Saturday, November 17, 2018

CLASSIC or ANTIQUE? Go For Broke (1951)

                “Go for Broke” is an Old School movie about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.  The unit, which consisted of Nisei volunteers, was the most decorated unit of its size and length of service in the U.S. Army in WWII.  The movie was written and directed by Robert Pirosh.  Pirosh was a veteran of the war in Europe.  He famously wrote the screenplay for “Battleground”.  His screenplay for “Go for Broke” was nominated for Best Original Screenplay.  The movie included many veterans from the 442nd, including some of the main roles.  It was a box office success and was big in Japan of all places.

                “Go for Broke” is a typical small unit movie.  It starts in training camp, which is Camp Shelby in Mississippi in 1943.  The platoon gets a new leader in Lt. Grayson (Van Johnson).  He looks like he has a turd mustache as he scans his “Japs”.  He immediately requests a transfer.  His C.O. is a bleeding-heart liberal who does not take kindly to Grayson asking if they use live ammunition on the rifle range.  (What an odd racist taunt!)  Grayson is clearly in need of redemption.  His first visit to the barracks makes it obvious that he is a racist martinet.  But he’s also Van Johnson, so you know that won’t last.  Queue the training montage.  Then it’s off to Italy.  Grayson meets an Italian girl because there has to be a female on the movie poster.  Marching and fighting montage.  This leads up to a nice combat scene highlighted by Tommy (Henry Nakamura) filling his helmet with dirt and sticking a mortar tube in it to lob some shells.  Can you do that?  Then it’s off to France and the celebrated rescue of the “Lost Battalion” (not that Lost Battalion). 

                “Go for Broke” is competently done.  It is above average for its ilk.  You can tell this partly because the deaths are not the silly, touchdown signaling twirls that you normally see in movies like this.  In fact, it has some heart-tugging deaths, which is appropriate for a unit that had a very high casualty rate.  The acting is surprisingly good considering key roles went to amateurs who were veterans of the unit.  Van Johnson is his usual reliable self.  Young ladies, he was the George Clooney of that era!  Tommy has a pig that gives one of the best performances by a pig in a war movie.

                “Go for Broke” follows the small unit template closely.   Grayson is the leader who warms to his charges.  There is a core group that includes a malcontent.  You would be upset too if you had to leave your lucrative chicken-sexing job to join the Army.  That’s right, Chick (George Miki) was making $500 a month determining the sex of newborn chicks.  It turns out Nisei soldiers have similar banter as other soldiers.  They also have humorous moments like in other Old School WWII movies, except that some of it is actually funny.  Not LOL, of course.  Some of the humor comes from Grayson narrating from travel pamphlets as they move through picturesque Italy and France.  Nice touch.

                The script is a bit odd.  There are only allusions to the internment of the Nisei families so there is little irony in the film.  Actually, the movie starts with an unintentially ironic quote from FDR about how “Americanism is a matter of mind and heart”, not race!  I wonder what the 442nd veterans thought of that.  You don’t really end up with a feeling of shame when you watch the film.  The movie also strangely short-changes the unit’s sterling record.  You get little impression why it was so decorated.  The action scenes are good, but not big.  For instance, the rescue of the “Lost Battalion” is nothing special and does not do a good job showing the extremely difficult nature of the battle.  The movie concentrates too much on the conventional redemption arc of Grayson and not enough on the achievements of the unit.  Still, it’s a likeable movie and you can’t say they blew their chance to recognize the unit.


HOW HISTORICALLY ACCURATE IS IT?   The 442nd was recruited mostly from Nisei living in Hawaii.  (It’s sister unit, the 100th Battalion, was mainly from the mainland camps.)  The men did refer to themselves as “Buddhaheads”.  The motto of the unit was “Go for Broke” which in the movie is said to mean “shoot the works”.  They were trained at Camp Shelby where the Nisei were shocked to witness segregation of blacks.  They landed at Naples and participated in the Anzio campaign.  In the move northward, they fought in numerous skirmishes.  They captured Hill 140 which became known as “Little Cassino”.  The unit was shipped to Southern France and it was back into heavy action in the forests of France.  Its most famous exploit was the rescue of a unit that had been cut off by the Germans.  It took a week to break through to the “Lost Battalion” and the 442nd suffered heavy casualties in their frontal attacks.  Unlike the movie, the conditions were a mixture of rain, snow, and mud.  The movie does not touch on the controversy of the unit being used as cannon fodder by Gen. Dahlquist.   After this blooding, the unit was shifted to the Riviera where it enjoyed several weeks of light action.  The men referred to this as the “Champagne Campaign”.  In March, 1945 most of the unit was sent back to Italy to help assault the Gothic Line.  Talk about a change of venue!  They had been specifically requested by Gen. Mark Clark.  The 442nd excelled in the hill fighting that pushed the Germans back in the closing weeks of the war.  The unit returned to America having been awarded eight Presidential Unit Citations (one of which is shown by way of footage of Pres. Truman in the film).  One soldier, Sadao Munemori, was a posthumous Medal of Honor recipient for jumping on a grenade.  (In 2000, twenty other members were upgraded to Medals of Honor.)   

Thursday, November 15, 2018

CONSENSUS #99 Bridges at Toko-Ri

SYNOPSIS: "The Bridges at Toko-Ri" is an air combat movie set in the Korean War. The main character (William Holden) is a naval fighter-bomber pilot who has been drafted away from his idyllic family. The commander of his carrier (Frederic March) is a father figure who has to send men like him to their deaths for the good of the noncommunist world.  The climactic mission is a very dangerous one to take out some bridges in North Korea.  To remind you what Brubacher is risking, he is visited by his wife (Grace Kelly) on R&R in Japan.  Mickey Rooney has a showy role as a rescue helicopter pilot.

BACK-STORY: The Bridges at Toko-Ri is a war movie based on the novel by James Michener. The movie was released in 1955, just one year after the book was published. The movie was a hit and got an Oscar for Best Special Effects for John Fulton.  He used miniatures for the bridge attack. The producers had the full cooperation of the U.S. Navy which allowed the use of nineteen ships. The credits mention that the movie was made as a tribute to U.S. Navy pilots. William Holden and Grace Kelly had an affair during the filming.

            TRIVIA -  imdb, Wikipedia, TCM
1.  William Holden learned how to taxi a jet on the carrier deck for close-ups.
2.  The US Navy cooperated with 19 ships, including the USS Oriskany ( and when it was no longer available, the USS Kearsarge).  The Oriskany was later sunk as an artificial reef off Pensacola, Florida and is a popular diving site.
3.  James Michener wrote the novel after spending time on the USS Essex during the Korean War.  Neil Armstrong was a pilot at the time.  The incident involving the bombing of bridges and the rescue of a downed pilot was based on actual events.  However, the downed pilot and his attempted rescuer were actually captured and survived the war.
4.   Holden’s brother was a navy pilot in WWII who was killed in action.
5.  In the book, the jet is the F2H Banshee, not the F9F Panther.  The Panther was probably substituted because it was more photogenic.
6.  Holden insisted the novel’s ending be retained.  He did not want the typical Hollywood happy ending.  This worked well because although the movie came at the end of a wave of WWII/Korean War formulaic offerings, it stood out.
            7.  The movie won the Oscar for Best Special Effects and was nominated for Best Editing.
8.  Holden and Grace Kelly conducted an affair during the shoot.  This was not uncommon for him, even though     he was married.  When Kelly invited her to her home, her father shook his fist at Holden and evidenced his displeasure with the affair.  Holden left the house upset.  The affair did not continue after the movie was finished.
9.  Mickey Rooney got the role partly due to his friendship with Michener.  One day, Rooney was needed for an unscheduled scene, but could not be found.  He turned up later as co-pilot of a jet having bribed the pilot to fly him to Tokyo for the horse races.

Belle and Blade  =  2.5
Brassey’s              =  3
Video Hound       =  3.8
War Movies         =  4.4
Military History  =  #73
Channel 4             =  not on list
Film Site                =  yes
101 War Movies  =  no

OPINION: Although the novel is short, if you do not like to read this movie will give you the classic novels plot in cinema form. It follows the book religiously. It also accurately reflects the novels themes of self-sacrifice, loyalty, and the senselessness of war. But most significantly, the movie does not change the downer of an ending just to suit the audience. Kudos for that! In some ways it is the All Quiet of the Korean War.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

NOW SHOWING: Overlord (2018)

                I had been waiting for this movie for a while.  We don’t get many war movies these days and a war / horror hybrid sounded intriguing.  Actually, the movie is technically a mash-up of the commando raid subgenre and the zombie subgenre.  It came from the mind of co-producer JJ Abrams and was directed by Julius Avery.  It has gotten a major release and some positive reviews.

                A platoon of paratroopers is sent on a dangerous mission to destroy a radio jamming tower that could prevent air support for the D-Day invasion.  Like all other commando mission in war movie history, the mission is crucial to winning the war.  They jump in a totally gonzo scene where their transport plane is hit by anti-aircraft fire.  Only five of the unit (oops, make that four) survive to go after the radio tower.  They are led by the mysteriously laconic Cpl. Ford (Wyatt Russell) and include the everyman Boyce (Jovan Adepo), the wisecracking sniper Tibbet (John Magaro), and the useless combat photographer Chase (Iain De Gaestecker).  They hook up with a local female named Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier) who will provide refuge in her house and intel on the village and nearby German compound.  It turns out that Chloe is being “kept” by the local evil Nazi Capt. Wafner (Pilou Asbaek).  She has an adorable younger brother Paul who is destined to be put in peril.  Boyce makes an unplanned recon of the German compound and discovers a secret laboratory where an evil scientist is developing a serum to create super-soldiers.  Not surprisingly, the serum has not been perfected yet and has some horrible side effects.  Saving the invasion’s air support becomes secondary to preventing an army of Nazi zombies.

                I don’t watch a lot of horror movies, but I recognize the clichés when I see them.  Specifically, there is a lot of “Aliens” in this movie.  The Chloe/Paul dynamic reminds of Ripley/Newt.  Heck, Chloe even gets to wield a flamethrower. Not that I am complaining.  Who doesn’t love a cinematic chick with a flamethrower?  “Overlord” breaks no new ground in the horror genre.  It also is rife with the standard commando mission clichés.  Mission creep.  Redemption of the jerk Tibbet.  Ticking bomb / save yourself.  Rescue someone before completing the mission.  It is all pretty predictable.  Fortunately, it is done with some verve, although nothing tops the opening scene.  Unfortunately, the monsters are nothing special and are nowhere near as bonkers as those in the similar “Frankenstein’s Army”.  The final act intercuts between your standard action pieces involving explosions and ammo-expenditure and the creepy corridor capers in the compound.  Firearms above ground, freakish forearms below.  There is some suspense and the action is continuous, but it does not have you watching through your fingers. 
                The movie is technically well-done, but it does have a B-movie feel to it.  This is in spite of some effort.  The opening drop scene used a C-47 model on a gimbal with stunt men.  Asbaek’s make-up took five hours.  The acting is clearly B-movie.  I applaud casting an African-American as Boyce (even though it is historically inaccurate to have a black paratrooper), but only if the actor is better than the alternative.  None of these actors will be moving on to A-movies.  The special effects are also B-movie.  It’s fun to see monsters in a war movie, but they did not make me reassess my lukewarm feelings toward horror movies.  I actually have seen a few horror war movies and “Overlord” is in the middle of the pack.  It is not as good as “Dead Snow” or “Dog Soldiers” and if you want to watch a similarly plotted movie, you would be better off with “Frankenstein’s Army”.  



Sunday, November 11, 2018

STREAMING: Outlaw / King (2018)

                Netflix recently blessed us with a war movie.  I originally got Netflix so I could watch an enormous amount of war movie DVDs.  Then Netflix started streaming some war movies.  And now, they are making some war movies!  We are truly living in a golden age.  Not counting everything else.  “Outlaw / King” was co-written, produced, and directed by David MacKenzie (“Hell or High Water”).  It was filmed in Scotland and England.  The movie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.  After that, MacKenzie cut twenty minutes.

                The movie leads with the claim that it is “based on historical events”.  It starts in Scotland in 1304.  Title cards inform us non-Scots that the Scots had recently rebelled against the occupation of King Edward I.  This rebellion was led by William Wallace.  But Wallace has been defeated and now the Scottish lords are prepared to submit to Edward.   At the siege of Stirling Castle, Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine) joins other nobles in witnessing Edward’s triumph (facilitated by one bad-ass trebuchet hurling Greek fire) and then bending their knees.  Edward forces Robert to patch things up with John Comyn.  Exiting the tent, Robert is challenged to a frenemy duel by Prince Edward (Billy Howle).  Clanging within five minutes!  This is a good sign.  The king arranges a marriage between Robert and the daughter of a loyal ally.  Elizabeth (Florence Pugh) is comely, but Robert is either a gentleman or doesn’t like the political strings.  I couldn’t tell which.  But I could tell that this separate rooms situation would not last.  (That’s right, I’ve seen a movie.) Her feistiness will overcome his frostiness.  Just like his patriotism is going to overcome his placating.  If you are Scottish, you know where this is heading and are wondering how it will be depicted.  If you are an American, you are wondering how kick-ass the battles will be and whether the movie will live up to “Braveheart”.

                Let’s get this over with immediately.  It is not as good as “Braveheart”,  as entertainment.  Chris Pine plays Robert as lacking charisma.  He does have the saintly demeanor of Wallace.  Except when he murders his rival in a church of all places.  But he was justified and the clergy backed him, so keep cheering.  The romance with Elizabeth should not scare away the guys.  In fact, when they finally consummate, there is some Netflix Original nudity for both male and female viewers.  Florence Pugh is fine (both acting and body wise) as Elizabeth, but Pine doesn’t seem to be having much fun.  That might be appropriate because for the first three fourths of the movie, I wouldn’t give this guy’s problems to a monkey on a rock.  The movie definitely sets him up as a massive underdog against the all-powerful Edward (Stephen Dillane).  Unfortunately, those twenty cut minutes must have dealt with how he climbed out of the pit of despair.  The movie jumps from spider legend (you Scots will know what I am talking about) to rousing combat porn finale in the blink of an eye.  And then slaps on the obligatory romantic reunion.  The happily-ever-afters kick in pre-Bannockburn.  Maybe that’s where the twenty minutes were.

                “Outlaw / King” does not really engage the viewer.  The events are depicted without panache and Pine’s performance does not add spice.  To balance his morose portrayal, the charismatic James Douglas gets scene-chewing portrayal by Aaron Taylor-Johnson.  Black Douglas deserves his own movie.  The battle scenes are the highlights and they are very graphic. Basically they are the melee style that you see in every modern medieval movie.  There is also a drawing and quartering to remind of “Braveheart” and top it grossness-wise.  Speaking of which, this is in some ways a sequel to that film.  Someone must have wanted to redeem Robert. And Edward and his son.  King Edward here is less supervillain and more Machiavellian medieval king.  Dillane’s Edward is much closer to the real Edward.  You will not recognize his son.  I am guessing that the real Prince Edward was somewhere between flaming and enflaming.  The movie makes a big mistake not concentrating on Valence as the main villain. 

                It turns out (see below for details) the movie is fairly accurate.  Certainly more than “Braveheart”, but what isn’t.  It tries hard to get the period details right.  There is a lot of mud.  Politics are also dirty.  Love will survive.  Scotland has some awesome scenery.  This all enfolds in an acceptably entertaining way.  I don’t want to discourage Netflix from making more war movies and I did learn a lot about a great warrior.  It turns out he is not the weasel “Braveheart” left us with.

                SPOILER ALERT! HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  (Keep in mind that I am not Scottish, so I may be off in some of this analysis.)  The movie starts in 1304 at the siege of Sterling Castle.  Nice touch having the huge trebuchet.  It was called Warwolf and was reputedly the largest trebuchet in history.  It is true that Edward postponed accepting the surrender until he could use it.  It seems unlikely it hurled Greek fire.  It did lob up to 300 pound rocks.  Edward did accept submission of the Scottish nobles at this time and Robert would have been one of them.  However, he had been on board for some time and (as “Braveheart” depicted) was basically allied with him.  Robert had a tense relationship with John Comyn.  Both wanted to be King of Scotland.  Comyn was the most powerful noble in Scotland and had more support due to his having been more consistently anti-British.  The movie downplays that Robert was less than patriotic before he rebelled.  Robert tried to broker an agreement with Comyn where Comyn would accept Robert as King in exchange for some concessions.  Apparently, Comyn ratted the Bruce out to Edward and Robert was forced to flee from the King’s court.  He returned to Scotland and arranged a meeting with Comyn.  The meeting was similar to what is depicted in the movie, except that Robert would have already known of Comyn’s duplicity, plus the murder may have been more due to the rivalry for power.
                After the murder (for such it was), Robert rushed to Bishop Wishart for absolution and the clergy came on board for the rebellion.  (Robert was excommunicated by the Pope.) He was hastily crowned king.  Robert’s rebellion was not really a response to Wallace’s death (since he was hardly a fan), but more the result of seeing the hand-writing on the wall with regard to Edward becoming increasingly suspicious of Robert.  Robert was already married to Elizabeth (since 1302) and although her father was an ally of Edward, I found no evidence that it was a political marriage.  (I don’t think Robert waited to consummate.)  Robert had a daughter named Marjory from his first marriage.

                The Battle of Methven is fairly close to reality.  Robert did face Valence (Earl of Pembroke) who was Edward’s military commander in Scotland.  He was sent with the vanguard and it was he that Edward instructed to raise the dragon banner.  The Prince followed later with the main army.  The Prince did take the Oath of the Swans, so that bizarre moment was reality!  Rpbert and Valence did meet the afternoon before and agreed to wait to the next day.  They did not agree to a duel.  Valence surprise attacked at dawn, but it was less perfidy than just taking advantage of Robert’s unbelievable lack of sentries or scouts.  It was a massed cavalry attack and probably did not involve fire arrows. 

                Robert escaped the disaster with around 500 men.  Along the road they encountered Jack Douglas as shown in the movie.  The movie does a good job showing Edward dissing Douglas earlier.  Douglas had petitioned for return of his lands, but when Edward learned who his father was, he threw him out.  The movie does a pretty good job with the Battle of Dalrigh which was when the MacDougalls ambushed Robert.  It was in a field, not on the shore.  According to legend, things were so hairy that at one point Robert avoided being dragged from his horse only by loosening his brooch and giving up his cloak.  This marked the low ebb as Robert sent his wife and daughter to KIldrummy Castle.  However, when the castle was besieged, she was no longer there.  She was captured at St. Dulhoc by the Earl of Ross who gave her to Edward.  Robert’s brother Niall was captured at Kildrummy and drawn and quartered, but not by Prince Edward.  The spider incident occurred during this period when Robert was on the run and taking refuge in caves, etc.  Supposedly he witnessed a spider trying several times to complete a web and recognized the moral of “if at first you don’t succeed”. 

                Robert inaugurated a guerrilla war that consisted of hit and run attacks.  He retook his own home and Douglas captured his own castle in the Douglas Larder incident where he and a small group of men slaughtered the garrison in the chapel.  Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Marjory were being held under house arrest.  Marjory was sent to a nunnery and Elizabeth was moved around periodically.  She never spent any time in a wooden cage, but this did happen to one of Robert’s sisters.  Robert built up his support with his successes in the guerrilla war and was ready to take on the king’s forces.  He faced off again with Valence at the Battle of Loudoun Hill. The Prince was not there.  The movie reenactment is acceptable. Robert did take advantage of marshy ground to funnel the British cavalry into his pikes and ditches.  Obviously, there was no duel at the end.  Edward I actually died after this battle.  Elizabeth was not reunited with Robert until 1314.

CONCLUSION:  My first take was that the movie was a misfire, but after looking at the history I am a little more forgiving.  Not that it is perfect historically.  It takes some major liberties, but most are artistic license that make sense.  I was particularly impressed with the inclusion of the Warwolf, the Oath of the Swans, and the Douglas Larder incident.  The three battles are fun and surprisingly accurate.  I abhor “Braveheart” and was hoping this movie would prove that a great movie could be made about the First War of Scottish Independence.  “Outlaw / King” is not a great movie.  But it is a war movie and it tries hard.


Friday, November 9, 2018


This is my attempt at a statistical analysis of the greatest war movies.  Here is the methodology.  I found four 100 Greatest War Movies lists that I feel are knowledgeable on the subject.  Two of those lists (Military History magazine and Channel 4) rank the movies.  The others are Film Site and the book 101 War Movies You Must See Before You Die.   I also used three books that rate war movies:  Video Hound’s War Movies, Brassey’s Guide to War Films, and The Belle and Blade Guide to Classic War Videos.  (Since I did my research I received my copy of War Movies by Brock Garland.  I did not redo the data, but I have included its grade in the ratings list.)  The reason why the list is limited to only movies from the 20th Century is because not all of the sources include 21st Century movies. 

 I won’t bore with the details, but basically I used a combination of the average rating from the ratings books and a rating based on the ranking from the two ranked lists (on a scale of 1-5).   I grouped the movies based on how many lists they made so only movies that were in both Military History magazine and Channel 4 made the top 43. 

 I must emphasize that this list does not reflect my opinions.  In fact, I find some of the positions ridiculous.  I have seen and reviewed all of the movies on the list.  Some are not war movies, in my opinion.  Others are very overrated.  It is also apparent that foreign movies got short-changed.


SYNOPSIS: "The Manchurian Candidate" is a Cold War thriller. An American patrol is captured by the North Koreans and brainwashed. One of them (Laurence Harvey) is the step-son of a rabid anti-Communist Senator. He becomes an unwitting sleeper agent when he returns to America after the war.  His mother (Angela Lansbury) is part of a plot to use her "hero" son to assassinate the President so his step father can take over the Presidency. One of his brainwashed comrades (Frank Sinatra) is in a race against time to foil the plot.

BACK-STORY: “The Manchurian Candidate” is a political thriller released in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis which is appropriate because it taps into the Red Scare hysteria of that time. It is based on a novel by Richard Condon and is faithful to the book. It was directed by John Frankenheimer and showcases his style of unusual camera angles and symbolism (notice all the images of Lincoln). The movie was supposedly taken out of circulation because of its proximity to the Kennedy assassination. There is also the possibility that Oswald saw the film and was inspired by it.  It was remade in 2004 starring Denzel Washington in the Sinatra role.

TRIVIA - mentalfloss, imdb, wikipedia

1.  United Artists did not want to make the film because of the political controversy.  Frank Sinatra went to Pres. Kennedy who was a big fan of the novel.  Kennedy contacted the studio head and got him to change his mind.
2.  Angela Lansbury was only three years older than her “son” Laurence Harvey.
3.  The movie came out in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
4.  When Marco visits Raymond in his hotel room towards the end of the film, Sinatra is filmed out of focus.  Critics lauded this cinematography for showing Raymond’s distorted perspective.  Actually, the assistant cameraman screwed up the shot and director Frankenheimer was upset and wanted to reshoot it, but he could not get Sinatra to duplicate the performance.
5.  Sinatra wanted Lucille Ball for the Angela Lansbury role.
6.  Sinatra broke a finger in the fight scene with Henry Silva.  Later, when he was up for “Dirty Harry”, he could not grip the pistol properly and had to drop out.
7.  When Laurence Harvey jumped in the lake in Central Park, it was so cold that ice had to be broken.
8.  The myth that the movie was pulled after the assassination of Kennedy was not true.  It was shown, but rarely because there was not a lot of interest in the film.
9.  In the novel, the relationship between Raymond and his mother is more incestuous and she even seduces him.  The movie could only go as far as a kiss on the lips.  (Surprisingly, the 2004 remake does not even have the kiss.)
10.  Mrs. Iselin is #21 on AFI’s list of 100 Heroes and Villains.
11.  It was nominated for two Academy Awards:  Editing and Supporting Actress (Lansbury).  She lost to Patty Duke in “The Miracle Worker”.

Belle and Blade  =  3 
Brassey’s              =  4 
Video Hound       =  5
War Movies         =  4.4 
Military History  =  85 
Channel 4             =  not on list
Film Site                =  yes
101 War Movies  =  no

OPINION: I am not sure if “The Manchurian Candidate” is really a war movie. It certainly fits more comfortably in the political thriller genre. As such, it has the usual unrealistic plot twists and unbelievably fortuitous occurrences (e.g., Joycelyn showing up in the queen of hearts costume). What would be faulted in a war movie is par for the course in a thriller. As a political thriller it is cracking entertainment full of suspense and great acting. As political satire, it is a devastating indictment of McCarthyism.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is this quote from?

"Madness. Madness."

3.  What movie is this?

It was a propaganda extravaganza commissioned by Benito Mussolini to fire up Italians for the upcoming conquest of the new Roman Empire.  It was produced by his twenty-one year old son Vittorio, but we can assume daddy was very hands-on.  It was the most expensive Italian movie up to then as Benito spared no expense.  It paid off as the movie won the Mussolini Cup at the Venice Film Festival.  That must have been a shocker!  Mussolini “convinced”  the army to provide a division of extras.  But more infamously, numerous elephants were used and some did not survive (the ones with poor agents).  The soldiers were soon sent to Ethiopia after production ended.  Hopefully the ones who wore wristwatches in their scenes were put in the front lines.

Saturday, November 3, 2018


                I recently read the book Stalingrad: How the Red Army Triumphed by Michael K. Jones.  I have had an interest in the battle since I was a teenager when I read Enemy at the Gates by William Craig.  Although the battle has many fascinating aspects, the two most famous legends are those of the sniper duel and Pavlov’s House.  Craig’s coverage of Vasily Zaitsev’s duel with a German sniper became the basis for the movie “Enemy at the Gates”.  The movie used a lot of artistic license to expand a tale that may have been mostly propaganda swallowed by Craig to begin with.  I was intrigued by the tale of Pavlov’s House and looked for any movie that featured it.  I discovered that a movie called “Stalingrad” that was released in 2013 was based on the incident.

                The movie takes the basics of Pavlov’s House and turns it into dual love stories.  Pavlov is called Sgt. Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov) in the movie.  He and four others assault the building and take it in a blaze of gunfire and grenades.  The unit consists of a vengeance-minded warrior, a class clownish sniper, a famous tenor, a reluctant spotter, and the gruff Gromov.  They encounter a young woman named Katya (Maria Smolnikova) who lives alone in the building.  The men develop a fondness for her.  At one point they go to a lot of trouble to give her a hot bath and a cobbled birthday cake for her birthday.  Sergey (Sergey Bondarchuk, Jr.) falls in love with her.  The quintet is joined by a few others for the defense of the house.  Meanwhile, on the other side of no man’s land, the Germans are desperate to regain the strategic position.  Hauptmann Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann) is tasked with this by his evil Nazi boss.  Kahn is a good German who is disillusioned with the war.  He is having a creepy love affair with a Russian hottie named Masha (Yanina Studilina) who reminds him of his wife.  This all builds to the inevitable final German assault on the building. 

                I have already reviewed this movie so I am going to concentrate on how it jibes with the story of Pavlov’s House.  This analysis is problematical because it is hard to separate reality from propaganda when dealing with the incident.  Clearly, any movie would concentrate on the propaganda version.  A good story is a good story.  The official version is that Sgt. Pavlov and a small reconnaissance platoon stormed the building losing thirty men and being left with only six.  The battle took three hours and was a room to room orgy of grenades and machine guns.  The four-story apartment building was located at a strategic part of the front and created a salient in the German line.  It overlooked a square and blocked German attempts to reach the Volga River in this area.  The movie does a good job with the setting.  Pavlov discovered that there were civilians that were taking refuge in the basement.  He was joined by reinforcements led by a Lt. Afanasiyev, so Pavlov was only briefly in command.  Reinforcements arrived by way of a trench dug to connect to another building.  According to official reports, the defenders numbered about two dozen and they represented the variety of soldiers in the Soviet infantry.  The Soviets quickly recognized the morale value of a successful and gallant example of Stalin’s Order 227 which called for “not one step back”.  Early on, the Soviets began referring to the building as “Pavlov’s House”.  Actually, the true hero was a Capt. Naumov who was in command for most of the 58 day siege.  The house was assaulted numerous times by the Germans, but a combination of heavy machine guns, grenades, and an anti-tank rifle (at least a dozen German tanks were taken out) kept them at bay.  Naumov was killed and Pavlov was wounded and evacuated after an attack on a nearby building.

                Recent scholarship shows even Anthony Beevor’s acclaimed Stalingrad exaggerated the incident.  Apparently, Pavlov and five others snuck into the house and disposed of about a dozen Germans as they were chilling.  They did find civilians in the basement, in fact they told the patrol about the Germans upstairs.  The six men were reinforced within hours by Afanasiyev.  For most of the siege, the defenders totaled well above two dozen.  They were well-armed.  And they were predominantly Russian, not a mixture of ethnicities.  And they were not all infantry.  And the Germans never came close to retaking the building.  The Soviet propaganda left out the extensive barbed wire and anti-tank and anti-personnel mines surrounding the house.  Soviet artillery support also was downplayed because it was a big part of the success of the garrison in beating off attacks.  That did not fit the narrative of a small band of brothers holding out against incredible odds.

                The Battle of Stalingrad has been the grist for several movies.  Besides this one and “Enemy at the Gates”, there are the highly regarded “Stalingrad” (1993) and “Stalingrad:  Dogs Do You Want to Die?”  “Enemy” is the most closely similar in that it because it also covers a legend and it shoe-horns a romance in.  It has the luxury of being able to get away with more artistic license because the sniper duel is vaguely historical.  “Enemy” has its haters (I am not one), but it clearly is a better movie than “Stalingrad” (2013).  If you watch it for a tutorial on Pavlov’s House, you won’t even get the propaganda version.  The civilians in the basement are replaced by one lovable young lady.  None of the fighting reflects the actual battle.  It does attempt to portray both sides, but the Kahn character and his romance is ludicrous.  The combat is highly unrealistic and does a disservice to the actual battle (or even the propaganda battle).  The audience the movie was aimed at was clearly not history buffs.

                I recently read a novel about the incident entitled Pavlov’s House by Russell Burgess.  Being a novel, it clearly takes liberties with the story, but it adheres to the legend much better than “Stalingrad” (2013).   There is plenty of action and the romance makes a lot more sense.  There is female character who is based on Mariya Ulyanova, who may have actually taken part in the defense.  Someday a good movie may be made about Pavlov’s House.  The screenwriter would be wise to adapt this book. 


Monday, October 29, 2018

NOW SHOWING: Hunter Killer (2018)

                I had been waiting a while to see “Hunter Killer” because of an article I read a while back.  That doesn’t mean I couldn’t wait to see it.  I knew it held a high likelihood of being disappointing.  I am especially leery about submarine movies.  Hollywood loves them to the point where they have their own subgenre within the war movie genre and the cramped setting lends itself to drama. Unfortunately, most are just not good and clichés abound.  It is very hard to be in a submarine movie these days.  Just look at the last major sub movie – U-571.  Instead of breaking new ground, it decided to go retro and include virtually every sub cliché known to man.  Where does “Hunter Killer” fall in the subgenre?

                “Hunter Killer” was directed by the unknown Donovan Marsh.  It is based on the novel Firing Point by Don Keith and George Wallace.   Marsh and Gerard Butler went aboard the USS Houston for three days to do research.  The interiors of the submarine were built based on plans approved by the US Navy.  The underwater scenes were done in a water tank using a model.

                The movie is a combination of “Hunt for Red October”, SEAL movies, and a typical sub movie.  If you are going to make a sub movie in 2018, it has to cross subgenres, apparently.  Actually, it is comfortable in the action genre, too.  It does have a two-word title, after all.  It opens with an international incident in the chilly waters of the Barents Sea.  An American sub and a Russian sub are sunk under suspicious circumstances.  Since the U.S. government is already concerned about the militaristic new Russian President, it is assumed this might be the start of WWIII.  The hunter-killer submarine USS Arkansas is sent to investigate.  It has a new commander named Glass (Butler) who has risen from the ranks.  He has to deal with a veteran crew.  Dramatic, right?  A second arc has a National Security adviser (Linda Cordellini) working a theory that the situation might be part of a Russian coup to provoke a war.  She convinces the President to launch a third arc by sending a SEAL team into Russia to get good old eyes-on information.  The four-man team confirms that a rogue Russian general has captured the Russian President and is going to start a war.  The SEAL mission morphs into a rescue mission because that will get gunfire into a sub movie.  Meanwhile, Glass is having to navigate the usual sub movie waters that include command dysfunction with his exec, a sub duel, a sub rescue, mine evasion, and depth charging.

                There is nothing special about “Hunter Killer”.  It is what you would expect it to be.  It is what I call a kitchen sink movie. As in, the director throws everything in, including the kitchen sink, to awe the fourteen year-old boys in the audience.   Hell, he’s not content with making a submarine movie.  He also wants to make a special forces movie.  The scene where the SEALs rescue the Russian President is straight out of every special forces movie (and TV show).  The submarine scenes have all been done before, too.  One positive thing is the sub does not play host to the myriad of submarine clichés.  It does have the standard command dysfunction element.  There is a whiff of “Crimson Tide”, but in this case it’s the executive officer who is by the book.  Glass plays the Capt. Kirkish commander who goes with his gut instead of his orders.  Of course, his gut leads to success and success usually negates a court-martial.  (We’ll never know since I doubt there will be a sequel.)  Speaking of stereotypes, Jayne (Cordellini) has to butt heads with a war-mongering admiral (Gary Oldman).  By the way, why is Oldman wasting his time in this movie?  He certainly classes up the cast, but seriously…  I will say he doesn’t bring his A game, so he doesn’t overshadow the average acting going on around him.

                Cliches and stereotypes do not sink “Hunter Killer”.  It is also not torpedoed by poor effects.  That doesn’t mean they are cutting edge.  It just means they keep the underwater stuff dark enough to keep your head from shaking.  Well, I did smirk a bit as the sub maneuvered like a mouse in a maze.  But hell, it is a cinematic sub so they can avoid anything and go anywhere.  (If the exec had ever seen a sub movie, he would have been a lot less stressed.)  The big problem (if you demand your movies respect your intelligence) is that it gets progressively more ridiculous as it goes on.  It does not even bother to try to flesh out the scenario.  It just plunges from one action sequence to the next.  Glass announces their mission to find the USS Tampa Bay and suddenly, they are there.  Why bother with exposition, considering the intended audience?  By the end of the movie, I wasn’t shaking my head, I was face-palming.  Stick around for the scene where Glass’ gut has to depend on a Russian destroyer to save the Arkansas.  Speaking of which, the movie has some post-Cold War Russian villains (straight out of central casting), but it also has some heroic Russians. 

                Do I recommend it?  Not for a regular movie-goer.  And not if you are a discerning war movie fan.  It is entertaining in an unchallenging way and pushes the usual buttons of an action movie (with a pulse-pounding soundtrack).  If you don’t go see it (and if you do), it will be forgetten.  Bring on “Overlord”. 
                GRADE  =  C-

Saturday, October 27, 2018


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is this quote from?

"We see our role as essentially defensive in nature. While our armies are advancing so fast and everyone's knocking themselves out to be heroes, we are holding ourselves in reserve in case the Krauts mount a counteroffensive which threatens Paris... or maybe even New York. Then we can move in and stop them. But for 1.6 million dollars, we could become heroes for three days."

3.  What movie is this?

   The film was a big hit and was nominated for two Academy Awards –  Best Supporting Actor and Ben Hecht for Best Original Screenplay.  Leopoldine Konstantin made her only appearance in an American movie as the creepy mother.  She was actually only four years older than her son in the movie.  Another problem that the magic of movies handled was the son being several inches shorter than his wife.  This was overcome with ramps and elevator shoes so well that in the movie the hero and the villain appear to be the same height.  The use of uranium for an atomic bomb as the MacGuffin the plot supposedly got the director tailed by the FBI for a while.  The movie has a famous two and a half minute kissing scene which circumvented the Production Code rule of maximum of three seconds of lip-locking by having the couple nuzzle between smooches.  This actually works on film.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

CRACKER? Land and Freedom (1995)

                "Land and Freedom was directed by Ken Loach (“The Wind That Shakes the Barley”).  As usual, he is interested in political and social commentary.  In this case, he takes on the Spanish Civil War.  His protagonist is a communist who travels to Spain to help create a better society.  The movie was critically acclaimed and was awarded the FIPRESCI International Critics Prize and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival.  The story is similar to George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.  Orwell participated in the civil war as part of POUM.

                The movie is told in flashback as the granddaughter of David Carr (Ian Hart) looks through his mementos after he dies.  She discovers that he participated in the Spanish Civil War.  Carr was a British communist who decided to travel to Spain to join the rebels against Franco’s fascists.  He joins a unit of the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM).  The squad is a mixture of genders and nationalities.  He quickly bonds with his mates as they all share a hard-core belief in Trotsky’s version of communism.  The situation is complicated because POUM is at odds with the Soviet-supported communists who are opposed to the radical social revolution that POUM wants.  In the best scene, after the realistically gritty capture of a village, the villagers debate whether to collectivize the land.  The villagers are played by actual villagers from the location.  Later, the squad debates whether to join the popular army with its resources, or remain pure.  Carr bonds with his mates as they deal with the frustrations of a losing cause.  He falls in love with one of the women.  The movie does a great job depicting the confusion of a civil war.  There is a scene where Carr is on a rooftop across from the other communist faction and he wonders why they are fighting each other.  This happens after Carr had switched sides.

                “Land and Freedom” is an interesting movie, but it requires some effort on the part of the viewer.  It is a movie for intellectuals.  Subtitles are rare and you have to figure out the villager collectivization debate on your own.  Thankfully, Carr speaks English so you do get to rest a bit.  Carr is an intriguing and inspirational figure.  He represents the naivete of many revolutionaries.  The framing device is effective because we see his experiences and learn along with his granddaughter about the situation he put himself in.  His naivete and humaneness sets him apart from most cinematic rebels who are hardened and Machiavellian.  The other characters are appealing.  They all share Carr’s sincere belief in the cause.  Carr develops a relationship with one of the women, but the arc is not predictable. The unit is not dysfunctional.  However, they do debate a lot.  It is definitely a dialogue-driven movie.  Unfortunately, without the subtitles, it can sometimes be difficult to figure out what they are saying.  The movie can be a bit confusing.  It could have been worse because at least it does not try to give us the big picture. Just go with the flow and stick around for some nifty action scenes.  Civil wars can be messy and this is clear from the movie.  For instance, a priest is executed.

                “Land and Freedom” is not based on a true story, but it does get the factionalism of the war accurate.  Aragon was a region that was divided between the fascists and republicans.  The fighting was basically guerrilla warfare.  The republicans were divided into factions with POUM being one of them.  In 1937, the government-backed Stalinists did take on POUM in Barcelona.  POUM was driven underground after this.

                “Land and Freedom” is one of the better Spanish Civil War movies.  You should see at least one, but you might want to start with one that is not selectively subtitled.  Try “For Whom the Bell Tolls” to get your feet wet.



Wednesday, October 17, 2018


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is this quote from?

"What is your major malfunction?"

3.  What movie is this?

“From Here to Eternity” 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.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

CRACKER? Attack on Leningrad (2009)

                Leningrad underwent a three year siege by the German army in WWII.  The citizens underwent terrible hardships during the siege.  But worse is what happened to a blond female journalist, apparently.  The movie was directed and written by Aleksandr Buravskiy.  It was a Russian/British production.  It is not based on a true story.

                The movie begins in September, 1941 which is when the siege began.  A battle scene has raw recruits arriving at the front line trenches in the middle of a battle.  They charge into no man’s land and a melee ensues.  The set is realistic, the wounds are graphic, and the action is pretty intense.  Hitler complains to Gen. Von Loeb that Leningrad is not falling quick enough.  But this is not going to be a movie about command decisions or combat between the armies.  It is going to be about a news reporter stuck in Leningrad.

                Katie Davis (Mila Sorvino) gets left behind when her flight takes the other journalists out of the danger zone.  She gets caught in a CGI bombing raid.  The effects are poor and it is a silly scene.  This is our first inkling that we are watching another Miro Sorvino direct-to-video effort.  What happened to this woman’s career?
                Katie is saved by a spunky Soviet policewoman named Nina (Olga Sutulova).  Nina puts up Katie with her family which includes her chess prodigy brother.  Katie and Nina bond in an excruciating scene.  The dialogue is horrible and the acting is atrocious.  A subplot develops when Nina finds out that Katie is the daughter of a traitorous Russian general.  Dilemma time.  Meanwhile, for balance, Von Loeb’s nephew is refusing to fly bombing raids against civilians.  He persists even after his uncle points out that the CGI fighters are not actually carrying the bombs they drop (like every fighter that drops bombs in war movies).  Nina helps open up the lake road that provides a supply line for the Soviets.  She might be able to get Nina out that way.  Unless this is a movie filled with stupidity.

                “Attack on Leningrad” is a terrible movie.  You would think you could set a drama in the siege and create some human interest and entertainment.  Buravskiy is not capable of doing that.  There is some taste of how hard the situation was for the civilians, but not enough.  Instead, we are supposed to be concerned for a journalist.  It doesn’t help that the journalist is played by recent Sorvino.  Gabriel Byrne does not cover himself in glory either.  The movie is just flat-out embarrassing.  For that reason, it is depressing, but not because of what the characters go through.  It is depressing that I sat through it.  It’s not often that I beg for a war movie to end.  This was one of those cases.

               P.S.  Check out the ridiculous poster!  Would you pay money to see that movie?

GRADE  =  F-