Saturday, September 22, 2018

BOOK / MOVIE: In Harm’s Way (1965)

                “In Harm’s Way” is a WWII naval combat film based on the book “Harm’s Way” by James Bassett.  It was directed by Otto Preminger.  He envisioned it as a pro-Navy film and the Navy must have agreed because it gave extensive cooperation including allowing filming at Pearl Harbor.  The Navy also provided ships.  Wayne’s cruiser was played by the U.S.S. St. Paul.  However, the main battle was done with models.  It was the last war epic in black and white and John Wayne’s last black and white film.  He was diagnosed with lung cancer after the picture was finished and was coughing up blood during the shoot.  This did not prevent him from sticking with his six pack a day habit.  The title comes from the John Paul Jones quote:  “I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast , for I intend to go in harm’s way.”  The movie received an Academy Award nomination for Cinematography.

                The movie covers the period from the attack on Pearl Harbor through early successes in the first year of the war in the Pacific.  Capt. Torrey (Wayne) is on duty off Hawaii when the attack occurs.  His heavy cruiser, called “Old Swayback”, is joined by the destroyer U.S.S. Cassidy, which managed to exit the harbor during the attack.  Old Swayback gets torpedoed and has to be towed back to Pearl.  Torrey’s career is on hold because of this, which allows the soap opera plot to develop without combat interfering.  There are three interlocking arcs.  Torrey courts an age-appropriate nurse named Maggie (Patricia O’Neal).  He is reunited with his son Jere (Brandon DeWilde) who is in PT-boats.  They are estranged because like in most American war movies, Torrey has chosen his career over his family.  Torrey’s exec Eddington (Kirk Douglas) loses his adulterous wife in the attack and he is now a bitter alcoholic, but still trusted by Torrey.  He gets involved with Jere’s fiancé, nurse Annalee (Jill Haworth).  Eventually, Torrey is restored to active duty and oversees the capturing of a Japanese-held island and then a campaign to attack another one.  This culminates in a huge battle with plenty of explosions.

                The soap opera aspects of the plot are reminiscent of “From Here to Eternity” and that was probably purposeful, although it does reflect the book’s plot.  The movie begins with a naval wife having an affair, but in this case, she gets what she deserves.  The movie is classified as a Pearl Harbor movie, but it only uses the attack as a jumping off point.  There is little of the attack in the film.  Heck, the main character is not even at Pearl at the time.  The film could have been the rare look at Navy actions in the first year of the war, but it is only a cursory history lesson and all of the islands are fictional.  The plot interweaves the subplots, but only the Torrey and Eddington characters really get satisfactory coverage.  This is not surprising considering the star power of Wayne and Douglas.  Both are fine in their roles.  Wayne does not stretch and plays Torrey as stoical and imperturbable.  His romance with O’Neal is tepid, but realistic.  Douglas has more fun as the caddish Eddington.  You could see him playing Torrey, but there is no way Wayne could (or would) have played Eddington.  Eddington gets to roller coaster from alcoholic has-been to trusted adviser to rapist to kamikaze redemption.  Whereas, with Torrey, it’s smooth sailing.  There is a shallow subplot involving a scheming politician/officer named Owynn (slimily played by Patrick O’Neal) and his incompetent admiral/mentor, but it is dropped when everyone realizes you don’t get the better of John Wayne. 

                The cast is minor league all-star.  O’Neal is perfectly cast as Maggie.  Tom Tryon plays the destroyer captain and has a few romantic interludes with his wife played by Paula Prentiss.  Although Wayne and Patricia O’Neal got along well with each other (after a rocky time on “Operation Pacific”) and they both liked working with the dictatorial director Preminger, Douglas had to get in Otto’s face and counseled the much-maligned Tryon to do likewise.  Unfortunately, Tryon (who had been tormented during the filming of “The Cardinal”) refused to stand up for himself and it got so bad that he retired from acting.  Henry Fonda warms up for his role in “Midway” by playing CINCPAC.

                All the drama would be worth it if the combat paid off, but it’s all saved for the finale (in a 2:45 movie).  When Torrey and crew get sent to Gavabutu to end the stalemate there, you expect some land combat, but instead it is all about the plan and little about the execution.  The final naval battle probably wowed audiences in the 60’s (before modern war films kicked in), but the models are obvious.  Not a single Japanese soldier or sailor appears in the movie.  Bizarrely, little effort is made to distinguish between the two fleets and you can’t tell who is who.  I have to give it credit for trying to  show the mayhem that can occur in a surface battle in the Pacific.  Considering the odds Torrey faces, the outcome is realistic.

                SPOILER ALERT:  How does it compare to the book?  Right off the bat, the movie gets credit for improving on the title.  After the title card, the script is amazingly similar to the book.  Wendell Mayes did not get very creative other than to consolidate some scenes for time purposes.  Much of his dialogue is from the book, but unfortunately, he does not use enough of it.  This is especially true in the Torrey/Maggie courtship.  O’Neal is let down by Mayes.  Maggie is a fascinating character that is exceptional in this type of film.  She is older and much plainer than cinematic nurses usually are.  Her banter with Torrey is filled with snark.  Their relationship is mature.  The problem is Wayne undoubtedly refused to play a lovestruck and shy divorcee.  The relationship is a highlight of the book, but Wayne had to be Wayne.

                The movie makes some minor changes for the better.  In the book, Torrey goes to meet Jere for the first time in years and oddly, Jere is not cold toward him and is enthused about being in PTs.  The estrangement and coldness of the relationship in the movie makes more sense, but then Mayes has Jere remarking about not wanting to go in harm’s way and enlisting to get a leg up for his future career.  He becomes a toady for Owynn in the movie and then changes on a dime.  The movie follows the book as far as Gavabutu is concerned, which is a shame because Bassett disappointingly has the whole secret, daring plan being anti-climactic because the Japanese were withdrawing anyway.  The final battle in the movie is substantially simplified.  In the book, there are actually two battles since there are two Japanese fleets.  The first is what the movie depicts and it’s fairly close.  However, in the book, Torrey is in the second battle.  This is also where the Yamato is.  This battle includes three baby carriers and their torpedo bombers, but no PT-boats.  The pummeling Torrey’s fleet takes is realistic, but could not be portrayed in a 1960s movie.  The same characters die and in similar ways.  Torrey ends up on the hospital ship with Maggie.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The book was not meant to be accurate.  It does not even claim to be “based on a true story”.  There was a destroyer that escaped from Pearl Harbor during the attack.  But the captain of the USS Alywin did not come as close to getting on board as the USS Cassidy’s.  Old Swayback is based on USS Salt Lake City which was away at the time of the attack as part of the USS Enterprise task force returning from Wake Island.  The force did sortie from Pearl to search for the Japanese fleet and did encounter submarines, but the Salt Lake City was not hit.  Gavabutu is vaguely reminiscent of Guadalcanal.  There were paramarines in the Pacific, but there were no parachute drops.  The final two battles are clearly based on the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944.  The first is based on the Battle of Surigao Strait.  This was the battle where an American fleet of old battleships “crossed the T” on a Japanese fleet heading for the invasion fleet off Leyte in the Philippines.  The second is based on the Battle off Samar.  In this case, a powerful Japanese fleet led by the Yamato surprised a ragtag American fleet based on escort carriers.  The carriers’ planes and the destroyers and escort destroyers (there were no cruisers) put up an amazing fight, but took losses similar to the book.  Unbelievably, the Japanese (including the Yamato) did snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and turned away when they had clearly won.

CONCLUSION:  Those who read this blog might recall that I have a belief that movies based on novels should be better than the novel.  In this case, Wendell Mayes had a best-selling novel to adapt.  He could take that foundation and improved on it.  In some ways he did, the Eddington arc makes more sense.  Torrey’s awkward relationship with his son is an improvement.  However, overall the book is better than the movie.  This is particularly true of the romance between Torrey and Maggie.  It is a welcome change from the usual.  The Torrey of the book is no ladies man and in fact, is shy and awkward around women.  He is embarrassingly lovestruck at times.  He’s not John Wayne.  Maggie is even more fascinating.  She’s a feisty old maid.  The banter between them always has her leading.  Patricia O’Neal was shortchanged when most of this dialogue was eliminated.  The movie invents the collusion between Jere and Owynn and that is a misstep.  The main superiority of the novel is the final battle.  Bassett does an outstanding job setting it up and then depicting the pure chaos of modern warships battering each other.  As the book points out, it’s not like you can run away or even surrender.  Once superior warships with bigger guns and longer range zero in on you, you are royally fucked.   A 1965 war movie did not have the ability to recreate that scenario.

                I had enjoyed the movie when I was a kid and then we I rewatched it for this blog a few years ago, I turned full circle and gave it a scathing review.  This recent viewing, paired with reading the novel, has boosted my appreciation of the film.  The book is good and the movie is faithful in screening it.  It’s still not a very good movie, but it is hard to do naval war movies well.

GRADES:  Book  =  B
                                            Movie  =  C 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is this quote from?

"Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!"

3.  What movie is this?

It is a war movie that is set in the weeks prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor.  It takes place in Honolulu.  It was directed by Fred Zinnemann and was based on the famous novel by James Jones.  It was released in 1953 and is black and white.  The movie was a huge hit and is still very popular.  It won 8 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Editing, Screenplay, Sound, Supporting Actor (Frank Sinatra), and Supporting Actress (Donah Reed).  Lancaster and Clift were nominated for Best Actor but their split votes helped William Holden win for “Stalag 17”.  Kerr was nominated for Best Actress.  Sinatra’s win was the culmination of a campaign by him to get the role.  Apparently the myth of Mafia involvement (the basis for a subplot in “The Godfather”) is not true.  He got the role through persistence and help from his wife Ava Gardner who was friends with the studio head.  He accepted a salary of only $8,000.  The movie was filmed on location at Schofield Barracks.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

CRACKER? The Naked and the Dead (1958)

                “The Naked and the Dead” is the film adaptation of Norman Mailer’s bestseller.  Mailer served in the Philippines in WWII and his experiences inspired a 721 page novel.  Many thought a novel of that size could not be brought to the screen at a reasonable running time.  But you know Hollywood was willing to try.  Warner Brothers purchased the rights to the novel for the astronomical sum of $250,000.  Raoul Walsh (“They Did With Their Boots On”) was assigned to direct.  Screenwriters Denis and Terry Sanders adapted the book and took out all the four-letter words and added “tits” (as studio head Jack Warner demanded) in the form of a strip tease.  The Jewish character Roth was downplayed.  Some of the deaths were altered.  Mailer’s themes of abuse of power and the ideological conflicts in warfare were downplayed.

                The movie jumps the shark immediately with the bar scene.  It starts promisingly with the appearances of Richard Jaekel (Gallagher) and L.Q. Jones (Woody) and the top-billed Aldo Ray (Sgt. Croft).  In case you are wondering if Ray will be stretching, Croft spits beer in the face of a woman.  (Later, he bites the cap off a beer bottle and kills a baby bird.)  Beware that before the strip teaser can truly tease, the MPs break it up.  Boo!  Why was this added?  To frustrate the males in the audience?

                Headlines on newspapers are used for background on the war situation.  Incredibly, two of them are:  “New Guinea Falls” and “Coral Sea Battle Disastrous”!  Christ, the movie was made in 1958.  Had people forgotten the basics by then?  Croft and his charges are below deck off an unidentified Pacific Island.  We get cursory soldier banter and behavior.  No cursing, of course.  The beach landing is the opposite of “Saving Private Ryan”.  They move inland.  Croft scouts ahead and spots a mortar.  He returns and leads the men forward without bothering to tell them!  Croft murders a prisoner even after looking at a picture of his family and is about to kill a bunch more when the bleeding-heart Lt. Hearn (Cliff Robertson) arrives.  Damned liberal!  He doesn’t stop Croft from taking gold teeth, however.  In his defense, he does not have an ear necklace.  After five minutes of combat, the unit is pulled back to a camp (they already have a camp?).  We are introduced to the third leg of our character tripod.  Gen. Cummings (Raymond Massey) is a tough-love type who sides with the Croft types over the Hearns.  Hatred makes men fight harder.  If so, Croft is great leader and Hearn is naïve.
                The movie settles into a pattern of combat scenes (which are not as often as you would think because they are an intelligence and recon platoon that is not used much), camp life (e.g. building a still), discussions between Hearn and Cummings, and flashbacks to explain Croft and Hearn.  This leads to the big mission to go behind enemy lines and set up an observation post.  And to get some of them killed.  And to play out the command dysfunction between Croft and Hearn.  The mission is rife with head-scratching moments.  Don’t expect any semblance of realistic tactics. I would think an intelligence and recon unit would be more competent.  Veterans must have chuckled.

                This is a weird movie.  The message is murky.  For instance, Cummings is supposed to represent the tendency toward fascism in higher command, but he comes off as insane.  He explains that we fight wars because countries have “latent powers” and they may be our allies in the future.  Power flows downward.  Huh?  Neither of the command conflicts (Hearn/Croft and Hearn/Cummings) works well.  The characterizations are too stereotypical.  Croft is actually more realistic about the war than Hearn and Cummings, but his character is just too bonkers for this to stand out.  The movie certainly gives us and his men ample reason to hate him.  The acting is average, by an average cast.  The script does them no favors.  The banter sounds like it was written by a nonveteran.  I do not know how much was pulled from the book, but I assume not much.  It hurt that the bad language was omitted and thankfully the four-letter words were not substituted for (no “loving” like in “A Walk in the Sun”).  The actors do not behave like soldiers.  No boot  camp for them.  Apparently, no technical adviser, either.  Hearn carries a carbine, a private carries a Thompson.  The combat is underwhelming.

                “The Naked and the Dead” is a disservice to the novel, but more importantly, it is a disservice to the men who fought in the Pacific.  Even worse, it is inferior to the similar  “The Thin Red Line”.  It’s good for some unintended laughs.  At least its not predictable.  Except that it will leave you shaking your head a lot.


Saturday, September 8, 2018

SHOULD I READ IT? Talvisota (The Winter War) (1989)

       “Talvisota” is a Finnish movie set in the Winter War with the Soviet army in 1938-39.  It was released in the 50th Anniversary of the war.  It was the most expensive movie ever made in Finland.  The movie was directed by Pekka Parikka and was based on a novel by Antti Tuura.  It is “dedicated to the Finns in the Winter War” and they certainly deserved a movie.  The fight the Finnish army put up against the Red Army when it invaded Finland is legendary.

                The film begins on October 13, 1939.  Two brothers named Martti and Paavo (played by brothers Taneli and Konsta Makela) are called up.  They go off to war in a horse and buggy.  They lack uniforms, but the soldiers of their reserve platoon are naïve and optimistic. They are also smack in the fog of war as they have little knowledge of the big picture.  “In war, you never know, you just go where they tell you.”  Their unit is tasked with defending a trench line.  The movie is from the “last stand” subgenre and soon the men are being whittled down.  They come under artillery barrage and attacks from fighters and bombers.  Later, Russian tanks assault them.  This goes on for months.  Paavo and Martti each get to go home so we can learn that the home front is as clueless as it was in “All Quiet on the Western Front”.  Speaking of which, the scenes at the front are similar in vibe to that classic film.  So is the mortality rate of the platoon.

                “Talvisota” is a disappointing movie.  The soldiers that defended Finland so valiantly and against such heavy odds deserved better.  I mentioned it is similar in plot to “All Quiet” but it is certainly not in a league with that movie.  Both movies concentrate on a small group of soldiers.  “Talvisota” does not really develop these men very well.  It is sometimes hard to tell who is who.  The acting is good, especially by Taneli Makela.  The rest of the cast is not really given the chance to shine because there is no dysfunction in the platoon.  Even the officers, with one villainous exception, are nice guys.  I know you are trying to honor the soldiers, but it’s a bit boring in that respect.  The enemy is faceless so we have no Russian perspective.

 The strength of the movie is in its combat.  It has both quantity and quality.  The bombardments are well-done, if unrealistically accurate at times.  There is some visceral and graphic hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches of the modern “Saving Private Ryan” style.  The vehicles and weaponry are either original or excellent replicas.  The producers got hold of some authentic Soviet T-26 tanks.  The trenches and dugouts are true to the war and the soldier behavior is natural.  At first, the deaths are refreshingly random, but after the first few surprises, it becomes obvious who is doomed next.  There is a “who will survive?” theme to the film.  Answer:  not many.


Tuesday, September 4, 2018


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is this quote from?

"And what are you? So full of hate you want to go out and fight everybody! Because you've been whipped and chased by hounds. Well that might not be living, but it sure as hell ain't dying. And dying's been what these white boys have been doing for going on three years now! Dying by the thousands! Dying for *you*, fool! I know, 'cause I dug the graves. And all this time I keep askin' myself, when, O Lord, when it's gonna be our time?"

3.  What movie is this?

 It was directed and produced by John Wayne.  He did not intend to star in his directorial debut, but the studio refused to back the project without Wayne starring.  Wayne deserves a lot of credit for overcoming every obstacle to finish a project that was obviously important to him.  He assembled a good cast and did a competent job as director.  He also put a lot of his own money into it and did not recoup his investment.  The movie did not do particularly well at the box office but did get Oscar nominations for Sound, Cinematography, Editing, Score, and Song.  The set took two years to construct and looks more authentic than the original.  

Thursday, August 30, 2018

CLASSIC or ANTIQUE? Destroyer (1943)

                “Destroyer” is the story of a WWII destroyer from construction to combat.  The movie was made with the cooperation of the Navy which provided the U.S. Destroyer Base and the U.S. Naval Training Station at San Diego.  It also provided the Benson class USS Hobby.  The movie was meant to be an homage to the “Tin Cans” that were the “busybodies of the Fleet.  Always looking for trouble and generally finding it.”  The technical adviser was Lt. Commander Donald Smith.  He had been Navigation Officer on the USS Arizona until one month before the attack.  The director was William Seiter who made a boat-load of B-movies like “Four Jills in a Jeep”.  The star, Edgar G. Robinson, served in the Navy in WWI.

                Retired Chief Bosun’s Mate “Boley” Boleslavski (Edgar G. Robinson) is helping construct the new USS John Paul Jones.  He is fired up about this and insists on perfection from his fellow workers because he served on the original ship in WWI.  He is an old salt who says things like:  “Ships are like women, you call them she… Stubborn, tricky, temperamental at times.”  When the ship is launched, the movie is over.  Just kidding.  Boley reenlists and the captain of the new JPJ allows him to talk him into putting him in his old job. This is perturbing to the current chief.  Mickey Donohue (Glenn Ford) is resentful of the old geezer.  “Your first trip to the mast was for having a bow and arrow.”  Donohue is not the only one who will have to warm to Boley.  He is a hardass that refuses to admit that the modern navy has passed him by.  He has disdain for the youngsters, including Donahue.  Plus, he is not current on the workings of the ship. When the Captain counsels him to dial it down and try an occasional pat on the back, Boley responds with “I prefer it lower down.”  As though the dysfunction factor with Donohue and the crew is not high enough, Donohue starts courting Boley’s daughter.  Boley becomes something of a Jonah as the ship is a lemon.  Both Boley and the John Paul Jones will be in need of redemption.

                “Destroyer” is surprisingly good.  It is not the propaganda piece you would expect considering when it was made and considering the cooperation of the Navy.  The Navy vetted the film, but obviously the shipyard didn’t.  It’s not all Boley’s fault – the ship is poorly built.  Apparently Boley’s construction comrades were not as patriotic as he was.  It’s all good in the end, of course.  In fact, the redemption of the ship comes in a final act that is full of action.  There is a duel with some Japanese dive and torpedo bombers (actually played by Douglas SBDs and Grumman Avengers), followed by a cat and mouse with a sub.  It’s all silly tactically, but fun.

                Once you get past the ridiculous machinations to get construction worker Boley onto the rebirth of his WWI ship, the plot is serviceable.  The speechifying is kept to a minimum and the one big speech by Boley about the USS Bonhomme Richard (John Paul Jones’ ship that defeated the HMS Serapis) is surprisingly rousing and instructive.  (One caveat,  Jones’ USS Ranger defeated the HMS Drake one year earlier.  The actual first American victory was the Lexington over the Edward.)  The acting is decent with Ford stealing the show with his brash, wolfish Donohue.  He gets some good barbs and the dialogue in general is fine.  The romance, however, is perfunctory and does little for the film.

                Classic or antique?  Neither.  But it’s worth the watch if you like destroyers and want to kill some time.

GRADE  =  C+

Friday, August 24, 2018


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is this movie back-story?

It is a combination war movie / propaganda piece.  It was meant to be one part of an eight part series on the Revolution of 1905.  It turned out to be the only one in the series that ended up being made.  It did not have the intended inspirational effect as it was not warmly embraced by the Russian people.  It actually lost the box office to “Robin Hood” the opening week.  It was a big hit outside Russia, however.  The movie is justifiably famous and is considered Sergei Einstein’s masterpiece.  It has been oft-copied by other directors.  The film is divided into five parts: (1) “Men and Maggots”  (2)  “Drama on Deck”  (3)  “A Dead Man Calls for Justice”  (4)  “The Odessa Staircase”  (5)  “The Rendezvous with a  Squadron”.  Interestingly, the staircase scene was not planned as part of the movie and was added during production.

3.  What movie is this quote from?

 "You've seen a general inspecting troops before haven't you? Just walk slow, act dumb and look stupid!"

Sunday, August 19, 2018

CRACKER? City of Life and Death (2009)

                “City of Life and Death” (also called “Nanking! Nanking!” or “Nanjing! Nanjing!”) is a Chinese movie about the Nanking Massacre (or as the Japanese called it – the Nanking Incident) of 1937.  It was written and directed by Lu Chuan.    He based it on The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang.  He also used letters, diaries, and soldier interviews.    The film took four years from start to finish, including a year to be vetted by Chinese authorities.  It was a big box office hit.

                The movie is dedicated to “the 300,000 victims of the Nanking Massacre”.  Even before the credits roll there are some amazing visuals.  Japanese tanks attack the city walls.  Inside the city a mob of demoralized Chinese soldiers breaks through a human wall of their comrades to escape the city.  Refugees are also leaving the doomed city.  But not everyone gets out.  Some go to the Safety Zone created by a group of foreigners led by a German named John Rabe (John Pisley).  The Japanese have agreed to respect the Safety Zone as long as it contains no Chinese soldiers.  They apparently have not agreed to respect the Chinese women as their soldiers infiltrate to rape.  Minnie Vautrin (Beverly Pekous), an American missionary and head of the all-girl Ginling College, does her best to stop this.  Eventually, the Japanese demand 100 women to become “comfort women” (prostitutes in army brothels).  They also demand that all the disguised Chinese soldiers be turned over.  There are going to be a lot of executions.

                The movie covers both sides of the situation.  The main character is a Japanese soldier named Kadokawa (Nakaizumi Hideo).  He is greatly effected by what he witnesses and participates in.  He falls in love with a Japanese comfort woman named Yuriko (Miramoto Yuko).  He is counterbalanced by his commanding officer Ida (Khohata Ryu).  Their arcs will head in opposite directions.  The movie intercuts between Kadokawa, Ida, and their mates and  life in the Safety Zone.  Rabe, Vautrin, and other foreigners do their best to keep the refugees alive.  Rabe’s secretary Tang (Fan Wei) becomes a collaborator.  He is contrasted to the brave Miss Jiang (Gao Yuan Xuan) who risks her life to rescue Chinese soldiers.  The plight of the Chinese soldiers is represented by Shunzi (Zhao Yisui) and Xiaodouzi (Liu Bin).

                “City of Life and Death” is an amazing movie.  It has few flaws.  The acting is great and the characters are indelible.  They cover the gamut of people affected by the massacre.  Notably, there are some strong female characters.  They are not all victims.  Kadokawa has gotten the most press due to the perception that he is too sympathetic of a character given the actions of most Japanese soldiers.  Undoubtedly, there were some actual soldiers who responded to what they saw and participated in by having their humanity pricked, but to have the main character exemplify that small minority caused a lot of controversy.  Lu Chuan received death threats and there was talk of the movie being removed from theaters.  It was removed from consideration for Chinese movie awards.  I can see that point of view.  Kadokawa does dilute the horridness of what happened in Nanking.  But Lu does have a dastardly villain in Ida to represent the typical Japanese soldier.  If you look at post-war Japan, it could be argued that the movie’s depiction of the Japanese soldiers as succumbing to their based instincts is not unrealistic.  Lu claimed that he was influenced by “Schindler’s List” and I can see that. 
                Although not a combat movie, the film does have one outstanding combat scene in which Shunzi and Xiaodouzi’s unit ambushes a Japanese patrol.  The cinematography reminds of South Korean war movies.  Another memorable scene is when a prostitute named Xiaojiang (Jiang Yiyan) offers to be one of the 100 women the Japanese are “borrowing”.  The movie can be gut-wrenching and has a montage of a variety of executions (although the censors forbade inclusion of Japanese officers beheading civilians).  The rapes are more implied than graphic. 

                The script includes some historical persons like Rabe and Vautrin, but most of the characters are fictional.  Lu Chuan has done a good job of sticking to the historical facts.  It is not like there are no other movies on the Nanking Massacre.  “John Rabe” came out the same year and we have “The Flowers of War” from 2011.  This is the one to watch, however.  It tells the story in a very entertaining way.  As a history lesson, it is outstanding.


HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The Nanking Massacre took place in the Second Sino-Japanese War.  After capturing Shanghai, the Japanese army proceeded on to the Chinese capital.  The Chinese army put up little fight.  The walls were breached with artillery fire (not tank fire).  There were incidents where Chinese soldiers fought others trying to flee the city.  The movie is accurate in its depiction of the executions, looting, and rapes except that they were much worse.  The policy was known as the 3 Alls:  kill all, burn all, loot all.  It is estimated that between 40-300,000 Chinese were killed in six weeks.  The sets realistically depict the bombed out, deserted look to the city.  It downplays the looting, burning, and the corpses lying around.  15 of the 22 foreigners in the city set up the International Committee and created the Nanking Safety Zone.  Their leader was John Rabe.  Rabe was a German businessman and although a Nazi, he was against the Anti-Comintern Pact.  He was a Schindler-like figure.  The fact he was a German gave him cachet with the Japanese.  The International Committee agreed that no Chineses soldiers would be allowed in the zone.  They could not turn aside soldiers however and prayed that the fact they were unarmed would dissuade the Japanese. They were wrong.  As shown in the movie, the Japanese came in and checked hands for callouses. Undoubtedly some rickshaw drivers, carpenter, etc. were rounded up for execution.  The Japanese did allow family members to claim one arrestee each.  Many of the “soldiers” were executed along the banks of the Yangtze.  The Japanese did rape a lot of women in the safety zone and at one point came in to demand 100 comfort women.  Vautrin refused, but after 21 women volunteered, the Japanese were satisfied.  The films rendering of the comfort stations is accurate. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

CRACKER? Barefoot Gen (1983)

                “Barefoot Gen” is a Japanese war anime.  It is loosely based on the manga series of the same name by Keiji Nakazawa.  He wrote the screenplay.  As a young boy, Nakazawa survived Hiroshima and he based the series on his experiences.  The movie was part of the wave of nuclear war movies that came out in the 1980s.  This subgenre includes “The Day After” and “When the Wind Blows”.  It is a subgenre that you can watch if you want to get very depressed.  “Barefoot Gen” was directed by Mori Masaki.
                The movie begins a few days before the bombing of Hiroshima.  A narrator informs us that B-29s have been bombing Japanese cities with fire bombs.  These have been “the most devastating attacks against civilians ever”.   Yet, Hiroshima has not felt the destruction.  Is it just charmed?  Gen’s father, who is not a supporter of the war effort, has a feeling that the city is being spared for something worse.  He calls the leaders “mad men” for continuing the war and tells his kids “sometimes it takes a lot more courage not to fight”.  Gen’s family is suffering like most of the Japanese common people.  They lack food, but they are happy because they have each other.  Gen and his brother Shinji are typical preteens.  They help their father in the wheatfield and scrounge around for food.  Food is the driving force in their lives because their mother is pregnant and malnourished.  At one point, they attempt to steal some carp from an old man’s pond.  Although they sometimes get into trouble and quarrel, the duo is very appealing.  So much so that the audience gets a vibe that what is coming is going to be very hard to watch.  Get the tissues ready.

                 If you are only familiar with the history textbook facts of the atomic bombing, be prepared to see what it was like for a typical Japanese family.  The explosion is awesomely rendered and what happens to the family is as harsh as you will encounter in a war movie.  In fact, we have entered horror movie territory at this point.  Although told from the perspective of Gen, the movies chronicles most of the gruesome aspects of an atomic explosion.  The leadership of the United States and North Korea would be well-served if they were to watch this movie.  The movie depicts the “black rain’, the walking dead, the symptoms of radiation sickness (Gen loses his hair).  I learned that after drinking water that they begged for, the victims would die because the desire for water was the only thing keeping them alive.  It’s that kind of informative movie.  Plus we have the narrator to fill us in on the big picture.

                “Barefoot Gen” is a roller coaster ride.  And like a roller coaster ride, you might want to have a barf bag handy. The movie is hard to watch at times.  There are some gut punches. It is definitely not a kids’ movie.  It sets you up by making Gen a very likeable character.  You bond with him and suffer with him.  His relationship with his family and, especially with his brother Shinji, reminds you that the Japanese may have been the “bad guys” in the war, but the Japanese common people were much like the people of the countries they fought.  Knowing what is coming makes what the family experiences more visceral.  You can’t help but think of your own family now that we live in a world with ICBMs.

                The anime is wonderful.  If you are not familiar with the style, you owe it to yourself to catch this movie.  The movie is vibrantly colorful and then switches to a more drab look after the explosion.  Just because it’s a “cartoon” does not mean it cannot pack an emotional wallop.  With that said, it could have been even more bleak.  You are not jelly by the end.  This conforms to the theme propounded by Gen’s father.  He urged his children to be like the wheat.  You might get knocked down, but you can get back up.

                “Barefoot Gen” is a must-see to understand the human dimension of what happened to Hiroshima.  It may cause you to rethink your position on whether the bombing of Hiroshima was justified.  And whether the simple solution to the North Korean problem would to nuke them.  Most families in North Korea are in the same situation that the Nakaoka family was in.

GRADE  =  B+       

Sunday, August 12, 2018

CRACKER? Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Grave of the Fireflies by Angelii-D

                In preparing for my eventual list of the 100 Best War Movies I still have to see a few movies that potentially could make my list.  One of those was “Grave of the Fireflies”.  It has been on my “to be watched” list for years now.  I was not able to find it on any of my usual viewing options and did not want to purchase it.  To tell the truth, I did not want to go to a lot of trouble and expense to watch a movie that I had learned was very depressing.  However, when I heard that it would be appearing in a special showing at a nearby theater, I decided that it was a chance I could not pass up and remain true to my mission. 

                “Grave” is based on a semi-autobiographical short story by Akiyuki Nosaka.  He lost his sister to malnutrition during the closing stages of WWII.  Nosaka was skeptical of making the story into a live action movie, but director/writer Isao Takahata convinced him that animation would work.  The movie was shown on a double-bill with the family friendly “Totoro” which impacted its popularity because the audience did not react well to the transition to the opposite of “Totoro”.  Many people left after the feel-good opening film rather than have their mood crushed.

                The film opens three weeks after Japan surrendered.  A starving young boy lays in a railway station.  The movie then flashes back to happier times in the city of Kobe.  Setsuko and his four year-old sister Seita are living with their mother as their father fights in the Japanese navy.  When B-29 bombers drop incendiary bombs on the city, the subsequent fires destroy the city and lead to the death of their mother.  They are forced to go live with their aunt.  She is more like a wicked stepmother than an aunt.  Eventually, Setsuko and Seita are on their own living in an abandoned bomb shelter next to a lake.  Bombs are no longer a problem, but starvation is.

                I have to admit I was disappointed in the movie.  I don’t like depressing movies, but if I see one, I expect to be depressed.  I really thought I would be crying when I left the theater.  After all, the movie is considered to be one of the most depressing war movies ever made.  It’s not like it did not have the potential to be a classic tear-jerker.  The pair of kids are very appealing and Seita is adorable.  I saw a lot of my grandkids in her so I was invested in the character.  The problem is that after the horrendous opening, the pair do not have a particularly terrible time.  Their stay with their aunt is more of an aggravation than a catastrophe.  The time by the lake is not horrific.  I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop because you know there will not be a happy ending, but when it comes it is tepid.  You can argue that Nosaka was simply being true to the book, and in fact he has stated that the movie is not meant to be anti-war.  This seems to be a ridiculous statement about a movie that deals with the results of a fire-bombing that comes off as a war crime.  Nosaka claimed that the movie was actually a comment on the effects of isolation from society.  I just feel that an anti-war activist like Nosaka blew the opportunity to have people leave the theater saying “never again!” instead of sniffling over “why did the cute little kid have to die?”

                The movie is well made.  Nosaka decided not to go experimental with the animation.  The one tweak was the use of brown outlines instead of the standard blacks to give the film a softer look.  With that said, “Grave” is not memorable like “Spirited Away”, for instance.  The recurring use of fireflies (which represent souls) is a nice touch and there is an awesome scene where Setsuko and Seita use some to light their shelter.  There is also tremendous product placement for Sakuma fruit drops.  The flash backs work, but the opening that leads into them distracts from the flaws in the characterization of Setsuko.  I hate to be a jerk about this and I am not positive that Nosaka did not plan it this way, but Setsuko is to blame for the death of his sister.  I know he is just a teenager and they are prone to mistakes, but I didn’t get the impression that that was a theme of the movie.

                “Grave of the Fireflies” is universally acclaimed and is a must-see.  However, it is not as good as the similar “Barefoot Gen”.  It is definitely not a feel-good movie, but it does pull its punches.  I do not think it is one of the 100 best war movies ever made.


Wednesday, August 8, 2018

CRACKER? Eye of the Needle (1981)

                “Eye of the Needle” is a WWII espionage movie directed by Richard Marquard.  It was based on Ken Follett’s first best-seller.  Much of the movie was filmed on The Isle of Mull off the coast of Scotland.  The cottage and lighthouse were constructed for the film.  It marked the second time Donald Sutherland played a Nazi spy since he starred in “The Eagle Has Landed” five years earlier. 

                The movie opens during the Battle of Britain.  Henry Faber (Donald Sutherland) works at a railway station, but he is actually a German spy known as “the Needle” because of his use of a stiletto blade to dispatch anyone who suspects him.  He is a cool customer and has no compunction in murdering (I mean killing in the name of his country).  The other main character is Lucy (Kate Nelligan).  She is a society gal who is going to live happily ever after with her new RAF fighter pilot husband.  Unfortunately, David (Christopher Cazenove) can’t dodge trucks as well as he dodges Messerschmitts.  The trio’s fates will link up four years later on the aptly named Storm Island – population:  2,000 sheep + 4 humans.  The sheep are happier than Lucy and David.  If Lucy had seen any war movies she would have known married life would be rough with a crippled ex-fighter jock.  They tend to be morose.  In wades the master spy with his photos that will win the war for Germany.  All he needs to do is catch a ride on a u-boat.  Spoiler alert: the Allies still end up winning.

                “Eye of the Needle” is a competent thriller that is set in WWII.  It is more of a spy movie than a war movie.  It could easily have been set in the Cold War, but the plot depends on Faber getting the goods on Operation Fortitude.  Although that code name is not mentioned, the movie does make use of the deception effort that fooled the Germans into thinking Patton was building up an army in southeastern Britain to land at Calais.  Faber discovers that the bombers, etc. are fake. (It would have been awesome if he had taken pictures of men lifting up the blow-up tanks.)  How Faber gets together with Lucy requires the typical coincidences you get in any spy movie, but since it leads to Kate’s breasts I’m willing to overlook the dot connecting.  In fact, it’s best not to overthink the movie.  Like how Faber cannot figure out that Lucy is on to him when their love-making goes from him bedding a Frenchlike Lucy to her reverting back to being British.  In between we get a nifty fight between Faber and David, who manages to channel his bitterness into a moment where you wonder if the movie is going to be much shorter than you expected.  Not to worry, it’s just the preliminary bout before the epic Lucy/Faber showdown in the lighthouse.  The suspense builds well and the big payoff is fine and unpredictable since the movie eschews the  cavalry riding to the rescue trope.
                The movie is well acted as a showcase for Sutherland and Nelligan.  Sutherland is menacing as the unflappable Faber.  The movie jumps four years from Faber first murder so we have to wonder what spying he has been doing.  Considering the turn the war took during that stretch, he must not have been padding his resume.    It’s easier to figure out what Lucy has been doing.  She is married to a man who decided to drown his lost ace-hood with sheep raising.  He did take the time to father a cherubic, menace-worthy son.  (Although the movie naughtily suggests he was conceived pre-crash.) Her chilly marriage is supposed to explain why she is seduced by a sociopath.  Hey, when your options had been a drunken lighthouse keeper or a sheep…

                Director Marquard was tabbed by George Lucas to direct “Last of the Jedi” based on this movie.  That is hard to see.  The production is average.  There is no eye-popping cinematography, although the scenery is nice.  The music is meh and has the clicheish swelling romantic strings on queue.  However, the movie is entertaining.  It builds well to the rollicking conclusion, which is satisfactory unless you wanted Germany to win the war.  The twisty ending makes up for the very predictable deaths.  It is certainly not one of the 100 Best War Movies, but it is better than “Foreign Correspondent” and much better than recent attempts at WWII espionage like “Shining Through” and “Allied”.

GRADE  =  B-

Sunday, August 5, 2018


Sorry I've been away for a week, but that tournament took a lot out of me.  I watched over 16 movies in a few weeks and there was also a lot of research involved.  It was fun and I don't regret it.  I appreciate all who followed it.  I am still committed to bringing good content to this blog and do not plan on ending it any time soon.  However, I have taken on a side project that involves more instant feedback from people who also love war movies.  I have created a Facebook group for people like us.  I post a lot of content and try not to overlap with the blog.  The content is shorter because I know Facebook users don't like to read.  Here are some of the topics I post:

For Your Consideration - movie recommendations
Trivia -  interesting facts about famous movies
Back-Story -  background information on famous movies
Quotes - famous war movie quotes
Off Camera - photos of cast and crew of movies 

Please consider joining.  The more the merrier.

Go to:  War Movie Lovers Group

Saturday, July 28, 2018

FINAL - Rogue One (5) vs. Star Wars: A New Hope (2)


It is hard enough to come up with 12 categories, much less 16, so I have concluded my tournaments by totaling all 12 categories to determine the winner. I feel this is fair and it means I avoid leaning toward a favorite in the finals. In this case, I would not have predicted the winner at the beginning of the tournament.

PLOT: Rogue One = A Star Wars = A
STRATEGY AND TACTICS: Rogue One = A Star Wars = B
WEAPONRY: Rogue One = B Star Wars = B
SPECIAL EFFECTS: Rogue One = A Star Wars = A+
ACTING: Rogue One = B Star Wars = B-
ENTERTAINMENT: Rogue One = A Star Wars = A+
COMBAT: Rogue One = A Star Wars = B
ENEMY: Rogue One = B Star Wars = C
SETS AND SOUNDS: Rogue One = A Star Wars = A
DIALOGUE: Rogue One = C Star Wars = B
CHARACTERS: Rogue One = B Star Wars = A+
CLICHES: Rogue One = C Star Wars = A

Star Wars = 104 Rogue One = 100

So we come to the end of another tournament. Thank you for following. Hopefully you're not too upset about the results. You may disagree with result, but I think Star Wars is a worthy winner. I would not have pegged it as the best sci-fi war movie at the beginning of the tournament, but you can see that it was strong in all the categories except enemy. Amazingly, it is the oldest film in the tournament and I usually feel newer is better when it comes to sci-fi movies. Rogue One is an example of this. It is better than all but two of the Star Wars series. Unfortunately, it ran up against one of those movies.

Here are the other tournaments:
21st Century War Movies
War Comedies
WWII Combat
Vietnam War
WWI Combat

Thursday, July 26, 2018

STAR WARS (2) vs. AVATAR (6)


SETS AND SOUNDS:  “Star Wars” is set mostly on the Millennium Falcon and the Death Star.  Both seem generic now, but at the time both fleshed out the spacecraft and space station templates.  Tatooine is straight out of a John Ford Western.  The one standout set is the bar in Mos Eisley.  In that case, it is more the denizens than the outlay.  The sound effects were groundbreaking.  The movie invented “pew-pew” for shots and the sound of the light sabers became iconic.  But it is the score by John Williams that stands alone.  It is one of the greatest scores ever.  AFI ranked it the best score of all time.  Williams’ use of leitmotif’s is nothing short of brilliant.  GRADE  =  A

“Avatar” is dazzling because of the visuals.  Pandora is an eye-popping set.  In fact, the sets overcome the unoriginal plot.  In some ways, the movie is “Dances With Wolves” on an exotic planet.  Floating mountains!  It won the Academy Award for Art Direction and the Saturn Award for Production Design.  The sound effects are good, too.  Most notable are the creature noises.  The score is by James Horner.  An ethnomusicologist was consulted to create the Na’vi music.  Horner divided the score into macho mercenary music and new age native music.  The soundtrack is unremarkable.  GRADE  =  C

DIALOGUE:  For a sci-fi movie, some effort was put into the dialogue in “Star Wars”.  Much of it is snappy, especially between Laia and Han.  C3PO gets to play stuffy British twit.  Obi Wan has the iconic line:  “May the Force be with you.”  It was voted #8 on AFIs list of greatest quotes.  The movie has a total of 141 quotes on IMDB.  GRADE = B

“Avatar” is not going to be remembered for its dialogue.  If you based the movie just on the script, you might not go see it.  There is not a single standout line.  In fact, much of the dialogue is trite, especially when Jake is narrating.  Equally cringe-inducing is the macho bull shit coming out of Col. Quaritch’s mouth.  I feel he might be overcompensating for something.  Most of the attempts at humor fall flat.  I do have to extend some props for inventing the Na’vi language.  Too bad it was subtitled.  The movie has 109 entries in IMDB.  GRADE  =  C   

CHARACTERS:  It could be argued that “Star Wars” has the best set of main characters of any sci-fi movie.  Each has left a mark on popular culture.  Han Solo is #14 on AFI’s heroes list and Obi Wan comes in at #37.  Luke Skywalker belongs on that list. Laia became a feminist icon.  C3PO and R2D2 are a great comedy team.  And then we have Darth Vader.  He is #3 on AFI’s list of villains.  There are no Jar Jar Binks in this film.  GRADE  =  A+

If you’ve seen “Dances With Wolves”, you’re familiar with most of the characters in “Avatar”.  “Avatar” adds the stereotypical corporate amoralist and his evil security chief.  Michelle Rodriguez plays the now required feisty female Chacon.  None of these characters are memorable.  GRADE  =  C

CLICHES:  For such a key movie in the sci-fi canon, “Star Wars” is refreshingly free of clichés.  The Empire is superior to the rebellion, but not vastly superior like the aliens in most of the movies in this tournament.  The movie does have a key figure (Luke Skywalker) who is crucial to the success of the rebellion.  The Death Star has a weak spot, otherwise it is invulnerable.  3 out of 10  GRADE  =  A

Considering how unoriginal the plot of “Avatar” is, it is not infested with sci-fi war movie clichés.  The RDA’s security forces have vastly superior weaponry and the invaders are more “civilized’ than the natives.  The Na’vi could not have won without Jake.  All the attacks are frontal, including by the hammerhead titanotheres and viperwolfs.  The Na’vi win even though their weapons are primitive.  They use bows and arrows.  4 out of 10  GRADE  =  B

ANALYSIS:  Both movies were groundbreaking, but for different reasons.  “Star Wars” reinvented the space epic and started the greatest sci-fi franchise in history.  “Avatar” revived 3-D movies.  It is visually stunning and has some strengths as a war movie, but it is more style than substance.  In every way. it is inferior to “Star Wars”.  It has become trendy to overlook the brilliance of the first Star Wars movie.  To remind yourself of its greatness, just look at the other entries after “The Empire Strikes Back”.  (Empire may be the best of the eight, but it is not a war movie.)   32 years after its release, it is still able to defeat the all-time box office champ.

STAR WARS  =  36
AVATAR  =  29