Saturday, November 30, 2013


In anticipation of the upcoming review of "Glory", here is the "History or Hollywood" quiz.

1.    Robert Gould Shaw was the son of upper class Massachusetts abolitionists. 

2.    Shaw was wounded leading a charge at the Battle of Antietam. 

3.    The Governor of Massachusetts offered command of the 54th to Shaw at an upper crust get-together. 

4.    The unit included runaway slaves. 

5.    The Confederate government issued a proclamation threatening to enslave any black soldier captured in a Yankee uniform and execute any of their white officers. 
6.     The unit refused to accept its pay to protest it being less than what white soldiers were paid. 

7.    After training, the 54th had a parade through Boston. 
8.    The 54th was sent to occupied South Carolina where its first action was the sacking of Darien, Ga. 

9.    Their first battle was at James Island against Confederate cavalry and then infantry. 

10. Shaw volunteered for the assault on Fort Wagner and Thomas volunteered to pick up the flag should it fall.  
11. The 54th charged along the shoreline, took refuge in the dunes, and then continued the charge after dark. 

12. Shaw was killed climbing the rampart. 
13. Shaw’s second in command led a small group into the interior of the fort. 

14. Shaw was buried with his men. 
2.    HISTYWOOD  Shaw’s unit saw little action in the battle and he participated in no charge.  He was wounded in the neck by a spent ball. 
3.    HOLLYWOOD  Gov. Andrew offered the command through a letter delivered by Shaw’s father while he was in camp.  Shaw refused at first and then reconsidered over night.  The movie accurately portrays the role of Frederick Douglass in encouraging the experiment.
4.    HOLLYWOOD  The unit was recruited from freed blacks so it is highly unlikely a Trip type of individual would have been in it.
5.    HISTORY  There was such a proclamation.  Threats of Northern reprisals kept the proclamation from being carried out.
6.     HISTYWOOD  True, except that Shaw initiated the protest instead of jumping on board.
7.     HISTORY  The parade was witnessed by Gov. Andrew, the Shaws, Douglass, and John Greenleaf Whittier.
8.     HISTORY  The raid was accurately portrayed with Col. Montgomery ordering his contraband troops and Shaw’s men to ransack the village and set it afire.  The 54th did reluctantly participate.  Montgomery was a sincere abolitionist who believed the secessionists needed to be punished.
9.     HISTYWOOD  The 54th did not initiate the action.  It was a rearguard action to rescue a white unit that was retreating.  They did fight well.
10. HISTYWOOD  Gen. Strong asked Shaw to lead the attack and then asked who would pick up the flag.  Shaw volunteered to carry the flag.
11. HISTYWOOD  The environment is authentic and the fort is well re-created, but the attack started after dusk and was not interrupted.  The fort was surrounded by a moat with stakes in it.
12. HISTYWOOD  Shaw was actually shot on the parapet and fell into the fort.  Several of his men went in after the body and died with him.  The flag was planted on the rampart by a William Carney who survived the battle with several wounds and managed to get the flag back to camp.  He was awarded the Medal of Honor (37 years later).
13. HOLLYWOOD  None of the unit got that far.  Shaw’s exec was a Norwood Hallowell.  He was wounded in the groin before reaching the crest.  Forbes was not based on him.  In fact, only Shaw is based on an actual member of the unit.
14. HISTORY  This was done to dishonor him.  His parents refused the chance to reinter his body after the war.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

CRACKER? Major Dundee (1965)

                “Major Dundee” is a Sam Peckinpah film with a very troubled history.  Peckinpah’s version of the film never made it to the theaters.  The studio did some substantial cuts after a disastrous early screening.  The film was cut 12 minutes for its run.  Later, those minutes were added for the restored version that I have reviewed here.  If Peckinpah had had his way the movie would have run 4 hours and 38 minutes!  The film was shot in Mexico and it was an unpleasant production.  Peckinpah was drunk most of the time and was very hard on the cast and crew.  At one point, Charleton Heston actually charged at the director on horse.

                The movie is set in 1864 during the American Civil War.  Heston plays a Maj. Dundee who for unspecified reasons has been demoted to commandant of a prison camp in the New Mexico Territory.  Not only is he guarding Confederate prisoners, but he is having to deal with Apache Indian raiders.  The movie opens with Dundee coming upon the scene of an Indian massacre.  The raiders are 47 Apache led by Sierra Charriba.  They have taken four boys captive.  Dundee becomes obsessed with rescuing the boys and more importantly for his career resurrection, harpooning Sierra Charriba.

                Dundee needs the Rebel prisoners to volunteer for his hunt.  The complication is that the leader of the Rebels is an ex-friend and now bitter enemy.  Tyreen (Richard Harris) resents the fact that Dundee voted to court-martial him because of a dueling incident before the war.  Dundee pardons Tyreen from being hanged in order to get his reluctant support.  It’s agreed that Dundee and Tyreen will not claw each other’s eyes out until the mission is completed, but that does not keep them from evidencing their mutual dislike in every scene.

                The motley unit of Yankees, Rebels, and even some “coloreds” march out on their quest.  They head straight into Mexico.  Wait, can they do that?  (Ask Gen. Pershing)  They get ambushed by the Indians while crossing a river and lose most of their supplies.  Dundee decides to attack a French outpost to resupply and to get the French involved because the more the merrier.  While sojourning in the town, Dundee hooks up with a feisty senorita named Teresa (Senta Berger).  Guess who else is interested in her?  The extended stay in the town is great, if you enjoy watching drinking and dancing.  If you are watching for Peckinpah action, not so great.  Finally they leave with the French in hot pursuit.

                The external threat does not solve the unit’s dysfunctionality.  One of the rebels (Warren Oates) is caught deserting and Tyreen executes him to deprive Dundee of the pleasure.  Tyreen swears vengeance, naturally. Teresa arrives to have a tryst with Dundee.  During one of their encounters, Dundee takes an arrow in the leg.  Dundee spends another boring stretch in another village recuperating.   He is nursed by a different beautiful senorita until Teresa discovers them in the act.  Dundee goes on a bender because the toughest guy in the West is ashamed.  Tyreen has to convince him to get over it and come back so the movie can continue.

                The Indian problem solved, it’s just a matter of returning to New Mexico.  Unfortunately, those pesky French are still on their tail and block them at a river crossing.  Peckinpah violence ensues.  Every time a body hits the water so does a gallon of blood.  It’s redemption time.  Do the French win?  Do you know anything about history?

                Speaking of history, there is a small germ of accuracy to it.  During the Civil War, the Union did accept service from captured Rebels.  These “Galvanized Yankees” were used in the West for Indian fighting.  Most famously, they helped put down the Minnesota Sioux Uprising of 1862.  They also were stationed along the Mexican border to deal with the Apache, Arapaho, and Navaho.  There was no invasion of Mexico for them to participate in and there were no problems with their service.

                Peckinpah meant to make an epic and blamed the studio for preventing that accomplishment.  It is doubtful that his envisioned final product would have been a masterpiece.  The truncated version has long sections that are boring and one can only imagine what a four hour version would have been like.  The film got mixed reviews when it came out, but it has gained a following over the years.  I feel the original opinions are more on target.  The movie could possibly have been great, but even the restored version is far from great.

                The acting is not as big a problem considering the two leads.  These notorious scene-chewers keep themselves under control for the most part.  The supporting cast is fine.  There are lots of familiar Peckinpah faces.  James Coburn has fun as a crusty scout and Warren Oates dies significantly.  James Anderson, Jr. plays the narrator/bugler.  As an actress, Senta Berger is lovely.

                The screenplay is a mash-up of “Moby Dick” and “Mutiny on the Bounty”.  Dundee is the obsessed Ahab chasing his white whale.  As far as the unit dynamics, Dundee is the martinet Bligh to Tyreen’s chivalrous Christian.  The dynamic between Dundee and Tyreen does work in spite of the cat versus dog simplicity of it.  Heston boldly plays the dislikable Dundee which certainly went against virtually all his other career choices.  Harris is perfect as his more noble foil.  He embodies the Southern spirit well.

                The movie is competently made by the drunken Peckinpah.  He takes advantage of the Mexican landscape for some awesome scenery.  The action scenes are harbingers of “The Wild Bunch”, but only hint at where Peckinpah was heading.  One technical flaw is the poor score.  Unbelievably, the studio junked Peckinpah’s music for what we hear in the film.  How bad could the original score have been?

                Cracker?  No, partly because it does not fit my definition of a war movie, but mostly because it’s just not that good.

grade =  C


Friday, November 15, 2013

CRACKER? Prisoners of the Sun (Blood Oath) (1990)

                “Blood Oath” (also called “Prisoners of the Sun” in the States) is an Australian film released in 1990.  It was directed by Stephen Wallace and written and produced by Brian Williams.  Williams’ father John was the prosecutor in the trial depicted in the film.  The movie marked the screen debut of Russell Crowe.

                The film is set on the island of Ambon.  Of 1,100 Australian and Dutch prisoners taken when the Japanese took the island, only about 300 survived.  The war is over and a mass gave has been uncovered .  Capt. Cooper (Brian Baker – playing the role representing John Williams) heads a war crimes trial to bring the perpetrators to justice.  Crowe is his aide.  A flashback depicts the mistreatment of prisoners supervised by the vile Sgt. Ikeuchi (Tetsu Watanabe).  The big fish is Adm. Takahashi (George Takei) who is chaperoned by an American Maj. Beckett (Terry O’Quinn).  Cooper attempts to prove the admiral gave the orders.  He is acquitted because of lack of evidence and flown back to Japan. 

                Now that the big fish has gotten away, Cooper concentrates on four airmen who were shot down on Ambon and disappeared.  His superior asks him why he needs the four airmen when he has 300 corpses in a mass grave and plenty of eyewitnesses to the brutality of the guards.  Good question and one that remains unanswered.  One of the captured airmen’s had a brother in the camp who witnessed not only his torturing, but the subsequent beheading and burial.  On the witness stand, the obviously traumatized Lt. Fenton (John Polson) gives damning (but seemingly inadmissible, evidence) against Icheuki.  When Fenton dies that night, Cooper beats up Icheuki with  no consequences and a lot of irony.

                With the new revelations and the discovery of the grave site of the four airmen, Cooper focuses his efforts on Icheuki and a milquetoast officer named Tanaka (Toshi Shioya).  Tanaka testifies that Takahashi gave the orders, but Beckett makes sure his boy is untouchable because he is part of the post-war plans for Japan.  As part of the Pacification program the future of the world depends on him, according to Beckett.  Cooper counters with: “You’re not working out the future of the world, you’re just preventing it from being different from the past”.  Oh, snap!  It’s not just the emperor who will get off easy.  It’s just politics.  Ikeuchi has no protector so he commits hari-kari.  Good riddance.  There’s still that little matter of Tanaka cutting off an airman’s head with no written orders nor proof of an official court-martial.

                “Prisoners of the Sun” is based on a true story.  After Ambon fell, the Japanese executed 300 Australian and Dutch prisoners in what became known as the Laha Massacre.  Three-fourths of the remaining prisoners died before liberation due to overwork, disease, and mistreatment.  93 guards were put on trial in 1946 in what was the largest war crimes trial in the Pacific.  Rear Admiral Hatekeyama was determined to have ordered the executions, but he died before the trial finished.  A different Hatekeyama was hanged for being in direct command of the executions.  Three other officers were hanged for assorted mistreatments of prisoners.  It appears the filmmakers have taken many liberties with the facts.  The whole subplot of Takehashi being protected by the American government seems made up to advance the theme of politics trumping justice.

                There is nothing special about the movie.  The acting is fine.  Baker is seethingly righteous.  Watanabe is creepily malevolent.  Shioya is effective as the pawn.  The rest are okay with Crowe not deserving his prominent placement on the poster and Takei slumming in a stunt casting.  A nurse is thrown in to provide a female foil and undeveloped romance angle for Cooper.   The score is new wave schmaltzy.  The cinematography is standard.  The set is pretty good.  It does look like a prison camp.

                The plot is the main flaw.  Close examination leads to head scratching.  There should have been plenty of evidence of brutality to convict the guards.  After all, Fenton was not the only surviving prisoner to witness and be subjected to violations of the acts of war.  No other survivors are called as witnesses.  The subplot of Takehashi getting off is an indictment of the post-war coddling of war criminals and is thought-provoking.  It is also memorable that Cooper’s obsession with convicting someone results in the conviction of the less than villainous Tanaka.  The flashbacks, including the beheading of Fenton’s brother, are well done.

                “Blood Oath” is the type of movie that takes a forgotten moment in history and brings it to the public’s attention.  For that, it deserves some praise.  It did cause me to read up on the trial and I found there is not a whole lot of information on the Internet.  What little I found gave me the impression that the movie is not really a good history lesson.  It is fairly entertaining and the themes are compelling, just not a movie to get excited about.  Even if you are a Russell Crowe fan.
                Will it crack my 100 Best War Movies list?  No.

grade =  C+       

Thursday, November 7, 2013

BOOK / MOVIE: Ender’s Game


                SPOILER ALERT:  This blog post is a comparison of the movie and the book and is mainly aimed at people who have already read the book.

                The acclaimed military science fiction novel Ender’s Game has been brought to the big screen by director Gavin Hood.  Hood also wrote the screenplay based on the book by Orson Scott Card.  The novel is beloved and there has been much trepidation about the movie adaptation.  I have read the book and I am concerned here with my theory that a movie should end up better than the novel it is based on.  I am familiar with the belief that movies seldom match their source, especially when we are talking about classic novels.  I swim upstream when it comes to this parroted philosophy.  Does “Ender’s Game” support the majority view or mine?

                For those unfamiliar with the novel’s plot, Ender Wiggin is a young boy who is a prodigy when it comes to military strategy and tactics.  He is groomed through tough love to become a fleet commander to lead Earth in the upcoming sequel to Earth versus the alien would-be conquerors.

                The movie briefly backgrounds the previous war in which the Borg-like Formics (the “Buggers” of the book) almost wiped out Earth.  Only the amazing performance by a Mazer Rackham saved the human race.  50 years later Earth is preparing a pre-emptive attack on the Formic planet.  Ender (Asa Butterfield) is taken from his parents to Battle School which is located in outer space.  The commander of battle school Col. Graff (Harrison Ford) feels Ender is “the one” and takes steps to harden him for command.  Ender makes friends and enemies among the cadets and quickly proves a natural in the Battle Room where the low gravity environment makes for interesting competitions and great special effects.  The movie does as good a job as could be expected in recreating the environment, but the competitions are pale reenactments of the vibrant book scenes.  Ender is the Battle School’s star pupil until his encounter with a jealous older boy causes him to drop out.  Graff uses Ender’s sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin) to convince him mankind needs him.

                Ender is taken by Graff to a secret outpost where he is introduced to the legendary Rackham (Ben Kingsley) and reunited with his best mates from Battle School.  They are told they are going to go through simulations of commanding the fleet assaulting the Formic planet.  Each simulation involves Ender directing his comrades as each controls a different part of the fleet.  This leads up to “graduation day”.

                The movie is not substantially different from the novel.  The main difference is what is left out, basically for time reasons.  The film jettisons the subplots of Valentine and Peter (Ender’s psychopath older brother) in their political guises as Demosthenes and Locke.  This is an improvement as that part of the book struck me as being highly unrealistic and mostly filler.  The movie also makes no reference at all to the situation on Earth.  In the book, Card makes the questionable decision to liken Earth in the distant future to Cold War Earth (even using the term Warsaw Pact).  This allows for the dubious inclusion of an Earthbound conflict that the movie thankfully avoids.

                The movie hits the highlights of Ender’s rise to commander status, but naturally cannot go into the details that were one of the highlights of the book.  The movie only hints at the struggles Ender has to go through in overcoming obstacles placed in front of him by Graff.  In order to compact the time frame (possibly for purposes of using only one actor to portray Ender), we get a much quicker progression in the Battle School.  The movie is particularly weak in depicting how Ender’s outside the box tactics were the keys to his success.  In fact, he wins his last match using a conventional formation which essentially dilutes what little effort the movie had made to hint at why he was brilliant.  There is also much less character development among the core group with Petra (Hailee Steinfeld) being bumped up to BFF (not surprisingly).  Bean, Alai, Dink, and Bernard are there only to bring back fond memories for fans of the book.

                The other highlight of the book (the “mind game”)  is given a prominent role and benefits from video game style graphics that should go over well with the core audience.  The movie places the emphasis on how the game got out of the control of Graff whereas in the book the emphasis was more on Ender’s problem solving abilities.  More would have been better, but again time constraints played a role in limiting these forays into Ender’s mind.  The scenes do play a pivotal role in setting up the ending of the movie.

                The biggest strength of the movie is pushing the theme that the war may have been unnecessary and was blatant genocide.  The movie downplays the evilness of the Formics (witness the omission of the term “buggers”).  Ender is more torn up by what he has done than in the book.  The movie also is able to be more visceral in portraying the sacrifices Ender has to call for from his fleet during the simulations.  The post script is simplified in a more satisfying way than in the book.

                Is the movie better than the book?  In advancing the overarching theme that Ender was being used by the military to preemptively destroy an alien species that perhaps was not deserving of extinction, the movie is more efficient than the book.   The excision of the subplots streamlines the plot, but the slimming down of Ender’s Battle School experience keeps the movie’s length under control at the expense of the most memorable moments and characters.

                In conclusion, the novel is on the Marine Corps’ recommended reading list.  It is highly unlikely the movie will be recommended viewing.  What this means is that if you prefer a plot that deals mainly with the stresses of command with a heavy dose of strategy and tactics, you would probably prefer the novel.  The movie is more a synopsis of the book – hitting the high spots without diving in too deep.  The film concentrates more on the moral dimensions of the war.  While the book erred in going into too much detail on periphery plots, the movie does not go into enough detail on the cherished elements of the book.  Is the movie better?  I would give it a slight nod, but it is not as clear a victory as for “Starship Troopers” the movie.

                P.S.  If you have not read the book, I strongly recommend you read it before watching the movie.  But be sure you stop reading the book before you get to the graduation simulation.          

Friday, November 1, 2013

FORGOTTEN GEM? Escape from Sobibor (1987)

                “Escape from Sobibor” was a British made-for-TV movie that appeared in 1987.  It was directed by Jack Gold and is based on a nonfiction book  by Richard Rashke.  It is based on the most successful escape from a concentration camp.  A camp survivor named Thomas Blatt served as technical advisor.  The camp was located in Poland and approximately 250,000 Jews were murdered there.

                The movie opens with three inmates cutting through the wire and making a run through the mine field surrounding the camp.  A new train arrives to waltz music. There is realistic chaos, but the Jews are in pretty good shape and there is no evidence that any died on the trip.  The “selection” occurs and most of the Jews are taken to be “disinfected”.   The expendables march off waving bye to the lucky few who have skills (seamstresses, tailors, etc.) or are adult men.   A good scene and not overly emotional.

                We are introduced to the main characters.  One of them is a new arrival who is hiding a baby.  Some of the other women in the barracks are not thrilled about this.  Another character is a man who is told what actually happened to his wife and son when they went to the “showers”.  Others get a similar revelation. 

                Life in the camp is tense.  The woman’s baby is discovered and it does not end well.  I hope that Nazi bastard gets his!  During a work detail, thirteen men escape but are soon caught.  They are ordered to select a partner to die with them or the guards will execute 50 at random.  Everyone is forced to watch.  It appears that escape attempts have severe consequences at this camp.  This causes the escape committee led by Leon Feldhendler (Alan Arkin) to adjust the escape plan to include all  600 inmates.

                The seemingly impossible plan gets juiced upon the arrival of some Soviet Jews in September, 1943.  Many of them are prisoners of war.  Their acknowledged leader is a charismatic fellow named Aleksandr Pechersky (Rutger Hauer).  He is called Sasha.  Sasha is put in contact with Leon and agrees to help with the escape.  In fact, he becomes the leader.  His developing relationship with a woman named Luka gives him an excuse to visit the Polish Jews’ barracks for plotting purposes.  The camp allows a shocking amount of socializing (which does allow for character development and dialogue).  It is decided that the only hope for success is to kill the guards and exit through the front gate.  Home-made weapons and reliable Jews are recruited to do the killing.

                The big day arrives and there are complications, naturally.  Several of the guards are lured into workshops on pretenses of measuring for boots and clothing.  The killings are appropriately amateurish.  Unfortunately, the scheme is discovered before it reaches fruition and the alarm is sounded making the front gate exit impossible.  It’s every person for himself at this point and after several moments of chaos, the leaders determine that exit through the fence and across the mine field is the only viable option.  The randomness of death is apparent as every step could be your last.  This a powerful scene, if a bit cheesy.  A postscript informs us that about 300 managed to make it into the forest.

                How accurate is the film?  I have no major complaints with any of it.  The elements that seem most likely Hollywoodized appear to be based on reality.  My research confirmed that some of the Jews shipped to this camp did not have a particularly nightmarish experience on the train.  The disposal of most of the arriving Jews was pretty standard procedure at any of the death camps.  What the movie does not show and I found interesting was Sobibor used exhaust fumes from a Soviet tank engine to do the job in the gas chamber.  It was the policy of the camp to kill one inmate for every escapee although I could not determine if they chose who would be murdered with them.  Let us assume technical advisor Blatt vetted this. 

                The main characters were real people.  Pechersky was an above average Soviet soldier before his capture and he did have a strong personality.  When he first arrived at the camp he got a lot of cred for standing up to one of the more sadistic guards.  He did have a relationship with a woman named Luka, but claimed it was just platonic.  She did not survive the minefield.  Surprisingly, the camp had a reputation for allowing an amazing amount of socializing.  Feldhendler is accurately depicted as the leader of the Polish Jews.  The breakout is essentially as shown.  Eleven S.S. guards were killed as well as an unknown number of Ukrainian guards.  They did have to exit through the minefield with results as reenacted.

                The film ends at the right moment for entertainment purposes because what happened after was not very positive.  Pechersky led about fifty survivors in the forest.  He and the few in the party who were also Soviet soldiers hatched a plan to sneak into the local town to get food.  They took most of the groups’ weapons and then did not come back.  Pechersky later claimed that it was every man for himself.  The movie conveniently does not mention that the vast majority of the 300 were rounded up in the manhunt and were executed along with all the inmates who did not get out of the camp.  As a matter of fact, the camp was bulldozed and trees were planted on the site after the incident.  Many of the successful escapees died after joining partisan groups.    Only about 60 survived the war.  Feldhendler hid in the city of Lublin and ironically was murdered at the very end of the war.  Pechersky survived the war, no surprise there. 

If we can just get through this fence, then
cross the minefield, then get through the woods,
then escape the man hunt, then survive the war ...
                “Escape from Sobibor” is no “Schindler’s List” but it is one of the better members of the Holocaust subgenre.  It deserves a substantial amount of credit for covering a significant event that is not well known.  Most Holocaust films depict the passivity of the Jews.  It is exhilarating to see them shown fighting back.  People need to know that there was a successful escape (actually there were two).  The movie does a service to history and the strict adherence to what actually happened is an added bonus.

                As entertainment goes, the film is not great.  This is mainly due to the made-for-TV budget.  The camp set is satisfactory, but not memorable.  The cinematography and score are average.  The strengths are in the acting and characterizations.  Hauer and Arkin are very good.  Hauer won the Golden Globe for Supporting Actor.  The cast is fine, if basically B-List.  You do care about the characters and there are some poignant deaths.  The S.S. are appropriately heinous.  The Jews are courageous.

                In conclusion, “Escape from Sobibor” is a must see for anyone interested in the Holocaust.  It covers a unique event that should be better known.  Film can sometimes play an important role in bringing history to the masses.  As much as I complain about cinema abusing that power, it is fair to emphasize the times cinema gets things right.

grade =  B+