Sunday, August 30, 2015

CRACKER? The Bridge at Remagen (1969)

                “The Bridge at Remagen” purports to tell the tale of a seminal moment in WWII Europe.  In March, 1945, an American unit won a race to capture an intact bridge across the Rhine River before the Nazis could destroy it.  The bridge at Remagen turned out to be the only bridge that was captured so it was unique.  The bravery of the men who risked being blown up with the bridge was worthy of a movie.  John Guillermin (“The Blue Max”) directed a story based on the book The Bridge at Remagen: The Amazing Story of March 7, 1945 by Ken Hechler.  The movie was filmed in Czechoslokia at a bridge similar to the real bridge (but they spent $250,000 blasting out a tunnel to recreate a tunnel at the actual site).  The  filming was interrupted by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia which prompted producer David Wolper to hire 28 taxis to carry cast and crew to safety.  The movie was finished near Hamburg and in Italy.

                The film opens with an American armored unit rampaging towards the Obercassel Bridge as a German troop train crosses it.  The bridge is blown before the Americans can reach it thus establishing the fact that finding an intact bridge will be difficult to capture and the fact that a bridge could be blown in their faces.  Cut to Gen. Von Brock being ordered to destroy the bridge at Remagen regardless of a large part of the 15th Army being caught on the other side.  In spite of these orders, Von Brock unofficially tells Maj. Kruger (Robert Vaughn) to hold the bridge as long as possible.  Meanwhile, the 27th Mobile Infantry is on the way to the bridge although Gen. Shinner (E.G. Marshall) is sure the bridge will not be available.
our no-star cast of anti-heroes
                The lead element of the 27th is led by a Lt. Hartman (George Segal).  He is cynical and far from gung-ho.  It is implied that his unit has seen more than their share of combat and are a bit miffed at having to be the spearhead.  His second in command Sgt. Angelo (Ben Gazzara) likes to loot dead bodies.  They do not get along.  Actually, Hartman is one of those leaders who is a cold bastard with no friends.  When they have to take out a farmhouse and Hartman is asked what might be in the house, he snarkily responds:  “I don’t know,  but it ain’t candy”.

                The unit moves on to the town of Meckenheim where there is no resistance.  They sack out in a jail and there is a young lady!  They stay only long enough for an awkward interlude with the girl.  We get to see one breast and are left pondering what the hell that scene had to do with the movie.  The only thing I can theorize is that a late 60s war film needs to have a female character and she has to show some skin.

                At the bridge, Kruger arrives to find hardly any defenders and no explosives to blow up the bridge.  But the worst thing is that his exec is Capt. Schmidt played by Hans Christian Blech.  Never leave Blech in charge of blowing up a bridge!  The bridge withstands a bombing run by one B-25 which results in numerous explosions unrelated to the bomber.  Hartmann’s men arrive in Remagen where the killing of a Hitler Youth sniper causes Angelo to reassess his thieving ways and Hartman to soften toward him.  At least something good comes from the kid’s death.  The explosives finally arrive and the wiring of the bridge begins.  When Gen. Shinner arrives, he sees the intact jewel and immediately orders the storming of the bridge.  Hartman and his men are not thrilled with what they consider to be a suicide mission and Angelo is so incensed he commits a court-martial offense.  However, they go because somebody has to do it, damn this war! 
did you know war can be exhausting?

                There are some critics who think highly of this movie.  They are wrong.  It is a lamentable attempt to attach the late 60s anti-hero vibe to a noteworthy event.  The men who participated in the capture of the bridge deserved a laudatory treatment, not cynical crap.  Basically, they would have been better served with an Old School movie.  It was wise to change the names of all the characters based on real people.  Plus it avoided likely law suits by defamed families.  Both Hartman and Angelo are based on men who received the Distinguished Service Cross for their heroism at the bridge.  They belong in a Vietnam War movie.  It is unrealistic for a lieutenant and sergeant to question orders that would have been totally in sync with the American philosophy of aggressively targeting objectives and accepting short-term casualties for long-term gains that would shorten the war.  I’m not saying Hartman and Angelo would not have been war weary, but to portray them as insubordinate is not realistic.  The basic theme is "war is tiring".  Not surprisingly, another trope of this modern war movie is the crass Gen. Shinner.  He belongs in a WWI movie, but if you pay attention to what he says, his decisions make total sense.  The movie wants us to think his order to charge the bridge is mean when in actuality it was totally appropriate and sensible.  Generals have to send men to their deaths to save lives and men have to risk their lives for the greater good.
                Besides besmirching good men, the movie is just not entertaining.  The only good thing is the score which is the only thing that qualifies it as a big budget, all-star battle epic.  The cast is the opposite of “The Longest Day”.  Christ, the fourth billed is Bradford Dillman!  Segal and Gazzara look like they were directed to act like guys in a Vietnam War movie.  They don’t work hard and the script does not develop their characters beyond jerk and thief.  Weirdly, the characters we are supposed to root for are wrong and the characters we are supposed to shake our heads at are right.  The combat scenes are pretty good and the military hardware is impressive.  There are enough explosions to keep an American audience happy.  Unfortunately,  there is not  enough combat to make up for the lulls which include two scenes (the girl in the jail and the kid in the hotel) that seem to have wandered in from another movie.

                In conclusion, "The Bridge at Remagen" does not belong on a list of the 100 Best War  Movies.  It botches an opportunity to laud some heroic Americans and the inaccurate portrayal of an important historical event is shameful.

                SPOILER ALERT:  The movie gets one thing right – Americans did capture the Ludendorf Bridge.  Other than that, read a book.  This starts from the very beginning.  The failed attempt to take Obercassel Bridge was by Americans disguised as Germans, not an armored column.  Lt. Gen. Walter Botsch (not Von Brock) was in command of the area, but it was Hitler himself who ordered for all Rhine bridges to be blown at the last minute.  Of course, not timing it properly would have shortened your life.  Botsch sent Capt. Willi Bratge  (Kruger) to command at the bridge.  The bridge had been rigged with explosives, but was promised more and also reinforcements.  The 9th Armored Division was racing to the Rhine, but not with the intention of capturing the bridge.  Hell, as the movie shows, the Americans tried to bomb the bridge.  All this changed when the bridge was sighted from a ridge and Brig. Gen. William Hoge (Shinner in the movie) ordered the attack.  When Capt. Karl Timmermann (Hartman) was given the task he logically asked what if the bridge was blown, he got no answer.  However,  I found no evidence he was crabby.  As the unit approached the structure, the bridge was blown but the inferior charges only opened a ten meter hole in the middle.  Then when Timmermann’s men were on the bridge (and under it removing charges), the eastern end was blown, but rose and settled back in place.  As far Sgt. Alexander Drabik (Angelo), he was the first to cross the bridge - on the run with his squad (none of whom were hit).  Bratge and his men and civilians were trapped in the tunnel.  He ended up being captured which means he was not executed for not blowing up the bridge.   


***  Answer to the caption question:  Battle of the Bulge

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

DUELING MOVIES: Hot Shots! vs. Meet the Spartans


                Some war movies lend themselves to parody and some beg to be satirized.  “Hot Shots!” and “Meet the Spartans” fall into the latter category.  That is because the movies they are making fun of are almost parodies in themselves.  And who can resist making fun of two movies that were huge successes in spite of the critics.  It would have been incredible if no one had taken on “Top Gun” and “300”.  All you can hope for as a war movie lover is they don’t blow the opportunity.

                “Hot Shots!” came out five years after “Top Gun”.  It was directed by Jim Abraham of “Airplane!” fame.  Abraham also did the underrated war movie spoof “Top Secret”.  "Hot Shots!" cost $26 million and made $181 million.  The movie stars Charlie Sheen, Cary Elwes, and Lloyd Bridges (who replaced George C. Scott).  Although a parody of “Top Gun”, the movie has its own plot involving the corruption of the military-industrial complex (I think that’s what they were targeting, right?) and Operation Slippery Weasel which involves a mission against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  The arc of Topper Harley’s (Sheen) daddy-issues therapy with comely Ramada (Valeria Golino) mimics the romance in “Top Gun” and is actually more realistic.  At least there is some chemistry here.  There is also the spoofing of the competition between the two hot shot pilots as Topper’s nemesis is Kent Gregory (Elwes). ( I don’t why he didn’t  get a funny name or nickname.)  Stumbling through the proceedings is Adm. Benson (Bridges).  One of the running jokes is his litany of war wounds which include his bladder on Guadalcanal, his head on Pork Chop Hill, ear canals on Corregidor, forehead in Normandy, and eye balls on Okinawa.  The movie takes on several air combat movie clichés including the love triangle, the fight in the bar, the doomed flyer (“Dead Meat”), and the ubiquitous motorcycle.  As per the subgenre, it parodies movies like “Dances With Wolves”, “Rocky”, “Gone With the Wind”, and “Superman” - all well-known classics.
Can you guess which movie is being spoofed?

                “Meet the Spartans” came out just one year after “300”.  It was directed by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer.  They had made names for themselves in similar movies like “Date Movie” and “Epic Movie”.  The movie cost $30 million (try to figure out where the money went) and made $84 million.  Not a bad profit for so little effort.  It stars Sean Maguire, Carmen Electra (of course), and Kevin Sorbo.  The movie attempts to lampoon each of the iconic scenes in “300”.  These include the training of Leonidas' (Maguire) son, the “pit of death” scene, the visit to the prophetess (Ugly Betty), the first encounter (a dance contest),  the opening battle (a “yo mama” contest), and the battle involving the monster (Rocky Balboa).  Meanwhile, back in Sparta, Queen Margo (Electra) squares off with Traitoro (Diedrich Bader).  The main running gag is that the Spartans are gay, but don’t realize it.  Besides “300” the film targets more TV programs than movies.  It is mainly interested in trashing celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton and making numerous snarky pop culture references.
The two dudes kissed!  Hilarious!

                This post came about because my coverage of the Battle of Thermopylae and references to “300” caused some of my students to prod me to watch “Meet the Spartans”.  They assured me it was hilarious.  I have to admit I should have done my war movie duty and have seen it before.  However, I trust critics and “Meet the Spartans” has a 2% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  Sometimes critics are wrong and teenagers are right, but not this time.

                “Hot Shots!” is very much in the “Airplane!” model.  There are lots of silly jokes and sight gags.  It is large quantity and some quality.  Not as high a percentage as "Airplane!", but that would be asking too much.  Most of the jokes are more smilers than guffaws, but the movie is consistently funny.  If you are like me and think “Top Gun” was a terrible movie that needed to be made fun of, you won’t be disappointed.  But the movie is not mean-spirited and can be enjoyed by undiscerning movie-goers who like “Top Gun”.   The ribbing of clichés is a nice touch to go along with the movie parodies.  The attention to this starts with the title and includes the nicknames given to the stereotyped characters like “Wash Out”.  Special kudos to the parodying of “Top Gun” style music.

                “Meet the Spartans” starts off strong with the birth of Leonidas and then a montage of his brutal training of his son which includes chasing him with a chain saw.  I did laugh out loud a few times in the first twenty minutes, but not again after that.  I don’t necessarily sneer at silly (having grown up with Monty Python), but this is infantile silly.  The level of humor is evidenced early when Leonidas battles with a giant penguin (a dig at “Happy Feet”).  Watch the unrated edition if you want more lewd penguin humor.  Although “300” should have been easy to parody, “Meet the Spartans” is too lazy to do it right.  It is a botched attempt at a sitting duck.  For example, it is the height of laziness to include “yo mama” jokes, but you could go on the Internet to find many that are funnier than the ones used in the movie.
"Meet the Spartans" offers more than it delivers

                “Hot Shots!” wins this match hands down and it is partly due to who it is aimed at.  The target demographic was not limited to the 14 year old boys who were the main audience for “Meet the Spartans”.  This means the level of humor is slightly higher and it is slightly lower on the silly meter.  “Hot Shots!” has a huge advantage in acting and casting.  Compare the top five billed actors to see what I mean.  No offense to Sean Maguire, but he’s no Charlie Sheen.  You can argue who is hotter between Valeria Golino and Carmen Electra, but one of them can act and the other is Carmen Electra.  By the way, a point in Golino’s favor is the catching of the  olive from her navel was not trick photography.
No CGI was used in this scene

                Most importantly, if you were to choose to watch either one today, “Hot Shots!” is clearly the better choice.  It holds up much stronger due to the choice of targets.  Making fun of Lindsay Lohan and Kevin Federline may have been hilarious in 2008, but talk about old news now.  It is like watching an episode of “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In”.  Whereas everyone is familiar with the classic movies “Hot Shots!” parodies, the TV-centric targets of “Meet the Spartans” are too lightweight.  Speaking of old news, 2008 was not that long ago in years, but the gay jokes that populate "Meet the Spartans" are already squirm-inducing.  If you are going to build a movie around pop culture references, you can’t expect it to have long-term entertainment value.  The war movie clichés that “Hot Shots!” takes on will always be with us, but who the hell cares about Sanjaya Malakar.
Cast rating:  8+6+8+7 = 7.25 avg.  

Cast rating:  6+2+5 = 4.33



Saturday, August 22, 2015

FORGOTTEN GEM? Assault at West Point (1994)

                “Assault at West Point: The Court-Martial of Johnson Whittaker” is a made for TV movie about a shameful incident from America’s past.  Whitaker was one of the first African-Americans to attend West Point and while there was the only African-American cadet.  He underwent the silent treatment and ostracism for four years.  In his senior year, he was accused of staging an assault on himself in order to get sympathy because he feared an upcoming philosophy exam.  He was court-martialed and expelled.  The movie covers the court-martial using transcripts from the trial.

                The movie opens with the elderly Whittaker and his sons defending their home against cross-burning racists.  A white reporter interviews him about his past and this launches the film into flashback mode.  The way back machine places us at the beginning of the trial.  Whittaker (Seth Gilliam) is accused of mutilating himself and tying himself up to his bed.  Gen. William Sherman insists on a court-martial of the “ignorant coon”.  Whittaker’s lawyer is a well-respected white man named Daniel Chamberlain (Sam Waterston), but Whittaker insists that a friend named Richard Greener (Samuel L. Jackson) be involved in his defense.  Greener is an African-American who graduated from Harvard.  He wants to approach the trial as an example of racism.  Chamberlain wants to defend Whittaker in a color-blind way.  The two will be at logger-heads throughout the trial.  The prosecutor is the Judge Advocate of West Point.  Major Asa Bird Gardiner (John Glover) is a formidable opponent, plus he has the decked stacked in his favor. 

                The movie uses the common format for a movie about a trial.  Witnesses take the stand and this usually leads to a flashback to reenact the testimony.  These scenes are broken up by arguments between Chamberlain and Greener about strategy and attempts by Greener to track down witnesses to refute the prosecution’s case.  There is also a subplot about the assorted newsmen following the trial.  They range from racists to liberals.  The key prosecution witness is a hand writing expert who testifies that Whittaker wrote a threatening note to himself prior to the assault.  Chamberlain’s idea of refuting this is to call another expert who disputes that it is Whittaker’s handwriting but then proceeds to expound that being colored, Whittaker was incapable of “shamming” an assault and was unconscious when discovered because he is a coward!  Another damaging witness is the doctor (Eddie Bracken) who dealt with Whittaker.  He lies and testifies that there was very little blood involved.  Greener convinces Chamberlain to put Whittaker on the stand.  He does well under intense questioning by Gardiner.  After closing arguments, the trial goes to the five judge panel.  A wild card development impacts the outcome.
"I know you're trying to get me to lose my cool and
start cursing, but I don't do that in a made for TV movie."
                This is a significant film that tells a forgotten story from America’s tainted past.  It does it accurately.  The movie was based on a book by historian John Marszalek.  The book reopened the case, but it was the movie that brought the attention that resulted in a posthumous commission by President Clinton in 1995.  (The verdict had been overturned by President Arthur in 1883, but West Point refused to award the commission because he had failed the exam.)  The movie covers all the basics of the trial and uses actual testimony.  The scenes outside the courtroom are probably enhanced, but it seems likely that Chamberlain and Greener butted heads.  Greener was a significant figure in the African-American community.  He was the first black to graduate from Harvard.  One theme of the movie is the depiction of how an intelligent colored man had to tread lightly in white society.  Jackson does an excellent job showing how has to control his righteous indignation in order to get things accomplished.  It is behind closed doors with Chamberlain that his true beliefs come to the fore.  These scenes are instructive in portraying the state of civil rights in the 1880s.  Chamberlain represents the supposedly enlightened whites. He ticks off all his pro-Negro bona fides and then argues that they don’t want to rock the boat by bringing up race at the trial.  The movie portends the future as Chamberlain, after the trial, let his racist flag fly in a number of ways.

                The movie is not showy.  It definitely does not have high production values.  It makes up for this in acting.  Samuel L. Jackson is perfect as the seething Greener.  You keep expecting him to jump up and yell “I’ve had enough of the mutherf’ing snakes in this courtroom!”  As it is the most the screenwriters give him is a simple “shit”.  It must have been difficult for him to suppress his normal screen persona.  Waterston is a good match as the closet racist Chamberlain.  Their scenes where they argue strategy are well done.  Glover does a good job as Gardiner.  He is not Snidely Whiplash – he does not twirl his mustache a single time.  But he realistically represents a archetype that existed in the military back then.  The supporting cast is fine for a low budget film.  Seth Gilliam is solid as Whittaker and it’s fun seeing Eddie Bracken as the doctor.  There is nothing special about the cinematography and music.  It is what it is for a made for TV movie that could easily be a teleplay.

                In conclusion, watch this movie.  If you are not infuriated, you’ll learn something about yourself.  And shame on you if you're not upset with what happened to Johnson Whittaker.


Thursday, August 20, 2015

SHOULD I READ IT? Lacombe, Lucien (1974)

                “Lacombe, Lucien” is a Louis Malle (“Au Revoir Les Enfants”) film set in Vichy France in WWII.  It was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.  The film was co-written by Malle and the acclaimed novelist Patrick Modiano.  The movie is noteworthy for the casting of two rookie actors.  Aurore Clement was making her first movie.  Malle wanted an amateur in the main role.  Pierre Blaise was a highly unconventional choice.  He came too late for the open call audition and Malle got a certain vibe from him.  Blaise told him he did not want to be in the film and was only there because his mother forced him to go.  Blaise wanted to quit after a few days of being ordered around.  Malle solved this problem by telling everyone to treat Blaise like a star actor.

                The movie is set in a town in Southwestern France in June, 1944.  A radio broadcast from the Vichy government refers to Gaullists as communist dupes.  A teenage boy named Lucien mops floors in a hospital, but takes the time to shoot a bird with his slingshot.  Even before the credits roll we know the main character is warped.  Later, he knocks a chickens head off with his hand and I’m not talking about a CGI chicken.  This is a boy looking for a tipping point.  It comes when his teacher who is in the Resistance declines his request to join the Maquis.  In that case, how about the other side?  The den of collaborators operate from a hotel.  He rats out the teacher to join their gang.  He fits in well because the hotel is home to many despicable characters.  

                 Through one of his new friends, he meets a Jewish tailor named Albert Horn (Holger Lowenadler) who is being extorted by his friend.  Lucien is smitten by Albert’s daughter France (Aurore Clement) and although her father and grandmother always have that “what’s that smell?” look when he is around, she is apparently intrigued by his expressionless maliciousness.  He moves in with them.  Albert’s solution to this awkward situation is to go to the hotel to discuss things.  So much for maintaining a low profile.  Meanwhile there is some ambush and counter-ambush action involving Frenchmen who  think Hitler is the new Napoleon versus Frenchmen who want anything but fascism. 
                  Malle tries to tell a controversial story based on the dynamics in Vichy France.  Some French citizens fought against the Nazi regime and some collaborated with the fascists.  The group Lucien joins represents the Milice Francaise.  The Milice were a paramilitary unit created by the Vichy government to fight the French Resistance.  It used executions and assassinations. It also had a penchant for torturing to obtain information and confessions.  It helped round up French Jews for deportation.  There was a lot of tit for tat with the Resistance as the Resistance targeted Malice members for death.  Malle was taken to task by some French critics for exposing the seamy side of French national success in WWII.  Surprise, some Frenchmen bet on the wrong side!  Lucien’s friends are like 1920s gangsters.  There is even a Bonnie and Clyde couple.

                The main problem is the main character is not likeable.  I think we are supposed to be sympathetic towards a seventeen year old who falls in with the wrong crowd, but it is obvious from the beginning that this kid is a creep.  This dilutes the central themes that power corrupts and war destroys childhood innocence.  There seems little reason to believe that if there had not been a war, Lucien would not have been a petty criminal.   As played by the amateur Blaise, he does the opposite of scene chewing.  He does throw in some teenage giggling to remind us he is not a cyborg.  That said, the cinematographer does have a penchant for close-ups of expressionless faces.  Otherwise the camerawork is interesting.  If you know Blaise is a rookie, it does make the movie more palatable.  (The reluctant actor went on to make three more movies in the next year before dying when he crashed his new car.)  The rest of the acting is average, with the exception of Lowenadler.  He is riveting as the Jew constantly wondering how it is that he has to kowtow to his intellectual and moral inferiors.  He is the only interesting character. 

                The movie has some long stretches where nothing really happens.  When you get to some action, it is usually truncated.  And yet, there is not a lot of dialogue in a movie that has little action.  Worse, some of the plot makes no sense.  Why would France be attracted to such a loathsome character?  She certainly can perceive that he is a threat to her father’s safety.  And she stays with him after her father is taken!  That must have been some great sex.  Speaking of which, why would Albert go into the lion’s mouth?   
                I have seen some awesome foreign films as part of this blog and I have seen some critically acclaimed foreign films that left me shaking my head.  “Lacombe, Lucien” fits into the second category.  It is a very French film and I do not mean that in a good way. ( If you want to see some good foreign war movies I would suggest Russian and South Korean.)  If you like strange and plodding, this movie is for you.

GRADE  =  C+

Sunday, August 16, 2015

BOOK/MOVIE: The War Lover (1959/1962)

                “The War Lover” is a WWII aviation picture based on the best seller and Pulitzer Prize winning novel by John Hersey.  It was filmed in England and directed by Philip Leacock.  Two RAF bases were used for the exterior shots.  The producers found three B-17s in America.  Famous aviation writer Martin Caidin helped restore them and flew one across the Atlantic to be used in the film.  He wrote a book about the experience entitled Everything But the Flak.  A stuntman died during a stunt when he drowned parachuting into the English Channel.  Warren Beatty was first choice for the lead role but he turned it down because he had recently caused the breakup of Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood.  It would have been awkward if he acted with Wagner.  Steve McQueen got the part and was his usual difficult self.  He did not get along with Shirley Anne Field and once pushed so hard she went over a sofa and cut her lip.  In a subsequent kissing scene, she bit McQueen on his lip in revenge.  Director Leacock was lenient with McQueen’s contractual stipulation that he avoid racing cars during the filming.  McQueen proceeded to get into an accident, so those injuries from his fight with the Bolland character are not the result of make-up.

                The movie is set on an American bomber base in 1943.  “Buzz” Rickson (McQueen) is a hot shot pilot who rooms with his co-pilot “Bo” Bolland (Wagner).  Bo is your typical American airman who is just trying to survive the required 25 missions.  Buzz likes the war.  “The only trouble with this crummy war is it begins too early in the morning.”  Their bomber is nicknamed “The Body” and is on its seventh mission.  Their mission is to bomb submarine pens at Kiel.  By changing the nose art, the movie is able to make the three bombers look like a lot more on takeoff.  Due to cloud cover, the commanding officer aborts the mission, but Buzz goes below the cloud cover to bomb the target anyway.  He has an orgiastic look on his face as the bombs explode.  Back at the base, Buzz does not seem to care that one of the bombers that followed him ended up getting blown up.  The CO calls him on the carpet and accuses him of being insubordinate and irresponsible.  Since this is a war movie, his superiors put up with him because he’s such a crackerjack pilot.  The Air Force (actually Army Air Corps) loves mavericks.

                We have a maverick, how about a love triangle to go with that cliché?  Bo and Buzz meet a British bird at a dance.  Surprisingly, Daphne (Field) does not opt for the stereotypical brash American and instead chooses Buzz.  She realizes she would always be second best to the war in Buzz’s life.  Bo puts her first, but is she just a fling until he finishes his tour?  Although Bo will have to be like a sheep-dog watching out for the wolf, he idolizes Buzz as a pilot and leader.  So does the rest of the crew except the navigator Lynch who despises the amoral Rickson.   Buzz gets him transferred to a lesser pilot and as though that does not doom him enough, he proceeds to show Bo a picture of his wife and kids!  Why does the military give lectures on VD, but not on picture discipline?
"I'll bet you 50 bucks our last
mission is a milk run"

                Buzz continues to be insubordinate.  When a mission requires them to drop leaflets instead of bombs to kill Germans, he buzzes the field several times at very low altitude to show his displeasure.  The Doctor states that “Rickson is a good example of the fine line that separates the hero from the psychopath.”  (I wonder how many Medal of Honor winners this statement would apply to.)   There is no talk of grounding such a loose cannon.

                Before the last mission, the predictable hook up between Buzz and Daphne occurs.  Buzz shows up at her apartment, but she sees right through his macho bull-shit.  He does not attempt to charm his way out of this assessment.  “In war time, you don’t fall in love.  You make love.”  She gives as well as she gets.  “You can’t make love.  You’re twisted.  You can only make hate.”  Ouch!  When he returns to base, he implies that something went on which makes the next mission very awkward.  They don’t have a lot of time to glare at each other as they have to try to avoid the kitchen sink on this mission.  I counted ten problems.  That’s “Memphis Belle” territory.  At least the love triangle problem gets solved by subtraction.

                “The War Lover” is an underrated war movie.  It is well made with good cinematography and effects.  The sound effects are also well done.  You do feel you are along for the ride.  The interior of the bomber is realistic.  The flight procedures are rendered accurately.  As is usual for an air combat movie, the film takes off when it is in the air.  There is some good stunt work in the buzzing of the field, but the obligatory belly landing was borrowed from “Twelve O’Clock High”.  The plot is a little leaden on the ground. 
the real star of the film

The central theme that some warriors are in it for the thrill is worth exploring and this was a rare theme for a movie from the early 60s.  There aren’t that many war movies that have the hero as a psychopath.  Coincidentally, I also watched “The Hurt Locker” this week and the main characters in both movies have similar personalities and motivations.  McQueen’s performance has been criticized, but I found his style to be perfect for the role.  Who better to play a jerk than a jerk?  He’s the kind of actor who can act with just his eyes, which is helpful when you are wearing an oxygen mask.  Wagner is fine in a role that is not fully fleshed out.  It is never clear why he and Buzz are best friends considering their views on the war are opposite.  Field is the wild card and her performance is hard to analyze.  Daphne is not your usual pilot groupie.  Although she falls in love with Bo, she is realistic about the temporary nature of the relationship.  She is probably the strongest character among the three.  Her reaction to Buzz’ “seduction” is interesting.  The rest of the characters are not really fleshed out.  Lynch should have been more of a foil to Buzz.  The rest of the crew is nondescript.  There is no dysfunction.
“The War Lover” is probably not going to make my 100 Best War Movies list.  It is still a nicely entertaining war movie mainly because of the theme and the fact that it is not very predictable.  There is one death that you will not see coming (and two that you will see from a mile away).  The last mission, although crammed with “what next?”, is exciting and not head-shaking.  It is certainly a better movie than its closest companion – the pious “Memphis Belle”.  And it stars Steve McQueen.

How does it compare to the novel?  Needless to say, the novel is much more wordy.  Scratch that if you are going to cast McQueen.  For instance, in the book, when Buzz barges in on Daphne he ends up telling his life story.  The book is told from the perspective of Bo and he can be a bit of a whiner.  He also is less likeable because we see so much more of his personality.  The romance is of course fleshed out and the book makes Daphne out to be a more sympathetic girl who is truly in love, but also trying to make the best of the war situation.  Bo’s inability to fully commit to her is frustrating.  Hersey uses the Bo character as his device to make the point that there is nothing good about war and those that buy into it have either drank the propaganda kool-aid or they love war for its own sake.  The main incidents in the movie are from the book with some changes for the better.  Lynch is much more important in the book.  Bo is simpatico with him and is really broken up when he dies.   The movie makes the wise decision to put Lynch on the crew, but downplays his relationship to Bo.  Another good decision was to have Bo imagining the worst about Buzz’ visit to Daphne.  In the book, Daphne tells Bo what happened and he is upset more with finding out just how loathsome his former best friend is rather than seething over his sleeping with his girl.  Most importantly, the movie substantially changes the last mission for the better.  Not giving away the move ending for those of you who have not seen it, but here is what happens in the book.  They get hit in the nose and the bombardier loses a leg and his life.  The tail gunner bails out without telling anyone.  Buzz cracks up and Bo ends up flying the plane for the rest of the time.  They decide to ditch in the Channel, but Junior asks to bail out and does.  When the plane hits the water, Buzz decides to go down with the ship.

BOOK  =  B-

MOVIE  =  B+

Thursday, August 13, 2015

LIVE: Tarawa Beachhead (1958)

                The movie opens on Guadalcanal.  We get footage of shore bombardment and I recognize the bunker from “Sands of Iwo Jima”.  Suddenly we are inland.  The Japanese are in caves.  The cocky Lt. Brady (Ray Danton – yes, thee Ray Danton!) offers to take the caves.  His attitude is:  “The war is the key to the city.  We make it here, we make it back home.”  There is a frontal attack with grenades and a satchel charge, but a counterattack puts them on the run and only three survive.  One panics and the Lt. shoots him and tells Sgt. Sloan (Kerwin Matthews) to lie about it.  Sloan goes along, but vows revenge.  Brady and Sloan are promoted and sent to New Zealand.  Brady goes to see the dead guy’s wife and based on the music and their eyes, something is going to develop here.  She invites him back.  Slut!  She has a hot kid sister who is dating – you guessed it.  Sloan is working on the plans for Tarawa.  Brady leads a raid on an island to check out the pillboxes that are similar to Tarawa.  Sloan is along.  Does Brady want him dead?  They take the pillboxes with no problem, but some tanks arrive and Sloan leaves Brady behind.  Brady makes it back and confronts Sloan with a pistol, but then he’s interrupted by the director waving the script.  The invasion of Tarawa has some good footage that includes the sea wall and amphtracs.  Surprisingly, Brady fights bravely.  Sloan is in command of a unit on the flank.  Sloan encounters Brady in a bunker, but he has cracked up.  They are stuck together.  Brady makes a suicide attack and is killed.  Before he dies he says:  “It’s men like me that win wars.”  Suddenly the battle is over.  Sloan:  “Maybe it’s guys like him that win wars, maybe they start ‘em.”

The movie has an interesting plot.  It is unclear whether Brady is evil.  Was he wrong to attack the caves and to shoot Campbell when he was going to run away?  The movie is low budget and the actors are B-list, but the acting is not as bad as you would expect from a movie like this.  The combat is unrealistic, but the film makes pretty good use of archival footage.  It could have looked more authentic, except that the Marines refused to cooperate due to the plot.  It goes without saying that the romantic subplot is ridiculous, but it is dropped quickly.  Overall, the movie is average.  It is a shame no one has made a good movie about Tarawa and it’s not likely to happen any time soon.  And yet we have four movies on Stalingrad.


Saturday, August 8, 2015

5th ANNIVERSARY: ’71 (2014)

       It has been five years since I started this blog and it has been an amazing journey.  It started out as a simple attempt to watch and review the 100 Greatest War Movies (as determined by Military History magazine) and has grown into a big part of my life.  I have been able to wed three fun activities: watching war movies, researching, and writing.  Early on I realized that reviewing the one hundred movies was too limited, so I branched out and created several categories of reviews.  I have even written about war novels and short stories.  I have been pleasantly surprised by how many war movies there are and can see reaching my tenth anniversary without having watched all the ones I want to.  Plus there are always new ones coming out.  This leads me to today’s anniversary post.
                One of my favorite things to do is to go to a theater and watch a war movie while playing the role of a movie critic.  Unfortunately, this does not happen very often with war movies.  (But more often than Westerns, at least.)  When a new war film debuts, I always check out the listings.  Sometimes New Iberia is not the best place to be living if you want to see new war movies.  Recently I read some outstanding reviews for a movie entitled “’71”.  I do not think it appeared anywhere in Louisiana and I had given up on seeing it in a theater.  However, on a trip to Austin to visit my sister I found a theater that specializes in independent films.  It was showing it!  (By the way, I had to go to Austin to see “The Hurt Locker” when it came out.)  Unfortunately, I lost my notes which means I did not post it as part of my “Now Showing” series.  I recently watched the DVD and decided it was a good choice for the 5th Anniversary because that post needs to be special.  “’71” is special because it shows that the war movie genre is alive and well.

                “’71” is a British war film directed by Yann Demange.  It was his debut and he was awarded the British Independent Film Award for Best Director.  It is a fictional story set in “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland.  The movie did well in Great Britain but barely registered in the U.S. despite amazing reviews (97% on Rotten Tomatoes).  
                “’71” begins with a training montage.  This includes a type of boxing called “milling” which is trading punches to prove toughness and bravery.  If you know anything about geopolitics from that time, you know the men are being trained to face the Soviets in a conventional war.  They are not being prepared for counterinsurgency in Northern Ireland.  And yet, they are suddenly deployed to Belfast because of the deteriorating situation there.  The city is divided (like the current Baghdad with its Shiite and Sunni enclaves) between Protestant and Catholic forces.  Both have paramilitary units. To make matters more confusing still, the Protestant rebels are divided between the more cautious old school and the more militant new breed. 

                The main character is a Private Hook (Jack O’Connell).  His only family is a younger brother in a state home.  His unit is tasked with supporting a police unit (the Royal Ulster Constabulary) which is going to arrest a suspected terrorist.  The men are told not to bother with riot gear (shades of “Black Hawk Down”).  They begin to ponder the wisdom of this when they pass a burning double-decker and are hit by piss bombs hurled by Catholic youths.  At the arrest site, women are banging trash can lids to alert the neighborhood.  A mob gathers and they are not welcoming.  Hook gets separated from his unit and is left behind.  A wild chase ensues through the houses and alley ways of the neighborhood.  He manages to escape, but is now the target of a manhunt by the Provisional IRA.  The night becomes something of an odyssey as Hook encounters the dysfunctional players in “The Troubles”.  It is a complicated situation and he is just a grunt thrust into it.  The Provisional IRA is led by Quinn (Killian Scott) and they are at odds with the old breed led by Boyle (David Wilmot).  Muddying the waters is the British Military Reconnaissance Force led by Capt. Browning (Sean Harris).  Browning and his unit are playing both sides of the IRA to keep them at each other’s throats.  Browning wants Hook dead because he witnessed the result of one of their plots.  It is cat vs. cat vs. cat hunting a mouse.
Next time Hook might want to let the little bugger go

                I have seen most of the war movies that have had major releases in theaters since I started this blog and “’71” is one of the best.  (I would put it behind only “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Lone Survivor”.)  It is certainly the best war movie that has come out this year.  It is war movie as thriller.  In fact, Demange was influenced by movies like “Apocalypto”, “Escape from New York”, and “Warriors”.  But the main inspiration must have been Homer’s “Odyssey” with the interiors serving as the islands and the streets representing the seas.  For a debut effort, Demange shows real promise.  The only weakness is some plot holes typical for advancing a thriller plot.  In spite of following the thriller template, the movie is unpredictable.  The cinematography is mesmerizing, especially in the chase scene.  Another stand out scene is the pub explosion which is awesome and memorable.  Tad Radcliffe’s cinematography puts us in the middle of the mob, for instance.  The music matches the mood and does a great job revving up the action.

                The acting is top notch, especially by O’Connell.  He is better here than in “Unbroken”.  He plays Hook as a pawn caught in the fog of civil war.  The rest of the cast is up to playing the fascinating characters.  Browning is as slimy a villain as you will see.  The most intriguing is a young boy (Corey McKinley) who is a Loyalist and already caught up in the turmoil despite his age.  He befriends Hook and becomes a casualty of the world the adults have made for his generation.  (Hint:  Put on the English subtitles if you want to understand what he is saying.)  Another youth has been wooed by the Nationalists.  Sean (Barry Keoghan) wants to become a Provisional IRA gunman.  He represents the struggle of conscience versus corruption and the role of peer pressure in war.
It's kill or be killed in a "no-go zone"

                Although a fictional tale, the movie is nicely tutorial on “The Troubles”.  This period of heightened tensions and bloodshed between the British and Irish nationalists began in 1969.  It started with the RUC attacking Catholic civilians which caused a reaction that led to the deployment of British troops.  Belfast also was roiled by conflict between the Catholic Nationalists and the Protestant Loyalists.  It got to the point where the city was divided into enclaves.  The Catholic enclaves were designated “no-go zones” by the British Army.  Within those same enclaves there was a dispute between the official IRA which had decided that non-violent civil agitation was the best route to independence and the younger Provisional IRA that wanted to use terrorist tactics.  In 1971, the loyalists of the Ulster Volunteer Force blew up a nationalist pub, probably with the help of the MRF.  The original target was supposed to be a nearby pub linked to the official IRA and then they would blame it on the Provisional IRA to fuel the feud.  Security forces claimed it was an IRA bomb that accidentally exploded in their own pub.  This incident seems to have inspired the plot.  The Hook character was based on two British soldiers who were killed on patrol.

                 “’71” is a must see for war movie lovers.  It is the kind of movie you gush to your male friends about.  It is kick-ass entertainment, but it is not mindless and it is not aimed at the action film audience.  Its theme that all men are part of a tribe is unusual, but ably advanced.  A more common theme is soldiers are the pawns of power.  Eamon (an ex-medic who tends to Hook) summarizes war this way:  “Posh cunts telling thick cunts to kill poor cunts.”  Put that in your dictionary.


Monday, August 3, 2015

WAR SHORT STORY: The Colonel’s Ideas

                Our July story was by Guy de Maupassant.  He was a popular French writer in the 19th Century.  He wrote around 300 short stories and is considered to be one of the fathers of the modern short story.  Many of his short stories (including this one) are set in the Franco-Prussian War.  His common theme was the futility of war and its negative impact on civilians.

                This particular story has a French colonel in the Franco-Prussian War ruminating on the role of women in war.  He expounds that Frenchmen love women and they fight harder when women are involved.  This philosophizing is brought on by the dilemma his unit is trapped in. They are caught behind enemy lines and are in bad shape.  The men are exhausted and their morale is low.  To make matters worse, it is cold and snowy.  Most of the men do not want to go on.  It’s too bad they don’t have a woman to motivate them.  But wait…  They encounter an old man and his pretty daughter.  Suddenly the spirits of the men soar.  They have something to live for and something to fight for.  The timing is perfect because they soon run into a unit of Prussian lancers.  They dispatch the horsemen with rifle fire.  It is assumed that if that pretty girl had not been with them, they would not have put up much of a fight.  It’s a shame the French army in 1940 was not issued a pretty girl for each regiment.
                I don’t know what to make of this story.  I assume Maupassant had a great sense of humor and the story was written tongue in cheek.  Then again, he may have been accurate in his assessment of what it takes to get the French to fight.  The story certainly is comical given France’s track record since he wrote the story.  Perhaps he was lamenting France’s performance in the Franco-Prussian War.  He does mention that the outcome of the Battle of Sedan might have been different if a woman had been involved.  After all, French men are “cavaliers of love”.  You would think that would make them lovers not fighters, but the colonel suggests that if you combine the two, look out. 

                I have to say the story was a disappointment.  It’s not much of a war story and I felt it was a bit on the silly side.  I’m no fan of the French army in recent history, but the story seemed to be kicking a dead horse.  I know that is not what Maupassant intended, but it does have a lot of irony flowing from it.  It is a fun read, however.  One of the soldiers actually says “confound it”.  How 19th Century.  Better yet, another proclaims that “there is nothing like a woman to make you feel queer from head to foot”!  Insert your own comment here.

GRADE  =  D 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Kokoda (2006)

                “Kokoda” (“Kokoda – 39th Battalion”) is an Australian war movie directed and co-written by Alistar Grierson.   The original idea was to do a treatment of the Kokoda Trail campaign, but budget constraints pared the film down to the story of a small unit involved in the campaign.  The movie was a hit in Australia.

                A narrator tells us it is 1942 and Australia is being threatened by Japanese forces that have landed in New Guinea.  They are crossing the Owen Stanley Range to capture Port Moresby in preparation for a planned invasion of Australia.  The Japanese have taken Kokoda and are pressing on to Isurava.  Since the Australian Imperial Forces are committed to North Africa, the defense of the trail is assigned partly to a militia unit called the 39th Battalion.  These conscripts are ill-trained and ill-supplied and many are just plain ill with dysentery and malaria.  They are nicknamed “chocos” because it is assumed they will melt when put in the heat of conflict. 
Do these guys look like they will melt?

                This is a small unit, “who will survive?” movie.  It is also firmly in the subgenre of “the lost patrol”.  A group of seven men are sent on a reconnaissance patrol.  Almost immediately they lose their veteran AIF lieutenant when the Japanese sneak up on their position.  The remainder of the squad has to try to survive the trip back to their lines.  Leadership is assumed by Jack (Jack Finsterer).  Their movement is through thick jungle infiltrated by a crafty, faceless enemy.  The group gets whittled down by several encounters with the Japanese.  One of the men suffers a leg wound and sacrifices himself for the good of his mates.  Jack’s brother Max is hit in the stomach and they have to carry him.  This leads to the standard command dysfunction between Jack and Darko (Travis McMahon) over whether to abandon Max.  Eventually some of the men get back in time to help with the defense against the Japanese human wave attacks.

                The movie is based on an incident in the Kokoda Trail campaign which took place from July-November, 1942.  A small patrol was cut off and had to return in spite of lack of food and water and having to carry the wounded.  They got back in time to help in the Battle of Isurava.  That battle occurred after the Japanese had captured Kokoda and was moving across the Owen Stanleys.  The Battle of Isurava was a blocking action that temporarily halted the Japanese drive.  Because of the lack of supplies, the ill-health of the army, and the persistence of the Japanese, the Australians were forced to withdraw.  The “chocos” did not melt away and in fact fought hard under very difficult conditions.  The movie pays tribute to their effort.  The battalion was down to thirty-two fighting men when it was pulled out of the front line.  Soon after, the unit was disbanded.
Having watched "Predator", Jack gets an idea

                I love war movies that bring to light a deserving event, unit, or person.  This is one of those movies and it enlightens in an entertaining way.  It is low budget so it has its limitations.  Part of this is tempered by the claustrophobic nature of the jungle setting.  The cinematography makes you feel you are in the thick of it.  There is some fly on the wall (or trees) camerawork.  You don’t need a big budget to show the nasty nature of jungle warfare.  The movie’s depiction of dysentery leaves little to the imagination, for instance.  “Feels like your guts coming out of your bum.”  Some of the men slit their pants to make relieving themselves more convenient.  That’s the first time I had seen that in a movie.  The combat is of the modern frenetic style.  There is a confused fire-fight and the Japanese night assault.  The movie could easily be mistaken for a Vietnam War movie.

               Several of the actors had their first significant roles.  They perform adequately.  Unfortunately, there is little character development.  We don’t even get the usual campfire back-stories. I did not particularly care for any of the main characters, but the movie does a good job encouraging empathy for the 39th Battalion.  They saved money on the Japanese actors as you hardly see a face.  The movie does make it quite clear that they are the villains.  There is a bayonet to the face of a wounded Aussie and a torture scene.  The movie is pretty graphic in its violence.  It does an excellent job depicting the hardships the soldiers went through.  The Kokoda Trail campaign was one of the most unpleasant of the war.  War movies have conditioned us to believe that nothing was worse than the trench warfare on the Western Front in WWI.  The truth is that there were environments in WWII that were worse.
Want to see who didn't make the poster?

                “Kokoda” is a lesser Australian war movie.  Although sometimes compared to “Gallipoli”, it is not in the same league.  It should have been a lot better.  It does not take full advantage of the eeriness of the jungle environment.  It fizzles toward the end as the remaining three survivors have a fairly easy, unsuspenseful last lap.  It also pulls its punches with Max’s situation.  With that said, it is still worth a look.  Those blokes were worth it.

GRADE  =  B-