Sunday, June 28, 2015

SHOULD I READ IT? Angel’s Wing (1993)

                “L’Instinct de L’Ange” is a French film that had a remarkable run in my recent tournament to determine the best film about dogfighting.   It is set on the Western Front in the early years of the war.  It is not your run of the mill air combat movie and has a unique central character. 

                Henri (Lambert Wilson) is a rich boy who has tuberculosis.  His health condition prevents him from volunteering when France goes to war with Germany.  Refusing to give up on his dream to serve his country, he gets flying lessons in anticipation of eventually passing an induction physical.  He learns to fly in a rickety monoplane and when the hole in his lungs closes, he is allowed to join the French air corps.  On arrival at his base, he is counseled by a veteran pilot named Devrines (Francois Cluzet).  He gives him practical advice like how you can tell when you are flying over the front because the German anti-aircraft shells are black and the French are white.  He also learns the best tactic is to hide high in the sun, get in the enemy’s blind spot, and then close to fifty meters to be sure to hit your target.  His initiation is a bit rough as he crashes upon landing twice which gets him put on probation.  Eventually he gets to prove himself against the daily German observation plane.  He uses his back seat machine gunner to get the kill and becomes an instant hero with the nickname “German Smasher”.  This must be early in the war.

                It turns out Henri is a born fighter pilot.  Unfortunately, as his success grows, so does the resentment from his squadron mates.  Part of it is envy and part of it is the belief that his luck is draining their stock of luck.  That’s right he is the opposite of a Jonah, to use a nautical equivalent.  Even the commander suggests he take it easy, he is putting too much stress on his mess mates!  This is not your typical fighter squadron, although it could be a typical French squadron.  He does get wounded and crashes after his thirtieth victory, but since he survives he gets no cred from his mates.  When Devrines predicts that the experience will cause him to become timid, we get a remarkable scene where he tails an observation plane and allows the machine gunner to expend all his ammunition without fighting back.  Things come to a head when his comrades start sabotaging his plane.  This results in an aerial duel between Henri and one of his comrades.
Henri is the only pilot in the French air force
who wants to shoot down Germans

                I did not like “Angel’s Wing” at first.  Wilson was a bit wooden as Henri, but he grows on you as does the character.  Henri is patriotic, but not obsessed.  He is not a glory hound like you see in a lot of dogfighting movies.  He just believes the war is about shooting down enemy planes and is perplexed (as was I) over his peers’ lackadaisical attitude toward that simple strategy.  They look forward to the reward of two days off if they shoot down one plane.  The Devrines character is intriguing as well.  He wavers between being Henri’s mentor and his critic.  The two actors dominate the film with the supporting cast making little impression.

                The strength of the movie is its unusual script and its unique take on WWI air combat.  The movie had a limited number of aircraft available, but they are vintage.  You get to see a Morane, Farman, Spad, Rumpler, and Fokker Dr. 1.  The acrobatics are outstanding.  There is no use of CGI so the movie is the opposite of “Fly Boys”.  The movie gets some nice touches in.  We see a listening post that has four giant hearing aids.  It is really neat to see Henri have to stand up in flight to change his machine gun drum.  There is not a lot of actual dogfighting and all of it is duels instead of melees.  No one shoots down a plane except Henri.  The movie could have easily been a play and that’s a compliment.

                It’s not the best dogfighting movie, but it is worth the watch.  It avoids almost all the standard clichés and is unpredictable.  Just be aware that if you watch the subtitled version, the translation sucks.


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Von Richthofen and Brown (1971)

                “Von Richthofen and Brown” was another recent participant in my Best Dogfighting Movie tournament.  It did surprisingly well for a movie that is not very well known.  It was Roger Corman’s  attempt to go beyond his B-movie / cult movie reputation.  He had a much bigger budget than for films like “Bloody Mama” and Gas-s-s-s”.  It was his second war movie after the classic “The Secret Invasion”.  Unfortunately, his experience in the filming of “Von Richthofen and Brown” resulted in his directing only two more films in the next 37 years.

                The recently arrived Von Richthofen (John Phillip Law) arrives at his squadron and has a rough landing.  He then proceeds to show his mindset by rushing to take a souvenir from his first kill.  He has trophies made for each subsequent victory.  Pilot obsessed with glory – check!  Von Richthofen meets the famous Oswald Boelcke who advises him to come from out of the sun, get in close, don’t waste ammunition, and only fight if you have an advantage.  Soon the Red Baron has ten kills and is fast becoming a celebrity.  Meanwhile, Roy Brown (Don Stroud) has arrived at his RAF squadron where he makes an immediate impression by refusing to join in a toast to Von Richthofen.  He does not believe in that chivalric bull shit.  He is a modern warrior.  “I’m just a technician, I change things.  Put a plane in front of me with a man in it – I change him into a wreck and a corpse.”  He is also a cynic.  When asked “who’s next?”, he responds “we’re all next”.  Somehow Brown bullies his way to leadership and has his squadron hunt in packs with a plane as bait.  These two main characters are bound to duel.  The Knight of the Air versus the Hunter of the Sky.
Don Stroud don't give a damn about his hair

                The movie is a roller coaster ride of scenes that are either entertaining or farcical.  The entertaining ones include Von Richthofen’s  encounter with the British ace Hawker and the climactic duel with Brown.  In between we get the Red Baron crashing in no man’s land so we can get a small-scale fire fight and not one but two attacks on air fields.  This being a Roger Corman film, there is a truly ludicrous moment when Fokker shows off his new plane while a hottie caresses it and he speaks in sexual innuendo!  This is a fun movie if you are in the right mood.

                Corman made no claims to historical accuracy and it’s a good thing he didn’t.  In spite of that, there is a smidgen of accuracy to be found here.  The Red Baron did replace Boelcke, but did not contribute to his death.  He did shoot down Hawker, but not in spite of the Brit motioning that he was out of ammo.   He did collect silver cups and his combat tactics are pretty close to his philosophy.  The script inserts Herman Goring as the villainous counterpoint to Von Richthofen when actually he did not join the Flying Circus until after the Baron’s death.  At one point, Goring actually argues that it is okay to strafe nurses and even “gas them”!  On the other hand, the Brown character is almost totally fictional.  He was not in the RAF.  He was in the Royal Canadian Air Force.  Instead of being a jerk, he was a well-respected squadron commander who insisted his charges be well-trained before seeing combat.   As far as the final duel, the movie basically sticks to the official version that credits Brown with the death of the Red Baron.  Most authorities feel Von Richthofen was actually killed by a bullet from an Australian anti-aircraft gun.  It is not surprising that the movie does not show that version.
Law did some of his own flying -
just like in "Barbarella"

                It is hard to get a hold on this movie.  “Directed by Roger Corman” sends a signal that the movie should be inferior to most war movies.  However, VR&B is definitely not your typical Corman movie.  It was a labor of love for him and he went all out on it with a much larger budget than he had ever had before.  This started with the purchasing of most of the aircraft used in “The Blue Max”.  VR&B used twelve planes including replica Pfalz DIIIs,  S.E. 5s, Fokker D.VIIs, and Fokker Dr.Is.  It’s a very nice line-up for a glorified B-movie like this.  The planes do not just sit at the airfield.  The movie has a large amount of dogfighting in it – 24 minutes.  That quantity is the most of any of the sixteen movies in the dogfighting tournament.  The quality is fairly high.  There are fine acrobatics by the stunt pilots, one of whom was killed.  Stroud and Law learned the rudiments of flying and they were filmed in the back seats as though flying.  Unfortunately, although the cinematography is well done, it is repetitive.  We get a lot of pilot’s faces, guns firing, and the use of smoke trails to indicate a plane has lost the battle.

                While the film deserves an A for effort and a B for dogfighting, it is inferior in all other areas.  The acting is wooden from the B-list cast.  Law was a poor choice for Von Richthofen, but Stroud does bring charisma to his role.  Still, we are talking about Don Stroud here.  The actors are not helped by the dialogue which is stilted and pious.  They are also placed in some ridiculous scenarios like the German attack on the British airfield while they are celebrating their attack on the German air field.  It does result in numerous cool explosions (from fighter planes bereft of bombs). 

                Does it crack the 100 Best War Movies of all time?  No way, but it is a nice time waster if you don’t invest any brain cells in it.  Make sure you do not watch it to get the true story of the death of the Red Baron.


Monday, June 22, 2015

The Red Baron (2008)

                “The Red Baron” ("Der rote Baron") is a biopic about the most famous fighter pilot is history.  It was written and directed by Nikolai Mullerschon.  The movie was filmed in the Czech Republic, France, and Germany.  The decision was made to use English for the dialogue.  It was very expensive, but was a terrible flop at the box office.  Apparently German audiences were not interested in a movie that glorified a war hero, even if he fought in the less evil of the world wars.

                The movie opens with the tired trope of the boy seeing a plane and dreaming of flying.  Ten years later that boy is now a pilot in Northern France in 1916.  Lt. Manfred von Richthofen (Mathias Schwieghofer) drops a wreath honoring a fallen foe with amazing accuracy into the grave itself.  The Red Baron should have been a bombardier!  The first dogfight comes only five minutes into the movie.  The Red Baron shoots down an S.E. 5 and then goes to the crash site where he helps get medical care for the downed pilot Roy Brown (Joseph Fiennes).  They both meet a comely nurse named Kate (Lena Headey).  Love triangle alert!
                Every hero needs a villain and the Red Baron gets his in a British ace named Hawker.  The torch is passed when Richthofen shoots down Hawker.  This is one factor in the Red Baron being awarded Le Pour L’Merite (“ the Blue Max”) and command of the famous Flying Circus.  Higher command, including the Kaiser, wants to make Richthofen into a celebrity for morale purposes.  He is uncomfortable with this and his pacifist beliefs do not jibe with his superiors’ win at all costs attitude.

  His squadron is a small unit featuring a variety of characters including his brother Lothar.  Lothar is younger and more aggressive than Manfred.  They disagree on tactics and philosophy.  Manfred counsels his men to target the enemy planes, not the pilots. One of his men is the famous Werner Voss (Til Schweiger) who acts as a cynical counterpoint to the Red Barons chivalric nature.  He is also something of a friendly competitor.  Voss is a fascinating character, but he does not get the screen time of Kate and Brown.  They keep showing up.  Richthofen shoots Brown down (again) and they meet in no man’s land for some manly bonding.  It’s Brown’s turn next time and Manfred ends up in the hospital where he is able to renew his tense relationship with the snippy Kate.  In real life these two would never get together, but this is a movie so …  Will he choose her and a promotion to head of the Imperial German Air Service over continuing to lead his men into battle?  Which choice is most likely to lead to a climactic duel with Brown?
Von Richthofen and Brown - the revisionist version
The obvious question is how accurate the film is.  The answer is not much.  You don’t have to know much about von Richthofen to guess that large parts of it are bull shit.  It begins immediately with the young baron seeing a monoplane before they would have existed in Germany.  The real Red Baron may have dreamed of flying, but when he entered the military he volunteered for the cavalry.  He only switched to the air service after his unit was dismounted and given boring tasks.  Before he ended up in Northern France to start his rise to fame, he was a back-seater on an observation plane on the Eastern Front.   A chance encounter with the famous ace Oswald Boelcke got him into fighter training.  The movie’s early lead-up to his command of Jagdstaffel 2 is fairly accurate.  He did shoot down Hawker, win the Blue Max, and get command of the squadron after Boelcke’s death.  He did have his plane painted red, but the movie’s implication that he did it to scare the enemy seems farfetched.  Manfred does suffer a bad head wound and undoubtedly did meet at least one nurse during his convalescence, but there was no romance with a nurse named Kate.  Needless to say he also did not have an ongoing bromance with Roy Brown.  They only met once and it was very briefly.  That one brief encounter was the day the Baron died.  Boringly the movie decides to do that famous encounter off camera.  The final scene implies the legend that Brown shot down Richthofen.  For a movie that showed no compunction in violating the truth, it is puzzling why they did not recreate the refuted, but official version of the death.  Most experts feel that the incident did involve Brown coming to the rescue of a friend, but his stay on the Red Baron’s tail was brief and very unlikely to have resulted in the single bullet that killed Manfred.  Most likely the .303 bullet came from an anti-aircraft gun.  How boring!

The biggest faux pas of the movie is the way the Red Baron’s character and philosophy are depicted.  The movie gets this almost completely wrong.  Although he was a cautious pilot, he was not cynical about the war and it is very doubtful that he mouthed off to his superiors.  He also did not avoid targeting enemy pilots.  Quite the contrary, he urged his men to aim at the pilot.  The real Red Baron was primarily a hunter who was driven to accumulate victories.  (The movie conveniently leaves out his famous commissioning of silver trophies for each win.)  His cold personality is realistic, but then the movie undercuts this with the sappy romance which was totally out of character.

“The Red Baron” is competently made.  The acting is average.  Schweighofer was apparently cast mainly for his boyish good looks, not his acting chops.  Headey seems to have wandered into the movie.  There is little chemistry between the two and the romance is forced and implausible.  Of the supporting cast only Schweiger makes an impression as Voss.  He has the charisma Schweighofer lacks.  Fiennes participation feels like they decided they needed a name actor.  He seems bored with the role.  Perhaps he was unmotivated due to the shameful shoehorning of his character into the script.  It is just one of many unrealistic elements in the film.
"Don't fret, Kate.  Few women can compete
with my beauty."

The action is the only thing to recommend the movie for war movie fans.  The CGI is acceptable and better than in “Flyboys”.  The cinematographer sticks to the usual frontal cockpit shots intercut with machine guns firing.  There are eight dogfighting scenes and there is some attempt to have some variety.  This can result in some silliness like a cool, but ridiculous night dogfight.  One nice result from the campy multi-coloring of the Flying Circus planes is this is one dogfighting film where you can follow the various characters.  The movie does not avoid the clichés common in this subgenre.  The young boy sees a plane and dreams, the villainous foe,  the hero loses his best friend(s) and becomes increasingly disillusioned, the air field is attacked, romance with a local girl but bros before hos, missing lucky charm = death, WWI pilots live in a chateau.  And we get the trip to the trenches to remind us how dirty war actually is.
Actual gun camera footage from WWI

How this movie was green-lighted is perplexing.  In an age where anti-heroes are de rigueur, “The Red Baron” looks like it should be playing on a double bill with “To Hell and Back”.  But then again, portraying von Richthofen realistically as a jerk probably would have been just as box office blah.  What the Hell, just watch it because it’s pretty entertaining.  Your girlfriend will enjoy it and you can feel superior as you snort at the silliness.

GRADE =  C  

Friday, June 19, 2015

WTF? Firefox (1982)

                When “Firefox” was suggested as a possible participant in my dogfighting movies tournament, I had to consider watching it for the first time since it came out thirty two years ago.  I was only in my twenties when I first saw it and although normally a movie fan tends to be more tolerant in their earlier years of viewing, I clearly remembered being underwhelmed by the movie.  Since I have started this blog, I have sometimes found that I remembered movies too fondly, but I have rarely found that my first impression of duds was wrong.  Whenever I have not seen a war movie for decades, it was for good reason.  In this case, it would seem puzzling that I did not like it.  I am a big Clint Eastwood fan, I love air combat movies, and I enjoy James Bond.  “Firefox” is a combination of all three - so what’s not to like?

                Clint plays Vietnam veteran fighter pilot Mitchell Gant.  He is suffering from PTSD (like all other cinematic Vietnam vets in 1980s movies) and living isolated from society in a mountain cabin (like all other cinematic Vietnam vets who are not committing crimes in the cities).  The Cold War is going on and Gant must come out of retirement to save the free world from a super weapon called the MiG-31 Firefox.  It can go Mach 6, is stealthy, and its armaments are thought controlled.  It’s also a Transformer.  (Well, in the remake it will be.)  In the grand tradition of movies, since Gant is a fighter pilot, he can thus fly any fighter plane. Even a unique enemy plane that he has never seen the inside of.  In the grand tradition of the recent “Mission Impossible” movies, no spy mission is impossible.  All he has to do is infiltrate the Soviet Union with cursory espionage training, avoid the KGB which is on to him, sneak onto the super secure air base, replace the test pilot, and escape with the plane.  Piece of cake! 

I don't even speak Russian,
but this disguise will get me onto
the super secure base
                “Firefox” makes the most implausible James Bond movie look like a documentary.  This is possibly the most ludicrous espionage movie ever made.  But it is not camp ludicrous, it’s just terrible ludicrous.  I can’t think of another Clint Eastwood movie that is more embarrassing than this one and to make it worse, he directed it, too.  He does not even act well in it.  His attempt to portray PTSD symptoms is laughable.  This is not as readily noticeable since the rest of the cast is decidedly second rate.  In fact, a huge percent of the budget went to special effects.  This was not money well spent because as I was watching the effects seemed cheesy.  Apparently I was a fool because the cinematography used a new technique called “reverse blue screen photography” which I have been assured is awesome, not lame.  Fooled me! 
People are going to pay to see this crap and some are
going to thing it's good!  I love my job.
Much of the plot makes no sense and not in an overcomplicated Cold War tale sort of way.  It’s just moronic.  By the way, the plot is actually based on the defection of a Soviet fighter pilot to Japan in 1976.  Clint would have been much better playing disgruntled instead of shell-shocked.  And maybe something could have happened that could have happened.  At least Eastwood did not have the cheek to label the movie “based on a true story”.  He would have been truthful if he had put in a warning “based on a ridiculous screenplay”.

GRADE  =  F-

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

CRACKER? Dark Blue World (2001)

                “Dark Blue World” was a recent participant in my Best Dogfighting Movie Tournament.  It was the representative from Czechoslovakia.  Directed by Jan Sverak, it was at the time the most expensive Czech movie ever made.  That was partly because it cost $10,000 per hour to rent Spitfires.  It was well received by audiences and critics.  The movie pays homage to Czech pilots who escaped from their country when it fell to the Nazis.  Many went to Great Britain and played a role in the Battle of Britain.  Those that returned to their native land after the war were confronted with a communist system.  Some were imprisoned as potential freedom fighters.

                The movie sets up its flash back format with Franta (Ondrej Vetchy) in a forced labor camp in 1950.  He remembers back to 1939 when he was a pilot in the Czech air force.  When the German army invades, he and his friend Karel (Krystof Hadek) escape to England.  They are accepted into the RAF, but have to go through retraining that is frustrating for men who are itching for some payback.  The training includes practicing formation flying on bikes!  After three months of chafing, they get their chance.  They bounce some Heinkel bombers and get into a dogfight with some Me109s.  Later, Karel gets shot down, bales out and meets a British bird named Susan (Tara Fitzgerald) whose husband is MIA.  He makes the mistake of introducing her to his BFF Franta.  Franta and Susan don’t want to hurt Karel, but the heart wants what the heart wants.  Plus this is a movie, after all.  Nothing like a love triangle in a war movie. 

                From the moment the movie transitions to the break-up of the friendship, it devolves.  There are some silly plot developments leading to the inevitable culling of one member of the trio.  We know who it won’t be because the movie intercuts with Franta’s trials in the labor camp.  How he gets there is unpredictable, thankfully.  Unless you care to dwell on this being a modern war movie.
Karel and Franta before a woman came into their lives

                I don’t want to discourage the Czechs from making more war movies, but “Dark Blue World” is disappointingly overrated.  The plot is simplistic.  It’s your typical love triangle set in war.  This tired trope is modernized with the cynicism of the Vietnam War era.  The acting is blah.  Vetchy and Hadek may be Czechoslovakia’s answer to Clooney and Hanks, but they seem average to me.  The nonlinear format works fine although it does take some suspense out of the “who will survive?” nature of the film.  Also the labor camp scenes do not deliver what they imply will happen.

the real star of the film
                The movie does have some fairly neat aerial combat.  Some of it was borrowed from the “Battle of Britain” movie.  There is a nifty scene where they strafe a train.  There is a dogfight while defending a crippled bomber.  Quality over quantity as the film has only a total of seven minutes of actual dogfighting.  Certainly not enough to overcome the romantic subplot.  The movie does a fair job commemorating the Czech pilots who served in the Battle of Britain.  And the terrible mistreatment of some after the war.  The frustrating transition to combat in the battle is realistic, as is the high mortality rate once they were given a chance.  I had never seen the use of bicycles to teach tactics, but the movie has them learning the “finger four” formation long before the RAF adopted it.

                Will it crack my 100 Best War Movie list?  No. It gets credit for sincerity, but it is just not memorable.

GRADE =  C-  

Saturday, June 13, 2015

CRACKER? Top Gun (1986)


                “Top Gun” did more to restore the military in the public’s eye going into the Persian Gulf War than any other war movie.  It was not designed to do that.  Jerry Bruckheimer and his partner Don Simpson got the idea for the film from an article about the Navy’s Fighter Weapons School in San Diego.  They were drawn by the title of the article – “Top Gun”.  That would make a kick-ass title for a film about a rebel who learns to be a team player with the help of a hot chick.  Why not supersize it with $37 million F-14 Tomcats and a pulsating rock sound track?  And laugh all the way to the bank.

Trust me, America.  This ain't Vietnam.
                The film opens in the Indian Ocean “present day”, so don’t even think the movie is about the Vietnam War.  MiGs (F-5s painted black in case you have trouble distinguishing bad guys) are threatening one of our aircraft carriers.  An F-14 pilot named “Maverick” (in case you have trouble determining a character’s personality) flies upside down over the camel fighter jock (the enemy is never identified, but we are encouraged to see them as Middle Eastern).  Maverick (Tom Cruise) gives him the finger.  America, f*** yeah!  The MiG scampers because it is obvious this is no longer the panty-waist U.S. military of the 1970s.  Unfortunately, the best pilot on the carrier (“Cougar”) freaks out over having an enemy fighter tail him.  Apparently no one ever told him that was part of his job.  Maverick has to help him land (disobeying orders in the process, of course).  Mav gets the obligatory reaming when he returns, but on the plus side Cougar’s spot for Fighter Weapons School is now open.  Who better to fill it than the pilot who is always in trouble?
MiG at 3 o'clock.  It must be a bogey because it's painted black.
 Permission to inspire a Pepsi commercial?

                Maverick and his back seater “Goose” (Anthony Edwards) are off to San Diego and just like the week before a college session, there is time for some partying and tail chasing (the other kind).  Maverick’s go-to move is to sing “Loving Feeling” to his target for a one night stand.  This one scene can serve as a litmus test of whether you will like this movie.  Charlie (Kelly McGillis) brushes him off because first base never comes in the first inning of a war movie.  You’ll never guess who the expert on MiGs is at the school.  Wait, since the movie is fictional, go ahead and guess.  Part of the schooling involves mock dogfighting so we can have some breaks from the smoochy parts.  The head trainer is the gruff “Jester” (Michael Ironsides).  He’s the kind of jock whose cockpit chatter includes “You can run, but you cannot hide”.  He takes a liking to Maverick because dogfighting is not all about the rules.  You don’t want to discourage a warrior, you just want to rein him in a bit.
I'd like to give a huge shout-out to my agent, but a
big f-u to the cinematographer who dissed my abs
                There are two romantic subplots in the movie.  Maverick is wooing “Charlie”.  At the same time, he has this homoerotic thing going on with his rival “Ice Man” (Val Kilmer).  Or did I misread the sweaty, shirtless volleyball game?  It is a race to see who Maverick will go to bed with first.  Meanwhile, Maverick lives up to his nickname in training and even gets someone killed.  This facilitates the requisite personal crisis common in movies of this ilk.  It will take some kind of national crisis to get Maverick back in the saddle and to bring the movie to a rousing, rock-fueled climax that will have the audience cheering.
What do you mean by "actions have consequences"?
And what does "hubris" mean?

                “Top Gun” was a huge hit. It tapped into the patriotism of the Reagan Eighties.  People were tired of the self-flagellation of the Vietnam War movies and the angst of the Seventies.  The movie purposely avoided any reference to the Vietnam War except to specify that Maverick was seeking redemption for some vague mistake his father made in that war.  In a sense, the movie was seeking redemption from the American public for the Vietnam War.  It could be stretched to theorize that the success of the movie helped America to feel good about its military again and may have thus paved the way for our cocky intervention in the Persian Gulf War.  Interestingly, “Heartbreak Ridge” came out the same year, but had less success with rehabilitating the military.  The time was right for those types of flag-wavers.

                The Pentagon sensed this vibe and gave enormous cooperation to the filmmakers.  Bruckheimer and Simpson were aided by the military’s belief that they had made a big mistake in giving “An Officer and a Gentleman” the cold shoulder.  The Navy swagged the movie with two aircraft carriers, Miramar Naval Air Station, a bevy of F-14s, and the technical advisers that came with them.  Although it was claimed that the script was not meant to stimulate recruiting,  it did have this effect which means the military support was well-rewarded.  The cooperation extended to chilling out on the usual over-protectiveness of Navy morals.  The script was allowed to show fighter pilots partying and behaving like frat boys.  In other words, the movie depicts the pilots like all the other twentysomething males in Eighties movies.  Unfortunately, the unintended consequence is that a Pentagon investigation would later partially blame the Tailhook scandal on “Top Gun”!  The one script adjustment agreed to was making Charlie a civilian.  In other words, the Pentagon insisted on ludicrous over simply ridiculous. 

                All this historical significance for a movie that is parody bait.  (See “Hot Shots!”)  It is another war movie aimed at fourteen year old boys and girlfriends of older guys.  The boys get the rock sound track, the locker room hijinks, and the awesome dogfighting.  The females get the fantasy of a non-hottie getting Tom Cruise and a bunch of good bad-boys swatting each other with towels.  The script does not leave its demographic ponder-challenged.  All of the scenarios are contrived and hammily foreshadowed.  The narrative arc has existed for decades of war movies.  Boy is rebel, boy meets girl, girl flirts with boy, boy gets girl, boy has personal crisis on the way to redemption, girl helps boy overcome adversity.  (The PG-13 romance was apparently meant to not offend President Reagan.)  Speaking of clichés, the movie is not as bad as many, but it does have: the main character loses his best friend and considers himself responsible, a pilot is obsessed with proving himself, a maverick learns to fit in, a pilot rides a motorcycle.

                The only strength of the movie is the aerial scenes.  There are some cool dogfights and none of that off-putting CGI.  In fact, the Tomcats do the best acting in the movie.  The three main characters are ridiculous and the actors don’t help distract from this.  How much respect do you have for your audience if you make Charlie an astro-physicist who teaches MiG fighter tactics at Fightertown?  There is no chemistry between Cruise and McGillis.  McGillis was a head-scratching choice for the role.   She is not hot enough to overcome the underwritten role.  Cruise and Kilmer deserve kudos for having the chutzpah to nosh their ludicrous roles with the laughable dialogue that reaches a crescendo with the closing:  “You can be my wingman anytime.”  “Bull shit, you can be mine.”
As in every romantic comedy, there must be
conflict before the kiss

                Quantity of box office receipts is not a good way to determine the quality of a movie.  “Top Gun” was the highest grossing film of the year.  Not to mention the sales of the sound track.  It was critically acclaimed - by the public.  But I would counsel against using winning the People’s Choice Award for Favorite Motion Picture to determine how good a movie is.  The cruel fact is that from a war movie perspective, this movie stinks. It is somewhat entertaining if you can laugh instead of weep over the plot and acting.  Good drinking game – drink every time Cruise gives his patented shit-eating grin.  You’ll soon be drunk and then the rest of the movie will be more enjoyable.



If every airman’s nickname tells you about them, why is Bradshaw called “Goose”?

Why did Maverick get Goose’s dog tags instead of his wife and why would Maverick honor him by throwing them in the ocean?

Why doesn’t recklessly causing the death of a Top Gun candidate get you washed out of the school?  Especially after you had already been reprimanded. 




Tuesday, June 9, 2015

CRACKER? The Imitation Game (2014)

                “The Imitation Game” attempts to bring recognition to one of the men most responsible for the Allies’ victory over Germany in WWII.  Alan Turing played a huge role in the decoding of German military messages and also had a role in the development of the computer.  He was an eccentric genius that was ripe for a biopic.  Director Morten Tyldum took on the task using a script by Graham Moore based on the book Alan Turing:  The Enigma by Andrew Hodges.  The movie was a major hit with audiences and critics.  It was nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, Director, Actor (Benedict Kumberbatch), Supporting Actress (Kierra Knightley), and Original Score.  Moore won for Best Adapted Screenplay.  It cost $14 million and made $220 million.  It was the highest grossing independent film of 2014.

                The movie is told in nonlinear form and starts with Turing under arrest in 1951 for homosexuality with suspicion of espionage for the Soviets.  The movie uses Detective Nock (Rory Kinnear) as a framing device.  Nock’s ferreting is intercut with the tale of Turing’s work at Bletchley Park.  The brilliant, but prickly Turing butts heads with his boss Commander Denniston (Charles Dance).  He also has trouble fitting in with his co-geniuses.  Turing is anti-social, uncooperative, and has no sense of humor.  He is only interested in his work.  “I like solving problems and Enigma is the most difficult problem in the world.”  He goes over Denniston’s head in a letter to Churchill which gets him the Prime Minister’s support for his use of the computer he calls “Christopher” to decipher the German Enigma messages. 

                A turning point in Turing’s relations with his colleagues comes when he recruits Joan Clarke (Knightley) through a crossword puzzle contest.  She works to humanize him and his team begins to warm to him.  When Denniston decides to pull the plug on “Christopher”, the team stands together and prevents it.  Not long after, Turing has a brainstorm which allows the machine to start reading messages.  This triumph precipitates the conundrum of whether to jeopardize the secrecy of Ultra (the code-breaking effort) by warning convoys of impending u-boat attacks.  There is also the subplot of a spy being in their midst.  Through all this is the underlying theme of Turing’s homosexuality and its effect on his career.

                “The Imitation Game” is the type of movie that while you are enjoying it you can’t help but wonder how much of your enjoyment is enhanced at the expense of history.  You shake your head at plot developments and characters that you are sure are fictional and then you can’t wait to find out if your bulldar (bullshit radar – copyright pending) is right.  A major kudo to Graham Moore for fashioning a screenplay that appears to be plausible in most aspects.  Unfortunately, when I did my research I was left with the impression that his Adapted Screenplay Oscar was a joke.  It is clear that he was disrespectful of his source biography by Andrew Hodges.  It is also clear that Hodges has been constrained by contractual obligations from criticizing the liberties the movie takes.  Once again we are faced with the debate over “artistic license”.  I’m not against “enhancing” a story, but you can go too far and this movie does.  Spoiler alert for the next paragraph.
Alan Turing and some other code-breakers
                I will be doing a “History or Hollywood” post later on this movie, but for now here are some of my more interesting findings.  Turing did have a relationship with a schoolmate named Christopher, but it was unrequited because Christopher was straight.  They did not bond over code-breaking.  Turing did not name the machine “Christopher”.  Turing did not have trouble with his boss Denniston who was actually supportive of the effort.  The Denniston family was justifiably upset with the portrayal.  (But when you hire Charles Dance to play the character, what do you expect?)  Joan did not get her position by solving a crossword.  Turing did propose to her, but the movie tones down their real affection for each other.  She was aware of his homosexuality and it did not matter.  The rest of the team is Hollywoodized, although based on real people.  Those real people would probably be upset with the way the movie assigns almost all the credit to Turing when it was much more of a collaborative affair.  Cairncross (Allen Leech) was a Soviet spy, but he did not work with Turing and did not threaten to out him.  Peter Hilton did not have a brother who was in a targeted convoy.  That dilemma-creating plot device was the biggest false note in the movie.  It was also ridiculous to assign to Turing the power to decide what the deciphered messages would be used for.  This was done at a much higher level.  The framing device is bogus.  Nock is the only character not based on a real person.  It is true that Turing’s illegal homosexuality was discovered through a burglary of his home, but this did not lead to an investigation for espionage.  Last, but not least, Turing was not as socially awkward as the movie implies.  He was not the grandfather of Cumberbatch’s Sherlock.  He was sociable, had a sense of humor, and worked well with others.

The main draw to the movie is the acting.  Cumberbatch is remarkable in a role that was obvious Oscar bait.  He is perfect as the Hollywood version of Turing.  Knightley pairs well with him and brings some verve to a serious movie.  The rest of the cast is fine although the casting of Dance was lazy.  The casting director must have been told to look for someone who could play the stereotyped hide-bound authority figure in his sleep.  This was necessary because the movie relies on the tired war movie trope of the maverick versus the system.  The nonlinear format works well and the scenes Moore decided to enact move the film along crisply.  After all, we are talking about a movie about geeks breaking an unbreakable code.  It helps that the main geek is a fascinating character, but to top the $100 million mark you have to add fascinating fictional scenarios.  There is some suspense.  The scene where the machine works for the first time is even goose-bumpy.  The movie benefits from the fact that most of the story is unknown to the general public.  There are some intercuts to the war using CGI and actual footage in order to back up the exaggerated claim that the code-breaking saved fourteen million lives.

                One has to wonder if Turing had been straight whether the movie would have been made.  His sexual orientation is the key to the plot.  This is a good thing as the movie is not only entertaining, but has a point to make.  That point is that the intolerance for sexual “deviance” was counterproductive for civilized society.  The fact that the world was deprived of one of the twentieth century’s great minds by a law forbidding homosexuality is tragic.  Tragic is certainly a word that could be attributed to that thread of the movie.  It contrasts well with the triumphal nature of the code-breaking.  It tells you something no movie could have been made about Ultra until it was revealed in 1974 (29 years after the war, not 50 as the movie proclaims) and yet it was not until much later that a major Hollywood movie could be made focusing on the gay man most responsible for Ultra.

                “The Imitation Game” is a good example of how a movie can be an A as a movie and a B as a war movie.  The A is for entertaining and telling an important story and the B is for doing it in an acceptable, but truth-stretching way.  My favorite war movies are the ones that shine a light on little known heroes or incidents.  Alan Turing deserved this movie.  How many people knew about him before this movie?  Unfortunately, how many people who know about him now from the movie, now have inaccurate knowledge of him. Oh well, better to be known inaccurately than to remain in obscurity.

GRADE  =  B    


Saturday, June 6, 2015

Die Brucke (The Bridge) (1959)

                “Die Brucke” is a German film that made quite a splash internationally when it was released.  It was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and won the Golden Globe.  Its director Bernard Wicki went on to co-direct “The Longest Day”.  The movie was based on a novel by Gregor Dorfmeister who heard about the incident from a veteran. 

                The movie is set in the closing weeks of WWII in Europe.  The German town is so sleepy that a bomb hitting near the local bridge is all everybody is talking about.  The war has apparently not effected the town much, but that is about to change as the American army is fast approaching.  The movie concentrates on a group of high school chums and their families.  They are a varied lot and include one who is ashamed of his Nazi official father who is bugging out, one who is the son of a wealthy widow, one who is the son of a dead soldier, etc.  They have one thing in common – they are all excited about being called up to join the army.  This is one similarity to its obvious grandfather “All Quiet on the Western Front”.  Another is the training that consists of a lot of throwing yourself to the ground when ordered (like the “muddy field”).  One difference is the teacher of this group of naïve newbies goes to the training facility to talk the commander out of sacrificing them. 

                The very next day the unit is shipped to the front, but the commander shows some humanity by assigning the seven boys to defend the inconsequential bridge outside their town.  It’s scheduled to be blown up anyway.  A veteran corporal is put in charge of the teenagers, but he is not around for long and the boys are on their own.  Since they grew up looking at war as glamorous and have been indoctrinated into believing every inch of German soil must be defended by patriots, they assume their situation is not farcical and meaningless.  Even an obviously ass-whipped unit led by a dazed Iron Cross winner that comes limping through does not change their decision, although it is certainly sobering.  Peer pressure is not just for in school.  The movie becomes a “who will survive?” story when American M24 Chaffee tanks and infantry arrive.

                “Die Brucke” is a must see for war movie lovers.  It makes for a nice companion to “All Quiet”, although it lacks the depth of that classic.  The scenario is similar.  A group of teenage boys go off to war with no real conception of what war is like.  To this group, war is a game and their combat experience does bring some exhilarance.  The excited looks on their faces when they feel the vibration of their weapons on their shoulders are part of the head-shaking anti-war theme the movie is intent on conveying.  War is serious business as they learn and it is a tragedy when young people are the pawns in a doomed and corrupt cause.  The movie also makes clear the effects war has on the mothers of these pawns.  They are helpless to prevent the state from circumventing their protective rearing of their children.  Not only do wars take advantage of the youthful impression that you will come out a hero and not a dead hero, but adults in charge take advantage of this naivete.  However, the movie carves out its own niche by having no major character pushing the young men to be cannon fodder.  Their desire to prove themselves is engendered by the nebulous state indoctrination that has fed them for six years.  But mostly it comes from the common boyhood fantasy that war will be fun.

                The acting is amateurish as the boy actors are unpolished.  But so are high school boys.  This is not a major drawback for a movie that is an anti-epic.  The movie is predictable with no twists, but it does not bludgeon you with its theme.  The set-up for the climactic set piece is plausible, although having a German town untouched by war at this stage of the war is highly unlikely.  Having all seven called up on the same day is a plot device that could be sniffed at.  The big pay-off is worth the wait.  The defense of the bridge is twenty minutes of consistent action.  The MG-42s and MP-40s are authentic looking, but the tanks are wooden mock-ups.  The deaths are as memorable as they are inevitable.  For those who sneer at black and white movies, this is one movie that would not have nearly the impact if it was in color.

                Does the movie belong in my 100 Best War Movies list?  Probably.   It is not a great movie. The low budget nature and the predictability of the plot prevent this, but it is a worthy addition to the genre and deserves to be better known than it is.



Thursday, June 4, 2015

HOW BAD IS IT? The Green Berets (1968)

                “The Green Berets” is considered THE WORST VIETNAM WAR MOVIE EVER MADE.  Let’s see if that is an exaggeration.  The movie was a project dear to John Wayne’s heart.  He got the idea to make a positive movie about the Vietnam War during a trip to the Nam to entertain the troops.  He was determined to make a movie that supported American involvement and reflected his belief in military preparedness.  Wayne was famously conservative and a staunch proponent of “America right or wrong”.  One must be reminded that at the time that the movie was made (pre-Tet Offensive), most Americans agreed with Wayne.  That does not mean that the movie was an easy sell.  In fact, only Wayne could have gotten this film made.  Once he got Warner Brothers to buck the Hollywood aversion to making a major Vietnam War movie, he easily got significant Pentagon cooperation with the production.  The military was enamored with the project and Wayne’s letter to President Johnson was not necessary.  The only caveat the Army had was with the script.  The movie was loosely based on the eponymous novel by Robin Moore.  The military had disavowed the novel because it had a Special Forces unit going into North Vietnam for a raid.  The Pentagon insisted that the movie keep the raid within South Vietnam.  The change was worth it because seldom has a movie had greater support from the Pentagon.  The movie was filmed at Fort Benning, Georgia.  There were plenty of helicopters available, for instance.  The movie spent $150,000 on a village set that was used after by the Army for training.   The movie was directed by Wayne, but after the disappointing performance of his debut “The Alamo”, the studio insisted on a co-director in Ray Kellogg.

"the only good Indian or Commie is a dead one"
                The movie does not claim to be based on a true story, but it seems to be set in circa 1966.  America is clearly in the “hearts and minds” phase and the Green Berets are in their early days.  The movie leaves no doubt where it is coming from by leading off with a choral arrangement of “The Ballad of the Green Berets”.  Hippies, leave the theater now!  A presser is being held at Fort Bragg to introduce America to the Green Berets.  Press:  why are we fighting?  Answer:  the commies are killing all the good people in Vietnam.  Press:  why are we involved in a civil war?  Answer:  it’s not a civil war, the commies are on the march.  One journalist in particular is a panty-waisted liberal America-hater.  Col. Kirby (Wayne) challenges Beckworth (David Janssen) to come to Vietnam to see how wrong he is.

                Our framing device takes up the challenge and arrives at a camp the Special Forces are building in the jungle (actually the forest of Georgia) in the middle of Viet Cong territory.  The camp is named “Dodge City” because “The Alamo” would be too obvious.  Kirby has brought the obligatory scrounger Peterson (Jim Hutton) who bonds with an orphan named Ham Chung (which is Vietnamese for Short Round, I guess).  The movie clearly delineates the good guys (candy and medical care) from the bad guys (punji stakes and boobie traps).  When we torture it’s justified because the suspect killed a good guy and besides, the VC are ruthless killers who do not deserve legal protections.  Beckworth questions this method of interrogation until a trip to the local Montagnard village finds all the people killed, tortured, or taken captive.  The corpse of a cute little girl that Beckworth had befriended tips the scale.  Before the movie is over, he will be a commie killing SOB.  That’s because the fort is about to be swamped by Indians.  I mean the camp is about to be assaulted by the VC and North Vietnamese Army.

                Now that it’s clear who to cheer and who to boo, the movie enters its balls to the wall action segments.  The night attack on the camp features human wave attacks and ridiculous deaths.  The funniest moment occurs when a traitorous South Vietnamese soldier opens fire from a tower, but an ARVN officer blows him up because he had anticipated the development!  The battle culminates with the arrival of a C-47 “Puff the Magic Dragon” which contrary to its nickname, does not drop joints on the enemy.  Nudge your girlfriend awake for the ten second demise of every commie in the camp.  The movie should have ended here, but we still have a Special Forces style raid to kidnap a VC general resulting in the death of a beloved character.
was my Peter-san brave?
                If you love mindless action and don’t mind the heavy-handed propaganda that goes with it, you might find things to like in this movie.  After all, it was hard by 1968 to make a Western with the Indians depicted as evil.  Plus how are you going to fit boobie traps, napalm, and “Spooky” gunships into a cowboy movie?  The movie is basically a Western updated with many of the cool over the top aspects of twentieth century warfare.  So turn off your brain and try to overlook all the stuff that drove critics catatonic.  Granted, they were predisposed to hate the movie, but you did not have to be a dove to see faults in the movie.

                The acting is average with Wayne being rather wooden.  George Takei makes an impression as the ex-Viet Minh who is now only interested in torturing and killing stinking communists.  (He missed nine episodes of “Star Trek” including the Tribbles one to make the film.)  Janssen and Hutton make the best of stereotypical roles.  (Both actors disagreed with Wayne’s take on the war, but a pay checks a pay check, right?)  Aldo Ray is there to add beef.  The studio left Kirby’s wife on the cutting room floor, but allowed a lame subplot involving a beautiful, vengeful Vietnamese girl.  Otherwise there would have been no females speaking in the movie.  By the way, the dialogue is not terrible, although the soldiers do not talk like soldiers.

sorry ladies, Aldo Ray keeps his shirt on
                The movie is very simplistic and full of clichés.  The enemy are loathsome, ugly, and bestial.  We are bludgeoned with how evil they are.  Hell, they even kill Ham Chung’s dog! There is a racist tinge to the depiction of the North Vietnamese as neo-redskins.  On the other hand, the people of South Vietnam are innocent seekers of independence.  It goes without saying the movie is pro-Green Berets.  They can do no wrong.  They make even torture right.  The clichés include the scrounger, the observing journalist, the child mascot, and the cavalry riding to the rescue.  Speaking of which, the movie borrows two Western scenarios.  One is the storming of the camp by the savages.  It adds the war movie trope of the commando raid to seize an enemy VIP.  (“The Dirty Dozen” does it similarly, but much better the same year.)
luckily, Wayne does not fire a shot in the movie

                In conclusion, it would be hard for “The Green Berets” to be as bad as its reputation.  It is certainly not a good movie.  You have to be an ultra-conservative to nod knowingly while you watch it.  But if you are a Wayne fan, there is a lot to take comfort in.  If you are just an average war movie lover, you can enjoy the action and laugh at the ridiculous moments that make it something of a camp classic.  It is definitely not the worst Vietnam War movie, but it is probably the worst big budget one.

the infamous sun setting in the east scene


the trailer

Monday, June 1, 2015

MAY SHORT STORY: The Canoe Fight

                Our latest short story is “The Canoe Fight” by George Cary Eggleston.  It is subtitled “An Incident of the Creek War” and first appeared in Eggleston’s Strange Stories from History for Young People.  Eggleston had a knack of finding little-known incidents and heroes to highlight in his stories.  This story is set in the War of 1812.  The British had enlisted Indian tribes to wreak havoc on frontier settlements.  This included the Creek Indians in the Alabama / Mississippi area.  Frontier families often took refuge in forts, abandoning their farms to depradations.

                In the story, word that the Indians are preparing to lay waste to crops causes Capt. Sam Dale to lead a force of 72 frontiersmen to preempt the Indians.  Dale was already a noted figure in the region.  He was well acquainted with the Indians, having spent a lot of time with them.  There can be no doubt where his loyalties lay, however.  His mission was to inflict pain on the Creek.  “The smallest naval battle ever fought in the world” took place when most of Dale’s men crossed the Alabama River and the rearguard led by Dale were caught on the opposite bank by a large body of warriors.  Vastly outnumbered, things got much worse when a large canoe carrying eleven Indians suddenly appeared to take them from behind.  Believing the best defense is a good offense, Dale and three others went to meet the huge canoe in a much smaller vessel.  The ensuing battle became the stuff of legend.

                This is the third story by Eggleston in the readalong.  It is much simpler than the other two because he has chosen a minor incident.  It makes for an exciting little tale that comes off as being fictional, but in fact is factual.  Dale was a fascinating individual and had a colorful life.  Although Eggleston plays up Dale’s friendship with the Indians, his career was anything but friendly toward the Indian cause.  Since the story was originally published in 1888, it is a look back to a time when Indian fighters were unambiguously the heroes.  Although I hope for more fictional stories in the future selections, I do appreciate Eggleston introducing me to an interesting historical event and personage that I was not aware of.


Next month's selection:  "Chasing a Major-General"