Wednesday, July 29, 2015

BOOK/MOVIE: Where Eagles Dare (1967/1968)


                “Where Eagles Dare” is one of the movies adapted from an Alistair MacLean novel.  Others included “Guns of Navarone” and “Ice Station Zebra”. MacLean was basically my generation’s Jack London.  He wrote adventure novels for men and Hollywood loved him.  Note the fact that the movie came out just one year after the book.  “Where Eagles Dare” is one of my favorite movies and I have seen it several times, but I had not read the source novel until recently.  I was curious how the movie differed from the book.  Since the screenplay was written by MacLean, I did not expect much difference.  Based on my professed belief that movies should be better than the books they are based on, I expected the movie to be better.  I have already reviewed the movie.  You can go to “Where Eagles Dare” to read it.  The following concentrates on how the book differs from the movie.  Spoiler alert: don’t read on if you plan on reading the book.

                The mission is the same.  All of the Allied characters are the same, with some name changes for no particular reason.  They parachute from a Lancaster bomber.  No “green on – go!”, but we do get “Broadsword calling Danny Boy”.  One small difference is that Smith (Richard Burton) and Mary (the blonde) return to Harrod’s body to find that he was killed.  In the tavern scene, Heidi (the brunette) turns the men over to the Gestapo rather than Smith giving up.  Smith and Schaffer (Clint Eastwood) escape from their captors in the car by way of Smith conning them into thinking he is Himmler’s nephew.  In the first inkling that the book will differ in tone from the movie, they tie up the Germans and move on.  Smith and Schaffer blow up a truck as a distraction so they can get on top of the cable car for the trip to the Schloss Adler.  The note book scene is recreated in the movie, but with more exposition. Von Brauchitsch (the blonde Nazi)) interrupts and shoots Smith in the hand.  Smith and Schaffer get the upper hand again when  Anne Marie (the secretary) takes Mary into another room to torture her, but Mary kicks her ass and rescues the boys.  Von Brauchitsch and the others are drugged instead of killed.  They go to the radio room and Schaffer holds off the Germans in the corridor without killing anyone.  They put a rope outside a window to trick the Germans.  None of the trio of traitors is killed going down the rope.  Schaffer throws explosives into several rooms and they set fire to the records’ room to create distractions. 

In the famous cable car fight, it’s Smith versus all three agents.  They fire through the roof using a machine gun and the leader Carraciola (the book develops one of the trio as the lead villain) climbs on top and is about to shoot Smith when he is hit by a suspension arm.  He is the first German killed in the book!  Smith plants the explosives and hops onto an ascending car by way of a pylon.  When he, Schaffer, Mary, and Jones go down, they jump off a few feet from the station.  They do not drop into the river.  They leave in the bus and Schaffer throws out bottles to impede the pursuers!  They are fired on by a Tiger tank.  They do blow up a bridge, but after that it is smooth sailing to being picked up by a Mosquito.  They are not fired on at the air field and do no firing.  The face-off with Wyatt-Turner is the same, if a bit more verbose.  The movie closes with Schaffer and Heidi making plans to live happily ever after.

                As predicted the movie is superior to the novel.  If the book had been faithfully rendered, it is safe to say it would not be as memorable.  There is nothing significantly different in the screenplay, but it is obvious Hollywood told screenwriter MacLean to up the violence.  The novelist MacLean is a real humanitarian.  The only important characters that are killed are the three double agents.  Unbelievably, at one point, Smith runs back to untie a German who was in danger of being roasted by the fire that ends up destroying the castle!  When the bus runs into a German vehicle, the occupants are barely injured.  The screenwriter MacLean totals up an incredible body count.  It is hard to believe the novel and movie were written by the same person.  Another advantage of the movie (unless you are a wuss and don’t like to see numerous humans machine gunned to death) is it has half the dialogue of the book.  The book’s strength is not the quality of the dialogue.  There is too much of it and the bantering between the comedy team of Smith and Schaffer is tedious.  I wonder if Clint Eastwood glared at MacLean when he first read the script and then took a black marker to it.  If so, kudos.  It is unimaginable that Eastwood would utter lines like “say a prayer for us, honey.  And if you don’t know any prayers, keep your fingers crossed till they ache.”  There is even a running gag that Schaffer is from Montana, but he does not get along with horses.  Hilarious, not.

                If you have seen the movie but have not read the book I cannot recommend that you read the book.  It does not fill in any blanks and you will be constantly wondering when the killing is going to begin.  You also will be squirming as you imagine Eastwood uttering the lines MacLean puts in Schaffer’s mouth.

BOOK  =  B-


Saturday, July 25, 2015

DUELING MOVIES: Rambo: First Blood II (1985) vs. Uncommon Valor (1982)


                In the 1980s, Hollywood went through a “rescue the Vietnam War POWs” phase.  Some outstanding cinema resulted – according to fourteen year old boys.  The standard bearers were “Rambo: First Blood II” and “Uncommon Valor”.  I was surprised to find that “Uncommon Valor” came out first.  In fact, we were also blessed with “Missing in Action” before “Rambo: First Blood”.  “Uncommon Valor” was directed by Ted Kotcheff (whose previous film was the original Rambo).  It was a box office hit, but got mixed reviews.  RFBII was a sequel to the movie where a PTSD-sodden vet destroys an entire city police department in anti-heroic righteousness.  The body count was deemed to be wimpy, so the sequel was demanded.  Plus it contributed greatly to the trope of the unstable Vietnam veteran, so that instability needed to be channeled into positive mission.  It was directed by the one and only George Cosmatos (who redeemed himself a bit with “Tombstone”).  Believe it or not, James Cameron wrote the first draft of the screenplay, but Stallone insisted on more politics and got co-writer credit.  Stallone wrote all the dialogue for his character, I assume.  He has about twenty lines.  Stallone nixed the addition of a side-kick to be played by John Travolta.  The movie was a humongous hit, making $300 million.
"Yo, Adrienne - I got another franchise!"

                RFBII begins with Rambo in prison (what lame-ass jury convicted him?).  Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna) proposes a pardon in exchange for a mission to see if there really are American POWs still being held in Vietnam after the war.  Rambo asks “Do we get to win the war this time?”  However, the mission is strictly recon.  A slimy politician named Murdock (Charles Napier) is using Rambo to prove there are no POWs being held.  Only a Neanderthal like Rambo would not be aware that he is being set up.  He is also not bothered by the fact that there is no training or preparation for the mission.  Not even a montage.  When Rambo parachutes in (losing all his high tech equipment and his shirt in the process), he hooks up with a female agent named Co-Bao (Julia Nickson) who speaks better English than Rambo, of course.  When Rambo observes the camp he finds that there are Americans being held and mistreated to boot.  The movie tells the ignorant American moviegoers that the Vietnamese held Americans because we reneged on reparations payments!  He defies his mission parameters to rescue one of them.  Let the killing begin.  In Stallonesque irony, Rambo ends up back in the camp so he can be tortured by Russians.  Oscar please!  (Razzie instead.)  Co-Bao helps him escape and then something happens to her that breaks Rambo’s usual self-composure.  He is so angry, ordinary arrows will not express his feelings.  He has to have explosive tipped arrows.  There is some chopper on chopper action and enough gratuitous violence to sate any middle school boy.  He rescues all the prisoners and then confronts Murdock on behalf of all the veterans who were dissed when they returned home.  And through the power of film, America was able to feel better about the Vietnam War.
don't they know you don't want to make him angry?

                “Uncommon Valor” deals with a father’s quest to rescue his missing in action son from a Laos prison camp.  Col. Rhodes (Gene Hackman), with bankrolling from a millionaire who also is searching for his son, assembles a motle crew of the assorted types.  They include a PTSD "tunnel rat" (Fred Willard), a mentally unstable hulk (Randall Cobb playing himself), and a black guy who is an explosives expert called "Dead Meat".  (Actually, "Blaster".)    Their trainer Scott (Patrick Swayze) has never been in the shit, but eventually is accepted by the grunts.  Unlike RFBII, they go through extensive training, including a dress rehearsal in a mock-up of the camp.  It goes swimmingly so Hollywood can once more put the FUBAR doctrine into effect.  The first example of this trope is when their weapons are confiscated by the CIA in Thailand.  It seems the government is in cover-up mode when it comes to MIAs in Laos.  Since these mercenaries are at heart cuddly, they pool their money to buy some WWII surplus weapons. At least it will now be a fair fight with the enemy.  General Mayhem takes command at the camp and let the whittling begin.  The good guy mortality rate ends up at 40%.  The rescued sons’ rate is 50%.
Stallone got a lot of acting tips by
watching Randall Cobb's performance

                Naturally there are some similarities between the two movies besides the obvious "going behind enemy lines to rescue prisoners" plot.  Both blame the continued captivity of the Americans on a cynical government and shame the American public for its treatment of Vietnam veterans.  Each believes we could have and should have won the war.   They both have a schmaltzy song over credits.  When will war movies learn to avoid original songs?  Both have a very implausible romance thrown in to placate the women being dragged to the theater.  “Valor” spends more time on character development since it is not a one man show.  It has some humor, whereas “Rambo” is bereft of it.  The parodies have made up for that.
totally natural group shot

  Surprisingly, “Rambo” has the better acting, which is pretty damning for “Valor”.  Stallone may not be much of a thespian, but he does have charisma.  Nickson is not bad as his girlfriend.  The villains do a good job not overshadowing Stallone’s acting.  Cartoonish would be the best description of their performances.  “Valor” has a better cast, but is a disappointment.  If it had not been for the casting of Hackman, the movie would be complete crap.  “Valor” does have the advantage in dialogue because it is painful to listen to what comes out of the mouths in “Rambo”.  Especially the closing speech by Rambo.
maybe I should be more selective and not make ten movies a year

Cutting to the chase, the big comparison has to be in quality and quantity of action.  “Rambo” wins on both counts.  Hell, it does not even bother with the usual training scene.  Nobody cares.  Let’s get to Rambo being Rambo as soon as possible.  Before he’s done, he has killed 57 bad guys.  This is done with a variety of weapons.  All of them cool.  There are also the requisite explosions that the audience demands.  “Valor” can’t match the body count but is competitive in explosions.  The unit even withstands real explosions during training!  It also has a blown up bridge.  Got to love that.  Literally, because it’s the law.
the last sight of many an extra
I had not seen RFBII since I was a young adult.  At the time I took umbrage at its ridiculous right wing propaganda and attempt to rewrite the ending of the war.  I was appalled at how the movie had given my students a false impression of the war.  When I rewatched it, I discovered that it is no longer provocative.  If you have the right frame of mind (and lots of alcohol), it can be seen for what it now is – macho bull shit as entertainment for the masses.  Even though it has no humor, it is still a deeply hilarious movie.  “Uncommon Valor” is not nearly as much fun.  It takes itself more seriously, but the implementation of the predictable plot is underwhelming.

Rambo =  B-
       Valor  =  D  

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

CRACKER? Merrill’s Marauders (1962)

                “Merrill’s Marauders” is a Samuel Fuller (“The Steel Helmet”) film about the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional) that fought in Burma in WWII.  Fuller also co-wrote the script loosely based on the nonfiction book by Charlton Osburn, Jr.  Warner Brothers pressured Fuller to make the movie with the implication that it would consider making the movie he really wanted to make – “The Big Red One”.   The movie was a difficult experience for Fuller.  He wanted Gary Cooper as the lead, but ill health prevented this.  (Cooper died soon after.)  The studio angered Fuller by adding some feel good into the movie.  The movie was made in the Philippines with cooperation of the Philippine Army and U.S. Special Forces.

                The movie begins with a narrator explaining the war situation in Burma.  The Japanese had expanded into Southeast Asia in 1942 and the Allies wanted it back.  At the Quebec Conference, the Anglo-Americans decided to create a 3,000 man unit in India for operations behind enemy lines.  Gen. Frank Merrill  (Jeffrey Chandler) was given command of the 5307th by Gen. Joseph Stilwell.  In January, 1944 the unit was given the mission to destroy an enemy supply base at Walawbum.  It will be a 200 mile trek through the jungle that will take three months.
do you like watching men walk?
how about if donkeys are involved?

                This being a Fuller film, the action begins with a nifty little assault on a Japanese artillery outpost.  Rousing music backs a frontal attack with grenades and covering fire.  This is followed by a twenty mile forced march to reach Walawbum.  The focus is on a platoon led by Lt. Stockton (Ty Hardin).  He has a father/son relationship with Merrill.  He commands your typical heterogeneous small unit (although no one is from Brooklyn).  They lead the attack on a railway station.  Stock tells his men the attack will begin in 33 seconds.  He likes to be very specific.  He gives one of the men a single rifle grenade which is all he needs to take out an ammo truck.  Because he’s an American.  There are good battle sounds (much of it lots of gunfire).  The men actually reload, but the deaths are of the touchdown signaling variety.  Some of the filming was apparently done by midget cameramen which would explain the numerous upward angle shots.    End of movie since the Marauders had been promised relief after achieving their objective.  Enter Gen. Stilwell (John Hoyt). 

                Stilwell tells Merrill that they must now move on to take Myitkyana.  When Merrill points out that given the exhaustion of his unit this would be impossible, Stilwell basically tells him tough shit.  Merrill then has to break it to Stockton who informs his men via a long range shot that registers the slumping shoulders of the depressed men.  They push on through a swamp.  Trudging music.  A subplot develops involving Merrill’s heart problems.  Doc Kolodny (Andrew Duggan) is unable to stop him from killing himself.  He also has to deal with the rampant diseases like typhus.  Not to mention the lack of supplies.  When a supply drop occurs near Japanese forces, Merrill plays harsh bastard and orders his men to move on.
Stockton has his usual "you've got to be f'in kidding me" look
"Are you s******* me?!"

They reach the railway station at Shduzup.   The main fighting is in a mazelike structure that makes for a unique combat setting.  (There are no friendly casualties in the chaotic fighting because the Army insisted Fuller edit them out.)  It’s a phyrric victory as the unit has seemingly reached the end of its tether.  The doc reports to Merrill that the men are finished due to AOE – accumulation of everything.  Stilwell gives Merrill the “option” of continuing on to Myitkyina.  He decides he is not going to let anyone call him a pussy so he has to break it to Stock again.  “When you lead you have to hurt people – the enemy and sometimes your own.”  Now the march is through mountainous terrain.  Even the audience will be exhausted before they reach Myitkyina.  The survivors are faced with a last stand at the old watering hole when they arrive outside their objective.

“Merrill’s Marauders” was an obvious choice for Hollywood treatment.  After the success of “Objective Burma”, Warner Brothers was looking for a similar subject except this time without the controversy of Americans stealing British thunder.  The Marauders were fairly well known, having been press darlings during the war.  Fuller was a good choice to make the movie and his gritty style was appropriate for the subject and acceptable for a 1960s WWII movie.  In fact, Fuller wanted the movie to be even more gritty and ran into trouble with the studio over this.  The studio inserted some second unit footage to dilute the grit and tacked on a parade ground ending.  In spite of the tampering, the film is more realistic than most WWII movies.  It’s a pretty grim movie that lacks much humor.  Some of the deaths tug at you, but the movie concentrates more on the sacrifices than the mortality of the men.  The movie does a good job balancing the brass with the GIs.  You get an excellent study in command by way of Merrill and a soldier’s eye view of the campaign through Stockton and his men.  The interaction between Stilwell and Merrill and Merrill and Stockton provide both the macro view of the strategy and a micro view.
Claude Akins always gets the babes
The movie is well-acted, especially by Chandler.  It was his last role.  He injured his back playing baseball during the shoot, but insisted on continuing.  When he looks like he is in pain during the trudging scenes, it’s not all acting.  After the film was done, Chandler underwent back surgery and died under anesthesia at age 42.  Hardin is fine as the game, but questioning Stockton.  The members of the platoon include reliables like Peter Brown and Claude Akins.  Special mention to the acting by Eleanor the mule.
“Merrill’s Marauders” is a campaign movie, not a battle movie.  The combat scenes are exciting, but relatively brief.  The movie is more about the hardships the men went through.  It is clear that the soldiers were asked to go beyond human endurance and they accomplished impossible tasks.  The film is the rare war movie that spends some time on the effects of war on morale.  These guys do not want to do what ends up making them famous.  They are not out for glory.  They continue putting one foot in front of the other, but grudgingly.

SPOILER ALERT:  How accurate is the movie?  The unit was created at the Quebec Conference in August, 1943.  It was modeled after Orde Wingate’s Chindits which was conducting long-range operations in Burma.  The unit consisted of 3,000 volunteers (many of whom were veterans of Guadalcanal).  Some of them came from stockades (“The Dead End Kids”).  The unit was code-named Galahad.  They were trained in India after shipping out from San Francisco.  They then made a 1,000 mile march into Burma to be available to Stilwell.  At first the unit was used for harassing enemy supply lines and for patrolling, but then it was tasked with capturing Walawbum.  This is where the movie begins.

 They started out with 360 pack mules.  The path was through difficult jungle terrain.  They did not surprise the Japanese at Walawbum.  They had to withstand human wave attacks and heavy bombardment, but the enemy was forced to withdraw.  Stilwell then sent them to take a blocking position at Nhpua Ga.  Here they faced numerous attacks from various directions.  Dysentery and lack of supplies added to their miseries.  In spite of this, “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell ordered them on to Myitkyana across a mountain range with peaks 6,000 feet high.   There only remained 1,300 from the original 3,000.  The movie fails to show the two Chinese infantry regiments that accompanied them.  Merrill did not march with them on account of his latest heart attack.  His executive officer Lt. Col. Hunter was in command.  The trail had not been used in ten years and the biggest problem was getting the mules over it.  Lack of food (Stilwell’s decision that one K-Ration per day would be sufficient was laughable) and the fact that almost every soldier was ill caused an average drop in weight of 25 pounds. 

 The movie does not depict the numerous Japanese outposts that had to be taken and also does not show how the Marauders had mortars to use.  The air field was easily taken after an air bombardment.  Hunter was unclear if this finally completed their mission.  Gliders brought in an anti-aircraft unit instead of the infantry reinforcements necessary to take on Myitkyana.  When Stilwell made it clear they were not finished, Hunter argued that they were literally finished as a fighting force.  Stilwell responded by having the hospital combed for anyone who could still move and carry a weapon.  The movie does not go far enough in delineating what a dick Stilwell was.  The subsequent attack on the town was unsuccessful and resulted in a siege that further drained the unit.  This is when the typhus really kicked in.  At this point morale reached rock bottom.  Myitkyana only fell when Chinese forces attacked from the east.  The unit was disbanded on Aug. 10, 1944.  It had only 130 combat effectives at this point.  Of the original contingent, only two were alive and had never been hospitalized.  The unit had fought thirty-two engagements.  Hunter eulogized it as “the most beat upon, most mishandled, most heroic, and most unrecognized regimental unit in World War II.”  You can edit out “unrecognized” because of this movie.

In conclusion, “Merrill’s Marauders” is similar to “Glory” in that it brings recognition to a heroic small unit that deserved to be well-known.  It is not in a league with “Glory”, but it is respectable for a 1960s war movie.  It bucks Old School parameters enough to be gutsy in its griminess.  If Fuller had had his way, it would make my 100 Best War Movies list.  It might still sneak in.

GRADE  =  B 


Sunday, July 19, 2015

CRACKER? Barry Lyndon (1975)

                “Barry Lyndon” was directed by Stanley Kubrick and it came after a string of masterpieces that included “Paths of Glory”, “2001”, ‘’Spartacus”, and “Dr. Strangelove”.  The movie he made right before it was “Clockwork Orange”.  Kubrick wanted to make a movie about Napoleon, but “Waterloo” beat him to it.  Instead he decided to make a film based on William Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon which was first published in 1844.  The movie was filmed on location mostly in Ireland.  The film was not a hit and got mixed reviews.  It has gained stature over the years.  It won four Academy Awards:  Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, and Musical Score (Leonard Rosenman).  It was nominated for Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay.  Ryan O’Neal was tabbed for the lead because Warner Brothers insisted on a Top Ten box office star (this was the last time he was in the Top Ten) and the other choice (Robert Redford) turned the role down.

                Some scholars refer to Barry Lyndon as the first anti-hero.  Others simply consider him one of literature’s great rogues.  The movie starts with the young, lower class Barry fighting a duel over his cousin when she decides to marry a gentleman who has much better prospects.  After this he has to flee and ends up in the British Army during the Seven Years’ War.  He fights in a skirmish which is brief, but accurate other than the French soldiers not reloading.  In a portent of action interruptus yet to come, Barry leaves the battle early.  He then deserts and ends up in the Prussian Army.  Another battle ends prematurely, but Barry saves his commanding officer and is promoted to espionage.  Instead he becomes a gambler.  After some success in this line of work, he sets his sights on the social status that comes with marrying a rich widow.  Barry settles down to spendthrift wastrelry with his dysfunctional family.  He does not live happily ever after.
don't blink or you'll miss any combat involving this dandy
                “Barry Lyndon” has a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an 8.1 on IMDB.  I have to beg to differ.  If there ever was a movie that mesmerized people with shiny baubles, this is it.  Critics love Kubrick and were willing to overlook the plot in favor of the costumery and cinematography.  They gush over the way the movie was filmed.  They are particularly awed by the fact that John Alcott shot the interior scenes without artificial lighting.  As a nonprofessional I would classify that as neat, but not very significant in judging the movie.  I agree that the costumes and music are impressive.  The outdoor scenes are as pretty as a post card.

                My problem with the movie is it is excruciatingly boring.  184 minutes of boring.  The pace is glacial.  At one point the movie jumps eight years and I literally cheered.  To make matters worse, the movie is predictable and the death of one character could not have been telegraphed more if Samuel Morse was the director.   When you do get to an action scene, it is truncated and unfulfilling.  Some refer to it as a satire and even a black comedy, but I did not smile a single time and in fact the movie was depressing to me.  It is also poorly acted.  Ryan O’Neal is wooden and not nearly roguish enough.   Marisa Berenson is basically eye-candy.  It is no surprise her career did not take off after being in it. 
they weren't big on camouflage
in the Seven Years' War

                Movies about the Seven Years’ War are very rare.  Unfortunately, “Barry Lyndon” is not a war movie in my opinion.  You will learn little about the war from it.  It does have some historical value as a period piece.  You learn about what asses the upper class were and how they dressed and behaved.  That is little payoff for three hours of watching molasses flow.  Some will say that I just did not get it and I should rewatch it.  To those people I say:  not a chance in Hell!  First impression will have to be only impression.


Thursday, July 16, 2015

DUELING MOVIES: Gardens of Stone (1987) vs. Taking Chance (2009)


                 There are so many war movies that we actually have two that deal with U.S. military death rituals.  “Gardens of Stone” is set in the Vietnam War and dramatizes the role of the Old Guard in the burial of servicemen at Arlington National Cemetery.  “Taking Chance” is the story of the transfer of a victim of Operation Iraqi Freedom to burial by his family.  Both movies are sincere attempts to enlighten on a topic that is rarely the aftermath of all the celluloid bloodshed.

                “Gardens of Stone” is a Francis Ford Coppola film that came eight years after “Apocalypse Now”.  An eight year period of forgotten films.  The movie was based on a novel by Nicholas Profitt.  It takes its name from a nickname for Arlington National Cemetery.  Coppola had a vastly different experience dealing with the Pentagon on this film.  Because of the sincerity of the project, the military gave total cooperation including filming at Fort Myers and technical advice to assure the accuracy of the rituals.  The script was readily accepted with just the usual quibbling about profanity.  James Caan came out of semi-retirement (he had not made a movie in five years due to a bad experience in the making of “Kiss Me Goodbye”) to play the lead.   As though the production was not somber enough, Coppola’s eldest son was killed in a boating accident during the filming.  The boat was piloted by a drunken cast member.
                The movie is set in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War, around the time the war was souring in America.  Sgt. Hazard (Caan) is a veteran of Korea and Vietnam who is moldering as part of the Old Guard at Fort Myers.  He knows the war is fouled up.  “It’s not even a war.  There’s nothing to win and no way to win it.”  (Not a bad analysis.)  He longs to be transferred to a training position so he can use his wisdom to save a few of the lambs being led to slaughter.  And prevent them from becoming one of the constant stream of corpses his unit deals with every day.  His commanding officer and best friend Sgt. Major Nelson (James Earl Jones) has a bon homme style to balance Hazard’s moroseness.  Some of this is also tempered by his relationship with a liberal lady journalist named Samantha (Anjelica Houston).  Her anti-war philosophy has no effect on their feelings toward each other.  While wooing Sam, Hazard has found a protégé in a new arrival in the unit named Willow (D.B. Sweeney).  If Hazard can’t go to Vietnam or even the training school, he is determined to help the gung-ho Willow survive when he reaches there.  (No need to mention that his death is the most obvious in war movie history since the movie opens with his funeral.)
Nelson and Hazard discuss how to
win the Vietnam War
                “Gardens of Stone” is not based on a true story, but it does honor the 1st Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment. Known as the Old Guard, the unit is in charge of Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  As such, it does a reverential job in depicting the service of these men.  The stress of such a job is clearly shown.  The movie is educational about military burial procedures and if you have seen “Born on the Fourth of July”, it will have you pondering the gulf between treatment of the wounded and the dead during the Vietnam War.

                Coppola’s string of misfires did not end with this movie.  The strong cast and fine acting cannot lift a mundane script.  It is the opposite of “Apocalypse Now” in verve.  That is best seen when you compare Col. Kilgore from “Apocalypse” to Hazard - the culturally and socially sensitive warrior who collects Persian rugs and acts as a father figure to Willow.  The plot was so unimpressive that the military vetters went so far as to suggest some creative changes (along with their concerns with the potty mouths).  The somber music by Coppola’s father does not help.  Neither does the ripe dialogue and the two unrealistic romantic subplots.  Hazard’s relationship with Sam survives his punching out a mouthy pacifist friend of hers.  Even this does not lead to any meaningful debate on the war between the two.  Meanwhile, Willow is courting a girl that threatens to break it off if he insists on going to the Nam, but when he plays the duty card, she backs down immediately.  The biggest problem is in Coppola’s lack of focus as far as the theme.  Although clearly anti-war, the movie takes no stand on the Vietnam War itself.  Coppola claimed the real theme of the film is the family nature of the military and the traditions and rituals that are so admirable even to most doves.

                “Taking Chance” covers similar ground but without the melodrama.  The movie was based on an essay written by Lt. Col. Michael Strobl.  Strobl was a Persian Gulf War veteran who was consigned to a desk job during Operation Iraqi Freedom.  His mixed feelings about choosing family over a tour led to his volunteering to escort the body of Chance Phelps back to his home in Montana.  The diary he kept of the week led to the essay and it was optioned by HBO.  Strobl co-wrote the screenplay and won a Writers’ Guild of America award.  The movie was so well made that it was shown at the Sundance Festival.  It premiered on HBO to the highest audience for an original film in the previous five years.  It was nominated for ten Emmies and star Kevin Bacon won the Golden Globe and Screen Writer’s Guild awards for acting in a miniseries or television movie.  The movie was so well received that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates admitted that it was a factor in allowing the press access to the transfer of bodies at Dover Air Force Base.

                The movie opens in April, 2004.  A black screen does not distract from the noises of combat that resulted in the death of a PFC Phelps near Riwadi in Iraq.  (He was on a machine gun in a Humvee escorting a convoy  when he was hit during an ambush.)  Two Marines arrive at a rural home in Montana.  After that subtle set-up, we meet Strobl.  He is languishing pushing paper while his brethren fight and die for their country.  The least he can do is honor their sacrifice.  He volunteers to escort Chance’s body.  The movie has almost a documentary feel as it walks us through all the steps of the process.  Strobl is our framing agent as he goes where the corpse goes and encounters the respectful public along the way.  The movie culminates with the funeral with all its military trappings.
                The word that best describes “Taking Chance” is sincere.  You will not get a better tutorial on how the military treats a fallen hero in the modern age.  This realism is at the sacrifice of drama, however.  I have no reason to believe the movie is not very accurate.  In that case, can you complain about the absence of false theatrics?  No, but there is absolutely no conflict in the movie.  The movie skips the scene where the parents learn about their son’s death.  It also does not flashback to Chance’s death.  No one utters a negative word.  Every person, even strangers, is properly respectful.  The movie is apolitical and has nothing to say about the war Phelps died in.  There is no attempt to question whether Strobl was wise to stay home with his wife and kids.  It is not cut from the modern war movie style.  Compare it to “In the Valley of Elah”, for instance.  Unlike most war movies about America’s post-WWII wars, there is no theme of our dead soldiers deserve better or Americans do not care about their sacrifices.  It is not an overtly emotional movie.  Bacon won some acting awards, but to tell the truth it was an easy role.  He plays a Marine (with no PTSD) returning a dead body.  ‘Nuf said.

                These are two radically different movies on similar subjects.  Both are worth viewing so you can see the rituals involved in military funerals.  “Gardens of Stone” burdens the tutorial with a melodrama that is not strong.  “Taking Chance” is almost a docudrama and is straight-forward.   “Gardens of Stone” has the added burden of being a perplexing misfire from a supposedly great director.  “Taking Chance” was an overachiever.


TAKING CHANCE  =  B         

Sunday, July 12, 2015

HISTORY or HOLLYWOOD: Lawrence of Arabia

In honor of the great Omar Sharif, here is my "History or Hollywood" analysis of his best movie - "Lawrence of Arabia".

1.        Lawrence was killed when his speeding motorcycle ran off the road.  

2.       Lawrence was working as an intelligence officer for the Arab Bureau in Cairo before being tapped for his role in the Arab Revolt.  

3.       The British authorities wanted Lawrence to meet Prince Faisal and encourage him to unite the Bedouin tribes against the Turks.  

4.       Gen. Murray was anti-Lawrence.  

5.       Lawrence’s guide is killed by Ali because he was drinking from Ali’s water well.  

6.       Faisal’s camp was bombed by the Turkish air force.  

7.       Lawrence proposed the attack on Aqaba.  

8.       Lawrence and Ali led a force across the Negev Desert and Lawrence rescued Gasim.  

9.       Lawrence was rewarded with white Arabic clothing.  

10.    Lawrence met Auda and convinced him to join the cause.  

11.    Lawrence executed Gasim to preserve Bedouin unity.  

12.    Lawrence and Auda captured Aqaba in a surprise cavalry charge.  

13.    Lawrence crossed the Sinai to bring the news of Aqaba to Cairo.  

14.    An American newspaperman named Bentley publicized Lawrence’s adventures.  

15.    Lawrence led guerrilla attacks on the Turkish railway.  

16.    Lawrence was arrested and tortured by a Turkish commander in Daraa.  

17.     Lawrence reacted to the sacking of Tafas by ordering a “no prisoners” vengeance.  

18.    Lawrence tried to circumvent British plans by having the Arab Council take control of Damascus, but the Arabs proved incapable of governing themselves.  


1.        Lawrence was killed when his speeding motorcycle ran off the road.  History

2.       Lawrence was working as an intelligence officer for the Arab Bureau in Cairo before being tapped for his role in the Arab Revolt.  History

3.       The British authorities wanted Lawrence to meet Prince Faisal and encourage him to unite the Bedouin tribes against the Turks.  History

4.       Gen. Murray was anti-Lawrence.  Histywood  Murray was at first skeptical of Lawrence, but soon became a fan (although Lawrence never warmed to him).

5.       Lawrence’s guide is killed by Ali because he was drinking from Ali’s water well.  Hollywood  The guide is based on a real person and Lawrence did meet Sherif Ali at a well, but there was no violence.

6.       Faisal’s camp was bombed by the Turkish air force.  History  Lawrence was not there to witness the event.  Faisal told him about it when they met.  The Arabs were having trouble coping with the Turks’ modern weaponry.

7.       Lawrence proposed the attack on Aqaba.  Histywood  The plan was a group effort by several British officers including Lawrence.

8.       Lawrence and Ali led a force across the Negev Desert and Lawrence rescued Gasim.  Histywood  Auda was with them at this point.  Lawrence did rescue Gasim, but it was because it was his responsibility to take care of his servant.  Lawrence did not like Gasim because he was a bad character.

9.       Lawrence was rewarded with white Arabic clothing.  History  However, Lawrence was already wearing Arabic clothing before the movie shows this.

10.    Lawrence met Auda and convinced him to join the cause.  Hollywood  Auda was already on board when he first met Lawrence at Faisal’s camp.  Auda was a ruthless warrior, but was not motivated by greed.  He was a sincere patriot.

11.    Lawrence executed Gasim to preserve Bedouin unity.  Histywood  Lawrence did have to execute a murderer, but it was not Gasim.  It did take him several shots.

12.    Lawrence and Auda captured Aqaba in a surprise cavalry charge.  History  The attack was not as much of a surprise as the movie shows.  The Turks had already lost some outposts and a surrender had been negotiated when Arab reinforcements arrived and insisted on a charge.  The charge is accurately depicted as brief and almost unopposed.  Auda was not upset at the lack of treasure and in fact turned down Turkish bribes to switch sides.

13.    Lawrence crossed the Sinai to bring the news of Aqaba to Cairo.  Histywood  Lawrence was accompanied by seven others (including Daud and Farraj).  Daud did not die in quick sand.  He died a tear later of typhus and Lawrence was not with him.

14.    An American newspaperman named Bentley publicized Lawrence’s adventures.  Hollywood  Bentley was based on Lowell Thomas.  Thomas met Lawrence after the U.S. entered the war.  He was only with Lawrence for a short time and did not witness any train attacks.  He was not cynical or critical of Lawrence.  In fact, he made Lawrence famous after the war.

15.    Lawrence led guerrilla attacks on the Turkish railway.  Histywood  The train attacks started before Aqaba and it was other British officers that originated them.  Lawrence was never wounded in any attack.  Farraj was not injured by an explosive.  He was actually wounded in a raid on the Turks.  Lawrence did put him out of his misery and the dialogue was authentic.

16.    Lawrence was arrested and tortured by a Turkish commander in Daraa.  History  The incident in the movie is accurate as far as it goes, if you take “Seven Pillars” at face value.  The movie implies that there was a rape.  This seems likely, although there are historians who believe the entire story was made up by Lawrence.

17.     Lawrence reacted to the sacking of Tafas by ordering a “no prisoners” vengeance.  History  The initial charge was initiated solo by Talal as shown in the film.  Lawrence did participate in the killing.  His supporters insist he took responsibility for the killings because that is what a leader does.

18.    Lawrence tried to circumvent British plans by having the Arab Council take control of Damascus, but the Arabs proved incapable of governing themselves.  Histywood  Lawrence was aware of the Sykes-Picot agreement to create British and French spheres of influence in the region, but he hoped to preempt the plan.  There were electricity and other public services problems, but the Arab administration was not deposed until 1920.

RATING  =  .64

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

FORGOTTEN GEM? Fighter Squadron (1948)

                “Fighter Squadron” is a Raoul Walsh (“They Died With Their Boots On” / “Objective, Burma!”) film designed to entertain audiences with the dashing heroics of fighter pilots in Europe in WWII.  It is dedicated to the men of Fighter Command and thanks the Air Force for its cooperation.  The cooperation was substantial.  The movie was filmed at Oscoda Army Air Field on Lake Huron in Michigan.  The USAF also provided lots of footage and actual P-47s and P-51s.

                The movie starts with the cliché of the desk jockey commander who inflicts castrating rules on his stallions.  These rules include fighters must stay with the bombers and should not drop their extra fuel tanks early.  These rules really chaff hot shot ace Maj. Hardin (Edmund O’Brien).  He’s a rule breaker.  And a required character in a movie like this.  Ironically, Hardin has a rule of his own – bachelors only!  Women be distracting.  If you drop your tanks, it better be with a prostitute.  Capt. Hamilton (Robert Stack) has a picture of his girl and he plans to marry her.  That means he wants to defy Hardin and die, in that order.

                Guess who gets promoted into a management position?  Suddenly, Hardin is a rule enforcer (like every air combat character placed in this position before) and the men suddenly resent this trogolodyte who one day earlier was their role model (like in every other air combat … oh, never mind).  Hardin does convince the general to allow them to drop their tanks early so the director can use all the cool dog fight footage.  Unfortunately, the general insists that any radio banter conform to 1940s dialogue restrictions.  That REMF! (In this case the F stands for flipper.) 

                There is an extended take-off sequence with music by Max “Pompous” Steiner.  The ensuing dog fight includes so much gun camera footage that a Japanese plane sneaks in.  The cockpit taunting includes gems like:  “Burn ya crumb, burn” and “Hit the silk”.  We get a downed pilot being rescued by a buddy who lands to pick him up.  This was ridiculous the first time it was done in “The Dawn Patrol”.  But wait, later in the movie the squadron is sent by a ground controller to attack a French town.  A German intercepts and tries to send them elsewhere, but he can’t answer the question of what the Brooklyn Dodgers are nicknamed.  (Correct answer:  the bums)  Hilarious!   Eat napalm and rockets, Nazis.  Queue “Yankee Doodle Dandy”.

                You would think that with the director and cast “Fighter Squadron” would be a good movie.  You would be wrong!  This movie could have been the fighter version of “12 O'Clock High”, but it goes down in flames.  When it comes to acting, the P-47s are great.  It’s the humans that barely get off the ground.  The actors are too sincere.  Normally I like Edmund O’Brien and Robert Stack, but this is not their best effort.  By the way, don’t blink or you will miss Rock Hudson’s film debut.  (He took 38 takes for his one line.)  Of course, they are not helped by the atrocious dialogue.  The witty pilot talk is lame and not funny.  But the cockpit banter sets the standard for crap.  What these guys say during dog fights makes “Red Tails” sound Shakespearian.  This is dialogue written by someone who did not have a clue about how fighter pilots talk.
This is what happens when the cool teacher
becomes the rule enforcing principal
                The plot is predictable and full of clichés.  In an attempt to throw in a humorous subplot, Sgt. Dolan (Tom D’Andrea) uses black cats to get off base to meet girls.  Funny, not.  Several key scenes rely on plot devices that defy reality.  It helps if you are not an air combat fan, familiar with WWII air warfare, or do not have a brain.  This is a shame because the movie actually covers some interesting themes.  Should fighters stay with the bombers they are escorting?  How long should fighters retain their belly tanks?  Should fighter pilots get married?  I know you think I will say something snarky about that last one, but it is actually based on a true story.  The 4th Fighter Group was known as “Blakeslee’s Bachelors” because Col. Donald Blakeslee would transfer anyone who got married.  (I have to say that I could not find any confirmation for this and I am skeptical.)  By the way, he also had a policy of transferring any pilot who “pranged his kite” which was ironic because he eventually forgot to lower his landing gear

                There is a reason to watch the movie.  If you are a Thunderbolt fan like me, there is plenty of P-47 action in the film.  In that respect, it reminds me of another otherwise terrible movie called “The Hunters” which featured another fav – the F-86.  That movie was set in Korea, but is similar in fumbling serious issues with stock characters and a good cast acting badly.  “Fighter Squadron” takes advantage of plenty of footage and there is a nice variety.  Besides dog fight shoot downs, there is also strafing of German airfields and a montage of bombing raids.  The blending is fine and makes the rest of the film look even more gloriously Technicolor. 

              Forgotten gem?  Forgotten, yes.  Gem, no.    


Saturday, July 4, 2015

CRACKER? The Blue Max (1966)

                “The Blue Max” recently won my Best Dogfighting Movie tournament.  Now it’s time to see how it holds up as a war movie. 

                Considered one of the definitive WWI air combat films, “The Blue Max” was directed by John Guillerman (“The Bridge at Remagen”).  It is based on the novel by Jack Hunter.  The title is a reference to the German medal officially called “Le Pour le Merite”.  The movie had a big budget and an international cast.  It was a moderate success at the box office and got mixed reviews.

                The movie begins on the Western Front in 1916.  Corporal Bruno Stachel (George Peppard) is an infantryman in no man’s land.  He witnesses a dogfight from a shell crater and dreams.  While the credits roll with a dogfight as a back drop, two years pass and Stachel becomes a trained pilot.  He is sent as a replacement to a Staffel where it is revealed that he is the only commoner amongst the noble German knights of the air.  His first mission is against an observation balloon.  He is flying an obsolete Pfalz D.III  They get bounced and he manages to shoot down a British S.E. 5 in an exciting treetop chase.  When he returns to base, Stachel is obsessed with confirming his kill and not at all concerned with the loss of his wing mate.  His search during a rain storm at night convinces his squadron mates that he cares only about getting the twenty victories necessary to win the Blue Max.  This perception is cemented when Stachel attempts to bring a British reconnaissance plane back to his air field, but is forced to shoot it down at the last moment.  It comes off as him making sure he gets a confirmed kill this time.  His squadron commander Heidermann (Karl Voger) is incensed with this violation of the rules of chivalry and is determined to get rid of this son of a hotel keeper.
                Stachel’s rival in the squadron is an ace named Klugermann (Jeremy Kemp).  Klugermann is the nephew of General Klugerman (James Mason) and is having an affair with the general’s trophy wife Kaeti (Ursula Andress).  The rivalry in the sky becomes a rivalry between the sheets.  Who do you think she will pick – Peppard or Kemp?  As Stachel’s total mounts, General Cuckold sees him as a people’s hero that can be used for propaganda purposes.  This puts him at odds with the moralistic Heidermann who wants to can Stachel.  Heidermann is pushing for a court-martial after Stachel falsely claims two victories scored by another pilot.  Confronted with the possible tainting of his golden boy, Gen. Klugermann needs to find a way to convert the hero into a martyr.
"Willi, I want to make it clear that this medal is
not for sleeping with my wife!"
                “The Blue Max” advances three themes that probably would have perplexed the generation that lived through the Great War.  First, there was a rigid class structure in the German Air Service.  No matter how talented and successful Stachel became, he would never be accepted by the snooty aristocrats that were his squadron mates.  By having Stachel come up from the infantry, the movie is connecting the ground war with the lower classes and the air war with the upper classes.  An underappreciated moment in the movie comes when Stachel is scolded for not celebrating that day's victories and ignoring their losses.  He responds:  “Perhaps it’s force of habit.  In the trenches, we couldn’t even bury the dead; there were too many of them…. I’ve never had the time…to discuss them over a glass of champagne.”   Not an inappropriate analogy.  Second, Gen. Klugermann represents the military’s attempts to manipulate the media.  “Truth is the first casualty in war” was not said about WWI so the movie is backdating that idea.  Third, the movie has a theme of the evils of the military industrial complex.  This may be a bit anachronistic, but Gen. Klugermann being in bed with Anthony Fokker is not a stretch.  WWI was the first industrialized war and thus must have been the first war where industrialists and the military had a symbiotic relationship.  It was not as developed at this stage as the movie implies, though.  The movie reflects a 1960s sensibility on these themes.  Speaking of which, the Kaeti character would be more at home in that decade.

                The movie reflects its big budget.  The interiors are opulent.  Not surprising for a WWI combat movie because the pilots are of course billeted in a chateau.  A lot of the budget went into the small air force of replica air craft the movie employs.  We see Pfalz D.IIIs, Fokker D.VIIs, and Fokker Dr. I triplanes.  The cast of planes is in some ways more impressive than the cast of actors.  Guillermin matched the machines up with a cadre of outstanding stunt pilots.  One of those pilots, Derek Piggott, did the famous flight under the bridge spans more than twenty times.  The dogfighting is the most memorable thing about the movie.  There is nineteen minutes of it to balance the soap opera aspects of the film.  There is a “Hell’s Angels” style melee that shows how modern cinematography had made air combat better.  And then CGI came along, so the pendulum has swung back.  The movie has outstanding sound effects which is an underrated aspect of air combat films.  Similarly, the score by Jerry Goldsmith is superb.  It soars with the planes.  Typical of a WWI air epic, the movie insists on getting down and dirty in the trenches.  There is an extended strafing scene and a large-scale trench battle that is marred by having the British soldiers come out of their trenches to meet the Germans in no man’s land!   This was done to get the Tommies out in the open so the German fighters could drop bombs they did not have.  Talk about insulting your audience’s intelligence.

                 “The Blue Max” is refreshingly devoid of clichés.  It does have the granddaddy of the dogfighting tropes: the main character is obsessed with glory.The acting is fine.  Peppard has taken some criticism, but he does a good job in a difficult role.  (Critics should have been more impressed with the fact that he learned how to fly so he could be in more shots.)  In 1966, the anti-hero had not quite developed into the icon we have today so he had to walk a fine line between jerk and misunderstood jerk.  Amazingly, Jeremy Kemp steals the acting honors.  His Willi is suavely cynical.  And he’s sleeping with his step-aunt!  The best dialogue is the exchanges between Bruno and Willi.  James Mason is perfect as the Machiavellian Gen. Klugermann and Vogler is great as the righteous Heidermann.  (By the way, they both played Erwin Rommel in movies.)  The weak link is Andress, of course.  She is not there for her acting ability obviously.  On the plus side, there is some chemistry between her and Peppard.  On the minus side, she keeps her clothes on, mostly.
Damn you,  towel!

                 In conclusion, although it is  the best movie about dogfighting, it is not a great movie and may not make my 100 Best War Movies list.  In  my opinion, there is still an opening for an outstanding example of this subgenre.  Dogfighting movies are still waiting for their "Das Boot".

GRADE  =  B 

the trailer

a dogfight

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

WAR SHORT STORY READALONG: "Chasing the Major-General"

Chasing the Major-General” is a short story by the famous artist Frederic Remington.  Remington is the artist most associated with the West of the Indian Wars.  His paintings of cowboys, Indians, and the cavalry helped establish our image of the Old West.  Most people do not know that he also fashioned himself a writer.  This particular short story was for Harper’s Weekly.  Remington’s presence was requested by Maj. Gen. Nelson Miles.  Miles was one of the more well-known Indian fighting generals.  He had made a name for himself in the Nez Perce (Chief Joseph) campaign and the capture of Geronimo.  The story is set in a mission by Miles to escort an Indian commission to negotiate with the Northern Cheyennes.  Miles had a dream of becoming President and saw Remington as a means to that end.  He had to put up with Remington’s excessive drinking which ironically held up the commission on occasion, but the flattering story was worth the trouble. 

                The story is about Remington trying to keep up with the gung-ho general.  Although not meant to be comical, the image of the portly general galloping ahead of his column is the big take-away from the story.  Miles is the model of a general who leads from in front – far in front.  The weird thing is that Miles was not conducting a campaign to catch and defeat hostile Indians.  So what was the hurry?  Personality is the key.  Speaking of which, we get a good impression of Remington from the story.  He was known as “The Soldier’s Artist” because he idolized the cavalry and lionized them in his paintings and writings.  (He later would justify Wounded Knee as the soldiers defending themselves.)  He has some very interesting opinions that come through in the story.

                Remington declares that there are two types of cavalry generals in the West – wagon-men and horse-men.  Wagon-men rely on wagons for logistics and horse-men travel more quickly by packing supplies on horse-back.  Or rather mule-back.  Miles was a horse-man.  Obviously Miles also believed in a general riding on horse and setting the standard for his men.  This could be dangerous especially at night.  One unlucky step into a gopher hole or one unseen ravine could result in death.  Riding like a maniac brings questions as to Miles fitness to lead a nation, but apparently Remington and Miles felt the story bolstered his chances.  One also wonders about the attitude of Miles toward the horses.  Remington describes the horses as inferior.  He criticizes the military for paying $125 for $60 horses.  It’s clear that the profligacy of the Pentagon is not new.  And these horses were expected to gallop sixty miles in a day!  And in the case of Remington, carry a 215 pound artist attempting to ride in the “European style” with legs tucked to his chest.  He humorously describes trying to ignore the catty comments of the Westerners.  Remington does seem to know horses.  He offers the interesting opinion that “while you can teach a horse anything, you cannot unteach him.” 
when you do a self-portrait,
you can trim some pounds

                Remington also has some interesting things to say about the Army.  He is scathing in his comments about the reason for the poor support from Washington.  His theory is that by the time a soldier reaches the higher ranks and go off to the capital, they feel they have earned the right to slack off.  This results in the leadership of the Army being conservative and cheap.  He specifically had some opinions on the Battle of Little Big Horn when they visited the site.  Not surprisingly, Remington blamed the defeat on the lack of initiative of Reno and Benteen.  He opines that the role of these subordinates should have been to march to the sounds of the guns.  When in doubt, go in and fight until you drop.  Best to end up a “dead lion” than a live survivor.  He has insights on the officers as well.  He describes them as being cogs in the machine except when their individuality comes out in battle and before breakfast.

                The piece is well-written.  I did not expect Remington to be competent as a writer.  I was very familiar with his paintings as I am a big fan, but I was only vaguely familiar with his literary endeavors.  He has a booze-flavored style to his writing.  I did not find about his fondness for the bottle until after I read the story, but it makes sense.  The story has a sense of humor typical of a genteel toper.  He doesn’t mind poking fun at himself.  The story is excellent at portraying the personalities of two famous men.   Although nothing particularly exciting happens, the story is charming and worth reading. 

GRADE  =  B-

Next month's story:  The Colonel's Ideas