Wednesday, September 18, 2019

CONSENSUS #59 The African Queen

SYNOPSIS: During WWI in Africa, a feisty missionary (Katharine Hepburn)  and a crusty riverboat captain (Humphrey Bogart) team up to try to sink a German warship.  Romance and adventures ensue as they encounter rapids and an uncooperative Mother Nature on their trek down the river.

BACK-STORY: The African Queen had one of the most famous productions in cinema history. Director John Huston insisted on filming half the movie on location in Uganda and the Congo.  The Katharine Hepburn later wrote of enjoying the experience, but had to overcome dysentery, drunken pranks from Bogart and Huston, and Hustons unique directing style. (Clint Eastwood later made a film about the production entitled White Hunter Black Heart.) The movie was a big hit with audiences and critics. It turned out the suits that thought an action / romance about an older couple would be icky were wrong. Bogart won the Best Actor Oscar and the film was nominated for Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Actress. In the most recent AFI ranking of the best movies it placed #65.

TRIVIA:  Wikipedia, imdb, making of documentary
 1.  It is based on a novel by C.S. Forester. 
2.  It has a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.
3.  Allnut was supposed to have a cockney accent, but Bogart could not pull it off so the character wasmade a Canadian. 
4.  The boat is now a tourist attraction in Key Largo, Florida.
5.  Bogart won his only Best Actor Oscar.  (Bogart was so sure he would not win he did not prepare remarks.) 
6.  The cast and crew were often sick in Africa (usually from dysentery from the water), but not Bogart and Huston because the only water they drank was with their copious amounts of scotch.  Teetotaler Hepburn had to make runs to puke in a waiting bucket during the church scene.
7.  Lauren Bacall accompanied her husband Bogart of Africa and served as movie mom for the cast and crew.  She nursed and cooked. 
8.  For the rapids scene, an eight foot model was used. 
9.  Huston was concerned about the overly serious tone of Hepburn’s performance so he counseled her to channel Eleanor Roosevelt, specifically her “society smile”.  Hepburn later said it was the best advice she ever got from a director.
10.  Bogart hated Africa, Hepburn loved it.
11.  Originally when the book was mentioned as a potential movie, Bette Davis and David Niven were considered for the leads.  Later, it was going to be Davis and James Mason.
12.  Huston was going to go on location in Kenya until he learned that big game hunting was illegal there.  He switched to the Congo.  Huston spent a lot of time hunting during the shoot. 
13.  Bogart and Huston played numerous pranks on the prim Hepburn.  They would write dirty words on her mirror with soap.
14.  All of the scenes with the actors in the water were shot in Great Britain because the water in Africa was dangerous.
15.  Distributors hated their first look.  They complained about Bogart’s unshaven look and thought Hepburn looked old.
16.  The novel White Hunter, Black Heart by Peter Viertel was a thinly veiled story about the making of “The African Queen”.  Viertel was one of the screenwriters on the film.  Later, Clint Eastwood directed the movie version and played the Huston character.

Belle and Blade  =  N/A
Brassey’s              =  4.0
Video Hound       =  N/A
War Movies         =  5.0
Military History  =  #32
Channel 4             =  no
Film Site                =  yes
101 War Movies  =  no
Rotten Tomatoes  =  no 

OPINION:   “The African Queen” is one of the classic movies of any genre.  While not 
definitively a war movie (as you can see above), it seems well-placed at #59.  I personallywould not have it in my top 100.  It is old fashioned entertainment. It’s an almost perfectblend of adventure and romance. There is suspense in each of travails they go throughand it builds to a surprising and satisfying ending (which is much better than in the novel).Although a little stodgy, the plot holds up better than some other supposed classics.The acting by the two leads could not be better. This is probably Bogart’s best performanceand Hepburn matches him.

Monday, September 16, 2019


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is this quote from?

By the authority vested in me by Kaiser William the Second I pronounce you man and wife - proceed with the execution. 

3.  What movie is this?

It was released in 1993 and immediately took a position among the great movies of any genre.   Modestly, the director tried to convince Martin Scorsese, Roman Polanski, and Billy Wilder to direct the pic, but for various reasons they turned him down.  He refused to make any “blood money” for the film.  The movie is based on the novel by Thomas Keneally.  The movie was shot on location in Krakow, Poland.  The film won numerous awards.  It was awarded Oscars for Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction, Editing, and Original Score.  It was the most expensive black and white film made up to then (topping “The Longest Day”).  It had been 33 years since a black and white movie had won Best Picture (“The Apartment”).  It is #8 on AFIs latest list of greatest American motion pictures.  (That was up from #9 from the original list.)  It was #3 on its Epic Films list.  Goth was #13 on its Villains list.  The movie cost $22 million and made $96 million at home and $225 million abroad.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

SHOULD I READ IT? Under the Flag of the Rising Sun (1972)

                        “Under the Flag of the Rising Sun” is a Japanese WWII film by Kinji Fukasaku.  It was Japan’s nominee for Best Foreign Film for the 45th Academy Awards, but it did not make the cut.  It should have.  It came out in the 1970s when it was possible to criticize the war and the emperor.  It opens with “Our military has always served at the discretion of the Emperor”.  By the end of the movie, you’ll be wondering why.  This is followed by footage of the Emperor giving a speech and laying a wreath to honor the dead.  But there is no honor for Sgt. Katsuo Togashi (Tetsuro Tamba) because he deserted on New Guinea and was executed for it in August, 1945.  Because of his dishonor, his widow Sakie (Sachko Hidari) cannot get survivor’s benefits.  She believes he was innocent and to prove it she determines to seek out four of his comrades.  The movie follows her odyssey to find the truth.  As she interviews each veteran, flashbacks support their stories.  Those stories are sometimes contradictory, however.  The mystery deepens.  Was Togashi a hero or a traitor?

                        The film bears the stamp of Fukasaku.  He was an early practitioner of the shaky camera style.  The cinematography is intriguing.  There are some hand-held camera-work and quick cut editing.  Most interestingly, Fukasaku uses freeze-frames.  He inserts photos instead of footage.  Some of the pictures are gruesome.  They reflect the experiences of the Japanese soldiers.  The horrific vibe is not limited to the photos as there are scenes of extreme violence.  Since the flashbacks are set in the last months of the war, the hardships the Japanese soldiers encounter are realistically appalling.  You will definitely come out of this movie with more empathy for the common Japanese soldier.  And Japanese viewers in 1972 learned that not all of their warriors were fanatics.    What Togashi and his mates go through is reminiscent of “Fires on the Plains” and the movie makes a good companion to that movie.  For instance, there is a reference to cannibalism in this movie.  Just don’t watch them back-to-back.  That would be too depressing. 

                        “Under the Flag of the Rising Sun” is the rare war mystery.  It has a touch of “Rashomon” in it.  The men Sakie tracks down offer contradictory and self-serving versions of what happened to her husband.  One of her interviewees thinks her husband was executed for stealing potatoes.  This makes the final result unpredictable.  And that makes the movie very entertaining.  The acting is stellar and the characters are indelible.    I hesitate to deem it great, but it is certainly a must-see for serious war movie fans.

GRADE  =  B+

Thursday, September 12, 2019

CONSENSUS #60. Kagemusha (1980)

SYNOPSIS: Kagemusha means shadow warrior and refers to the practice of some Japanese daimyo of having doubles for security. The movie is set in the same Sengoku (Warring States) period that The Seven Samurai was set in. A shogun wannabe has a double who is a petty thief. When the daimyo (Tatsuya Nakadai, who also plays the thief) is assassinated, the kagemusha takes his place and has to deal with two lords who are at war with him.  The movie climaxes in an epic battle.

BACK-STORY: Many feel that Kagemusha is Akira Kurosawas greatest masterpiece. He certainly meant for it to be. He got the idea for a samurai epic years before but career setbacks (like being fired from Tora! Tora! Tora!) and funding issues set things back and the film almost did not get made.  It ended up being the biggest budget Japanese movie up until then.  It was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (losing to “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears”). Kurosawa won the BAFTA for Direction.  It won the Palme D’Or at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival.

TRIVIA:  Wikipedia, imdb

1.  It is an example of a genre called “jidaigeki”.  These are period films set in the Edo Period (1603-1868).  These types of movies usually concentrated on the lives of samurai, farmers, craftsmen, and merchants.  A subgenre is called “chambara” which means “sword fight”.  Movies like “Kagemusha” have similar make-up, language, catch phrases (e.g., “Fires and brawls are the flower of Edo”) and plotlines.
2.  Technically, “Kagemusha” is pre-Edo, but it certainly fits the genre.

3.  George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola were credited as executive producers because when Toho Studios could not finish the funding for the film, they convinced 20th Century Fox to put up the rest of the money.  Lucas and Coppola were big Kurosawa fans and were blown away by his personally painted story-boards for the film.  20th Century Fox got the international distribution rights, which was the first time an American studio distributed a Japanese film.

4.  Part of the expense for the movie was Kurosawa bringing in two hundred specially trained horses from America.  Many of the horses were ridden by expert female riders.

5.  Originally Shintaro Katsu was to play the main role, but he was fired when he showed up on set with a camera crew to film Kurosawa’s methods for a film class he taught.  Kurosawa brought in Nakadai because he had worked with him many times.  Nakadai took the role without even reading the script.

6.  Kurosawa used 5,000 extras in the final battle.

7.  Much of the costumes and armor were borrowed from museums.

8.  The final battle is the Battle of Nagashino (1575).

9.  No female appears in the movie until the 73rd minute.

Belle and Blade  =  N/A
Brassey’s              =  4.0
Video Hound       =  N/A
War Movies         =  N/A
Military History  =  #34
Channel 4             =  no
Film Site                =  no
101 War Movies  =  yes
Rotten Tomatoes  =   no

CONCLUSION: Not being an American director or professional movie critic, I feel I can impartially rule that Kagemusha is overrated. I can see why they fawn over it, but as an average viewer it is too long and boring. There is way too much talking (and yelling) and not enough action. There are big buildups to the battles and then little pay-off. Even the final battle is brief. It does not belong on this list and is inferior to Seven Samurai (which did not make the list).

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

BOOK / MOVIE: Regeneration (1991 / 1997)

       Regeneration was the first in a trilogy by British author Pat Barker.  The other two novels, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road, continue the stories of Rivers, Prior, and Sassoon.  The trilogy is firmly in the WWI novel tradition of “war is hell!”  It deals with trauma and recovery.  What better war than the Great War for that?  Barker was inspired by the experiences of her step-grandfather who was wounded in the war and never talked about it.  The seed of the story came from her neurologist husband’s interest in psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers.  The book’s title is a reference to Rivers’ pioneering work in nerve regeneration, but the story concentrates on his work with “shell shock” victims.  Rivers works at Craiglockhart hospital which before the war was a hydropathic (water therapy) institute.  From 1916-1919 it was turned into a psychiatric hospital and Rivers became the most famous doctor there.  Barker decided to blend actual historical figures into the fictional narrative.  Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon were famous poets whose experiences in the war inspired great poetry.  Barker used their poetry and eyewitness accounts to enhance authenticity.  I must credit Barker with making an enlightened decision to write a book that combines shell shock treatment with real life figures.  Using Sassoon’s anti-war stance as the focal point was pure brilliance.  And, although a work of fiction, the novel is amazingly accurate.

                The book opens with Sassoon’s “Finished with the War:  A Soldier’s Declaration” which was an open letter condemning the war as a war of aggression.  Rather than a messy court-martial, Sassoon’s friend Robert Graves (another poet) convinces a government board to assign him to Craiglockhart as a mental case, thus discrediting his screed.  Rivers is given the case and feels it is his duty to return Sassoon to the front.  Sassoon makes the acquaintance of Owens and becomes something of a mentor to him.  Sassoon (who was already a famous poet) gets Owens to use, instead of ignore, his war experiences to inspire his poetry.  Owen comes to realize that writing can be “like exorcism”.  Barker created the fictional character Billy Prior as an antagonist to Rivers’ talk therapy.  At first, he is suffering from mutism and amnesia, but Rivers goads him into talking again.  Prior is a difficult patient, although he does want to return to the war because it is the proper British thing to do.  He had not been at the front long enough to “join the club”.   “[British men] had been trained to identify emotional repression, as the essence of manliness.  Men who broke down, or cried, or admitted to feeling fear, were sissies, weaklings, failures.  Not men.”  In his sessions with Rivers, Prior uses Rivers’ own PTSD as leverage.  Rivers is clearly traumatized by his duty of “curing” men so they can be sent back to the reason for the cure.  Returning the damaged to be damaged.  “Rivers was aware, as a constant background to his work, of a conflict between his belief that the war must be fought to the finish, for the sake of the succeeding generations, and his horror that such events as those which had led to Burns’ breakdown should be allowed to continue.”  Prior is given a fictional girlfriend.  Sarah is a munitions worker.  “Men said they didn’t tell their women about France because they didn’t want to worry them.  But it was more than that.  He needed her ignorance to hide in.”  Some of the other patients include Burns (based on an actual patient), who cannot eat food without remembering being thrown by an explosion to land face first into a rotting corpse’s stomach.  Burns gets his own storyline, but the novel is really about Rivers/Sassoon, Sassoon/Owens, and Rivers/Prior.  The main thread being Sassoon’s arc toward the medical board that will determine whether he will return to combat.  In the end, honor trumps common sense and the survival instinct.

                The movie follows the book closely, but streamlines the plot by eliminating some scenes.  It wisely adds combat scenes to emphasize the horrors that brought on the shell shock.  (Thankfully, we don’t have to see the reason for Burns’ trauma.)  These are done in the recent visceral cinematography of war films and balance the otherwise dialogue-focused events of the hospital.  For instance, the movie opens with an aerial view of no man’s land, whereas the book opens with Sassoon’s letter.  The movie, strangely, does not give the audience the full text of the letter.  It cuts the scene where Graves explains to Rivers the Sassoon situation and gives him some of his poems.  The movie, being British, makes the assumption the audience is already familiar with Graves, Sassoon, and Owens.  This, of course, does not apply to American audiences and might explain the movies tepid reception in the States (where it bizarrely was renamed “Behind the Lines” – a double-meaning that was meaningless to most). 

                In the novel, Barker is able to flesh out the stories of Rivers, Sassoon, Owens, Prior, and Burns.  Burns is virtually left out of the movie.  The movie leads off with Owens finding Burns naked in the woods amongst dead animals.  This scene was inspired by a sequence in the novel where Burns goes off in a bus, gets off, goes in some woods, and finds a tree with dead animals hanging in it.  He then undresses, but later reclads himself and returns on his own.  In the book, Rivers approves the release of Burns when clearly he is not stable.  Rivers visits him and finds him to be on the brink of another breakdown.  Rivers reaches this brink himself and gets a job with the Royal Flying Corps before Sassoon leaves.  He returns for Sassoon’s board.  The scene with Doctor Yealland (a real historical figure) takes place after Rivers leaves Craiglockhart and is well-depicted in the movie.  The visit to Yealland is better placed in the book because it comes after Rivers has left his patients and is questioning his own methods.  The Prior/Sarah romance is given more coverage in the book.  You get more of the roller-coaster ride that a relationship with Prior would involve.   For closure, the movie throws in Sassoon being wounded when he returns to the front (which actually happened) and the corpse of Owens.  I assume Barker left this for the second book of the trilogy.

                As you would expect, reading the novel will give you more perspective on why the patients, and Rivers, behave the way they do.  You get more of their back-stories.  For instance, you find out that Prior’s breakdown came when he picked up a severed eye.  Barker makes Rivers into something of a patient himself, the movie only alludes to this.  The novel’s Rivers has more of a stammer (which was a bit of literary manipulation as he stuttered since childhood) and has nightmares.  The movie has to streamline the dialogue so the book has longer and more satisfying sessions between Rivers and his patients.  On the other hand, the screenwriters were able to trim some of the flab from the book. For example, the movie eliminates Rivers’ awkward visit with the “cured” Burns.  Unfortunately, for people hoping to learn more about the poetry of Owens and Sassoon and the process that brought it about, the movie does not have time to delve into that.  Literary history takes a back seat to the history of trauma therapy.  Mores the pity.

                In conclusion, I had a hard time choosing between the book and the movie.  But, then again, one does not have to choose.  As is my policy, I recommend watching the movie first and then reading the book.  This usually works out well for me.  In this case, the movie is very well done and faithful to the book.  The cast is excellent in embodying the characters from the book.  The screenwriter, Allan Scott, has delivered more than just a Cliff Notes version of the book.  He retains a lot of the dialogue and most of the scenes.  His deletions make cinematic sense.  If you are not into reading, the movie is certainly an acceptable way to learn the remarkable story of Rivers, et al.  I beg you to follow up the movie with some reading of the poetry of Graves, Sassoon, and Owens.  Here is Owens’ “Anthem for Dying Youth” (which Owens and Sassoon discuss in the movie and tinker with in the book): 

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
      — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
      Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; 
      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
      And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
      The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

CONSENSUS #61. Tora! Tora! Tora!

SYNOPSIS:  “Tora! Tora! Tora!” is the story of the attack on Pearl Harbor told from both points of view.  It is mainly the command perspective, but it does culminate in an exciting reenactment of the attack with real aircraft.  The movie covers the months leading up to the attack, so you get both the military and political machinations.  It has a docudrama feel to it with an ensemble cast that portrays mostly historical characters.  Spoiler alert:  the Japanese win. 

BACK-STORY:    It had three directors:  Robert Fleischer (“The Vikings”), Toshia Masuda, and Kinji Fukasaku (“Under the Flag of the Rising Sun”).  It was based on books by Ladislas Farago and Gordon Prange (At Dawn We Slept).  Five B-17s, two P-40 Warhawks and a PBY Catalina were available for the production.  The Japanese Zeros, Kates, and Vals were played by modified A-6 Texans and BT-13 Valiants.  Full scale mock-ups of the battleship Nagato and the aircraft carrier Akagi were built on the shore with ninety feet extending over the water.   The movie won the Oscar for Best Special Effects and was nominated for Art Direction, Cinematography, Film Editing, and Sound.  The movie was a flop at the box office in America, but a big hit in Japan.

TRIVIA:  Wikipedia, imdb, TCM
 1.  The Japanese word “tora” means either “surprise achieved”, “attack”, or “tiger”.
 2.  Darryl F. Zanuck wanted to recreate the success of his “The Longest Day”.  He also wanted to offer a revisionist view of the attack.  Specifically, he was interested in refuting the belief that Admiral Kimmel and Gen. Short were to blame for the debacle.
3.  The movie was a joint Japanese-American production.  Akiro Kurosawa was the original Japanese director, but his style did not fit an American blockbuster and he chaffed at the suits looking over his shoulder.  The suits chaffed at his slow and costly production methods.  Some think he was so miserable with the situation that he purposely aggravated the studio into firing him.  After working on the film for two years, he was fired two weeks into filming.  Only about one minute of his work made it into the film.
4.  The casting director was told to eschew big stars so the story would be the focus. 
5.  A B-17 was forced to make a crash landing because of a jammed landing gear.  With a heads up on the situation, cameras were set up and it made it onto the screen. 
6.  At one point over 30 aircraft were in the air. 
7.  The main technical adviser was historian Gordon Prange who wrote “At Dawn We Slept” (entitled “Tora, Tora, Tora” in Japan).  He had a lot of say on the script. 
8.  The U.S. Navy allowed a lot of personnel to participate off-duty.  This caused some complaints from some Americans who still held a grudge over the attack.
9.  The film credited 224 actors – 137 Americans + 87 Japanese.

Belle and Blade  =  4.0
Brassey’s              =  4.0
Video Hound       =  3.8
War Movies         =  N/A
Military History  =  no
Channel 4             =  #39
Film Site                =  no
101 War Movies  =  yes
Rotten Tomatoes  =  no

OPINION:  I do not understand the lack of love this movie got from critics.  Yes, it is not splashy entertainment, but it is as accurate as you could expect and it is not a stale documentary.  Along with “The Longest Day”, it is the best battle movie when it comes to giving fair treatment to both sides.  It has some of the best air combat footage and this without CGI.  The fact that it was a box office flop and “Pearl Harbor” wasn’t tells you a lot about what the American public wants when it comes to historical movies.   As you can see above, it is not included in three of the five expert lists.  That is a head-scratcher.  Thankfully, it is fairly treated on this consensus list.

Monday, September 2, 2019

History Anecdotes for Teachers


          I recently started a web site entitled "History Anecdotes for Teachers".  I taught American History and Western Civilization for decades and one reason I retired was to leave a legacy.  Over the years I collected a lot of stories and trivia to make my courses more interesting.  And to give me something to look forward to each school day.  I love telling historical anecdotes and found them effective in making history less boring for my students.  Through the web site I will pass on all the stories I have accumulated over the years.  And I am still looking for new ones to add.  I have included a section on "Today in History" which has facts, trivia, and birthdays to encourage people to visit daily (or just on your birthday).  

          I know most of the people who visit this blog are not history teachers, but some of you might be history buffs or simply like interesting stories.  I would love for you to check out the site and let me know what you think.   

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

CONSENSUS #62 - Battleship Potemkin (1925)

SYNOPSIS: "Battleship Potemkin" is a Russian silent film about the crew of a battleship during the Revolution of 1905. The sailors revolt due to mistreatment while in the port of Odessa. The citizens of Odessa back the men, but the government forces are prepared to quell the rebellion.

BACK-STORY: Battleship Potemkin 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 Einsteins 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.

TRIVIA:  Wikipedia, imdb
1.  The movie was rushed to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Revolution of 1905.

2.  Eisenstein used lots of non-professional actors.  He was more interested in “types” of persons.

3.  The original script called for several episodes, but due to time pressure, Eisenstein pared it down to basically the uprising on the battleship.

4.  The movie was banned in the United Kingdom longer than any other film in British history.  It was not screened until 1954.

5.  There was no massacre on the Odessa Steps, but troops did shoot into crowds in Odessa.

6.  It was Charlie Chaplin’s favorite movie.

7.  Brian DePalma reenacted the Odessa Steps Massacre scene in his movie “The Untouchables”.

8.  Eisenstein used a battleship that had been beached to mark a sand bank.  This is why you do not see the movie ship from a distance.

Belle and Blade  =  N/A
Brassey’s              =  5.0
Video Hound       =  4.4
War Movies         =  N/A 
Military History  =  #47
Channel 4             =  no
Film Site                =  yes
101 War Movies  =  no
Rotten Tomatoes  =  no

OPINION: Once again we have a movie that is obviously one of the greatest war movies, but not necessarily one of the best. It is interesting and does a good job covering an important historical event. It is very influential and is still studied. This influence has been basically on films in general, not particularly on war movies, however.  It is a classic that holds up well. You do not have to be a film historian to recognize the brilliance of Einsteins direction. His innovations of montages and cross-cutting are apparent in their importance to the evolution of movie-making. The staircase scene alone is worth the price of admission.  Since this is a list of the “greatest” war movies, I would say it is appropriately ranked at #62.

Saturday, August 24, 2019


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is this quote from?

This isn't a hospital! It's an insane asylum, and it's your fault!

3.  What movie is this?

It had one of the most famous productions in cinema history.  The director insisted on filming half the movie on location in Uganda and the Congo.  The production was beset by climate, critters, and diseases.  Virtually the entire cast and crew suffered with the notable exceptions of the director and the male star  who inoculated themselves with copious amounts of alcohol.  The teetotaler female lead later wrote of enjoying the experience, but had to overcome dysentery, drunken pranks from the other two, and the director’s unique directing style.  (Clint Eastwood later made a film about the production entitled “White Hunter Black Heart”.)  The movie was a big hit with audiences and critics.  It turned out the suits that dismissed an action / romance about an older couple would be icky were wrong.  The male lead won his only Oscar and the film was nominated for Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Actress.  IN the most recent AFI ranking of the best movies it placed #65.


Sunday, August 18, 2019

CRACKER? The Gallant Hours (1960)

                        I waited for years to see this movie and finally it appeared on TCM's recent orgy of war movies.  I had read that it is a possible best 100 movie.  “The Gallant Hours” was a joint project by Robert Montgomery and James Cagney.  The close friends had been looking for a movie to make together.  Montgomery had served under Admiral William Halsey in the Pacific and got the idea for a movie about him when he attended Halsey’s 75th birthday party in 1957.  Cagney agreed to come out of retirement to play Halsey and he and Montgomery co-produced the film.  Montgomery directed, it was his last film.  The screenplay was written by Frank Gilroy and Beirne Lay, Jr (“12 O’Clock High”).  Halsey was given 10% of the profits.  He was interviewed twice by Cagney (who also interviewed many of Halsey’s staff).  Cagney made the decision to not try to copy Halsey’s mannerisms, but when Halsey and his son visited the set, the son remarked that Cagney looked just like his father did in 1942.  Cagney later said it was his most difficult role.  The movie was a moderate box office success.  Sadly, Halsey died in 1959 before he could see the film.

                        It opens impressively with a choir singing “Away He Went”. That would be a good title for Halsey’s performance in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, but this movie covers five weeks in 1942 during the Guadalcanal campaign.  The framing device is Halsey’s retirement as a five star admiral in 1945.  From there we flash back to October 16, 1942.  Halsey and members of his staff, including Lt. Commander Lowe (Dennis Weaver), are on a trip by PBY to Guadalcanal.  Halsey has a hunch and diverts to Noumea.  Good thing because Yamamoto (James Goto, who also served as a technical adviser) has sent Zeros to intercept.  At Noumea, Halsey receives order from Nimitz to relieve Adm. Ghormley as commander of forces in the South Pacific.  Halsey is old friends with Ghormley and it is an uncomfortable meeting.  Halsey is modest and understanding.  “You didn’t do anything wrong.  I’m gonna get credit for what you started”.  Halsey may have believed that, but historians don’t.  Halsey meets with all his subordinate commanders and the movie drops a lot of names, if you are familiar with the war in the Pacific.  He takes charge and visits Guadalcanal.  It is a big morale boost as Halsey is a very popular leader.  The Marines love his aggressive spirit (“Strike, repeat, strike!”) and the Navy was desperately in need of a fighter.  He talks to various Marines on the island, including ace Joe Foss, Chaplain Frederic Gehring, and future Yamamoto assassin Thomas Lanphier.  Two of the Marines are the sons of Cagney and Montgomery in uncredited roles.  The movie covers Halsey’s decision making through the next five weeks.  This encompasses the naval Battles of Santa Cruz and Guadalcanal.  It concludes with the shooting down of Halsey.  There are ups and downs, but Halsey is imperturbable.  He’s bothered more by having to get injections than the crisis he is dealing with.   In the end, we win and Halsey’s reputation is not tarnished by some of his questionable decisions later in the war.  He retires with no mention of these.

                        “The Gallant Hours” is not your standard biopic because it covers such a limited amount of Halsey’s life.  However, it is certainly about him.  In fact, although a war movie, there is no combat in it.  We get background and aftermath only for the two naval battles and the mission to kill Yamamoto.  The lack of action is made up for by some unusual features.  As each historical figure is introduced, a narrator (Montgomery) gives us a little mini-biography.  Some of the information is amusingly trivial.  Did you know Halsey “once owned a parrot”?  These identifications include the Japanese characters, like Yamamoto.  We even find out who a corpse was!  The Japanese were brave, too.  The movie intercuts between Halsey and his crew and Yamamoto and his.  The Japanese are not subtitled, but the narrator summarizes what they say.  There is a lot of narration in this movie, possibly a record for a war movie.   As to be expected for a 1960 Pacific war movie, the Japanese are portrayed as worthy adversaries.  Something that Halsey never acknowledged, by the way.

                        If you are a Halsey fan you will not be disappointed, there is nothing controversial in the movie.  In fact, there are no warts on anyone, including the Japanese.  Cagney plays Halsey well, but you don’t get the impression that he could be Pattonesque.  However, kudos to the film for erring in the right direction as Halsey was actually a modest man who was not out for glory, but did know how to give aggressive quotes to the press.  Tellingly, the script leaves out his famous reaction to getting Ghormley’s job:  “Jesus Christ and General Jackson!  This is the hottest potato they ever handed me.”   The rest of the cast is fine, with lots of familiar faces including Richard Jaeckel, naturally.  Dennis Weaver was second-billed and it was his first big movie splash.  He had won an Emmy the year before for “Gunsmoke”.  He is excellent as the wolf (since Halsey could not be portrayed in that role, although it would have fit him and earned him his nickname “Bull”).  Montgomery does a good job at directing and has some verve to his compositions, but this is balanced by the overly choral music.

                        The movie is admirably accurate (see below), with one major chronology license.  It is a good semi-documentary on command decisions on the American side (not so much in the Japanese scenes), but you’ll learn little about what actually happened in the two battles and the shoot down.  Cagney/Montgomery productions must not have been able to afford the models.  

                        Will it crack my 100 Best War Movies list?  No.  It was a disappointment because it sugarcoats the controversial Halsey.  I'll be truthful in admitting I am not a Halsey fan and find him overrated.  You can see some of the reason for this inflated reputation based on this movie.  It highlights one of his greatest moments in the war and gives no hint of some of his mistakes.  Surprisingly, it does not give a hint at another reason why he was overrated - his relationship with the press.  A main factor in his fame was his quote-worthiness which caused the press to lionize him.  The movie presents a rather boring Halsey.  With that said, the movie is entertaining if you consider the fact that it was made before Hollywood could do a realistic portrayal of a controversial figure.  It is not fair to compare it to "Patton".  It deserves some credit for being different with its lack of combat and the unusual narration.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  I found no evidence that Halsey was on a PBY trip to Guadalcanal when he diverted to Noumea.  It is highly unlikely Yamamoto tried to shoot him down.  This was most likely a clumsy attempt to foreshadow the mission against Yamamoto.  In fact, Nimitz had sent Halsey to Noumea because he had himself visited Guadalcanal (which Ghormley never did) and had decided to relieve him.  When Halsey arrived at Noumea, he was met with the orders to relieve Ghormley.  They were good friends and the changeover was appropriately awkward.  I imagine Halsey had kind words for his friend, but Ghormley had done a bad job and was suffering from defeatism.  They may have been old friends, but Halsey’s command style was almost the opposite of Ghormley.  Nimitz certainly made the right decision.  The movie mentions, but does not depict the crisis on Guadalcanal.  The critters, the diseases, the lack of supplies (partly because of the cautious policies of Ghormley), the Tokyo Express (a visit from whom Halsey experiences on his first night on the island), and the lack of naval support.  Halsey did promise Gen. Vandegrift everything he requested and delivered as best he could.  He did divert an army unit from another mission without approval.  The trip to Guadalcanal actually happened after the Battle of Santa Cruz.  The visit was probably enhance with the encounters with Foss and Lanphier, but he did talk to many Marines and made a very positive impression.  The movie correctly describes Santa Cruz as a tactical defeat, but as Halsey argued it was a strategic win because it blunted a Japanese attempt to reinforce Guadalcanal.  The movie implies Halsey sent Admirals Scott and Calahan to intercept a Japanese fleet, leading to the naval Battle of Guadalcanal in which they were both killed.  Actually, Admiral Turner ordered them to be aggressive.  Surprisingly, for a movie obsessed with identifying even corpses, Scott and Calahan are not identified when they meet with Halsey.  Halsey did send a star to each of their wives.  The movie mentions the sinking of the battleship Kirishima as a post script to indicate Halsey had won the campaign.  In reality, the sinking occurred on the second day of the Battle of Guadalcanal.  Squeezed in between the two days (and months out of order) comes the Yamamoto mission, which was in April, 1943.  In the movie, Halsey finds out about Yamamoto’s trip because the Japanese code has just been broken, when it actually had been broken before Midway.  I can not criticize the movie for having Lanphier as the assassin when he was given credit at the time and still was believed to be in 1960.  In turns out, there is a stronger case to be made for Rex Barker, who does not appear in the movie.  As far as Halsey’s personality, Cagney gives a one-dimensional portrayal.  He gets the modesty right and the charismatic leadership, but the movie omits his Pattonesque bluster for the press.  When asked about his strategy, he famously said “Kill Japs, kill Japs, and keep on killing Japs”.  On the other hand, he allowed for his men to dispense with ties in the tropical heat.  It’s these contradictions that make Halsey a prime candidate for a full-scale biopic.  He and MacArthur are the two closest personalities to Patton in the Pacific.  Of course, that type of warts and all flick could not have been made in 1960.  Certainly not with Navy and Halsey’s approval.

GRADE  =  B-