Monday, August 29, 2016

The Execution of Private Slovik (1974)

                “The Execution of Private Slovik” has been one of my great white whales for some time now. (Another is “Ice Cold in Alex”.)  I finally was able to watch it again after having seen it forty-two years ago when it appeared on NBC as a made-for-TV special.  The movie was based on a nonfiction book by William Bradford Huie published in 1954.  It was directed by Lamont Johnson.  He was nominated for an Emmy, as was the movie.  The movie won two Emmys for editing.  It also won a Peabody Award.  Originally, the movie was supposed to be made by Frank Sinatra, who was interested in the story.  However, Sinatra wanted to use a screenplay by Albert Maltz, but that was during the Cold War and Maltz had been black-listed as one of the Hollywood Ten.  Sinatra was accused of being a Communist sympathizer and the Kennedy campaign put pressure on him to drop the project.

                The movie opens in January, 1945 in France.  The execution is being prepared.  A member of the firing squad mentions that no American has been executed for desertion yet.  The consensus among the twelve men is Slovik (Martin Sheen) has it coming to him.  No one is thrilled to be part of the detail.  A chaplain named Father Stafford (Ned Beatty) bucks them up by proclaiming that “a higher authority has accepted moral responsibility”.  Do your duty.  When one soldier proposes purposely missing, another says “I’m not going to miss… He didn’t care about how many of us got shot up, so I’m not going to care about him.” 

                The movie now flashes back to how Slovik got to this point.  The narrative takes the form of characters reminiscing about Eddie.  Starting with the warden of the prison Eddie is being paroled from for theft.  The warden makes a point of stating that he could have predicted that the “sweet kid” would freeze or run the first time he was in combat.  Slovik gets a job and courts the bookkeeper of his employer.  They get married and are living happily, if poorly, with the comforting knowledge that as an ex-con he is designated 4-F and thus not draftable.  This changes on their first anniversary when they find out he has been reclassified 1-A.  “Greetings” is not far away.  It’s off to boot camp where Eddie is a sad sack, but good enough to be a replacement.  On his way to the front, he and his buddy Jimmy (Gary Busey) take refuge from a bombardment and it’s a turning point for him because he vows never to go through that again.  Maybe he won’t have to as the two stragglers end up with a Canadian rear unit for a few idyllic weeks.  However, all good things must come to an end as Eddie and Jimmy are eventually returned to their unit.  Eddie is up-front about his cowardice with his commanding officer and when the Captain is not sympathetic, Eddie flees.  The rest is history.

                “The Execution of Private Slovik” is like a well-acted docudrama.  I refer to it being semi-documentary because it is awesomely accurate.  You do not need to read Huie’s book.  There are no significant enhancements of the real story.  It shows you how entertaining the tale is even without enhancement.  But it’s not just the fact that you learn exactly what happened in the most famous case of military justice involving an American soldier in WWII.  It is more importantly a movie that helps right a wrong.  There is no doubt that the execution was an egregious injustice that taints the reputations of Gen. Norman Cota (commander of the 28th Division) and Gen. Eisenhower.  Both of whom refused to commute the sentence. There were 21,000 convictions for desertion of American soldiers during the war.  This was the only one of 49 death penalties for desertion that was not commuted!  It was the only execution by the U.S. military that was not for rape and/or murder of a civilian.  (There were 102 of those executions.)  Slovik was the proverbial example that was made because morale was shaky at this point in the war and the upcoming assault on Heurtgen Forest was going to be a rough one.  Slovik had incredibly bad timing for his confession.

                The movie is very competently made for a movie that had a budget of less than a million dollars.  The cast is minor with the only stars being Sheen and Beatty.  Sheen is outstanding and was nominated for an Emmy.  He nails the petty thief who is getting his life together when he is thrust into a situation he could not handle.  Surprisingly, the cinematography is noteworthy.  There is an intriguing mixture of high and low shots and some far shots.  Not what you would expect from a made-for-TV movie.  The plot is not melodramatic.  It is a bit simplistic, but I have already mentioned that it is true to the story.  The nonlinear structure works and the decision to tell the story partly through narration by different people was a good one.  The movie does a great job as a tutorial on how a court-martial and execution worked in WWII.  It gets all the little details right.  For example, if the condemned was not able to stand on his own, they would be strapped to what was called a “collapse board”.

                “The Execution of Private Slovik” was well worth the wait.  It is a must-see for not only war movie lovers, but fans of American History.  It is one of the most accurate war movies I have seen.  It is an important movie as it brings a travesty to the public.  To most, even knowledgeable Americans, Slovik was a trivia answer.  Who was the only American soldier executed for desertion in WWII?  You would have to assume that he must have done something incredibly cowardly that cost the lives of other Americans.  In 1987, President Reagan was persuaded to allow Eddie Slovik’s body to be exhumed and reburied next to his wife.  Maybe as an ex-actor, he was influenced by the movie.  I would like to think so.

GRADE  =  A-

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Hurt Locker (2008)

       “The Hurt Locker” was the last war movie to win the Best Picture Oscar.  It continued a long tradition of war movies being honored by the Academy Awards.  The other winners were “Wings”, “All Quiet”, “Mrs. Miniver”, “Casablanca”, “Best Years of Our Lives”, “From Here to Eternity”, “Bridge on the River Kwai”, “Lawrence of Arabia”, “Patton”, “Deer Hunter”, “Platoon”, “Schindler’s List”, “Braveheart”, and “The English Patient”.  That’s a lot more war movies than comedies or horror movies.  It took a war movie to give a female the first Best Director award.  Kathryn Bigelow achieved this first with her direction.  The idea and screenplay came from her friend Mark Boal.  Boal had been embedded with a bomb disposal unit in Iraq and the movie was based on incidents and individuals from his experience.  He won the Best Original Screenplay.  The pair teamed up again for “Zero Dark Thirty”.  The title was used by bomb disposal teams to mean being wounded or in bad shape (it goes back to the Vietnam War).

                “The Hurt Locker” has one of the greatest openings of any war movie.  The theme is set by a quote from Chris Hedges who wrote War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.  “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”  We are dropped onto a Baghdad street for the disposal of a IED made from a 155 mm howitzer shell.  You know you are watching a special movie when one of the marquee actors does not survive the opening scene.  It’s a very suspenseful scene that culminates with an incredible explosion effect.  The replacement is Sgt. First Class James (Jeremy Renner).  He is a veteran who has disarmed 873 devices, but he is not stressed out about it.  In truth, he is an adrenalin junkie, gambler, and a loose cannon.  In other words, he is our anti-hero.  The rest of the trio consists of Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty).  Sanborn is a by the book type who just wants to get through his tour and return home.  Eldridge is the youngster who is open to a new leadership style.  Once this dynamic is established, the movie becomes very episodic.  I have decided it would be appropriate to deal with each in order.

1.  James uncovers six artillery shells are rigged to one primacord.  Since he’s a maverick, he doesn’t just cut the cord.  GRADE  =  A

2.  James is confronted with a car bomb.  He treats it like a puzzle.  GRADE  =  B

3.  The trio hook up with a band of mercenaries and they get ambushed by some insurgents.  There is a sniper duel between an insurgent and Sanborn.  GRADE  =  B

4.  They are sent in to a bomb factory.  A corpse was being prepared as an IED.  James recognizes the corpse as a boy he had befriended.  GRADE  =  B

5.  James makes a foray into town seeking revenge for the boy.  GRADE  =  D

6.  There is an explosion in the Green Zone at night.  James gets a wild hair and convinces the others to split up and rove the alleyways.  He don’t need no stinkin’ standard operating procedures.  GRADE  =  B-

7.  James has to deal with a human bomb.  An innocent civilian has been rigged with explosives and needs a reckless, but insanely lucky expert.  GRADE  =  A+

                “The Hurt Locker” is the type of movie where the screenwriter can claim that all of the incidents happened, but of course, not to one person.  It is also the type of movie, like “Platoon”, that enhances the incidents to advance the theme.  In this case the theme is clear.  War is addictive.  This is not exactly news.  However, it has not really become an American phenomenon until relatively recently.  It was commonly mentioned in oral histories from the Vietnam War.  It explains why some grunts re-upped.  And many had trouble adjusting to the boredom of the home front.  (That’s why the grocery store cereal aisle scene is the most iconic from the movie.)  Our recent wars in the Middle East have had a similar vibe, except that our video game generation actively seeks the thrill of combat.  “Generation Kill” does an excellent job with this.  “The Hurt Locker”  is probably the best movie set in the Iraqi War, but “Generation Kill” is the go-to source for the soldier experience.  James is thankfully not a realistic portrayal of a typical soldier.  This is a problem because he fits comfortably into our anti-hero tradition, but the audience might get the impression he is a typical bomb disposal tech.  In fact, many actual experts were offended by the portrayal.  James is a Hollywood character and the liberties are justified.  However, just be aware that James does several silly things and much of his actions would never be allowed.  Our anti-heroes are expected to rock the boat, but they usually are not a-holes.  James is grade A.  Kudos to Boal, but  I wonder if the audience gets this.  Especially the current generation.  It doesn’t help that the last incident humanizes him.  The real heroes are Sanborn and Eldridge.  The guys who seriously considered fragging James and perhaps should have.

                “The Hurt Locker” is very competently done. Bigelow certainly deserved the accolades.  For a relatively low budget film, it has big production values. It was filmed in the heat of Jordan which added to the verisimilitude.  The cinematography is visceral.  The movie features multiple perspectives.  There is some strategic use of POV.  The opening explosion is special and sets the tone of danger for the rest of the film.  The movie is well-acted by an outstanding cast.  It’s basically a three man show and all are strong.  Renner was nominated for Best Actor and he is great.  He is perfect as the unlikeable James.  Mackie and Geraghty stay with him.  The dynamics between the trio are the foundation of the movie.  There is not a lot of dialogue, but what they say is true to soldier talk.  But it’s their interaction that is key.  Sanborn represents proper procedure and clashes with the rule-breaking James.  The bemused Eldridge is caught in the middle and is the designated PTSD casualty.  It is refreshing that he sides mostly with Sanborn.

                Surprisingly, “The Hurt Locker” is not really anti-war.  Bigelow and Boal were not interested in weighing in on the war.  The movie concentrates on the effects of war on men.  The only way to comprehend James is to go back to the opening quote.  What keeps the movie from being great is the impression that an Explosive Ordinance Disposal Team leader could get away with flouting the rules like James does.  What revs up the entertainment for the mass audience reduces it for a war movie fan that can discern bull crap when he sees it.

GRADE  =  A-

Friday, August 12, 2016

MASTERPIECE or TRAVESTY: The Birth of a Nation (1915)

       “The Birth of a Nation” was the first major motion picture and is both famous and infamous.  It was directed by D.W. Griffith and the innovations he incorporated into the production are mind-boggling.  The movie created cinema as we know it today.  The script, which was co-written by Griffith was based on Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman.  Relative to its budget, the movie became one of the most profitable films in history.  When it opened in New York City, tickets were an astronomical $2 (equivalent to about $18 today).  The success was in spite of the controversy with regard to its treatment of blacks.  The NAACP encouraged boycotts of the film and it was banned in some cities.  On the other hand, the movie became the first film screened in the White House.  Pres. Wilson had been a classmate of Dixon’s in college.  Supposedly Wilson complimented the film as “like writing with lightning.  And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”  There is dispute whether Wilson said this and he later denied it.  However, his historical take on Reconstruction appears on a title card in the movie and the plot fits his pro-segregation views.  For the body of my review, I am going to summarize the plot, so spoiler alert.  Every history lover should know what happens in the movie, but I would not recommend watching it unless you really, really love movies or you are in film school.  Or you are a racist.

                The movie begins with the first slaves being brought to America.  “This sowed the seeds of disunion”.  The movie concentrates on two families who are friends, at first.  The Stonemans are Northerners and the Camerons are Southerners and own slaves.  Their slaves are happy and are shown dancing during their lunch break.. The elder Stoneman is a congressman and is based on Thaddeus Stevens (one of the leaders of the Radical Republicans during Reconstruction).  There are dual romances that will link the families if nothing untoward happens.  What happens is the election of Lincoln.  “The powers of the sovereign [Southern] states…are threatened by the new administration.”  When Ben Cameron’s unit marches off to war, the street is lined with cheering whites and slaves.  The movie jumps two years.  A black militia unit loots the Cameron mansion, but a Southern unit arrives to chase them off.  White men rescuing white women from blacks will become a recurring theme.  Several of the brothers die in the war.  Atlanta is burned by the dastardly Yankees.  At the siege of Petersburg, Ben’s unit leads a counterattack against Phil Stoneman’s regiment.  In an iconic scene, Ben plants a flag in a cannon mouth.  Ben is wounded and taken to a hospital where his crush Elsie Stoneman is a nurse.  They hook up, but he is scheduled to be hanged as a guerrilla (which makes no sense).  Elsie and her mother visit Lincoln to get a pardon.  Lee surrenders to Grant to end the hope of state sovereignty.  Ben returns home.

                Reconstruction begins and radicals like Congressman Stoneman protest against Lincoln’s lenient policy toward the South.  “The South under Lincoln’s fostering hand gets to work rebuilding itself”.  Then everything goes to pot with the assassination of Lincoln, which is witnessed by Elsie in an excellent reenactment.  A quote from Wilson’s History of the American People blames the carpetbaggers for exploiting the freedmen.  Congress wanted to “put the white South under the heel of the black South”.  The KKK was inspired by self-preservation, according to Wilson.  Stoneman is one of the radical leaders.  He has a creepy mulatto mistress (a white male actor in blackface) who is a Snidely Whiplash type schemer.  A mulatto named Lynch is Stoneman’s protégé and is sent to South Carolina to reverse the social and political structure.  Lynch is mentally unbalanced.  He urges blacks to stop working.  Meanwhile the Freedmen’s Bureau is duping the black farmers.  Stoneman brings Elsie to visit.  Lynch has designs on her, of course.  In the election, blacks exercise their right to vote (some more than once) while whites like Ben are prevented from voting.   Lynch is elected Lt. Governor.  Black legislators make a mockery of the legislative session.  One eats fried chicken, another swigs from a bottle.  A pro-shoes law is passed after one of them puts his smelly bare feet on a desk.   And you think Congress is bad today!  But the worst is they pass an intermarriage law.  Something has to be done. 

                Ben is inspired when he sees some white kids scaring black kids with sheets.  Thus is born the “organization that saved the South from the anarchy of black rule.”  Flora Cameron goes to fetch water and is confronted by a vile black deserter named Gus.  He wants to marry her, but does not want to wait for the honeymoon night.  She jumps off a cliff and dies in Ben’s arms.  The Klan takes care of Gus.  Lynch has the elder Cameron arrested for abetting Ben, but his loyal ex-slaves help him escape with the help of Phil Stoneman (who had been engaged to Flora before the war).  They take refuge in a cabin inhabited by two Union veterans.  “The former enemies of North and South are united again in common defense of their Aryan birthright.”  Gag!  Elsie goes to Lynch for help and he proposes marriage.  Stoneman had been in favor of his marrying a white woman until he finds out it’s his daughter.  Meanwhile, black mobs rule the town and surround the cabin.  It’s time for the white-robed knights to ride to the rescue.  There is a big battle in the town.  Ben rescues Elsie and then it’s off to the cabin to rescue the others.  There is a victory parade.  White supremacy rules.  Hurrah!

                How can a movie be both great and terrible?  Watch “Birth of a Nation” and see.  If you changed the word “writing” to bullshitting and the word “true” to false in the Wilson quote, you’d be spot on.  The film did hit the nation like a lightning bolt.  If it had come out ten years later, it would not have been successful.  It was the spectacle that drew people to the theater outside the South.  This is the best explanation for why the movie did well in the North.  Griffith was a master movie-maker.  His innovations helped cinema take off.  The movie was the “Citizen Kane” of its day. 

                The cinematography is astounding. The film features “panoramic long shots, iris effects, still shots, night photography, panning shots, and color tinting”.  The burning of Atlanta has surreal effects and a split screen for the refugees.  The last sequence has intercutting between the town, the cabin, and Elsie.  The battle scenes are epic.  Some of the shots come from a tower.  The action is tense with good hand-to-hand.  Surprisingly, the actors reload their rifles.  Often overlooked, the score is also revolutionary.  Joseph Carl Briel composed it with a mixture of classical, new arrangements of popular songs, and new music.  It fits the movie perfectly.  Briel created leitmotif’s for the main characters.  They each have their own tune.

                Less commendatory is the creation of some vile stereotypes.  The movie features Uncle Toms, the mammy, the ignorant black fools, and the unstable mulattoes.  You can spot the villains from the balcony (which is where blacks in the South would have watched the movie.)  Surprisingly, it is only the villains like Lynch who chew the scenery as only silent movie actors can.  The rest of the cast is fairly restrained.  It’s not the acting that turned my stomach.  One thing I was thankful for was the surfeit of title cards.  The movie does not have subtitles so it can be a bit hard to follow at times.  This is not a movie designed to attract modern audiences.  But when you consider what was probably coming out of the characters’ mouths, it is a good thing we could not “hear” them.

                When I reviewed Military History magazine’s 100 Greatest War Movies, I found that what critics mean by “greatest” is not the same as “best”.  Surprisingly, “Birth of a Nation” was not on that list.  But plenty of other classics that don’t hold up well made the list.  None of them were offensive, however.  This movie is obscenely racist and it does not have the excuse that it was of its time.  It was offensive in 1915 as shown by the reaction of the NAACP and the fact that the KKK revival of the 1920s was partly fueled by using the movie as a recruiting tool.  It passes on a lot of Civil War and Reconstruction mythology that people like Pres. Wilson should have known were myths.  The fact that the movie was popular with white Northerners means that people back then were just as ignorant of America’s past as people are today.
                So, what difference does it make as long as it’s entertainment?  It is fiction, after all.  I would argue that a  movie can cross an historical trip-line that transforms entertaining into anti-historical.  “The Birth of a Nation” leaps across that line.  I cannot condone its interpretation of history and I do not think the fact it was “written with lightning” cancels this.  It is a despicable movie. 


Sunday, August 7, 2016

FORGOTTEN GEM? The First of the Few (1942)

                “The First of the Few” is a biopic about the man who designed the Spitfire fighter plane.  It was produced and directed by Leslie Howard.  He plays R.J. Mitchell and this was his last role as the airliner he was flying in was shot down one year later.  The movie costars David Niven who was loaned by Samuel Goldwyn in exchange for American distribution rights.  When Goldwyn learned that Niven was not the lead, he angrily cut 40 minutes from the American release.  The movie was renamed “Spitfire” in America (which, if you think about it, is a better title).

                The movie opens during the Battle of Britain in 1940.  A narrator explains the expansion of Germany accompanied by black spreading across the map of Europe.  Quotes by Hitler, Goebbels, and Goering illicit boos from the audience.  A group of real RAF fighter pilots is waiting to be scrambled.  Squadron Leader Quentin Crisp (Niven) shows up to raise the acting level and initiate a flashback.  In 1922 Mitchell has the idea for a radical new plane.  Crisp comes on board as the test pilot.  The plane will use the secrets of the birds with no struts or wires.  Only Crisp and Mitchell’s supportive wife think he’s on to something.  A series of air races chronicles the development of the plane and leads us to the question:  Did people actually spectate at these races?  In 1933, he goes to Germany.  At a party with German military officials, Mitchell is told that the Germans are violating the Versailles Treaty and suck on it.  The arrogance of Willi Messerchmitt motivates Mitchell to create a fighter plane that will be able to compete with the Germans.  This being a biopic, there has to be a wrench thrown in.  Mitchell is diagnosed with some disease and told he can either take some time off and live or save England and die.  Guess which he chooses?

                “The First of the Few” is your standard 1940s biopic.  Mitchell is a saint and his wife is the stereotypical supportive spouse.  There are no villains other than the entire nation of Germany.  The movie is definitely propaganda, but it’s not the gag-inducing kind.  Speaking of gags, the movie is very British especially in its humor.  All of which is provided by Crisp as a ladies’ man and a wise-cracker.  It is likely the movie would be pretty boring without his character.  The acting is fine by Howard and Niven, but the rest of the cast is average.  Most of the film takes place on sound stages so it has an artificial look to it.  The cinematography and music are meh.  The movie does take off in the test flight scene and the dogfight at the end.  The movie finishes strong.

                The movie is generally accurate, but simplifies and sanitizes things.  (Try to imagine Howard as a boss from hell, which is what Mitchell actually was.)   He was a brilliant aircraft designer who developed twenty four aircraft from 1920-1936.  Much of the effort was part of competition in air races like the Schneider Cup.  The biggest bit of artistic license is the meeting with Messerchmitt.  In reality, Mitchell never visited Germany.  The Crisp character is fictional, but a composite of two test pilots named Jeffrey Quill and “Mutt” Summers.  Summers was the pilot who tested the plane in battle and shot down three German planes.  The real Summers flew a Spitfire in the film.  The movie implies that Mitchell died of tuberculosis, but he had rectal cancer and worked through the pain.  His work did not hasten his death.  The movie also dramatically has him dying right after the first test flight when he actually died fifteen months after the prototype was first flown.  In a more trivial note, Mitchell did not name the plane and felt the name was silly when he learned what the RAF wanted to call it.

                In conclusion, this is a must-see if you are British.  It’s probably the law.  If you are American, you should see it if you are a war movie buff.  Bucket list – check.

GRADE  =  B-