Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Day 7 - An Ungentlemanly Act (1992)

On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me – seven Royal Marines a defending

                “An Ungentlemanly Act” was filmed to commemorate the 10th Anniversary of the Falklands War.  It covers the start of the conflict.  A background statement informs that the British Royal Marines took over the islands in 1833 and the Argentines had wanted it back ever since then.  The movie was filmed in the Falkland Islands and in a British studio for BBC 1.  It was well-received and won a BAFTA for “Best Single Drama”.

                The story opens in April, 1982.  Life on the main island is British idyllic.  We meet the townspeople who are typical blokes and birds.  The center of their society is the pub, of course.  This utopia is going to change.  War talk is in the air.  The new commander of the small Royal Marines detachment Maj. Norman (Bob Peck) gives a rousing speech to his charges.  Contrast this with Governor Hunt’s (Ian Richardson) wife who questions whether the islands are worth it.  Women – they always want to stop the fun.

                The action takes a while to arrive (there’s a lot of talking), but when it does it is pretty good for a TV movie.  Argentine commandoes (don’t laugh!) attack the governor’s house.  Cool use of tracers in the night.  It’s a last stand with glass shards.  The Royal Marines hold out until the main landings begin.  The Argentines will have to use that war movie trope of quantity defeats quality.  Plus they bring armored personnel carriers.  Not very sporting.  Governor Hunt negotiates with the Argentine commander and does the reasonable, non-William Travis thing.  A newsreelish post script assures us Anglophiles that all was well in the end.  G.B.! G.B.! G.B.!

                “An Ungentlemanly Act” is an informative little film.  It is an accurate depiction of the onset of the war.  I learned a lot from the film.  Believe it or not, I do not teach it in my American History class.  On the other hand, I bet they don’t teach Grenada in British classrooms.  We’ll call it even.  The movie is nobly even-handed.  For instance, the Argentine commander is not a villain.  The movie was shown on Argentine TV.  That tells you a lot about it.  The action is surprisingly intense although not particularly suspenseful as no significant British character is even wounded.  The acting is above average with Richardson providing the gravitas.  The movie begs for a sequel.  I’d watch that.  In fact, are there any good movies on the war itself?

Grade =  B-

Monday, December 30, 2013

Day 6 - The Wild Geese (1978)

On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me – six wild geese a slaying

                “The Wild Geese” is sometimes referred to as the father of mercenary movies.  How proud it must be to have sired that low quality subgenre!  It was based on an unpublished novel about the rescue of an African leader by an elite force of mercenaries.  The producer dreamed of replicating “The Guns of Navarone” and “Where Eagles Dare”.  Dream big, baby!  The producer rounded up an all-star cast of codgers and took them off to South Africa for filming.   An interesting choice for a movie that has a theme of integration. 

“The Wild Geese” opens with a song that rivals “Soldier Blue” in bizarre crappiness.  Not a good start.  A veteran mercenary leader (he looks old enough to have served with Walker in Nicaragua) named Faulkner (Richard Burton - who agreed not to drink during the shoot) is contracted to rescue the African leader Limbani by a copper industrialist who oozes future betrayal.  Next comes the obligatory recruitment sequence.  Faulkner reunites with tactician Janders (Richard Harris - who agreed to not drink during the shoot), pilot Fynn (Roger Moore), drill sergeant Young (Jack Watson), and kaffir-hater Coetzee (Hardy Kruger - who agreed to stop smoking crack, just kidding).  This is followed by the corollary interviewing of the cannon fodder.  They ask each why they want to slaughter Africans, in so many words.  Oh, and are you over 50 years old?  Interestingly, their net snares a gay medic named Witty (Kenneth Griffith).  Training montage, anyone?

                In case you’re wondering what do mercenaries do to train – jumping off a tower, tossing logs, and bayonet practice.  It’s off to Africa.  They parachute in and no one gets caught in a tree!  They are startled by an exotic animal – an ostrich!  (As far as I know the only appearance by one in a war movie.)  The rescue of Limbani is suspiciously easy what with Coetzee using his crossbow and the cyanide gas used on the guards.  What a boring anticlimax!  But, wait – there are complications due to a double-cross by a copper magnate.  Imagine that.

                The movie transitions to a trek film after one badass Piper Cub strafes and napalms their jaunty victory convoy.  On the way to their alternate egress, Coetzee and Limbani debate colonialism and Coetzee sees the light while carrying his new “don’t call him kaffir” buddy.  Bodies begin to fall and not just expendables.  Even the name actors are vulnerable.  The movie posits the question:  who will survive?  And did their nursing home hold their room?  The first openly gay character in a war movie (as far as I know) gets to kick some ass before being gang-macheted.  (I am quite sure that this is the only time in war movie history that an openly gay character is killed by Africans wielding machetes.)   Get your calculator out to keep track of how many African soldiers are mowed down.  The movie looks like “Zulu” with automatic weapons.  As per war movie rules, the good guys never miss and the bad guys are never just wounded.  The mortality rate is the same as in every other war movie - 100%.  All this leads to a plane piloted by Fynn.  Janders gets his Von Ryan moment.  (I didn’t cry this time.)  Percentage of geezers still alive – 33%.  Percentage of greedy, corrupt industrialists still alive - 0%.

                “The Wild Geese” has become something of a cult classic since it bombed in the U.S. upon release.  I guess I don’t belong to that cult.  It is hard to get past the stunt-casting of old has-beens.  Not only are they too old for their roles, but they act tired.  At least “Grudge Match” is meant to be a comedy.  The film looks cheaply made.  The cinematography is that of a made for TV movie.  Check out the cheesy 60’s sets, fashions, and women in the British scenes.  The dialogue is not bad as you would expect and the movie has a large amount of action in the last 30 minutes.  If you can sit through the build-up, the payoff is pretty visceral.  That is if you consider slaughtering Africans to be action.  It does have a number of classic clichés, but that just allows you to feel good about yourself as you predict a lot of what is going to happen.

                It’s hard to be too harsh with a movie that portrays mercenaries with hearts.  It is entertaining in a mindless sort of way.  Is it a worthy successor to “The Guns of Navarone” and “Where Eagles Dare”?  Ha ha ha ha ha!

Does it spread Christmas spirit?  Fa la la la no.
P.S.  That's one great poster!

Grade =  C       

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Day 5: El Alamein - The Line of Fire (2002)

On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:  5 bronzed Italians
             “El Alamein – The Line of Fire” is an Italian war movie set in North Africa at the start of the Battle of El Alamein.  It was released in 2002.  It follows five Italian soldiers from the Pavia Division.

                In October, 1942 a newbie named Serra (Paolo Briguglia) arrives at the front.  He’s a college boy who has dropped out to do his duty (ala Taylor in “Platoon”).  His guide is disintegrated by an artillery shell.  Too soon with the “war is hell” theme!  The depressed men are appropriately living in trenches near the Qattara Depression.  Serra is informed that the two biggest problems are thirst and dysentery.  Sgt. Rizzo (Pierfrancesco Favino) becomes his mentor and tells him every soldier gets three miracles and then fate comes knocking.  Some of those miracles come from surviving the random, intense, and amazingly accurate British bombardments.

                The central core of the movie is a series of vignettes that include going in minefield to loot a British truck, sparing the life of Mussolini’s horse, frolicking at a beach, and a mortar versus sniper duel.  You know, the usual war movie stuff.  This leads up to the big set piece which has the unit defending a sector of the front against the British onslaught.  They are given amphetamines to keep awake.  This is the first time I have seen reference to this WWII practice.  The assault occurs at night so the British tanks have their headlights on.  Did British tanks use headlights?  The combat is visceral with slo-mo, of course.  Although the British break through, when dawn breaks the Italians have held the position.  Without researching yet, I will call a foul on this.  From” last stand” the film transitions to “lost patrol” as Serra, Rizzo, and Lt. Fiore wander through the desert.

                “El Alamein” is pretty good for an Italian war movie, about the WWII Italian army.  Not exactly my favorite subgenre.  It can be boring at times, but so is war from a soldier’s viewpoint.  The movie is realistic about soldier life (privations and dysentery) and the randomness of death.  You definitely get the microview as the five main characters don’t have a clue about the big picture and neither does the audience.  You won’t learn much about the Battle of El Alamein from this movie.  You do learn that the Italian soldiers were human beings.  The main characters are well-played and appealing.  In fact, there are no villains in the film.  Serra may remind of Chris Taylor background-wise, but that is where the “Platoon” parallels cease.  Serra is welcomed into the unit and there is no hazing.  By the way, Rizzo reminded me of Sgt. Elias.

                The movie is well made.  The cinematography is average, but the music is outstanding.  It is eerie and foreboding at times.  The themes are pretty thick.  Abandonment, survival against the odds, soldiers are pawns, the role of luck (or miracles as the movie proclaims) in warfare.  Certainly the experiences of Italian soldiers in North Africa were rife for exploring these themes.  It is important to note that the movie is sad, but not maudlin.  I did not feel contempt for the Italians, like I have when reading about the war in North Africa.  The movie develops sympathy for them.  I guess they deserved that.

Christmas cheer?  It’s not bad, but I doubt I will remember it.

Grade =  B-

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Christmas Day 4: Never So Few (1959)

On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:  four guerrilla Kachin

                “Never So Few” is a WWII movie set in Burma in 1943.  It was directed by John Sturges (“The Great Escape”) and released in 1959, one year before his vastly superior “Magnificent Seven”.  It is loosely based on OSS Detachment 101 which operated behind enemy lines in Burma and made use of the anti-Japanese Kachin warriors.  The unit was tasked with ambushing patrols, rescuing downed pilots, and setting up landing strips.  The movie is highly fictionalized, however.

                The film has a recognizable cast led by Frank Sinatra as the unit leader, Capt. Reynolds.  The movie gets a head-scratching start as the men lounge around in a jungle camp even though they are warned that the Japanese are sneaking up on them.  Supposedly they are luring the enemy into a trap, but one character is still reading a comic book when the Japanese open fire.  They then proceed to dash into the foliage and then counterattack.  Wouldn’t they have been waiting in concealment?  WTF  The movie makes no attempt to recover from this perplexing opening.  One theme is established as Reynolds puts his caddy (the Kachin that is tasked with handing Reynolds an appropriate weapon in combat) out of his stomach-wound misery even though he is unconscious and not screaming in pain or begging to be killed.  We now know Reynolds is a bad-ass who doesn’t care what his wimpy subordinates want.

                Reynolds makes a trip back to civilization (well, India anyway) so we can get an exotic locale and some romance in the form of Clara (Gina Lollobrigida).  She waltzes in on the arm of a three-finger cigarette smoking rich snob and proceeds to stomp on Reynolds tongue which happens to be lying on the floor.  She is so brutally condescending to the Yank that you can be sure they will hook up by the end of the film.  Lucky for anyone hoping to see some acting in this movie, Reynolds meets Cpl. Ringa (Steve McQueen) and enlists him to bring some life into the film.

                From here the movie drunkenly sways from Old School combat action of the no blood, no enemy wounded variety to Old School romantic interludes between Reynolds and Clara.  These interludes are like speed bumps.  The feisty Clara is frosty until she suddenly isn’t.  She is always well-dressed and well-coiffed, but so is Sinatra.  There is a scene where Reynolds is wounded and is gleeful when it is suggested he return back to India (John Wayne, he ain’t).

                The big set piece is a raid on a Japanese base.  The action is ridiculous with drive-by shooting via trucks and Reynolds tossing jerry cans that explode on contact.  There are plenty of gasoline barrels to make for pretty explosions in the night.  Hollywood!  Reynold’s old Kachin liaison gets a good death scene (this comes on the heels of the Japanese killing Reynold’s monkey during a Christmas ambush – Jap bastards!).

                Reynolds defies orders by infiltrating China to track Chinese bandits who ambushed an Allied convoy.  They sneak up on the camp in broad daylight because all the enemy are sleeping.  When Reynold’s BFF Danny is treacherously gunned down, Reynolds orders the execution of all the prisoners.  When he returns he faces court-martial.  Guess who is waiting for him?  Hint:  well-coiffed.  She’s like a big-breasted bad penny.  Queue the swelling music.

                This is a typical Sinatra war movie.  It’s all about him.  He gets to spend half the movie romancing Lollobrigida because he could.  The movie has a low ratio of macho to smoochie.  The combat, when it sporadically arrives, is poorly staged and unrealistic.  The acting is average which allows McQueen to stand out.  Sinatra plays himself which means Reynolds is a jerk and a poor leader.  The theme of leaders having to make tough decisions is diluted a bit by Reynolds’ decision to commit a war crime.  But they’re just Chinese bandits.  Note the year of the movie’s release to figure out why the Chinese are bigger villains than the Japanese.  Another flaw is that for a movie dedicated to the Kachin, there is little lauding going on. 

                Good Christmas viewing?  Only if you would like to see a monkey get killed at a Christmas celebration – you sick bastard!
                P.S.  Look at the poster. "Kiss by kiss the time ran out and never so few were the moments left for love."  If that got you into the theater, I hope you were a female.

Grade =  D 

Friday, December 27, 2013

Christmas Day 3 - The Mark of Cain

On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me… three Cain-marked Brits

                “The Mark of Cain” is “based on extensive research, but is a dramatic work of fiction.”  I assume the research was about Abu Ghraib and similar incidents.  The made-for-TV British drama won a BAFTA and Amnesty International recognized it as a “Movie That Matters”.  It is a tale set in Basra, Iraq and then back home in Britain.

                When Mark (Gerard Kearns) and his buddy Shane (Matthew McNulty) arrive in Iraq, they and the other newbies are counseled on the need to avoid violations of the rules of war.  Their commander states that any unjustifiable killing of civilians will result in the “mark of Cain”.  A well-staged ambush results in the fiery death of their commander.  Vengeance is in the air and a “search and detain vigorously” raid nabs some suspects.  Cpl. Gant (Shaun Dooley) tells the men to lay off the detainees, but has a change of heart and leads the “interrogation”.  The reluctant Mark is peer pressured into joining in the “fun”.  Shane is a picture-taking participant.

                Upon return to Britain, Mark suffers from PTSD and guilt feelings which result in convenient flash-backs.  Shane suffers from picture showing-off and a snitching girl friend.  The two and Gant are charged with war crimes.  Gant and everyone up the chain of command scapegoat the two privates.  Mark admits he was caught between moral courage (the ability to report atrocities) and loyalty to his unit mates.  He now feels he chose unwisely and is torn apart by it.  Shane eventually comes to this conclusion as well.  He is pressured to plead guilty at his court-martial and take one for the team.  What will he do?

                The film is meant to be thought-provoking and basically succeeds although how we are to think is pretty much shoved down your throat.  Anyone unaware of the Abu Ghraib-type activities would be informed by this movie.  I think that was the point.  (What I learned was that the Brits pointed at wieners, too.)  It is not as heavy-handed as the Amnesty International endorsement would imply. 

The movie is balanced cinematically.  The ambush scene is of the new school variety.  Hand-held.  Quick cuts.  Realistic soldier reactions (ex.  one guy freezes).  The movie does a fine job setting up the torture by showing the stress (e.g., that coke can could be an IED) and fog of war (is having a lot of cash proof of insurgency?) the soldiers went through.  You are forced to wonder how you would have reacted if some of your mates were killed by faceless insurgents.  Iraq = Vietnam.  The home front scenes are also realistic.  Mark and Shane represent two extremes of soldier post-combat reactions.

                The movie is well made, especially for a TV production.  The cinematography is interesting.  The flashbacks work in teasing out the torture.  The acting is fine.  The three leads are effective although Gant’s switch from warning against atrocities to leading them is implausible.  Dooley does play slime-ball well.  Kearns is particularly poignant as the tortured torturer. 

The movie attacks some easy targets.  The military has a code of silence similar to the police.  Young men do bad things under war stress.  Military authorities tend to cover up crimes that they encouraged.  Hey British society, you have the mark of Cain.  Ours is way bigger than yours, however.  USA!  USA!  USA!

Good gift?  Sure, and it’s so Christmasy.  Actually I should throw in a Genesis reference here.

Grade =  B-

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas #2 - The Vikings (1958)

On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, two feuding Vikings …

                “The Vikings” has been called a “Norse opera” because it combines Western elements with a soap opera feel.  It was directed by Richard Fleischer with much input from his star Kirk Douglas.  It was filmed in Norway to take advantage of the lovely fjords.  The film makes efforts to throw in a greatest hits of Viking warrior culture - for entertainment purposes.

                The story begins with Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine) raiding England, killing a king, and impregnating the queen.  The new King Aella sends the baby off into exile and years later Erik (Tony Curtis) arrives in Norway as a slave.  Ragnar’s legitimate son Einar (Douglas) is a vain playa, but great warrior.  He and Erik take an instant dislike to each other which is aggravated by the fact that Erik’s falcon takes out one of Einar’s eyes.  Ragnar sentences Erik to death-by-high-tide, but Odin saves him.  Later, Erik rescues the kidnapped princess Morgana (Janet Leigh as Aella’s bride) from the lusty Einar.  Strike two.  Erik sails to England using a magic metal that points the way through a fog which causes Ragnar’s ship to crash into rocks.  Strike three.  Erik rescues Ragnar and turns him over to Aella for death-by-wolf-pit (but Erik gets major Viking props for slipping Ragnar a sword so he can die a Viking’s death).  Erik is kicked out of England sans left hand and forms an awkward alliance with Einar to get Morgana back.  They’ll figure out who gets her later.  This leads to the big castle-storming scene and inevitable duel.  Both of which are rousing.

                Before I go any further, this is not really a war movie.  With that said, it is entertaining, if implausible.  Lots of things have to fall into place to reach the action-packed finale.  The acting is okay, but Douglas is not his usual outstanding self.  He tries too hard, as does the movie which vainly tries to reach epic status.  This includes the pompous epic wannabe score.  Borgnine has a fine time, Curtis is handsomely noble, and Leigh is ravishing (and ravish-worthy).  Speaking of out-standing: Leigh’s breasts.  (see below)  The locales are awesomely scenic and we get a lot of local color in the form of manly Viking activities.  Fleischer crams in as many as the film can hold.  The Vikings are caricatured.  They spend most of their time getting drunk and engaging in manly contests like “Running the Oars” (that’s really my man Kirk risking his life!) and cutting the braids of an adulteress with throwing axes.  These are the same carousing berserkers who are so afraid of the fog they always sail within sight of land. The Vikings were such wimps.  Unless they have a magical metal England-finder.  Kudos for the accurately constructed longboats and for not putting horns on their helmets.  Beware:  this movie has extreme violence for a 1958 movie.  (Some critics were shocked by the wolf pit scene and Ragnar was not even shown in the pit!  Quaint.)  So if you are a grandma, you should avoid it.
                Merry Christmas?  It’s so fluffy, it’s more Easterish.
Grade =  C-

Wednesday, December 25, 2013


        Since I have the Holidays off, I have decided to see if I can watch and review 12 movies and post them over the next twelve days.  Probably too ambitious, but what the heck.  Anyway, here goes.

THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS:  On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:  one God in a cockpit…

                “God is My Co-Pilot” is a flag-waving WWII movie released in 1945.  It is based on the smash hit autobiography of Robert Lee Scott, Jr.  Scott served as a technical advisor and did some stunt flying for the film.  It is true to his story and certainly retains the spiritual theme.  The film had the full cooperation of the Air Force which provided several P-40s and B-25s and AT-6s to masquerade as Zeros.

                A montage takes Scott (Dennis Morgan) from jumping off a roof with an umbrella to a secret mission to India as a bomber pilot.  Along the way he gets his first sermon from the family black guy about the need for God instead of luck in the cockpit.  Scott remains skeptical for most of the film.  The interlude in India gets the requisite exotic locale in and clues us in on two facts.  One, there are belly dancers in India.  Two, WWII air crewmen said things like “jiminy crickets” and “jumping jehosafats”.  God would approve.  

                After a stint flying the Hump into China, Scott hooks up with Gen. Chennault (Raymond Massey) and Father “Big Mike” (Alan Hale).  He is assigned a fighter and helps defend the base against an attack led by the legendary “Tokyo Joe” (Richard Loo).  This is one of the most hilarious scenes in war movie history as the opposing pilots trash talk through the dog fight.  Naturally the Japanese speak American.  Here is a sampling:

                Tokyo Joe:  “Okay, you Yankee Doodle Dandies, come and get it.  I’m going to drop one right in Chennault’s lap.  Where are you gangsters?  Come on up and get a load of that scrap metal you sold us.”

                Johnny:  “Now repeat after me.  Your mother was a turtle, your father was a snake and you’re a good Jap.”

                        Crew chief:  “Why you dirty retail monkey!”

                        Johnny:  “One meatball in the side pocket.”

                Scott turns into the star of the unit and his home town follows him like Joe Dimaggio.  He duels with Tokyo Joe, but they both run out of ammo before they run out of zingers.  He flies Father Mike through a storm which inspires the priest to give a sermon about what a wonderful co-pilot God would be.  The sun emerges as though to smack Scott upside the head.  In the climactic duel, Tokyo Joe is outnumbered two to one and even the samurai sword he carries on board does not make up for Scott’s co-pilot.


                “God is My Co-Pilot” is unique in balancing its flag-waving propaganda with cloying religiousity.  That is not a winning combination, although the movie was a hit with those patriotic Bible-thumping rubes that made up 1940s audiences.  Sorry, greatest generation grandparents, I couldn’t help that one.  Even if you take out the sermons and the lame taunting, the dialogue is atrocious.  The music matches it.  The action is fair.  The dog fights are not “Wings” worthy, but they are swirling.  We get a lot of cockpit views and bullet holes in the glass indicating death.  Planes tend to blow up and no one parachutes.  The movie has a large amount of droning.  The acting is average.  Earnest, but not scene-chewing. 


                Was it a good Christmas present?  If God is asking – yes!  Otherwise, I would have preferred a lump of coal.


grade =  D

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

We Were Soldiers (2002)

                “We Were Soldiers” was based on the acclaimed best seller We Were Soldiers Once…And Young by Lt. Col. Harold Moore and journalist Joseph Galloway.  The book is a non-fiction account of the Battle of Ia Drang in the Vietnam War.  The movie was written, directed, and produced by Randall Wallace of “Braveheart” and “Pearl Harbor” infamy. 

                The film opens with a scene set in 1954 during the First Indochina War pre-Dien Bien Phu.  A French unit is ambushed in the Ia Drang Valley (the Valley of Death) by the Vietminh led by Nguyen Huu An  and wiped out.  The action is graphic with “Saving Private Ryan” style cinematography (quick cuts, slo-mo, POV).  It’s a great opening and sets the theme of “how will the American experience be different?”

                The body of the film begins at Fort Benning, Ga (it was filmed on location) in 1964.  Back when America was innocent, naïve, and overconfident.  And clueless about nonconventional warfare in a jungle environment.  Moore (Mel Gibson) arrives with his idyllic family of supportive wife and perfect kids.  A 1950s TV family in a 2000s war movie that wants to be a John Wayne movie.

Plumley and Moore - comedy team
                Moore is in command of a new type of unit – air cavalry.  Helicopters will take the role of horses.  The unit is the 7th Cavalry and in case you don’t get the reference, the movie hammers the fact that the 7th was Custer’s unit and you know what happened to them!  We get the obligatory training montage.    The movie is an excellent study in command.  Moore is the classic “lead by example” commander.  He is also very hands-on in his leadership.  This includes counseling his young officers.  For instance, he has a talk with a new father named Lt. Geoghegan (Chris Klein) in a chapel.  The scene is cringe-inducing with overt religiousity and sappy dialogue.  Geoghegan is saintly and soon to be a papa with his new bride (and thus doomed).  Moore offers a prayer that concludes with asking God to disregard the enemy’s prayers and help us kill the “little bastards”.  Hilarious!

Geoghegan and Moore pray to prey
on our enemies
                The movie makes a concerted effort to integrate the families into the narrative.  Moore tells his daughter that war is when some people in another country try to take the lives of people and then soldiers like daddy have to go over and try to stop them.  This is not a bad analysis of what the public was told the war was about in 1964.  The movie introduces us to the officers’ wives.  Julie Moore (Madeline Stowe) is the sorority mom.  When orders come, the men are enthusiastic about going off to test their manhood, the wives are stoically nervous.

                The unit is sent to the Central Highlands in 1965.  The air cavalry experiment is about to begin.  That experiment is simple – use mobility to “find the enemy and kill them”.  Their first mission is to land in an enemy area and provoke combat.  Hopefully not against ten to one odds.  Oops!  Hueys led by Maj. Crandall (Greg Kinnear) drop them in a clearing designated LZ X-Ray.  The tactics are realistic as the Americans come charging off the choppers guns blazing and immediately establish a perimeter.  Things go wrong immediately as the gung-ho Lt. Herrick (Marc Blucas) goes chasing after an enemy scout and gets himself killed (“If I have to die. I’m glad to give my life for my country.”) and his platoon cut off in a position called The Knoll.  Sgt. Savage (Ryan Hurst) takes command.  The trials the Lost Platoon will go through are incredible.  A few men holding out against huge numbers of the enemy.  The fighting gets so desperate Savage calls artillery fire down on his own position.

                Inside the perimeter, it’s a macrocosm of what the Lost Platoon is going through.  The landing at LZ X-Ray was like kicking an ant pile.  It turns out there is a NVA battalion commanded by now Col. An stationed in the hills nearby and they are up for a fight.  Even against the vaunted U.S. Army.  The battle is a series of enemy assaults and Moore’s attempts to plug the holes with his courageous few.  Crandall’s helicopters participate by bringing in reinforcements and supplies and medevac the wounded under fire.  They also bring in an intrepid photojournalist named Joseph Galloway (Barry Pepper).  At one point, the NVA get to the command post and Galloway grabs an M-16 and fights for survival, like everyone else.

                At this point the movie jumps to the home front where the wives are coping with separation, but not death.  Then the first telegrams arrive.  Julie Moore and Barbara Geoghegan (Keri Russell) take over delivering the death notices.  It’s extremely poignant and effective.  Wouldn’t it be extra poignant if one of the telegrams is for one of them?

Mrs. Geoghegan and Mrs. Stowe
delivering telegrams
                Meanwhile, day two dawns to more of the same.  Now the VC have joined in, for Christ’s sake!  Geoghegan and a black soldier make a two man assault so racism can be eliminated and Geoghegan can leave his body in no man’s land to be found by Moore later.  Hail, Hollywood!  The enemy break-through in several places and it begins to look like those Custer premonitions will come to fruition.  It gets so bad Moore has to call for “Broken Arrow” (when all available aircraft drop ordinance on a unit about to be overrun).  Some friendly fire napalm roasts Pfc. Nakayama because he had made the mistake of bragging about his new born.  Two proud fathers, two doomed soldiers.  The movie implies the Broken Arrow incident turns the tide.  Soon after, another attempt to reach the Lost Platoon is successful.  Savage takes a short breather and then reenters combat because if you have a name like that …

Napalm + Hollywood = box office dynamite
                On the third day, An plans an all-out assault to finish off the exhausted Americans and thus convince the Yankees that South Vietnam is a bad investment.  This will be the ultimate vindication for his “grab them by the belt buckle” solution to American artillery and air support.  Col. Joshua Chamberlain, I mean Lt. Col. Moore, looks at the situation and decides it calls for a bayonet charge.  “Fix bayonets!”  Moore (Gibson)  leads the charge.  The enemy are too surprised to fire their weapons.  However, the thrill of the chase carries our heroes smack into the well- defended enemy bunker complex.  Get more telegrams ready, including one for Julie Moore.  But wait, the air cavalry arrives in the form of Crandall in a Huey gunship and he proceeds to Gatling and rocket the enemy to smithereens.  USA! USA! USA!

                An licks his wounds and prepares for the long haul.  The media arrives like vultures to report the great “victory”.  Moore is the last to leave, as he promised.  The rest is history.  Spoiler alert:  we lost.

                This is a schizophrenic movie.  Parts of it are great and parts are not.  Not surprising for a movie that tries to be accurate and entertaining in equal measure.  Wallace insisted the movie was as accurate as possible (the same bull shit he spewed about “Braveheart”) and most of it is.  The parts that are aimed at the general audience make a war movie lover squirm.  The Moore family scenes are not pathetic, but it’s obvious Wallace meant to make the opposite of the unpatriotic, impious Vietnam flicks like “Platoon”, “Apocalypse Now”, “Full Metal Jacket”, and “The Deer Hunter”.  The pre-battle training sequence is simplistic and heavy in foreshadowing.  For instance, Herrick is a tightly-wound glory hound who is likely to get his men into a trap.   Sure ‘nuff.   The references to Custer’s Last Stand are too maladroit.  

                The trite pre-Vietnam scenes come to an abrupt end when the unit gets shipped overseas.  That scene is powerful with a building score and no dialogue.  In no time at all, they are in battle.  The action is consistently intense and some of the effects are spectacular.  This movie has more combat than a vast majority of war movies.  And yet, believe it or not, the actual battle was even more intense and violent than the movie.  The tactics are realistic for both sides.  The movie is excellent on helicopter participation in the fighting and air and artillery support.  The napalm shots are breathtaking (get it?).  There is even a “mad minute” moment to get the enemy to reveal their positions.  One problem I had was the lack of emphasis on the role of M-60s in holding off human wave attacks.  It could be argued that “We Were Soldiers” comes closest to accurately portraying a Vietnam battle.

                The movie is rolling along nicely until it jumps the shark with Moore going out in the dark to find Geoghegan.  It is inconceivable that a commander would risk his life in a situation like that.  The scene was obviously forced in to confirm Moore’s pledge not to leave any men behind.  More tears get jerked with the telegram for Barbara.  But Wallace saves his best for last with the abysmal bayonet charge topped off with the Crandall massacre of the remainder of the enemy.  Wallace forces a happy ending into what was a pretty level-headed narrative.  This reminded me a lot of “Pearl Harbor”.  Worse, the success of American grit and firepower in winning the battle dilutes the explicit moral that America will have a hard time in Vietnam.

                The last ten minutes of the movie prevent it from being a very good movie, but it still ends up being good and better than most Vietnam War movies.  The acting is good if a bit too earnest and the cast is able.  The actors were put through a boot camp.  Mel Gibson is not aggravating and gets Moore’s personality right.  It’s obvious Gibson was comfortable playing a man as religious as he is.  Greg Kinnear is strong as Crandall and Pepper’s late appearance as Galloway gives the movie a second wind.  Making the most impact is Sam Elliot as Sgt. Major Plumley.  It’s acting in his sleep, but the character is a lot of fun, if clicheish.  He gets some great lines and provides some welcome humor without cracking a smile.  He does not say a lot, but it’s all quality.  Unfortunately, much of the dialogue could easily fit into a 1940s war film.  When Moore asks Galloway what he is doing there, Galloway says “because I knew these dead boys would be here.”  At one point,  Moore says “There’s nothing wrong except that there’s nothing wrong.”  Apparently, the dialogue is accurate, but it seems hokey.

                The movie is technically proficient as would be expected for a movie costing $70 million.  Wallace may be shaky as a screenwriter, but he does a good job directing.  The action scenes incorporate all the bells and whistles of modern war movies.  There are some hand-held shots.  There is some slo-mo.  Blood splatters on the camera lens.  It is a very violent movie.  The make-up crew did a remarkable job on some horrendous wounds.   Someone counted the number of KIAs – 305.  The sound effects are great.  The lighting in the night attacks is admirable.  The score is fine and restrained.

                The movie has some admirable goals.  Wallace wants the audience to get a feel for what military wives go through.  Having a military mother and having lived on a base while my father flew in Vietnam I can attest to the authenticity of the home front scenes.  The telegram scenes are not in the book and may be Hollywood, but they are refreshing for this macho genre.  We certainly did not need another stale romance or love triangle.  Stowe is great as Julie Moore.  WWS has a strong female vibe.  Another example of balance is the coverage of the enemy.  This is not “Black Hawk Down”.  The communists are not faceless.  Gen. An (Don Duong) is sympathetically rendered as are his men.   One soldier gets to keep a diary with his girl’s picture in it and then gets to try to bayonet Col. Moore.  They are brave but there is definitely a drone quality to them.  Wallace goes out of his way to cover their tactics and even implies they will win the war.

                Some people sneer at the unambiguous religiousity of the film and Gibson’s involvement in the film caters to this criticism.  However, my research shows that Moore is indeed a devout Catholic so the characterization is true to form although obviously forced into the film (probably at the insistence of Gibson).  Considering how a vast majority of war movies purposely ignore religion, we can excuse WWS for purposefully including God.  It has more scenes with religion than any ten war movies.  Hell, even An says a prayer.  Another jarring element is the squeaky cleanness of the American soldiers.  This ain’t “Platoon”.  There is no drug use or sociopathic behavior.  Although I would put the movie in the VioLingo school, I do not think the f word was used a single time.  (Considering the graphic violence, Wallace’s decision to sanitize the language is bizarre.)  Before you cry bogus, this is fairly close to the 1965 Army especially when you consider these would not be draftees and they are in an elite unit.  They should be naïve, enthusiastic, and patriotic.

                In conclusion, “We Were Soldiers” could have been the best Vietnam War movie if Wallace had not pulled his punches in the end.  For someone who wanted to make the most accurate Vietnam War battle movie, it is infuriating that he would taint his admirable effort with a phony happy ending.  Especially when the truth would have fit his purpose so much better.  Still, if you overlook the bayonet charge, the battle is as good as you are going to get, the wives get their just due, the soldiers of both sides are positively depicted, the enemy is sympathetically portrayed, and the movie is an excellent study in command.  Nothing’s perfect.

grade =  A-
broken arrow

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

DUELING MOVIES: What Price Glory? 1926 vs. 1952


                “What Price Glory?” was based on a play by Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings.  It is mainly set in the Western Front of WWI.  Both movies are credited with creating the buddy film.  They also created one of the enduring war movie clichés - the battling rivals in love and war.  This is appropriately known as the Quirt/Flagg trope. 
                The Raoul Walsh silent version begins in China where Flagg (Victor McLaglan) is sweet on a prostitute named Mabel.  He gets into a knock down fight with his big rival Quirt (Edmund Lowe).  The film then jumps to the Philippines where Quirt steals Flagg’s Filipino girl friend.  This is supposed to be hilarious and maybe it was in the Twenties.
                Now that we know that Quirt and Flagg are frenemies who are always after the same girl we are off to the Western Front in 1917.  Flagg is now a Captain in command of a company stationed in a French village.  Flagg is billeted at the local tavern where he begins to woo the saucy owner’s daughter Charmaine (Delores Del Rio).  Because this is technically a war movie, the company gets sent to the front for some action.  They attack across no man’s land in a pretty good set piece with plenty of explosions.  To make sure the audience does not enjoy the war Flagg says:  “There’s something rotten about a world that’s got to be wet down every thirty years with the blood of boys like those.”
                Okay, with that out of the way, it’s back to the village for more wooing.  Guess who shows up to complicate the romance?  Flagg goes off on a ten day pass to wine and wench thus leaving Quirt to move in on Charmaine.  She is receptive because he’s a U.S. Marine and they are pretty interchangeable.  When Flagg returns he is confronted by Charmaine’s father who demands that the Marine who “wrecked” his daughter get hitched to her and throw in 500 francs.  He is referring to Quirt and Flagg is guffawing as the mayor is called in to officiate the wedding.  Close call as Charmaine doesn’t cotton to being sold.  Bugles!  Time for another combat interlude.
Quirt, Charmaine, and Flagg
                This time it’s a night attack.  Explosions go off like a pack of firecrackers as our heroes cross no man’s land.  The action is fast-paced and dynamic.  There are deaths, including the “momma’s boy” who dies in Flagg’s arms.  Lt. Kiper rants about the futility of war and asks “what price glory now?” 
                I won’t ruin the ending for you.  I know you will want to watch the movie to find out who gets Charmaine, but since I mentioned that this was the first buddy film you can bet Quirt and Flagg go marching off hand in hand.
#$%^&*! (subtitled:  You are a big poop head!)
                This is a typical silent film in that the acting is hammy and the soundtrack is incessant.  McLaglan is actually pretty good and Del Rio is spicy (thank goodness we did not have to hear her Mexican accent).  The rest of the cast grossly overacts.  They have one character who must have thought he was the Jim Carrey of his day.  His big schtick is doing raspberries.  His constant mugging is supposed to be hilarious, but comes off as desperately creepy.  The humor is basically slap stick with what passed for witty lines.  Like: “why don’t you blow your brains out?”  One reason why the movie is famous is because McLaglan and Lowe were actually swearing at each other which resulted in complaints from lipreaders.  How quaint!  Someone needs to put out an updated version with accurate subtitles.  Apparently noone had problems with the number of ass shots thrown in.  We see each significant female’s derriere before we get to know their face.
                The movie is more of a romance than a war movie.  The two combat scenes are adequate, but are thrown in to break the monotony of the romance.  The company spends no time in the trenches.  They go off twice to cross no man’s land and then it’s home to the village for wining and wenching.  War is Hell – is what the movie is trying to say, ineffectively.   The romance is lame and I did not care who got the girl.  The two main characters are not to root for.  As far as competition with “The Big Parade”, get serious!
                The 1952 version was directed by John Ford and stars Jimmy Cagney (Flagg) and Dan Dailey (Quirt).  The plot is essentially the same, but there is a lot more physical humor and some songs.  The movie actually has a credit for “dances staged by”.  As a war movie lover, I can tell you that you never want to see that at the beginning of a war movie!  Nor do you want to endure songs being sung by characters.  The combat is periphery again and unrealistic.  Ford does not seem to have his heart in the action scenes.  He does have Quirt and Flagg going into no man’s land together (helmetless) and arguing in conveniently placed shell craters.  The movie has a weird vibe by mixing humor and drama less than deftly.
Charmaine and Quirt
                Cagney and Dailey must have been told they were making a silent movie because they do some serious scene-chewing.  Cagney is basically playing Cagney.  It is an embarrassing performance.  There is no chemistry between the leads.  Corinne Calvet is lovely as Charmaine, but cannot act.  We also get a very young Robert Wagner as Pvt. Lewisohn.
                The 1926 version is not a good war movie.  It is overrated as entertainment, but deserves credit for introducing the Quirt/Flagg trope that will reappear in many future movies – not just war movies, by the way.  The remake is inferior although the fact that it is in sound probably makes it more watchable for most viewers.  I would not recommend either. 
Cagney as Flagg

grades:  1926 =  C-   1952 =  D