Wednesday, December 30, 2015

QUEUE CLEANSING: Flight World War II (2015)

                “Flight World War II” is another direct to DVD feature from the folks at The Asylum studio.  The Asylum is noted for churning out low budget movies that feed the market for bad entertainment.  Netflix Instant has been a logical landing spot for many of its products.  Especially since we don’t have very many drive-in movie theaters any more. The Asylum movies need to be watched with a copious amount of alcohol and/or a suspension of normal brain functions.  If you do that, they can be enjoyable.

                “Flight World War II” has a sci-fi tinge to it.  A passenger plane passes through an electromagnetic storm and is transported back to 1940.  They arrive in the middle of a German bombing raid on St. Nazaire.  How do they figure this out?  There are two nerdy historians on board.  A movie that has heroic historians, spoiler alert: my grade will be prejudiced.  The two determine it is the famous raid on St. Nazaire which was in June, 1940.  (The Germans actually were bombing St. Nazaire at that time as it was part of the Dunkirk evacuation effort.)   This is despite the fact that those are clearly Me 262 jet fighters that are buzzing them. If you have even a rudimentary knowledge of WWII aerial warfare, you know that 1940 is too soon for jets, so what is going on here?  Is it the typical insulting the intelligence of the audience that you get with these types of flicks?  Actually my theory is the screenwriters are weaving a more tangled web.  They have to be jets in order to keep up with a passenger jet.  (Plus they look way cooler than propeller planes.)  But in order to justify jets in 1940 they have to transform the plot into an alternative history tale.  This is confirmed when the plane makes contact with Nigel the radio operator who informs them that Dunkirk was a disaster.  It looks like the Allies are going to lose the war.  Unless the plane can change history!
another movie where a historian is the hero -
how cliche!

                A passenger suggests they kill Hitler.  This would have made a better movie, but two soldiers on board point out that they could end up screwing up history.  Party poopers!  Meanwhile the plane undergoes a series of attacks by jets.  Luckily, the German pilots are unable to bring down the sitting duck.  They do manage to damage the landing gear so we can watch Hector the handyman fix it with a hammer.  The historians put their heads together and realize that the key to turning the war around is giving radar to the radarless British.  Nigel suggests they drop their radar set to a British patrol behind enemy lines in Germany.  Having no parachute, they use a poncho.  Nigel has it up and running in five minutes.  (If you are not on your fifth beer by now, I warned you.)  He is able to steer them to another vortex.
there's a sexy stewardess, of course

                Even heavy drinking does not make “Flight World War II” tolerable.  It is laughably ridiculous throughout.  This is sad because the movie lacks any planned humor.  It also lacks any real suspense.    I guess you have to admire the sincerity.  This does not help with the acting.  You never want to pair bad actors with sincerity.  The cast is less than stellar, as you would expect from a movie like this. Most of the passengers are on board as turbulence fodder (drink every time the plane is buffeted). Fortunately, the captain played by Fasan Tahur brings some gravitas to a stock role.  Like the acting, everything else is average.  This includes the CGI which consists primarily of faux Me 262s firing tracers. I have to give some credit for the twist of the alternative history.  Instead of having to worry about changing actual history, they have to find a way to change the history they are dealt.  However, by dangling an attempt to kill Hitler and then switching to simply dropping a radar set, the movie disappoints.  Imagine the laughs that the attempt on Hitler’s life would have produced!  When you are making a movie like this, go big!  You would think that would be the slogan of The Asylum.


P.S.  Check out the poster.  Hilarious!  "Based on a true story" - yes, there was a World War II.  And why not Me 262s?

Sunday, December 27, 2015

QUEUE CLEANSING: Ardennes Fury (2014)

                “Ardennes Fury” (also known as “Battle of the Ardennes: Fury”)  is a mockbuster.  If you don’t know what a “mockbuster” is, neither did I until I researched this movie.  A mockbuster is a movie that piggy-backs off a major release to either fool people into buying the wrong DVD or to offer less discerning viewers more (but vastly inferior) entertainment on the same subject.  In this case, the target was "Fury".  ”Ardennes Fury” was produced by The Asylum.  It is a studio that has a reputation for straight to DVD releases like “Titanic II”, “Transmorphers”, and another queue dust-gatherer entitled “Flight World War II”.   “Ardennes Fury” was directed, written, and co-edited by Joseph Lawson.  Don’t look for him at the Oscars anytime soon.

                We are dropped into the middle of a fire fight.  Other than the title, there is no reference to the Battle of the Bulge and there is no snow to be seen.  Although low budget, they did not spare on the blanks as the opposing sides hammer away at each other across a field.  No one shames themselves by going prone and there is a lot of firing from the hip.  It’s that kind of combat movie.  The plot centers on the crew of an M4 Sherman tank and a few infantry attached to it.  While the tank waits, a group of four led by Sgt. Lance Dawson (Tom Stedham) go off to rescue an orphanage after encountering Sister Claudette (Lauren Vera).  One of the men is black, which is another clue that the Lawson is not much of a history buff.  While the snowy Battle of the Ardennes did see the rushing of black soldiers into combat, they were still in segregated units and there is no implication that Sgt. Rose (Lawrence Garnell, Jr.) has been separated from his unit.  One of the four is a boat-rocker named C.K. (Bill Voorhies) who clashes with Sgt. Dawson about ass-risking. 
black sarge and white sarge

                The movie becomes something of a chase film as the group tangles with an evil German officer who is not above executing civilians and torturing prisoners (including a rather graphic fingernail removal).  While the men and their charges are on the run, the stationary tank is taking on a series of German tanks with never a miss and nary a scratch.  All of this is happening as the clock ticks towards Operation Ardennes Fury which is to be a massive aerial bombardment of the area.  (The moviemakers seem to have confused this massive bombardment with Operation Cobra of the Normandy Campaign).  The chase whittles down our pursued until the climactic knife fight between Sarge and the bad German.  Their charge is punctuated by a P-47 dropping a bomb between them.  C.K.s redemption arc is completed as the tank comes riding to the rescue.

                Now that I know what a mockbuster is, I will be more tolerant toward movies like “Ardennes Fury”.  It is what it is – a low budget rip-off.  But it is a war movie, it was “free” and streaming on Netflix, and it was entertaining in a low expectations sort of way.  The best c word for it is not cult, it’s cheesy.  The acting is amateurish, probably because the actors were amateurs (or should be).  Stedham does looked grizzled so he matches the sarge role, but his thespian skills are lacking.  The rest of the cast is game, but you get what you pay for.  They aren’t helped by dialogue written by someone who has watched too many 1940s B war movies.  Speaking of which, there are a number of classic clichés that the movie incorporates.  The mission changes for humanitarian reasons.  The small group caught behind enemy lines.  The redemption of the troublemaker.  The evil German pursuer.  It’s all very predictable and unrealistic.  This is tempered a bit by the fast pace.  The music also smacks of a thousand second rate war movies.  In fact, the only thing that separates it from a cheesy Old School war movie is the CGI.  Lawson uses computers to overcome his lack of resources.  Although he managed to score a WWII era tank and a few other vehicles, most of the armored combat involves CGI.  This includes the explosions.  I guess CGI does not work well for tank interiors, so Lawson films the crew as though the tank is a convertible!  A tank with a moonroof - nice option.  Where “Fury” could rightfully brag about its use of an authentic Tiger tank.  Lawson could include several using video-game like graphics.  I will not argue that the cinematography isn’t fake looking, but what do you expect from a movie with its budget.  As CGI improves, the future of war movies is bright.  The quality will improve and with companies like The Asylum so will the quantity.  I assume there will always be enough men who want to play soldier in front of a camera.

                With all that said, although I don’t regret I watched it and did go in expecting what I got, it still is truly a bad movie.  Watch it with a six pack and you’ll guffaw instead of giggle.

P.S.  When it comes to mockbusters, it's best not to trust the poster.  (see above)


Friday, December 25, 2015

QUEUE CLEANSING: Tomorrow, When the War Came (2010)

                So I have decided to use this Christmas vacation to clean up my Netflix instant queue.  I have quite a few war movies that have accumulated over the years.  I keep meaning to get to them, but to tell the truth I have a strong suspicion that most of them suck.  It’s time to find out.  The plan is to watch as many as I can in the next two weeks and do mini-reviews on them.  Hopefully I’ll save my readers the pain of watching them.  But who knows, there may be some gems.  Let’s start with what looks like a “Hunger Games” wannabe.

                “Tomorrow, When the War Began” is an Aussie flick based on an apparently very popular series of young adult novels.  The series of seven novels chronicle a group of teenagers conducting a guerrilla war against an occupying power.  The novels were written by John Marston.  The movie was written and directed by Stuart Beattie.  It was a big hit in Australia, but did not travel well and made nary a blip in America.  Since the American market rulz, the lack of success in the States put the kibosh on any sequels.  Hello, Ender.  Meet Ellie.

                The movie is off to a horrific start when a teenage romp in the outback is doomed by “what’s the worst that can happen?” being uttered.  Ellie (Caitlin Stasey) is joined by her BFF Corrie (Rachel Hurd-Wood) and her boyfriend Kevin (Lincoln Lewis).  Coming along for heterogeneous group reasons are bad boy Homer (Deniz Akdeniz), nerdy Asian Lee (Chris Pang), rich girl Fiona (Phoebe Tonkin), and preacher’s daughter Robyn (Ashleigh Cummings).  They do the usual teenagers on a campout stuff.  The only unusual thing is the sight of an air armada instead of a meteor shower.  Being well versed in current events, they immediately surmise that the threatening talk of the resource-challenged “Coalition Nations” has decided to rape Australia of its ample resources and its Fosters.  Just kidding, they are just as clueless as American teenagers would be.  So when they return to their empty town, they are a bit perplexed.  A trip to the local everybody-but-them internment center and the eyewitness to an execution tell them this is not Mayberry anymore.  Ellie quickly assumes the role of badass as she blows up a riding lawn mower to eliminate pursuers.  Explosion #1.  A helicopter napalms the house they are hiding in.  Explosion #2.  Ellie steals a garbage truck for a chase scene involving machine gun enhanced dune buggies.  In between explosions and chases they even out their numbers by enlisting a pot head named Chris (Andy Ryan) whose short term memory does not include the fact that his town has been occupied by Asian Stormtroopers.  Now we can ponder which of the ladies is going to get to pair off with this loser.  War is hell!
from left to right:  the dope head, the priss, the nerd, the riot girl,
the juvenile delinquent, the preacher's daughter

                The party of eight high-tails it back to the ominously named outback campsite named “Hell”.  They discuss options, but the discussion comes to a halt as Ellie proclaims “It’s time to go to war”.  They will earn their freedom by cutting the enemy supply route by blowing up a bridge.  This will involve an oil tanker truck and a herd of cattle.  Prepare for EXPLOSION #3.
                “Tomorrow, When the War Came” is obviously aimed at an audience that I am not a member of.  I had never heard of the series it is based on.  Since it is not in the same familiar to baby boomer sphere that “The Hunger Games” exists in and I am not enamored with that movie series, I naturally was skeptical of this Aussie product.  Plus it smacked a bit of the egregious “Red Dawn” ilk.  Like “Red Dawn”, it plays to teenage fantasies of what they would do if adults were out of the way and they had to fend for themselves.  A real life video game.  I see these movies from the pessimistic perspective of one of the powerless adults.  It’s hard to believe we would not be totally f’ed if the scenarios of these types of movies came about.  However, let the kids have their fun.  Just don’t offend my intelligence too much.  And please kill off some teenagers along the way.

                I found the characters appealing.  The movie must have wanted it that way because there is little dysfunction in the group.  He-man Homer does not question Ellie’s leadership, for instance.  The characters are stock and cover all the major teenage stereotypes.  No surprise there.  The character arcs are also comfortably predictable.  Ellie is hardened by killing and takes charge because somebody has to, damn it!  Kevin panics early on but shakes it off (unrealistically).  Robyn proclaims she “shalt not kill”, but you know that ain’t gonna stick.  Bros before hosanna.  Fi learns sometimes you have to risk breaking a nail.  And so forth.   The ensemble does well enough for a movie of this subgenre.  Nobody shames themselves.

                The plot bounces between teenage chatter and kick-ass set pieces featuring the aforementioned explosions.  The dialogue is fine and not very smirk-worthy.  Some of the plot developments could be considered ridiculous if it were not for the fact that teenagers are involved.  For instance, Ellie and Fi turn off their walkie-talkies to discuss boys, which allows the enemy to sneak up on them.  The pairings do not rise much above PG level.  No one is going to die because they had sex.  This has some elements of a horror movie, but that is not one of them.  It is noteworthy that the most interesting characters are the females.  Ellie makes a good role model for teenage girls who will take to the hills when the Orientals come. And if you don’t want a movie cluttered with adult characters, this movie is for you.

                I found “Tomorrow, When the War Began” to be an entertaining trip into teenage fantasy land.  There is nothing wrong with having this subgenre of teenagers stepping it up into adult dilemmas.  However, as a reviewer I have to point out that by catering to a specific demographic, these movies usually sacrifice elements that make movies excellent.  I am quite sure Beattie was not dreaming of a Best Picture Oscar.  I am equally sure he expected the movie to be the start of a franchise.  It’s a shame it will not be because I would have liked to have seen the sequel.  As it is, I might check out the book and do a book/movie post in the future. 

GRADE  =  C  

Monday, December 21, 2015

BOOK / MOVIE: The Dogs of War (1974/1980)

                “The Dogs of War” is a movie by John Irvin (“Hamburger Hill”, “When Trumpets Fade”) based on the novel by John Forsyth.  The movie was filmed in Belize and is set in a fictional African nation of Zangaro.  It is a story of an attempted coup by mercenaries on behalf of a British corporation that wants mineral rights in the country.  It stars Christopher Walken, two years removed from “The Deer  Hunter”.

                The movie begins with our anti-heroes fleeing from a botched rebellion in some Central American nation.  Their leader, Cat Shannon (Walken), returns to his seedy apartment in New Jersey and tries to reconcile with his ex-wife.  He wants to settle down and move to Wyoming or some such place.  She and the audience say “sure!”  Oh well, back to work.  Shannon gets a job from a shady character named Endean (Hugh Millhis).  His boss is the CEO of a large corporation which wants a crazy African dictator named Kimba overthrown because the tycoon wants to spread democracy.  Just kidding, he wants the mineral rights so he can add that next billion to his wallet.  Being a mercenary, Shannon takes the job and reunites the band.  First, he has to reconnoiter the capital of Zangaro.  Two things of significance happen on the scouting expedition.  He meets a comely African lass who turns out to be Kimba’s mistress.  The second thing is that because of the girl he gets tortured by Kimba’s lackeys.  In prison he meets a kindly doctor who lost the election to Kimba.  Upon return to America, Shannon begins preparation for the coup.  After acquiring the necessary weapons (including a bad-ass gun called a XM-18) , Shannon and his four buddies take a freighter to Africa.  They are joined by some Africans who will serve as cannon fodder.  The plan is to assault the Presidential compound with extreme prejudice and then Endean will bring in an equally repulsive African general to become the new Idi Amin.  Except this monster will be in corporation’s pocket.

                “The Dogs of War” is one of the more famous mercenary movies.  It bears closest resemblance to “The Wild Geese” and is part of a subgenre that continues with the recent “Expendables” movies.  “Dogs” is an above average entry in the soldiers of fortune milieu.  Like most of them, it is low budget.  And the cast is actors who are either going to be famous, or more likely, on the downside of their careers.  Usually these movies are ensemble pieces, but “Dogs” is really a one man show.  Walken dominates with his smoldering intensity.  He must have intimidated the editor because his second in command Tom Berenger got left mostly on the cutting room floor. The rest of the cast is blah.  And we don’t care because there is virtually no character development.  Technically the movie is average.  The cinematography is nothing special.  Irvin is not trying to stand out from typical merc flicks in his first feature film.  The action sequences are pedestrian.  The tired, but trusted trope of good guys firing randomly to create fireworks.  The one outside the box move was to include the XM-18 which is a multi-barreled assault weapon that can fire a variety of ordinance such as fragmentation, grenades, anti-tank, and anti-personnel.  It really livens up the party. 

                The plot is predictable and cliché-ridden.  Shannon is a war –weary warrior who only knows how to do one thing.  Naturally he loses his wife over his avocation.  He may not be a lover, but he is a killer with a heart of gold (or in this case, platinum). Endean represents the evil, greedy tycoon who is more powerful than any politician.  The movie includes some twists that the average mercenary movie fan will be surprised by, but the average viewer will see coming from a mile away.  (Oops, I think I just questioned the intelligence of merc movie maniacs.  Sorry.  Don’t get your panties in a bunch.  Oops.)  It would have been nice if the dialogue was a little tongue in cheek (like “Expendables”), but this is the young Walken, not the SNL Walken.  In fact, the funniest moment comes when the four mercenaries enter the compound and pose for a kick-ass movie poster with guns a blazin’.  The big action set piece is entertaining in a mindless way, but the buildup is boring.

                As  I have mentioned before, my theory is that any competently made movie based on a book should be better than the source material.  The only excuse is if the technology or budget is not capable of replicating scenes from the book.  There is no excuse for the plot to be worse than the book.  In this case, the plots differ in substantial ways.  The book is in many ways a tutorial for anyone who wants to overthrow an African dictator.  Forsyth was familiar with mercenaries, arms dealers, and African coups.  He spends the vast majority of the book showing off his insider’s knowledge.  Thankfully the movie just alludes to all the details that go into overthrowing an African government.  I found all the jetting around by the various team members to put all the pieces together to be tedious.  Maybe if I wanted to be a soldier of fortune someday, but the truth is that I could care less about an “end user” certificate.

                Where the book is superior to the movie is in the set-up and pay-off.  The novel gives the background that the movie is obtuse about.  Forsyth covers the geologist discovering the platinum at a mountain in Zangara and Marson’s subsequent efforts to get a monopoly on the site.  We also learn how Shannon finds out that the mission is wealth dominated.  Part of this knowledge comes from an affair with Marson’s sluttish daughter.  The book does not have the wife subplot.  (We get Jo Beth Williams instead of Bo Derek.)  The battle is also quite different, but ends up in basically the same place.  It is more realistic tactically than the film, but not as entertaining.  The aftermath of the coup is better in the book.


BOOK  =  D

Sunday, December 13, 2015

SHOULD I READ IT? Stalingrad: Dogs, Do You Want To Live Forever? (1959)

                “Stalingrad: Dogs, Do You Want to Live Forever?” is a German movie made around the time German prisoners taken on the Eastern Front were returning home.  The few that survived captivity, that is.  It is noteworthy for its realistic take on the ultimate Wehrmacht disaster. 

                The movie opens with a narrator telling us that the year is 1942 and things are about to take a turn for the worst for the German army in the Soviet Union.  A Soviet counterattack is coming and this will be the story of some of the survivors of that maelstrom.  The main character is Oberleutnant Wisse (Joachim Hansen).  He has been assigned as liaison officer to a Rumanian unit.  You don’t see that role in many movies!  On the way to his posting, he helps a Soviet girl named Katya (Sonja Ziemann) avoid being deported.  When he arrives at the Rumanian camp, the officer he is replacing is in a big hurry to leave.  Oh, oh.  Another officer warns him about his superior – Major Linkmann (Wolfgang Preiss -  Rommel in “The Longest Day”).  Linkmann appears to be a kool-aid drinking Nazi.  The Rumanian general complains about the lack of everything.  The movie makes the point that the Rumanian allies were not so much incompetent as they were ill-supported. 

                On Nov. 11, they know the attack is coming.  Linkmann tells Wisse that the Hitler is using the Rumanians as cannon fodder and they will escape when the shit hits the fan.  Wisse turns action hero by blowing up a Soviet tank before they retreat.  Winter arrives.  They are trapped and Gen. Von Paulus resists advice that he needs to break out while they still can.  Wisse remains optimistic while the other officers grumble and criticize Hitler.  The rescue effort by Gen. Hoth (bizarrely subtitled “Hooth”) is chronicled.  Von Paulus remains pig-headed.  Meanwhile, Wisse is transferred to an artillery battery.  Guess who his new commanding officer is?  Linkmann.  He has morphed into Capt. Cooney from “Attack!”  In other words, he talks the talk, but is a closet coward.  He also reminds one of Capt. Stransky from “Cross of Iron”.  He stays in his bunker most of the time while he spouts about the greatness of der Fuhrer.  Until he decides he wants to take Stalin up on that surrender offer.  The movie is not just a two man show.  Wisse has his buddies Bose, Kramer, and Konowsky.  They make a likeable quartet making the best of a very bad situation.  And there is a surprise reappearance of a damsel who returns a favor.  No kiss because it’s not that kind of movie. The movie covers the entire siege of Stalingrad and ends with the German surrender.

                This movie was a revelation for me.  It is not very well known and has been overshadowed by the other Stalingrad movies like “Enemy at the Gates” and “Stalingrad” (1993).  I could make a case that it is the best of the lot.  Once again, I am amazed that after five years and over 200 war movie reviews, I still am seeing excellent movies that I have never seen before.  And I am also stunned at how accessible war movies are now.  There is no way I could be doing this even ten years ago.  Netflix has been the Holy Grail, but You Tube is also wonderful for war movie buffs.  I found this movie on You Tube.  We have come so far since my childhood when we would wait an entire year for the next network showing of “The Great Escape”.  What an incredible world for cinephiles!

                “Stalingrad:  Do You Want to Live Forever?” gives both the macro and micro view of the most important battle of WWII.  It is by far the best Stalingrad movie for those who want to learn about the battle from the German point of view.  Hell, you get actors portraying Von Paulus and Hitler!  The movie is excellent on command decisions.  The narration does an great job with the big picture.  We have a clear idea what the strategic situation is.  For example, the narrator explains that Goering’s supply air lift was a failure.  The movie has a documentary feel to it and uses archival footage effectively although some might carp about weapons systems appearing out of chronology.  Although a German film, it is not propagandistic.  It is fair to both sides and especially fair to the woeful Rumanians.  It does not sugarcoat the mistakes the Germans made, but it does omit the atrocities by both sides.

                The big surprise is in the production values.  The cinematography is nicely done and the archival footage is fairly seamless.  An interesting touch is the fading out of the scenes.  You don’t see that very often in a war movie.  The movie does a good job depicting the effects of the wintery weather.  The rubble is well-rendered and the sound effects of battle are realistic.  The acting is a real strength.  Preiss is his usual solid self and adds some gravitas as the only recognizable actor for an American audience.  Did he make any non war movies?  The rest of the cast is good, especially Hansen.  The characters are appealing and the movie even manages to get a female character in.  Katya bookends the movie in an unrealistic, but entertaining way.  The soldiers behave naturally and the dialogue fits.   The movie is not without clichés.  Linkman is your typical odious Nazi sycophant.  Wisse is a bit too good to be true. His arc from committed to disillusioned is a stretch, but represents a basic theme of the German soldier in the winter of 1942.

                War movie lovers need to see this movie.  And it’s so easy to do now that we have it on You Tube.  Don’t let the subtitles scare you away.  It is one of the 100 Best War Movies ever made.


Tuesday, December 1, 2015

NOW STREAMING: Beasts of No Nation (2015)

                “Beasts of No Nation” is based on the acclaimed novel by Uzodinma Iweaga (2005).  The book is about a child soldier in an unnamed west African country.  Cary Joji Fukunaga wrote the adapted screenplay and directed the film.  He spent seven years on the project.  It was filmed in Ghana and the thirty seven day shoot was fraught with problems including Fukunaga contracting malaria.  The movie was a sensation on the international awards circuit and the world distribution rights were bought by Netflix.  When Netflix decided to stream it on their service simultaneously with releasing it to theaters this caused the major theater chains to boycott the film.  Netflix was being punished for violating the traditional 90 day wait before a movie can released after its appearance in theaters.  I have to go with the theater chains on this one. 

               A narrator tells us the country is at war.  Schools are closed and children are looking for things to do.  Oh oh.  Agu (Abraham Attah) and his family are living a decent life in a buffer zone protected by Nigerian peace-keepers.  This will change when the government’s military forces enter the zone.  Agu’s mother and siblings are sent away in the mass exodus, but he has to stay behind with his older brother and father.  Agu’s father and brother do not survive the cleansing process.  Agu escapes to the jungle where he is captured by a motley crew called the National Defense Force.  The creepily charismatic, but dangerously demented leader is “the Commandant” (Idris Elba).  He sees something in Agu and adds him to his band. Training montage intercut with indoctrination from the Commandant.  Initiation via a gauntlet.  Agu has found a new family.  He strikes up a friendship with a mute soulless comrade named Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye).  The commandant insists Agu prove he belongs by executing a captive using a machete.  In an indelible scene in slo-mo and soundless, Agu complies and then some.  He is all in now.

                The NDF attacks a bridge and the Commandant uses his charisma to fire up his boys.  This charisma goes from sinister to demonic when the Commandant’s special interest in Agu turns sexual.  Fortunately, not graphically.  A village massacre is ill-timed because the supreme commandant Dada Goodblood is in the “we’re not thugs anymore” phase of his political evolution.  The Commandant is now a political liability and is demoted.  The high fives have turned into a dagger in the back.  So to speak.  He takes his force off to carve out his own domain.  Things do not go well.  The salad days of murdering, raping, and looting are sadly over.  And charisma can only carry you so far when your men are starving, diseased, and getting their asses whipped.  How long will Agu remain loyal to his molester?  Will he ever get to have that childhood?

                “Beasts of No Nation” is the best movie about child soldiers in Africa, but I found it a bit disappointing.  I read the book a while back and was disappointed in it as well.  It is hard to say what is missing.  The acting is stellar.  Obviously the big draw is the wonderful Elba and he is worth the price of admission (or a Netflix subscription).  He is perfect for the Commandant and may get some Academy Awards consideration.  His transformation from Machiavellian to Mephistophelian is intriguing.  Attah is excellent, but Agu’s arc is problematical.  He is not a typical child soldier (like Strika) because he does not lose his humanity.  He does not become hardened and a coldblooded killer.  This does not strike me as realistic.  Strangely, the plot sets up the expectation of a conflict between Agu and Strika as Agu becomes the new pet, but does not deliver. I give the film credit for being unpredictable.  There is no losing virginity scene, for instance.  The film can’t avoid the obligatory child play scenes.  In contrast, the movie pulls its punches on atrocities.  Well, not on the one where Agu earns his stripes.  But that is the only time Agu kills anyone. 

                “Beasts of No Nation” is a very good tutorial on child soldiers.  Unfortunately, it did not have the guts to tell it like it really is.  It is an interesting movie and has some great acting and some amazing cinematography.  It is well worth the watch, especially if you have Netflix and can stream it free.  I could get used to watching new quality war movies from the comfort of my study.  It’s just that after you have seen so many war movies that accurately portray the dehumanizing effect of war on adults, it’s a bit hard to swallow a happy ending for an impressionable boy.

GRADE  =  B        

Thursday, November 19, 2015

CLASSIC or ANTIQUE: War Hunt (1962)

                “War Hunt” is another mediocre Korean War movie.  I have to constantly remind myself that there are a lot of bad World War II movies, too.  In fact, I have a collection of 50 of them.  It just seems that the percentage of inferior Korean War movies is the highest of any war.  My theory is that most of the movies were produced during the waning days of Old School style.  This makes most of them seem stodgy.  The war itself did not help matters.  The war was not popular with the public and the studios realized this.  For this reason, they seem to have not put much effort into the movies.  Movies aimed at drive-ins are not going to be high quality. 

                “War Hunt” attempts to defy the stereotype by being provocative.  It was directed by Denis Sanders who had a reputation for taking chances.  As you can imagine, the studios were not that interested in his outside the box ideas.  He only had $250,000 for his budget and made the movie in only 15 days.  Much of the filming was done at night due to the budget.  No surprise that the filmmaker got no help from the Pentagon because the script was not exactly aimed at boosting recruiting or the military image!  This is in spite of the opening narration that mentions that the combat infantryman was the “tip of the spear”.  Unfortunately, the Army read the rest of the script.

                The movie is set in the closing months of the war.  A small unit is part of the U.S. effort to inflict pain to hurry along the peace negotiations.  This is actually a cogent analysis of the strategy of that time.  A replacement named Loomis (Robert Redford in his screen debut) arrives.  The unit is regaled by loudspeaker proclamations from Radio China and the Dragon Lady.  Loomis is introduced to the unit’s resident psycho serial killer named Endore (John Saxon).  Endore goes “AWOL in the wrong direction” each night.  He uses a knife to kill enemy soldiers.  The rest of the squad leaves him alone and the CO condones his actions because it’s a dirty little war.  Endore has adopted an orphaned little Korean boy named Charlie who is part of the fine tradition of “Short Round” from “Steel Helmet”.  Loomis decides to challenge Endore for the soul of the boy.  Things come to a head when the war ends and Endore is suddenly a murderer, not a dedicated warrior.

                “War Hunt” is a strange movie.  It plays like an American Playhouse drama.  This is especially evident in the lack of action.  This was undoubtedly due to the low budget.  There is a scene when Loomis is on outpost duty.  The Chinese attack.  The bombardment is not bad for a small movie and the sound effects are good.  Since it is necessarily at night. flares and lights are used effectively.  The assault is more of a human ripple than a human wave. but it’s not a bad effort.

                The best thing about the movie is the cast.  It includes Gavin McLeod, Tom Skerritt,  and Sydney Pollack.  Pollack and Redford began a friendship which led to collaboration in seven movies directed by Pollack.  Redford acquits himself well in his debut.  He definitely comes off as a future star.  Even then he had a clause in his contract that his hair could not be messed with.  Saxon underplays Endore effectively.  The movie uses eerie flute music and snare drums and some POV to depict how unhinged his character is.
                You have to give the movie credit for being different.  The theme reflects the fact that some Korean War movies anticipated the Vietnam War movies in their cynicism.  In this case, the statement is that killing is fine as long as there is a war on, then what?   


Friday, November 13, 2015

FORGOTTEN GEM? Sergeant Rutledge (1960)

                “Sergeant Rutledge” is a John Ford Western / court room drama / war movie.  It was filmed in Monument Valley and in a court room.  Sergeant Rutledge (Woody  Strode) is a member of the 9th Cavalry – the famous Buffalo Soldiers.  Ford cast Strode in the title role because they were good friends.  (When Ford was dying, Strode slept on his floor for four months as his caretaker.)  But when you think about it, who else could have played the role?  Jim Brown was still playing football and Sidney Poitier would have been miscast.  Point is, there were not that many black actors that could anchor a war movie in 1960.  Woody deserved this role and it came during the greatest streak of his career.  “Pork Chop Hill” was released the year before and “Spartacus” came out the same year.  Those were supporting roles, whereas “Sergeant Rutledge” is more meaty.  However, he still does not get top billing.  Jeffrey Hunter and Constance Tower appear above him in the billing.  (Check out the poster and then push your jaw back up.)  Shame on you, Hollywood marketing! 

                The movie opens with the rousing song “Captain Buffalo” (also the title of the novel the movie is based on and the working title of the movie).  We jump straight into the trial.  Flashback alert!  It’s the young lawyer Lt. Cantrell (Hunter) vs. the veteran Capt. Shattuck (Carleton Young) with the crusty judge, Lt. Col. Fosgate (Willis Bouchey).  Don’t recognize the actors’ names?  If you’re of my generation or you like John Ford Westerns, you’ll recognize the faces.  (And the stereotyped characters.)  Throw in the obligatory romance between Cantrell and Mary (Tower) which begins with a bumpy stagecoach throwing them into each other’s arms, naturally.  We have no clue what the trial is all about at first.  We just know it has brought the entire local busybody society which makes for a very colorful courtroom until Fosgate evicts the women, including the head hen – his wife (played by Billie Burke in her last role).  In a neat trick of cinematography, the first flashback comes via a fade around the person testifying.
Sergeant Rutledge reporting for railroading
                It turns out that the trial involves Rutledge raping and murdering his commanding officer’s daughter Lucy and then killing him before escaping.  The flashbacks occur as each witness adds to the story.  Mary is not only romantically involved with Cantrell, but also is a witness because she encountered the on-the-lam Rutledge at a deserted railway station.  Will he rape the white woman?  Shame on you, 1960s audience, for even considering that!  In fact, he saves her from Indians. Take that, racists!  Mrs. Fosgate is called to remind us of how it was a male dominated society except for the fact that after you shut your wife up in public, you could expect to pay for it. 

                The plot manages to get some Indian fighting in.  Cantrell takes a squad to the station to arrest Rutledge and they run into trouble on the return.  Rutledge saves another’s life so even if you are moronic enough to think he’s guilty, he’s a hero.  As far as why he was fighting for the same whites who would assume he committed a heinous crime, he says “it ain’t the white man’s war, we’re fighting to make us proud”.  Rutledge takes the opportunity offered by the skirmish to escape, but returns to warn of an Indian ambush.  Why did you come back?  I ain’t a “swamp runnin’ nigger”.  (Sergeant Major Rawlins used that phrase when he reamed Tripp in “Glory”.)  I won’t give away the too pat conclusion, but I will tell you that Cantrell is a better lawyer than Atticus Finch.
Cantrell and his mother - oops, his love interest. 
                “Sergeant Rutledge” has its flaws.  You’ve seen all the characters before.  The setting is a John Ford fort with its denizens.  But kudos to the black skin of some.  The film is Ford’s commendable effort to bring some recognition to the Buffalo Soldiers and to throw in a civil rights theme as well.  As a history lesson it is shaky.  For some reason, the screenwriter decided to use the 9th Cavalry when it was the 10th that was stationed in Arizona.   That is just nitpicking, however.  A bit more puzzling is Cantrell’s explanation that the Indians called the blacks “buffalo soldiers” because of their coats when most historians feel the name was a reference to their buffalo-like nappy hair.  In spite of this and the fact that is not meant to be a documentary, the movie is still better than the terrible “Buffalo Soldiers” (1997).  Speaking of which, that Danny Glover made-for-TV movie, had the African-Americans having empathy for their dark skinned foes.  “Sergeant Rutledge” has been criticized by some for depicting Rutledge and his comrades as being just like the white soldiers in their attitude toward the savages.  This is actually accurate as the Buffalo Soldiers showed no enlightened attitude.
                The movie is a forgotten gem mainly because of Woody Strode.  This is probably his best role and it plays to his minimalist acting style.  It was the role he was proudest of.  He is stoically charismatic as Rutledge.  He behaves as you would expect a black sergeant in a white army to behave.  When asked why he ran away from the murder scene, he responds that he had “walked into something none of us can handle – white woman business.”  As you can see, he gets some cracking dialogue.  Being a courtroom drama, the movie is dialogue driven, but there is some well-placed action to keep fans of Indian-killing happy.  The rest of the cast is adequate.  Hunter does well in a stock role, but Bloom is too old for Mary.  There is some nice humor – part of it from the drinking habits of Army officers and part from Mrs. Fosgate.  The cinematography by Bert Glennon (who did “Stagecoach” and “Rio Grande” for Ford) is excellent.  Lots of through the doorway shots and effective use of Monument Valley.  The fade to flashback is a neat effect.  The flashbacks work as a device and the plot is unpredictable until a shocking, but pat ending.

                Watch it for Woody.

GRADE =  B+   

Saturday, November 7, 2015

FORGOTTEN GEM: Too Young the Hero (1988)

                “Too Young the Hero” is the true story of Calvin Graham.  Calvin became the youngest serviceman in WWII when he volunteered at age 12.  The movie was made for TV and appeared on CBS in 1998.  It was the last film directed by Buzz Kulik (“Sergeant Ryker”). 

                The story is told in flashback form.  In 1943, Calvin (Rick Shroder) is arrested for desertion and thrown in the brig at a naval air station.  He has time to revisit key moments in his life.  He and his friends were in a theater when word of the Pearl Harbor attack arrived.  He and his brother leave home because their stepfather is an abusive alcoholic.  They are staying in a seedy hotel and doing odd jobs to survive the Depression when his brother enlists.  A few months later, Calvin forges his mother’s signature and enters the Navy.  He is only twelve and does not look much older than that, but the Navy is desperate for recruits.  Boot camp features the clichéd DI and montage.

                Calvin is assigned to a gunnery crew on the battleship South Dakota.  He is wounded in the Battle of Guadalcanal when the ship is pummeled by shells.  Calvin bravely helped with fire control and the wounded.  He himself was wounded, suffering a broken jaw.  When the South Dakota returns to the States, Calvin is given a pass to return home with the understanding that he will turn himself in as underage.  Unfortunately, when he turns himself in, it is assumed that he is a deserter and he is arrested.  A sadistic guard is thrown in because Hollywood requires it.  Only intervention by his sister gets him released.

                “Too Young the Hero” is low budget, even for a made for TV movie.  It looks cheesy and drab.  The music is sappy.  The acting is terrible.  Shroder was coming off “Silver Spoons” so this was his first adult role and he is very shaky.  The supporting cast is low rent.  The film does use quite a bit of archival footage and that is a cool aspect of the movie.  A lot of planes get shot down in this movie.  It’s shoot down porn.  However, the blending of the footage is not seamless. The movie is admirably accurate.  There are no ridiculous enhancements of the true story.  A romance is not shoehorned in (that would have been creepy since Calvin was only 12).  I question the sadistic guard episode, but it could have happened I suppose.
"That's right, ma.  It's a real movie, not a TV show."

                Calvin Graham’s story begged to be covered in a made for TV movie and Rick Shroder was the logical choice to play him so the movie was a natural.  It’s a shame that the production was so lame, but at least it was made and it is truthful.  You do learn the facts behind this forgotten hero.  (That is the only thing that keeps the movie from getting an F.)  This was the first time I saw this film, but for years I have been giving a reading assignment about Calvin Graham in my America History classes.  The movie covers all the events in the reading, which is cool.  All things considered, I would have to say that the reading is a much better use of time than watching the movie.

                The movie’s post script informs you that Graham finally got an honorable discharge in 1978.  What it does not mention is that after being released from the brig, he went back to school for a while.  At age 17, he entered the Marines and was disabled in a fall off a pier.  For years he campaigned to get the discharge rectified and get his medals back.  He did get all the medals back in 1978, except the Purple Heart (for what reason I do not know).  In 1988, he was finally given a disability and back pay, but still no Purple Heart!  Two years later, after his death, his family received the darned medal.

GRADE =  D  

Monday, November 2, 2015

WAR SHORT STORY READALONG: “The Crime of the Brigadier” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

                “The Crime of the Brigadier” is a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle from a series about a fictional French officer named Brigadier Gerard.  At the time of the story he is serving in Spain during the Peninsular War.  This particular story first appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine in December, 1899.  An alternative title was “How the Brigadier Slew the Fox”.  Doyle modeled his protagonist after the light cavalry hero Baron de Marbot.  Marbot first made a name for himself on the peninsula and went on to further distinction in the Russian campaign.  He was a brigadier general by the time of Waterloo and was wounded in the battle.  Doyle’s version of him inspired the Harry Flashman character in the George McDonald Fraser novels.  He is not the coward that Flashman is, but he does exhibit the vainglory.  He may be a supreme egotist, but he is an excellent and brave warrior and quite the ladies’ man.  He doesn’t mind telling you.  Doyle uses him to satirize not only the French, but also the British.  In this particular tale, he is poking fun at the upper class British officers.

                Doyle hooks the reader immediately by identifying Gerard as the only officer the British army had “deep, steady, and unchangeable hatred”.  This is because he committed a crime “which was unspeakable, unheard of, abominable;  only to be alluded to with curses late in the evening”.  I’ll bite, what did he do?  The year is 1810 and the French have pushed Wellington back to Portugal.  With Lisbon in sight, the French are rudely confronted with Wellington’s defensive line of Torres Vedras.  The French commanding general Messena has a bright idea for a reconnaissance and who better to conduct it than the dashing Gerard?  Gerard cannot dispute Messena opinion that he is the greatest horseman in the army.  He gives him the best horse in the army so he can ride around the British lines and scout out the weak spots.

                Gerard tells the story in flashback from retirement as a cabbage farmer.  Things start off satisfactorily until the greatest horse is felled by a sentry’s bullet.  Gerard hides in a stable, but manages to get an upgrade horse-wise when he steals the best horse in the British army.   The scout continues until the new horse hears the call of a fox hunt and cannot be deterred.  What happens next earns Gerard the undying enmity of the entire British officer corps. 
                “The Crime of the Brigadier” is the best story so far.  I had no idea Doyle had written this series.  Being a big fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories, it is no surprise that he could successfully delve into a different subgenre.  The story is very well written and thoroughly entertaining.  It is satire at its wittiest.  Doyle would have us believe that British officers even in a siege, cannot do without their fox hunts.  The fox hounds have been brought over from England by special ship.  Gerard lucks into a thrice weekly hunt.  He may be pompous, but his foes are upper class twits.  I prefer Gerard to Flashman.  He may have a giant ego, but there is some reason for it.  He is quite the braggart warrior, but not a buffoon.

                The best thing about the story is you can’t wait to find out what terrible act Gerard has committed.  When it becomes apparent (and it is unpredictable), it is a cracking good punch line.  I definitely will read more of the series.

GRADE  =  A    

Thursday, October 29, 2015

CRACKER? Westfront 1918 (1930)

                “Westfront 1918” (“Vier von der Infanterie”) is a German war film that came out the same year as “All Quiet on the Western Front”.  It has been overshadowed by that behemoth, but they are both great war films.  “Westfront” was directed by the renowned Georg Pabst.  He was the leading practitioner of the New Objectivity style of filmmaking in Germany.  The style was noted for its sober realism.  Its bleak, down-to-earth take on trench warfare got the film labeled “cowardly defeatism” by Josef Goebbels and it was one of two dozen films banned by the Nazis.  Another was “All Quiet”.  The movie was an adaptation of the novel by Ernst Johannsen.  The cast included several well-respected German actors including Gustav Diessl who was held prisoner for a year during the war.

                “Westfront 1918” follows four soldiers in the closing days of WWI.  They are the Student (Hans-Joachim Moebis), Karl (Gustav Diessl), Bayer (Fritz Kampers), and the Lieutenant (Claus Clausen).  This is not a heterogeneous small unit movie.  None of the four has a memorable personality or background.  Pabst is profiling the war, not the soldiers.  The movie is a series of episodes that could have happened to any soldiers, but specifically to these four.  Only the Student and Karl get arcs and they are romances that cover the two extremes of male/female relationships in a war.

                The movie opens with the core group in an inn enjoying some time away from the front.  Note the tilted portrait of Jesus.  There is a saucy serving girl named Jacqueline (Jackie Monnier).  This is the first inkling that this movie established some standard tropes of WWI movies.  One of the soldiers refers to coffee as “Negro sweat”!  A character develops as the Student falls in love with Jacqueline.  It is his first experience with love, so he is all in.  They will get married after the war, if all goes well.  All does not go well.  Their rest is interrupted by orders to the front.  There they undergo a bombardment that features Karl, Bayer, and the Lieutenant having to hold up the ceiling of their dugout with their heads and hands.  The Student digs them out when the roof collapses.  Ironically, they are being bombarded by their own artillery.
So here is proof the old knife in the teeth came before
the old pulling the grenade pin with the teeth

                As is realistic for this war, combat is followed by down-time.  The men attend a stage show that includes a girl leading a singalong to a risqué song, a comedy routine, and a brass band.  (This scene has the only appearance of a xylophone that I have seen in a war movie.)  The scene will influence the famous cabaret scene in “Paths of Glory”.  Karl gets his first leave in eighteen months.  On the home front, civilians are forced to wait in long lines for food.  When his mother sees him, she decides not to lose her place in line.  This is not the clueless home front that Paul Baumer returns to in “All Quiet”.  Karl’s wife is not having to wait in line at the butcher shop because he catches her in bed with the butcher.  Awkward!  She begs forgiveness (“It’s not my fault”), but Karl is stoically unforgiving.  There is a definite chill for the whole of his leave and he returns to his real home with his marriage on the rocks.  The whole trip home is totally believable.
Did I mention it is anti-war?
                It’s time to get some characters killed and the rest of the movie is bleak and bleaker.  There is a great long combat scene that includes lots of grenade throwing, poison gas, and some really cool tanks lumbering toward the German lines.  The movie has some of the best bombardment effects of any war movie.  One character gets shell shock.  25% seems about right.  Three of them end up in a charnel house of a hospital.  An indelible image is of a damaged crucifix in the midst of the horrific wounds.  Karl summarizes the theme of the film when he says “It’s everyone’s fault”.

                This is an amazing movie.  The film is a technical marvel for an early talkie.  Pabst uses tracking shots (one of soldiers moving through the trench inspired a similar shot in “Paths of Glory”), but also allows the French soldiers to move across the face of a stationary camera for the big battle scene.  The tanks come to the camera for a striking effect.  It contrasts well with the modern style of making the camera part of the action.  It is one of the great combat scenes in war movie lore.  The action is realistic, as are the sets.  No man’s land, the dugouts, and the trenches are well constructed.  There are nice little touches that you will see in few if any WWI movies.  For instance, a message is sent by a dog.      Since the movie is not character driven, the acting does not stand out.  In a sense that is a compliment because the actors do not overact like you see so often in the early talkies.  There are no scene-chewing moments like in “All Quiet”.  Even the shell-shocked Lieutenant is effectively played based on actual cases.  Needless to say, the movie is strongly anti-war.  There are no heroics in the film.  The violence is not exhilarating like in other so-called anti-war movies.
happy ending - not
                In comparison to “All Quiet”, “Westfront 1918” covers some of the same ground but in a more depressing way.  Keep in mind that the time frame for the two are very different.  Paul and his comrades go to war in the naïve early days and gradually learn  that war is hell.  The home front does not reach that point at all.  In “Westfront”, the war is already lost and the home front is suffering as evidenced by Karl’s wife and mother.  Another way to see the different perspectives is to compare the two hospital scenes.  The hospital in “Westfront” is a horrific and not orderly with nice rows of cots.  Also note that in “All Quiet”, the dugout roof does not collapse.  On the other hand, “Westfront” has four songs including two in a row!  Both movies have powerful scenes, but “All “Quiet” is more epic in scope.  It has more of a flow to its plot and this is mainly due to it following the Baumer character.  None of the characters in “Westfront” are memorable, but that was not Pabst’s goal.

                “Westfront 1918” is probably the second best WWI movie.  It is obviously a must see. I have to admit I am embarrassed to admit it took me this long to watch it.  In my defense, it is not an easy movie to find and is criminally underappreciated.  I found little information on it from my usual sources.  At least the readers of this post will now know a bit about it.  My work is done.


Sunday, October 25, 2015

WAR MYSTERY: The Night of the Generals (1967)

                   “The Night of the Generals” is the rare mystery set in war.  It was a Franco-British production helmed by Sam Spiegel who was attempting to replicate the success of his “Lawrence of Arabia”.  To maximize his chances, he reunited Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif for the first time since that epic five years earlier.  This might have worked except for the fact that neither star was happy to be involved in the movie.  The two actors were forced to make the movie for laughably low salaries for new mega-stars because they were still under an earlier contract.  In fact, Donald Pleasance was paid a lot more than the other two.  Sharif was uncomfortable with playing a Nazi and had a very awkward moment in a Warsaw café when he forgot he was in uniform.  Spiegel hired Anatole Litvak as director instead of a new up and coming director.  He then proceeded to micro-manage and undercut Litvak throughout the shoot.  It took four screenwriters to put together the script.  In spite of all this dysfunctionality the movie was a big hit – not!

                The movie opens with the murder of a prostitute in Warsaw in 1942.  A Major Grau (Sharif) from the Abwehr (Nazi intelligence) is brought in because the girl was a German agent.  The three suspects are three German generals.  It is no spoiler to admit that it is obvious from his first appearance that Gen. Tanz (O’Toole) is the murderer.  End of mystery, but unfortunately not end of movie.  Stick around for a truly bizarre performance by O’Toole.  He plays Tanz as a looney and a sadist.  He is insane and evil even for a Nazi.  He has a soft spot for kids while he is wiping out their neighborhood with tanks and flamethrowers.  Grau is snooping around when he gets transferred to Paris.  Guess what three suspects end up in Paris two years later at the time of a similar prostitute murder?  It’s a small war after all.  The film throws in a subplot about the conspiracy to kill Hitler and does a satisfactory job reenacting the assassination attempt.  Tanz kills another prostitute and frames his driver, but then lets him flee so he can later implicate him when we flash forward to Hamburg in 1965. 

                   This movie is a misfire of epic proportions.  Nothing works.  It is a mess.  It has no flow, partly due to the nonlinear structure.  It drags along like a crippled otter.  There is a romance involving Tanz’s driver that is lame and has no logical reason for being in the movie.  Except to give the great Tom Courtney something to do to please his multitude of fans.  The weaving of the mystery with the assassination conspiracy does not work.  More importantly, the mystery is undermined by O’Toole’s truly weird performance.  It is painfully clear that he sabotaged the movie out of spite for his paltry salary.  At one point he makes a trip to a museum and freaks out over a self-portrait of Van Gogh.  The next day he returns to the museum and stares at the painting and then leaves.  WTF?  Of course, you have to put some of the blame for that on the four screenwriters, but he did not have to play Tanz as the Hitler Youth voted Most Likely to Kill Prostitutes.  He also does not bother to even attempt a German accent. Then again, neither does any other member of the cast. 


GRADE  =  D  

Monday, October 19, 2015

LIVE: The Tanks Are Coming (1951)

                patriotic music  /  no name cast  / story by Samuel Fuller!  that’s a good sign / a narrator tells us it’s the “story of tanks and tankers” / the 3rd Armored Division (“America’s iron fist”) is near St. Lo -  it is piercing the Siegfried Line /  first cigarette – three minutes in / those look like real Shermans / quite a bit of hardware – did the Pentagon cooperate? / realistic tank interiors / they take on a Panther, but the shells bounce off;  they fire white phosphorous to blind it and then flank it to knock it out -  pretty good scene / terrible narration / commander of the featured tank is wounded and replaced by Sgt. Sullivan (Steve Cochran) – he’s cocky; he brings with him his alcoholic driver / they run into a sexy war correspondent named Pat; Sully is a wolf /  Sully plays hard-ass with his crew and does not make any friends including with the unit’s leader / some footage that is fairly seamless /  one of the crew is a German-American – he catches grief (they call him “Heinie”), but defends his patriotism /  a guy plucks a duck – only time in war movie history! /  they run into an 88, Sully charges it and takes it out /  Ike (not Eisenhower) goes to complain to the general about German 88s being better than our 75s;  the general says new 90s (M26 Pershings) are on the way and promises Ike the first one /  Cal attacks Sully who easily beats him up /  there is some fairly good footage of Germans /  Marconi is sent out as a forward observer and calls in fire on his own position;  Pat shows up to interview him and Sully puts him up for a Silver Star /  here comes Ike’s 90!  he is so good he needs no training and takes the new tank straight into battle! /  they reach the Siegfried Line /  under artillery bombardment Sully charges forward and gets stuck on dragon’s teeth – WTF /  Sully borrows a bulldozer to open a breach / the German-American goes into town to see his grandparents;  Sully grows a heart and hugs a dog /  Sully turns down promotion to stay with his crew -  turns out he was not such a jerk after all

ANALYSIS:  “The Tanks Are Coming” (don’t get it confused with the 1941 movie of the same title) is not as bad as you would expect.  It is definitely a B-movie with a no name cast.  The acting is average and typical of this type of movie.  Sully is an interesting and unpredictable character until Hollywood insists he have a personality change towards the end.  Heinie is a different character and probably reflects the fact that in 1951 during the Cold War we were rehabilitating German characters in war movies.  There is some good tank action.  The blended footage is fine.  The effects are surprisingly good.  The plot is episodic and does not flow well which is disappointing because Fuller wrote the story.  There is too much narration.  At least twenty places are mentioned.   The movie tries to recognize the 3rd Armored Division that fought at St. Lo and the Siegfried Line.  The movie does a nice job showing the disadvantages Shermans had when going up against Panthers.  Often our shells would simply bounce off.  The Pershings helped solve this problem.  Unfortunately for Ike, the M26 Pershings were not available at the time of the Siegfried Line breakthrough.  The movie tank is actually a post-war M46 Patton.

GRADE  =  C  

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

FORGOTTEN GEM? Men in War (1957)

                “Men in War” is a gritty Korean War movie directed by Anthony Mann (“Heroes of Telemark”).  This was Mann’s first war movie.  He was famous for his Westerns.  The story was based on a novel entitled Day Without End by Van Van Praag.  He set his story in the Normandy campaign of WWII and from what I have read the movie is significantly different from the book.  It takes place on one day in the Korean War in 1950.  The Pentagon pulled its cooperation when it realized the movie highlighted insubordination and indiscipline.

                A title card opens the movie.  “Tell me the story of the foot soldier and I will tell you the story of all wars.”  A platoon from the 24th Infantry Division is surrounded and out of contact with the main force.  The camera introduces the members, but we don’t find out much about each.  This is not going to be “Platoon”.  The men are basically homogeneous.  They have one common trait – they are all suffering from combat fatigue.  The man attempting to hold the unit together and get them back to friendly lines is a Lt. Benson (Robert Ryan).  He keeps collecting dog tags as the men keep getting picked off by sneaky North Koreans and Chinese.  Suddenly a jeep shows up driven by a sergeant called Montana (Aldo Ray!).  Montana is transporting his colonel who is shell-shocked.  Benson commandeers the jeep to the displeasure of Montana who is not interested in hooking up with these pansies.  Montana and Benson should be on a submarine where their command dysfunction would be normal.  Benson is a tough, but empathetic leader who wants to get as many of his men to safety as possible.  Montana is a warrior who does not care much for the rules of warfare or chain of command.  He has a knack for Korean War combat.  For instance, he shoots a surrendering prisoner because he just knows the guy has a pistol hidden in his hat. 
If you don't want to see the movie after
seeing this picture, you are not a war movie lover

                The dwindling platoon is moving through hostile territory.  They have to withstand an artillery barrage and a minefield.  Meanwhile, Benson and Montana are butting heads.  That’s what helmets are for, I guess.  When they reach the hill, Benson ( who is having some of Montana rub off on him – “God help us, it takes your kind to win this war”) sends forward a prisoner who gets shot by North Koreans masquerading as Americans.  Benson decides they will have to take the two machine gun nests dominating the hill.  He excuses Montana because he is only interested in protecting the colonel.  Benson eschews creativity (and Army tactical doctrine) and orders a frontal attack which does some more whittling.  Guess who’s left to make the final assault?  With a flamethrower that had been overlooked before then.
Why does Aldo Ray need a gun?

                “Men in War” starts out intriguing, but has a hard time sustaining the vibe.  It is a different type of war movie from the usual Old School films made in the 1950s.  You might even argue that Montana is an anti-hero before that type of character became de riguer in the 1960s.  Benson is one of Aldo Ray’s best roles.  Ray (who was frogman at Normandy) is perfect as the wiseass, insubordinate loner.  He reminds of Gene Evans in “The Steel Helmet” as the movie is also reminiscent of that earlier film’s gritty style.  Robert Ryan is also strong.  This was not his first rodeo, as they say about actors who made a lot of war movies.  The rest of the cast is noteworthy.  It includes a pre-“Combat” Vic Morrow, Nehemiah Persoff as a panicky veteran who runs away like a girl, James Edwards as the clicheish minority “dead meat” who dies with a helmet full of flowers (don’t ask), and L.Q. Jones.  Unfortunately, the movie is not big on character development.  It’s pretty much a two man show.  Mann gets the most out of his cast and although the movie was low budget, it has the feel of a movie made by a big time director.  This is partly due to the cinematography of Ernest Haller.  The movie is very micro with lots of close-ups and a seldom seen, menacing enemy.  It has the unusual theme of the one and the many.  The one is the colonel and the many are the platoon.   The platoon, not the army.  At one point Benson states “the regiment doesn’t exist.  Battalion doesn’t exist.  The USA doesn’t exist.  We’re the only ones left to fight this war.”  It is definitely not a flag-waver.  This sincerity is marred by two weaknesses.  One, the movie has some extended stretches of boredom.  The running through the artillery barrage scene lasts an incredible fifteen minutes!  Second, there are several silly developments that are laughable in a movie that is supposed to be bereft of humor.  I know the black guy has to die, but killed by a sniper while picking flowers?  Give me a break! 

                “Men in War” is in the upper half of Korean War movies, but I do not think I would label it as a gem.  It’s worth a look just for the teaming of Ryan and Ray.  It also flouts most Old School conventions.

GRADE  =  B-