Sunday, October 27, 2013

#75 - HENRY V (1944)

NOTE:  I accidentally deleted the original review.

BACK-STORY:  “Henry V” is a masterpiece acted, directed , and produced by Laurence Olivier.  His work was so amazing he was awarded an Academy Honor Award at the Oscars.  It was nominated for Best Actor, Score, Art Direction, and Picture.   (It lost to another war film – “The Best Years of Our Lives”).  It was designed to be a morale booster for WWII Britain.  Mission accomplished.  It was specifically dedicated to England’s commandoes and airborne troops.  What better subject than the battle that is considered the greatest upset in military history?  The story of a small, exhausted army defeating the cream of French knighthood certainly resonated with a Britain facing the supposedly all powerful Wehrmacht.   

                The movie was a box office success and inspired the British people to carry on.  It was the most expensive British film up to that time.  Wartime shortages impacted production.  For example, shortages of metal led to the decision to “make” the chain-mail out of hand-knitted gray wool.  Many of the extras were servicemen. The official title – “The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with his Battell Fought at Agincourt in France by Will Shakespeare” – is the longest title to be nominated for Best Picture.

OPENING:  The movie is set in 1600.  We get a bird’s eye view of London as we zoom into the Globe Theater.  We are inside the theater as the actors prepare for the play.  The Chorus (played by Leslie Banks) urges the audience to use its imagination.  Two clergymen recap Henry’s evolution from a wastrel to a moral leader.  There is some humor as the Archbishop of Canterbury explains how Salic Law justifies Henry’s claim to the French crown.  French ambassadors arrive with their famous tennis balls insult and we are off to war.

SUMMARY:  The movie now moves out of the Globe to a series of movie sets based on the medieval Book of Hours.  Falstaff dies and the band of rogues formerly Henry’s “posse” leave to join the army with dreams of glory and spoils.  At the French court, the Dauphin is overconfident and the King is fearful.

                At Harfleur, Henry passionately urges his men “Once more into the breach…” which they do off camera.  The action is being saved for Agincourt.  Meanwhile, at the French court the Princess Katherine gets an English lesson (parts of the body) from her maid.  In a nice touch, there are no subtitles for the French.  The King sends off an army of French knights to destroy the victors of Harfleur.

                The British army is moving toward safety at Calais when its path is blocked by the much larger French force.  The British are not only greatly outnumbered, but exhausted and in ill-health.  The night before the battle, Henry walks disguised through his camp.  His men are gloomy and pessimistic.  He has to control his temper as some of the men are critical of the king for getting them into this mess.

                The day of battle dawns and Henry gives his famous “Band of Brothers” speech.  Who better to orate it than Olivier?  Archers pound in their stakes while the French laugh it up in overconfidence.  The French Harold comes and demands Henry give up for ransom.  No thank you, sayeth Henry.

                The battle scene is one of the greatest in war movie history, especially noteworthy considering the technology available in 1944.  Olivier did have access to an aerial view which nicely shows the wedge shaped formations of British archers.  He was also able to film the knightly charge through a half-mile tracking shot.  We follow along and then feel the blizzard of arrows coming down.  The battle devolves into a bloody melee with even the archers wading in with their daggers.  At one point a flanking attack by French knights through some woods is blunted by archers jumping out of trees in ambush.  The French prove their villainy by treacherously attacking the British camp, killing boys in the process.  This enrages Henry who returns to battle for a duel with the French Constable.  The army forms a circle like in a schoolyard to watch as Henry dispatches the enemy commander with a blow from his gauntlet.  (The next one’s for you, Hitler.)  The Harold arrives to cry “oncle”.  Henry’s bedraggled, but victorious army marches into the sunset to Calais.

                The movie naturally suffers from an extended denoument after the battle.  (Reminiscent of “Braveheart” after the Battle of Stirling.)  Henry woos Katherine with a lot of words to someone who does not understand them.  He has a strong love for someone he has just met.  Is it BS?  Shakespeare seemed to think he was sincere and not just  Macchiavellian.  Kate buys it (as though she has a choice) and they kiss.

CLOSING:  Henry and Katherine are married.  We are back in the Globe for “The End”.


Acting:  B

Action:  6/10

Accuracy:  C

Realism:  B

Plot:  A

Overall =  B

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  This is one war movie that women would probably like more than men.  Women tend to like wordy movies more than men and this movie has a lot of words.  You also have to concentrate on what is being said.  The Shakespearean dialogue is easier to follow than the unsubtitled French, but not by much.  Women will be less frustrated than your typical male war movie lover.  You also have the romantic subplot to appeal to women.

ACCURACY:  The movie is very faithful to the play.  Only one line is not from Shakespeare.  The movie does not cover the whole play, by the way.  It leaves out some material that tended to show Henry is less than a saintly light.  For example, Olivier omits a scene where Henry hangs one of his old buddies for violating his ban on looting.

                When examining “Henry V” for accuracy, let’s look at whether Shakespeare got it right.  The background to the invasion is accurate in its portrayal of Henry’s motivation.  Even the tennis ball incident apparently occurred.  Shakespeare goes off the historical path a bit when the army reaches France.  The audience is led to believe that “once more into the breach” resulted in the fall of Harfleur, when in actuality the next assault failed and the city gave up when word arrived that a relief army was not coming.

                The Battle of Agincourt is significantly different than depicted.  The play and movie makes little reference to the really deplorable state of the British soldiers.  They were suffering from dysentery (which we can be thankful is not graphically depicted) and exhaustion.  The battle itself is fairly accurate in a simplistic way.  The first attack was by cavalry, but the subsequent one was by knights wading through the mud on foot.  There is not nearly enough mud in the movie!  The melee aspect is realistic, but clearly there was no duel between Henry and the Constable (that is pure Hollywood).  There was also no ambush of French cavalry in the woods by archers leaping from trees.

                The French attack on the baggage train with its killing of the innocents was accurate (even though the movie falsely implies that the French leadership was behind the assault), but Henry’s response was not.  In fact, he did not respond by returning to the battle.  Instead, he gave the infamous order to kill the French prisoners (who were being held for ransom) out of fear that they might rearm themselves and return to the fight.  You can debate Henry’s decision, but it is no surprise that Shakespeare (ever the patriot) and Olivier (making an inspirational movie) chose to omit this facet of the battle.

                The aftermath of the battle is pretty spot on.  Henry did marry Katherine and was promised the throne when the king died (which did not happen because the much younger Henry died first).  I find it hard to believe the wooing scene actually happened, but it’s a play.

CRITIQUE:  This is an amazing movie.  Olivier does an amazing job – possibly the greatest all-around performance in movie history.  He justly deserved the special Oscar.  One wonders if the Academy felt guilty for choosing an inferior film (“The Best Years of Our Lives”) for Best Picture (guess which one was a patriotic American film).  He was already a renowned actor, but this was his first directing job.  (He modestly looked for others to direct it until he was persuaded he was the best man for the job.)  His decision to start the movie in the Globe, then shift to sets, move on to the great outdoors for the battle, then back to sets, and end back at the theater , was nothing short of brilliant.  The audience gets a taste of an Elizabethan play and the action of a movie.  The use of The Book of Hours as the inspiration for the set designs is awesome.  But the kicker is Olivier made a Shakespeare movie that audiences and critics liked.  This was a first and is still a rare accomplishment.

                The only flaws are some inaccuracies in the military aspects.  However, Shakespeare did do research for his plays, so any discrepancies are for entertainment purposes or to advance the theme of the play.  Olivier’s decision to downplay the negative aspects of Henry’s personality (he could be a jerk and ruthless) are understandable given the patriotic purpose of the film.  If you want to see the warts, see Kenneth Branagh’s 1988 version.  Speaking of which, I will be posting soon on which version is better.

                Another slight quibble is with the acting.  Some of the actors chew the scenery a bit.  I know this will be defended as realistic portrayals of Elizabethan acting, but it still comes off as over the top.

                For those wanting consistent excitement, this movie is not your cup of tea.  The first half hour is mostly expository.  The Battle of Agincourt stands out as a shining diamond in the middle of the movie.  Then the last part is a return to the more languid style of the first part.  Blame Shakespeare for that, if you must.  But just like Mel Gibson with “Braveheart”, Olivier might have been wiser to end the movie after the big battle scene.  

                Oh, and did I mention that it is not clearly a war movie.  It is more accurately described as a Shakespeare play with a battle in the middle of it.

CONCLUSION:  Every cinemaphile should see this movie because it is a tour de force by a master movie maker.  Every cinemaphile should see this movie and then Branagh’s version to see how movie-making and film attitudes changed from 1944 to 1988.  It makes for a perfect comparison because the source material is the same.  Every literature lover should see it because it is arguably the best rendering of Shakespeare ever filmed.  People who do not like to read books can see it and not have to read “Henry V” (warning to lazy British Literature students – it only covers about half the written play).  Don’t forget that you can also learn some French words for parts of the body.  That could come in handy, I suppose.  Unfortunately, not the naughty bits.        

Thursday, October 24, 2013

CLASSIC or ANTIQUE? Air Force (1943)

                “Air Force” is an homage to the branch by director Howard Hawks who was a veteran of the Air Corps in WWI.  Hawks had already made “The Dawn Patrol” and “Sergeant York”.  Hawks had the cooperation of the Army Air Force which provided several B-17s and other planes to depict Japanese aircraft.  The movie is essentially a small unit patrol film.  It covers the bleak early days of the war by following a B-17 bomber named “Mary Ann” and its plucky crew.  The bomber makes stops at Pearl Harbor, Wake Island, the Philippines, and Australia.  The bomber is meant to be the star of the film.  The movie was a big hit and was critically acclaimed at the time.  It won an Academy Award for Editing and was nominated for Cinematography, Original Screenplay, and Special Effects.  It was one of the first great war movies made during WWII.

                The film opens with an excerpt from the “Gettysburg Address” to make it quite clear this will be a patriotic movie.  The date is Dec. 6. 1941.  The “Mary Ann” is headed for Hawaii with eight other B-17s.  The crew is heterogeneous.  The gallant captain and co-captain, the naïve rookie, the crusty crew chief, the dude with daddy issues, the comic New Yorker, and the bad egg.  This last role is played by the biggest star – John Garfield.  Sgt. Winocki is the malcontent tail gunner who holds a grudge against the pilot Capt. Quincannon (John Ridgely) who washed him out of flight school.  He is going to be a pain in the ass.

                The “Mary Ann” arrives at Hickam Field on a day that will live in infamy.  When they pick up the attack on the radio, one of the crew says “I’ve still got a throwing arm.  I’ll heave a wrench if any of those monkeys comes close.”  There is a cool aerial view of Pearl Harbor in flames.  They are fired on by local Japanese.  When they land at Hickam and see the destroyed P-40s lined up on the field they are told “three vegetable trucks smashed their tails”.  What?  The movie passes on the canard that there were Japanese fifth columnists and saboteurs that participated in the attack.  The Hickam set is appropriately damaged.

                It’s on to Wake Island for a visit with the valiant defenders.  “Send us more Japs” they say.  Since there are no orphans on the island, they pick up a dog named Tripoli.  Its schtick is it barks whenever anyone mentions Mr. Moto (for those less than eighty years old, Mr. Moto was a Japanese detective who appeared in several movies before the war).  How cute and racist is that? 

                They land at Clark Field in the Philippines.  The stress of being at war has changed Wanicki’s attitude and now he is a gung-ho member of the team/family.  The crusty crew chief White (Harry Carey, Sr.) finds out his fighter pilot son has been killed.  He takes it stoically, but the audience doesn’t.  Jap basterds!  When they take off, they fight off a swarm of Zeros until they get hit and the crew has to bail.  Capt. Quincannon is badly wounded so Winocki takes the controls and makes a belly landing.  Redemption accomplished!  The captain dies in the hospital in a scene written by an uncredited William Faulkner.  End of movie, right?  Wrong.  Not happy enough.

                The crew works feverishly to repair the “Mary Ann” with the Japanese just down the block.  Crewmen holding Browning machine guns like Rambo take on a Japanese air attack by Zeros dropping bombs they don’t have.  (Why do filmmakers think fighter planes can drop bombs?)  Meanwhile the rookie is off volunteering as a gunner on a scout plane.  It gets shot down and when he bails out a dastardly Jap strafes him and then finishes him off when he hits the ground.  Revenge would be so sweet.  Request accepted.  They shoot down the Jap and then machine gun him as he gets out of the wreckage.  Sweet!  This is an exciting scene although completely ridiculous.  The sound effects are good and the effects of the crashing Japanese planes are well done.

                With Japanese soldiers closing in (and eating lots of lead), the “Mary Ann” takes off just in the nick of time.  They are headed for Australia when they sight a Japanese fleet and call for reinforcements.  A  montage of all available aircraft (actual footage) arrive at exactly the same time.  I think I saw the “Spirit of St. Louis” in the mix.  Patriotic music swells.  They blow up a battleship.  Japanese fighters attack and they shoot one down which crashes into a ship.  Kharma is a bitch.  Then they sink an aircraft carrier.  These Americans never miss.  Just like the B-17s at the Battle of Midway.  That fleet gets totally f***ed up.  We are so gonna win this war.  Buy war bonds!

"I heard you just fly right above the ship
and drop the bomb - piece of cake!"
                “Air Force” claims to be based on a true story.  Bull shit.  The only thing true about it is B-17s arrived at Pearl Harbor in the middle of the attack.  Everything after that is total fiction.  None of those B-17s went on to Wake Island or the Philippines.  The big naval battle could be based on the Battle of the Coral Sea.  The similarities end with there being water involved.  As far as I know, no B-17s sank any warships during the war in the Pacific (although they tried at Midway).  It is painful to watch the film accuse Japanese in Hawaii of participating in the Pearl Harbor attack.  By the way, the producers of the film publicized the fact that the real “Mary Ann” was lost in the Pacific after the film was finished.  This has been proven to be false.  I’ll stop short of calling this despicable.

the star of the film -
please, no autographs 
                “Air Force” is not bad considering it is overtly patriotic and propagandistic.  There are some exciting action scenes.  The special effects are decent if you keep reminding yourself that it was made in 1942.  The blending of the footage is well-intentioned but far from seamless.  The Editing Oscar was probably deserved.  The use of real bombers helps with authenticity.  This is diluted a bit by the use of AT-6 Texans and P-43 Lancers for Japanese Zeros, but what could you expect?  The interior shots are realistic.  Just as good as a submarine movie.

                The acting is satisfactory.  Nobody makes a fool of themselves, but noone stands out.  This was partly purposeful as Hawks wanted the bomber to be the main star.  The crew may be stereotypical, but they are likeable and the chemistry is there.  The banter is not forced or corny.  Some of their actions are.  Shooting down planes with hand-held Brownings.  Come on!

                You can’t watch the film without being aware of its purpose.  It was meant to fire up American audiences to continue the fight on the battlefields and on the home front.  It appeared in theaters when the war was still up in the air.  The film makes the case that our quality will defeat the Japanese quantity.  I guess in 1943 our quantitative advantage was not so obvious yet.       

                In an earlier post I examined WWII combat movie clichés by looking at “Wake Island” and “Bataan”.  “Air Force” is a companion to those two Old School flicks.  They helped establish the template for Old School WWII movies.  “Air Force” is dedicated to a branch of the armed services.  It has a hero (the bomber) and a mission.  The small unit is heterogeneous and includes a mascot (Tripoli).  The episodes alternate between action and preparation for the next move.  Conflict within the group (Winocki) is resolved by external pressure (the war).  A member of the group gets redemption.

                In conclusion, “Air Force” is a difficult movie to review.  You can go on the Internet to read reviews that were contemporaneous and give a feel of what experts felt about it when it came out.  But this is 2013.  The movie is entertaining, but just that.  It is terrible history, but not terrible cinema history.  It is undoubtedly a classic.  It is a must-see for war movie lovers.  Will it make my 100 Best list?  Possibly.

grade =  B-

Saturday, October 19, 2013

CLASSIC or ANTIQUE? Immortal Sergeant (1943)

            “Immortal Sergeant” was the first American WWII film set in North Africa.  It may be set there, but it was filmed on a sound stage.  It was directed by John Stahl and was based on the novel by John Brophy.  Although named after Sgt. Kelly (Thomas Mitchell), the main character is Cpl. Colin Spence (Henry Fonda).  Fonda hated the movie and looks miserable in it.  The 37 year old actor volunteered for the military and was set to go into the Navy when studio head Daryl Zanuck pulled strings to get his entry postponed so he could make one more film.  Fonda was pissed.  After the film, he served in Naval Intelligence and was awarded the Bronze Star (I’m sure he did something very brave to earn it).

                Kelly and Spence are in the British 8th Army in the Libyan Desert.  Kelly is quickly canonized as emblematic of the greatness of the British Army.  Spence, on the other hand, is a milquetoast wuss who entered the Army to assuage the humiliation of losing his girl Valentine (Maureen O’Hara at her loveliest) to a cad named Benedict (more like Bene-dick!).  We know about this love triangle through frequent flashbacks that makes us want to slap the wimpy Spence across the face.  One reason Spence joined up was to grow a pair and a suicide mission seems to be the ticket.

                Spence and Kelly lead a patrol of fourteen (place your bets on how many will survive) behind enemy lines to blow stuff up.  Things do not go smoothly, naturally.  First, they come under attack from Italian fighter planes dropping bombs they do not have (how many times have I seen that in a war film?).  Spence tells one of the soldiers to “try for the pilot” and another to “go for the rear gunner” with their rifles!  LOL   But wait, I apologize because they shoot down one of the planes.  The plane makes a crash landing while aflame and proceeds to chase the patrols truck and ram into it killing eight of the men.  LOFL  This is one of the most hilarious scenes in war movie history.

                The remainder of the patrol continues on and receives a note sealed in a tin can dropped by a British plane.  The note warns them that there is an Italian armored car up ahead.  The note reads “Don’t worry, it’s only an Italian armored car”.  Just kidding.  They decide to take on the very fake looking vehicle.  In the ridiculous action scene, Sgt. Kelly gets wounded by a grenade even though he’s shielded by a sand dune.  Spence insists on dragging Kelly along so Kelly belies the title of the film by taking his own life.  He leaves behind his voice in Spence’s head.

                Kelly leaves some big shoes to fill (and a halo to wear), but Spence’s feet suddenly grow four sizes.  The remaining three soldiers find out quickly that Spence is channeling the tough sergeant.  It’s tough love as he shares his last cigarette.  They pass it around like a joint and then the last toker buries the butt because it could give away their position.  LOL   

                The quartet approach an oasis, but before they can reach it the Germans swoop in and take possession.  Spence goes to scout and it turns out he’s not alone.  Kelly is with him and they debate what to do.  Spence sneaks into the German camp and steals water and food.  He  convinces his mates to attack the Germans in a sand storm.  They kill all the Germans, use a grenade to blow up the German transport plane, and explode the ammunition dump.  Piece of cake.

                The film closes with Spence lying wounded in a hospital.  He is a hero now and when Benedict comes visit he gives him the old what-for.  Now Spence is going to fight for what he wants, just like America should.  Buy war bonds!!

a fiery redhead and her wimpy beau
                Even if you cut this movie some slack because of when it was made, you cannot get around the fact that it is atrocious.  I think Fonda hated it partly because of the circumstances he was forced to make it in and partly because he knew it would go on his resume.  The flashbacks are incredibly sappy and aggravating.  The Spence character is pitiful and his transformation into Rambo is ludicrous.  The acting is substandard.  What do you expect when your star is seething?  The sound stage is disconcertingly fake.  The music is hammy mood music.  The special effects are embarrassing, even for 1943.  The dialogue is corny and having Spence talk to Kelly in his head does not help matters.  The only positive thing I can say is the weaponry appeared to be realistic in the oasis attack scene.  I recognized bolt-action rifles, a Lewis gun, and Mills bombs.

                Classic or Antique?  Definitely an antique.  You should only watch this if you want to see what a 1943 propaganda film was like or if you want a good laugh.
grade =  F

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

CLASSIC or ANTIQUE? “Battle Circus” (1953)

                “Battle Circus” is a Korean War movie released in 1953.  It was written and directed by Richard Brooks (“Take the High Ground”).  The movie is about a MASH unit and was originally entitled “MASH 66”.  The studio worried people would think it was about potatoes.  Instead a title was developed that reflected the circus atmosphere and tents of a Mobile Hospital.  The technical adviser had operated a MASH unit in Korea so the operation was accurate.  Humphrey Bogart was paid $250,000, but that princely sum did not keep him from regretting making the film.  The fact that he burned his thumb during a scene where he destroys papers before a retreat did not increase his enthusiasm.  The scene was left in the film.  At least he got decent reviews.  His co-star June Allyson was lambasted by the press.  So much for broadening her resume beyond “the girl next door”.

                “Battle Circus” is a “story about the indominable human spirit…”  It is set in an unspecified part of the Korean War, but based on the constant bugging out it would seem to be the first year.  The set looks like a MASH unit.  In other words, you’ll recognize “MASH” the movie and TV show.  There are the iconic tents and the helicopters bringing in the wounded (the movie was partly filmed at Camp Pickett, Virginia where the MASH units were trained).  We are introduced to the dangers of military medical care through a ridiculous strafing attack on the unit.  Using actual footage – of a USAF F-86!  Apparently the director did not give a crap about our intelligence level.  By the way, I would be surprised if there were any MIG strafings of hospitals in the entire war.

June finds out her make-up kit was left behind
                A cherry nurse arrives named Ruth (Allyson).  The hard drinking surgeon Maj. Webbe (Bogart) takes an immediate lusting for her.  They immediately begin the Hollywood process of hooking up.  This involves embarrassing pick-up lines by Webbe that would have Hawkeye Pierce gagging.  Plus Webbe is about as subtle as a kick in the stomach.  Ruth is very protective of her female virtue – for about five minutes.  That’s how long it takes the wolf in scrubs to get her to lower her surgical mask.  Soon she is the aggressor and madly (as in insanely) in love with him.

                It’s not all love in war.  Webbe saves a little Korean boys life by performing open heart surgery.  He is an ace surgeon and an ace drunk.  His drinking gets him in trouble with his superior.  In the obligatory carpet calling confrontation, Webbe makes a bizarrely contemporary comment about the “three world wars in our lifetime”.  How did I miss one?  I assume the screenwriters are referring to the Cold War as WWIII, but I thought that was only a recent bit of historical revisionism. 
looks just like a real war photo, doesn't it?

                Allyson gets to show off her serious acting chops (or lack thereof) in a silly scene where she talks down an enemy prisoner welding a grenade during an operation.  There are no subtitles but I’m pretty sure he is upset with the romance.  It appears that this naïve newbie has developed into a battle-hardened caregiver.  The movie closes with one last bug-out as the unit has to escape through enemy lines under artillery fire.  The nurses get separated from the doctors.  I mean Bogart gets separated from Allyson.  Will they have a loving reunion?  You’ll have to watch the movie.

listen kid, I can get my make-up guy to
make you look like you're in a war,too
                This is a strange movie.  It is part sappy romance and part realistic depiction of the workings of a MASH unit.  The look of the unit is real and the activities seem authentic.  The bug-outs are appropriate for that stage of the war.  The use of helicopters is well done.  All this effort is diluted by the romance half.  It would be like MASH bombing in the comedy sphere.  The two leads have little chemistry.  Bogart looks too old for the role.  Their dialogue is cringe-worthy.  No couple talks like that in real life.  Plus the arc of the romance defies reality.  Ruth goes from skeptical to stalking in the bat of an eyelash.  Of course, the actors are not helped by the script.  There is a painful scene where they wallow in a mud puddle.  Hilarious not.  This is the only time in the film that Allyson is not well-dressed, well-made up, amd well-coiffed.  At least the doctors sweat a little in the operating room.

                In spite of my carping, the movie is not that bad.  Aside from the elephantine cliché of a romance, the movie has some interesting twists.  The enemy is not demonized.  The movie is nurse-centric as oppsed to concentrating on the male doctors.  The film does a good job commemorating the role of the MASH units.

                Classic or antique?  Neither.

grade =  C 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

LIVE: Objective, Burma! (1945)

starring Errol “the George Clooney of the 1940s” Flynn /  directed by Raoul Walsh  /  two technical advisers  /  opens with stirring music  /  quote from Stilwell:  I got my assed kicked out of Burma, but I’ll be back  /  narration over actual footage -  Stilwell, Merrill  /  the actor playing Stilwell looks like an old hillbilly – he rolls his own cigarette and then puts it in a FDResque cigarette holder  /  EF is Capt. Nelson, paratrooper leader extraordinaire  /  the men are bathing – hey, there is a naked man’s ass!  is this a 40s movie?  /  “Quit waving your teeth” – oh, snap!  /  “You’re khaki-whacki” – double snap!  /  mission:  go behind enemy lines to destroy a radar station and make a crucial contribution to winning the war  /  a news correspondent (a la Ernie Pyle) named Williams is coming along – Nelson points out he is old and will not be able to hang, but okay  /  okay soldier banter  /  Nelson checks his men's gear before boarding the C-47 – he cares  /  close-ups on the plane  /  good cinematography on the jumps – no “Geronimos”  /  no one breaks their neck landing in a tree  /  lots of jungle noises – is this a Tarzan movie?  /  continuous music score sets the mood, but well  /  little talking – good noise discipline, but the enemy could hear the music from one hundred miles away  /  they reach the target with no problems – Nelson draws the plan up in the dirt  /  suspense builds as they sneak up;  Nelson pulls a grenade pin with his teeth;  short slaughter of the Japanese;  casualties:  Japanese – all dead (no wounded), Americans – not a scratch  /  that seemed too easy, what is left in this movie?  could there be some complications in getting home?  /  more humping through the boonies  /  Nelson talks to his BFF about their next leave thus dooming one of them to death  /  waiting for pick up – what a boring movie!  oh, oh here come the Japs and here starts the epic running away  /  they’ll have to walk out – it can’t be done!  /  another break for banter -  not lame  /  Nelson divides the unit into two groups - because 36 men are too much for any overwhelming Japanese force?  WTF;  theory: Nelson had seen Spencer Tracy in “Northwest Passage” do the exact same thing;  we’ll call them the EF half and the doomed non-EF half  /  “You ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie, brother”  /  “When you’re dealing with monkeys [the Japs], you gotta expect some wrenches” – racist, but awesome line  /  only two survivors arrive at the rendezvous with the non-EF half  / now we’re wading (note to producers of “Merrill’s Marauders”)  /  a Burmese village –  they find the mutilated bodies of the survivors of the ambushed non-EF half – we see their feet and take EF’s face’s word for how horrible the rest of their body’s are;  Nelson’s future leave partner begs him to kill him;  Williams rants about wiping all the monkeys off the face of the Earth – the audience agrees  /  the Japs arrive – the Americans set off a grenade booby trap (the Viet Cong watched this movie in training);  touchdown signaling deaths;  good action; run away, again  /  new orders via walkie talkie communication with a C-47 (can you do that?) – go North, young men;  WTF – well, orders are orders  /  “If your aunt had a beard, she’d be your uncle”  /  air dropped supplies – don’t go out there!  haven’t you ever seen a war movie?  dumb ass!  /  down to 13 men and no walkie-talkie and no food  /  more humping  /  there’s a plane – why do soldiers always yell at the plane? – it is highly unlikely they can hear you  /  Nelson is a saintly leader – no interesting character flaws (once again that Spencer Tracy “Northwest Passage” influence)  /  more humping and wading  /  they get to the site and there is – nothing!  morale = deflated balloon;  reinflation via Nelson  /  dig in and wait;  Williams dies from exhaustion, age, and being a newsman (not shot by a sniper like Ernie Pyle)  /  here come the Japs again  /  night attack – sneaky Japs sneaking;  one uses his English and impeccable American accent to kill a good guy;  Nelson sets off a flare so we can see the monkeys coming up the hill get slaughtered by Thompson machine gun fire and then a shit load of thrown grenades (which apparently the Japs had none of)  /  the cavalry arrives in the form of a paratrooper armada including gliders;  some cool glider footage  /  the twelve survivors leave in a glider hooked by a C-47 (I’ve never seen that in a war movie)  /  the end

CRITIQUE:  better than expected  /  lack of clichés, but not perfect e.g. the newsman chronicler  /  some surprises – e.g. Williams’ death  /  not a whole lot of action – a whole lot of walking  /  well acted -  EF is solid, if unspectacular  /  good score  /  dialogue is fine with some good lines  /  surprisingly little character development for a small unit movie (although we do find out that one guy is from Flat Bush)  /  no slap stick, but not too somber    better than “Merrill’s Marauders”

grade =  B+ 
Post-Script:  The movie was a big hit and got good reviews, except in England.  The British were mightily offended by the implication that the Americans won the Burma Campaign by themselves.  Churchill was one of the protestors and the film was pulled from release after one week.  It was not shown again until 1952 and with an apology added.
The movie was nominated for three Academy Awards:  Film Editing, Original Score, and Best Story.  One of the co-writers (Lester Cole) later was one of the Hollywood Ten.  He sure hid his communist sympathies with his patriotic script.
The movie was filmed at Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Gardens.
The producer admitted he intended to copy from "Northwest Passage".
There are no female roles.
The operation most closely resembles a Chindit raid called Operation Loincloth.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

CLASSIC OR ANTIQUE? Operation Pacific (1951)

                “Operation Pacific” is a John Wayne WWII submarine movie released in 1951.  It was directed by George Waggner (“The Fighting Kentuckian”).  The technical adviser was Admiral Charles Lockwood, COMSUBPAC.  The movie is dedicated to the “Silent Service”.  An opening narration tells the viewers that after Pearl Harbor the subs had to carry the war effort in the Pacific.  52 subs and 3,500 submariners were lost during the war.

                The opening scene places us squarely in Old School territory.  Lt. Commander Duke (how original!) Gifford (Wayne) paddles a boat in front of a screen while someone off screen throws cups of water on him.  He rescues a group of nuns and orphans.  This was loosely based on the rescue of some refugees by the USS Crevalle after the fall of the Philippines. The kids proceed to run all over the sub, thus emphasizing the common theme of the sub as a family.   The problem is not the damned kids, it’s the damned torpedoes.  The Thunderfish fails to sink a fat juicy aircraft carrier because the torpedoes fail to explode.  We know this because we see a model of a sub in a swimming pool fire torpedoes that literally bump into the side of an aircraft carrier model.  1950s special effects – got to love them!  Speaking of Old School, one of the seamen actually says “I’m a monkey’s uncle”.

"Sorry sailor, these waters are closed"
                When the Thunderfish returns to Pearl, we enter the romance phase of the movie.  Groan!  It seems Gifford is divorced from a nurse called Mary Stuart (Patricia O’Neal).  Would you believe they divorced because he chose the service over her and their child?  (Sounds like Sgt. Stryker in "Sands of Iwo Jima".)  He chose his sub family over his real family.  However, now that he is back on shore, he wants Mary back.  And it’s not just because he misses the nookie.  Love triangle alert! Capt. Perry’s (Ward Bond) kid brother wants Mary also.  Fat chance, even Perry wants Gifford to win.  While this chemistry-less romance is exciting the females in the audience, the guys get the naval trope of Gifford bailing out his crew after a drunken brawl.

the end to every shore leave
                Back asea the Thunderfish montages its way through the Japanese fleet.  Some of this is real footage.  The Thunderfish would have won the war itself if it wasn’t for those damned torpedoes.  Queue the big set piece.  They surface when a freighter raises a white flag.  Oops, it’s a disguised warship!  Those dastardly Nips.  Actually, the U.S. used Q-Ships in the Pacific and the Japanese did not.  The Captain is wounded by machine gun fire and orders the sub to dive while he is still on deck.  This is based on the Medal of Honor actions of Howard Gilmore.  Gilmore was wounded in a duel with a gun boat which the USS Growler had rammed.  The sub dove, but when it resurfaced there was no pay back on the Japanese ship.   Duke takes command and resurfaces to ram and sink the Japanese ship.  Revenge accomplished.  Gifford in command accomplished.

"Ramming speed!"
                Enough is enough.  Back at Pearl, the crew solves the torpedo problem by dropping them on their noses.  (The idea apparently comes from a fourteen year old in the crew.)  This actually happened, but it was done by experts, not a sub crew.  Surprisingly, although everyone in the movie and in the audience is hoping for a reconciliation, Mary jilts Duke.  Oh, well – it’s back to action.

                There’s a wink-wink moment on this tour as the crew gets to watch a submarine movie.  It’s clearly “Destination Tokyo”.  The crew is bored and finds it unrealistic.  Get it?  They undergo a depth charging that is not too clicheish.  They sink a carrier because the torpedoes work now.  Then they end up in the middle of the Battle of Leyte Gulf which they win by themselves.  Not really, they get some help.

"What do you mean the wrong
actor is at the periscope?"
                As submarine movies go, “Operation Pacific” is in the middle of the pack.  As Wayne war movies go, it’s below average.  It is definitely Old School, but does avoid most of the tired clichés.  There is no going below the maximum depth scene.  No rivets pop.  There is no jettisoning debris to fake sinking.  The special effects are lame even for 1951.  I’m no fan of CGI but it beats a model in a swimming pool.  Yet, the effects were praised at the time.  Cheesy is still cheesy.  Speaking of – the music by Max Steiner is schmaltzy and I’m not just referring to the romance scenes.  There’s a laughable moment when the Japanese fleet sails into sight with stereotypical Japanese music playing.  The cinematography is fine.

                The big flaw is the plot.  The romance goes nowhere.  Throwing in a challenger for Mary’s affections is laughable.  Either Duke is going to have her or no one will.  The movie is also predictable.  Perry is dead meat as there is no chance John Wayne is going to stay subordinate to Ward Bond!  Some of the action is ridiculous.  This is especially true of the scene where they ram the disguised freighter.  Gilmore’s death was powerful enough without Hollywoodizing it.

                Classic or antique?  Definitely antique.  There are many better sub movies.  There are many better John Wayne movies.

Grade =  C