Thursday, October 29, 2015

Westfront 1918 (1930)

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, October 25, 2015

WAR MYSTERY: The Night of the Generals (1967)

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

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

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


GRADE  =  D  

Monday, October 19, 2015

LIVE: The Tanks Are Coming (1951)

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

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

GRADE  =  C  

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

FORGOTTEN GEM? Men in War (1957)

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

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

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

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

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

GRADE  =  B-

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Lost Battalion (2001)

                “The Lost Battalion” was an A&E production that first appeared on TV in 2001. It was directed by Russell Mulcahy and filmed in Luxembourg. It was nominated for three technical Emmys. The movie tells the tale of the famous “Lost Battalion” that was surrounded by German forces in the Argonne Forest in 1918.

                The movie opens strong with a patrol coming in from no man’s land. The cinematography is reminiscent of “Band of Brothers”. Maj. Whittlesey (Rick Schroder) waits in the trench and is splattered with the blood of one of the men. Later, at the headquarters bunker, Gen. Alexander orders Whittlesey to participate in an attack that Whittlesey (given the exhausted condition of his unit) deems suicidal. Alexander, being a WWI general, questions the commitment of this “New York lawyer” and reiterates his standard “no retreat” philosophy. To Hell with losses.

                The pre-battle scenes are instructive. New replacements arrive and are sobered by the sight of wounded soldiers (like Taylor’s arrival in “Platoon”). The newbies are brought up to speed by the seasoned veterans like Sgt. Gaedeke (Jamie Harris) and Pvt. Rosen (Michael Goldstrom). The duo provide comic relief by using their thick New York accents to describe different types of German artillery. We are introduced to the main characters. Whittlesey is morose, but a respected leader. His able second in command is Capt. McMurtry (Phil McKee) who is brotherly to his men. We even get introduced to a little carrier pigeon named Cher Ami – “the runt of the litter”.

Gaedeke and Rosen shutting up long enough to fight
                The minutes before the attack are tense and foreboding. Whittlesey does the obligatory walk past his charges (like Dax in "Paths of Glory") then blows his whistle and its game on. The game is incredibly intense. We are plunged into no man’s land. The set is surprisingly realistic. The attack reminds one of “Paths of Glory” except with modern cinematography, effects, and sound. We have come a long way. This attack is possibly the best of any WWI movie that I have seen. It is very graphic and violent for a made for TV movie. I show the scene in class to prepare my students for their writing assignment on trench warfare (along with the scene from “Paths of Glory” and the “Sgt. York” scene).

                After pushing the German front line back, the Americans enter a forested area that is eerily vacant. What they don’t realize is that as they push forward is that the support units on each flank are not keeping pace. This results in the Lost Battalion creating a pocket and when the Germans cut off their rear, they end up being surrounded. But not lost. Just cut off. Thus begins five days of pummeling by Germans intent on wiping out this salient. As anyone with any knowledge of military tactics can attest, salients are just begging to be pummeled and must be destroyed.

                The Germans throw several waves of attackers at the besieged. Because the pesky Americans keep insisting on not being wiped out, the Germans eventually throw in Storm Troopers and flamethrowers. The fighting sometimes is hand-to-hand. It could not be worse for the Americans, right? Wrong. There’s a little problem called “friendly fire”. At first, when the American artillery starts raining in fire only yards away, the Americans stand up and cheer (being quite confident in the accuracy of our artillerists) until that incredible accuracy turns into incredible incompetence. In one of the most awesome visuals in war movie history, one of the Americans is literally blown up by a shell. (This actually happened to the real Gaedeke.) Some other problems include lack of food, shortage of water, and no way to care for the wounded properly.  They have to reuse bandages from the dead.  Plus although not technically lost, Gen. Alexander is not sure where they are and every runner sent out tends to get killed or captured.
Mein Gott, it's a flammenwerfer!

                This is a very underrated movie. The acting is good from an average cast. Rick Schroeder is excellent as Whittlesey. He gets the personality down pat. He does the opposite of scene-chewing which is appropriate for a reluctant hero who committed suicide because of the unwanted fame. The subordinate characters are well-developed. The movie balances its portrayal of the officers with some meaty roles for the enlisted. Gaedeke and Rosen stand out and although some of their comic banter is lame, you do care about them and the death of one is very touching. The Germans are handled sympathetically (perhaps a bit too much). The German commander comes to respect the “New York gangsters” and admires their brashness.

                The thing that stands out is the amazing cinematography of Jonathan Freeman (a virtual unknown). He blends the “Saving Private Ryan” style with “Band of Brothers”. If this is the future of war movies (and it certainly looks like it is), we are in good shape. For a made-for-TV movie, the action is shockingly graphic. It would definitely have been rated-R for violence if shown in theaters. A&E deserves a lot of credit for green-lighting this movie and showing it on TV uncut. The story needed to be told, but who would have guessed it would be told as dynamically as this.
the fighting got so desperate that Rick Schroeder
had to grab a rifle with bayonet

                The movie does not manage to completely break the tethers of a TV movie. The dialogue is PG and trite at times. There are the usual clichés. For instance, Gaedeke and Rosen give the new guy a hard time, learn to respect him, and then have to deal with his untimely demise. You also get the pompous, callous general. The dynamic between Whittlesey and Alexander reminded me of Capt. Staros and Lt. Col. Tall in “The Thin Red Line” (which by the way, this movie is better than – that’s right, I said it!). The unit is decidedly heterogeneous and they even throw in a cowboy to go along with the gangsters. The Brooklyn trope is well represented.

                The movie is commendably accurate with the usual exaggerations and simplifications.  It gets the gist of the incident right, but tends to inflate the significance of the battalion's accomplishment.  In this respect it reflects the view of the media from that time period.  The historical characters are realistically portrayed, but Gen. Alexander’s family could have a problem with his depiction as an uncaring jerk.  The truth is that Whittlesey did not confront him personally and did not claim the orders were suicidal.  The “no retreat” order would have been pretty standard for a battle like this and partly resulted from previous incidents where Germans tricked units into retreating by sending false orders.  Whittlesey, McMurtry, and Holderman are all well done, but the German leader Prinz has been promoted to American expert in charge of interrogation.  The movie character is a Hollywood creation which works in an entertaining way.  The fighting is very small scale and simplified.  There was no visceral breaking of the enemy line to lead off.  The subsequent German assaults on the pocket are fine and there was some hand-to-hand and the use of flamethrowers.  The movie attempts to show the hardships in the pocket, but cannot completely do them justice. The friendly fire incident and Cher Ami’s heroism are a highlight.  The film gets the details right.  The collection of dog tags.  Officers using whistles.  The use of carrier pigeons.  Since the movie is a tribute to the unit and Whittlesey in particular, it steers away from controversies like whether Whittlesey’s incorrect coordinates were responsible for the friendly fire and why he refused to break out when it was apparent they were being surrounded. 
                In conclusion, I am a big fan of what I call the Truthy Unit subgenre. These are war movies that cover a particular unit that is either famous or should be.  “The Lost Battalion” does a great job reviving a famous, but somewhat forgotten story.  After all, how many people have seen the 1919 version that starred several of the participants including Whittlesey, McMurtry, and Alexander?  I have not seen it, but I’m betting the 2001 version does a much better job entertaining and educating the masses.  I can see it landing on my 100 Best War Movies list.

GRADE  =  A  

the full movie