Saturday, March 30, 2013


Cross of Iron (7) vs. Hell is for Heroes (10)

        “Hell is for Heroes” (1962) is a small unit movie with a good ensemble cast of solid actors. The film is dominated by Steve McQueen’s portrayal of the loner Pvt. Reese (broken down from Sergeant presumably for infractions outside of combat). It may have been method acting or his displeasure with involvement with the production, but McQueen is quite convincing as the dislikeable jerk. He also has the “thousand yard stare” down pat. The rest of the cast (James Coburn, Harry Guardino, Bobby Darin, Fess Parker, Nick Adams) are solid.

        “Cross of Iron” (1977) is anchored by James Coburn’s portrayal of Sgt. Steiner. He is outstanding as the cynical, anti-authority figure. It is one of his greatest performances. It is not a one-note performance like McQueen’s. He gives Steiner some humanity and compassion for his men. The other stars (James Mason, Maximilian Schell, and David Warner) do good work, but the unknowns who make up Steiner’s squad are only adequate.

Cross of Iron             8
Hell is for Heroes      8


        “Hell is for Heroes” is a typical small unit, “who will survive?” movie. The unit is heterogeneous as it consists of the surly Reese, the scrounger Corby, the mechanic Henshaw, the kid Cumberly, the no-nonsense Sergeant Larkin, the noncombatant clerk Driscoll, etc. There is a mascot-type in the Polish soldier-wanna-be Homer. These characters are not really developed and are not particularly stereotypes. Nobody is from Brooklyn. You do get the cliché of who will get killed next and how. The hero (actually anti-hero) Reese does have leadership thrust upon him, but rather than complain, uses it to launch an ill-conceived mission against a pill box. There is no real conflict within the group and no rituals. The movie falls nicely into the "last stand" subgenre. There is a redemption theme, but Reese’s climactic action is more to avoid another court-martial than to redeem himself.

        “Cross of Iron” is also a small unit movie, but it is much more complex. The final half of the movie has the standard hero leading his unit on a mission that involves making it back to friendly lines. The unit is heterogeneous, but the characters are given little back-story and only have small quirks to identify them. The clichés are mainly reserved for the officers. Steiner is the anti-hero, anti-establishment stereotype. Stransky is the cowardly, glory-hound. This movie’s mascot takes the form of a Russian boy taken prisoner and adopted by the squad.  The movie also throws in Steiner abandoning a comely nurse (Senta Berger) to return to his comrades because in war movies its always "bros before hoes".  There is no conflict within the group, but there is a major command conflict that is strangely left unresolved. There is no redemption. That would be an out of place theme in a movie that does not believe in redemption.

Cross        15
Hell           15


         “Hell is for Heroes” was written by Robert Pirosh who also did “Battleground” and went on to create the TV series “Combat!” (which has a very similar tone to the movie). The plot moves from the rest area to the combat zone pretty quickly. Enough time for the usual grousing about “why us?!” Reese arrives during the rest time and goes off with his new unit after making quite an impression as an ass hole. The rest of the plot involves the stretched thin squad’s attempt to defend an outpost on the Siegfried Line. There are plot contrivances like a German listening device that gives the producers the chance to shoe-horn a Bob Newhart telephone routine that is funny, but ridiculously out of place in a gritty combat film. It is not the only bit of comic relief as Corby fills the wisecracker role. From here it’s the plot’s job to kill off most of the squad in a variety of ways and then leave us with a big set piece.

        “Cross of Iron” is based on an excellent novel entitled The Willing Flesh by German WWII veteran Willi Heinrich. It follows the plot of the book closely. The movie opens and closes with battle. In between there is some good solders-in-the-bunker comradeship and some tense headquarters debates. A subplot involves whether Stransky lied about his bravery in battle in order to get the Iron Cross and his attempts to eliminate Steiner because Steiner could torpedo the decoration. The first half plays the Steiner/Stransky conflict out punctuated by desperate defense of the front line. The bridge between the first and second halves is Steiner’s often surrealistic stay in a hospital. The second half is more of a trek film as the survivors of Steiner’s unit work their way back to their own lines. A unique encounter with female Soviet soldiers highlights this section. This half of the movie also picks off the men as we near the climactic showdown between Stransky and Steiner.

Cross        23
Hell           22


         “Hell is for Heroes” has some pretty gritty combat for a 1962 film. The first is a German night raid that has Reese using his helmet and a bowie knife to kill a German and Henshaw roasting another with a flame-thrower and letting him burn. The next big scene is the attempt to crawl up on the German bunker at night through a mine field. It’s more suspenseful than violent. It takes an unexpected turn. Finally we get the frontal assault across no man’s land that ends with Reese literally take out the pill box by himself. That last scene is marred by some silly old school deaths. The combat is satisfactory for a low budget film.

         “Cross of Iron” is loaded with combat. I am hard pressed to think of another war movie that has a higher percent of actual fighting. (Actually, I just thought of “Black Hawk Down”.) The action is very Peckinpahish. It was his only war film and he basically channels “The Wild Bunch” in the cinematography. The big battle scenes are mixtures of explosions, slo-mo, quick cuts, chaos, and violence. The combat scenes also are more extended than in most war films. Pekinpah may abhor war, but he revels in the violence. Although not a big budget film, Pekinpah makes great use of his limited resources to deliver some large battle scenes. This is especially true in his use of the three Yugoslavian T-34 tanks. Seldom have tanks been used more effectively. There are two huge set pieces sandwiched by two more intimate combat episodes involving the squad by itself. Peckinpah’s way of composing the violence was to have an impact on war films for the next two decades (see “Hamburger Hill”, for instance).

Cross of Iron          33
Hell is for Heroes   29


         This was an excellent match-up that came down to the last quarter. It was obvious that if "Cross" could hold off the game "Hell" until the combat section kicked in, "Cross" could cruise to victory. The surprising thing had to be the lack of advantage "Cross" had in the cliche sphere. It seems Peckinpah was not as iconoclastic in his characterizations and plotting as one might expect and "Hell" was less clicheish than one would expect from a glorified made-for-TV looking vehicle. In the match-up of the superstars, both performed well, but the edge has to go to Coburn (in Cross, not Hell).      

Thursday, March 28, 2013



        “Attack!” originated as a play so it relies on acting more than action. The cast is great. All of the performances are strong. Jack Palance is at his best as the cynical, on the edge Lt. Costa. Seething is a good description of him. Kudos to Eddie Albert (a WWII hero) for portraying the cowardly, incompetent Capt. Cooney. A third WWII veteran (Lee Marvin) is slithery as the ambitious Lt. Col. Bartlett who is using Cooney for his future political career. He will make a great politician. Buddy Ebsen, William Smithers, and Richard Jaeckel (of course) are part of the solid ensemble. Robert Strauss (“Animal” of “Stalag 17”) provides funny lines as the comic relief.

        “Battleground” is a small units dynamic movie. It follows a platoon into Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. The cast is full of familiar faces and is close to all-star. Although there is little dysfunctionality to chew scenery on, the characters are very likeable and you care about them. This adds to the “who will survive?” theme. James Whitmore was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but he does not really stand out because the rest of the ensemble is equally strong. Speaking of standing out (Get it? If not, you haven’t seen the movie), the movie manages to throw in a female character (Denise Darcel as the fraternization-friendly Bastogne babe).



        “Attack!” is a Robert Aldrich film so you can expect it to be iconoclastic. In fact, right off the bat there is no dedication or thank you to the military. This is because the Armed Forces refused to cooperate due to its depiction of incompetence, cowardice, and corruption among the officer class. It is not really a men on a mission movie. The mission is to take a town, but that is simply a catalyst for the ultimate confrontation between Costas and Cooney. Cooney’s situation is basically the opposite of the hero with leadership thrust upon him, but obviously the movie includes the typical command conflict. It’s resolution is definitely non-cliché, however. There is no redemption character.

        “Battleground” is more of a typical small unit movie. It is dedicated to the “Battered Bastards of Bastogne”. The unit is heterogeneous and includes a hillbilly, an old guy named Pop, a ladies man, an intellectual, a Latino, a newbie, and the crusty sergeant, among other stock characters. One of the men (Holley) has leadership thrust upon him. It could have gotten worse, but it does not cross the line into “give me a break”. There is no redemption although several characters shirk duty or either think about deserting under fire or actually run away. This is not done to set up any epiphanies, however. The film is simply saying these things happen. The tag lines on the posters clearly delineate the two movies with regard to cliches.



        “Attack!” is based on a play and feels like one. It is the tale of an excellent combat leader (Costas) who cares about his men, but understands the realities of combat. He doesn’t avoid combat, but he insists his unit be supported when it’s out on the limb. He and his men have nothing but contempt for the nepotistic Cooney. This contempt builds to a threatening hatred that naturally leads to a climactic showdown that is fairly predictable, but still powerful. The movie throws in a moral dilemma to close out.

        “Battleground” is much more traditional in its plotting. The unit starts out in camp, moves into the combat zone, digs in, and then encounters the enemy. Much of the plot involves character development so that when the fighting commences we will care about who makes it. Mission accomplished. The soldier banter and interaction is very entertaining. Each of the main characters is a distinct individual with personality quirks. One guy clicks his false teeth. Another has his own catch phrase (“That’s fer sure, that’s fer darn sure.”) It builds to a set piece battle and resolves with a feel good “cavalry riding to the rescue” happy ending. The survivors march off into the sunset.



        “Attack!” given its origin on stage was not really conceived with combat in mind. The three combat scenes exist to advance the plot. The opening scene has Costas’ men assaulting a pill box and getting slaughtered without support from the craven Cooney. The action is brief with old school deaths. The second bout is an assault on a house on the outskirts of a German held town which results in a "last stand" vibe. Again nothing special here combat-wise as it is more of an excuse for banter among the few who reach the house and to rev up Costas. The closing attack by the Germans on the American position includes two very un-German tanks (the low budget nature of the film impeded the scale of combat), but has a nifty segment of Costas taking on the tanks with a bazooka and suffering a unique injury.

        “Battleground” is surprisingly bereft of combat. That would be refreshingly realistic if this were a film like “A Walk in the Sun”, but in a movie about Bastogne it seems a purposeful attempt to downplay the realities of the situation to lighten the film. The big fight at the railroad embankment is an average payoff for the character-driven proceedings. This set piece does not match the noncombat segments. It is painfully sound-stageish and simplistic. The flanking maneuver results in a crowd-pleasing slaughter of the faceless enemy. This is the only extended violence in the film and it is far from a movie like “Cross of Iron”.

ATTACK!                     32

COLOR ANALYSIS: As they say, on any given Sunday. If there had been different categories in the first round, this bout could easily have ended differently. Basically “Attack!” won on the basis of it not being a traditional war movie. Although “Battleground” is not as full of clichés as it could have been, it was at a disadvantage against an Aldrich film. "Battleground" did not make up the ground in the obvious area of combat. In the other areas, they were pretty even. The second quarter decided this match. It’s a shame only one could win – they are both very entertaining films.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013



     “The Big Red One” is essentially a five actor movie. Lee Marvin plays a grizzled sergeant (he was 56 years old at the time) in charge of a squad that consists of four guys who can not be killed (or even wounded) and a series of cannon fodder replacements. Marvin is very good, as usual. He has the weary father-figure down pat. Unfortunately, he completely dominates the other four who range from barely registering (Kelly Ward as Johnson) to inconsistent (Robert Carradine as Zab ) to semi-charismatic (Bobby Di Cicco as Vinci) and earnestly bad (Mark Hammill as Griff).

     “The Desert Rats” is a Richard Burton movie. He plays British Capt. MacRoberts who given the task of cracking the whip on an undisciplined Australian unit. Burton is above this kind of material but he is game and takes the role seriously. The only other actor that makes an impression is Robert Newton as MacRoberts ex-scholmaster Bartlett. Newton plays a cowardly drunkard who refuses to run because it would be dishonorable. It is a poignantly effective performance. James Mason makes a welcome appearance as Rommel to (A) showcase an exchange between Mason and Burton (well done) and to (B) scuff up his portrayal from “The Desert Fox” (this Rommel is less likeable).

The Big Red One     7
The Desert Rats       8


     “The Big Red One” is a small unit (very small unit) movie. The squad (actually 1/3 of a squad) is heterogeneous. Johnson is a farm boy, Vinci is the wise-cracking Italian-American, Zab is the budding writer from Brooklyn, and Griff is the sharpshooter who can’t kill. The group is led by a hero (the Sarge), but they are not moving forward to accomplish a particular objective. There is a chronicler in the form of the narrator Zab (who represents Samuel Fuller). The movie does not alternate between opposites like action and rest, instead it is a series of vignettes. There is a redemption figure in Griff, but that subplot is surprisingly incomplete. There is no conflict within the group or over command. In conclusion, other than the stock characters the film avoids clichés.

     “The Desert Rats” has some familiar characters and situations. There are two redemption arcs: Carstairs who is almost court-martialed by MacRoberts and Bartlett. Both resolutions are predictable. MacNamara is the stock character who builds a unit using tough love which at first causes resentment but eventually results in respect. The unit is not clichely heterogeneous because few characters are developed. MacNamara is the hero and leader, but the role is not really forced upon him. The movie alternates combat with exposition.

The Big Red One       14
The Desert Rats         14


     The plot of BR1 can best be described as: a small squad led by an old sergeant go from Operation Torch to the end of the war while experiencing a series of incidents. The vignettes range from interesting (the liberation of the death camp) to bizarre (the insane asylum) to ridiculous (the ambush at the crucifix). It’s like Samuel Fuller kept a notebook of ideas for war movie scenes and then made a movie that included all of those ideas, good and bad. The scenes could have been put in any order. The movie is entertaining, but several of the mini-stories are painful for an intelligent war movie fan to watch. It’s one of those movies that tends to fall apart upon repeat viewing, but kudos for being different.

      The plot of TDR is much more standard. It flows from green, undisciplined unit being broken and trained by a tough leader to become confident, disciplined veterans led by a more understanding leader. Throw in combat sequences to prove the evolution and to add action. Nothing you haven’t seen before, but well done and not hackneyed. Very predictable, however.

The Big Red One          20
The Desert Rats            21


     BR1 has surprisingly little combat for such a long movie (I watched the extended version) and the scale is small because of budget constraints. You get the impression this squad is fighting the war by itself. Most of the scenes are the “guns and grenades” variety. When the movie moves into a combat sequence it is usually PG intense, but brief. Compare it to “Cross of Iron” that was made three years earlier and you can see that Fuller was still clinging to Old School combat. There is a fire-fight for the Torch landing, an extended attack on an African town that features a French cavalry charge (WTF) and the smallest tank in war movie history, the D-Day landing featuring a Bangalore Torpedo relay, the ambush at the crucifix, the insane asylum shoot-out, and the liberation of the death camp. Each is fairly intense, but most are too brief. The tactics and weaponry are fine.

      TDR has only two battle set pieces, but they are both excellent. The first is defense against a German Panzer attack during a sand-storm. The artillery barrage is realistic (the movie has great sound and explosion effects). The deaths are reasonable. There is a cool duel between a German tank and an anti-tank gun. The other action sequence involves a commando raid on a German munitions dump. A “guns and grenades” at night spectacle. Both scenes are better than anything in BR1, but BR1 puts the unit in combat more frequently.

The Big Red One        27
The Desert Rats          27

OVERTIME: Director

      BR1 was directed by Samuel Fuller. It is semi-autobiographical as Fuller served in the 1st Division and participated in Operations Torch, Husky, and Overlord. His unit fought through France, Belgium, and Czechoslovakia. He was involved in the liberation of the Falkenau concentration camp. He was awarded the Bronze Star, Silver Star, and Purple Heart. He went on to a legendary career as a filmmaker. He was noted for gritty B-movies which he made with low budgets. These included “Steel Helmet”, “Fixed Bayonets!”, and “Merrill’s Marauders”. “The Big Red One” has many of the attributes of a B-movie even though it was by far his biggest film.

       TDR was directed by Robert Wise. Wise was a much more mainstream director than Fuller. He was also much more highly acclaimed. He won two Best Director Oscars. His other war movies were “Run Silent, Run Deep” and “The Sand Pebbles” (for which he was nominated for Best Director).

The Big Red One       36
The Desert Rats         33


      This was a shocker. BR1 has a strong reputation among critics and war movie fans and TDR has been largely forgotten. But the tournament is all about the match-ups. Plot and combat did not play to BR1’s strengths and TDR had just enough talent to take the match to overtime. In the end, Samuel Fuller pulls his movie through to the second round.

Saturday, March 23, 2013




          “The Thin Red Line” marked the long awaited return of director Terrence Malick after 20 years hiatus. His fame was such that a slew of actors wanted to be part of his new project. Curiously, he chose to adapt James Jones’ seminal WWII novel about fighting men on Guadalcanal. The cast is impressive, but Malick does not bring out the best in them. This becomes apparent early on with a robotic John Travolta doing a cameo as an Army general. This is bookended with a “look at me, I’m working for Malick” appearance by George Clooney at the end. In between we get either underplaying (Jim Caviezel as Witt or Elias Koteas as Staros) or scene chewing (Nick Nolte as Tall). Malick apparently instructed most of the supporting cast of GIs to play their closeups as though they were scared shitless. Much of the performances are embarrassing and some are laughable.

          “Merrill’s Marauders” has a B-List cast of vaguely familiar faces. Jeff Chandler (in his last role) is strong as Gen. Merrill. Ty Hardin gives able support as his “he’s like a son to me” Lt. Stockton. The members of Stockton’s squad are adequate and do the best they can considering they are benchwarmers. There is also a mule that performs better than most of the cast of “The Thin Red Line”.

The Thin Red Line 5
Merrill’s Marauders 7

          TRL is, of course, not a traditional combat unit narrative. Malick definitely plots outside the box. You do have a defined objective – the taking of a ridge. There is a character in need of redemption (Witt), but Malick dispenses with this arc in a cursory way that makes little sense (which means it fits the movie nicely). There is also the mail call scene which results in a Dear John letter to Bell that is shocking in its non-shocking revelation. It does have the conflict within the unit between Col. Tall and Capt. Staros, but it is resolved with the firing of Staros.

         MM would seem to be rife for clichés, but Samuel Fuller keeps that from happening. The basic framework is there. A unit of men, led by a hero, undertake a mission that involves movement to a defined objective. There is the typical action/hiking alternating with resting/talking. There is no redemption figure and only a modest group conflict involving a jerk named “Chowhound” which is not resolved through a hug, but instead by a Japanese bullet. The command disagreement between Merrill and Stockton is similar to the one in TTRL, but its resolution is more clicheish.

The Thin Red Line 12
Merrill’s Marauders 14
          TRL has a linear plot starting with arrival on the island through to departure. In between is the assault on the ridge followed by R&R and then a mission to get Witt killed. In between are numerous flashbacks to Bell’s flat-chested wife and to Witt’s idyllic AWOL with the natives. Throw in numerous “high as a hippie” voiceovers by “who the Hell is talking now” and you get Malick’s script. Much of the plot is head-scratching and some of the characters behave bizarrely. Just one example, the tough guy Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn) abandons his squad pre-suicide attack to escort an obvious malingerer back to safety and then next time we see him he is sprinting through a hail of bullets to over-syrette a wounded GI. The whole man versus nature theme is ridiculous to anyone who has knowledge of how horrific nature actually was on the tropical “opposite of a paradise” that was Guadalcanal.

          MM is surprisingly standard in plotting. This is surprising considering it is a Fuller film. The unit is sent on a long-range penetration into Japanese territory to capture a key town. After capturing each “last objective before returning home”, the unit is “volunteered” to push on one last time. The plot alternates between treks through swamps or over mountains and intense bouts of combat. It concentrates on Stock’s intelligence and reconnaissance platoon. The other subplot is over Merrill’s heart problems. One theme is the role of leadership to get men to preform beyond their limits. This is realistically portrayed.

The Thin Red Line 18
Merrill’s Marauders 21

          Some fans of TTRL excuse the other flaws by playing up the excellent combat scenes. Although the combat scenes do tend to serve the purpose of waking up the slumbering audience, they are not special. The first charge up the hill through tall grass has some frenzy to it with explosions trampolining soldiers through the air and victims being stitched with machine gun bullets. It is such that it is hard to see how anyone in the company could still be alive. The second scene is the taking of some bunkers by a seven man squad. Lucky for combat fans, the Japanese inexplicably come out of the bunkers to allow themselves to be killed in the open. This progresses into a full unit attack on a Japanese camp that begins with the Japanese meeting the American charge and suddenly has the Japanese running with the Yanks blitzing through the camp like hounds after foxes. Either Malick had access to some revisionist facts about the chicken-hearted nature of Japanese warriors on Guadalcanal, much of his combat is unrealistic. Did you know that Japanese in spider-holes would just let you walk up and throw a grenade in?

           MM has several combat scenes. The first is a simplistic assault on an artillery battery. Grenades and gunfire. The big set piece is the taking of the railroad station that is highlighted by a big fight in a maze of concrete blocks (don’t ask) that results in lots of old school deaths with men throwing their arms in the air. Finally there is the fight for the water hole straight from a typical Western. Don’t ask why the Japanese don’t use the high ground to rain death on our heroes. It’s much more entertaining to see them charging in the open to get mowed down. There is nothing you haven’t seen before, but the combat is staged fairly competently. Don’t look for much blood.

The Thin Red Line    25
Merrill’s Marauders  28
COLOR ANALYSIS: This match-up was a weak one. TTRL was obviously overrated at #4. It appears the selection committee (Rotten Tomatoes) was more impressed with its director than with the finished product. Also, you might have expected with that kind of starting line-up, the performances would have been stronger. Travolta and Clooney hardly played and the rest were mostly off their games. There were a lot of air balls. On the other hand, MM was the scrappy underdog that got lucky with who they got to face in the opening round. It’s old school grind- it-out style was able to overcome the flashy but confused Neo-Realism of Malick.

Thursday, March 21, 2013



                 “Sands of Iwo Jima” is a John Wayne movie and he gives one of his best performances.  He was nominated for Best Actor.  Sgt. Stryker became his most iconic role and he brings the full force of his charisma to it.  The character is a bit more dimensional than his cowboy characters.  He gets to play tough, empathetic, drunk, morose, heroic.  He is outstanding.  The supporting cast is adequate and very old schoolish.  John Agar is the “I can’t live up to my dead father who happened to be a mentor for Stryker” so I will hate Stryker instead guy.  Forest Tucker is the Stryker foe.  Throw in an aggravating Italian Brooklynite for dubious comic relief.  The actual war heroes inserted into the cast can best be described as “not actors”.  

                “When Trumpets Fade” is dominated by Ron Eldard as the anti-hero David Manning.  It is a remarkable performance.  The character is far from stereotypical.  He is a survivor loaded with PTSD and a cynical anti-authority attitude who is thrust into an authority position.  Eldard plays him as a guy who would have despised Stryker.  The supporting cast is satisfactory.  Martin Donovan is excellent as Capt. Pritchett.  Zac Orth does good work as the "dead meat" Sanderson.

Sands of Iwo Jima         8           
When Trumpets Fade    8


                 “Sands of Iwo Jima” is not an iconoclastic movie.  In fact, it helped set the template for war movies until the 1960s.  It begins with a dedication to the Marine Corps (and is virtually a recruiting film).  The unit is not as clearly defined as heterogeneous as in many similar movies, but it is still a small unit movie.  You have a hero and a defined mission (raising the flag).  Conflict in the unit (actually two – Stryker vs. Thomas, Stryker vs. Conway) is resolved.  You have the redemption in the form of Conway who has daddy issues and is a reluctant warrior.  You get rituals like a marriage and mail call.
                “When Trumpets Fade” was obviously made with cliché-busting in mind.  However, it is a war movie so you do have some familiar elements.  It has a dedication to the men who fought in the Hurtgen Forest.  There is a mission (actually two), but reluctantly led by an anti-hero.  You definitely have the leadership forced on the main character trope, but the twist is that he fights against it and is downright surly.  Does Manning get redemption?  He would certainly have sneered at that.  There are no rituals that I noticed.  Kudos for reversing the “fat guy with glasses must die” cliché.

Sands of Iwo Jima         14       
When Trumpets Fade    16


                “Sands of Iwo Jima” is your standard boot camp to battle flic.  Stryker inherits a motley group of Marines and trains them in a tough love way for the realities of battle.  Meanwhile, conflicts within the unit are developed so that combat can resolve them.  There are two battle scenes.  The first to establish heroism and the realities of war (Tarawa).  The second to show the success of the unit evolution as it accomplishes a mission (Iwo Jima).  The flow from training to off base to training to combat is smooth and entertaining, if predictable.
                “When Trumpets Fade” has an anti-hero thrust into command of a squad of replacements.  There is no training or bonding.  Manning does not want to lead and does not care about his charges.  The traditional early arc of a combat film is dispensed with.  The transitions are mainly from Manning encountering authority to combat sequences.  Similar to “Sands”, there are two main combat scenes.  Unlike “Sands”, these episodes are basically the suicide mission variety.  Both movies have the “who will survive?” vibe.

Sands of Iwo Jima        21
When Trumpets Fade   25

                “Sands of Jima” has two big combat scenes- Tarawa and Iwo Jima.  In the first, Stryker takes out a bunker in typical John Wayne fashion.  Considering the potential inherent in the Battle of Tarawa, the movie is surprisingly lacking in action.  A promised night banzai charge never materializes (WTF?) and only the first day of the three day battle is shown.  Big letdown.  The Battle of Iwo Jima is more intense and satisfying although it relies substantially on actual footage (but very well used).  The violence is very old school.  There is little blood although we do get some bullet wounds.  Nothing women can’t handle.  However, men will probably cry (you know what I’m talking about, guys). 
                “When Trumpets Fade” is from the VioLingo school and intentionally pushes the envelope created by movies like “Sands”.  It also has two major combat sequences.  The first is the mission to take out the artillery battery.  Manning is forced to shoot one of the replacements who has freaked out and is causing the rest to panic.  Sanderson uses a flamethrower to roast the Germans.  The second mission is similar with the target being some emplaced tanks.  This time grenades and Thompsons and Garands are more de rigueur.  The movie throws in two larger group actions involving the graphic results of sustained artillery fire.  The wounds are graphic and bloody and there are numerous delimbings.  Plus two losers of battles with flamethrowers.

Sands of Iwo Jima       27         
When Trumpets Fade  34

COLOR ANALYSIS:  This was a great match-up between Old School and VioLingo.  VioLingo is what I am trying out as my name for modern war movies that feature realistic violence and soldier talk and behavior.  The two movies could not be more opposite.  "Trumpets" is over the top in its "war is Hell" theme and "Sands" is one of the few war movies that is not definitively anti-war.  It is almost like Stryker's death was written in because the director decided it was needed to soften the film's glamorization of war.    Certainly, no one who watches "Trumpets" rushes out to join the Army, whereas many joined the Marines due to "Sands".  Another fascinating match-up was that of hero Stryker vs. anti-hero Manning.  The hero vs. anti-hero is a crucial difference between Old School and VioLingo.  It will be interesting to see how future bouts between these schools will turn out.  For example, "Guadalcanal Diary" against "Saving Private Ryan". 

Monday, March 18, 2013



                "A Bridge Too Far" has an all-star cast of both British and American A-Listers.  They took the production seriously.  There are excellent performances across the board.  Maybe it was the competition.  The standouts included James Caan as a grunt who saves his “dead” lieutenant and Elliot Gould as a crusty American officer who has to build a Bailey Bridge.  Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins, Sean Connery, and Gene Hackman are commanding as commanders.  Kudos to Dirk Bogarde for taking on the thankless role of Gen. Browning (Monty’s incompetent lap dog – or so the movie implies) and making American audiences shake their heads smugly. 

               "A Walk in the Sun" has a cast of familiar B-Listers from the 1940s.  They do as well as could be expected, but can’t compete with the “Bridge” cast.  Dana Andrews is strong in the lead role, but noone breaks out.  A couple of the performances get a little grating after a while (ex. Richard Conte as Ramirez) .  However, given the small nature of the film, the acting is more than adequate.

FIRST QUARTER SCORE:      BRIDGE    9            WALK     7


                “Bridge” is not the type of war movie that lends itself to clichés so this category is slightly unfair.  I tried thinking of some “epic war movie” clichés like pompous orchestral music, but could not come up with a comparable list to the combat movie clichés list.  With respect to similar movies like “The Longest Day”, “Midway”, and “Tora! Tora! Tora!”, it follows the typical plot pattern.  Concentration on leadership instead of the troops, coverage of several units, jumping between Allied and Axis perspectives, a few grunts getting personal stories (ex. Dohun), etc.

                “Walk” is a small unit dynamics movie in the classic sense.  It begins with a thank you to the Armed Forces. The group is heterogeneous (including the Brooklynite), but the different backgrounds are not a major plot point.  There is a commentator in the form of Windy Craven who is composing a letter to his sister in his head.  The hero (Tyne) has leadership forced on him.  There is a distinct objective that they move towards.  The plot alternates between action and dialogue.  On the other hand, it is missing several of the other clichés.  There is no redemption character and no real conflict within the group.

HALF TIME SCORE:     BRIDGE     17             WALK    14


                “Bridge” is the true story of Operation Market Garden and it is based on the outstanding book by Cornelius Ryan.  The movie does justice to both.  It does an excellent job juggling the command perspectives of both sides and integrating the battle scenes.  Considering the complexity of the campaign, the film is not confusing and manages to stick to a linear structure.

                “Walk” has a much simpler plot.  It also is based on a great novel by Harry Brown so it is not a true story.  The plot builds slowly to an assault on a German farm house in Italy. The combat scene at the end is the obligatory payoff for a movie that is more interested in soldier interaction than action.  This means the plot is uncommon for a war movie and thus its competent direction by Lewis Milestone makes the movie very interesting, but not for everyone.  In other words, if you have seen ten war movies, you will probably hate it.  If you have seen 100, you’ll probably love it.  The movie is almost totally the opposite of “Bridge” in its concentration on the small picture.  The movies make outstanding companions.

THIRD QUARTER SCORE:    BRIDGE    26        WALK    22


                “Bridge” is very underrated as a combat film.  There are several very well done combat sequences.  The scenes involving the Arnhem Bridge stand out, but there is also the best river crossing under fire scene in war movie history.  The action is violent and pretty graphic.  There are plenty of realistic explosions.  Compared to its most obvious equivalent, “The Longest Day”, it packs a lot more punch.

                “Walk” is at a big disadvantage in this tournament when it comes to combat.  It throws some in, but almost as an afterthought.  There is a scene involving ambushing an armored car which is cool, but mainly because of the staging and cinematography.  The assault on the farm house has a weird feel to it with most of the action from a German machine gunner point of view and Americans making a frontal charge leading to falling bodies.  It’s pretty bloodless.  Other than the lack of blood, the movie is honest about the boring nature of warfare where long bouts of sitting around and talking are broken up by short intense moments of violence.  However, this reality does not go over well with most war movie fans.

FINAL SCORE:    BRIDGE    35      WALK    27
COLOR ANALYSIS:  I am a big fan of "A Walk in the Sun", but sometimes bigger is better.  "Walk" could not hang with the more talent-laden "Bridge".  Realistic soldier talk and behavior makes "Walk" a fine representative of the minimalist school of war films, but in a match-up of combat films it lacks bang.  The fact that its day in the life of a platoon is true to the basically boring nature of war is commendable.  However, it ran into a movie that was true to the massive nature of a military campaign.  "Bridge" lived up to its pedigree with excellent acting and set pieces.  It just overwhelmed "Walk".

Saturday, March 16, 2013

MARCH MADNESS 2013: WWII Ground Combat Movies

This years "March Madness War Movie Tournament" will determine the best WWII Ground Combat Movie.  Here are the match-ups:

1 - Saving Private Ryan
16 - Guadalcanal Diary

9 - When Trumpets Fade
8 - Sands of Iwo Jima

4 - The Thin Red Line
13 - Merrill's Marauders

12 - A Walk in the Sun
5 - A Bridge Too Far

2 - The Longest Day
15 - The Devil's Brigade

10 - Hell is for Heroes
7 - Cross of Iron

3 - The Big Red One
14 - The Desert Rats

11 - Attack!
6 - Battleground

Feel free to weigh in on the results.  May the best movie win!  


Saturday, March 9, 2013

WWII COMBAT MOVIE CLICHES: Wake Island (1942) and Bataan (1943)

           In preparation for my “March Madness:  WWII Ground Combat Films”, I have been reading a book by Jeanine Basinger entitled  The World War II Combat Film.  Ms. Basinger has a very interesting section where she outlines the standard clichés that exist in WWII combat films.  Here is my summary of those traditional elements:

1.  the film has a dedication to a branch of the military or a group memorialized in the film  /  there may also be a thank you for military cooperation
           -  this could be words on the screen or narrated

2.  a group of men, led by a hero, undertakes a mission with a defined objective
                -  the mission usually involves holding something or moving towards something
3.  the group is heterogeneous
                -  multi-ethnic, different branches of the military, different socio-economic classes, different parts of the country (including Brooklyn), etc.
                -  the group might include a mascot

4.  the group has an observer or commentator
                -  usually a journalist or diarist
5.  the hero has leadership forced on him
                -  usually because the commander gets killed
6.  episodes alternate in opposites
                -  night then day / action then rest / safety then danger / comedy then tragedy / dialogue then action

7.  conflict within the group is resolved because of external pressure
                -  two soldiers who dislike each other /  different command philosophies between officers

8.  rituals connect the group to the past
                -  celebration of holidays / burial of comrades

9.  military rituals
                -  mail call / cleaning weapons / discussion of the future / talk about food or girls

10.  a member of the group gets redemption
                -  he screwed up in the past /  he’s an ass hole

                Two of the granddaddies of the Ground Combat Film subgenre are “Wake Island” (1942) and “Bataan” (1943).  These two films not only helped create the template for future WWII combat films, but for war movies in general.  Even in the 21st Century, the clichés are still commonly found in war films and will probably continue into the next century.

                “Wake Island” was in production before the battle was even over.  It was the first major combat film released after Pearl Harbor and was meant as a morale booster, although it memorialized a losing effort.  As the credits roll, the producers refer to the Marine Corps and insist the story is accurate.  The dedication compares the battle to other fights to the death (Valley Forge, Custer’s Last Stand, the Lost Battalion – only one of which fits the analogy, by the way).

                “Wake Island’ is not really a small unit dynamics movie.  It does not develop numerous characters within the unit.  There is a mascot – a dog named Skipper.  It does have the conflict angle, in fact it has two.  Two of the Marines, Randall (William Bendix) and Doyle (Robert Preston), are constantly ribbing each other.  Their dialogue is often funny (even today) and they provide comic relief.  Randall is clicheishly due to leave the military, but will of course stay to fight.  The other conflict is between the head of the civilian contractors McClosky  (Albert Dekker) and the Marine Col. Cadon (Brian Donlevy).  Both these conflicts will be resolved as the duos die fighting in the same fox holes.

                Word of Pearl Harbor means the Japanese are coming.  Their mission becomes to hold the island against Japanese attack.  The objective is to hold to the last.  This is a “last stand” movie.   It does not take long for the enemy to arrive.   Air bombardment does substantial damage and then a fleet arrives.   Caton allows the Japanese ships to come in close for their shore bombardment and then the Marine batteries give them hell.  Later, a pilot (whose wife died at Pearl Harbor) goes on a suicide mission to sink a Japanese cruiser.  In a war movie, those who have the least to lose or the most to lose are doomed.  The screenwriters made an interesting decision not to have him crash into the cruiser (luckily not making him a kamikaze role model) and thus allowing for the cliché of a funeral with words said over the grave.

                During non-bombardment time, Randall and Doyle discuss food and future plans (Randall wants to be a pig farmer).   Defense against an air attack results in one of the pilots bailing out and getting strafed by the dirty Japs.  They cheat, we don’t.   The action alternates between pyrotechnics and exposition.

                The film concludes with the Japanese invasion.  The last stands occur in machine gun nests.  The doomed warriors are still joking.  Caton and McClosky find common ground as ex-college football players and current Jap killers.  A post script promises they did not die in vain and there will be pay back by the American public in its righteous indignation.

                “Bataan” was an inevitable response to the box office success of “Wake Island”.  It was dedicated to the American and Filipino forces that fought to give the U.S. time to respond to the invasion of the Philippines.  This is another “last stand” movie (obviously influenced by “The Lost Patrol”).  A heterogeneous unit of 13 is given the mission to blow up a bridge and defend the crossing.  The objective is to hold off the Japanese as long as possible.  The audience is well aware that few if any will survive.  Unlike “Wake Island”, this film is more of a “who will die next?” movie.

                We are introduced to the members of the squad early and it is revealed that the heterogeneity is mainly contrasting military roles.  For instance, there is a sailor, a medic, a cook, a pilot, a mechanic, a scout, etc.  Most interestingly, one of them is a black demolitions expert.  Even more interesting, his race is not at the forefront.  There is some multi-ethnicity in the unit, but the screenwriters do not play this up.  The conflict is the dislike-type as Sgt. Dane (Robert Taylor) has a past with malcontent Todd (Lloyd Nolan).  Dane is forced into command when the Captain becomes the first to die.  There is a burial with words said over the grave. 

                The rest of the film alternates between action which whittles down the 13 and down time for defensive preparations, airplane repairs, and talking (mostly by the loquacious Len played by Robert Walker).  The banter is not the ribbing sort of “Wake Island”.  There is some comic relief from the Latino Ramirez (Desi Arnez), but the movie is light on humor.  Dane does not crack a smile until he laughs hysterically while battling literally from his grave.

                The deaths are spaced out and are not repetitive.  Some are cliché:  don’t celebrate after shooting down a plane, don’t try to sneak through enemy lines, self-sacrifice to destroy an objective, climbing a tree, standing up in a machine gun nest, someone has to die of disease, PTSD suicide charge.  The minorities die early and badly (ex. lynching – not the black guy).  There is some redemption for Todd (who is an escapee from military justice) although he refreshingly remains an ass hole to the end.

                I will later review these two movies as war movies.  For now, I plan to use them as the standards to compare the March Madness entries against.  I propose the theory that the less similar a combat movie is to these granddaddies, the better the movie is likely to be.  In other words, the less clichés, the better.  Not that “Wake Island” and “Bataan” are bad movies.  “Wake Island” is a remarkable achievement considering when it was made.  It holds up much better than many more recent fare.  The effects are well-done, especially the explosions.  The acting is solid.  The dialogue is good and sometimes quite humorous.  The action is brisk.  Importantly, it is fairly accurate and not overly propagandistic.

                “Bataan” is not as good, but is still very entertaining.  As you could read above, it is more cliché-ridden and this weighs it down.  The acting is fine by the ensemble.  It was shot on a soundstage which gives it an artificial look although I admit it was one hell of a stage.  While not meant to have much humor, I found myself laughing at some of the deaths.  There are some ridiculous and downright silly combat moments.  Both films feature old school ”twirling touchdown call” deaths.  The violence in “Bataan” is more intense, but there are long stretches of quiet when you are left to wonder what the hell are the Japanese doing?  “Bataan” is not based on a true story and the scenario is unrealistic.  It is more overtly propagandistic and much more racist toward the Japanese (“no tail baboons”).   

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

SHOULD I READ IT? Kanal (1956)

                “Kanal” (sewer) is a Polish movie set in Warsaw during the Warsaw Uprising  against the German occupiers in 1945.  It was directed by Andrzej Wajda (“Ashes and Diamonds”).  It is the second in a trilogy that began with “A Generation” and was followed by “Ashes and Diamonds”.   He was a member of the Polish Resistance in WWII and wove some of his remembrances into the film.  The script was written by a survivor of the sewers.  It was released in 1957.  It was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

                The film begins with narration that explains the Warsaw Uprising is nearing its tragic end.  (The date is Sept. 25, 1944 and it is day 56 out of 63.)  Lt. Zadra leads a company of the Home Army that is down to 43 members.  “These are the tragic heroes.  Watch them closely, for these are the last hours of their lives.”  So this is going to be a “who will survive?” small unit movie and the answer to the question is 0%.  So much for suspense.  You might try guessing who will be the last to go.

                A masterful tracking shot shows us we are in the hands of an auteur.  To the sounds of gunfire, the camera tracks our tragic heroes from front to back.  A fatalistic attitude permeates the film.    A German attack using Goliaths (remote-contolled tracked mines) is defeated and a sudden lull in the fighting allows for character development.  The unit spends some time in a fairly intact bourgeoisie house.  We meet several of the doomed unit including two females:  Helinka the messenger girl and Daisy the sluttish blonde.  Most bizarre is a composer named Michal who has attached himself to the unit to provide music, apparently.  After this interlude in Purgatory, its down into Hell (the sewers) to relocate to the center of the city since the Germans are closing in.

                Daisy offers to guide the remaining 27 and assures Zadra it will be a piece of cake (which by the way, you do not want to eating for the rest of this movie).  You know, the same thing Athenian youth were told when they entered the Labyrinth.  Except the Labyrinth was not flowing with human waste.  Surprise, the group is soon lost and divided into sub-groups.  The sewers are claustrophobic, eerie, and confusing.  The music matches them.  It and the scenes become increasingly surreal.  We already know this will not end well, but it is interesting to see how each character will meet his or her end.  One of them reaches the end of a pipe emptying into the Vistula River, but bars block the exit.  This is not the feel good movie of 1957.  Michal goes insane and starts playing an ocarina like the Pied Piper.  One of the girls commits suicide when she learns her sewage soaked boy-friend is married.  Another member dies from a booby-trapped grenade.  At the last minute, Stalin orders his armies forward and they rescue the Home Army and expel the Germans from Warsaw.  Just kidding.

                This is a fascinating movie.  It is the kind that you watch mesmerized by the skill of the director.  The cinematography is amazing.  The music is riveting.  The characters are interesting (especially Daisy) and the acting is good.  These are not heroes, they are just humans who refuse to quit even though they have no optimism.   The dialogue is simple.  (You don’t have to read much!)  No patriotic speeches.  The sets are outstanding.  The outdoor scenes are appropriately rubble-strewn.  And the sewers are sewers.  This is one of the slimiest movies ever.  Thank God it’s not available in smellovision!

                The movie has educational value.  Most Americans know little of the Warsaw Uprising.  The Polish Resistance timed the uprising with the approach of the Soviet Army.  The Germans would be caught between the anvil and the hammer.  The very valiant Poles took over much of central Warsaw and were on their way to success when…  Josef Stalin decided he preferred to have the Nazis kill the valiant Poles and save him the trouble later.  The Germans were quite capable of doing the dirty work.  Barricades slowed them, but they had the firepower as we say.  They did use Goliaths as depicted in the film.  They also used Stukas wantonly.  25 % of the buildings in the city were destroyed.  After 63 days, it was over.  

                The themes are fairly obvious.  The futility of war.  The fog of war.  The hopelessness of being Polish in warfare.  I read it described as hopeless heroism.  You know, the kind that gets you to charge tanks on horseback.  Something else apparent is how tiring warfare can be.  These Poles drip (sorry) exhaustion.  If you think you could never fall asleep in a sewer, think again.  I like that kind of realism.  Too many war movies dispense with the effects the elements have on soldiers.

                This is a must see movie.  It is also a must not eat before seeing movie.  Oh, and don’t watch it if you are already depressed.

grade =  A