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

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

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

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