Spotted Wolf’s camp.  Cresta escapes to warn the Cheyenne and they and Spotted Wolf welcome her back with open arms (unlike in the book where she is bound and threatened).  Bizarrely, Spotted Wolf insists on maintaining the peace (that he broke by massacring the paymaster detail).  He rides out with an American flag (soon to be trampled by the whites, get it?) and white flag, but Colonel Iverson (John Anderson) opens fire with cannons, defeats the Indians in dueling cavalry charges (the type of thing that never happened in the West), and assaults the village.  This scenario is almost completely opposite of what happens in the book because the good guys and bad guys are reversed.  The resulting cinematic massacre is rife with atrocities that were hard core for a 1970s movie.  (The movie was billed as “The Most Savage Film in History”.)  There are rapes (full frontal female nudity), beheadings, dismemberments, etc.
                The movie is interesting in its defiance of conventions.  It turns Westerns on their head by having the cavalry ride to the atrocity instead of to the rescue.  (In this respect it is similar to another 1970 film – “Little Big Man”.)  These troopers revel in their bestiality in a cartoonish way, but their behavior and actions are probably not that far from the Sand Creek Massacre that the movie admits to reenacting.  Informing the public about that “foulest crime in the annals of America” is commendable and basically accurate ( exceptions being there was no cannon fire and the Indians did not charge the cavalry).  Nelson throws in a “women and children in the ravine” segment that may or may not hearken to the My Lai Massacre.  The Cresta character is also revisionist and is actually less accurate than the depiction of the Sand Creek Massacre.  I doubt there was a single female in the Old West that she represents.  In this case, we have a character that is anachronistic.  Speaking of which, the Indians are like hippies.  This is emphasized by the ridiculous opening song by Buffy Sainte-Marie.  At least you know where the movie is coming from before the credits are done.
                My avowed theory is that most movies based on books are improvements over the book because competent screenwriters and directors should be able to improve on the story.  It is hard to judge these two because the movie decides to go off on a tangent to deliver a different message than the book.  I found the characters and dialogue in “Arrow in the Sun” to be superior to the movie.  The movie’s decision to make the final act historical is a plus as far as I’m concerned.  The movie also is more revisionist than the book.  The only thing unorthodox about the novel is the Cresta character (and I suppose I’d have to say McNair is a surprise).  The love triangle is much more intriguing than in the movie.
As far as which is superior, I’m going to go with “Soldier Blue” because it is an important departure from the Western genre.  Having read a lot on the Indian Wars, I can empathize with an attempt to show the other side of the coin.
RATINGS -  Arrow in the Sun =  C
                       Soldier Blue =  B   
the trailer

TRAILER -  The trailer does preview the buddy/romance nature of the film.  Cresta's personality comesout clearly.  The revisionist nature of the film is hinted at.  There is little preview of the second half which involves the assault on the village.  There is some allusion to the atrocities, but no context.  You also get a mercifully short taste of the theme song. 
grade =  B

                    the massacre scene

Thursday, July 26, 2012

#32 - The African Queen (1951)

POSTER -  The central figures are straight off a Harlequin romance.  They must have posed on the first day of filming.  The rest of the poster is too busy and confusing.  Even if you've seen the movie, it's hard to tell what is being referred to.  If you haven't seen it, you would assume the movie is about a shipwreck.  Grade =  D

BACK-STORY:   “The African Queen” had one of the most famous productions in cinema history.  Director John Huston insisted on filming half the movie on location in Uganda and the Congo.  The production was beset by climate, critters, and diseases.  Virtually the entire cast and crew suffered from ill health (ex. dysentery) with the notable exceptions of Huston and Humphrey Bogart who inoculated themselves with copious amounts of alcohol.  The teetotaler Katharine Hepburn later wrote of enjoying the experience, but had to overcome dysentery, drunken pranks from Bogart and Huston, and Huston’s unique directing style.  (Clint Eastwood later made a film about the production entitled “White Hunter Black Heart”.)  The movie was a big hit with audiences and critics.  It turned out the suits that felt an action / romance about an older couple would be icky were wrong.  Bogart won his only Oscar and the film was nominated for Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Actress.  In the most recent AFI ranking of the best movies it placed #65.
OPENING:   The movie is set in German East Africa in 1914.  Missionary Samuel Sayer (Robert Morley) and his sister Rose (Hepburn) are conducting a mass for villagers when a rickety old boat captained by Charlie Allnut (Bogart) arrives.  The subsequent tea with the straitlaced Sayers is made more awkward by Allnut’s growling stomach.  Charlie informs them the war is on which they don’t seem concerned about until the Germans almost immediately arrive and conscript the villagers, burn the village, and beat up Samuel who suffers a nervous breakdown and dies soon after.  When Charlie returns he helps bury the missionary and puts Rose aboard.
SUMMARY:  It doesn’t take long for the feisty Rose to make the ridiculous suggestion they go down the river to the lake to attack the German warship Louisa.  Off the top of her head she comes up with a plan to turn the African Queen into a torpedo delivery system.  (Apparently even missionaries day dream during their brother's sermons.)  Charlie grudgingly gives in to her stronger personality and they start on their adventure.  He figures she will see reason when they run the first set of rapids, but they only exhilarate her.  Charlie reacts by getting drunk, but awakens to Rosie pouring out his entire stash (see the clip below) and reminding him that he promised her to give the mission a shot.  The silent treatment wears him down quickly and he cleans up his act.  A little too pat, but it’s a movie.
ladies, do you look at your man like this?  you should
                The next problem is passing by a German fort that frowns on the river.  They survive gunfire with minor damage to the boat.  (Later, the audience must survive Bogart mugging at various animals.  Comic relief from Bogie!)  Next are bigger rapids which results in an awkward kiss that when paired with the moony eyes (see above) and the schmaltzy music reminds us we are watching a 1950s movie.  Soon after Rose is butt naked and doing the nasty with Charlie (or at least that is what I was imagining during the fade).  They come out of the fade fully in love (see poster).
                Here comes a waterfall that for some reason riverboatman Charlie was not aware of.  The boat propeller and shaft are damaged.  There is a great conversation where they calmly discuss repairing the boat.  They are now partners.  They work together to do the repairs.  For a missionary's sister, Rose is very game.  She's like Ripley's grandma.
soon after the woman started steering, the boat crashed
                Pressing on, Charlie has to literally pull the boat through a marsh.  A leech-infested marsh!  Ewwww, says the audience.  Tragically, the movie ends with them running aground unable to move forward or backward.  Unless a sudden rainstorm raises the water level they will die in each other’s arms and become crocodile food.  Is that thunder?
                Hiding in the reeds they spot the Louisa and move on to the plan implementation stage.  They make the torpedoes out of oxygen cylinders.  It turns out Charlie has a green thumb for homemade ship killers.  They fix the boat so when it rams the Louisa it will take both ships down.  Piece of suicidal cake.
CLOSING:  Their night kamikaze mission is literally overturned by another storm and Rosie is drowned (or so the idiots in the audience are led to believe).  Charlie is captured and interrogated by the Germans on the Louisa.  Since he does not care to live now that Rosie is dead, he cops to everything and is sentenced to be hanged.  Rosie is then fished out and she defiantly corroborates the story.  Their last request is for the Captain to marry them (with the nooses in the background).  As they say “I do”, so does the African Queen as it resurfaces in the path of the Louisa.  The ships kiss too.  It’s explosive!  Charlie and Rosie go swimming off into wedded bliss (hopefully with no crocodiles involved).
Acting -  A
Action -  6/10
Accuracy -  N/A
Realism -  B
Plot -  A
Overall -  A-

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?   I would think so.  It’s not a testosterone fueled war movie.  It’s more of a romance with adventure thrown in.  The leads are amazing and the chemistry is great.  There is certainly nothing to turn anyone’s stomach.  (I did mention that Hepburn does not get naked, right?)  I must have been an almost perfect date movie for the 1950s.
HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The film is not based on a true story.  There is a small seed that might have grown into C.S. Forester’s novel.  The Germans had a warship named the Graf Von Gotzen that dominated Lake Tanganyika until pressure from the British caused them to scuttle it.
                In comparing the movie to the book, it appears the plot of the movie improved on the book.  I have not read the book, but a summary of its contents finds that the film sticks close to the book.   The few changes enhance the story.  For instance, in the novel the Germans do not beat Rose’s brother so she has less reason for vengeance.  The ending is vastly improved.  Forester’s conclusion is weak and would definitely not have been crowd-pleasing.
CRITIQUE:  This is old fashioned entertainment.  It’s an almost perfect blend of adventure and romance.  There is suspense in each of the travails they go through and it builds to a surprising and satisfying ending.  Although a little stodgy, the plot holds up better than some other supposed classics.  The acting by the two leads could not be better.  This is probably Bogart’s best performance and Hepburn matches him.  In her book about the making of the movie, Hepburn tells that Huston felt that she was playing Rose as too serious.  He suggested she channel Eleanor Roosevelt and adopt her hopeful smile.  She admitted this was the best acting advice she ever got (and from a man she thought at the time was off his rocker).  Bogart and Hepburn appear to be having a lot of fun with their roles (although Bogart hated the comfortless African locales and couldn’t wait to get home).
                The plot has some refreshing unorthodoxy to it.  Rose and Charlie may have a disagreement about the wisdom of the mission at the beginning, but they are not at each other’s throats like in most romances of that (and this) era.  The opposites attract angle is there, but it’s not overemphasized.  The arc of the romance is a bit simplistic and speeded up, but it’s not mushy.  However, it does fit comfortably into the "shared hardships bring people together” school.  Making Rose the more dominant personality is a nice touch, but it is diluted a bit by the obvious Bible defeats booze theme.   The success of the mission, while predictable, takes some interesting turns that could not have been anticipated.  The theme of the movie is where there’s a will there’s a way.  Throw in a little "God helps them that help themselves".   
                The cinematography is not mesmerizing.  It’s adequate and some credit must go to the difficult conditions much of the movie was shot in.  The film does have more flora and fauna than your typical Tarzan movie.  You will see hippos, apes, elephants, crocodiles, giraffes, lions, and antelopes.  And, of course, leeches.  Surprisingly, there are no problems with animals (even when Charlie taunts them).  Charlie does not have to wrestle a crocodile.  They catch hell from the leeches and mosquitoes.  The scenery is beautiful, making the decision to shoot in Africa a wise one.  The one flaw is the pompous score.  It really is intrusive at times.  Give us a break, we know how to feel!
CONCLUSION:  While undoubtedly a classic, “The African Queen” does not sit comfortably at #32.  This is mainly because I am not sure it is a war movie.  Two of my three main sources (Video Hound and Freitas) do not have it.  I know it fits even my definition of a war movie, but there is just something about it that does not make me see it as a war movie.  By contrast, I would compare it to "Casablanca" .  While “Casablanca” has no warlike action like the sinking of a warship, it feels much more like a war movie.  To tell the truth, neither movie is solidly in the genre.  What’s puzzling is that Military History magazine determined both to be war movies and then put “Casablanca” at #65 and “The African Queen” at #32.  This is perplexing because not only is “Casablanca” more of a war movie, but it is clearly the better movie.  It is #3 on AFI’s latest list of the Top 100 of all time.  And if you are defining "greatest" as synonymous with "important", "Casablanca" would have to come before "Queen".  So once again, what was Military History thinking?

the trailer

TRAILER -  Definitely old school.  Does a good job on the relationship, but you get no idea of the mission to sink the Louisa.  You also get a taste of the score.  B+

Bogart acting (?) drunk

Saturday, July 21, 2012

SHOULD I READ IT? Flame and Citron

                “Flame and Citron” is a Danish film directed by Ole Christian Madsen and released in 2008.  It was the most expensive Danish film to date.  It is a fictional retelling of the Danish Resistance heroes Jorsen Haagen Schmith and Bent Faurshoud-Hviid.  The movie was nominated for numerous awards and is critically acclaimed.
                The movie is set in Copenhagen during World War II.  It is “based on actual events”.  When Denmark fell to the Nazis, most Danish wanted to cooperate with the occupation and not makes matters worse.  Some even collaborated and Danish Nazis “came in out of the dark”.   A few wanted to resist, but this resistance mainly took the form of revenge against collaborators.  Jorsen, nicknamed Citron (Mads Mickelson), and Bent, nicknamed Flame (Thure Lindhardt), are assassins for a Resistance group.  Flame, the 23 year old red head, is the shooter.  We first meet him as he splashes a guy’s brains over a portrait of Hitler.  He is cold blooded, but his narration indicates a need to justify his actions.   Citron, the schlubby family man who sweats a lot, is the driver.  He is a terrible husband and father because he is obsessed with the cause.  He starts off as  a reluctant killer.  The first time he volunteers to kill a woman, Bent has to finish her off.  The movie pulls no punches in its violence.  They have a bête noir in the local Gestapo chief Hoffman (Christian Berkel).

                Things get complicated when they are ordered by their superiors to start targeting Germans.  Previously all their victims had been “traitors”.  To make matters fuzzier, Flame meets a possible femme fatale named Ketty (Stine Stengade) who may be a double (or triple) agent.  Some of the killings are messy and some create doubts in their minds.  Are some of the victims innocent?  Are they being used?  Who can they trust?  When the killings of Germans results in retaliatory executions of civilians, their handlers order them to stop, but Flame and Citron are determined to get revenge.  The cat and mouse with Hoffman continues.  Members of their cell are being ratted out by an informer.  Is the informer Ketty?  Spoiler alert: the last paragraph picks up from here.

Hoffman and Flame
                “Flame and Citron” is a welcome addition to the WWII Resistance subgenre.  It tells the story of a duo who are famous in Denmark, but probably unheard of in most other countries.  I know I had never heard of them even though President Truman posthumously awarded Flammen the U.S. Medal of Freedom in 1951.  I am partial to movies that shed light on people or events that deserve recognition, especially if they don’t mess with the facts much.  It is hard to judge the accuracy of the movie.  My research did not find enough details to weigh in on all the incidents.  Some of the scenes seem far-fetched.  The idea that Flame would be sent to kill his known girlfriend Ketty seems like a ludicrous decision.  Their escape from the Gestapo strains credulity.  Ketty’s relationship with Hoffman is too predictably a love triangle.  Flame did have flaming red hair, but I find it hard to believe that one of the most wanted men in Denmark walked the streets with impunity like in the movie.
               There was a Resistance group called Holger Danske.  It was started by veterans of the Winter War in Finland.  They did concentrate on Danish collaborators and killed over 200.  They also participated in around 100 acts of sabotage.  At least 64 members were executed by the Gestapo during the war.
                The movie is thought provoking.  Bent is sent to kill a man named Gilbert.  Gilbert opines that there are three reasons to fight in a war:           1.  Career opportunity.  These types do not make good soldiers because they are very interested in survival.  A good soldier should be willing to give up his life.  2.  Patriotism or ideology.  These types tend to burn out, but the fanatics make good soldiers.  3.  Hatred of the enemy.  “Hate seduces you into doing things you never thought yourself capable of.”  (This may foreshadow why when Ketty says that she just wants to survive later in the movie, it’s a sign that she was in it for the money.)
                The basic theme is the lack of black and white in war, especially in resistance efforts.  Flame and Citron may have killed innocent people.  Some of what they did may not have been justified.  It is interesting how they react to this.  Bent begins to have doubts and Jorgen gets more hardline.  Or is this due to Flame’s love life progressing and Citron’s marriage collapsing?  Another theme is you can’t trust anyone, except maybe your best friend.
                The movie is well made.  Kudos to Madsen.  The cinematography is part of the entertainment.  You are aware of the craftsmanship.  Many shots are off center.  It is not pretentious.  The lighting is also noticeable.  The score is understated and fits well.  The acting is very good.  Both leads have great presense and chemistry.  The movie is a bit wordy, but the dialogue is realistic.  The action is consistent and has some graphic violence.
Grade -  B+
                In conclusion, “Flame and Citron” is one of the best of the Resistance subgenre.  Often compared to “Army of Shadows”, it is a better movie.  Of the movies of this type that I have reviewed since launching this blog, here are my rankings:

1.        Army of Crime

2.        Flame and Citron

3.        Black Book

4.        Army of Shadows           

                CLOSING:  Flame and Citron are arrested on the way to another try on Hoffman.  Jorgen tries to jump a fence and is shot, Bent walks away in the confusion.  Jorgen pulls a gun and somehow gets away from the ambulance and next we see him at a safe house.  Cut to Bent who is in a similar situation and both are surrounded by the Germans.  Bent takes cyanide, but Jorgen gets to have a bullet-infested shootout.  He’s Butch Cassidy without the Sundance Kid.  Don’t ask why the Germans unstealthily, prematurely open fire.  He does not win, but takes a lot with him.  They have come full circle from Flame being the enthusiastic assassin and Citron having never killed anyone.   As a postscript and to make it perfectly clear, Hoffman gives Ketty the $20,000 reward.  As to the historical accuracy of the ending, it is substantially correct.  The deaths are authentic.  Madsen’s decision to take a firm stand on the “did she or didn’t she” issue seems to be on firm ground based on research he did.
POSTER:  Doesn't really tell you what the movie is about, but I suppose Danes would already know.  Flame lighting a cigarette is certainly a preview of a common visual.   B

TRAILER:  Excellent.  A+


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

#33 - M*A*S*H (1970)

BACK-STORY:  M*A*S*H” is a Robert Altman film released in 1970.  It is loosely based on the novel by Richard Hooker.  The screenplay was by ex-blacklistee Ring Lardner, Jr.  He was upset with the liberties (ex. improvisations) Altman took with the script, but still accepted the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.  Lardner was not the only one upset with Altman.  Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould tried to get him fired because they did not like his gonzo directing style.  Altman also had trouble with the suits.  They wanted him to take out the graphic operation visuals, but backed down partly because they were distracted by their two big projects – “Patton” and “Tora! Tora! Tora!”.  The studio did succeed in insisting on references to the Korean War be inserted into the film so noone would mistake it for Vietnam.  Mission not accomplished.  14 of the top 30 actors were making their movie debuts.  The film was a smash hit as it tapped into the iconoclastic mood of the early 70s.  It was nominated for five Academy Awards (Picture, Director, Screenplay, Editing, and Supporting Actress – Sally Kellerman).  It won the Golden Globe for Best Comedy or Musical.  It won the Palme D’Or at Cannes.  It is #54 on the AFI list of all movies and #7 on the Comedy list.
OPENING:  The movie opens with “Suicide is Painless” as helicopters bring wounded in.  (The song’s lyrics were written by Altman’s fourteen year old son and he made over $1 million in royalties.  His father made $75,000 for the film.)  There are quotes from MacArthur and President Eisenhower to tell us it’s the Korean War.  Hawkeye  (Sutherland) and Duke (Tom Skerritt) are new surgeons who “borrow” a jeep to establish themselves as anti-heroes.  They arrive at the 4077 Mobile Army Surgical Hospital and immediately start rocking the boat and flirting with the nurses.
SUMMARY:  Hawkeye and Duke are assigned to a tent with Maj. Burns (Robert Duvall).  He is tutoring a Korean boy named Ho-Jon on the Bible.  Burns comes off as a Jesus freak which is like waving a red cape in front of Hawkeye and Duke.  They substitute a girlie magazine for the Bible and change Ho-Jon’s life.  Even worse, Burns does not drink!  He’s got to go.
                The first trip to the operating room is graphic, bloody (as in spurting from an artery), and realistic.  It turns out that Hawkeye and Duke may be reluctant soldiers, but they are excellent doctors (unlike Burns).  When a patient is ready to be stitched up, one of the other doctors says to “make the stitches bigger” because he’s just an enlisted man.  The movie is more anti-military than anti-war.
                Trapper John (Gould) arrives (with olives for their martinis) and now it’s a trio of frat boys.  Also arriving is Maj. Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) who turns out to be a no-nonsense head of nurses who is proudly regular army.  Naturally, she hooks up with the other lifer – Maj. Burns.  Their first sexual encounter is broadcast to the camp via a hidden microphone and earns Houlihan the nickname “Hot Lips”.  Subsequently, Hawkeye goads Burns into swinging at him and he is discharged in a strait-jacket.   Score one for the atheistic misanthropes.
The Last Supper
                The next episode revolves around the dentist “Painless Pole” (John Schuck) who wants to end it all because he has discovered that he is a “fairy” because he could not “perform” last time out (or in).  Altman stages Painless' last supper as “The Last Supper”.  They even break bread.  It’s a really cool visual and surprisingly not overtly anti-religion.  Painless takes the “black capsule”,  but he is “revived” by nurse “Dish” (Jo Ann Pflug). 
waiting for Hot Lips to reveal her true color
                A bet about whether Hot Lip’s carpet matches her drapes results in the famous shower scene where she is humiliated in front of the whole camp, including her nurses.  By the way, although Duke wins the bet, she falls to the floor so quickly noone could have been able to tell.  (I should know -  I rewound the segment twenty times to be sure.)  Houlihan confronts Col. Blake (Roger Bowen) and yells “this is not a hospital, it’s an insane asylum!”  In spite of this, Hot Lips loosens up and even starts an affair with Duke.  This character development makes no sense.
                Hawkeye and Trapper John make a trip to Japan as “the pros from Dover” to play golf.  Oh, and they also operate on a Senator’s son while they are there.  Of course they step on the toes of the hospital administrator (representing the studio heads?), but he backs off after they drug him and take blackmailing pictures of him with a naked Japanese woman.  In this movie it is acceptable to humiliate people if they are incompetent squares. 
Hawkeye, a flunky, and Trapper John
                Blake makes a bet with a general about the outcome of a football game between the MASH unit and the general’s team.  The scenario is reminiscent of “The Longest Yard”.  They bring in a neurosurgeon who played in the NFL as their ringer.  He is nicknamed “Spearchucker” (groan) and is played by ex-NFLer Fred Williamson.  The game is a good climax for the film.  There is a lot of slapstick and silliness  Some of it comes from Hot Lips who is now completely on the side of the boys who humiliated her.  (Duke must be a great lover.)  Schuck ad-libbed the first use of the word “fuck” in a major motion picture.  (“All right, Bud, this time your fucking head is coming off”.)   They win the game using the old "center eligible, hidden ball” trick.
CLOSING:  Duke and Hawkeye go home.  Pretty anticlimactic – just like the Korean War.
Acting -  A
Action -  N/A
Accuracy -  A
Realism -  B
Plot -  B-

Overall – B+

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?     The movie is pretty sexist in its depiction of the nurses.  The doctors do not have much trouble seducing them.  Although this may have been realistic, it still could be off-putting.  It’s not your typical adrenaline fueled war movie.  The operating room scenes are not for the squeemish.

ACCURACY:  The movie does not purport to be a true story, but the novel is semi –autobiographical so we can assume the operating room scenes are authentic.  The episodes (ex. the football game, the trip to Japan) seem made up.  The movie conforms to the book for the most part.  All of the major episodes are in the book, but improved upon in my opinion.  For instance, Painless Pole is suffering from a periodic bout of depression and does not have sex with a nurse to cure it.  The movie also leaves out some of the weaker parts of the book so it is superior to its source.  In the book, the trio are meaner drunks than in the movie.

CRITIQUE:  MASH is a movie that defies conventions.  It mixes realism with dark humor.  Much of the dialogue was improvised which you would not realize by watching the movie.  Altman likes to overlap the dialogue, especially in the operating scenes.  This makes the movie seem more intelligent than it is.  The cinematography is also noteworthy.  Altman uses a lot of fly on the wall shots.  Some of these shots are long range and static.  This is seen best in the “Last Supper” scene.  We are put in the middle of the action in the operating room scenes.  Action and dialogue swirl around the viewer.   
                The movie made a big splash with the Vietnam anti-war movement, but there is little in the dialogue that criticizes war.  The movie is definitely anti-war in the operating room simply because the audience gets to see the results of combat.  The insanity of war does come through.  For the most part it is more of an anti-military film.  All the negative characters are loyal to the Army and want to follow its rules.  A corollary to that is the anti-authority theme.  Most of the authority figures are incompetent and deserve to be taken down.  Perhaps not surprisingly,  Altman does not give the trio a competent foil.  Contrast this with Col. Potter in the TV series.  On the other hand, Hawkeye, Trapper John, and Duke are anti-heroes typical of 70s counterculture flicks.  As a teacher (and not an incompetent one), I have had students like them and they are much more fun on a movie screen than in a classroom. 
                The movie is episodic in structure.  Altman arrived at the loudspeaker announcements as bridges to the new episode.  This device works, but the announcements are overrated as humor.  Speaking of humor, the movie does have some great one-liners.  However, much of the humor is crass and mean.  Some it would be considered politically incorrect today.  You have characters named “Spearchucker” and “Dago Red” and a scenario where a dentist would rather be dead than gay.  The movie is also anti-religion, but Father Mulcahy (Rene Auberjonois) comes off well.  He even gets the best line.  When Hot Lips asks rhetorically (about Hawkeye): "I wonder how such a degenerated person ever reached a position of authority in the Army Medical Corps."  Mulcahy dead-pans:  "He was drafted".
               Many war movies would be better if remade because of the lowered constraints on language and violence.  This movie is not one of them.  It is perfect for its time.
CONCLUSION:   M*A*S*H is a unique movie.  MASH is one of the great war comedies and an important one.  It may be second only to “Dr. Strangelove”.  It certainly was unlike any other war comedy made before it.  There are few war movies that concentrate on military medicine, much less of the dark humor variety.  (Interestingly, there is another Korean War movie set in a military hospital – “Battle Circus” (1953).  I have not seen it yet but I’m betting there’s a generation between them.)  I have to say I think "MASH" is overrated.  The Vietnam War generation is very protective of it.  It does have some good lines and some moments of genuine humor, but to be ranked #7 on AFIs list of the best comedies of all time is ridiculous.  However, it is a movie that has filled a niche that needed to be filled and we should honor it for that. 

POSTER:  The poster is cool, but a little misleading.  The legs give you the impression there will be a lot of skin in the movie and there is not.  The peace sign implies that the movie is anti-war which it really isn't. A middle finger would have been much more appropriate.  The blurbs are your typical hyperbole.  B-

the trailer

TRAILER -  It does include some of the best lines.  You get a feel for the anarchic nature of the film.  I feel sorry for Duke when the trailer mentions "two doctors".  The football game footage is thrown in with no context which is confusing.  Of course it makes a big deal of the marijuana smoking during the game.  Note that the trailer includes the word "tits".  Surely a first.  B-


Sunday, July 15, 2012


              “The Colditz Story” is one of a number of British WWII POW movies.  Many consider it the best of its subgenre.  It was released in 1955 and was directed by Guy Hamilton (“The Battle of Britain”).  It is based on the novel by Pat Reid who was a prisoner in Colditz Castle (or Oflag IV-C) and escaped.  At the beginning of the film we are told that all events are true except names have been changed and some events are related out of their historical context.
                The movie opens in 1940 in Germany.  British prisoners arrive at a castle that already houses over one hundred Polish captives.  For a maximum security prison, it seems pretty cushy. When the British commanding officer Col. Richmond (Eric Portman) meets with the typical monacled Nazi commandant, he is told that all the best escapers have been placed in his camp.  It’s a speech similar to that given by Von Luger in "The Great Escape".  By the way, there is also a disposing of dirt via pants legs scene similar to TGE.
                With various nationalities imprisoned, problems arise.  When French and British tunnels accidentally run into each other, Richmond creates an escape committee comprising all the nationalities and puts Reid (John Mills) in charge.  Soon after, the previously aloof Richmond disguises himself as a German officer to relieve a guard who is watching the area where a tunnel is due to come up.  The sudden change of Richmond to enthusiastic conspirator is unrealistic.  The tunnelers are immediately caught and given one month in solitary.
                In another scene seemingly “borrowed” by “The Great Escape”, a prisoner escapes in a “blitz” by being ensacked and thrown into the back of a truck.  A Frenchman gets away by vaulting over the barbed wire fence.  Supposedly these escapes actually took place.  Reid and his best buddy Mac (Christopher Rhodes) plan to escape dressed as German officers.  When Richmond puts the kibosh on the attempt, Mac loses it and tries to climb the fence and gets shot like Ives in TGE.
                The climatic escape takes place during a musical revue staged by the prisoners.  This gives the prisoners the chance to sing the obligatory song required in all 1950s movies.  Will Reid and Winslow (Bryan Forbes) make it to Switzerland?
                There is some historical accuracy in the film.  There was a prison in Colditz Castle and the Germans did put all their bad eggs in one basket.  Probably not surprisingly considering the quality of the escapees, Oflag IV-C had the most successful escapes of any German stalag (56).  Soon after arriving, Reid bribed a guard to look the other way, but the guard ratted him out and he went to solitary.  He was appointed Escape Officer.  His escape was nothing like as shown in the film.  He and three others cut through the bars of the kitchen window, climbed onto a roof, crossed a well-lit courtyard, entered a basement, crawled through an air shaft, and exited through a park.  They broke into pairs and Reid and his partner, disguised as Flemish workmen, travelled by train to the Swiss border and crossed to freedom.
                The movie is well acted and well filmed.  The problem is it does not ring true.  The prison is not menacing and the Germans are incompetent.  The commandant threatens death to anyone who tries to escape, but none gets worse than solitary.  As usual for many a movie of this type, the movie prison camp is depicted as fantasy camp for actors wanting to play prisoner.  There is no pressing reason to want to escape from the camp.  There is also no pressing reason for the British to give up their sense of humor.   The various escapes depicted are so silly that I guess they must be true.
                I know this movie is remembered fondly, but the fact is that it is just not very good and certainly is not special.  Although it could have sued “The Great Escape” for plagiarism, TGE is a much better film.
grade = C 
the acrobatic escape