Friday, March 29, 2019

CONSENSUS #80. Twelve O’Clock High

SYNOPSIS: "Twelve O'Clock High" is an aerial combat film centering on the American daylight bombing campaign of WWII in Europe. The commander of a hard luck B-17 squadron is fired because he is too sympathetic about the nearly suicidal demands made on his air crews. His replacement  (Gregory Peck) believes tough discipline and success in bombing raids will build the morale of the unit. It's rough going as the airmen react with a virtual mutiny.

BACK-STORY: Twelve OClock High is a war movie dedicated to American bomber crews and command in England in 1942. It is based on the novel by Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay, Jr. It was made with the full cooperation of the Air Force which provided several B-17s and combat footage including from the Luftwaffe. The movie was a hit with the critics and won two Academy Awards (Jagger for Best Supporting Actor and Best Sound Recording) and was nominated for two others (Best Picture and Peck for Actor). It takes its name from the slang for enemy fighters being spotted above and straight ahead.

TRIVIA:  Classic Movie Hub, Guts and Glory, Wikipedia, imdb
1.  The term “twelve o’clock high” refers to the position of German fighters.  If you imagine the bomber as the center of a clock, twelve o’clock would be directly ahead and six o’clock is directly to the rear.  “High” refers to the position of the fighter relative to the bomber’s elevation.  So the title means the attacker is in front of and above the bomber.
2.  John Wayne turned down the role and many other leading men were considered until Gregory Peck landed it.  Peck was not originally interested because he felt it was too much like “Command Decision”.  He changed his mind when he decided he wanted to work with director Henry King.  They made five more movies after it.
3.  The Robin Hood mug prop became a prized possession of Frank Armstrong’s family.  It was stolen in a break-in and never recovered.
4.  The book had a romantic subplot that was removed to concentrate on the psychological impact of aerial bombing and the pressures of command.
5.  Maj. Joe Cobb was based on Paul Tibbetts, the pilot of the Enola Gay.
6.  The 918th Bombing Group was based on the 306th which was the first bombing group to bomb Germany (Wilhelmshaven).  Frank Armstrong (the Savage character) led the mission.
7.  The release was postponed several months because of the similarly themed “Command Decision”.
8.  Stunt pilot Paul Mantz was paid the astronomical sum of $4,500 for the belly-crash landing.  The footage was reused in “The War Lover” and “Midway”. Mantz was the premiere Hollywood stunt pilot and had performed more than 90 crashes.  For this one he rigged up the controls so he could fly the plane alone.
9.  The Air Force was very happy with the script and suggested only three significant revisions.  It did not want Savage’s breakdown to be irrational and hysterical, so the scene was changed to a more subtle slide into a comatose state.  It asked that the drinking be toned down and that the Chaplain observe a poker game instead of participating.
10.  The USAF provided twelve obsolete B-17s from its Air Service Rescue. 
11.  The movie was filmed in black and white to seamlessly incorporate aerial footage.
12.  The movie became required viewing at all the service academies and for leadership seminars.
13.  It won Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (Dean Jagger) and Sound Recording.  It was nominated for Best Actor (Peck) and Picture (losing to “All the King’s Men”).
14.  The movie has no score backing the scenes.

Belle and Blade  =  5.0 
Brassey’s              =  4.0
Video Hound       =  4.4
War Movies         =   5.0
Military History  =  #72
Channel 4             =  not on list
Film Site                =  yes
101 War Movies  =  no

OPINION:  “Twelve O’Clock High” is a classic war film.  It does not have much action, but it is very well written and acted.  The cast is great and Peck gives one of his best performances.  It has a depth to it that you rarely see in a black and white WWII movie.  It covers the stress of the air bombardment of Germany and even rolls into PTSD.  It is thought-provoking as it covers different styles of command.  It is not surprising that it was used for teaching leadership.  I feel it should be ranked much higher.

Thursday, March 28, 2019


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is this quote from?

I'm just getting started. You're gonna stay right here and get a bellyful of flying. You're gonna make every mission. You're not air exec anymore. You're just an airplane commander. And I want you to paint this name on the nose of your ship: Leper Colony. Because in it you're gonna get every deadbeat in the outfit. Every man with a penchant for head colds. If there's a bombardier who can't hit his plate with his fork, you get him. If there's a navigator who can't find the men's room, you get him. Because you rate him.

3.  What movie is this?

 It was released in 1963 and was a huge hit and has grown in popularity over the years.  It is the most famous movie in its subgenre.  The film was directed by John Sturges and is based on the nonfiction book by Paul Brickhill.    The main screenwriter was James Clavell who spent time in a Japanese prison camp and later the screenplay for “King Rat”.  One of the tunnelers (Wally Floody) served as a technical advisor.  Donald Pleasance was a prisoner in Stalag Luft 1 during the war. 

Monday, March 25, 2019

LIVE: Battle Force (2012)

*** This movie is so obscure I couldn't find a poster.

‘The worst is yet to come.’  Is this a reference to the plot?  //  ‘In 1942, an elite fighting unit made up of US and Canadians was formed.  Officially named the 1st Special Services Force, they were made up of mountain men, hunters, and all-around misfits.  They were trained to scale cliffs, jump out of airplanes, and kill Nazis.’  This sounds like the Devil’s Brigade.  //  a Scott Martin film – directed by Scott Martin, written by Scott Martin, and starring Scott Martin (as Lt. Wright) – what better pedigree than that?  The man is a genius!  //  We are on the coast of Sicily.  Four soldiers wearing various uniforms (damn you, local army surplus!)  and a partisan are ambushed.  They are captured and beaten by a suave Nazi officer.  He pulls a tooth with some pliers.  //  A special mission to rescue the captives is organized led by a Lt. and six hand-picked heroes. One of them is an asshole appropriately named Dickie. //  Saying goodbye to the ladies, one of the men kisses his girl on her forehead!  The Lt. asks his wife if he can sleep with locals as part of the mission.  Truth is important in a marriage.  //  Dickie is trying a Mississippi accent – please make him stop!  //  They encounter a firefight between Germans and the Italian resistance.  They have no clue how many or where, but they plunge in anyway.  All hand-held camerawork.  No reloading, of course.  One of the partisans is a hot chick who stabs a captive German at least ten times.  Hubba, hubba!  Dickie puts the moves on her as the designated ladies' man.  //  They attack an inn where they Swiss cheese two Germans.   All we see is the blood splattering on our heroes.  They add another girl to their group so one of the girls can be killed.  //  They find Capt. Lewis being guarded by only one German.  He’s not tied up and he has all his teeth.  Hmmm.  //  They get surrounded and make a run losing one man.  //  They take refuge in an abandoned village.  Lewis seems suspiciously off. Sure enough, he stabs a guy who confronts him.  //  Some of the dialogue is indecipherable, which is a good thing.  //  Here come the Germans led by the bad Nazi.  Lewis switches sides.  //  They are on the run now and getting whittled down.  This leads to a knife fight between the Lt. and Lewis.  Lewis tells us the reason he is a traitor is he got sent on that bull shit opening mission when he should have been on the planning staff for D-Day along with Ike and Patton!  The fight is well choreographed.  Guess who wins?  //  The survivors are trapped on a beach, just like at the beginning.  Dickie duels with the bad German.   He kills him with his accent.  3 for 6 in the survival department.

ANALYSIS:   “Battle Force” is not bad for a home movie.  Considering the budget, it is not terrible.  It ain’t good either.  The acting is amateurish because the actors are amateurs, duh!  The dialogue is atrocious (especially Dickie), but to be expected.  There is no cursing, grandpa.  One of the fun things about bad war movies is the laughable soldier talk.  The movie actually has good wound effects and gunfire sounds.  Hard to explain that.  The money they saved on actors must have been spent on effects.  “Battle Force” is not the worst movie of this type that I have seen, but I certainly would not recommend it unless you are on a quest to see every war movie ever made, like me.

GRADE  =  D-

Saturday, March 23, 2019

BOOK/MOVIE: Run Silent, Run Deep (1955/1958)


                From boyhood I have loved history.  In elementary school I can remember devouring history books from the library.  The library is still one of my favorite places to visit.  I have always preferred nonfiction (military history in particular), but I have occasionally branched out into historical fiction.  I am picky about novels I read.  I have found that it is difficult to find military novels that are enjoyable. Usually because there is not enough combat and they are not realistic enough for my standards.  My favorite subgenre is nautical fiction, especially the Napoleonic Wars.  The first historical fiction book that I can recall reading was Edward L. Beach’s Run Silent, Run Deep which was published in 1955.  It was a bestseller and was made into a major motion picture in 1958.  I read the book more than once over the years, but had not read it again for over three decades.  When I watched the movie a few years ago, I found that the movie differs from the book, but did not remember to what degree.  I vowed to do a book/movie post on it when I could get around to it.  That time has arrived.  This post is designed for people who have seen the movie and are interested in how the book differs.

                First, I have to say that the movie gets worse every time I see it.  I have reviewed it earlier so I won’t go into anything but implausibilities now.  These begin almost immediately.  The movie opens with a sub being sunk by a Japanese destroyer off Bungo Strait, which is on the coast of Japan.  It is 1942.  Next, we see the crew is in the water and then the captain is desk-bound at Pearl Harbor one year later.  The chances of a shipwrecked crew being rescued off the coast of Japan in 1942 would have been virtually zero.  Richardson convinces the brass to let him seek revenge by giving him command of a new sub over the head of its exec Bledsoe.  They have never met before.  Although told to avoid the Bungo Strait, Richardson disobeys the order.  Why did the Navy give this obsessed man a new boat and then tell him not to pursue his obsession?  Also strange is the reaction of the crew. They are on the verge of mutiny over having to go into the dangerous patrol area.  Apparently, the technical adviser had no problem with the movie portraying a sub crew as cowards.  The captain gains the respect of the crew by attacking a convoy on the surface during broad daylight.  He manages to sink a pursuing destroyer as it is firing on the sub.   This should have been what the crew had a problem with.  Attacking on the surface in daylight and not diving immediately with a destroyer chasing?  The captain is clearly insane.  To prove it, the next time they face a convoy, they are on the surface in daylight again!  But this time, they stay when aircraft drop at least ten bombs!  Luckily, the captain suffers a concussion and Bledsoe takes over and decides to return to Pearl.  The crew is elated that they will be returning home early and with a bunch of torpedoes remaining.  They are cowards, remember?  Bledsoe changes his mind and they attack a convoy in a carbon copy of the first attack in the movie.  They are almost sunk by a Japanese sub which somehow manages to target them while both are submerged.  Very implausible.  They surface and start sinking merchantmen to lure the enemy sub to the surface.  Why would it do that when the American has suicidally exposed itself?!  They sink the sub by firing under a decoy ship.  Supposedly the decoy has such a shallow draft that this is possible.  It is highly unlikely that the draft would be less than a sub.  As you can see, the movie is a tactical farce.  Richardson dies at the end (of a concussion!) and Bledsoe survives. 

                The movie is centered on the classic sub cliché of command dysfunction.  Bledsoe is upset with Richardson taking the command he and the crew feel he deserves.  In the book, Bledsoe is upset with Richardson because he prevented his exec from being promoted.  The book throws in the love triangle cliché with Bledsoe marrying a woman Rich is smitten with.  The situation is awkward, but the crew is not involved.  Their first patrol is to Bungo Strait where they are depth charged by Bungo Pete.  They do not release a body and debris to fool the Japanese.  There are no serious injuries and the captain does not sustain a concussion.  They have several more patrols before they go back.  The captain drills the crew strenuously, but there is no grumbling.  The drills emphasize detection and avoidance of subs and swiftly changing fire control problems.  Not diving and firing bow shots.  They figure out Tokyo Rose and Bungo Pete are aware of their presence by reading their trash.  They start releasing trash with another sub’s name.  They attack a convoy on the surface at night successfully in spite of the subtheme of faulty torpedoes.  But the Walrus takes a hit on its bridge and the captain is injured.  This results in an extended hospital stay and Bledsoe takes over the boat.  He goes on several spectacular tours which unfortunately we are not along for because Beach unwisely decided to write the book in first person.

                When Walrus is sunk by Bungo Pete, Richardson gets a new boat named Eel and sails off to get revenge.  The climactic battle occurs on a stormy night.  The foes are a sub, Q-ship, and Bungo Pete.  They sink the sub when it submerges and they use sonar and an estimate of it being at periscope death to sink it.  Lucky, but plausible.  They then easily sink Bungo Pete and the Q-ship.  Beach chose realism over suspense.  In the book, Richardson rams the life boats to assure that Bungo Pete does not sail again.  (We can guess why that scene did not make it into the movie.)  He is awarded the Medal of Honor on the return trip for rescuing some downed fliers. 

                You can see that the movie took huge liberties with the book.  Basically they bought the title and then changed the plot to reflect what Hollywood thinks the public wants in a sub movie.  With powerhouse stars like Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster, you have to have a power struggle.  You must have dysfunction.  You must have redemption.  Shockingly, the movie dispenses with the love triangle.  The movie is only 93 minutes and needed to be much longer to cover the book properly.  They must have had a shortage of film because the movie has a weirdly truncated ending.  The book covers only one patrol.  The novel would make a great miniseries.

                I have to admit I was disappointed by the novel.  It is excellent if you want to learn about submarine warfare.  It reminds of Napoleonic naval novels with its use of jargon.  But it lacks suspense.  And could have used some dysfunction.  Not the silly stuff of the movie, however.  Normally I find that war movies based on novels are better than the source material, but not in this case.  When I returned to a book and movie that I was fond of when I was young, I was disappointed by both.  But I was embarrassed by the movie.

BOOK  =  B
MOVIE  =  C     

Thursday, March 21, 2019

CONSENSUS #81. Life Is Beautiful (1997)

SYNOPSIS:  It is a Holocaust dramedy set in Italy.  Roberto Begnini plays a charming Jew who is sent to a concentration camp with his young son.  His wife is in another part of the camp.  He manages to communicate with her over the camp’s speaker system.  He shields his son from the realities of the camp by convincing him that the camp is the elaborate setting for a game.  Comedy (?) ensues.
BACK-STORY:  “Life is Beautiful” is an Italian film that was directed and co-written by Roberto Begnini.  He also starred in it.  Begnini loosely based the movie on the book In the End, I Beat Hitler by Rubino Romeo Salmoni.  He also was inspired by his own father’s stories from WWII.  He was in the Italian army and switched sides when his country went over to the Allies.  Unfortunately, the elder Begnini was captured by the Germans and put in a labor camp.  He would tell his kids humorous stories to distract them.  The movie was a big hit and critically acclaimed.  It won the Grand Prix at Cannes. It was nominated for six Academy Awards and won Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film, Original Dramatic Score, and Actor.  
TRIVIA:  Wikipedia, imdb, Shmoop 
1.  Roberto Benigni wrote the screenplay partly based on his father who spent two years in a German labor camp in WWII.  His father told his children about his experiences using humor.
2.  The movie was nominated for Oscars for:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Editing.  It won for:  Actor, Foreign Language Film, Original Dramatic Score.
3.  Guido’s wife Dora was played by Benigni’s wife Nicoletta Braschi.
4.  The title comes from a line Trotsky said to his wife in Mexico around the time he was assassinated by Stalin’s agents.
5.  It was the second time a Best Actor winner was directed by himself.  The first was Laurence Olivier in “Hamlet”.
6.  The movie was only the second time a picture was nominated for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film.  The first was “Z” in 1969.
7.  Benigni was only the fourth person nominated for Director, Actor, and Screenplay.  The others were Orson Welles (“Citizen Kane”), Woody Allen (“Annie Hall”), and Warren Beatty (“Heaven Can Wait” and “Reds”).
8.  Benigni was the second actor to win Best Actor for a Foreign Film.  First was Sophia Loren for “Two Women”.
9.  Benigni is in the select company of Best Actor winners who also got a Razzie (for “Pinocchio”).  The others were Halle Berry, Kevin Costner, Liza Minelli, Sandra Bullock, and Laurence Olivier.

Belle and Blade  =  N/A 
Brassey’s              =  4.0
Video Hound       =  3.1
War Movies         =  N/A
Military History  =  not on list
Channel 4             =  #56
Film Site                =  no
101 War Movies  =  yes

OPINION:  Holocaust movies are a significant subgenre inside the war movie genre.  These movies have a much higher percentage of good movies than any other subgenre.  Compare it to the submarine subgenre, for instance.  The high quality, in general, is probably a product of the seriousness of the topic.  Rarely do you see a Holocaust movie that does not take the event seriously.  This movie is one of those rare examples.  Begnini plays the Holocaust for laughs and the critics loved it.  I didn’t.  The movie is terribly overrated.  I do not say that because it has humor in it.  I say that because the humor is grating, as is the over the top performance of Begnini.  He would argue the movie is supposed to be a fairy tale, but I would argue it is still too soon to treat the tragedy as a humorous fairy tale.  This movie does not belong in the top 100 war films, especially since several excellent Holocaust movies did not make the list.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is the quote from?

Now listen to me you beknighted muckers. We're going to teach you soldiering. The world's noblest profession. When we're done with you, you'll be able to slaughter your enemies like civilized men.  

3.  What movie is this?

It was released in 1945 and is based on the columns of war correspondent Ernie Pyle.  It was directed by William Wellman who had been a pilot in the Lafayette Escadrille in WWI and at first refused  to do a movie about the despised infantry until he met Pyle and saw the adoration the infantry had for him.  Once on board, Wellman insisted on realism and convinced the Army to loan him 150 soldiers training near the production.  The movie also used several actual war correspondents.  So the actors would not look foolish alongside real soldiers, Wellman put them through the first actors’ boot camp.  Sadly, Pyle was killed before the opening of the movie and many of the real soldiers were killed on Okinawa.  For this reason, Wellman never watched the movie after its release.  The movie was a hit and is considered one of the most realistic war films.  It was nominated for four Oscars (Supporting Actor - Mitchum, Song, Score, and Screenplay).

Sunday, March 17, 2019

CONSENSUS #82. Empire of the Sun (1987)

SYNOPSIS:  When the International Settlement in Shanghai is occupied by the Japanese in 1941, spoiled rich kid Jamie Graham is separated from his parents.  He finds a surrogate father in the Fagin-like black marketeer Basie (John Malkovich).  When they are captured by the Japanese and placed in a camp, Jamie is torn between the part of the camp that has families in it and the part that is single white males run by the King Rat-like Basie.  Jamie treats his life as something of a bizarre summer camp.
BACK-STORY:  “Empire” was based on a biography by J.G. Ballard.  It was published in 1984.  Originally, Warner Brothers tapped Harold Becker to direct and when he dropped out, David Lean took over with Spielberg as producer.  Lean decided the source material was too much like a diary, so he turned directing over to Spielberg who was much more enamored with the book than he was.  Spielberg jumped at the chance because of his admiration for Lean’s films (especially “Bridge on the River Kwai” which it resembles).  Spielberg also loved WWII topics.  This was his third WWII movie after “1941” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”.  It incorporated common Spielberg themes like separation of a child from his parents (Spielberg was deeply affected by his parents’ divorce when he was 14) and coming of age.  Loss of innocence is also a theme of the movie.  The movie was filmed at a studio in the United Kingdom and on location in Spain and Shanghai (the Chinese government allowed the first movie filming there since the 1940s).  5,000 Chinese extras were used.  The movie was not a box office success.

TRIVIA:  Wikipedia, imdb
1.  Three authentic P-51s were used.   They dropped plaster-filled mock 500 pound bombs in the movie.
2.  Spielberg’s father had been a radio operator on a B-25 Mitchell in the China-Burma Theater.
3.  Christian Bale was cast over 4,000 auditionees partly because author J.G. Ballard felt he resembled him at that age.  Bale was suggested by Amy Irving (Spielberg’s wife at that time) who had co-starred with him in “Anastasia:  The Mystery of Anna”.
4.  Academy   Award nominations for:  Art Direction, Cinematography, Editing, Original Music Score, Costume Design, and Sound.
5.   One of the Zeros (which were actually modified Harvard SJN trainers) was flown by Tom Danaher, a Marine night fighter pilot from WWII who shot down the last Japanese bomber in the war. 
6.  The scene where Jim is tucked in by his parents was modelled after the Norman Rockwell painting for FDR’s “Freedom from Fear”.  The painting is on the wall in the prison camp.
7.  Ballard appears as an extra in the party scene.

Belle and Blade  =  2.5
Brassey’s              =  4.0
Video Hound       =  3.8
War Movies         =  N/A
Military History  =  not on list
Channel 4             =  #43
Film Site                =  no
101 War Movies  =  yes

OPINION:  “Empire of the Sun” is a fine coming of age tale set in wartime.  It features a career-boosting performance by child actor Christian Bale and has an indelible performance by Malkovich.  It’s audience is not really war movie fans.  It is a typical Spielberg movie in that it does not dare to show the real horrors that the foreign civilians must have gone through.  This is not “Schindler’s List”.  On the other hand, it avoids some of the schmaltzy elements of most of Spielberg’s films.  It is not as good as the similar “Hope and Glory” and is overrated at #82.  I would not have it in the top 100.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

CRACKER? Empire of the Sun (1987)

                “Empire” was based on a biography by J.G. Ballard.  It was published in 1984.  Originally, Warner Brothers tapped Harold Becker to direct and when he dropped out, David Lean took over with Spielberg as producer.  Lean decided the source material was too much like a diary, so he turned directing over to Spielberg who was much more enamored with the book than he was.  Spielberg jumped at the chance because of his admiration for Lean’s films (especially “Bridge on the River Kwai”, which it resembles).  Spielberg also loved WWII topics.  This was his third WWII movie after “1941” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”.  The movie was filmed at a studio in the United Kingdom and on location in Spain and Shanghai (the Chinese government allowed the first movie filming there since the 1940s).  5,000 Chinese extras were used.  The movie was not a box office success. 
                The movie opens in 1941.  Foreigners are living safely in the International Settlement in Shanghai.  Their lives are fairly unchanged even though the Japanese army occupies the rest of the city.  Jamie Graham (Christian Bale) is a spoiled rich kid living in a mansion where he is waited on by Chinese servants.  His family lives a Rolls Royce life in a rickshaw city.  After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese decide to occupy the International Settlement.  This catches the naïve and clueless foreigners by surprise.  In the chaos of trying to escape the city, Jamie is separated from his parents.  He returns home to a well-deserved slap and lack of concern from his former servants.  When he runs out of food, he hooks up with a pair of grifters.  Basie (John Malkovich) dominates his partner Frank (Joe Pantoliano), but he takes a liking to Jamie.  He becomes a Fagin-like figure in Jamie’s life.  He continues to mentor Jamie after they are captured and put in an internment camp.  Jamie is torn between the part of the camp where the families live and the part where Basie and the other single males bunk.  Basie runs his barracks like a King Rat figure.  The camp is like a summer camp to the crafty Jamie.  It is especially enjoyable because it is adjacent to a Japanese fighter base.  Jamie is obsessed with air craft and finds a kindred spirit in a young Japanese pilot wannabe.
                “Empire” incorporates common Spielberg themes.  Jamie is separated from his parents and has to survive through his wits.  Jamie will have to come of age in the years covered by the movie.  (This theme is a bit diluted as the movie makes a massive three-year jump while he is in the camp.)  Another theme is loss of innocence.  This is punctuated by the atomic bombing of Nagasaki which also serves as a loss of innocence for humanity.  The movie does not explore the theme of “war is hell” much.  This is not “Schindler’s List”.  The Japanese are not demonized and the life in the camp is not hellacious.  This lack of realism is troubling.  I’m sure Spielberg would argue that the events are being seen from the wide-eyes of a child.  Thankfully, the themes are explored without the usual Spielbergian excesses.  It is not a schmaltzy movie, like “War Horse”, for instance.
                The movie is most watchable for the performance by Christian Bale.  It’s a star-making turn.  He gets the wild-eyed innocence right.  Jamie is not a cherub.  In fact, he’s something of a little privileged asshole until the shit hits the fan.  He then becomes a survivor, but he doesn’t lose his sense of adventure even as he matures into a mini-Basie.  Speaking of whom, Basie is a fascinating character.  Malkovich is perfect in the role.  He is not quite an anti-hero and the closest equivalent would be Corporal King from “King Rat”.  (This would make Jamie the equivalent of Marlowe.) 
                Is it one of the 100 best war movies ever made?  No.  It could have been if it had been more realistic.  The three-year jump is problematical because it shifts the movie from a tale of survival against all odds to one of a child’s evolution in adversity.  That is still an entertaining arc and Spielberg is great at that sort of plot.  Plus, the movie is a true story, so it deserves credit for not enhancing the tale too much.  It just seems like Spielberg has sugar-coated it too much.  It’s well worth the watch, however.
GRADE  =  B-

Monday, March 11, 2019



“Memphis Belle” is a war movie directed by Michael Caton-Jones loosely based on the WWII war documentary by William Wyler.  How loosely based will soon be apparent.  The movie was co-produced by Wyler’s daughter Catherine.  It cost $23 million and made $27 million.  That’s one million dollars per historical error.

The movie is set in the summer of 1943 at an air base in England.  An Army public relations officer, Lt. Col. Derringer (John Lithgow), is there to inspire the home front with a story about the first B-17 crew to complete the  25 missions tour.  He introduces us to the men via voiceover.  They are a melting pot of American warriors.  A heterogeneous unit – imagine that.  The enlisted consist of a virgin, a reform school graduate, a Catholic boy, a ladies’ man, a farm boy, and a poet.  The Captain is a clean-cut and by the book.  His co-pilot is the opposite.  The bombardier had four years of medical school, or so he says.  The navigator is morose and cowardly.   According to Derringer, the American public is questioning the idea of daylight bombing.  Since the Memphis Belle is undergoing repairs, the crew has a front row seat for a crash landing that ends up in disaster.  Could this be a portent?

The next scene is a big dance in a hangar which is a pretty good period piece with 1940s clothing and British birds.  There is a chanteuse crooning Swing music and lots of jitterbugging.  In an homage to 1940s Hollywood, Clay (Harry Connick, Jr.) gets on stage to sing “Danny Boy”.  This reminded me of Ricky Nelson in “Rio Bravo”.  The morning briefing explains that the target is Bremen.  It is emphasized that the factory is surrounded by a hospital, school, residential area, and petting zoo (I added that last one).  Thank God we had precision bombing which if applied properly would avoid hitting anything but the factory.

Montage of preparation – arming, fueling, etc.  There is a delay in take-off so Danny (Eric Stolz) can recite one of his poems ( actually “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” by W.B. Yeats ).  Nice touch, Danny Downer.  The take-off is majestic with appropriate music.  Cinematic magic turns the five available bombers into at least eight and CGI into more for the formation shots.  The mission is the kitchen sink of anything that could possibly happen to a bomber in WWII Europe plus a few that could only happen in a Hollywood film.  Perhaps a list would make this clear.

1.        The Memphis Belle almost collides with another B-17 in a cloud.  This movie would have sucked if the collision would have occurred!
2.       A small number of German fighters (actually Spanish Ha-1112’s masquerading as Me-109’s) attack and then run away so we can move on to the next problem.
3.       The lead bomber is shot down so the MB has to take the lead.  How cinematically convenient!
4.       There is a hole in the wing which causes them to lose a lot of fuel.  Start the clock.
5.       The target is obscured and Capt. Deerborn makes the decision to bring the entire squadron back around to avoid hitting the petting zoo.
6.       Rascal’s (Sean Astin) ball turret gets shot out from under him and he is left dangling.
7.       There is a fire on board.
8.       Danny is wounded and only med school volunteer Val (Billy Zane) can save him.
9.       A fire in an engine forces Deerborn to crash dive to put it out.
10.    One wheel won’t come down (hey, isn’t that what happened to the crash-landing bomber from the opening?)
11.    The fuel runs out so they are down to one engine.
12.    Virge almost falls through the bomb bay.

Here is another list – clichés in “Memphis Belle”.
1.        There are command issues between Deerborn and his co-pilot Luke (Tate Donovan).
2.       Virge talks about his future plans of opening a chain of hamburger joints.
3.       Virge has sex in the plane.
4.       The crew rags some rookies from “Mother and Country” – can I have your stuff when you get shot down?  Ha! Ha!
5.       Phil (D.B. Sweeney) thinks his number is up.
6.       The ground crews wait for the bombers to return and count them as they do.

This is one of the corniest war movies ever made.  At one point, Deerborn talks to the “Memphis Belle” in a  schmaltzy and wooden way.  Wooden would be the best description of Modine’s performance.  The rest of the cast reminds of “Platoon” in its potential, but does not stand up to the comparison well.  The script does not help them.  The dialogue is sappy and the performances are too sincere.  After bombing the target (perfectly), Deerborn says “Okay boys, we’ve done our job for Uncle Sam, now we’re flying for ourselves.”  Modern actors dropped into a cliché-ridden 1940s war movie plot.  They did buy into it and I bet some of them are embarrassed by their participation.  I imagine they had fun filming it and it sure was more pleasant for them than the “Platoon” cast.  No boot camp for these pretty boys.

The effects are a mixed bag.  The five B-17s add a lot of authenticity (one of them was destroyed in a take-off when it clipped a tree and burned completely).  The interior of the bomber looks like the real deal and the routines are proper.  The air combat is fine with decent radio chatter (unlike “Red Tails”, to name but one).  There’s lots of action which fits the goal of mindless entertainment.  Unfortunately, the CGI is inferior and jarring.  The word “fake” comes to mind.  One bit of corn that works effectively is narration of some letters from relatives of lost men over actual footage of bombers going down.

In conclusion, “Memphis Belle” is the “U-571” of air combat movies.  Corny.  Cliché-ridden.  Predictable.  Tactically farcical.  More importantly, I would describe both of them as obstacle porn.  A continuous string of problems to be overcome by the heroes.  If you are into that kind of entertainment and could care less about accuracy and realism, break out the pop corn and turn off your brain.

“Memphis Belle:  A Story of a Flying Fortress” is the celebrated documentary about the first bomber to complete 25 missions in the 8th Air Force.  It was directed by William Wyler (“The Best Years of Our Lives”) who at the time was a major in the U.S. Army Air Forces.  He bravely flew on several missions and ended up losing hearing in one ear.  One of his cinematographers was killed in action.  Wyler won best documentary for “The Fighting Lady” which was about an aircraft carrier.

His “Memphis Belle” is in Technicolor which must have enhanced the message intended by Wyler.  The purpose of the documentary was to bring the air crew experience home to the home front and inspire the public at a time when support for the bombing campaign was waning.  The narration is very propagandistic and anti-German.  Where the movie is dedicated to all the airmen who fought in the skies over Europe, Wyler dedicates his film to only the 8th Air Force. 

The doc covers the last mission from briefing to kissing the ground on return.  The basic arc is used in the movie, but obviously the 1990 reenactment adds a lot of Hollywood.  The doc does take a few liberties of its own.  The MB was not the first bomber to complete 25 missions.  It was chosen early on as the potential first because Wyler felt that Capt. Robert Morgan had a reputation for competency (and survivability) and he liked the name of the bomber (Morgan’s girl-friend).  Ironically, the back-up plane in case the MB did not make it (Hell’s Angels), actually won the race to go home after 25 missions.  As far as the last mission, in the doc it is against Wilhelmshafen and is fairly hairy.  The flak and fighters variety.  Most of the footage seen in the film (parts come from at least six other missions) was shot on a B-17 named Jersey Bounce because the MB was under repair.  It was the MB crew on board, however.  Speaking of which, none of the characters in the movie match the names or backgrounds of the actual crew.  Most importantly, the last mission of the MB was a milk run (against submarine pens at Lorient, France) which would have been boring for a documentary and death to a feature film.  Wyler was a Hollywood director, after all.  It does strike me as a bit unethical for a documentarian.  The documentary is much better quality than the movie, but you have to get past the jingoistic narration.



83. The Train (1964)

SYNOPSIS: A cultured Nazi officer (Paul Scofield) is determined to get stolen French art works out of Paris to safety in Germany by train. The French Resistance goes to great lengths to delay the train carrying the paintings.  Resistance member / railroad inspector Labiche (Burt Lancaster) engineers the elaborate plan which involves rerouting the train and even staging a spectacular collision.

BACK-STORY: The Train is a war movie directed by John Frankenheimer that was released in 1964. It is based on a non-fiction book entitled "Le Front de lArt" by Rose Valland. The film was originally helmed by Arthur Penn, but co-producer and star Burt Lancaster axed him because Penn wanted to make more of a character study and Lancaster insisted the action be revved up. The film was shot on location in France. No models were used. Those are all real trains crashing and getting blown up. The air bombardment of the marshalling yard was symbiotic because the French government wanted the area cleared anyway. (That less than one minute scene required fifty men wiring TNT for six weeks.) Lancaster (51) did all of his stunts. This included sliding down a hillside. When he injured his knee stepping in a hole while golfing, it was written into the script that he would be wounded while fleeing under fire. One scene where the train races into a tunnel to avoid a strafing Spitfire was added to have an additional action sequence. Frankenheimer was almost killed when the helicopter he was filming from came within ten feet of being hit by the Spitfire.

TRIVIA:  Wikipedia, imdb, Cinema Retro #6
1.  Burt Lancaster had original director Arthur Penn fired after three days and replaced with John Frankenheimer.  Frankenheimer envisioned the movie as a character study of the men of the Resistance, but Lancaster insisted on it being also about the trains.
2.  The marshalling yard bombardment scene involved 140 explosions, a ton of TNT, 2,000 gallons of gasoline, and 22 cameras.  It took the explosives expert six weeks to set the explosives.  The French railway allowed the destruction because they wanted to destroy the yard, but did not have the funding.
3.  Lancaster sprained his knee stepping in a hole while playing golf.  Frankenheimer dealt with it by having Labiche get wounded while crossing the pedestrian bridge.
4.  It was nominated for Best Original Screenplay.
5.  Lancaster performed all his stunts.
6.  The movie is loosely based on a saving a train full of art, but in reality the train was routed around Paris until the Allies took the city.
7.  Train Magazine chose it as the #1 train movie in its 100 Greatest Train Movies issue.
8.  No models were used in the filming.
9.  In the train derailment, the train was going too fast and wiped out almost all of the cameras.
10.  The Spitfire strafing the train before it entered the tunnel was added after the studio felt the movie needed one more action scene.  It almost ended in disaster when the Spitfire came within thirty feet of hitting the helicopter Frankenheimer was filming in.  His wife fainted.
11.  The original ending had Labiche and Von Waldheim shooting it out.
12.  Lancaster (who had been a circus performer) did all his own stunts.
13.  It is based on the book by Rose Villand who was a French art historian and member of the Resistance.  She secretly recorded Nazi plundering of art and helped save thousands of works.  She is in “The Monuments Men” as Clair Simone.
14.  This was the second time Frankenheimer took over a Lancaster film for a fired director.  The first was “Birdman of Alcatraz”.  He demanded the film be entitled “John Frankenheimer’s The Train”.   He also demanded total control over the final cut and a Ferrari.  When the last scene in “Seven Days in May” had to be reshot, it was done in Paris where “The Train” was shooting and Lancaster’s character gets into the Ferrari to drive off.
15.  The producers purchased 4 locomotives, 40 railroad cars, 7 railroad buildings, and various German weapons and vehicles.

Belle and Blade  =  4.0
Brassey’s              =  4.0
Video Hound       =  5.0
War Movies         =  4.4
Military History  =  #62
Channel 4             =  not on list
Film Site                =  yes
101 War Movies  =  no

OPINION:   “The Train” is one of the greatest guy movies and perhaps the greatest if you are a guy who loves trains.  Lancaster turns in one of his best performances and his physicality is a highlight.  It has suspense, but it is not just an action movie.  It has a provocative theme that questions whether works of art are worth human lives.  It is probably underrated at #83 and is certainly better than several of the movies that are ranked higher.  As you will see.  For the full review, go to The Train