Wednesday, December 27, 2017

POST #700 – Battle of the Bulge (1965)

                I’ve reached my 700th post and have decided to make it special by reviewing the first war movie I ever saw.  My family was living in Japan as my father flew a F-105 fighter/bomber in the Vietnam War.  My father took me and my brothers to see it in a theater off base.  It was a big deal for us even though, at age seven I did not get the big deal about Ultra Panavision.  At least I can now claim that I saw the movie in the format and environment (ultra wide screen) that it was meant to be seen in.  I don’t remember much about that first view, but naturally at that age I found it very entertaining.  And throughout childhood, its periodic appearances on TV always had the boys glued to the TV screen.  It wasn’t until later, after I became obsessed with history, that I began to reassess my opinion of it.  As with some of my childhood favorites, it does not hold up to scrutiny.

                “Battle of the Bulge” was directed by Ken Annakin (“The Longest Day”) and is a similar all-star battle epic.  It was filmed in Spain with the advantages of support from Franco’s military (he provided 500 soldiers and 75 vehicles), but the disadvantages of inaccurate terrain.  Robert Shaw had his first major role and was paid $250,000 (more than his total paychecks up to then).  That dollar figure is the same amount that was paid to recreate the town of Ambleve so the movie could rubbleize it.  The movie premiered on the 21st anniversary of the battle. 

                The movie opens with an overture.  For you non-baby boomers, that means that while you are settling into your seat you are treated to orchestral music.  This is followed by a narrator and the accuracy problems are off and running.  The narrator explains that it is December, 1944 and the Anglo-Americans are on the brink of victory.  The Ardennes Forest is a quiet sector.  Gen. Montgomery’s 8th Army is to the north of the forest.  (In the first example of sloppy history, the 8th was actually in Italy.)  Lt. Col. Kiley (Henry Fonda – continuing a tradition of casting actors too old for their roles) is scouting in a spotter plane and takes an incredibly accurate photo of a German officer in a moving car.  He later identifies the mystery man as a German tank savant named Col. Hessler (Shaw).  Hessler is on his way to a meeting with a general who surprises him with der Fuhrer’s plan to launch a go for broke offensive in the Ardennes.  The target is the port of Antwerp and the plan will depend on poor weather to keep Allied air grounded.  He will have 50 hours of fuel, queue the countdown clock.  Hessler is no Nazi fanatic, but he does love a challenge so he is on board.  He is, however, skeptical of his young, green tank commanders until they break into a rousing rendition of “Panzerlied” (“Panzer Song”).  As a child, I was ready to enlist in the panzers at this point.  Meanwhile, Kiley is trying to convince his overconfident superiors that a major attack is imminent.  He is derided by the mustache twirling Col. Pritchard (Dana Andrews).  In an “I’ll show you by getting myself killed” move, he visits a bunker on the Siegfried Line where Maj. Wolenski (Charles Bronson) shrugs empathetically.  What do you want me to do?  Here come the Germans!! 

                Now that the shooting has commenced the movie jumps between several characters.  Hessler and his aide Conrad (Hans Christian Blech) attack the city of Ambleve and head for the Meuse River while ever aware of their dwindling fuel supplies.  Kiley goes from intelligence officer to combat soldier.  Lt. Schumacher (Ty Hardin) leads German commandoes disguised as Americans in causing chaos behind American lines.  Sgt. Guffy (Telly Savalas) finds the battle an inconvenience impacting his black market operation.  He commands a Sherman tank and the screen when he is on it. He does have to share the screen with a bunch of tanks in the climactic battle.

                “Battle of the Bulge” may be a all-star battle wannabe, but the cast is nowhere near “The Longest Day”.  The acting is less than stellar also.  Fonda is comfortable as the ex-cop who butts heads with the brass, but his character is put in some ridiculous situations including getting shot down by tanks firing their main guns.  He has to be everywhere to glue together the American arcs.  “The Longest Day” did not stretch any of its characters like that.  Col. Vandervoort did not plan the invasion, paratroop behind the lines, and land on Omaha Beach.  Shaw is good as the war-loving Hessler.  Blech makes a fair foil for Hessler, but their relationship is not realistic.  Savalas steals the show with his Guffy.  The character brings some forced comic relief and the required redemption arc.  He does a lot of scenery chewing, but at least he didn’t have to eat any snow.

                The problem with the movie is not just that it is an historical atrocity, but it is also laughably ridiculous.  Not one character is named after a real person, which must have been a dictate from the studio’s legal department.  (This was partly due to the fact that Columbia had green-lighted a movie called “16th of December:  The Battle of the Bulge” featuring Eisenhower, Montgomery, and Hitler.  John Wayne was set to play Patton.  Those who cry for a redo on the battle, should ponder what a make would have been like.)  Fortunately for the producers, events cannot sue.  The script shows a contempt for the historically knowledgeable, but an understanding of what passes as entertainment for the masses.  (The movie has an incredible 67% on Rotten Tomatoes.)  This explains why the snowless Spanish plains (perfect for Panavision) stand in for the snowy hills and dense forest of the Ardennes.  It also explains how most of the main characters end up at the gas depot.  The first big battle scene is adrenalin pumping, but if you have seen many war movies, you’ll laugh at some of the silliest deaths ever. (Those Spanish extras add a nice twirl to their touchdown signaling.) They must have story-boarded that scene using plastic army men.  The battle of Ambleve and the final tank battle are equally silly tactically.  But there are lots of explosions.  Accompanied by pompous epic movie music.  

                If the movie was entitled “Battle of the Bugle”, I would tell you to watch and kill some time while you eat your popcorn. (No need to cozy up by the fire, this isn’t the “Band of Brothers” episodes on the Bulge.)  But this is a war movie blog, so war movies are held to a higher standard here.  “Battle of the Bulge” might be the worst of the all-star battle epic subgenre.  Keep in mind that the subgenre includes “Pearl Harbor”, which is definitely superior to it.

GRADE  =  D-

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The movie has a disclaimer at the end that explains that in order to cover the battle, some names and places have been generalized and “action has been synthesized to convey the spirit and essence of the battle.”  But it also claims that the movie honors the participants in the battle.  Since the Battle of the Bulge was the biggest battle in American History and it was only 21 years old, there were still plenty of participants who could clearly remember the battle.  For instance, they could remember the freezing cold temperatures and frostbite-inducing snow.  The movie makes a mockery of the hardships they endured.  This must have been part of the reason why Dwight Eisenhower came out of retirement to tell the press that the movie was terrible.  You did not have to be a veteran to be offended by it.  Being an historically-informed person put you in the offended group.  It’s not like the battle was ill-covered by historians.  It was not like the Battle of Ia Drang for people seeing “We Were Soldiers”.

                The movie is not without some education value.  The first third does a fair job of outlining the situation before the German attack.  The American high command was complacent and overconfident.  However, there were some warning signs, just not like Kiley’s snooping.  The German plan was summarized well.  It was a last ditch gamble by Hitler. The target was Antwerp, but generally he was hoping to break through and cover as much ground and do as much damage as his forced could accomplish before fuel and clear weather became factors.  Much of the military leaders were skeptical of the plan and Hessler does not represent this group well.  The movie glosses over any concerns and basically uses the “Panzerlied” to make him a Kool-aid drinker.  Hessler is based on the real-life Joachim Peiper who was an SS commander who would have been drinking Kool-aid through the whole war.  The screenwriters made Hessler fictional because the regrettably still alive Peiper threatened to sue.  Poor decision by him and his lawyers as Hessler was a big upgrade to Peiper’s reputation.  For instance, Peiper ordered the Malmedy Massacre, while Hessler laments it.  The only other character that can even loosely be linked to a real person is Schumacher representing the famous Hitler fav Otto Skorzeny.  Skorzeny rescued Mussolini and then was given command of Operation Greif.  He deserves a movie of his own.

                The opening breakthrough is fairly accurate.  American forces were taken by surprise, but it was more due to the weather than the Tigers.  Wolinski’s unit was typical of the ass-whipping that many units received.  For a large-scale epic, the movie curiously concentrates on just Gen. Gray’s (Robert Ryan) division versus Hessler’s division.  Schumacher’s men are thrown in to exemplify Operation Greif.  Their activities like turning around signs are true, but their unintended effect of sowing confusion among American soldiers is not touched on.  Even Ike had to answer questions to prove he was a legit American. The movie gives them way too much credit.  They did not capture and hold any bridges.  The Malmedy Massacre was another no-brainer inclusion and it is satisfactorily rendered.  One quibble is that there was not a “Great Escape” moment with a machine gun in the back of a truck.  And, in this case, there was no snow on the ground – the bodies were covered by snow before their discovery.

                The assault on the town of Ambleve represents several towns that were taken under similar circumstances.  It is doubtful the Germans would have use tanks as artillery, but the movie shows virtually no artillery being used by either side.  It also does not give any credit to Allied air.  In the final battle, which is based on the Battle of Celles, air and artillery played a major role.  The depiction of Shermans suicidally sacrificing themselves to bleed the German tanks of their fuel is farcical.  In actuality, the victory was a combination of Shermans, artillery, and Typhoons pouncing on the already fuel deficient Germans.   The defense of the depot is pure Hollywood, but an appropriate bit of nonsense to close out the film. 

Sunday, December 24, 2017

CHRISTMAS WAR MOVIE: Silent Night (2002)

                This year my Christmas selection is the movie “Silent Night”.  It was made for television (Hallmark) and released in 2002.  It was directed by Rodney Gibbons and stars Linda Hamilton.  It is based on a true story that is set in the Battle of the Bulge at Christmas time in 1944. 

                The movie begins with an elderly German named Fritz reminiscing with a young American about his grandfather who he had met in the war.  The movie then proceeds into flashback mode.  Fritz (Matthew Harbour) and his mother Elizabeth Vincken (Linda Hamilton) are refugees from the fighting in the Ardennes.  Elizabeth thinks their cabin in the woods will be a safe haven from the war.  They plan on a quiet uneventful Christmas eve.  That is ruined when three American soldiers barge in.  One of them is wounded (Michael Elkin as Pvt. Ridgin).  Sgt. Blank (Alain Goulem) is very distrustful of Elizabeth, but Pvt. Rassi (Romano Orzari) bonds with Fritz.  Three is a party, six is a movie as three Germans arrive to complicate matters.  Rassi bluffs them into surrendering, but then the forceful Mrs. Vincken insists that the opposing sides agree to truce and leave all the weapons outside.  The deal is reluctantly agreed to with Blank and Lt. Klosterman (Martin Neufeld) both wink-winking.  Klosterman is a hard-core Nazi who implies that Elizabeth will be held accountable for not warning them about the Americans.  He also wonders why Fritz is not in the Hitler Youth at the ripe old age of 12.  Sgt. Mueller (Mark Antony Krupa) helps with Ridgin’s wound. 

                A shared meal and conversations encourage empathy and camaraderie among the soldiers.  The sergeants make a connection over singing “Oh Christmas Tree” and Blank and Klosterman debate Nazism.  Next comes trimming the Christmas tree and the obligatory singing of “Silent Night”.  It all comes to a screeching halt when Klosterman notices Rassi has an Iron Cross souvenir.  Klosterman’s decorated brother was stripped when he was killed.  Not a good moment for Ridgin to enter with a pistol.  The party comes to an end the next morning when an American MP arrives.  Or is he?

                “Silent Night” is a sweet little Christmas movie and should leave a warm spot even for Scrooges.  It is decidedly made for TV and if you are looking for action…  The acting starts out weak, but the actors seem to calm down and play it more naturally as the movie proceeds.  Hamilton is the only star and she anchors the film.  The others are no names who emote adequately.  The characters are stock, but well-developed.  The dialogue is fine if a bit Hallmarkish.  At least it’s not mawkish.  The movie is not overtly religious, but it won’t turn you into an atheist.  The ending has a nice twist to it. 

                “Silent Night” is not in a league with “Joyeux Noel” or “A Midnight Clear”, but it is a nice choice if you want something that combines war and Christmas.  See the spoiler report on how much of the story is true below.

Grade  =  B-

HOW TRUE IS IT?  The basic scenario is true, but the details are enhanced for our viewing pleasure and so we won’t fall asleep.  The Vincken’s did take refuge in a cabin.  Three Americans did join them and one of them was wounded.  Unlike the movie, the Germans did not speak English.  Who wants to read subtitles in a made-for-TV movie?  The three Germans knocked before being invited in by Elizabeth.  She did require them to leave their weapons outside and they did agree to a truce.  One of the Germans did help with the wounded American.  The group shared a meal of stew.  The next day the two trios parted without incident.  Overall, acceptable artistic license for a movie that was not meant to be an important historical retelling.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

FORGOTTEN GEM? King and Country (1964)

                “King and Country” is a WWI court room drama.  It was directed by Joseph Losey.  It was based on a play by John Wilson and a novel by James Lansdale Hodson.  The movie was low budget and was shot in only eighteen days.  It was a critical, but not box office success.   The movie is set during the Battle of Passchendaele on the Western Front in 1917.  It deals with the topics of shell shock and desertion.

                The movie opens with a shots of dead soldiers and a soldier memorial.  Vibe set.  Private Arthur Hamp (Tom Courtney) is in a cell awaiting court-martial for desertion.  Hamp, a volunteer and veteran, walked away from the trenches and headed home.  He was the only survivor from his original unit and is a classic shell shock candidate.  His assigned counsel, Capt. Hargreaves (Dirk Bogarde), is an asshole who is less than sympathetic.  He believes the party line on shell shock – it’s cowardice.  When he first interviews the naïve Hamp, there are soldiers bailing water in the trench in the background.  The very deep focus of the scene emphasizes the noteworthy cinematography of the black and white film.  Hamp tells him he cracked after he almost drowned in a shell hole.  He deserted when his unit was in the rear.  He is lucid and reasonable, but is surprised when he is told he faces the death penalty.  Hargreaves decides to go with a temporary insanity defense.  A man can only take so much – “so much blood, so much filth, so much dying.”

                “King and Country” has a similar feel to “Paths of Glory”, but is more play-bound.  There is no action, but it is not just set in a courtroom.  Hamp’s scenes are intercut with scenes of a few Tommies in the trench nearby.  Mates who are potential shell shock victims.  The set is authentically rainy and muddy.  They provide the gallows humor appropriate for the Western Front.  They capture a rat that they roust from a dead horse.  And then put the rat on trial for biting one of them!  The movie’s symbolism is not subtle, but it is appropriate.  The movie is dialogue-driven and, although it is not laden with memorable lines, screenwriter Evan Jones (“Victory”) handles the predictable trial with aplomb.  The movie is as predictable as a 1960s movie about WWI desertion would be expected to be.  Predictable especially if you have seen “Paths of Glory”.  However, the decision to play with the audience’s emotions by way of the twist in the court decision defies credulity if you have any knowledge of the British Army’s policy toward men like Hamp.  One unpredictable element is the Hargreaves character.  Bogarde is excellent (it was supposedly his favorite role), but his conversion from antipathetic to empathetic is not truly believable.  It’s a good thing for Hamp that he comes around because as a lawyer, he ranks with Dax.  Courtnay is also excellent as the naïve Hamp.  He reminded me of Pvt. Slovik.  Except that Slovik had more reason to be naïve.  Hamp, a veteran of three years, would certainly have had some experience with the military ethos.  He should have known he had as much chance as the rat.

                “King and Country” is a must-see for anyone interested in WWI movies.  It does not wink at anti-war sentiments.  It oozes (literally, with all the mud) that sentiment.  You won’t soon forget it.

GRADE  =  B+

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

CLASSIC or ANTIQUE: Sink the Bismarck! (1960)

                “Sink the Bismarck!” is a black and white British movie released in 1960.  It is a true story of the events that led up to the Battle of the Denmark Strait and the subsequent action which resulted in the destruction of the German battleship Bismarck.  The screenplay was based on The Last Nine Days of the Bismarck by C.S. Forester.  He wrote the book with the intention of it becoming a movie and worked closely with the screenwriter.  Director Lewis Gilbert had also done “Reach for the Sky” and “Damn the Defiant!”.  The producer John Brabourne used the fact that he was son-in-law to Lord Mountbatten when he was Chief of the Defense Staff to get full cooperation of the Admiralty.  It allowed Gilbert to film on board and film exteriors of various Royal Navy ships.  The movie was a big hit in Great Britain and also did well in America.  It inspired Johnny Horton’s song.

                The movie opens with footage of Hitler christening the brand new battleship in 1939.  Two years later, Edward Murrow (playing himself) reminds the audience that at this point in the war England stands alone and winning the Battle of the Atlantic is crucial.  The Admiralty has a new Chief of Operations in Capt. Shephard (Kenneth More) to coordinate this task.  He is something of a martinet and is described as “cold, with no heart or soul.  Just an enormous brain.”  (Sounds like me.)  His assistant will be a comely WREN named Davis (Dana Wynter).  Their first crisis is a report that the Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen have sailed on what may be a commerce raiding expedition.  Adm. Lutjens is overconfident and a hard core Nazi.  His main motivation is glory.  Capt. Lindemann doesn’t drink the Nazi Kool-aid. 

                The movie covers the cat and mouse aspect of British efforts to locate and defeat the German warships.  It intercuts between the British war room and the bridges of the various combatants.  Models are used to reenact the battle scenes.  The Royal Navy is all in as Churchill proclaims “you must sink the Bismarck!”  This will not be painless as the British end up losing their most their poster-dreadnaught the HMS Hood.  Although the movie is mostly command-centric, there is a subplot involving Shephard’s son who is a gunner on a Swordfish torpedo plane that is part of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal’s strike force.  This allows for some character development as the Blitz-widowered Shephard is very close to his son.  The movie will make it difficult for him to keep his upper lip stiff.  He manages, of course.  I won’t go into detail on the plot because if you are British you already know what happens and everyone else can be in suspense as to whether the title comes true. ( Check out my historical accuracy section below if you want to be spoiled.)

                “Sink the Bismarck!” is one of the better British WWII movies.  Better, but not radically different.  I’ve seen these officers numerous times.  Imperturbable would be a good description of them.  Shephard is the main character and he is interesting.  His back-story makes the cold fish human.  Davis helps humanize him and their relationship thankfully is of sympathetic colleagues and avoids romantic banter.  There is a powerful scene where she gets him to open up about his wife’s death.  The movie eschews emotionalism for the most part. It even has a documentary feel to it.  This is apparent from the start with the appearance of Murrow reenacting one of his wartime broadcasts.  It is more documentary than propaganda.  It seems obvious that Gilbert meant the film to be a history lesson and it has the appearance of being an accurate retelling of the battleships demise.  The Germans are not demonized, although Lutjens is depicted as a fanatic whose greatest moment is birthday wishes from der Fuhrer.  Although the film does not spend a lot of time with the tars, it is effective in showing the terrible last moments of the German crew.  It is not really a celebratory film which reflects the Cold War fact that West Germany was now Britain’s ally.

                As far as naval combat is concerned, the movie is as good as could be expected considering when it came out.  Models were relied on since there was no CGI back then.  If you have seen the recent “Battleship”, you know that computers don’t always enhance combat cinematography.  These models are not bad, although they follow each other too closely in the bathtub.  When they take hits, it’s not archaic.  Lord Mountbatten’s influence allowed for a nifty loading sequence to go with the obligatory big guns firing (or “shooting” as the British called it).

                “Sink the Bismarck!” is as good as you are going to get if you want to see how the Bismarck met its end.  It is more entertaining than a History Channel doc. (I am, of course, referring to the History Channel back when it had programs about history.)
GRADE  =  B+
HISTORICAL ACCURACY:   No surprise that the Shephard and Davis characters are fictional, as of course was the son who was fished out of the drink.  No problem there.  That is acceptable cinema.  Since the existence of Enigma decoding was not revealed until 1975, Shephard’s hunches actually would have been based on intelligence intercepts.  The doomed Norwegian agent replaced a Swedish cruiser that reported the sighting to its government.  The report was intercepted by the British.  The Prince of Wales did have civilian workers on board to finish their work on the guns, for example.  The movie has a few minor glitches in the coverage of the Battle of Denmark Strait.  The Brits actually targeted the Prinz Eugen first in a case of mistaken identity.  They did manage to hit the Bismarck several times and one of the hits severed access to the forward fuel tanks.  The destruction of the Hood is substantially as shown.  It was most likely a shell that hit the forward ammunition magazine.  The Hood was doomed by its paltry armor plating that was a result of the navy’s decision to sacrifice armor for speed.  The movie accurately shows the Prince of Wales withdrawing.  In reality, the PoW had to avoid the wreckage which resulted in concentrated fire upon her, plus she had malfunctioning guns.  She was hit several times so Capt. Leach ordered smoke.  At this point, Lutjens vetoed Lindemann’s proposal to chase the PoW. 

                The movie’s portrayal of Lutjens and Lindemann is far off.  Lutjens was not a Nazi.  In fact, the Kriegsmarine was the least Nazi of the branches.  He actually protested Kristallnacht and refused to give Hitler the Nazi salute when he visited the Bismarck.  Far from being a glory-hound, he was pessimistic about the expedition and was conservative in interpreting Adm. Raeder’s orders to attack convoys and avoid capital ships.  He decided going after the Prince of Wales was not worth getting fired over.  In some ways, the movie has reversed the Lutjens and Lindemann characters.  It was Lindemann who overrode Lutjens in initiating the fire on the Hood, for instance.

                The Swordfish attacks are a mixed bag.  The first did result in an inconsequential torpedo hit.  The second did accidentally target the Sheffield.  The magnetic torpedoes were defective, causing the significant switch to contact torpedoes for the next attack.  The movie shows some of those attackers getting shot down.  In actuality, there were no losses.  One of them did jam the Bismarck’s rudder and it did turn out to be irreparable.  No doubt Lutjens was not optimistic about their chances after this.  The night destroyer attack is enhanced for entertainment as there were actually no torpedo hits and no destroyers were sunk.  The HMS Solent is fictitious.  The final battle is basically accurate. The movie leaves out the post script of British warships picking up 110 survivors (far from the majority of the crew that was in the water), but then leaving the rest due to an alert that a u-boat was lurking.  Only a hand full of the rest of the survivors were eventually rescued by German ships.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017


2.  What movie is this quote from?  "The thing that's always worried me about being one of the few is the way we keep on getting fewer."

3.  What movie is this?   It was released in 1944 and is a black and white classic directed by Preston Sturges.  It is considered by many to be his best movie.  He was nominated for the Oscar for Best Screenplay.  Fans of Sturges will recognize several familiar faces from his “stock company” including William Demarest who made ten movies with Sturges.  The movie came out a year after another Sturges home front satire, “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” (which also starred Demarest and Bracken).

Sunday, December 3, 2017

WAR ROMANCE: In Love and War (1996)

            “In Love and War” is the true story of Ernest Hemingway and his romance with a nurse in WWI Italy.  The movie is based on the book “Hemingway in Love and War” by Henry Villard and James Nagel.  Villard was in the hospital with Hemingway and is a character in the movie.  The film covers a relationship that would strongly affect his personality and writing.  He wrote ten short stories with references to his romance with Agnes von Kurowsky and she is a character in his famous novel “A Farewell to Arms”.  The movie was directed by Richard Attenborough. Sandra Bullock worked for a paltry $11 million.  That apparently left little for the rest of the cast.

            The movie is set in Italy on the war front with Austria from July, 1918 until Hemingway’s return to America.  A title card tells us that President Wilson sent the American Red Cross to Europe.  One volunteer was Ernie Hemingway who was a newspaper reporter at the time.  But first we are introduced to a nurse named Agnes.  The head nurse tells her “no fraternization allowed”.  Do you think that rule might come up?  A brief taste of combat depicts some graphic wounds to set up the hospital scenes.  Agnes meets a cocky American named Ernie.  He runs off to the front to get wounded so he can see her again.  Mission accomplished.  Agnes is seven years older than Ernie, but he is persistent.  The usual “he knows she’s in love with him before she does” trope is used.  Also typical of the genre is the love triangle complicating matters.  Actually, in this case it’s a quadrangle.  Ernie’s buddy Henry (Mackenzie Astin) is interested in Agnes in a competitive sort of way and the Italian doctor who agrees to avert amputation takes a shine to her as well.  Even though this is not a romantic comedy, it still insists on the break-up scene.  Have no fear – Ernie is persistent.  Queue the romantic music swelling.  Watch for Sandy’s butt.  Ernie returns home assured that Agnes will be joining him for wedded bliss.  Keep in mind that this is a romance, not a romantic comedy.

            “In Love and War” is about Ernest Hemingway, but it is not written by him.  I’m not sure he would have been impressed with it.  The dialogue is decidedly unHemingwayesque.  It is an average movie and if it was not something of a history lesson about a great writer, it would not be worth the watch.  The production values are those of a made-for-TV movie and the acting is mediocre.  O’Donnell is amateurish, but Bullocks is fine as the jaded nurse.  She is certainly not her usual bubbly screen persona.  She does seem uncomfortable playing the older woman.  There is little chemistry between the leads.

            The movie is not really a war movie.  I would classify it as a romance set in a war.  There is a very brief combat scene and some coverage of military medicine.  Some scenes in the MASH unit resemble the famous comedy without the laughs.  The hospital scenes are stock and include the amputee that takes his own life.

            SPOILER ALERT:  Ernest Hemingway did volunteer for the ambulance corps from his journalism job.  He was swayed by patriotic pleas.  He did get sent to Italy and was wounded early on when he was visiting the front line.  The wound was actually from shrapnel from a mortar.  He did meet Henry Villard and Agnes von Kurowsky in the hospital.  Villard was not a romantic rival and in fact was unaware of the heat.   A romance did develop and marriage was planned when they were reunited in America, according to Hemingway.  Von Kurowsky insisted later that it was a flirtation and never consummated.  Agnes wrote to Hemingway informing him that he was being jilted for an Italian doctor.  That relationship fell through and Agnes returned to the United States, but she and Ernie never met again.  Ernie never forgot her as she influenced his writing career (Catherine Barkley in “A Farewell to Arms” is based on her)  and his personal life.  Hemingway married four times and abandoned each wife before they could abandon him.  Or so psychologists analyze it.

GRADE  =  C-


Tuesday, November 28, 2017

CRACKER? 1939 Battle of Westerplatte (2013)

       “1939 Battle of Westerplatte” is a Polish-Lithuanian movie written and directed by Pawel Chochlew.  It was originally titled “Tajemnica Westerplatte”.  The movie chronicles the “Polish Thermopylae”.  This was the heroic defense on the Westerplatte peninsula in the harbor of Danzig at the start of WWII. 

                The movie opens just prior to the German invasion of Poland.  The Polish commander on the peninsula is a Maj. Sucharski (Michal Zebrowski).  He  is informed that he will have to hold out for twelve hours instead of six.  “This is a fight for honor.”  He is upset because he has only 200 men.  The clock starts ticking when a shell hits his headquarters. The initial German assault is repulsed with excellent explosive effects and graphic wounds, but the combat is brief.  The next seven days are a series of assaults followed by lulls in the fighting.  The Germans bring in CGI Stukas, an armored train, and flamethrowers, but the defenders continue to hold out.  The stress is having an effect on the Poles, but especially on Sucharski.  He is suffering from combat fatigue which looks a lot like cowardice.  On the third day, he wants to surrender.  This leads to command dysfunction as his second in command Capt. Dabrowski (Robert Zoledziewski) wants to hold out.
                “1939 Battle of Westerplatte” was controversial when it was released.  Some Polish patriots were upset with the less than flattering portrayal of the defenders, especially Sucharski.  The fact that the word tajemnica means “secret” implied that it was a revisionist view of the battle.  There is some justification for this viewpoint.  The Battle of Westerplatte  was technically the defense of the Military Transit Depot on Westerplatte peninsula.  The defense was centered on the fortified barracks as depicted in the film.  The battle opened with bombardment by the battleship Schleswig-Holstein.  This was followed by an assault by elite German forces which walked into an ambush.  A Polish soldier that was killed was the first death in WWII.  The Poles used  howitzers and mortars to repulse the attack.  The second attempt was met by felled trees, barbed wire, and heavy fire.  This and a third attack were also thrown back.  The Poles were forced to withdraw to a smaller perimeter centering on the barracks, but they continued to hold out against renewed forays and intense artillery and Stuka bombardments.  An attempt to set the bridge connecting the peninsula to the mainland failed when the fire from the train set the woods afire and allowed the defenders to wreak havoc.  By this time, Sucharski was urging surrender, but Dabrowski took temporary command to prevent this.  However, Sucharski got his way on the Sept. 7.  Only 14 Poles died in the battle so it was not exactly Thermopylae or the Alamo.  Sucharski came out of the battle as the most decorated hero and the defense was an inspiration to the Polish nation.  The movie tarnishes Sucharski’s reputation, but not really the rest of the men.  If anything, the Germans come off much worse.  These are hardly elite soldiers.  They are depicted as cowardly and incompetent.  Since the Poles are far from stalwart warriors, it is hard to see why it takes the Germans a full week to defeat them.

                The logical movie to compare this movie to is “The Brest Fortress” which covers a similar Alamo-type defense by Soviet troops in the early days of Operation Barbarossa.  “1939 Battle of Westerplatte” does not come off well in this comparison.  It is poorly acted.  The dialogue is stilted and there is too much of it.  At one point, Sucharski actually tells one of the men “You won’t die – that’s an order.”  There is plenty of time for talking because there is a shortage of combat throughout the movie.  There is a lot of fizzle to the events.  You expect kick-ass moments, but you get long stretches of boring.  This is disappointing because the initial combat is fairly well staged.  Classic case of bait and switch.  The lack of combat leads you to believe that there is no good reason for Sucharski to surrender.  This is a disservice to the men who held out against incredible odds for a full week.  One thing you can say, the movie is not overly patriotic.

                The only positive thing I can say about the movie is it clued me in on an event in WWII that I was not familiar with.  I was already familiar with the Alamo and as an American I think I would be upset if a new movie came out depicting Davy Crockett as suffering from shell shock and wanting to surrender early in the siege.  For this reason I have to side with the historical critics of the movie.

GRADE  =  D-

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Wonder Woman (2017)

                It took me a while to be convinced that “Wonder Woman” is a war movie, but I finally went to see it along with the masses.  This was a chore since I am not a big fan of superhero movies and I did not watch the old “Wonder Woman” series or read the comics.  However, my wife and best friends dragged me along and I might as well get a review out of it.  Normally I take notes during the movie, but this time I just sat and enjoyed the experience.  Also, normally I do a lot of research on the movie before writing my review, but this time I am going to go just on my gut feelings.  Since I am not immersed in the DC Universe, I will probably make some assumptions that will have fans foaming at the mouth.  I’ll just have to live with that.  Spoiler alert:  the review will cover the whole plot, so if you are one of the few who have not seen the movie, proceed at your own risk.

                I teach about Greek mythology and yet I had yet to encounter the movie’s version. According to the film, Zeus created mankind and was protective of humans.  He created the Amazons to watch over them.  Ares was determined to rid Earth of humans which resulted in a battle with the other gods of Mt. Olympus. Zeus was killed, but before he died he left the Amazons with a sword called “Godkiller” that could finish off the wounded Ares.  Ares was the only god to survive.  This is obviously the comic book version of Greek mythology.  I’ve got my work cut out for me in my Western Civilization class next fall because virtually all this is bull shit.  Zeus did not create man (Prometheus did) and in fact was not happy about mankind ruining the earthly paradise he had created.  There was no battle between the Olympians, plus the gods are immortal so they cannot be killed.  The Amazons were a legendary race of warrior women who were foes of the Greeks.  They were noted for their archery skills only.  Virtually every reference to them has them losing (to Theseus and Heracles) or being on the losing side (the Trojan War).  Nowhere are they described as protectors. 

                After the godly battle, the movie has the Amazons living on an isolated island that is cut off from the outside world.  So much for protecting mankind and keeping the peace.  They constantly train - for what?  They are great archers, but equally adept at swordplay and martial arts.  They are all equivalent to Hit-Girl in “Kick-Ass”.  One of the Amazons is a girl – Princess Diana (Gal Gadot).  She alone ages (up until her twenties when the aging process stops).  Her mother Queen Hippolyta wants to shield her from her destiny like every other superhero parent, but destiny comes calling in the form of a flyboy/spy (double the sex appeal) named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine).  Trevor somehow penetrates the island’s forcefield (the first to do so in 3,000 years or so) in a WWI monoplane (not a biplane in 1918?).  His plane is being chased by a German cruiser (that’s one fast warship!) and a landing party provokes the Amazons into using their 3,000 year-old training to kick some ass.  Not that modern bullets don’t cause some losses, mind you. 

                It turns out that Steve has purloined the recipe for a new German super gas that could change the course of the war.  He needs to get the notes to the good guys pronto.  He reveals his story due to the fact that he was ensnared by the Lasso of Hestia which besides being a lasso/whip, has the power to bring out the truth.  Once Diana hears about “the war to end all wars”, she deduces this must be the work of Ares.  It seems that in carrying out their mission to protect mankind and preserve peace, the Amazons were clueless about great hits like the Hundred Years War and the American Civil War.  Not to mention all the other wars.  Diana decides to take the “Godkiller” and hunt down Ares. Plus after having seen Steve naked, she will go where the penises are.   Diana and Steve sail to London, although they have no sailing ability or navigational aids.  Insert fish out of water scenes when they get to London.  Add comic relief from Steve’s secretary.

                They arrive right at the tail end of WWI.  Politicians are negotiating the armistice.  Seems like a classic case of too little too late, except that an evil German general named Ludendorff (based on the boringly nonevil actual German commander) is working with a female chemist (known to her comic book writing friends as Doctor Poison).  She got her face mask from “Phantom of the Opera R Us”.  She is developing a type of gas that will melt gas masks.  This will force the Allied Powers to give up.  Steve reunites his crack team of agents.  Sameer is master of disguises who will be given no opportunity to show it, Charlie is a sniper who has PTSD and can’t take the shot but will work through it with no drama, and Chief is a Native American who somehow is living on the Western Front.  The unit is as heterogeneous as you can get.  And capable of accomplishing the impossible.  The impossible being crossing enemy lines and killing Ludendorff/Ares and destroying the gas.  Luckily, they are aided by a too-good-to-be-true politician named Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis). 

                The chief uses his tracking skills (and his ears and nose) to find the front line.  But there is a little old thing called No Man’s Land standing in the way.  When Diana finds out there is a village of humans being bullied by the Boche, she charges into the kill zone by herself.  Deathcheatingly, she has a magic shield and the German machine guns fire only at it.  For the single bullets, she has arm bracelets and the incredible reflexes that come with gods.  Her ballsiness inspires her comrades to join her and even though they are not superheroes, they have the powers to not be killed due to the script needing them around.  The village of Veld is liberated as Diana proves that although it is nice to have the shield and arm bracelets, she could not be killed even if a house fell on her.  And her hair is immune to debris.  The citizens of Veld celebrate their liberation at a party hosted by the one undamaged building in the town.  The café’s windows were apparently made of bomb proof glass.  That night Diana and Steve get intimate so in case anything happens to him, it will be very poignant.

                Chief leads them to a soiree attended by all the German bigwigs, including Ludendorff.  Steve infiltrates wearing a starched German uniform he got from a costume shop, Shameer shows off his mastery of disguises by wearing a hat, and Diana steals a ball gown with a special bra for holding a sword.  She walks into the ball in a stunning blue number that distracts everyone from the sword clearly protruding above her bra strap.  She has a very erect posture and if a dance partner had dipped her, he would have been castrated.  Nothing happens because the room is too small for an epic superhero set piece.  We’ll need an airfield for that.

                At said air field, Ludendorff is planning on using a bomber to drop the gas on London.  He figures that instead of demanding revenge, the British people will cave in to German demands.  He does not know the British very well.  Diana has her duel with Ludendorff and she wins suspiciously easily.  She kills the god Ares with “Godkiller”, but the war continues. What the hey?!  Surprise, Ares is Morgan.  Here comes the main event.  It is superhero versus supervillain epic.  How original!  That woman can take a Buffyesque pounding.  Midway through the fight, Ares sheds his twittish David Thewlis look for The Mountain in “Game of Thrones” and it is now really on.  He destroys “Godkiller” but can’t help but blab that Diana has it within herself to kill him.  But she won’t because she will join him in destroying mankind and restoring Earth to a paradise, right?  (Does this make Ares the good guy?  To animals watching the movie, yes.)  Diana goes all Firestarter on his ass and this ends all wars forever.  London is saved when Steve hijacks the bomber and sacrifices himself because Chris Pine was not available for the sequel.  Wait, Doctor Poison lives and Steve doesn’t.  War really is Hell!

                “Wonder Woman” is definitely a well-designed crowd-pleaser.  The plot grabs from the bag of superhero blocks to make its unique castle, but it’s still a castle.  What sets it apart is its female heroine.  Gal Gadot is excellent in the role.  She is sexy and athletic and humane.  And oh so naïve.  And she’s not Linda Carter.  Sorry Linda, but you had only two assets.  The rest of the cast is good.  Pine is perfect as the intrepid Trevor.  There is genuine chemistry between the leads.  I don’t recall much about the dialogue, which is a compliment.  There is some intentional humor to go along with the unintentional.  (Just remember not to laugh out loud at the silly stuff.  Most of the audience will not appreciate that.)  As far as the effects, they are the usual bludgeoning effects we have come to expect from superhero movies.  Sensory assault would be a good description.

                “Wonder Woman” is one of the better superhero movies, although not as good as it's closest equivalent - Captain America: The First Avenger.  But that is not saying much.  As you can figure, I am not a big fan of the genre.  I am a bit upset that each year we get about three war movies and thirty-three superhero movies.  I understand why this is – the public gets what it wants.  This is a sad comment on the public.  Superhero movies are anti-intellectual.  You must turn off your brain to enjoy them and check logic at the door.  Most of them, including this one, insist on plopping their fantasies into the real world.  They choose not to live in a sci-fi or fantasy world where logic can be bent.  Instead, they have creatures with special powers interacting with regular joes in a regular world.  “Wonder Woman” is a classic example of this as she leaves a fantasy world where leaping off a horse while twirling in the air and firing arrows can be believable, to go to 1918 Europe.  She carries her magic rope into the trenches of WWI.  In an act of contempt, the movie does not bother to change the name of the German commanding general.  

               If I had gotten this review out at the time of the movie's release just imagine how much box office it would have reduced.  You owe me one, Warner Brothers.


Sunday, November 19, 2017

CRACKER? Lincoln (2012)

                “Lincoln” is not a war movie, but it is a Civil War movie.  It was directed by Steven Spielberg and was under development for about ten years.  Based on the Doris Kearns Godwin book Team of Rivals, which was about Lincoln and his cabinet, Spielberg was actually working on the movie before the book came out.  The screenplay was by Tony Kirshner who spent years researching the topic.  He took some artistic license as is to be expected, but his heart was in the right place.  Spielberg’s first choice for Lincoln was Daniel Day-Lewis but he declined the role.  Liam Neeson was tabbed, but after the movie was slow getting off the ground, he dropped out claiming he was now too old.  Day-Lewis then reconsidered.  He was rewarded with the Best Actor Academy Award.  The film also won for Production Design.  It was nominated for ten other awards including Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actress (Sally Field), and Supporting Actor (Tommy Lee Jones).  “Lincoln” was a box office success and was critically acclaimed.  As a post script, one impact of the film was the final unanimous ratification of the 13th Amendment.  It seems that when Mississippi belatedly ratified it in 1995, the paperwork was not filed properly.  Prodding from two academicians caused the Mississippi Secretary of State to rectify the error in 2013.

                The movie covers the last four months of Lincoln’s life.  It concentrates on his quest to pass the 13th Amendment.  Although more famous for his Emancipation Proclamation, that Presidential edict did not actually end slavery.  It declared that the slaves in the Confederate-occupied South were free.  The 13th Amendment officially ended slavery, but it was not an easy sell to Congress.  Lincoln had to use all of his considerable political skills to get the amendment through the House of Representatives.  The film chronicles the machinations that led to the climactic vote.  Lincoln is a realpolitician who allows Secretary of State Seward (David Strathairn) to employ a trio of political operatives led by the earthy Bilbo (James Spader).  The trio prove that the “spoils system” was still alive and well in 1865.  Lincoln also allies with Republican Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) who believes that blacks deserve equality along with freedom.  Not all his colleagues in the House agree with his enlightened philosophy, as the spirited debates in the chamber depict.  There is plenty of 19th Century trash-talking.  In the midst of all this political maneuvering, there is a back-stairs at the White House arc that portrays the dynamics of the Lincoln family.  The death of their son Tad weighs on Abe and Mary.   The aged look of Lincoln can be attributed to prosecuting the worst war in American History and being married to Mary.

                “Lincoln” finished #13 in box office in 2012, which was very good for a movie of its type.  It was the only movie in the top twenty that was non-fiction.  Three of the thirteen were superhero movies, two were teenage trilogy movies, and four were animated children’s movies.  “Lincoln” was the most popular adult drama and its success proves that you can make money with a movie that has a lot of talking in it.  Although I can imagine some audience members might have squirmed like Lincoln’s cabinet when he launched into one of his homespun stories.  The movie is dialogue driven and manages to be set in the Civil War and yet avoid the temptation to throw in explosions.  Kirshner’s script is entertaining in its blend of Lincoln’s brilliant wordsmanship and the political argot of the time.  Did you know they used the f-word back then?  They also used the term “fatuous nincompoop”.  That bon mot was uttered in one of the lively scenes in the House.  Jones gets the best lines as Stevens, but the rest of his distinguished colleagues make you wish C-SPAN had a Civil War archive.   Apparently, back then, they did not use the phrase “my dear friend” before they reamed them.

                The movie is almost flawless in its execution.  It is good Spielberg.  Although the start had me concerned with its lame Spielbergian recital of the “Gettysburg Address” by a white and then black soldier.  After that schmaltzy opening, the movie settles down to straightforward narrative of the events surrounding the passage of the amendment.   The narrative is extremely well-acted by a top-notch cast.  Day-Lewis richly deserved his Oscar and even shambles like Lincoln.  Fields is great (she gained twenty pounds for the role) and gets a scene where she sarcastically tears Stevens a new one.  (Sadly, this did not happen.)  Mary’s insanity is only alluded to.  Jones and Strathairn are strong and there are plenty of familiar character actors to flesh out the film.  The cinematography is showy with the appropriately dark interiors masterly lit.  There is some bravura camerawork, like a domestic scene where Lincoln can be seen in the foreground and in the background in a mirror.  Nicely done. The sets are authentic.

                As far as historical accuracy, I found varying opinions on this issue.  It depended on how nitpicky the historian wanted to be.  But, surprisingly, I also found that there is some disagreement about some of the key facts in the story.  For instance, one of the most provocative plot developments is Stevens shacking up with his black housekeeper.  This seemingly Hollywood invention is based on a well-known rumor/calumny of the time.  Some historians are convinced it was true.  I buy it.  Here is a list of some of the major “are you kidding me?” moments.

1.  Lincoln did have a recurring dream about being the captain of a ship.  The movie implies it was an analogy of the passage of the amendment, but most historians logically feel he was subconsciously associating the ship with the war effort.
2.  Lincoln did tell stories and the ones included in the movie, like the Ethan Allen story, were among his repertoire.
3.  By the time of the movie, Lincoln had culled his cabinet of naysayers, so the movie overplays their opposition.
4.  Seward did employ some shady dealers, but we don’t know whether they actually bribed Congressman.  Lincoln certainly did not meet with them.
5.  Congressmen would not have addressed each other directly in debates, but hurrah (huzzah?) for Hollywood on this one.  Also, the vote would have been by paper ballot.  Ditto.
6.  The Robert Lincoln arc is accurate.  He did insist on enlisting and Abe did get Grant to put him on his staff.  Abe would not have slapped him, even though their relationship was frosty.
7.  The peace delegation arc was accurate, but they would not have been met by black soldiers.
8.  There were blacks in the balcony for the final vote (one was Frederick Douglass’ son Charles), but they would not have entered en masse.  Mary did not attend.
9.  Tad was at a performance of “Aladdin” when his father’s shooting was announced.

                Overall, I consider the movie to be commendably accurate.  This, added to its excellent entertainment value, makes it an outstanding movie.  It is a must-see for every American.  Even if (especially if?) you are a Confederate statue defender.


Thursday, November 16, 2017


WHAT MOVIE IS THIS QUOTE FROM?  "This is the paradox of being a good soldier: To be a good soldier you must love the army, but you must be willing to kill the thing you love."

WHAT MOVIE IS THIS?   The movie is loosely based on the writer/director Samuel Fuller’s experiences with the 1st Division in WWII. The character Zab represents Fuller. The movie was released in 1980 with a substantial amount left on the cutting room floor. In 2004, the director’s cut was released almost doubling the length of the film.  The movie stars a veteran of WWII.  He served in the Marines and was wounded at Saipan.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Andersonville (1996)

                Ted Turner is a Civil War buff.  “Andersonville” was his third foray into the time period.  Most people forget that he produced “Ironclads” in 1991, two years before “Gettysburg”.  Like “Ironclads”, “Andersonville” was made-for-TV.  But unlike the earlier film, a lot of effort went into “Andersonville”.  Turner got John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, The Train) to direct.  Turner also opened up his check book so Frankenheimer could make the film as authentic as possible.  Frankenheimer won an Emmy for Best Direction of a Miniseries or Special.  The movie was nominated for six other Emmys.  The screenplay was loosely based on Andersonville Diary:  Life Inside the Civil War’s Most Infamous Prison by John Ransom.

                A group of Yankees is captured during the Battle of Cold Harbor in June, 1864.  They are shipped to Camp Sumter outside Andersonville, Georgia.  Their first taste (smell) of the camp includes vicious tracking dogs, dead bodies, and stockades with prisoners in them.  The camp has a fifteen-foot wall around it.  When they enter the camp, they are greeted by a seemingly empathetic character named Munn (William Sanderson).  He offers to befriend the “fresh fish” and help them survive.  Fortunately, Pvt. Josiah Day (Jarrod Emick), Sgt. McFadden (Frederic Forrest) and their mates are reunited with a former comrade named Dick (Gregory Sporleder) who clues them in on Munn’s comrades known as the “Raiders”.  The Raiders are led by a bully named Collins (Frederick Coffin).  They prey on the other prisoners. They live fairly well in their sector of the camp by stealing from the vulnerable captives.  Besides the depredations of the Raiders, the camp is a hell hole because of things like lack of food, lack of shelter, lack of clothing, inadequate medical care to deal with diseases, horrible sanitation, and inhumane guards. Do not step across the “dead line”, you won’t be handed your baseball glove and get a stay in the cooler.  To make matters worse, the camp is run by the mentally unstable Capt. Henry Wirz (Jan Triska).  Day, McFadden, and the others hook up with a group led by Sgt. Gleason (Cliff DeYoung).  Gleason’s boys are digging a tunnel and let the new guys in on the digging.  If escape does not work, they will have to deal with the Raiders sooner or later.

                For a made-for-TV movie, the amount of effort that went into the production is incredible.  The movie was filmed on location on a farm about one hundred miles from Camp Sumter.  A less than scale model of the camp was constructed.  It covered nine acres.  A panning shot reveals the painstaking effort to recreate the officers’ quarters, the stockades, the walls, the stream, and the “tents” of the captives.  The fact that it rained consistently during the sixty day shoot helped create the muddy environment that added to the horror of the story.  It was a difficult shoot for the cast and crew.  Plus the 4,000 extras that participated.  Many of them were reenactors, some of whom came from all over the country.  They lent an air of realism to the movie, although it was hard to reenact the emaciation of the prisoners.  You can’t expect reenactors to starve themselves for their hobby.  For the bigger scenes, 3,000 cardboard cutouts of men were used at a cost of $150,000.  (You can’t tell the fakes in the movie.)  Speaking of cost, several reels of film dealing with the trial were lost in transit to the studio and the trial set had to be rebuilt and the principal actors brought back in at a great expense.  If you watch the trial scene, you cannot tell the original footage from the new.

                The laudatory effort goes beyond the production.  The cast is outstanding.  Emick was making his first movie, but he had won a Tony on Broadway.  He does not take acting honors.  Those go to Forrest, Sanderson, Sporleder, and Triska.  Sanderson’s Munn and Coffin’s Collins are great villains.  Triska (a celebrated actor in Czechoslovakia) manages to create some sympathy for Wirz, a man who clearly was in over his head and lacked the personality to be humane.  Special mention goes to Jayce Bartok, who was so good as the drummer boy Billy that his role was expanded.
                David W. Rintals wrote the script and he deserves kudos.  The characters are memorable and the dialogue is fine.  The movie does not slump into melodrama.  The plot builds nicely to the battle between the Raiders and the Regulators.  The ensuing melee is provoked by the charismatic “Lumber Jim” (Peter Murnik) as he calls the victims to arms with his cry of “who’s with me?  who?”  I wanted to jump into the screen and join in.  The brawl is one of the best in cinema history and very satisfying.  The movie could have ended here, but the decision was made to tell the whole story.  Naturally, there is a denouement after the fisticuffs, but the trial does bring closure and more importantly, is based on fact.  The score is excellent and visually the film is intriguing.  Frankenheimer made good use of the Steadicam.

                The movie is not without flaws.  The characters are all good or bad, there is no in between. Heck, Dick is basically a Christ figure.  Rintals adds a visiting inspecting officer played by William H. Macy. Col. Chandler is highly upset with what he sees.   This may have been to show that not all Confederates were bad, but it does allow for a debate between Chandler and Wirz that foreshadows the war crimes trial of Wirz after the war.  The tunneling and escape are short-changed.  There are no underground scenes.  This movie is not “The Great Escape”.  There is no hospital scene, so the full bleakness of the camp is not shown.  It is a film that lacks humor, but having seen so many WWII prison camp movies that make the camp look like a summer camp for men, I can live with that.

                It is a shame that “Andersonville” is not better known.  It could not have been much better for a made-for-TV movie.  Not only is it an entertaining story that is well-acted, but it is a valuable history lesson.  Although fictionalized, you will learn a lot about the most infamous prison camp ever located in America.  I love movies that bring important, but not textbook-worthy stories to the public.  Sometimes those stories are botched and usually there is only one attempt at telling the story.  I’m talking about you “Windtalkers”.  This story was not botched.  It is definitely one of the 100 Best War Movies.

GRADE  =  A-

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  Camp Sumter was built in Feb., 1864 to handle the large number of Yankee prisoners that were being captured after paroling ended.  Gen. Grant ended the exchange of prisoners partly because it benefited the Confederate Army and the South refused to repatriate black soldiers.  (The movie has some members of the 54th Massachusetts in it.)  The camp was originally 16.5 acres, but was expanded to 26.5 soon after.  At its max, the camp held 30,000 prisoners.  That was way above capacity.  Of the 45,000 total, 13,000 died.  Most of the deaths were attributable to diseases like scurvy, diarrhea, and dysentery.  The diseases were amplified by the poor food, clothing, and shelter.  The lack of hygiene was mainly blamed on Stockade Creek which provided the water supply, but was tainted by human waste.  Thankfully, the movie only hints at the role of hygiene in the horrors of the camp.  It has been posited that membership in some type of social network was the most important factor in survival.  Loners tended to die soon.  The camp quickly divided into the Raiders and their victims.  The movie accurately depicts the Raiders and their methods.  Collins stands in for the group of “chieftains”.  Munn is based on another of their leaders.  He was not a lackey as depicted in the film, although the chieftains certainly had plenty of followers who were willing to do the dirty work.  This work included fleecing “fresh fish” and robbing others at night.  Sometimes they killed their victims.  The Regulators evolved in response to their depredations.  Matters reached a head when the Regulators went to Wirz and asked for authority to act as a police force.  Surprisingly, and to his credit, Wirz agreed.  The Regulators rounded up most of the Regulators which included a fight for control of the Regulators' relatively cushy habitat.  Wirz allowed a trial where many were sentenced to stockades, ball and chain, or running the gauntlet.  Six were given the death penalty, including Collins and Munn.  In a reversal of he movie, Collins rope broke during the hanging and he tried to escape, but was reexecuted.  Munn expressed remorse on the scaffold.  As far as the tunnel, there were a 351 documented escapes, which is only .7%  Only a few avoided death or recapture.

                Henry Wirz was the only Confederate to be executed for war crimes after the Civil War.  The movie takes a balanced approach to this controversial figure.  While he undoubtedly could have done more for the prisoners, he was in a difficult position that he did not have the moral strength to deal with.  The food problem, for instance, was not his fault.  His own men were not eating well either.  However, he could have insisted on more humane treatment of the prisoners and more discipline from his own troops.  He appears to have been clueless to the internal dynamics of the camp.  The Chandler character is based on a Dr. James Jones, who spent a day at the camp and wrote a scathing report that helped get Wirz hung after he was found guilty at his trial.    

Sunday, November 5, 2017

NOW SHOWING: Thank You for Your Service (2017)

                “Thank You for Your Service” is the newest war movie to examine PTSD.  It is based on the nonfiction book by journalist David Finkel.  Finkel’s book was a sequel to his “The Good Soldiers” in which he wrote about the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment’s deployment in Iraq in 2007-8.  The sequel deals with the readjustment of the men to life back in America.  It is telling that Hollywood decided to make a movie out of that book instead of his book about combat deployment during the Surge.  I suppose there is more drama in PTSD than in combat.  The movie was directed and written by Jason Hall.  He had written the Academy Award nominated script for “American Sniper”.  This movie is his directorial debut.

                The movie opens with the spongy “Inspired by a true story”.  A squad gets ambushed in an Iraqi city.  One of the men is shot in the head by a sniper.  Staff Sergeant Adam Schumann (Miles Teller) drops the body on his way down the stairs.  That’s got to have a lasting mental effect.  The unit is returned home not long after the incident.  Schumann’s weapon is checked in by a soldier played by the real Schumann in a cameo.  He is confronted by a war widow (Amy Schumer) who wants to know the circumstances of her husband’s death.  Apparently Schumann is going to be tormented by two deaths.  The movie focuses on the adjustment of three soldiers.  Schumann is readjusting to life with his wife Saskia (Haily Bennett) and young daughter.  They are financially challenged and have lost their house.  His best buddies are Specialist Tausolo “Solo” Aieti (Beulah Koale) and PFC Billy Walker (Joe Cole).  Solo is married without kids.  Billy is expecting to get married, but his fiancé is not home when he gets there.  Their arcs will intertwine. 

                Solo is suffering from memory loss.  Schumann is suffering from the inability to communicate that he is torn up by the two incidents.  They visit the Veterans Hospital in a scene that is mandatory for showing the lack of empathy of the System.  Most of the extras waiting interminably in the waiting area are actual veterans.  I’m sure they did not have to be instructed how to act in the situation.  Solo will have to wait 6-9 months to see a psychiatrist.  To add insult to injury, Schumann ex-CO basically calls him a pussy for being there.  “Don’t fold like this.” This is a tipping point for Adam and Solo.  Each takes a typical PTSD Hollywood path.  One will have to confront his demons and the other will get in bed with demons.

                “Thank You for Your Service” is a sincere effort to cover the effects of PTSD on veterans.  It does not break new ground on this topic, but it is entertaining and I will assume not everyone has seen numerous movies on this topic.  If this will be your first one, you could do worse.  Like “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”.  Although the scenarios depicted in the movie are not really original, some of the dots that are connected are unpredictable.  The movie is not heavy-handed.  There is a fairly subtle use of a wounded pit bull as symbolic of wounded veterans.  We are reminded of the crass treatment of vets, but not bludgeoned by it.  The movie assumes the audience already knows about the flaws in the system.  This movie is not “Born on the Fourth of July” or “Coming Home”.  But it does make it clear we have not improved much from the Vietnam era.  In an interesting discussion, Adam and Solo debate whether it is better to be wounded physically (like Ron Kovic) or mentally (like Adam and Solo).  Solo argues that an amputation at least results in medals and hero status. 

                The movie reminded me a little of an Afternoon Special for adults.  This week’s film is on PTSD.  Three besties deal with the stress of war and readjusting to their families.  The movie has the pat ending of one of those specials, but it is definitely a worthy effort and just as informative.  The acting is very good.  Teller anchors the film as the stoically tortured Schumann.  His interaction with his wife (Bennett) feels authentic, albeit deja-vuish.  Koale matches him as the stereotypical vet who goes over to the dark side.  You care about these comrades.  You may look back at the movie and realize you had seen all of it before, but while you are watching it, you will be drawn into their story.

GRADE  =  A  

Wednesday, November 1, 2017



"Well, the tank's broke, and they're trying to fix it..."


It is a war movie dedicated to American bomber crews and command in England in 1942. It is based on the novel by Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay, Jr. It was made with the full cooperation of the Air Force which provided several B-17s and combat footage including from the Luftwaffe. The movie was a hit with the critics and won two Academy Awards (Jagger for Best Supporting Actor and Best Sound Recording) and was nominated for two others (Best Picture and Peck for Actor). It takes its name from the slang for enemy fighters being spotted above and straight ahead.