Wednesday, August 29, 2012

DUELING MOVIES: Horatio Hornblower vs. Damn the Defiant

                 “Captain Horatio Hornblower” (1951) and “Damn the Defiant!” (1962) are thoughtful swashbucklers set in the Napoleonic Wars.  After recently viewing the bloated "Battleship" , it was a step back in historical and cinematic time watching these films.  It was a pleasant trip.  I did not have to turn off my brain while watching them.
            “Hornblower” is based on three of C.S. Forester’s novels and he helped adapt them.  It was directed by Raoul Walsh ("Battle Cry") and stars Gregory Peck.  The movie is set in 1807.  The HMS Lydia (a 36 gun frigate) is on a secret mission to provide arms to a tin-pot dictator in Central America.  “El Supremo” is a caricature of a megalomaniacal buffoon.  When the 60 gun Spanish warship Trinidad arrives, Hornblower leads a boarding party to capture it and then reluctantly turns it to over to El Supremo.  Oops!  Encounter with a Spanish packet brings news of an alliance between England and Spain and also brings the lovely Lady Barbara (Virginia Mayo) who happens to be the sister of Arthut Wellesley.  Cliché alert:  Hornblower does not want a female on board, but will change his mind after she helps nurse the wounded and he falls in love with her.  It is awkward that Hornblower turned over the Trinidad and now he has to rectify it.
            The battle between the Lydia and the Trinidad is epic.  Lots of things crashing down.  (Sailors needed to wear helmets.)  Lots of broadsides to the extent that the Trinidad is a floating wreck that blows up.  Adios, El Supremo.
            Lady Barbara develops a life-threatening fever.  Hornblower nurses her and a romance ensues.  ß Surprise! à  Complications arise due to the fact that Barbara is engaged and Horatio is married.  This being 1951, they kiss and feel extremely guilty about it.  This being 1807, their love is doomed.  When they return to England, he finds his wife is dead (half of the problem solved) leaving him with a baby and she gets married to Admiral Leighton (Denis O’Dea).  Guess who Hornblower’s new boss is?  Guess who is a pompous jerk who questions Hornblower’s honor?  Guess who needs to die so Horatio and Barbara can hook up?
            Hornblower is promoted to command of the ship of the line HMS Sutherland (74 guns).  Leighton orders Hornblower to avoid any more set pieces, but that would be boring so Horatio seizes the initiative and decides to trade the Sutherland for four French ships in a port.  He cheats by flying a French flag (all’s fair in war, not love) and then wastes the French, but gets wasted in the process.  Hornblower, his exec Bush, and a grumpy tar are captured.  They are taken to Paris and executed by Napoleon himself.  Just kidding.  Will they escape and will Horatio end up in the arms of Lady Barbara?  I can not reveal that information.
            “Damn the Defiant!” is based on the novel “Mutiny” by Frank Tilsley. It was directed by Lewis Gilbert ("Sink the Bismarck").  In England, it was entitled “HMS Defiant”.  It is set during the Spithead Mutiny in 1797.  The HMS Defiant (a frigate) is on its way to Corsica.  It is in the subgenre of dueling leaders (see “Platoon”).  Captain Crawford (Alec Guinness) is the humane captain of the Defiant.  His second Scott-Padgett (Dirk Bogarde) is a martinet who has “friends in high places”.  It’s the classic confrontation between a sailor’s captain (“a happy ship is a good ship”) and a “cat o’ nine tails” solves all problems type leader.  Scott-Padgett is sure the ship would be better with his tough love.  When Crawford’s son Harvey (David Robinson) arrives on board as a midshipman, Scott-Padgett makes his life hellish knowing Crawford cannot intervene.  Meanwhile, a mutiny is brewing below decks led by Vizard (Anthony Quayle).
            They encounter a French frigate.  They don’t have to reload their cannons!  They board and there are a lot of duels and old-school deaths, but no blood.  The French ship is taken as a prize and Crawford sends his son off on the prize crew.  Check mate, Scott-Padgett.  No more voodoo doll.  Unfortunately, in the next battle with another frigate, Crawford gets wounded and now S-P is in command.  Valuable information about a French invasion comes into their possession, but the crew mutinies due to S-P being a total douche.  Crawford convinces the crew to patriotically deliver the information.  Word arrives of the success of the Spithead Mutiny, but during the back-slapping a psychopath stabs S-P.  High fives from the audience.  A definite no-no in the Royal Navy.  It’s now the yard-arm or escape to France.  Wait, is that a fireship bearing down on the British fleet?  Only the Defiant can stop it.  Will the mutineers risk capital punishment to save the fleet?
            “Damn the Defiant!” is well-acted although Bogarde chews the scenery a bit.  He has this Lee Harvey Oswald smirk that is enhissing (the opposite of endearing).  It is better than Hornblower at balancing officers’ lives with the lives of the tars.  Shipboard duties, training, and punishment are well done.  It is also more historical since it is based on the Spithead Mutiny.  The Channel Fleet went on strike about poor pay and working conditions and unpopular officers.  The sixteen ships elected delegates to negotiate with the Admiralty.  Normal routines continued and the mutineers promised to respond to any French threats.  Lord Howe agreed to reforms and the mutineers were pardoned.  The basic vibe is portrayed in the film.
            “Hornblower” is totally fictional (e.g., Wellesley did not have a sister named Barbara), but gets the naval combat pretty close.  Both movies used real wooden ships, not models or CGI.  The acting is good and Mayo is lovely.  Having read the novels, Peck gets the standoffish character of the literary Horatio down, including the harrumphing.  The dialogue is not too flowery.  The sets and costumes are outstanding.  Both movies have the same type of mood-setting scores typical of movies of this type and time.  In a sense, we trade shipboard life for shipboard romance.  Not a good trade for the guys.  However, the two battles are awesome.
            “Captain Horatio Hornblower” is a better movie than “Damn the Defiant!”, but both are worthy entries in the Napoleonic naval warfare subgenre.  The amazing thing about “Master and Commander” is it maintained the intelligent plotting of the old-school films like these two and added the modern pyrotechnics.  Compare that to “Battleship” which took a plot aimed at moronic fourteen year olds and added outlandish CGI bullshit.
Captain Horatio Hornblower -  B+
Damn the Defiant! -  B

Saturday, August 25, 2012

#27 - DUCK SOUP (1933)

BACK-STORY:  “Duck Soup” was the last Marx Brothers’ movie made for Paramount.  It was the last film where all four brothers starred.  Zeppo gave up his fabled acting career after the film was finished.  The Marx Brothers were  never funny again.  The movie was released in 1933, coincidentally (and I do mean coincidentally) the year Hitler came to power.  The movie was banned in Italy because Mussolini was personally offended (you can’t buy publicity like that) and in Germany (as with all their films) because the brothers were Jewish.  It was directed by the only decent director that dealt with them – Leo McCarey (who did not enjoy the experience).  The movie underperformed at the box office possibly because its irreverence did not fit the Depression-era mood of the populace and its anti-government satire ran up against the optimistic mood of the early New Deal.  Critics were pretty brutal and the movie was not highly thought of until a revival in the 1960s.  Today it is considered to be the Marx Brothers’ masterpiece and is ranked #60 (up from #85) on AFIs most recent list of great American movies.  It is #5 on the Comedy list.  The title apparently comes from a slang term meaning an easy task.

Margaret Dumont - one of the great straight ladies
OPENING:  The fictitious European country of Freedonia is going bankrupt and the governing council pleads with the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) to float a loan.  Teasdale inexplicably insists that Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) be appointed the new ruler.  Meanwhile, Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) from neighboring Sylvania is plotting to marry Teasdale and foment a war. 

SUMMARY:  Firefly’s personal assistant Bob Roland (Zeppo) gets the festivities started by breaking into a song to announce the arrival of Firefly. (Couldn’t they have at least given Zeppo a funny name?)  Let the anarchy begin.  Firefly arrives via a fire station pole and the percentage of sentences coming from his mouth that are jokes is going to be well over 90% for the rest of the movie.  He reminds one of Robin Williams, but Groucho’s lines are obviously well crafted instead of improvised.  The second song soon follows the first as the crowd sings the Freedonian National Anthem.  “Hail, hail Freedonia, land of the brave and free”.  Fortunately, the songs will be spaced out after this.

Trentino has hired Chicolini (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo) as spies.  He meets with them and suffers verbal and physical abuse from the worst secret agents in history and yet sends them back to keep an eye on Firefly.  Harpo’s schtick includes using scissors to snip things.  Hilarious?  

                Firefly hosts a cabinet meeting, but shockingly takes little interest in efficiently running the country.  It looks like Teasdale has chosen unwisely.  Oh well, what woman would not have been seduced by Groucho’s charms (and constant insults)?  For example, later in the movie when he imagines marriage to Teasdale he tells her: “I can see you right now in the kitchen, bending over a hot stove, but I can't see the stove."

                Next comes the famous lemonade stand scene where Chicolini and Pinky abuse the hapless nearby lemonade stand owner played by Laurel and Hardy foil Edgar Kennedy.  Classic physical comedy – vaudeville style!  Just don’t ask what the Hell this has to do with anything.  Oh, that’s right,  it’s an analogy for how countries treat each other before going to war!  Thank you, critics.  I would not have picked up on that.  It looked like nonsense to my untrained eyes. 

 Firefly appoints Chicolini Secretary of War so he can have humorous exchanges with him.  Mission accomplished!  Firefly decides to insult Trentino out of the country so he can have Teasdale’s millions to himself.  Instead, Firefly provokes himself into causing war with Sylvania. 

Trentino, Firefly, and Teasdale
Later that night, Dumont tries to reconcile the two men and at first Firefly is amenable.  He utters one of the great WTF lines in cinema when he says "Well, maybe I am a little headstrong, but I come by it honestly. My father was a little headstrong, my mother was a little armstrong.  The headstrongs married the armstrongs and that's why darkies were born." (Before you write your congressman:  My research reveals this was a reference to the popular hit from 1931 entitled “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” sung by Kate Smith and meant as an anti-racism song.  Do not look for it on your local jukebox.)  The attempt at reconciliation collapses resulting in Firefly’s declaration “This means war!”  Followed by the screamingly funny:  “Go, and never darken my towels again!”  Groucho rules!

The next scene is Chicolini and Pinky sneaking into Teasdale’s house to steal the war plans.  Harpo briefly (mercifully)  plucks the strings of her piano in lieu of a harp, but Chico does not play the piano.  (Two reasons why this is my favorite Marx Brothers’ movie.)  Both Chicolini and Pinky find reasons to disguise themselves as Firefly and the iconic mirror scene ensues.  Enjoy the extended period when Groucho does not say a word.  It must have been a record.

Chicolini is put on trial so the screenwriters can show off their puns.  For instance:

Firefly: Chicolini, give me a number from one to ten.
Chicolini: Eleven.
Chicolini: Now I aska you one. What is it has a trunk, but no key, weighs 2,000 pounds and lives in the circus
Firefly: Right.?
Prosecutor (unwittingly supplying the correct answer): That's ir-relevant.
Chicolini: Irr-elephant? Hey, that'sa the answer! There's a whole lotta irr-elephants in the circus.
Minister/Judge: That sort of testimony we can eliminate.
Chicolini: Thats-a fine. I'll take some.
Minister/Judge: You'll take what?
Chicolini: Eliminate. A nice, cool glass eliminate.

"all God's chillun got guns"

                The trial is interrupted by news that Sylvania has declared war.  This, of course, results in a big production number aping a minstrel show.  The song is “Freedonia’s Going to War” and is one of the few moments in the film that can clearly be determined to be purposeful satire.  The number makes fun of nationalism in general and the initial enthusiasm for war when countries reach that stage.  (This was the only musical number in their films where all four Marx Brothers participated.)  It is also theorized that the production is satirizing the Berkeley numbers popular back then.

Firefly as Scoutmaster
CLOSING:  Suddenly the war is well underway.  Firefly is leading from what looks like an isolated farmhouse that is under fire.  The one-liners are flying like the bullets and shells.  Some authentic looking soldiers are actually included, but Firefly is dressed alternatively as a Rebel infantryman, Yankee general, British palace guard, Scoutmaster, and Davy Crockett.  Things are not looking well until Trentino is captured leading an assault on the headquarters.  Don’t ask why an ambassador is leading an assault.  The boys pelt him with fruit until he concedes defeat.  Teasdale breaks into a victory aria and is likewise pelted.

Acting -  C
Action -  4/10
Accuracy – are you kidding?
Realism -  see above
Plot -  C
Humor -  A

Overall -  B-

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  It totally depends on their opinion of the Marx Brothers.  This film is actually less female friendly than their other movies.  There is no romantic subplot.  Both females are cringe-worthy.  Teasdale is either clueless about Firefly’s nonstop insults or accepts them because she is infatuated with him.  Not exactly a feminist.  Trentino’s paramour Vera (Raquel Torres) is femme fatale lite and seems to be in the movie purely to add cleavage.  I cannot imagine very many women under age fifty enjoying this movie.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The movie is a thinly disguised retelling of the Franco-Prussian War.  Firefly represents Otto Von Bismarck and Teasdale is Queen Victoria.  Just kidding.

CRITIQUE:  This is the best Marx Brothers’ movie, in my opinion.  I am not a big fan of the musical interludes and romantic subplots that tend to bring their films to a screeching halt.  “Duck Soup” has less of those weaknesses.  The movie is manic with its mix of sight gags, slapstick, one-liners, and puns.  Many of the jokes are laugh out loud funny which is unusual for a movie that goes back to the 1930s.  Of course, you also have a few groaners.  However, the percentage of jokes that work is surprisingly high.  Many of the lines are classics.  Officially the top ones (determined by AFI) are the following:

    • Firefly:  Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honor, which is probably more than she ever did."
    • Firefly to Vera:  "I could dance with you ‘til the cows come home. On second thought, I'd rather dance with the cows ‘til you came home."
    •  Fierfly: "I suggest that we give him ten years in Leavenworth, or eleven years in Twelveworth."
            Chicolini: "I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll take five and ten in Woolworth."
Unfortunately, other than the fact that it is a very funny movie, it is not a very good movie.  The acting is average.  Groucho and Chico are fine, but I always have found Harpo to be grating.  You have to admire Dumont and Calhern for being able to keep a straight face and maintain their composure.  The rest of the cast is mostly people they could have picked up off the street.  This is embarrassingly apparent during the big musical number where it looks like it was not rehearsed much.  Speaking of which, many of the scenes look like they were done in one take.  This should not be surprising considering we are talking about the Marx Brothers.
Technically speaking, the movie does not stand out.  The cinematography is pedestrian.  It is crisp black and white, but nothing special.  The score (was there one?) is forgettable.  The plot exists only to go from one comedy premise to another.  Much of it makes no sense (imagine telling this to Groucho).  A good example is that Trentino supposedly wants war as an  excuse for conquering Freedonia and plots throughout to accomplish this.  Yet, in several instances, his character tries to avoid war.  But who expects consistency in a Marx Brothers’ movie, right?
The movie is highly rated mainly because it is considered to be a scathing satire of government and war.  This is debatable and may have been read into the movie by later interpreters.  It is telling that it was not until the 60’s that most critics “discovered” its brilliant satire.  People conveniently overlook the fact that it was released in 1933 at a time that Hitler was barely known in America and certainly had not revealed his villainy.  As far as Mussolini, he was still in his “he makes the trains run on time” phase where he was more praised than condemned.  It is going too far to credit the Marx Brothers with targeting fascism for satire.  Groucho’s Firefly is nowhere near Chaplin’s Hynkel from “The Great Dictator”.  It is very hard to conceive of the character as being a parody of Mussolini.  Obviously, the movie has nothing to say about World War II, but even World War I is problematical.  Certainly you can make a case for the “Freedonia Going to War” number being critical of the enthusiasm that Europeans felt for war in 1914, but that type of nationalism is pretty generic.  This would also apply to the famous line by Firefly:  “There must be a war – I’ve paid a month’s rent on the battlefield.”  The strongest connection to WWI is when Firefly sends Pinky out to the front and snidely says that “while you’re out there risking life and limb through shot and shell, we’ll be here thinking what a sucker you are.”  If meant to be, this is as good an indictment of the misuse of European young men as you can find.  Before you pat the Marx Brothers on the back for “sticking it to the man”, consider the fact that when asked about the satirical nature of the film, Groucho replied that “Duck Soup” was just “four Jews trying to get a laugh.”  Sometimes it’s just that simple.  By the way, did you know that “The Naked Gun” was an indictment of the corruption of the Los Angeles Police Department?
CONCLUSION:  “Duck Soup” is overrated as the 5th best comedy of all time according to AFI, but it certainly is in the top 100 comedies.  It is very funny (or specifically, Groucho and Chico are funny).   I am not sure it belongs in the 100 Greatest War Movies.  I have to assume the Military History panel bought into the revisionist belief that it is brilliant satire.  I do not buy that the Marx Brothers intended the movie to be recognized as a great anti-war movie.  I take Groucho at his word that they were trying to make a funny movie without a deep meaning.  It is absolutely criminal that “Dr. Strangelove” is #94 and “Duck Soup” is #27.  On what planet is that justifiable?  For that matter, where is the vastly superior “To Be or Not To Be”?

POSTER:  Good.  Kudos for including Zeppo.  B

 the trailer
TRAILER:  Gets the manic nature right, but does not give the slightest clue what the movie is about.  Plus it advertises it as a musical show, which it is not.   D
the mirror scene


10.  Mr. Roberts

9.    Good Morning, Vietnam

8.    Catch-22

7.    Duck Soup

6.    Kelly’s Heroes

5.    Stripes

4.    MASH

3.    To Be or Not To Be

2.    Dr. Strangelove

1.    Tropic Thunder


                   Readers might want to look back at this year’s March Madness competition that determined that “Tropic Thunder” is the best war comedy.  Start here: "March Madness: War Comedies"  
Reminder:  you can follow me on twitter -  @warmoviebuff 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


               “Waterloo” is a Soviet/Italian production released in 1970 and directed by Soviet Sergei Bonderchuk.  He used 15,000 Soviet soldiers and 2,000 cavalrymen.  50 circus riders were employed for the numerous horse falls.  It was a big budget epic that did poorly at the box office.  The battlefield was sculpted by bulldozing two hills, transplanting 5,000 trees, and reconstructing four historic buildings.
                The movie opens in April, 1814 at Fountainebleu Palace.  Napoleon’s council explains to him the dire situation of the allies closing in on Paris.  They all recommend that he abdicate.  Napoleon (Rod Steiger) has mood swings from despair to optimism to rage to resignation.  At one point he talks strategic nonsense in front of some maps.  The whole scene has a "Downfall" vibe to it and someone should think of using it for a new You Tube series.  Napoleon finally sees reason and says goodbye to his Old Guard in a speech that shows his charisma and why his soldiers worshipped him.
                The movie then jumps several months to Napoleon’s return from exile.  King Louis XVII (Orson Welles looking like Humpty Dumpty) sends General Ney (Dan O’Herlihy) to arrest Napoleon.  The encounter between Napoleon and his loyalists and Ney’s larger force is suspenseful.  Napoleon’s forceful personality wins the day.  The blimp flees and Napoleon is back in power.
                In Brussels, the British are holding a dress ball attended by Wellington (Christopher Plummer) and his officers.  There is much pomp with period costumes, dancing, and music.  There is romance in the air including a fictional one between the Duchess of Richmond’s daughter and a dashing aide named Lord Hay.  Will her fiancé survive the battle?  Word arrives that Napoleon has stolen a march on the allies and has crossed the border.  Coincidentally, the doors are thrown open by a sudden storm.  Get it?
                The Battles of Quatre Bras and Ligny are aftermathed.  Standing amidst the detritus of Ligny, Napoleon scolds Ney (who reports directly to him) for not vigorously pursuing Wellington and then instructs Marshal Grouchy to tail Blucher’s Prussians.  The night before the battle, it’s dueling councils as Napoleon and Wellington discuss strategy.  Wellington has an encounter with a pig-stealing soldier (earlier he had described his enlisted men as “scum, beggars, and scoundrels”) who he promotes for his cheekiness.  A reference is made to Napoleon’s health problem, but it is not specified what is ailing him.  If it wasn’t based on fact, you would think Bondarchuk was setting up an excuse for (spoiler alert!) Napoleon’s defeat.
                The day breaks clear after a very rainy night, but the mass of mud causes Napoleon to postpone his attack.  The battle begins at 11:35 (the movie labels key events) with artillery fire which sounds authentic, but the cannons have no recoil which cancels the sound effects.  Napoleon launches a diversionary attack on the farm house Hougomont and the action begins.
                The action shifts to the center and features a magnificent charge by the Scots Greys.  Multiple cameras give every view imaginable.  There is slo-mo and moments of silence other than the sound track.  Bondarchuk uses his full kit.  One of the principles, Lord Picton (Alex Hawkins), meets a quick death that replicates his actual demise.  The flaw is the cavalry encounters no enemy until they reach the French artillery and then they are counterattacked by French lancers.  The movie is excellent in getting the audience to arch its back in anticipation of being speared from behind.  The leader of the Greys (Gen. Ponsonby) also has an accurate death as his exhausted horse is ridden down in the mud.
                The movie briefly updates us on Grouchy as he stubbornly refuses to march to the sound of the guns and continues to simply dog Blucher.  These little touches aid the audience in following the big picture, but it definitely helps to have prior knowledge of the battle.  Napoleon collapses due to the stress of wondering where Blucher and Grouchy are.  While he recuperates, Ney mistakes a rearward movement of the British center to take refuge from cannonading as a general retreat and orders a massive cavalry charge.
                What follows is one of the great scenes in war movie history. The multiple cameras come into play again, including aerial views.  The British get into squares and weather the storm of thundering hooves.  There is a brief reappearance of the pig-stealer, but the grunt that makes the most impression is one of his mates who bizarrely leaves the ranks to rant about the inhumanity of the killing.  This heavy-handed sermonizing mars the action.  The pompous music also detracts, but it is still an awesome rendering of one of the seminal moments in cavalry history.
                From Ney’s disastrous waste of the cavalry (one is left to wonder why Napoleon forgave Ney for his Louis XVIII flirtation), the movie alludes to the French capture of La Haye Sainte in the center but foregoes the potential for some hard core infantry combat.  (In fact, the movie is very cavalry-centric which is odd considering the cavalry units mostly embarrassed themselves in the battle.)  The moment of decision has arrived as Napoleon can see the Prussians approaching on his right flank.  He orders the Old Guard forward to break the spine of the British Army.
                The French march ominously forward, but the British are prone on the reverse slope.  Upon orders from Wellington, they rise and deliver volleys which break the Old Guard and send it reeling.  “The Old Guard is broken!”  Wellington is giddy (for him) and won’t let the delimbing of Uxbridge faze him.  “By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg.”  “By God, so you have.”  No better example of the clicheish British stiff upper lip exists in movie history.
                The chaos of a battle epilogue is rendered and capped with the refusal of the Old Guard to surrender.  Their “Nuts!” is “Merde!” (which means not “go to Hell”, but “shit”).  The cocky response is met by massed cannon fire that is over in a blink.  All that is left to be shown is the ignominious carriage escape by Bonaparte, the civilian scavenging, and the obligatory victorious general solemnly traversing the corpse-strewn battlefield.  “Next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won.”
                “Waterloo” is one of the most accurate depictions of a major battle ever put on film.  None of the major events are contemptuous of history.  However, there are some key events and exposition that are left out.  For instance, the movie glosses over the mistake made by the French of feeding more troops into the attack on Hougoumont in what was originally conceived of as a diversion.  The handling of the charge of the Scot Greys is also shortchanged by eliminating any contact with French infantry.  The pummeling of the British infantry by Napoleon’s batteries is not depicted well.  In fact, the withdrawal that the movie Ney mistakes for retreat actually occurred earlier in a response to French artillery  (Not enough is made in the movie of Wellington’s famous “reverse slope” tactic).  Ney’s faulty decision was most likely a misreading of casualties withdrawing.   The fight for La Haye Sainte is completely skipped.  Much of this was probably logistical decisions, plus the desire to control the length of the film.  What is less excusable is the handling of Blucher’s arrival.  The movie has him arriving unimpeded on the French flank.  In reality, the Prussians had to fight their way to the position shown in the movie.  Not a big deal for a movie that has built up good will up to this point.  The only ridiculous moment comes with the destruction of the Old Guard.  They did fight to the last man, but were not mown down by artillery in less than a minute.
                There are a few sloppy mistakes that bear mentioning.  I did not see a single reloading of a musket or cannon in the film.  There is no use of the bayonet.  I already mentioned the lack of cannon recoil.  However, once again, the little details make up for these errors.  These details include French drummer boys, the British rum ration, the use of snuff, and the bagpipers.  The rain, smoke, and mud show the attention to environmental details.
                “Waterloo” is a worthy attempt to recreate the most famous battle in history.  The scale is appropriately epic.  Bondarchuk literally had an army to work with and the non-CGI combat benefits from this.  In spite of the quantity of soldiers, the movie is very much a command-oriented film.  All of the main characters are not only higher command, but also upper class.  We have to take Wellington’s famous word that his men were scum because we learn little of them.  The decision to concentrate on command can be debated, but the movie is strong in getting in the minds of Napoleon and Wellington.  Bondarchuk even resorts to the device of giving us their thoughts.  Thankfully he does not abuse this conceit and it is effective.  The movie is more interested in strategy than tactics and it does a good job of the big and medium picture.  I already knew a lot about the battle, but I think an average viewer could learn the basics from this film.
                One flaw is the acting.  Steiger and Plummer dominate which is not surprising given the weak supporting cast.  The appearance of Welles is a Brando in “Superman” stunt.  Steiger chews the scenery, but so did Napoleon so I think the criticism of his performance has been too harsh.  I actually was less enamored with Plummer’s take on Wellington.  My reading has not given me the impression that the Iron Duke was the witty, bon mot fellow of this movie.  I don’t think he smiled as much as Plummer does.  It doesn’t help the actors that some of the dialogue is a bit pompous, but many of the lines are direct quotes.
                The cinematography is eye-opening at times.  There is a wide variety of views.  Early scenes have plenty of close-ups, especially of the eyes.  The battle is noted for multiple angles from the five Panavision cameras.  The two cavalry charges stand out.  The sound effects are well done, but the sound track is bothersome.  The movie has long stretches of no music, so when the standard epic war movie score kicks in it is jarring.
             Cracker?  Definitely.  It is one of the best 100 war movies ever made. However, those who argue it is the best movie of its type are forgetting about "Gettysburg".  It’s not bad to come in second to that movie.  If you want to understand the Battle of Waterloo, you can do no better than this movie.

Grade =  A-

Saturday, August 18, 2012

#29 - The Deer Hunter

BACK-STORY:  “The Deer Hunter” was released in 1978 and was the first important major motion picture about the Vietnam War.   Its success marked the rise of the subgenre that has produced some great war movies.  Significantly, 1978 also saw the releases of “Coming Home”, “The Boys in Company C”, and “Go Tell the Spartans”.  The movie was directed and co-written by Michael Cimino and marked the peak of his career.  He battled the suits to get his vision on the screen and succeeded for the most part.  The movie was a big critical hit and did well at the box office.  It was awarded Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken), Editing, and Sound.  It was nominated for Actor (Robert De Niro),  Supporting Actress (Meryl Streep), Cinematography, and Original Screenplay.  It is ranked #53 on the most recent AFI’s greatest movies list.  The film was Streep’s first big movie role and ironically, John Cazales’ last film.  He was dying from cancer and passed before he saw the finished product.

OPENING:  The movie opens with the beautiful “Cavatina for Guitar and Orchestra” playing over the credits.  This creates a positive vibe from the start.  We are introduced to the dingy industrial city of Clairton, Pa. in the year 1967.  Our working class quintet of buddies is preparing for the marriage of one and the cleaving of the group by the Vietnam War.  Their camaraderie is similar to that of soldiers in the barracks and on R&R.

one shot
SUMMARY:  The first third of the movie involves the wedding of Steven (John Savage) to his pregnant girlfriend Angela.  The wedding is in an Eastern Orthodox church and if you ever wondered what those rites are like, watch this movie.  The extended scene flows into the rollicking reception.  (There was literally an open bar for the extras.  Check out the old couple sleeping on each other in the background.)  Those Russian-Americans know how to party.  It’s not just a wedding celebration.  The groom and two of his buddies – Mike (De Niro) and Nick (Walken) – are headed for Vietnam as volunteers.  The characters are clearly drawn.   Steven is the sensitive guy who marries a woman who is not carrying his child.  Nick is the lady magnet who has a spiritual streak.  Mike is the taciturn leader who takes hunting (and life) seriously.  His character reminds of Hawkeye in “The Last of the Mohicans”.  Cimino lets the reception play out with little dialogue.  A key terse exchange occurs when the trio encounter a veteran drinking at the bar and try to suck up to him.  He is obviously suffering from PTSD and responds to their patriotic overtures with several “fuck it”s.  This is the first foreshadowing that their working class lives are about to take a turn for the worse.  Another omenous development is when Angela spills some red wine on her wedding dress during the “it’s good luck if you don’t spill” toast.  Oh, oh!  The non-grooms in the extended buddy group leave the reception and head off on one last deer hunt.  The scenery is awesome and the music elegaic as Mike and Nick track a magnificent stag that Mike bags with “one shot” (his mantra and a recurring theme).   

one flame

                Suddenly we are in Vietnam.  No boot camp for this movie.  Mike is lying outside a village.  An enemy soldier appears and throws a grenade in a bunker full of civilians and then kills a mother and child.  Mike uses a flame thrower on him.  Nick and Steven are part of reinforcements that arrive, but so does a large force of Viet Cong.  Cut to the famous prison locale.  The trio and some expendables are being held captive in a cage on the river.  There are rats!  The sadistic guards are forcing the prisoners to play Russian roulette for their amusement.  (The head thug was a local Thai who Cimino instructed to actually slap Walken to get the right reaction.)  In one of the greatest scenes in war movie history, Mike engineers their escape in ten seconds of orgiastic violence.  The acting is fantastic.  They float down the river (the actual Kwai River) and eventually make it back to American lines, but Steven is physically crippled and Nick is emotionally damaged.  Mike remains stoic.
Uncle Ho will not be happy with what is about to go down

                Nick, although clearly suffering from PTSD, is released from the hospital and wanders the streets of night-time Saigon.  (The Saigon sets are authentically red-lit.)  He stumbles upon a Russian roulette den and is lured into the “sport” by a decadent Frenchman.  I guess it’s Stockholm syndrome.  It’s a small world as Mike happens to be at that particular “competition”, but he is unable to prevent Nick from choosing this new career path.  Mike returns to America thinking Nick is lost and Steven is dead.

                Mike’s return is not a joyous one.  If he was to look in the mirror he would see the “fuck it” vet.   He feels disconnected from his old life and friends.  He passes up the “Welcome Home” party, but later hooks up with Nick’s girlfriend Linda (Streep).  They’ve been meant for each other since the beginning of the film, but it’s an awkward arc.  Linda asks him “did you ever think life would turn out like this?”  An unanswered “no”.  Speaking of awkward, the reunion with the buddies proves positive that “you can’t go home”.  Mike tries hard and even goes hunting again.   Guess what happens when he has a clean shot at another stag (the deer from the Hartford commercials)?  The hunt ends with Mike introducing Stanley (Cazale) to Russian roulette.  Awkward scenes come in threes as Mike visits Steven who is wheel chair bound in a Veterans Hospital.  Ever the leader, Mike forces Steven to return to the catatonic Angela. 

                Mike learns Nick is still alive and since he had promised not to leave him behind, he heads back to the Nam.  He arrives during the chaotic last days of Saigon.  It’s not too chaotic for him to find the Frenchman and get to the game.          

Nicky don't pull that trigger

the view from the other side of the table
CLOSING:  Mike buys into the game when Nick does not recognize his friend (and in fact spits in his face).  Nick has needle marks indicating heroin addiction.  Watch out, that stuff can kill you.  Usually it is lame when a movie tries to replicate a previous scene, but in this case the Russian roulette match is riveting.  Once again, De Niro and Walken are amazing.  The climax is predictable, but touching and wrenching.

                Mike brings Nick home (for his funeral).  The gang is together one last time and the movie ends with them singing “God Bless America” which means we are left to puzzle what the Hell is Cimino trying to say?  Is he making fun of their blue collar patriotism?  Is he being ironic?  Did he just dilute the anti-war message of the film?  Discuss.  One thing is indisputable.  The three guys who stayed out of the war are much better off than the three that volunteered to go.

Acting =  A+
Action =  6/10
Accuracy =  C
Realism =  B
Plot =  A

Overall =  A-

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  Definitely.  It is one of the more balanced war movies.  That doesn’t mean it’s not predominantly a guy film.  I don’t think the Russian roulette subplot was included to attract females.  Linda and Angela are not feminists and both are damaged goods, but they are realistic characters.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The movie is not based on a true story.  Clearly.  Cimino tried to justify the Russian roulette scenes as based on reality, but he was shaky on this.  There is no evidence that the Viet Cong tortured prisoners using Russian roulette.  They were bastards, but not that bastardly.  Cimino took some flak for the racist undertone of his depiction of the Viet Cong.  There is also little evidence for the existence of Russian roulette dens.  If they didn’t exist, they were the only form of entertainment that could not be found in Saigon.

CRITIQUE:  This is an extremely well made movie.  Cimino put all his talent into the film (and based on the rest of his career might have left some of it).  He’s under relative control here, unlike the bloated “Heaven’s Gate”.  The decision to break the narrative into three parts was wise and tempers the length of the movie.  That doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel a little long.  Cimino takes his time getting where he’s going.  For instance, we don’t get to Vietnam until the 1:08 mark.  It’s worth the wait as that middle third is so intense, albeit over the top realism-wise.

                The cinematography and acting keep you focused through the slow moments.  The interior shots are intimate, the exterior shots of Clairton are industrially grimy.  The hunting scenery is breathtaking.  The camera work is not pretentious.  The score is fine.  The movie also has an eclectic mix of period songs.

                The acting could not be better.  De Niro and Walken are electric from their first appearance.  This was Walken’s first major role and seldom is it more obvious that you are watching the beginning of a great career.  Streep is Streep, of course.  She wrote some of her lines and the role was expanded because of her talent.  The rest of the cast is up to these three.  Special mention has to be made of John Cazales.  It was tragic that this was his last film, but he went out on top.  As usual, he plays a dislikable character, but he makes a good foil for Mike.  Savage is kind of odd man out, but he gives a sincere performance as the weakest of the “warriors”.

                The screenplay tends to be a little heavy-handed.  The foreshadowing allows the alert viewer to piece together some upcoming plot points.  Not unusual for a Hollywood flick, however.  The movie reminded me of “Jaws” in this respect.  The themes are hammered in.  War impacts not just the warriors.  There are different types of wounds – physical and mental.  Cimino comments on working class patriotism and male bonding in a knowing way.

                The movies biggest flaw is the time-line makes little sense.  Of course, this type of thing bothers only the very small minority of viewers like me.  Check this out.  They go to Vietnam in 1967.  We can assume a good bit of time passes before the village scene.  Mike has gone into a different unit than Nick and Steven and in fact does not even recognize them (possibly from combat stress).  This reunion was most likely in 1968-69.  That means Nick goes into the Russian roulette business no later than 1970.  Clearly Mike returns to Saigon in 1975.  This means a lot of time has passed and it is inconceivable that Nick had survived that long.  Cimino’s decision to stage the climactic scene in the midst of the chaotic last days of Saigon is understandable for cinematic effect, but makes no sense in reality.

CONCLUSION:  “The Deer Hunter” is an important movie.  It opened the flood gate of Vietnam movies and still remains one of the best.  I think it is appropriately placed at #29 on the list of great war movies.  I might add that it also fits on a list of great movies.  You can’t say that for many of the other movies on Military History magazine’s list.  It is definitely a must see for any movie buff.


1.         Platoon
2.        Apocalypse Now
3.        Full Metal Jacket
4.        We Were Soldiers
5.        The Deer Hunter
6.        84 Charlie Mopic
7.        Born on the Fourth of July
8.        Hamburger Hill
9.        Go Tell the Spartans
    10.       Rescue Dawn

Now that I look at it, that’s a damn fine list of movies.  I wonder if there is any other war that has that kind of quality at the top.

THE POSTER:  It is certainly eye-catching, but shouldn't it be Christopher Walken with the red head band and the pistol to his head?  Let's see, who was the bigger star?  Oh, yeah.  Never mind.  Grade = B

the trailer

THE TRAILER:  The trailer pretty much covers the gist of the movie in 3 minutes.  I don't like the way the clips are monotonously broken up with the chilling music and the constant reminder of the name of the movie. 
Grade = C

watch this scene