Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Picture, Quote, Movie Quiz

This is a new feature.  I will present:  1. a picture from a famous war movie.  2.  a quote from a war movie  3.  clues to a famous war movie.  Put your guesses in the comment section.

“I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn’t find one of ‘em, not one stinkin’ dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like … victory. Someday this war’s gonna end.”  

What is this movie?  Flora and fauna represent Mother Nature in her battle with war on a Pacific island.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

CRACKER? Anthropoid (2016)

       One of the most evil men of the 20th Century was assassinated on May 27, 1942.  This is the story of that act of heroism.  “Anthropoid” was directed and co-written by Sean Ellis.  He filmed the movie on location in Prague and had a replica of the Orthodox Cathedral where the siege took place built on a back lot.  The movie takes its name from the operation toassassinate Reinhard Heydrich.  The word anthropoid means “resembling human being in form”.  This was the seventh movie on this subject, including another one that was released in 2016 (“HHhH”).  The more times Reinhard Heydrich gets killed, the better.

                The movie opens with background on the situation in Czechoslovakia after the Munich Conference.  Hitler sends his third-in-command Heydrich (Detlef Bothe) to quell the Resistance there.  Heydrich earns the title “Butcher of Prague” for his methods.  The Czechoslovak government-in-exile paradrops two amateur assassins into Czechoslovakia.  Josef Gabcek (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) hook up with the Resistance.  The locals are not thrilled with Operation Anthropoid because of the repercussions and the fact that it is impossible.  The duo are put up with a family and develop relationships with two females because romance and espionage go together in war movies.  The son of the family wants to be a violinist.  That is not going to happen.  The movie covers the plotting.  The head of the Resistance is against the mission and gets the Czechs in London to order a stand down, but word arrives that Heydrich is going to be transferred so they need to go now.  The assassination does not go according to plan, but it is successful.  The assassins take refuge in a church and its Alamo time.

                “Anthropoid” chooses accuracy over entertainment and that is a good thing.  The assassination was meticulously restaged in real time.  This was quite an accomplishment for Ellis.  The siege of the church is also highly authentic, especially given that the setting was recreated with a lot of effort.  So I can forgive some of the triteness of the buildup to the action scenes.  The romances don’t seem true to life.  Each hero gets a girl.  At one point they go to a dance filled with Nazis.  Defying reason is no excuse for getting some period touches in and to show that Josef is a no-nonsense kind of guy.  Christ, he’s played by Cillian Murphy.  Isn’t that enough character development?  Jan goes through the trope of stressing over his role, but he manages to pull it together, naturally.  Dornan is pedestrian.  The rest of the cast handles their stock characters competently.   It would have been nice if the movie had personified Heydrich.  He is the villain in name only.  We do get a loathsome traitor to hiss at.

                The movie really steps it up in the second half.  The assassination scene is helped if you know that they are restaging it.  Otherwise it comes off a bit disappointing.  The siege of the church is gonzo.  There is a lot of action of the modern variety.  You also get a lot of German soldiers charging into the open to get mowed down.  If you think this is leading up to a happy ending, then remember that the movie is admirably accurate. 

                If you missed the first six movies about the assassination of Heydrich, “Operation Anthropoid” is a good history lesson.  It could have been more entertaining, but probably at the expense of fidelity to the truth.


HISTORICAL ACCURACY:    Reinhard Heydrich was one of the architects of the Holocaust.  He was second only to Himmler in that respect.  He oversaw the Wannsee Conference which initiated the Final Solution.  Hitler did send him to Prague to put down Czech resistance.  The British Special Operations Executive trained several Czech and Slovak operatives to assassinate him.  The Czech government-in-exile approved the operation.  Kubis and Gabcik were parachuted into Czechoslovakia.  Kubis was injured on landing and was treated by a Resistance member.  The movie is accurate in depicting that some of the Resistance were against the mission and tried to get it called off.  Ladislav Vanek was one of them and when he was arrested, he ratted out the cell.  In the assassination attempt, Josef’s gun did misfire and Jan threw a bomb that blew up under the running board, injuring Heydrich.  Jan and Josef escaped with Heydrich’s driver pursuing.  Heydrich was taken by a supply truck to a hospital.  He died eight days later from sepsis.  Keral Curda was the Resistance member who gave away the safe house in exchange for money.  (He was executed after the war.) The mother did take cyanide in the bathroom as shown in the film.  Her son Atec Moravec (the violinist) was tortured which included being shown his mother’s head.  Moravec told the Gestapo about the cathedral.  The siege is essentially the same as what actually happened.  Kubis, Opalka, and Svarc were killed in the prayer loft and the others committed suicide in the basement.  The Germans did use tear gas and water cannons.  Anna Malinova (Kubis’ girlfriend) was taken to a concentration camp and died there.  The Lenka character is fictional. 

The movie does not cover the aftermath.  The argument that the death of Heydrich was not worth the reprisals has some merit.  The towns of Lidice and Lezaky were targeted because of a perceived connection to the assassins.  All adult men were executed and the women and children were sent to concentration camps where most perished.  Around 5,000 Czechs were killed for the loss of the one Nazi mad man.  The death of Heydrich was the only successful government-sponsored assassination of a top Nazi during the war. 

I saw the movie through a Netflix DVD.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

CRACKER? Guernica (2016)

                “Guernica” is a movie based on the infamous terror bombing of a Spanish city in the Spanish Civil War in 1937.  The movie was a Spanish production that was directed by Koldo Serra.  It’s original title was “Gernika” which is the Spanish Basque spelling.  The film attempts to tell a story about the event that inspired Pablo Picasso to paint his masterpiece.  The main character is a journalist named Henry Howell who is based on George Steer.  Steer was working for the London Times in covering the war and got the scoop by being the first reporter on the scene.  He was the man most responsible for creating the storyline of the bombing being a terror bombing.

                A title card informs the audience about the basics of the Spanish Civil War.  The year is 1937 and Spain is in the midst of a struggle between Francisco Franco’s fascists backed by Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy versus the Loyalists supported by Stalin’s USSR.  Both sides establish press operations to spread propaganda favoring their side.  They also suppress information favoring the opposition within their areas of control.  The city of Bilbao is in Republican territory which means the press office is controlled by the Soviets.  Henry Howell (James D’Arcy) is a reporter who has a problem with the press office censoring his articles.  This, plus what he has witnessed, has made him a disillusioned, alcohol-swilling journalist.  In other words, he is a cinematic war correspondent.  He is paired with a female photojournalist named Marta (Ingrid Garcia Jonsson) who wants to “take the picture that will turn the war around”.  In other words, she is a modern war photographer.  At one point, she goes into no man’s land to get a shot at the risk of her life.  Howell shakes his groggy head.  Henry butts heads with a censor named Teresa (Maria Valverde).  In the time-honored tradition of movie romances, their relationship will evolve.  Her boss Vasyl (Jack Davenport) has the hots for her, so can you say “love triangle”?  Meanwhile, the Red Baron’s son Wolfram is in charge of the air campaign on behalf of Franco’s forces.  To balance the evil Nazi, the movie creates an evil Commie.  He is blackmailing Vasyl.  These threads lead to that fateful day in Guernica.

                It’s a bit surprising that it has taken this long to make a movie about one of the most famous events in the lead-up to WWII.  Especially when you realize it would involve explosions and Nazis.  You have the built-in human interest aspects and the situation would seem rife for a wartime romance.  Throw in the comfortable fit into the war journalism subgenre.  Unfortunately, the obviousness of the scenario results in some obvious clich├ęs.  All the main characters are stereotypes starting with the hard-drinking, disillusioned Howell.  D’Arcy is capable of playing such a stock character, but no more than that.  The rest of the cast is equally mediocre.   It is needless to say there is no chemistry between D’Arcy and Valverde. The romantic arc is standard and predictable.  Let me take you through the ballroom scene to show what I am referring to.  Henry and Teresa have felt the first stirrings of cinematic romance and meet at a ball.  He tells her she makes him want to be better.  She says she’s leaving and walks away with a tear in her eye.  He goes after her.  They kiss.  Vasyl is watching.  Foreshadowing.  They find some privacy.  Music swells.  Fade.  Next thing we see, Henry is floating on air and singing “zipadeedoodah” (figuratively).  Things are really going his way.  What could happen?

                The lead up to the big day is lame and then the fireworks don’t pay off.  The CGI effects are cheesy.  Even a layman can tell those are not authentic German bombers.  The explosion effects are just as bad.  Their main purpose is to chase our love triangle around the city.  Of course, some of the destruction is also to depict the deaths of innocent civilians.  Lest we forget the event this love story is set in.   In fact, the only redeeming feature of the film is that it sheds some light on the first major terrorist bombing in history.  Unfortunately, although there is some intercutting to von Richthofen and his Condor Legion, the movie does not put a lot of effort into the strategy that led to the bombing.  A passing reference to the use of thermite bombs is the only allusion to the terror nature of the bombing.  Yet, Wolfram is not the villain who executes a journalist and tortures Teresa.  You come out of the movie more viscerally repulsed by the Communists than the Nazi bombers.  Was this a wise script decision?

                Is the movie historically accurate?  In the macro sense, yes.  Guernica was bombed on April 26, 1937 and people died.  Then Picasso painted it.  Howell is a composite of George Steer, Ernest Hemingway, and Robert Capa (the famous war photographer, who is mentioned by Marta as a role model).  The movie does not make it clear that Guernica was the spiritual capital of the Basques and their separatist movement was part of the motivation for the bombing.  It also does not delve into the controversy about why the city was a target.  Franco had the authority to order the Condor Legion to do his bidding and most likely saw Guernica as a strategic key to his final campaign to finish off his opposition.  Guernica lay athwart the road to the city of Bilboa.  It is still debated whether von Richthofen was viewing the city as a military target or simply a morale-reduction tool.  His several raids of bombers did not manage to hit the munitions factory, so there’s that.  What’s less circumstantial is whether the Germans used the opportunity to test out future terror bombings like on Warsaw in 1939.  The Germans did use Spain as a testing ground for weapons and tactics so this seems likely.  Steer certainly thought it was terrorism and reported it as such.  Then Picassso locked in that narrative.  This movie reaffirms that take in a personal way.  It’s a shame it does not do it more competently.


Thursday, February 16, 2017

FORGOTTEN GEM? Carve Her Name with Pride (1958)

                “Carve Her With Pride” is a biopic about Violette Szabo.  Szabo was a British espionage agent in WWII.  The movie is based on the book by R.J. Minney.  It was directed by Lewis Gilbert (“Damn the Defiant” and “Sink the Bismarck”).  It is your typical British black and white 1950s war flick.  The movie stars Virginia McKenna, who is apparently well known in England and still a working actress.  She was very motivated for this movie.  She only took two days off during the 92 day shoot and that was for her wedding and brief honeymoon.  She insisted on doing her own stunts including parachuting from a parachute tower.  After going through all the hardships of the training scenes with aplomb, she freaked out over a cockroach in some vegetables. 

                Violette Bushell (McKenna) is working at a Woolworth's in London in 1940 when she brings home a French soldier named Etienne for supper.  A whirlwind romance results in their marriage and the birth of a daughter named Tania.  After Etienne is killed at El Alamein, Violette is recruited as a liaison to the French Resistance.  She goes through training with two other plucky British lasses.  Her mentor is a Capt. Frazer (Paul Scofield).  He is also her wooer.  They are parachuted into France to make connections with a Resistance cell.  On a train she meets a suave German officer who befriends her.  Later she is picked up by the Gestapo and guess who the interrogator is.  He is on to her but for some inexplicable reason he lets her go and she and Fraser return to England.  Although she had promised not to risk her life again, she is talked into going back into France with Fraser.  It’s vital to the war effort.   She is given a coded poem entitled “The Life That I Have”.  The poem does not keep her from being captured by a German patrol after a shootout.  It’s torture time.

                I had never heard of Szabo before viewing this movie, although she is famous in Great Britain.  A good thing about movies is they expose you to heroes from other countries.  She certainly was a heroine and deserved a film about her life.  Her portrayal by McKenna could not have been better.  She is outstanding and obviously put her heart and soul into it.  McKenna insisted on deglamorizing her.  However, this being an old school British war movie, her Szabo never loses her composure and all the British characters keep their upper lips stiff.  All the Nazis are sinister.  While the characters are unpredictable, the plot is not.  At least if you are not British.  However, the movie is predictably nongraphic in its handling of her torture and her concentration camp stint is completely skipped over.  It is, after all, a 1950s British war movie, so what do you expect?  You expect a romance between spies and a reunion between female spies.  And you expect to leave the theater inspired, but not conflicted.

                There is nothing to dislike about “Carve Her Name With Pride”.  It is competently made and has a bravura performance by the lead.  It does its job of lionizing Szabo and is educational for those who are not familiar with George Cross winner.  The problem is it is just an average biopic.  It is very much of its time and although I like Old School war movies, I prefer my Resistance movies with a little more pizzazz.  Give me “The Black Book” or “Flame and Citron”.



            For those of you who are not British and over 80 years old, here is the accuracy of the movie.  She was working at a Woolworth's when the war began, but she was actually working in an armaments factory when she met Etienne.  She picked him up at a Bastille Day parade.   The romance was quick and he was off to war.  He was killed leading an attack during the Second Battle of El Alamein.  At the time, she was serving in an anti-aircraft battery.  His death caused her to accept an invitation to join the Special Operations Executive.  She did go through intensive training (which she did not do particularly well at).  She badly sprained her ankle in a parachute drop.  This injury would come back to haunt her.  Her first mission was led by Capt. Phillippe Liewer.  He is the person that Fraser was based on.  There is no evidence that they were romantically involved.  The mission was to Rouen to assess the damage done to the exposure of a cell there.  It was before this mission that she was given the poem.  There was no contact with a German on a train, but the Germans were on to her and instead of arresting her they decided to tail her.  She managed to elude them and returned to England.  The second mission was in coordination with D-Day.  She and Liewer were dropped to aid the Resistance in sabotage efforts.  She was captured while traveling  in a car with a Maquis, even though travel by automobile was forbidden.  They encountered a road block and fled.  The movie accurately depicts the recurrence of her ankle injury and her use of a Sten to hold off the Germans as the Frenchman escaped.  She was tortured much worse than the movie implies.  She was transferred by train to Ravensbruck concentration camp.   The movie has her tritely reunited with her two female agent friends, but surprisingly this is fairly close to reality.  She did train with Lilian Rolfe and Denise Bloch.  Both were brave operatives.  Szabo was cuffed to Bloch.  Liewer was not on the train with them.  The incident involving the strafing (actually bombing) of the train is handled acceptably.  Szabo and Bloch did fetch water for the other prisoners, although it is doubtful this was at the expense of escaping.  The train journey was an excruciating 14 days.  She spent about 6 months in concentration camps where she endured hard labor and malnutrition.  Treatment got even worse after she led a mutiny against making munitions.  She continued to be inspirational until the three women were put in solitary confinement and physically abused.  This ended with their execution by way of bullets to the backs of their heads in February, 1945.   She was 23 at the time.  The movie closes with Tania receiving the George Cross from King George VI. 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

FORGOTTEN GEM? It Happened Here (1964)

                If you are an American and watch hundreds of war movies, you will eventually run across “It Happened Here”.  It is a unique film.  It was the brainchild of two teenagers.  Eighteen year old Kevin Brownlow got the idea when he saw some thuggish looking men wearing leather coats come screeching up in a car and go storming into a house.  He thought “what if?”.  An alternative title for this alternative history is “It Happened Here:  The Story of Hitler’s England”.  Brownlow asked a history buff named Andrew Mello to help him.  The sixteen year old soon became Brownlow’s collaborator.  They spent eight years on the project, making it one of the longest productions in cinema history.  Brownlow went on to become a famous film historian and recipient of an honorary Oscar for film preservation.  Mello is now a well-respected military historian.

                The movie is set in 1944 England.  A narrator informs us that England fell to the Nazis after the retreat from Dunkirk in 1940.  The resistance movement had been crushed, but the success of a Soviet offensive has led to the withdrawal of a large part of the occupation forces and a revival of the resistance.  American soldiers have recently arrived to aid the insurrection.  The country is being ruled by British Union of Fascists which is a political party of collaborators.  The counterinsurgency is comprised of police collaborators and German S.S.  Most of the public is acquiescent of the occupation.  At least the Nazis are better than the Bolsheviks.  The government’s counterinsurgency strategy is to remove civilians from zones where the resistance is powerful.  Massacre of civilians deemed disloyal is also part of the strategy.

                The main character is a nurse named Pauline (Pauline Murray) who is initially apolitical.  This changes when she barely survives an ambush by rebels which kills several of her friends.  She ends up in London and gets a job with the government’s paramilitary ambulance corps.  The training includes firearms.  Indoctrination encourages her evolution towards collaborating.  At one point she goes to a theater where a propaganda film uses the Christmas Truce of WWI as an example of the true love of the British and Germans!  Also, Waterloo is an example of Anglo-German cooperation.  And International Jewry has brought on WWII.  Later, there is a discussion of how the Jews are evil and inferior.  A character refers to them as “fleas on a dog” and argues for euthanasia to get rid of “useless” people.  Pauline does not succumb to these odious views, but she does take the realistic attitude that since England lost, they should be happy with law and order.  Her evolvement is sidetracked by an encounter with two respected friends who are harboring a rebel fugitive and her posting to a hospital that disposes of incurables through “cleansing operations”.

                “It Happened Here” is an amateur triumph.  The fact that it was made by two young men is astounding.  Brownlow and Mello used a shoe-string budget and unpaid actors to accomplish the eight year task.  The actors, including Pauline Murray, were amateurs but this added to the natural feel of the acting.  Some of the scenes look unrehearsed.  The duo used actual British fascists, some of whom were playing themselves.  They also made use of German veterans.  Although the movie is in black and white and was shot with 16mm film, the cinematography is noteworthy.  Peter Suschitzky was lensing only his second film and went on to a distinguished career.  His greatest feat in “It Happened Here” is the recreation of newsreels and fake archival footage.  Even the battle scenes have the look of real footage.  In this respect they resemble the assault on the air base in “Dr. Strangelove”.  (Coincidentally, Stanley Kubrick donated some film stock from that film.)
                The movie is thought-provoking.  The theme is that fascism can rise anywhere and a majority will accept it.  From that foundation the movie proceeds to chronicle the result of that.  It does not take sides between the collaborators and the rebels.  There is a feel of “a pox on both houses” to it.  This is clear in the bookending of the movie with dueling atrocities.  Murray’s character arc is a bit unrealistic as she stands in for the rare individual in those circumstances who starts out neutral and then moves from one side to the other.  She is not typical of the average Britain who accepted the status quo in exchange for security.  The movie was controversial because of its insinuation that it could have happened in England if it had not won the Battle of Britain.  This is also unrealistic, but doesn’t detract from the plot.  Surprisingly, the collaborators are not villainized.  The movie was decried by Jewish groups partly for its use of British fascists.  More problematic is the references to the Jews.  Some of the dialogue is repulsive and there is no rebuttal.  United Artists insisted on cutting some of the anti-Jewish rhetoric for its American release.  Needless to say, Brownlow and Mello did not have the clout to prevent this.

                “It Happened Here” is a must-see for hard core war movie lovers.  It is definitely a forgotten gem here in America and I had never heard of it until recently.  I certainly would never have seen it if I had not undertaken this blog.  Another perk of my hobby.  Not only did I see a unique film, but the researching of it informed me of some fascinating facts.  In the movie, we see on the walls of government offices portraits of Oswald Mosley (alongside Hitler).  I now know that Mosley was a British politician who founded the British Union of Fascists in 1932.  Mosley was a big fan of Mussolini and wanted Great Britain to go the route of Italy.  Unoriginally, his followers were called “blackshirts”.  The party was condemned in 1940 and he was interred for the rest of the war.  The movie imagines if things had gone in the opposite direction.  It is not unimaginable that had England fallen, he would have been released by the Germans and appointed puppet ruler.  It is unimaginable that the British people would have accepted this, but it sure makes for an interesting movie.

GRADE  =  B-  

Sunday, February 5, 2017

FORGOTTEN GEM? Went the Day Well? (1942)

                “Went the  Day Well?” is a propaganda curio from WWII Britain.  It was released in 1942 and although  the threat of Nazi invasion had dissipated, there was still a fear of a German raid and espionage activities.  People were also cognizant of Fifth Columnists living amongst the loyal British civilians.  The movie tapped into these fears and was a morale booster for a public which wanted confirmation that the British people would deal with these types of threats in their stiff upper lip style.  The film was based on a short story by Graham Greene entitled “The Lieutenant Died Last”.  It was directed by Alberto Cavalcanti.  The movie was a success with audiences and critics and has undergone a revival with the release of a restoration in 2010.

                The story is told in flashback form from a future where Great Britain has been victorious in the war.  A tourist in the village of Bramley is told the story behind the graves of German soldiers in the church cemetery.  On May 23, 1942, a lorrie full of British soldiers arrives in the village.  They are actually Germans who speak flawless English (as opposed to the American soldiers soon to arrive in England).  The village intellectual is suspicious, but makes the mistake of telling her suspicions to the local traitor who is able to explain away her concerns.  However, the Germans are eventually forced to lock the locals up in the church.  The people fight back and the village scamp goes for help.  With the cavalry on the way, the villagers attempt to take back their home.  This includes a spirited defense of the vicar’s house led by two feisty females from the Woman’s Land Army.  (The Land Girls were young ladies who volunteered to take the place of men in agriculture during the war.)

                “Went the Day Well?” is an underrated little gem.  It has a far-fetched plot which probably seemed near-fetched in 1942.  It was intended to be inspirational and educational.  The audience was taught to be wary and not to feel uncomfortable with killing Germans with axes (as one female character does).  There are some rousing heroes and heroines and some hissable villains.  The movie has some of the strongest female characters in any war movie.  Several women get in on the killing.  The villains are not caricatures.  The village and villagers appear stereotyped, but this is probably a realistic depiction of a rural British community from the 1940s.

                The movie is well-crafted.  The dialogue is good and acting is stellar from a classic British cast.  There is some excellent action and some gut-punching deaths.  In fact, the movie is refreshingly sober.  Although generally predictable (did you think the Germans would be successful?), how it gets to its feel-good ending is not obvious.  The suspense builds nicely.  And the traitor gets his.  It is a satisfying movie. 

                “Went the Day Well?” is from the “what if” subgenre and we will never know whether the British public would have reacted the way the fictional villagers do.  It seems likely that the movie is a “what would have been”.  Its depiction of how the various social classes come together to defeat the Nazis seems realistic.  The fact that the traitor is an upper class landowner also seems easy to believe.  Watching it made me wonder if the same thing would have happened in America during the war.  Certainly in New Iberia, but I have my doubts about the patriotism of many Northerners.  (That's a joke, my Yankee friends.)