Thursday, July 31, 2014

BOOK/MOVIE: Ride With the Devil (1987/1999)


                “Ride With the Devil” is an Ang Lee film based on the novel Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell.  It is set in Civil War Missouri.  The main characters are pro-South.  Best friends Jake (Tobey McGuire) and Jack Bull (Skeet Urich) hook up with aristocratic George (Simon Baker) and his slave Holt (Jeffrey Wright).  They are part of a guerrilla force called the Bushwhackers.  The Bushwhackers are at war with Union sympathizers called Jayhawkers and the fighting is vicious with civilians caught in the middle.  The quintet make the acquaintance of a feisty widow named Sue Lee (Jewel).  The movie includes the infamous raid on Lawrence, Kansas led by William Quantrill.  I had earlier reviewed the movie here.

                The movie covers all of the major scenes in the book and uses a lot of the dialogue verbatim.   The screenwriter James Schamus wisely opens with a scene not included in the novel.  At a wedding, Jack Bull’s father alludes to the recent election of Lincoln and the villainy of the anti-slavery Jayhawkers.  That night Jayhawkers burn Jake Bull’s house and kill his father.  This establishes a reason why the two friends join the Bushwhackers.  In the novel, they are already well into their guerrilla warfare days at the beginning.  The screenplay leaves out the books opening where Jake shoots a teenage boy in the back when he intervenes in the hanging of his German-American (called Dutchmen) father.  It is apparent this shocking act is an attempt by Jake to overcome the fact that he himself is a Dutchman.  The movie substitutes a scene where Jake and his comrades ambush some federal troops.  Jake attempts, but fails to stop the slaying of a civilian.  Although both the book and the movie have the theme that war corrupts and guerrilla war causes participants to lose their humanity, the movie is slightly kinder to Jake.  In fact, other than the murder of the boy, Jake actually comes off as not a poster boy for the Bushwhackers.  Ironically, in both the book and the movie, Jake becomes more humane as time wears on.  In both, the main themes as applied to the main character are diluted.  This is more understandable in the movie considering it is meant to be entertaining and let’s face it – you are not going to cast Tobey McGuire as a cold-blooded killer.

three actors and Jewel
                The novel is more realistic in conveying the nastiness of the war in Missouri.  When word gets back to the camp that the two Bushwhackers held captive have been executed in spite of Black John’s prisoner swap offer, the three prisoners are tortured to death (the movie drops the aftermath).  Jake is forced to read a letter from one of the victim’s wife to ribald comments from his killers.  In the movie, Jake reads an unrelated letter from a mother that has the reverse effect on the listeners.  (This reading occurs later in the book.)

after the war they formed a hair metal band
                If you are familiar with the movie, it covers very closely the ambush and escape from the farmhouse, the winter in the dugout, the wounding of Jack Bull, the raid on Lawrence, and the “courtship” of Jack and Sue Lee.  All of the major characters from the book appear in the movie and the characterizations are the same.  The movie begins to differ substantially from the book after the raid on Lawrence.  The movie adds a rousing battle with vengeful federal cavalry which is crowd-pleasing and a case where Hollywood has improved on the book.  The movie chooses to give George a fighting death, unlike the book which perhaps more realistically has his demise attributable to the unconventional war he had decided to participate in.  Similarly, Jack’s wound is a bushwhacking by a Bushwhacker when he is taking a crap outside the camp.  (For obvious reasons, you can’t have Tobey McGuire shot under such embarrassing circumstances.)  The movie is less realistic, but more satisfying in its ultimate confrontation between Jake and Pitt.  In the book, it is Arch (with Turner of the shattered mouth witnessing) who engages Jake in conversation and in the midst shots are exchanged between Jake and Pitt. Most importantly, the movie retains the Holt character.  As fascinating as the character is, you have to wonder what a modern movie is doing with a pro-slavery black in it.  (I know he is not clearly in favor of slavery, but he remains loyal to his master and fights with forces that are at war to retain the institution). 

it's an Ang Lee movie, but the fact is the
Civil War was not noted for camouflage
                Which is superior?  That is a tough call.  I found the movie more entertaining.  The acting was excellent with the unsurprising exception of Jewel.  She does not quite get the slight whiff of skank that the Sue Lee of the book has.  Special mention to Jonathan Rhys Meyers who is perfect as Pitt.  Ang Lee’s cinematography was better than what my mind can imagine while reading the book.  The changes the screenplay made are justifiable from a marketing perspective and frankly are more satisfying than the book versions.  The advantage of the book is Wharton is a very good writer.  He gets the dialect of the time period right and he has many memorable lines in the book.  The book does a better job depicting the atrocity for atrocity aspect of the war in Missouri.  Wharton makes the point that honor called the Bushwhackers to war, but honor had a decreasing effect on their actions as the war wore on.  The book, unlike the movie, shows how the “cause” devolved into looting and murder for many participants.  The disappointing thing about the book is that it pulls its punches.  By leading off with the unjustified murder of the teenager by Jake, you expect Jake to be increasingly corrupted by the war.  Instead, that is the last horrible thing Jake does.  In fact, he is a virtual saint compared to most of his comrades.  His character heads in the opposite arc from everyone else in his unit!  I guess I talked myself into the movie being better.  Plus this confirms my belief that most movies are better than the novel they are based on.

BOOK  =  B-


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

WTF? The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964)


                This may be the strangest war movie review I will ever do, but what the hell?  I got the idea for doing this movie because I threw Don Knotts into my satire of war movies entitled “Where Dirty Heroes Dare”.  Since the satire can be on the silly side, Knotts’ character makes references to wanting to be a fish.  LOL right?  This inspired me (with some trepidation) to revisit a fondly remembered Hardy boys’ movie.  The Hardy siblings, sans female, had a mix of movies that helped define our childhoods.  The exemplar of this eclectic mix was “The Great Escape”.  Another that we always watched when it appeared on TV was “The Incredible Mr. Limpet”.  (The list also includes another Knotts classic – “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken”.)  Everyone of my generation has these pre-VCR favorites that came along once a year or so and became must-resee viewing.  I saw “The Great Escape” approximately ten times as a minor not because I popped it in the VCR (those machines that DVD players replaced) ten times, but because it appeared on CBS once a year ten years in a row.  You kids don’t know how easy you have it.  My son watched “Monster Squad” (the equivalent of “Limpet”) every time he wanted.  And he did not have to walk to school ten miles through the snow uphill both ways.  “The Incredible Mr. Limpet” exemplifies why my generation is so tough.

Mr. Limpet amd Mr. Midshipman Limpet
                The movie was Don Knotts’ first star vehicle.  I was surprised to find out he had not exactly jumped ship from the “Andy Griffith Show” (like McLean Stevenson did to “MASH”).  Griffith had told him the show would run five years and Knotts had explored other options towards the end of the five years.  When Griffith changed his mind, Knotts had already worked out a contract with Warner Brothers.  This resulted in five memorable films of which “Limpet” was the first.  The movie was directed by Arthur Lubin (Abbott and Costello, Francis the Talking Mule, Mr. Ed – ‘nuff said).  It was not a big hit because the studio could not figure out what it had on its hands and it was mis-marketed.

Limpet and Ladyfish -
progenitors of a super race of fish
                Knotts plays Henry Limpet, who is a milquetoast fishophile.  His nagging wife Bessie (Carole Cook) is critical of his obsession.  She makes him choose between his aquarium and her.  He hesitates, but realizes he has married way out of his league.  On a trip to Coney Island, Henry falls off the pier and turns into a dolphin.  The movie does not even bother to come up with some bull crap pseudo-scientific explanation for this.  His clothes are gone, but he still has his glasses (because this will be an important plot point later in the film).  He gets a comic relief side kick in a crusty hermit crab creatively called Crusty and a love interest in a dolphin-next-door creatively called Ladyfish. Normally I would prefer the characters speak in their appropriate language and we get subtitles, but in this case it is acceptable that the fish speak English.  Henry discovers that instead of a nervous swim bladder, he thrums (honks like a constipated jackass) when he is threatened.  This comes in handy against sharks and German u-boats.  With this awesome power in his fins, he makes contact with the U.S. Navy and is paired with his buddy/Bessie-condoler George (Jack Weston).  The humorously skeptical Navy decides to use its new secret weapon to protect a crucial convoy.  Meanwhile the Germans have developed an anti-thrum submarine.  It is designed to home in on the sound.  They send out a wolfpack to destroy Mr. Limpet and it is heading right for the convoy.  To make matters even more suspenseful, Limpet inconveniently loses his glasses at this pivotal moment in the war.  See the movie to find out if the Allies win the war.  And before you sneer at the ridiculous scenario, its more believable than “Inglourious Basterds”.

                “The Incredible Mr. Limpet” is a bit of a strange kettle of fish (sorry,  I could not resist that one).  It is one of the few war movies that are a hybrid of live action and animation.  The animation is worthy of the Saturday mornings of my childhood.  The live action is reminiscent of the post-Poppins Disney doldrums.  It is also one of the rare war movies that is not a musical, but has some original songs in it.  The most famous is the ear-wormish “I Wish I Was a Fish”.  The refrain of that number is decades memorable.  Thank goodness it’s only that line that is stuck in my head because the rest of the lyrics to it and the other songs were stolen from Disney’s reject pile. 
Limpet and Crusty -
winners of the Battle of the Atlantic

                The cast is that of a B-movie.  No other name should have appeared on the marquee besides Don Knotts.  This is his film.  Surprisingly it is not a typical Knotts film and I am not referring to the animation.  He does not play his usual neurotic coward.  In fact, Limpet is a take-charge hero.  This is part of the reason the movie is not laugh out loud funny.  But at the same time it is not laugh at incompetence funny either.  The animation is low rent, but serviceable and the sub warfare effects are about what you would get from “McHale’s Navy”.  The audience does not care that the Atlantic Ocean was apparently only 30 yards deep.  Neither did the U.S. Navy since it provided the U.S.S. Alfred A. Cunningham for the production.  It is interesting to theorize what the Navy thought it would get from cooperating with this movie.

"set your depth charges for 30 yards -
the u-boats are resting on the bottom"
                Since Hollywood has no new ideas (ex. Planet of the Apes), it won’t come as a surprise that they are going to remake “Limpet”.   In fact, the idea has been around for decades with Jim Carrey’s name attached to the early attempts.  Supposedly the animation could not do Carrey justice which seems weird considering the advanced state of animation since 1964.  The latest is that Richard Linklater will direct Zach Galifianakis in the title role.  I’m not sure if the plot needs to be reworked, but I pray the songs are.

                In conclusion, I enjoyed my first rewatching of the movie in several decades.  It was about as much of a curio as I had remembered.  You definitely have to be a Knotts fan, but who isn’t?  I was a little surprised at how much of a war movie it is.  Lately I have seen war movies that are not as firmly in the genre and are much worse as entertainment.  Check out some of my recent reviews.  With that said, it is certainly not a good movie.  It gave me a nostalgic glow, but also made me glad I’m no longer waiting eagerly for it to appear on TV annually.  I would like to say I am also glad that war movies have come a long way since 1964, but let’s wait and see what the new one is like.  It wouldn’t be the first modern war movie to suck worse than the original.  One thing I can safely recommend is that you should make the Knotts version your son’s first war movie, not the Galifianakis version.

GRADE  =  C 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

WAR CHICK FLICK: I Was a Male War Bride (1949)

                “I Was a Male War Bride”  is a Howard Hawks / Cary Grant romantic comedy released in 1949.  The exterior scenes were filmed in Heidelberg, Germany.  Terrible weather resulted in illnesses to much of the cast and crew.  Grant suffered from hepatitis and jaundice which pushed back production for three months.  He had to regain thirty pounds to finish the movie.  The movie took a total of eight months to complete.  It was worth it as the film was a box office success and ended up being Hawks’ third highest grosser after “Sergeant York” and “Red River”.  It is actually based on a biography by Grant’s character, but I would assume it is highly fictionalized.

A woman in pants on a motorcycle!
                The movie is set in post-WWII Germany.  Grant plays a French soldier named Henri Rochard.  He is paired with the very feisty Lt. Catherine Gates (Anne Sheridan).  She's a WAC.  They had been paired before on missions to locate stolen art treasures.  Working together has not led to fondness and in fact they dislike each other immensely.  Imagine that.  Their banter is vicious even for the 1940s.  He calls her a “bubblemouth” and she calls him a “blistering idiot”.  This being the good ole days before feminism, Henri threatens that he is “going to kick [her] bowlegged".  She is bossy and he is mean.  They have what the movie calls “sex antagonism”.  Do you think they will get together before the end of the movie?

Spoiler alert:  they get together
                Their route to matrimony begins with a feverish motorcycle with a sidecar adventure with Catherine donning slacks to drive.  Sheridan did some of the stunts which included the accidental demise of a goose.  As in all romantic comedies of this time period, they end up in the same hotel room and misunderstandings ensue to postpone the inevitable coupling.  Oh, and they are supposed to be on a mission to bring in a valuable lens maker who is now a black marketeer.  They find him and love.  Their first kiss is in a hay stack.  Three weddings later (don’t ask), we get to see Anne Sheridan in a night gown.  She fills it nicely.  They would have lived happily ever after except that Catherine gets orders back to the States and would you believe the law covering military spouses assumed they would be females?  So here comes the big payoff for sitting through this long snooze fest – the sight of Cary Grant in drag!  Go back in a time machine so you can get a thrill out of this.

Trust me, this is actually Cary Grant
                Cary Grant enjoyed making this movie and is quoted as saying it was the best comedy he had done up till then.  Sure!  And “The Green Berets” was John Wayne’s best war movie.  The movie is terrible no matter what Grant said in his hepatitis induced delirium.  It feels like it is lasting longer than the war when it is actually only 105 minutes.  Parts are redundant and all of it is predictable (except the stunning sight of Grant in drag).  The movie gets worse as it goes along.  Just when you think it can’t get any more tedious, it does.  The acting is average.  Sheridan is game and holds her own, but Grant appears to be going through the motions and does not even attempt a French accent.  I did not find they had much chemistry.  The biggest problem is the movie is just not that funny.  I smiled a few times, but never laughed out loud.  Apparently audiences howled at the sight of Cary as a female.  And they guffawed over Milton Berle in a dress back then, too.  Different times.  Back when war brides were topical I suppose the movie was humorous.  However, if you want to see a WWII comedy that holds up, watch “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek”.


Friday, July 25, 2014



                “My Boy Jack” is a television production of the play by David Haig that premiered in 2007.  Haig wrote the screenplay and stars as Rudyard Kipling.  In a great marketing move, Harry Potter was cast as Kipling’s son Jack.  The movie does not include the full third act of the play which carries the story into the 1930s. 

                The movie opens in Great Britain in 1914.  When WWI breaks out, chip-off-the-old-block Jack is insistent on enlisting for the great adventure.  Rudyard is not only supportive, but upset when Jack can’t get in because of bad eyesight.  Kipling is working at the Propaganda Ministry and is pushing for all good Englishmen to donate their sons.  When the first casualty figures come in he argues that publishing them will have the salutary effect of shaming men into joining the Army.  Putting his son where his mouth is, the elder Kipling pulls strings to get Jack into the big show.  Jack’s mother (Kim Cattrell) is upset, but British females have stiff upper lips, too.  Jack goes off to boot camp and becomes an effective and popular officer.  He still needs daddy’s help to get fast-tracked into the big upcoming push at Loos.  Can you guess what happens to the poster boy for dead meat?
the Kiplings

                “My Boy Jack” is a commendable work.  It manages to breaks the bonds of the stage and yet retains the quality dialogue.  The scenery around the Kipling home is beautiful and the trench set is realistic.  The movie makes a point of shifting back and forth from the Western Front to the home front.  Quite a contrast!    We also get the shifting perspectives of the two male Kiplings.  Not as much of a contrast here as both are gung-ho.  The combat scene features “Band of Brothers” style cinematography and is well-done.  It is a powerful scene as it intercuts with the Kiplings learning of the fate of their son.  Now on to the big question – how is Daniel Radcliffe?  He is actually pretty good, although Haig takes the acting honors.  Radcliffe’s performance bodes well for the upcoming “All Quiet…” 

This ain't quidditch
The story is meant to be thought provoking, but it is a bit simplistic and pulls its punches in the end.  It ends up not being as anti-war as it should have been.  Instead of contrasting the patriotism of Rudyard to the motherly instincts of his wife, the movie has Mrs. Kipling stoically accepting her son’s death and Rudyard justifying it.  The play goes up to the storm clouds of WWII and has Kipling wondering whether his son died in vain.  The movie is an accurate retelling of the Kiplings in WWI, so I guess Rudyard was a poor father, in my opinion.  I feel that it’s one thing to support the war effort, it’s another thing to pull strings to get your son in harm’s way.  If he’s going to get killed, don’t abet it.

GRADE  =  C+
HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  Kipling was  strong supporter of British entry into WWI.  He volunteered to work for the propaganda ministry and he wrote popular pamphlets boosting the war effort.  He glorified the military and described the war as civilization versus barbarism and the Germans were less than human.  As the work progressed, he became critical of the army, complaining that it had not learned the lessons from the Boer War.  The movie includes a seen where an old general tells Kipling the lessons were "speed, surprise, and variety".  (I don't believe that old vet had been to the Western Front.)  He really pushed for young men to enlist and basically tried to shame them into joining.  He did not make an exception for his own son, like a lot of politicians did.  John (nicknamed Jack in the movie) did fail his physicals due to myopia.  The movie makes it clear that the army and navy were correct to turn him down.  Rudyard visited Lord Roberts, former CINC, to get John into the Irish Guards.  (It's not like Kipling did not know stories could have unhappy endings - see "The Man Who Would Be King".)  John was killed in the Battle of Loos in 1917.  His death actually came six weeks after his eighteenth birthday, not the day after.  He was last seen stumbling blindly (told you so, said the army and navy doctors) forward in no man's land.  The movie concocted a scenario depicting him charging a machine gun.  It's unlikely he died like Col. Shaw of the 54th Massachusetts.  His parents did spend a lot of effort trying to locate the body, but it was not identified until 1992.  The movie accurately portrays Rudyard shouldering some of the blame, but he did not become a pacifist. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

FORGOTTEN GEM? Sabre Jet (1953)


                I have to admit that I have a stake in this movie.  My father flew F-86 Sabres in Korea after the war.  That was enough motivation to watch the movie, but imagine my excitement when parts of the movie were filmed at Itazuke Air Base in Japan.  When my father was flying in the Vietnam War from 1964-67, my family was stationed in Japan and one of the bases we lived on was Itazuke.  The movie was directed by Lewis King who was a B movie director.  He got the seal of approval from the Air Force and there were numerous technical advisers so the movie gets off to a promising start.  “This picture is dedicated to the Air Force wives who shared their men with a world made desperate by the most brutal aggressor in history.”  Exaggerate much?
the rare war movie wife who puts her
career ahead of her husband

"Stuka at nine o'clock"
                The plot focuses on the wives of the fighter pilots.  A female journalist named Jane Carter (Colleen Gray) comes to Itazuke to write a feature on the wives.  Surprise, she is the estranged wife of the squadron commander Col. Gil Manton (Robert Stack).    They separated because he wanted a traditional wife and she wanted a feminist career.  Note how she is using her maiden name.  She discovers that the wives are all supportive of their husbands in a very sappy way.  However, I have to say that I recognized my mother in their portrayals.  The movie at least attempts to show the feelings when the men are away.  There is an extended take-off scene that intercuts the agonized faces of the wives (with patriotic music swelling in the background).  Unfortunately, the acting by the actresses is terrible so the theme is diluted.  Some of the dialogue does open a window to the women’s lives. 

                For the guys in the audience there is some air combat.  Much of it features gun camera footage provided by the USAF.  This is blended pretty well with shots of F-86s and F-80s.   Too much of a good thing can be a problem as the footage begins to look like a mix tape of unconnected missions, strafing, and dogfights.  There is no continuity to the footage.  The filmmakers are a bit patronizing by throwing in scenes from WWII that include the shooting down of a Stuka!  To make matters worse, the MIGs are played by F-86s.  I hate to be sexist, but I guess it was assumed the ladies in the audience would not notice any of this.  On the plus side, there is none of the silly pilot chatter that you usually have to endure in low grade air combat films like this. 

                The plot is totally predictable.  And rife with clichés.  There is a newlywed pilot who has only five missions to go.  Can you guess what happens to him?  While you are guessing, try figuring out which feuding couple reconciles at the end.  Speaking of which, the one twist in the plot is that Jane is the jerk who put her job ahead of her husband.  There is some comic relief in the form of Fuji the cook.  Nothing like old school racism to remind you this is a 1950s movie.

the best actor in the movie
                Kudos to the Air Force for wanting a film to commemorate the wives.  Unfortunately, this movie does more harm than good by sucking big time.  In that respect it joins most of the other Korean War movies.
GRADE  =  F-     

Monday, July 21, 2014

FORGOTTEN GEM? Company K (2004)

            “Company K” is a WWI movie based on a novel by William March.  March serialized his semi-autobiographical accounts in a magazine from 1930-32.  It was published in book form in 1933 and hailed as a landmark in American war literature.  The novel is unusual in that it is a series of 113 vignettes involving a Marine company.  March had been a Marine on the Western Front.  He is represented by Pvt. Joseph Delaney (Ari Fliakos) in the movie.  He is trying to exorcise demons by writing a book about his and his mates’ experiences in the Great War.  In particular, Delaney is haunted by the death of a nonthreatening German.

                The movie is difficult to summarize because it is very episodic in nature.  There is no plot to speak of.  Some of the vignettes are interesting and some are not.  Most hammer the anti-war theme.  For example, in one episode a soldier sees Jesus in no man’s land at night and says:  “Damn it, you should be ashamed.  How long will you let this go on?”  The most significant sequence involves the execution of some German prisoners.

                I do not even know if this movie even appeared in theaters.  It is very low budget and it shows.  The acting is poor because you get what you pay for.  None of the actors make an impression.  This is the only movie Fliakos has made.  The technical aspects are what are to be expected.  The sets look like they are recreated trenches.  There is no mud.   The soundtrack is poor.  Unfortunately, there is little action even of a campy nature.  One interesting thing about the film is it was rated R for absolutely no reason.  There is no bad language, no nudity, and no graphic violence.

                In conclusion, read the book instead.


Monday, July 14, 2014

#3 - Das Boot (Director’s Cut) (1997)

BACK-STORY:  “Das Boot” (“The Boat”) is a German submarine movie directed by Wolfgang Petersen.  Originally the movie was going to be made by John Sturges starring Robert Redford and then by Don Siegel starring Paul Newman.  Thankfully, both projects fell through.  It is based on the novel by Lothar-Gunther Buchheim.  Although fictional, Buchheim used his experience as a correspondent on U-96 on a tour in 1941.  The Werner (Herbert Gronemeyer) character is based on Buchheim.  Buchheim began as a technical adviser, but had a falling out with Petersen because of what Buchheim considered unrealistically enhanced dramatic license.  The movie took three years to produce (1979-81) and was the most expensive German film up to then.    It was released in 1981 at 150 minutes and then shown as a miniseries at 300 minutes.  The version I am reviewing is the definitive Director’s Cut which clocks in at 209 minutes.  The original version was a big hit in Germany and the U.S.  It was an even bigger critical success.  It was nominated for Academy Awards for Director, Cinematography, Adapted Screenplay (Petersen), Film Editing, Sound, and Sound Effects Editing.  Stunningly, it was not nominated for Foreign Film.

OPENING:  The movie opens at La Rochelle, France in the autumn of 1941.  We are informed that the u-boat fleet is beginning to suffer heavy losses.  By the end of the war only 10,000 of 40,000 submariners will have survived tne war.  The Captain (Jurgen Prochnow), the Chief (Klaus Wennemann), and Werner arrive at the base and Werner gets his first taste of the submarine service when some of the drunken crewmen piss on their car as it passes by.  (I don’t mean taste literally.)  The enlisted are not the only ones “preparing” for their next tour, the officers are partying at a French cabaret.  The scene is reminiscent of a cinematic fighter squadron on a regular night except that these guys are going to be away from debauchery for a couple of months.  They party like there’s no tomorrow partly because they know that is reality.

SUMMARY:  The next day the U-96 sets sail.  Werner is given a tour of the boat.  It is very crowded and narrow.  Spaces are filled with supplies, even one of the two latrines.  Sausages hang from the ceiling.  We are introduced to the key members of the crew.  There are 48 men on board a boat that would have had 24 in peacetime.  The First Watch Officer (Hubertus Bengsch) is the only Nazi fanatic.  The rest of the officers are cynical and war-weary.  The Captain, in particular, makes biting remarks about the “braggarts” that run the government and to needle the “Hitler Youth leader” (the FWO) insists on singing “Tipperrary”. 

                The next twenty days are ones filled with boredom. A sailor flicks a booger at another.  This boredom switches to terror instantly when the boat is surprised by a British destroyer.  The sub dives below its maximum depth of 160 meters and withstands a depth charging.  There is no warning of the explosions for the crew or the audience.  For some reason, the destroyer gives up and they move on to a convoy.  They manage to torpedo three freighters, but then its payback time for the escorts.  The depth charging is much worse this time.  Leaks, flying bolts, a fire, and numerous close explosions cause extreme tension.  The Captain remains stoical throughout, but the Chief Mechanic Johann (Erwin Leder) cracks up and the Captain threatens to shoot him.  After several hours of pounding, the British apparently run out of depth charges and they can breathe easier and fresher air.

                When the sub resurfaces, it encounters a burning tanker.  The Captain decides to use a torpedo as the coup de grace thinking there is nobody on board.  Oops!  They are constrained from picking up any survivors.  War is hell.  Johann comes to apologize to the Captain, thus establishing a redemption arc.  The boat stops in neutral Spain at the port of Vigo.  The Germans have a ship set up for resupplying u-boats.  The officers are wined and dined by ass-kissers who are clueless about the Battle of the Atlantic.  The contrast between the spic and span noncombatants and the grungy submariners is telling.  While on board the lap of luxury, the Captain receives suicidal orders to run the Strait of Gibraltar to sink ships in the Mediterranean. 

                The Captain makes the head-scratching decision to run the gauntlet at night on the surface.  They try to sneak past numerous patrol vessels and ironically it’s a plane that catches them.  They suffer bomb damage and are forced to dive.  It’s an unstoppable dive to the bottom of the sea.  The depth meter needle stops at 280 meters.  Well below the maximum depth determined by the manufacturer.  The list of problems is a mile long.  Any one of which will prevent the boat ever seeing the surface again.  The Chief proves to be an expert fixer and Johann gets to redeem himself.

"Take that, people who determine hull crush depth!"

CLOSING:   Surprise, the sub rises from the depths. 
Because God has a conscience, the trip back to La Rochelle is uneventful.  They come sailing into the base with smug looks that are quickly wiped off by a sudden and extremely ironic air attack that wreaks havoc and sinks the sub.  The sailor who had showed off the picture of his girlfriend is dead meat, but you did not have to take a walk on the cliché side to die.  This is one of the great final scenes in war movie history. 

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  If they like sweaty, sallow Germans.  The language and violence are not too graphic.  There is only one female character, the cabaret singer.  She’s more for the guys in the audience than their girlfriends.  Not exactly a role model.  The movie has a horror movie feel to parts of it, so there’s that aspect.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  Analyzing this movie for historical accuracy is problematic.  The film is based on a novel so it is hard to determine what in the novel is true.  The movie does follow the book closely which means the questions about accuracy focus on the book.  There was a U-96 and it was commanded by Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock for its first eight patrols.  He was the 6th highest u-boat ace based on tonnage.  He won the Iron Cross.  The submarine was credited with sinking 27 ships in 11 patrols.  Buchheim (Werner in the movie) was a Navy correspondent who was embedded for propaganda purposes.  It appears that the patrol he based the book on was the 7th one.  My research on that patrol shows that Buchheim enhanced the story quite a bit.  In fact, even if Buchheim used incidents from other patrols, it is still hard to find the incidents that appear in the book and in the movie.  The seventh patrol saw the sinking of only one freighter and one significant depth charging.  There was no Gibraltar incident on any of the patrols.  The u-boat sailed from St. Nazaire (the movie understandably used La Rochelle because the sub pens are intact there and were essential to the verisimilitude of the film).  It also returned to St. Nazaire, but not to the reception shown in the film.  U-96 was sunk under similar circumstances when the submarine pens at Wilhelmshaven were bombed in 1945. 

So, what could have happened?  It seems likely the submariners partied hard considering the u-boat service had the highest mortality rate of any service in WWII for any country.  Adm. Donitz did make a habit of seeing off the individual boats.  The depressed vibe may be a bit laid on, but autumn 1941 was the first nonhappy time for the u-boats.  In 1941, convoys became more effective and more escorts came into play.  Also, anti-submarine technology improved with the use of ASDIC (sonar).  The movie implies that the u-boat war was on a path downward from then on, but in reality there was to be a second “happy time” with the entry of the U.S.  The vibe in the movie is more appropriate for 1943 when the Battle of Atlantic was clearly lost.  It seems unlikely that the depth of depression and cynicism would have sunk that low by autumn 1941.

  The movie accurately reflects the fear the pinging of sonar caused for the crew.  By this stage of the war, Ultra was being used to reroute convoys away from wolf packs.  Of course the U-96 would not have been aware of this and the movie makes no allusion to the code-breaking.  The movie does make a point of depicting the use of the Enigma machine to decode messages from submarine command.  The u-boat crews were noted for being outspoken in their cynicism and the Captain evidences that.    As far as the Nazi on board, this stock character has been criticized, but it seems likely there would have been someone like him on board.  Actually, I would have thought there would have been more than one fanatic.    While the incidents in the movie can be questioned, the u-boat is as real as it can get.  The movie interior was an exact copy of a Type VII-C on display in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

CRITIQUE:  The effort that went into this movie is amazing.  It reminds me of “Master and Commander”.  I already mentioned the interior, but there were also several models that were used for exterior scenes.  One was an eleven foot long model used for the ocean storms.  It was hollow and driven by a man laying inside on his stomach.  The same model was borrowed by Spielberg for “Raiders of the Lost Ark”.  There were dolls on the tower that were moved by remote control.  For the depth charge scenes, the interior mockup was on a hydraulic apparatus called a gimbal that allowed for realistic (even dangerous) hurling of bodies and objects.  The filming in this tight environment is incredible.  A special version of the steadicam was developed by cinematographer Jost Vacano who wore padding so he could move and not be hurt by encounters with the walls and hatchways.  One of the great war movie shots is when the crew rushes to the bow of the boat to speed the crash dive.   It is done in one continuous shot with no cuts.  The cinematography overall is great.  In the opening scene in the Bar Royal, Vacano has a long shot where the camera moves around the room to catch the revelry. 

                   The acting matches the technical virtuousity.  The cast was relatively unknown even if Germany.  Most went on to good careers.  Prochnow is perfect as the Captain and Wennemann matches him as the Chief.  Gronemeyer is appropriately awed, wide-eyed, and terrorized by his experiences as the neophyte Werner.  Erwin Leder makes a good impression as Johann.  It was his first acting role and you won’t be able to forget his face.    The entire cast was serious about making the picture special.  They all agreed to avoid sunlight during the production to get the sallow look.  The movie was shot in sequence so the men’s beards reflected time at sea.  The actors went through a type of boot camp so they could maneuver through the cramped interior smoothly.

                There have been many submarine movies.  It is a subgenre that has had great staying power and “Das Boot” (even though it is considered the last word on submarine movies) is not even the last example.  Hollywood still finds the cramped confines conducive to drama.  “Phantom” is just the latest proof that the subgenre will never die.  What makes “Das Boot” special is the way it gets the life of the submariners right.  The sailors behave as you would expect a German u-boat crew to behave.  Some veterans took umbrage with the crude language, but that seems revisionist and the book (by an ex-submariner) is even cruder.  No movie has depicted life on a WWII submarine better.  Any submarine.  At screenings in America, when the statistic of 30,000 German submariners dying appeared on the screen, the audience applauded.  By the end of the film, few rejoiced in the tragic exemplification of that stat.  You care about these men.  They are not the enemy.  Speaking of which, the movie does not cut to the anti-submariners.  U-96’s foes are faceless.

                The plot is linear and somewhat episodic.  It builds nicely to its overt anti-war message.  It is not perfect, however.  The depth chargings are a bit repetitive with each topping the last.  By the end of the movie, the boat has had everything but the kitchen sink thrown at it.  The movie cannot escape some of the clichés submarine movies are noted for.  It is the opposite in all ways from “U-571”, but it is not flawless.  Judging from my earlier analysis of submarine cliches, it features two very common ones.  The sub has to go below “hull crush depth” and yet the hull is not crushed.  The sub withstands not one, but three depth chargings with the depth charges exploding alongside the sub.  Unrealistically close, by the way.  It does avoid several other tropes.  There is no command conflict.  The captain is no Ahab hunting his white whale.  Noone is left on deck during a crash dive and no debris and oil are released to fool the hunters.  Most importantly, the sub is on a routine patrol.  No special mission.

                The biggest problem with the movie is it is implausible in parts.  Some of the set-ups are trite.  The boat encounters the burning freighter to set up the emotional scene where they back away from the drowning victims.  The Captain threatens to shoot Johann so later he can redeem himself.  Redemption is a common theme in war movies, but it’s the captain’s threat that makes no sense.  I think he would have empathized with a fellow submariner who had been on numerous patrols.  My biggest problem with actions taken in the movie is with the captain’s decision to try to run through the strait on the surface.  That was an act of insanity by a leader who the movie has portrayed very positively before then.  This reminds me of how Captain Miller in “Saving Private Ryan” is a role model, but actually a moron tactically-speaking.  For a u-boat ace, the Captain sure likes to stay on the surface when there are hunters nearby.

CONCLUSION:  “Das Boot” is a very good movie, but it is not great.  I have to admit that in my opinion it is slightly overrated.  In the worthy attempt to be firmly anti-war, it has a narrative arc that is consistently downward.  Each episode is more depressing than the last until the twist of the ending.  In my opinion, the plot would have been more effective as a roller coaster ride than a downward spiral.  This does conform to the novel, but movies have the right to improve on their sources.  “Das Boot” would have been better if it had included some of the thrills of u-boat combat.  There is too much prey and not enough predator.  The torpedoing of the three enemy ships is given short shrift. The three depth chargings are not.  Is it the third greatest war movie of all time?  It is certainly in the top twenty, but not in the top five.


Acting  -  A
Action  -  7/10
Accuracy  -  B
Plot  -  B
Realism  -  B
Cliches  -  B-



                The movie tracks the novel closely.  It opens with the cabaret scene, but there is more talk of losses and miraculous escapes.  This better sets the tone of the dangers of being on a u-boat.  The party is much wilder than it is reenacted by the film.  The depth charge scenes are basically the same as in the book only shorter and the book is told from the perspective of one crew member – Werner.  This gives you an excellent feel for what he went through as the stand-in for the readers.  The movie is able to show multi-perspectives and the various efforts to make repairs.  Because of the visual nature of movies, you get to see what it must have been like to be on board a u-boat and you can imagine what is going on in their heads.  The movie leaves out some scenes, but nothing major.  Other scenes are condensed.  For example, the storm that the sub endures is much more lengthy in the book (65 pages covering a two week storm!).  Score one for the movie on this one.  The movie completely skips the return home after the Gibraltar disaster.  This is another good edit considering the highlights of that part of the voyage are not believable.  Speaking of editing, the book’s dialogue has a lot more sailors discussing sex.  I would have to say that in this case my theory that a war movie should be superior to the book it is based upon applies to “Das Boot”.  Buchheim has a tendency to drag passages on.  The storm scene in particular is redundant and gets to be boring.  The tweeks Petersen adds are improvements.  In the book, the Captain does not finish off the burning freighter and there is no dilemma about picking up survivors.  He adds the navigator being wounded in the air attack off Gibraltar.  In the book, no one is wounded on the patrol.  Other than those small or understandable changes, the movie is one of the best adaptations of a novel that you can hope to see.  It is hard to understand what Buchheim was upset about. 

the trailer