Friday, May 30, 2014

DOCUDRAMA or PROPAGANDA: The Battle for Haditha (2007)

SPOILER ALERT:  Because of the nature of this post (comparing the movie to the actual facts), I will cover the whole plot of the movie.

                “The Battle for Haditha” is misnamed as it is actually about the Haditha Incident (alternately called the Haditha Massacre or Haditha Killings).  It was probably the most infamous atrocity (or so it was claimed) of the Iraqi War.  The reenactment was filmed in documentary style by British filmmaker Nick Broomfield.  Broomfield cut his teeth on documentaries and used the minimalist approach for his second feature film.  He produced, directed, and co-wrote the movie.  Broomfield filmed in the city of Jerash, Jordan and used some ex-Marines in the cast and Iraqi refugees.  The cast was allowed to improvise some of their lines.  The finished product is controversial, to say the least.
                The film opens with a montage of several Marines describing their feelings about being in Iraq.  One says he’s only interested in surviving and does not know what he is there for.  Another mentions the problem of having civilians turn into combatants.  A third likens the situation to being similar to hunting because you have to think like the enemy.  Cpl. Ramirez (Elliott Ruiz) likens Iraq to the asshole of the world and the insurgents are like dingleberries.
                Words on the screen preview that the movie is about an incident in 2005 that involved an IED (improvised explosive device) killing a Marine and then subsequently the Marines killed 24 civilians.  (The perceptive viewer gets an inkling of what is to come by noting that the word “marines” is not capitalized.)  The Marines of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines are young and immature.  They listen to heavy metal in their Humvees and delight in pranking each other.  The barracks banter feels authentic.  The video game generation goes to war. 
                The movie has three threads.  The second revolves around Ahmad (Falah Flayla) who is a disgruntled Iraqi Army vet who is now unemployed.  He does not like the foreign Al Qaeda jihadists, but agrees to plant a command-detonated IED for $500.  He is assisted by a younger man who is just as immature as the Marines.  They plant the bomb in broad daylight along a road.
                The other thread follows a typical Iraqi family that is preparing to celebrate a toddler’s circumcision.  Hiba (Yasmine Hanani) is pregnant and in love with Rasheid.  The family and neighbors are aware of the bomb, but try to go about their lives and do not take sides.  One remarks that if they tell the Americans about the bomb, the jihadists will kill them.  If they don’t tell, the Americans will blame them.  Spoken like a South Vietnamese civilian.  The party is a good taste of Iraqi culture, but there is a heavy layer of dread.
                On Nov. 9, 2005, Ramirez’s squad of eleven Marines in four Humvees are hit by the IED.  The last Humvee is destroyed and a Marine is killed.  At the same time a white car is stopped on the other side of the road.  Ramirez, who is deeply affected by the death of his mate, executes the occupants.  A relative of the men opens fire from a nearby home.  Ramirez is given permission to take out the house, but it’s not the house the fire came from.  He interprets the “Rules of Engagement” to justify shooting first and asking questions later. 
                House 1 is greeted with a fragmentation grenade.  Ramirez and a few comrades indiscriminately kill most of the occupants although they are clearly noncombatants and none are armed.  Hiba and her boyfriend survive by hiding behind a chest.  The Marines move on to House 2 with similar results.  The “battle” is being monitored back at headquarters where a colonel orders a helicopter strike on a group of individuals walking together.  Hibas’ boyfriend is shot by a sniper because he is running (as per the ROEs = rules of engagement).  He high-fives his mates.  House 3 yields prisoners, but the killing is finally over.  A captain arrives and in a prayer for Cpl. Terrazas mentions the battle they have won.  He gives Ruiz a field promotion and recommends him for a Bronze Star.
                The Marine Corps issues a press release that 15 civilians were killed by the IED and another 8 were insurgents that opened fire on the convoy.  The story drew little media attention until a video made by the jihadists was released.  It contains eyewitness accounts which force the military to investigate.  Ramirez and three others are charged with murder.
                Taken at face value the movie is entertaining.  It’s definitely low budget, but Broomfield overcomes the vibe by giving it a vibrant documentary feel.  This is through mostly hand-held cinematography.  The negative side of this is some might swallow all of it as a factual documentary, although I am not accusing Broomfield of trying to put something over on the audience.  However, it is clearly apparent that Broomfield is offering an alternative view to the Marine Corps version.  The movie is obviously pro-Iraqi and anti-Marine Corps, but it is somewhat balanced.  Ramirez is depicted as suffering from stress and the rest of his squad are not evil.  The acting is adequate and does not get in the way of the story.  Ruiz is good, if a bit too earnest.  Hanani seems to have a future in the business.
                The movie has some noteworthy themes that could be enlightening to anyone with little knowledge  of the Iraqi War.  Civilians get caught in the crossfire in a conflict like this.  Rules end up being bent sometimes in stressful combat situations.  Atrocities happen.  Young Americans who view war as a game sometimes react outside the rules when confronted with its realities.
                I spent the whole movie wondering how much was true and looking forward to finding out.  It had some head-scratching moments like the planting of the bomb in plain sight.  Earlier, the bombers had gone through a check point without the Marines bothering to check the back of the truck where the bomb was hidden.  I suppose that was possible.  When running away from the scene, the bombers open fire for no good reason.  There is a scene where Ramirez goes to his commanding officer to admit to stress and ask to see a doctor.  The officer denies the request and cites Marine Corps policy.  I could not determine if this was factual, but it does not seem so. 
                I did a lot of research on the Haditha Incident and still cannot say definitively where the truth lies.  Although it is compared to the My Lai Massacre, it is a lot less clear exactly what happened here.  The movie presents the Iraqi version of what happened.  The American version goes something like this.  Ramirez represents Frank Wuterich.  The IED explosion is the same in both versions, but from there the stories diverge.  When the white car is stopped it is suspected of being involved in the ambush.  One of the men runs so Wuterich shoots him and then proceeds to shoot the others. Fire comes from the direction of House 1 and Wuterich leads a fire team in.  He did apparently tell them to shoot first, but it was dark and confusing inside.  It was unclear the victims were unarmed and supposedly an AK-47 was heard being “racked”.  The second house was taken because it was assumed someone from the first house ran there.  The group admitted to firing through the door which happened to have a man on the other side.  The situation inside this house was basically a replay of the first.  Only prisoners were taken in House 3 ( as per the film ).  At House 4, two men with AKs were shot and two others that were using the house as a refuge.  This incident was surprisingly not depicted in the film, but the Iraqi version contends that the four were innocent and were executed.
                The film adds a few things that even the Iraqis don’t claim.  The bombers were fictionalized.  There was no helicopter strike on a group.  No one was shot by a sniper while running.  The video was not by jihadists, it was done by a journalism student (who granted may have sympathized with the insurgents).
                At the time the film was made the latest development was the charging of Wuterich and three others for murder and the charging of several higher officers for a cover-up and non-investigation.  In the subsequent trial, all but Wuterich got off.  He was found guilty of a much lesser charge and basically given a slap on the wrist.  This lack of justice aggravated many, but NCIS did put 65 agents on the case and although the prosecution may have done a less than stellar job, it was understandably difficult to prove a case like this.  For instance, no Iraqis would testify.  Forensics tended to disprove the two execution scenarios and lenient interpretation of the ROEs left reasonable doubt as to premeditation or revenge.  It is instructive to note that the military tightened up the Rules of Engagement after this to no longer condone shooting of clearly unarmed civilians.
                So who is telling the truth – Broomfield and the liberal press or the military and Fox News?  As usual in cases like this the truth is somewhere in between.  Although I cannot discount the possibility that Broomfield is accurate,   I lean towards the Marine version.  With that said, I do not feel that even under a flexible interpretation of the ROEs, what happened in Houses 1 &2 and with the white car was justified.  Like an ex-Marine said, the Marines were the baddest asses in this situation and they should have been capable of asking questions first and then shooting.  To shoot civilians in two houses where they had not taken any fire from within indicated either payback or the desire to take no chances whatsoever.  As far as the white car, it seems logical that confronted with a group of very pissed off Americans, one might run and Wuterich would have snapped.  I do feel Wuterich got off easy.  In this respect he reminds of Lt. Calley.  The coverup also is reminiscent of My Lai and again the higher ups got off.  The press release was ridiculously false and there was no attempt to get to the truth until Time magazine broke the story.
                  So, what to make of the film?  I recommend it provided you realize it is one point of view about an historical incident.  I also suggest that you watch the Front Line documentary "Rules of Engagement" afterwards.  Then keep in mind that the truth is somewhere in the middle and we may never know what actually happened that day.

the trailer

the whole film

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

DUELING MOVIES: Shout at the Devil / Murphy’s War


                In the 1970s a pair of action movies came out that dealt with obsessions to destroy a German warship.  One is set in WWI Africa and the other is set in WWII South America.  Both are buddy films. 
“Shout at the Devil” was released in 1976 and is a typical 1970s action/adventure with comedy infused to match the tastes of that decade.  It’s a British film directed by Peter R. Hunt.  It purports to be based on a remarkable true story.  It is set in Zanzibar in 1913.  It’s basically a buddy film starring Lee Marvin and Roger Moore.
                A British nobleman named Sebastian Oldsmith (Moore) meets up with a hard-drinking American named Flynn O’Flynn (Marvin) in tropical Africa.  Their relationship starts off rocky as O’Flynn steals all of Sebastian’s money.  O’Flynn is an ivory poacher who is on the outs with the local German forces led by a commander named Fleischer.  When O’Flynn is ambushed by the Germans, Sebastian rescues him from a crocodile.  Yes, it’s that kind of movie.  Later, O’Flynn’s boat is rammed by a German warship named the Blucher.  The two buddies wash ashore and eventually reach O’Flynn’s daughter’s home.  Rosa (Barbara Parkins) nurses the malaria-suffering Sebastian back to health and they fall in love.  Naturally, O’Flynn is opposed to the relationship and a comical fistfight ensues.  O’Flynn is often drunk in the movie and one has to wonder if Marvin was “acting” drunk.  He is unable to prevent the marriage and subsequently the Oldsmiths have a child.
Sebastian and Flynn discussing the
white man's burden
                After raiding Fleischer’s camp, the German retaliates by burning O’Flynn’s home while the men are away.  The Germans kill the baby, but strangely leave Rosa alive and vengeful.  The trio decide to aid the British Admiralty by sinking the Blucher.  They hatch a plan to blow up the ship, but complications arise.  The movie builds to a rousing finale.
                “Shout at the Devil” is all over the place.  It has action, violence, romance, humor, fistfights, explosions, villains, etc.  Unfortunately, none of these elements are special and the blend is uneven.  The movie does not know what it wants to be.  The first half is a farce, then the baby gets killed and it becomes a revenge flick.  Neither half is strong.  The whole movie has a large amount of silliness, mostly in the form of Marvin chewing the scenery (the movie does have some awesome scenery, by the way).  I am a big Lee Marvin fan, but he looks like he did not take the production seriously.  You will enjoy the movie more if you do like Marvin apparently did, drink heavily during it.
                As far as the claim that it is based on a true story, you better take that with a grain of salt.  There was a Battle of Rufiji Delta in which a German light cruiser the SMD Konigsberg was blockaded and then sunk by two British monitors.  This does not sound anything like what happens in the movie.
                “Murphy’s War” is a Peter Yates film (his only war movie) and was released in 1971.  It was set and filmed in Venezuela on the Orinoco River.  It stars Peter O’Toole  (three years after “The Lion in Winter”).  Murphy was a crewman on a British freighter that is sunk on the river by a German u-boat (actually an American sub sold to the Venezuelan Navy).  He was the sole survivor as the Germans machine-gunned the crew.  He recovers at a nearby missionary settlement where he makes the acquaintance of a female Quaker doctor named Hayden (Sien Phillips - O’Toole’s then wife).  The pilot of a floatplane that had been shot down by the sub washes ashore and is murdered by the u-boat captain when his men raid the settlement.  Murphy vows revenge with the help of a handy man named Louis (Phillippe Noiret).  They recover the plane and Murphy learns to fly it.  His plan is to drop some rather large Molotov cocktails on the sub.
                “Murphy’s War” is well made.  The cinematography is showy.  The opening scene of the sinking of the ship is very busy with quick cuts and some distorted POV from Murphy’s perspective (O’Toole did his own stunts amidst the burning oil, explosions, and machine gun bullets).  The scene is quite effective in establishing that the Nazis are evil and deserve vengeance.  Another bravura scene is the one where Murphy learns to fly the plane.  I doubt he did the stunt flying because it is pretty hairy.  It is an extended scene which is typical of a movie that takes its time getting where it’s going.  It is also typical of the implausible nature of much of what happens in the plot.  Cinematic baubles can only partly mask the lack of reality evidenced in the movie.  To advance the obsessive revenge angle (and to get the movie to feature length), the film has several plot developments that defy logic.  Starting with what the hell is a u-boat doing up a South American river in the last weeks of WWI?  So turn your logic off and enjoy.  There are some entertaining action sequences that will leave war movie fans smiling (and shaking their heads).  Accuracy is not a factor as it is obviously not based on a true story.  In order to add the irony that the war is nearing an end and yet both the u-boat captain and Murphy are pursuing hostilities with avengeance, the movie has a u-boat operating in Venezuela.  This would have been extremely unlikely since the u-boat fleet had been pulled back long before April, 1945. 
a shot from the O'Toole's wedding album

                O’Toole has a fun time and reminds of Marvin (partly because I would not be surprised if his performance was not alcohol-enhanced as well).  An interesting dimension to his character is there is an allusion to his having been a poor crewman so his motivation is a bit puzzling.  His wife is the rare strong female character in a war movie.  She is not in the movie to be a bimbo.  She represents sanity and refers to the charming Murphy as a “mindless bastard”.  Noiret is appealing as Murphy’s Sancho Panza.  The Germans are bland and the captain is straight out of central casting – handsome, blond, and malevolent.  (He reminded me of the u-boat captain from “The McKenzie Break”.)  The reason to see the movie is not for the acting, it's for the three attempts on the sub.  Each is as delirious as Murphy himself. 
                Which is the better movie?  Clearly “Murphy’s War”.   Sometimes one star is better than two.
Shout at the Devil  =  D+
Murphy’s War  =  B- 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

FORGOTTEN GEM? The McKenzie Break (1970)

                “The McKenzie Break” is a prisoner of war movie released in 1970.  It was directed by Lamont Johnson (“The Execution of Private Slovik”) and was based on the novel The Bowmanville Break by Sidney Shelley.  It tells the story of an attempted prison escape by Germans  who hope to hook up with a u-boat.
                The movie is set in Camp McKenzie in Scotland during WWII.  There is a discipline problem in the camp as the Nazis are rebellious and the British commandant does not have complete control over the camp.  The Germans are led by a charismatic u-boat captain named  Schluter (Helmut Griem).  Captain Jack Conner (Brian Keith) is brought in to restore control.  He is a loose cannon who has been spared court-martial to do the job. 
                The Germans are divided into two factions.  The Luftwaffe personnel want to chill, but the Reichsmariners are hard core.  Schuler accuses two of the non-rebels of being gay.  That was unusual for a 1970 film.  The submariners are at work on a tunnel similar to the one in “The Great Escape”.  The dirt is disposed in the attics. 
garbage versus garbage collectors
                Schuler stages an insurrection which results in Conner sending in the fire brigade.  A big brawl breaks out and two Germans disguised as British are able to blend in with the British.  They will make contact with a u-boat that will pick up the escapers.  One of the Germans accused of being gay is badly beaten by his mates and is taken to the infirmary.  While there he is killed by Nazis who make it look like a suicide.  Before he dies, he tells Conner that there will be an escape attempt.  Conner decides to let the escape go on to bait a trap for them.
                The tunnel exit is under the guard house.  (Well, that is unique!)  Schuler purposely collapses the ceiling with the dirt as a diversion.  28 submariners escape and hook up with a truck.  Conner is tracking them by plane.  When they reach the beach,  Schuler’s second in command decides that instead of camouflaging the truck, he drives it into  huge hole resulting in an explosion and smoke that attracts Conner’s attention.  Ridiculous!  Conner decides the smoke is nothing.  Doubly ridiculous!!
                Will they escape?  See spoiler below.
                “The McKenzie Break” is in the middle tier of POW films.  It is moderately entertaining.  Keith is his usual dependable self and Griem makes a good asshole Nazi.  The movie makes use of the strong personalities clashing theme.  Both men are full of hubris and neither is likeable.  Another theme is how far should you go to continue fighting once you are captured.  (Something explored in the similar “Hart’s War”).   Some of the cinematography is interesting.  Fades are used to blend some scenes.  There is some good tunnel escaping music.  However, the movie has a made-for-TV feel to it.  The plot does have some unpredictability to it.  This includes the ending which unfortunately is weak and unsatisfactory.   Speaking of which.
                The u-boat (which was obviously not a u-boat) surfaces and the escapees paddle out to it.  Conner spots the sub from his plane and calls in a motor torpedo boat.   Conner buzzes Schuler’s boat prevent it from reaching the u-boat before it crash dives.  Conner and Schuler stare at each other.  One is going back to incarceration and the other better be heading for that court-martial.
 Schluter (Helmut Griem)
Conner (Brian Keith)
 Surprisingly, the plot is based on an actual incident.  It happened at a camp in Bowmanville, Ontario in Canada.  An audacious plan was hatched to get four u-boat captains out and back to sinking Allied shipping.  The leader of the group was the famous u-boat ace Otto Kretschmer (who Schuler must have been based on).  Kretschmer did lead a rebellion to protest prisoners being shackled.  The Germans called the escape plan  Operation Kiebitz.  The prisoners contacted the Reichsmarine via coded letters through the Red Cross.  Unfortunately for this cool idea, the Canadians broke the code and knew the basics of the plan which was to break out via a tunnel, make the 870 mile trek to the Atlantic coast, and link up with a u-boat.  The Canadian counterplot was called Operation Pointe Maisonnette (named after the destination of the escapees).  The Canadian plan was to allow the escape and then catch the submariners in the act of escaping and capture the sub at the rendezvous.  The tunnel was basically as depicted in the movie and dirt was stored in the attic.  However, the ceiling collapse was not intentional.  The Canadians pretended to not notice it.  The escape was choked off as soon as it began, but one prisoner managed to use a zip line to get over the wire.  Wolfgang Heyda was actually able to reach the pick-up site but was arrested there.  The u-boat surfaced but the captain was suspicious and soon dove.  The U-536 survived a depth charging from the waiting task force and escaped.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

#5 - Alexander Nevsky (1938)

BACK-STORY:   “Alexander Nevsky” was the great Sergei Eisenstein’s first and most successful sound motion picture.  It came thirteen years after his other masterpiece “Battleship Potemkin”.  He chose to do a film on Nevsky because little was known about him so Eisenstein hoped to be able to structure the narrative the way he wanted.  He was not given the free rein that he had hoped for.  For this film he was kept on a short leash as the Soviet government wanted to make sure it got the propaganda product it commissioned.  Eisenstein was assigned a co-writer and co-director to look over his shoulder.  The co-writer was probably a secret police agent.  The film is most famous for two elements:  the battle on the ice and Prokofiev’s score.  The iced lake scenes were filmed outside Moscow in the dead of summer.  The cinematographer went to remarkable lengthes to create the lake setting.  The ice was actually asphalt and melted glass.  The fake ice rested on floating pontoons that could be deflated on cue.  Some scenes in the picture were cut to match the score.  The film was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1941 and Eisenstein (and the co-director) was given the Order of Lenin by Stalin.  Speaking of Stalin, he was shown a rough cut of the film and either did not like a scene showing a riot of the citizens of Novgorod or the reel was accidentally left behind so it was not vetted by the supreme ruler.  Either way, the reel was left out of the final cut.

OPENING:  Background information tells us that it is the 13th Century and Russia is just coming out of a Mongol invasion and now the Teutonic Knights of Germany are at the doorstep.  “German plunderers expected an easy victory over our people”.  The camera pans over a desolate landscape strewn with the skeletons of dead Mongols.  At Lake Pleshcheevok, a group of fishermen are seining as a patriotic song about the defeat of Sweden plays.  A roving band of Mongols try to recruit the leader of the fishermen – Prince Alexander.  He turns them down because his first priority is to defeat the Germans.  “It is better to die on your own land than to leave it.”  Alexander realizes that the key to defeating the Germans is maintaining the port of Novgorod.

Fu Manchu meets Superman
SUMMARY:  In Novgorod, two warriors (Vasili and Gavrilo) are competing for a young lady named Olga.  A wounded man arrives from the recently fallen city of Pskov to inform the populace of the threat.  The city leaders scoff and remind everyone that they have a treaty with the Germans and they can always buy them off.  Olga speaks out against appeasement and a man demands they send for Alexander Nevsky.

                In Pskov, the destruction is matched by destruction music.  The leaders of the Teutonic Knights have really cool helmets with various things on top.  One has a talon and another has a hand making the universal sign for loser.  The foot soldiers have helmets reminiscent of German WWII “coal scuttles”.  They also are accompanied by priests that look like the spawn of Nosferatu.  Crosses abound.  Swastika-like symbols as well.  After disposing of the leaders of the resistance (including the father of a young woman named Vasilisa),  the victory celebration culminates with children being thrown into a bonfire.

Would you buy a religion from this guy?
Note the symbol on his hat
                A delegation from Novgorod arrives at Alexander’s home to beg him to save Russia.  Okay, he says.  Let’s ask the peasants to join.  Done to a recruitment song.  Alexander arrives in Novgorod with his patriotic army.  Now we here a “let’s do it!” song.  The populace is fired up and on board – mostly.  There are two traitors who are with the Germans.  Vasilisa suits up with armor to avenge her father.  Olga tells Vasili and Gavrilo she will wed whoever is the bravest in the upcoming battle.

                After his advanced guard is ambushed in the woods, Alexander needs to plan for a climatic battle on the lake.  He gets the idea for his battle strategy when he overhears the Master Armourer telling a campfire story about a rabbit fucking a fox.  It involves a double envelopment. 

Here's the plan:  my left fist is the fox's ass and
my right fist is the rabbit
                The battle takes place on April 5, 1242.  Alexander’s center, comprised of foot soldiers led by Vasili, waits anxiously for the Teutonic Knights.  Here they come to “Jaws”-like music.  The Germans are in a wedge formation and the Russians are in a shield wall with pikes and swords.  A melee with lots of clanging ensues.  Apparently you could kill people back then by hitting their sword with yours enough times.  Alexander and Gavrilo arrive with the flank attack.  All of the main characters get their due.  Stavka is killed and his father goes off like the father-son death scene from “300”.  Gavrilo is wounded protecting Alexander’s back.  The climax of the battle is a duel between Alexander and the Teutonic Grand Master.  The fighting stops for everyone to watch, of course.  The battle concludes with a lot of running.  The surviving Germans crash through the ice.  The Grand Armourer is killed by the treacherous traitor who is in turn dispatched by Vasilisa.  In a corpse strewn landscape to somber music, Olga finds Vasili and Gavrilo.  Gavrilo is mortally wounded, but Olga helps him walk it off.

Put your money on the one Stalin wants to win
CLOSING:  In the liberated Pskov, the victorious army arrives proceeded by the dead heroes.  Alexander rides in to great adulation.  He makes a speech, the gist of which is “thus be it to all our enemies”.  The German foot soldiers (the proletariat) are set free.  Gavrilo gets Olga and Vasili gets Vasilisa.  Alexander:  “He who comes to Russia with the sword, dies by the sword.”  You hear that Adolf?

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  More than a male war movie lover.  There are two main female characters and one of them kicks ass.  The other manipulates two suitors.  Something for every female viewer.  The actor that plays Nevsky is hunky in a Fabio sort of way.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The movie is surprisingly accurate.  Of course, you have to factor in that Alexander is a legendary figure so we can’t be sure about all of the facts.  Alexander was born the son of a prince.  In 1236 the people of Novgorod asked the fifteen year old prince to defend them against the Swedes and the Germans.  He defeated the Swedes at the Battle of Neva in 1240.  From this triumph, he acquired the sobriquet “Nevsky”.  However, after the victory the boyars (nobles) forced him into exile.  This is the situation when the movie begins.

                The scene with the Mongols is an interpretation of Alexander’s relationship with the Golden Horde.  He has been accused of collaboration, but the movie is probably close in interpreting him as realizing that the other threats needed to be dealt with and the Mongols were not threatening Russian culture.  He felt paying tribute to the Mongols was the right choice among bad choices.  The movie does a fair job showing how Alexander was called back to Novgorod after the fall of Pskov to the Livonian Order of the Teutonic Knights.  The Novgorodians had a democratic custom called veche where the merchants and boyars would openly discuss a proposal such as bringing in a sixteen year old to rule them. 

                The Teutonic Knights were a German military order created in the Middle Ages.  It was formed to aid pilgrims going to the Holy Land and established hospitals in the Middle East.  The organization evolved into a military  order.  When the Crusades ended in failure, they took their act to Europe to defend Catholicism.  Dressed in white robes with black crosses, they participated in crusades with a small c.  They fought in Prussia and became a major power there.  The Livonian Brothers of the Sword was created using the Teutonic model.  Its goal was spreading Catholicism to the Baltic states.  In 1237, it merged with the Teutonic Knights and became the Livonian Order.  Subsequently, their knights expanded eastward into Russia with the intention of conquering Novgorod.  They were led by a Grand Master as depicted in the film.

                The Germans did capture Pskov and the occupation was probably harsh, although baby burning may have been an exaggeration.  They were definitely religious and had all the trappings, but power, wealth, and territory were strong motives behind the invasion.  No doubt they evidenced the religious intolerance typical of that time period.  They certainly were intolerant of the Eastern Orthodox Church. 

                There is some dispute about what happened in the Battle of the Ice.  The battle (officially the Battle of Lake Preipus) was a confrontation as the Germans marched on Novgorod.  The tactic of Alexander was to lure the Knights into a frontal attack on his center.  He may have feigned retreat or more likely the cavalry attack pushed his center back.  At this point, Alexander assaulted the German flanks with his archers and when fresh Russian cavalry entered the battle, the Germans were routed.  They retreated across the iced-over lake and many drowned when the ice collapsed under them.  Some historians question the high casualty totals for the Germans and some even doubt that the famous ice cracking happened.  They do agree that the climactic moment of the battle was when Alexander won a duel with the Grand Master.  Just kidding.  You don't have to make a movie in Hollywood to be Hollywoodish.  Alexander’s closing admonition that anyone who comes to Russia with a sword will die by the sword is a repeat of his famous quote.

CRITIQUE:  This is an Eisenstein film so you can prepare to be wowed by his craft.  He loves close-ups and you can pop into any scene cold and tell who the bad guys are by their close-ups.  He tends to use a stationary camera with movement across, away, or towards the camera.  It seems quaint compared to our modern frenetic cinematography.  Some of the shots are off-center which usually strikes me as a stunt to wake people up or get film school students excited.  The movie pairs the genius of Eisenstein up with the genius of Prokofiev.  The score has been universally lauded.  To tell the truth, I found it to be a bit bizarre.  When I first watched the movie on You Tube, I wondered whether I was hearing the original music or something that the downloader had dubbed in.  A subsequent viewing of a DVD version proved that I had heard right.  I was expecting a Wagneresque score and instead there are parts that seem to have been composed by the band in the “Star Wars” cantina scene.  The music for the big battle scene starts out ominously pompous and devolves into Keystone Kops.  Sorry, but I just was not impressed.  The songs were interesting as blatant propaganda.

                The acting is meh.  Cherkasov is a walking statue.  In fact, he resembles a statue of Alexander.  He spends much of the film with his hands on his hips a la Superman.  Appropriate since he is pure and good like the man of steel.  Hmmm, what Russian leader was also a man of steel?  Two coincidences create a fact.  At least he does not overact – far from it.  The rest of the cast seem to think they were making a silent movie.  Thank God they toned it down a bit or their performances would have been intolerable.  They are not helped by the extreme stereotypes they are portraying.  Vasily and Gavrilo are the comic relief.  Nikolai Okhlopkov (Vasili) gives the most grating performance, but it is the only one that I shook my head at.  The Master Armourer provides the rest of the sparse humor and he does it in an old men can say anything sort of way.  The villains are hissable based on their attitudes and actions, not based on twirling their mustaches or rubbing their hands together.  The best of the cast are the two females.  Vera Ivashova is a bit feisty as the love interest for Vasily and Gavrilo.  Aleksandra Danilova plays the tom-boyish Vasilisa well and either by purpose or lack of training, fights like a girl in the battle.

                “Alexander Nevsky” could not have been more propagandistic than if they had tried.  Oh wait, they did try!  And succeeded.  The  themes are not subtle.  Clerics in general and Catholics in particular take a beating.  The movie is not atheistic (Alexander even quotes Scripture at one point), but the Catholics are demonized to a cartoonish extent.  Speaking of demonization, even today’s current events challenged younger generation would have been able to figure out that the movie is about the Nazi threat.  It is obvious that the movie was made to warn the Russian people about the 1930s version of the Teutonic Knights.  Interestingly, Nazi Germany used their heritage for propaganda and ideological purposes.  Himmler modeled the S.S. after them.  However, in an act of contradiction, Hitler abolished the order in 1938 because of its Catholicism. 
Winners of the art class Evil Helmet Contest

                The timing of the movie is intriguing.  It came out in 1938 at the time that Germany was expanding eastward toward the Soviet Union so the movie was perfectly timed to warn about the threat.  Dual mission accomplished because the film also fires up the patriotism of the Russian people.  The movie makes a point of depicting the common people as the key to Alexander’s victory.  It also clearly shows the threat of the Nazis.  Oh, and don’t forget the correlation of Alexander to Stalin.  Ironically (and almost comically) the signing of the Russo-German Nonaggression Pact in 1939 made the movie “cinema non grata” for a while.  It was pulled from the theaters, but given new life when the Wehrmacht invaded Russia in 1941.  I’m sure Eisenstein was pleased to say “I told you so!”

CONCLUSION:   I know I will take some grief for this, but this movie is overrated.  I recognize that it is a masterpiece and a must see.  I am glad this project of watching the supposed 100 Greatest War Movies has forced me to watch a movie that I never would have seen otherwise.  The word “supposed” is the key here.  Once again I have to question the decision making of the panel for Military History magazine that determined the 100.  “Greatest” can mean different things.  If it refers historical importance, then “Alexander Nevsky” belongs in the top ten.  If you are looking at a war film purely for quality, it does not hold up.  The best way I can explain this conundrum is to look at the famous battle scene.  Eisenstein’s staging of the Battle of the Ice is very influential and has been copied by films like “Spartacus” and “Braveheart”.  The plain fact is that although “Alexander Nevsky” did it first, no one with a right mind can argue that it does it better than most (all?) of its modern imitators.  I despise “Braveheart”, but Mel Gibson’s battle scene is certainly more realistic and entertaining than Eisenstein’s.  The scene in “Alexander Nevsky” could be replicated with a gaggle of fourteen year old boys with swords in a back yard.  Not the ice breaking part.  Have a kazoo band playing in the back ground.


Acting -  C
Action -  8/10
Accuracy -  A
Realism -  B-
Plot -  B
Cliches -  C


the Battle of the Ice


Thursday, May 15, 2014

SHOULD I READ IT? The Frontline (2011)

                Let me state from the start, I love South Korean war movies.  They are always entertaining.  Turn off your filters, sit back, shake your head, and enjoy.  These directors know how to film balls to the wall action that makes “Saving Private Ryan” look like a documentary.  Remarkably, I have yet to see one that does not treat the Korean War as a mess.  There is no patriotism in these films and a lot of sympathy for the enemy.  Compare this to Hollywood’s take on the war and remember that South Korea has a much better reason to pump up the patriotism and demonization of the enemy.  The  recent appearance of these types of movies starting with “Joint Security Area” (2000) clearly shows how far the country has come down the path of democracy.  It was not that long ago that the director of a movie like this would have been thrown in prison.  I read the other day that you could argue that in terms of positive results the Korean War was our most successful war.  That may be a stretch, but when you see where South Korea today (and specifically Korean cinema as an example of this), you can see where this theory comes from.

                “The Frontline” is set on the eastern front in the last month of the war.  The Alligator Company (named after the fact that baby alligators have a low survival rate) is tasked with capturing Aerok (look at it in a mirror) Hill before the Armistice locks in the border.  The hill has changed hands 30 times in 18 months.  The company is low in morale and has recently had a change in command via fragging.  The interim commander is a morphine addict.  Kang (Shin Ha-kyun) arrives from the C.I.C. (Counterintelligence Corps) to investigate the murder and suspicions of collaboration in the unit. (The C.I.C. was created to ferret out communists in the ranks.)  He is shocked to be reunited with his best friend Kim (Go Soo).  Kim had been taken captive early in the war and was presumed hors de combat.  Kim is now a cynical anti-hero.

                When the latest order to take the hill comes the unit reluctantly saddles up, shrugs, and sallies forth.  The result is SPRish with hand-held, quick cuts, close-ups pulling back, and even a tracking shot.  If you’ve seen Tae Guk Gi, you know the Korean style.  Kang takes part in the attack.  Did I mention Korean directors are not big on reality?  Being in the thick of it allows Kang to discover that there is a bunker in no man’s land that acts as fraternization central.  Whenever it changes hands, the dispossessed side has left “gifts”.  The South leaves America cigarettes and chocolate and the North leaves rice wine.  More significantly, the communists leave letters for relatives in the South.

Dammit!  They left us some mouth wash.
                There is a really cool montage of a few more assaults as seen by a stationary camera to push the time frame ahead.  A key subplot involves a North Korean sniper called “Two Seconds”.  A “Full Metal Jacket” type of “I dare you to rescue him” scene is followed by a FMJesque revelation.

                Another subplot involves the raw nerves of the platoon. Kang traces this back to an incident at Pohang early in the war.  Flashback time.  In an amphibious assault gone bad, the Alligators were attempting to withdraw when another platoon decided their Higgins boat could handle double capacity.  A .50 caliber machine gun ended the boarding attempt and the incident was covered up, but the mental scars did not heal.  Soldiers in Korean movies must suffer physically and psychologically.

Who else thinks this is sexy?
                Just when you think things could not get worse, here come the Chicoms.  A human wave attack in the driving rain results in Kim countermanding the new commander’s decision to follow orders and hold by putting a bullet in his head.  What the frag?!  Kang threatens court-martial.  He just does not get it.  Guess who doesn’t live to stand trial?  Kang carries the body back only to learn the war is over.  To emphasize this, Kang runs into the sniper’s band at a stream and they exchange nods and waves.  Good game.  Bittersweet and satisfying ending right?  But wait, most of the cast is still alive.  This violates Korean war cinema doctrine.

                It turns out there are 12 hours of war left.  Who really wants that moonscape of a hill?  The generals.  This actually accurately reflects the battle for the hills (ex. Pork Chop Hill) that closed the Korean War.  Who wants to stage a grand set piece to close his movie?  Jang Hoon.  Leave the kitchen sink in the trailer, but bring everything else.  Air bombardment by fighters that drop bombs they don’t have (learned from American war films).  Slo-mo.  Elegaic music.  Hand-to hand.  A stabbing death that reminds of Mellish’s from SPR.  Graphic wounds.  Intense violence. 

                “The Frontline” was a huge hit in South Korea.  Apparently South Koreans do not like their war movies coated with sugar.  (They don’t mind a whiff of bull shit, however.)  The movie was critically acclaimed and was awarded the Korean equivalent of the Best Picture Oscar and was nominated as South Korea’s representative for Best Foreign Film for the Academy Awards.  It may be a bit overrated relative to that.  However, it is undoubtedly entertaining in a macho male demographic way.  I don’t think females will be as enamored, but there is a significant female character which is something to commend it for.  Hint:  think “Enemy at the Gates”.

                The movie is very well acted.  The leads are good and typically sincere for Koreans.  There are some interesting plot devices like the bunker in no man’s land.  The themes of brotherhood, rivalry, and sympathy for the enemy (although a bit heavy-handed) are nicely laid out.   These themes have been explored before in Korean movies, so there is nothing new here.  Also not breaking new ground is the “it’s a small world” nature of many of the character arcs.  And the ending is on the trite side.

                If you have never seen a Korean war movie, this would be a good place to start.  Don’t start with “Tae Guk Gi” because then you may be let down by the others.  I would begin with “Joint Security Area”.  Regardless, pop some popcorn and dive in.

grade =  B-