Saturday, November 30, 2019

MINISERIES: The Dawns Here Are Quiet (2015)

                        The Soviet Union made a lot of good WWII movies like “Come and See” and “Ballad of a Soldier”.  My favorite is “The Dawns Here Are Quiet” which came out in 1972.  The movie was very popular and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film by the Academy Awards.  It was based on a novella by Boris Vasilyev.  Vasilyev was a veteran of WWII. He volunteered in 1941 and was first in a “destruction battalion” which was a paramilitary unit under the control of the NKVD (basically the Soviet Gestapo).  Later he served in an airborne division until he was wounded in 1943.  He became a writer after the war and was noted for writing “lieutenant prose”.  This referred to novels written by lower ranking officers.  Usually the protagonist was a junior officer (like the author) and the plots involved brave acts in the face of bad conditions.  The subgenre was not overly patriotic and tended to remark on the hellish aspects of the war.  A new version of the classic was released in 2015 in theaters and then an extended version was shown on Russian TV in four 45 minute segments.

                        The movie is set in Karelia (near Finland) in probably 1942.  Sgt. Major Vaskov (Pyotr Fyodorov) is in command of an anti-aircraft unit in a small village.  He was wounded at the front and assigned this unglamorous job.  His men don’t take it seriously and do a lot of wining and wenching.  He complains to his superior and asks for replacements that don’t drink or screw around.  Be careful what you ask for.  He receives a half platoon of women.  Vaskov is thrown for a loop by his new subordinates who love pushing his buttons.  He insists on discipline, but you can’t simply treat them like they are men.  For instance, he has to build an outhouse for them.  A scene with the women in a steam bath will point out to the audience that they are definitely not males.  But they are soldiers.  When a German reconnaissance plane passes over the village, they competently shoot it down with their anti-aircraft gun.  A few days later, two German paratroopers are sighted in the forest.  Vaskov is ordered to take five of the women and track down the suspected saboteurs.  They set off and are shocked to discover that the two Germans are actually part of a sixteen man unit.  Vaskov decides their mission will be to keep the Germans from reaching their destination.  What started off as something of an adventure for the girls, becomes deadly serious.  But Vaskov is willing to teach and they are willing to learn.   The odds are very bad, however.

                        It must have been a risky idea to remake the beloved original, but Renat Davletyarov (director, producer, and co-writer) pulls it off.  He does not tamper with the plot much and most of the dialogue is retained.   Because he has more time to play with, he is able to flesh out the six characters more.  The original used flashbacks to give back-stories for the five women.  This version does more flashing back and is able to fill in information  where the original made you fill in the gaps yourself.  The original used a surreal approach to the flash-backs.  They were filmed in color and mostly on a spare sound stage.  Davletyarov wisely did not try to copy that.   Other than providing more information, this version is faithful to the point that the younger generation does not really need to see the original.  All of the deaths are very similar to the movie and just as poignant.  The strongest point of both versions are the unpredictable and memorable deaths.  I also commend the movie and miniseries for not forcing romance into the plot.  The dilemma the six are placed in develops comradeship and respect, not physical love.

                         The Soviet Union has to be third behind the U.S. and Great Britain when it comes to quality WWII movies.  That tradition seems to be continuing in Russia today.  Granted, this movie is not original, but it is technically sound.  The cinematography is good and the forest terrain is used effectively.  It is not as showy as the original, but you’ll notice it.  The acting is excellent.  Pyotr Fyodorov has some big shoes to fill in the role made famous by Andrey Martynov and I think he does an even better job as Vaskov.  The actresses playing the quintet of females are great.  The personalities of the five are well-defined and all are appealing figures.  By the end of the movie, you really care about them.  I had to fight back tears at times.  As an homage to all the women who served the Fatherland in WWII, the movie is very effective.  Even the original is not overly patriotic or propagandistic, but I would think women who see either film will be proud of their gender.

                        If you have Amazon Prime, take advantage of its nice collection of foreign war movies and series.  Don’t let the subtitles scare you away.  “The Dawns Here Are Quiet” is an outstanding movie.  It improves on the great original by expanding the story to cover the five women in more detail.  They deserved it.  Although in the tradition of the heterogeneous small unit on a suicide mission subgenre, it is not cliché-ridden.  In fact, it is a pretty unique movie. 


Monday, November 25, 2019


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is this quote from?

I ain't a-goin' to war. War's killin', and the book's agin' killin! So war is agin' the book! 

3.  What movie is this?

It was released in 1943 and was directed by the legendary team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (The Archers).  They also directed the respected “49th Parallel”.  It was the most expensive British movie made up until then.  The movie was shot in vibrant Technicolor.  It is about as British as you can get.  Although the movie is usually said to be inspired by the comic strip character, in fact the idea came from a scene cut from The Archers’ previous film (“One of Our Aircraft is Missing”).  A character says “You don’t know what it’s like to be old”.  Film editor and future great director David Lean suggested a movie be constructed around that line.

Friday, November 22, 2019

WAR SHORT: Their War (2019)

                        Not all war movies are feature length.  In fact, I can think of many war movies that are too long.  And although I usually do not have a problem with the epic length of some war movies, there is also a place in the genre for short films.  These are harder to find and get eclipsed by the big boys, but there are some gems out there that are well worth the watch.  Today I went to my Facebook group (War Movie Lovers) and found a request for membership from a short film.  I was intrigued by this and slightly annoyed.  After having to turn down numerous requests from people clearly not interested in war movies, now I have to deal with movies that want to join?  A movie I had never heard of, from an independent company, and a short film.  Seemingly, that was three strike.  But I am all about fairness, so I clicked on the link and watched the film.  “Their War” was directed by Max Mason. He also wrote it, which is common for this type of low budget affair.  It has received numerous accolades from film festivals, so that was a good sign.

                        I immediately recognized that the film was not a half-ass effort.  It opens with a diagonal panning shot in the woods that reveals a man with a rifle plinking some cans.  I was intrigued.  Cut to an Englishman enlisting in the British Army.  There is a passing reference to his age which clearly indicates the year is 1914.  Nice touch.  When the recruiter asks if he is single and Arthur Jeffries (Hamish Riddle) reveals that he is married, the recruiter hesitates a beat and then presses on.  Another subtle cue that says a lot about recruiting.  The rest of the film intercuts between Arthur and Nickolaus Siefert (Des Carney).  They both have to break the news to their wives (Arthur’s is pregnant) and both ladies bravely decide not to burden their husbands with guilt feelings.  It is clear they are both joining out of a sense of duty.  Kudos for using subtitles for the German speaking Seiferts!  Suddenly, we are in the trenches.  It is a jarring transition from the beautiful music of their departures to the cacophony of the trenches.  With a running time of 22 minutes, there is no time for boot camp and the movie is not focused on how they become warriors, but on the effect the war has on them.  Nickolaus is a sharpshooter and Arthur is an average bloke.  Each has a very revealing conversation.  Arthur’s is with his commanding officer who is not depicted as the typical upper-class snob you see so often in WWI movies.  In a beautifully acted and written scene, the officer expresses the conundrum of involvement in a war for honor that is marked by horror.  Many men have joined to become heroes (although not Arthur), “but there is nothing heroic in death like this.”  Arthur sits there and nods knowingly and despondently.  He shows a picture of his new baby.  Damn, Arthur, why you had to do that?!  In the opposing trench, it is clear that Nickolaus also did not sign up to be a hero.  His expository conversation is with two German soldiers.  He reveals that he takes no pride in his marksmanship and provokes his comrades by saying the British are pawns just like them.  Arthur and Nicklaus are headed for a fateful meeting.

                        I mentioned earlier that there are short gems out there and this is one of them.  Max Mason and Chalice Films deserve the acclaim they have received for this film.  From the start it is clear the movie was made with great care and attention to detail.  The cinematography by Paddy Bartram is a cut above most independent feature films (like the “Saints and Sinners” sequels).  He does well with some hand-held treks through the narrow trench, for instance.  Speaking of, the set design for the trenches is noteworthy.  Collette Creary-Myers does a wonderful job with limited resources.  It is a micro story, so we really don’t need to see a crane-view of the trench system.  What we do see, to set the atmosphere and facilitate the final confrontation, is a realistic recreation of a trench.  The scene where Arthur talks to his C.O. is particularly effective as it is set at night with a fire raging in the background.  The music by Simone Cilid is subtle and does not force emotions.  The blend of piano and orchestral fits well.  The departure scene, sans dialogue, is carried by a wonderful piece.  I am not a rivet-counter, but the uniforms and gear do not distract from the story.

                        The acting is much better than could be expected.  These are not weekend reenactors that are forced to recite dialogue.  The standout is Des Carney who clearly has a bright future.  His character reflects the fact that the movie is not as predictable as you would expect.  Nicklaus is introduced as a Prussian playing at war, but he does not conform to that stereotype.  Hamish Riddle’s character is more traditional, but has to be that way for the plot to work.  I am not sure if the movie was trying to question his leaving his pregnant wife to fight for his country. I certainly wondered if his family should have come first.  The conversation with his commanding officer seems to indicate he was having second thoughts.

                        “Their War” is an outstanding addition to the small subgenre of short war films.  It is hard to make an impact in the already crowded field of anti-war WWI films, but this one is memorable.  Considering the small budget, it is hard to see where it could have been better.  Heck, it even has one of the most gut-wrenching fight scenes that I have seen in a war movie.  I want to thank Max Mason for seeking me out.  He did not ask for a review, just membership in War Movie Lovers Group.  I am sure he is proud of his film and wants more people to see it.  Especially war movie fans like we have in this group.  I strongly recommend watching it. Focus on all the little details.  You might even want to watch it twice, like I did.Y


Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Consensus #54. The Best Years of Our Lives

SYNOPSIS: The movie is about three returning WWII veterans and their readjustment to civilian life. One is a disabled vet who is returning to his fiance. He feels she will not accept him since he returns a lesser man. A second vet is a family man who returns to a banking job. The third is returning to his quickie marriage spouse from before his service. Their stories intertwine.

BACKSTORY: The Best Years of Our Lives is one of the most beloved movies of its time. It was directed by the acclaimed William Wyler and released in 1946. Wyler had earlier done the famous documentary Memphis Belle. Producer Samuel Goldwyn wanted to make a movie about returning veterans so it is set in the period immediately after WWII. It is based on a blank verse novel by MacKinley Kantor and was adapted into the screenplay by Robert Sherwood two heavyweights. The movie was a box office smash in America and was actually even more popular in England. It won seven Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Frederic March), Best Supporting Actor (Harold Russell), Editing, Adapted Screenplay, and Original Score. AFI ranked it as the 37th best motion picture of all time.  Wyler insisted on the crew being veterans.

TRIVIA:  Wikipedia, imdb, TCM
1.  Also entitled “Glory for Me” (after the novella by MacKinley Kantor) or “Home Again”. 
2.  Samuel Godwyn got the idea from a Time magazine article from August, 1944 about Marines returning home.  As they got closer they became more sober about the readjustment into society.  The railway car had “Home Again” chalked on the side. 
3.  Russell lost his hands when a defective fuse caused an explosive to go off during the making of a training film.  He was discovered by William Wyler after he saw him in an Army film about rehabilitation of wounded veterans.  Russell was given an Honorary Oscar because the Academy did not think he would win Best Supporting Actor.  He is the only actor ever to win two Oscars for the same role.  He is also one of only two nonprofessional actors to win an Oscar.  The other was Haing Ngor in “The Killing Fields”.  Russell is the only Oscar winning actor to auction off his Oscar.  He needed the $60,500 to pay for an operation for his wife. He made only two more movies after this one. 
4.  It was the highest grossing film and most attended movie since “Gone With the Wind” in both the U.S. and United Kingdom. 
5.  Wyler used life-sized sets instead of the normal larger ones for ease of filming to get a more natural look.  The film is famous for cinematographer Gregg Toland’s use of deep focus.
6.  Wyler was very upset when Goldwyn sent Russell to get acting lessons. He wanted Russell to turn in a natural performance. 
7.  This was Wyler’s first post-war movie after spending the war making documentaries like “Memphis Belle”.  His combat missions on B-17s influenced the movie. 
8.  Russell’s character was originally suffering from PTSD, it was changed to match Russell’s disability. 
9.  Wyler insisted on the crew being vets. 
10.  Virginia Mayo campaigned for her role by having pictures taken of her in a bar.  She was working on “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” at the same time and sometimes shot scenes for both on the same day. 
11.  Sherwood Anderson had been head of the Office of War Information during WWII. This was the reason Goldwyn hired him.
12.  The movie was remade for TV as “Returning Home” in 1975 starring Dabney Coleman, Tom Selleck, and James Miller.  Miller had lost his hands in Vietnam.
13.  Theresa Wright was only twelve years younger than Myrna Loy, who played her mother. 
14.  It was the first movie to deal with the problems of returning vets.

Belle and Blade  =  4.0
Brassey’s              =  4.0
Video Hound       =  5.0
War Movies         =  5.0
Military History  =  #40
Channel 4             =  no
Film Site                =  yes
101 War Movies  =  no
Rotten Tomatoes  =  no 

OPINION: The Best Years of Our Lives is one of the best of the small subgenre of post-war home front movies. It is an excellent companion to all the good WWII movies. Many of the survivors in those movies would have had experiences similar to Al, Freddy, and Homer. Its almost like a sequel to many of those movies. It is definitely a must-see, but a bit overrated because of its overly optimistic ending. Contrast it to the second half of The Deer Hunter. But then again, perhaps that movie was too pessimistic.

Friday, November 15, 2019

NOW STREAMING: The King (2019)

                        I had looked forward to seeing Netflix’s “The King” since I first heard about it.  I love British history.  King Henry V is my second favorite king (behind Henry II).  My favorite British battle is Agincourt.  My favorite Shakespeare play is “Henry V”.  A movie about Henry V and the Battle of Agincourt was something to get excited about.  There was reason to believe it would be good because the most recent foray into British military history, “Outlaw King”, had been decently entertaining.  There was reason to be worried because we already have two excellent movies based on Shakespeare’s “Henry V”, so what could a new take offer.  It was sold as more of a biopic of Henry, which he certainly deserves.  The movie was the brainchild of director David Michod (“War Machine”) and his co-writer actor Joel Edgerton.  There screenplay was loosely based on Shakespeare’s “Henriad” – Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 & 2, and Henry V.  But mostly Henry V. 

                        The movie starts with Henry walking through the detritus of a battlefield and finishing off a wounded enemy.  That’s the Henry I know.  Except it is not Henry V, it’s Henry Percy (Tom Glynn-Carney).  At a meeting with King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn), Percy has the temerity to mouth off to him.  Again, like the Henry I know.  Our first view of the titular Henry (Timothee Chalamet) is as a wastrel living above a tavern and partying with Falstaff (Joel Edgerton).  This is the Henry we all know from the “Henry IV” plays.  He hates his dad like a teenager who has been grounded and had his cell phone taken away.  And behaves like it.  He wants nothing to do with the throne and his father has turned to his younger brother Thomas as successor and commander of an expedition against the rebellious Percy.  Hal, as his buds call him, is a pacifist, but he shows up to help little bro and offers to duel Percy to settle the dispute.  Not one single member of the British army is willing to put money on the Robert Smithesque  Hal.  The duel is a realistically sloppy armored fist fight.  This rite of manhood does not change Henry.  He still has those daddy issues and is down-right rude at Henry IV’s deathbedside.  His ascension promises changes of policies and détente with all enemies.  However, war mongers influence Henry into declare war on France.  It’s off to France to lay siege to Harfleur and get his butt whipped by a huge French army of armor-clad knights at a place called Agincourt.  Well, that’s what should have happened, but according to this movie Henry’s appointment of his drunken puke bucket holder Falstaff as commander is the key to victory. 

                        Sir Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh both took on “Henry V”.  They were faithful to the play which was faithful to the life of Henry.  Shakespeare was no historian, but he consulted them for his historical plays.  Michod decided to neither read “Henry V” nor about Henry V, apparently.  I fear that viewers will think they are learning a little about the famous king.  It’s one thing to fictionalize a biopic for entertainment purposes, it’s another to fabricate a large portion of that biography and often depict the opposite of what actually happened.  This movie is both an historical atrocity and a Shakespearean atrocity.  I’ll go into more detail in the accuracy section below, but right now let’s focus on Falstaff, a beloved figure in the Shakespearean universe.  He is a main character in the “Henry IV” plays and the pre-coronation Falstaff is as portrayed by Edgerton.  But Edgerton co-wrote the movie and clearly wanted to have a major part in the second half of the movie.  What to do about the fact that Falstaff does not appear in “Henry V” and is referenced to have died in bed before the invasion fleet sailed?  Disregarding the death, Edgerton decides to enhance his role by having Henry appoint Falstaff his commander (which I must admit had Henry’s advisers rolling their eyes in sync with me).  This allows Falstaff to go on the expedition where he laconically spouts platitudes whenever Henry asks for advice.  Just when you think Henry will finally come to his senses and kick the buffoon out of the tent, Edgerton, I mean Falstaff, comes up with a brilliant strategy that Henry implements because Falstaff’s knee can predict rain.  Don’t ask.  Edgerton then leads the assault.

                        I suspect Michod/Edgerton calculated that there are few people like me who are both Shakespeare and history purists.  The screenplay is proud of thumbing its nose at the source material.  And frankly, it has no interest in even being faithful to reality.  Much of what happens is laughable in a movie that lacks a sense of humor.  This in spite of having Falstaff in it!  Not only is Falstaff’s transformation from drunkard to tactician ludicrous, but Henry’s character development is problematic.  Others have referred to him as “Emo Hal”.  He goes from peacenik to reluctant warrior to ruthless royal in a short time.  The real Henry went from toper (which may have been exaggerated by Shakespeare) to take-no-prisoners ruler.  He is dragged into a war with France.  His personality as king was almost the opposite of what is portrayed in the movie.  Chalamet’s performance will be shocking for anyone expecting Olivier’s or Branagh’s Henry.  Of course, if Michod had asked Chalamet to match those actors, it would have been a disaster.  Note that Henry’s speech before the battle is not even close to the superfamous “Band of Brothers” speech.  Chalamet would have sounded silly trying to pull that off.  Instead he histrionically yells something about uniting England and fighting for your small piece of England.  Speaking of disasters, the Dauphin (the son of the French king) is played by Robert Pattison, who apparently read his history so cursorily that he confused the insane king with his son.  The performance could best be described as campy.  While Chalamet is channeling Robert Smith, Pattison is Pauly Shore.  Batman fans need to be very worried.

                        The movie looks fine.  Although clearly low budget in scale, they did have access to British castles for interiors.  The battle was filmed in Hungary and used 300 men and 80 horses.  The armor appears appropriate for the Late Middle Ages.  There’s a lot of clanking.  While wildly inaccurate on tactics, the climactic melee is realistically brutal.  Michod restages the “Battle of the Bastards” from Game of Thrones with Falstaff playing Jon Snow!  Michod solves the denouement problem of the play and both movies by twisting the closing scenes that boringly involve Henry’s wooing Princess Catherine (Lily-Rose Depp).  For you “Twilight” fans, don’t look for any fireworks here.  But you might like the anachronistic feminism of Catherine.

                        I have seen a lot of bad war movies, but my reviews of them are my opinion and I seldom flat-out tell my readers not to watch a movie.  I have to make an exception here.  As a fan of Henry V and Agincourt, I can not recommend this trashing of Shakespeare and history.  If you have not seen Olivier’s or Branagh’s movies, please do.  They are great and you will learn a lot about Henry V and Agincourt.  If you insist of watching this movie, please treat it as total fiction.  Decide for yourself if it is bad fiction.


FAITHFULNESS:  Normally, I call these sections Historical Accuracy, but here I will discuss how close the movie is to the plays and the real Henry V.  Henry Percy did rebel against Henry IV.  He did not demand that Henry ransom Mortimer from the Welch and accuse him of being a bad king.   Instead the rebellion was due to money issues involving the Percy family.  He was killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury, but not in a duel with Hal.  He was killed by an arrow.  Hal was at the battle with his father and fought bravely.  He was wounded by an arrow to his face.  In a puzzling adherence to history, Chalamet sports a scar on his cheek.  Take that, history nerds.  And he really did have that bowl cut hairdo.  

                        If you believe Shakespeare, Hal was on the outs with his father over policies.  For instance, Henry IV was reluctant to go to war with France, but Hal was for it.  He was hardly a peacenik.  Shakespeare has probably exaggerated his wastrel ways.  Falstaff is the only fictional main character in the movie. Hal was banished from the court due to disagreements with his father.  However, he had reconciled with his father at the time of his death and his father did want him to succeed.  Thomas was never seriously considered.  Thomas did not die before Henry IV.  In fact, he went to France with his brother and died in battle there.  Falstaff was banished from Henry V’s court as depicted in the film, but he was not reinstated.  He died miserably before Henry left for France.

                        The leadup to the war is a bit more grounded in history and Shakespeare.  According to Shakespeare (Willie may have invented the story), Henry gets a gift of tennis balls from the Dauphin insultingly suggesting he chose play over war.  Why Michod went with one tennis ball instead of several must have been a budget issue.  The Archbishop of Canterbury did argue that French Salic Law supported Henry’s claim to the French throne, but this was not to convince him, but to give him justification for the invasion.  Henry was set on the French kingship from day one.  The executions of Cambridge and Grey are the most accurate historical incident in the movie.  This was the Southampton Plot.  There were actually three nobles who were beheaded.  The movie is unclear as to Cambridge’s motivation, historians feel he was bribable and wanted Henry overthrown.

                        William Gascoigne (Sean Harris) was Henry’s main adviser, but he did not go on the expedition and died peacefully in bed.  The siege of Harfleur is poorly handled.  The movie gets credit for depicting trebuchets in action, but they probably fired rocks against the walls, not fireballs.  (Henry also had cannons, not shown in the movie.)  Who wants to capture a burned-out city?  For character arc purposes, Henry refuses to launch a bloody assault on the city.  Probably because Pattison was not capable of that “Once more into the breech” moment.  The movie makes no reference to the terrible dysentery that hit Henry’s camp. The city falls as if by miracle when actually it was a long and bitter siege. The city surrendered when no relief came.

                        After Harfleur, with his exhausted army dwindling and still suffering from dysentery, Henry made the very questionable decision to march to a different port to return to England.  The movie greatly downplays that horrible march through enemy territory.  Finally, the march ended in what should have been disaster with a powerful French army blocking the path to the port.  Henry certainly did not go to see the Dauphin to propose a duel!  The Dauphin was not even with the French army (although Shakespeare had him there).  The Dauphin was likely similar to the way Olivier/Branagh portray him – a snobby, overconfident prince, but not a loony.  As far as Henry’s plan, he was open to a deal, but when nothing acceptable was offered, he was determined to fight.  The plan (which was probably the result of Henry’s discussion with his commanders) was to play defense and lure the French knights to attack him on a muddy field.  He gave his “Band of Brothers” speech before the battle because he was virtually the only Englishman that thought they could win.  Unlike Chalamet’s speech, Shakespeare has Henry basically promising his men that their victory will bring glory to them all.  Henry did not send out a phalanx of foot-bound knights to provoke the French.  In the actual battle, when the French refused to attack, Henry moved his army closer and started pelting them with arrows.  This resulted in a charge by knights on horseback who were hit by a blizzard of arrows.  Subsequently, French attacks were by dismounted knights wading through the mud to get to the British.  This did result in a melee similar to the movie.  Although the movie battle is chaotic (how did they know who to kill?), it appears that the archers got involved, which would be accurate.  Overall, the movie barely suggests the key role the longbowmen played in the victory.  They fire only two volleys in the movie.  Henry did fight in the battle, but he would have been wearing more than just a breastplate.  (Branagh’ version is the closest cinema has come to the actual battle.)  The duel with the Dauphin is ludicrous, but does provide us with possibly the worst death in war movie history.  Robert Pattison did his own stunt!  After the battle, the now hardened Henry orders the execution of the prisoners because they were not secured and they might rejoin their comrades if the French attacked again.  In reality, Henry did order this, but the battle was still going on and he was concerned by a report that the baggage train had been raided. 

                The movie implies Henry meets the French king soon after the battle and the king surrenders.  This meeting actually occurred four years later, after Henry returned to England and then launched his second expedition.  Part of the deal was the hand of Catherine.  Michod junks the charming scene where Catherine learns English from her hand maid for one where she goes unmedieval on his ass, saying “I will not submit to you, you must earn my respect.”  She then tells him there was no French assassin and questions the tennis ball message.  Henry then has an “aha!” moment that results in a major headache for William Gascoigne.  The only thing true here is Henry married Catherine (and then proceeded to ignore her for most of the marriage).      

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

CONSENSUS #55. The Dawn Patrol (1938)

SYNOPSIS: "The Dawn Patrol" is a WWI air combat film set at a British aerodrome on the Western Front. Two best friends (Errol Flynn and David Niven) are pitted against a Flying Circus style German squadron replete with a Red Baronish commander and their own commander (Basil Rathbone) who insists on sending them off to war in WWI aircraft. What a jerk! One of the BFFs is promoted to command and now has to make the tough decisions, including a suicidal mission to bomb an ammunition dump.

BACK-STORY: The Dawn Patrol (1938) was a remake of a 1930 film and even uses a lot of the aerial footage from that film. The plot is from the short story The Flight Commander by John Monk Saunders (who also wrote the Wings story). It was the third teaming of Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn and once again they play antagonists. Rathbone was a decorated WWI veteran and wore his decorations in the movie. The film used 17 vintage aircraft (and 15 crashed during production).

TRIVIA:  Wikipedia, imdb
1.  It has an all-male cast. 
2.  The script was by Howard Hawks and shows several of the “Hawksian world” elements his films were noted for:   “real men” placed in a harrowing situation, chivalry, bravado, camaraderie, individual initiative over orders.
3.  The production used 17 vintage aircraft, mostly Nieuports.  15 of the planes were crashed during the shoot.
4.  Basil Rathbone’s character proudly wears the Military Cross awarded to Rathbone during his service in WWI.

Belle and Blade  =  N/A
Brassey’s              =  4.0
Video Hound       =  4.4
War Movies         =  3.8
Military History  =  #38
Channel 4             =  no
Film Site                =  yes
101 War Movies  =  no
Rotten Tomatoes  =  no 

OPINION: The Dawn Patrol deserves its place on the list because not only is it an important film, but  it created several air combat conventions.  Plus, it is simply a great movie.  The Dawn Patrol manages to influence future movies and maintain its entertainment value.  If this movie was made today, it would be considered a comedy because of the clichés. However, in 1938, it was breaking new ground. Its main themes are going to be reused in numerous other war movies. One theme was the hard-drinking fatalism of the fighter pilots as seen in The Longest Day, Fly Boys, Aces High. The Blue Max, etc.  Another theme is the dead meat nature of replacements. This cliché branched off into other services like the infantry in Platoon. A third theme is the pressures of command and the stress of sending young men to their deaths. See Twelve OClock High as the best example. A similar theme is the insensitivity of higher command as seen in Paths of Glory. The movie is not heavy-handed in pushing these themes.  The movie holds up well. Much better than many old WWI movies. The acting is outstanding. Flynn and Rathbone were at the peak of their careers.  The cinematography is eye-opening. The aerial scenes are well done although you have to give a lot of credit to the earlier film. The vintage aircraft are obviously superior to modern CGI. The air combat looks more realistic than in Flyboys, for instance.

Friday, November 8, 2019

NOW SHOWING: Midway (2019)

          I saw a good Midway movie on Thursday, unfortunately it was the 1976 version.  Although not a great war movie, it is much better than the new CGI extravaganza from Roland Emmerich (“The Patriot”).  He had trouble raising the $100 million price tag, I guess because investors questioned the public’s desire to see a movie about the Battle of Midway.  What, no aliens?  He must have spent 90% of the money on the CGI, leaving only about 10% for the cast.  Remember when epic war movies like “The Longest Day” had all-star casts?  “Midway” is not in that league.  We do get Woody Harrelson and Dennis Quaid.  At least they are age appropriate – I’m looking at you “Midway” (1976).  But we also have to watch Nick Jonas and Mandy Moore.  Hey kids, come learn some history told by teen idols!

                        The movie opens with an excerpt from a speech by FDR that has little to do with the movie.  This was the first sign that my fears encouraged by the trailers might be justified.  We get the usual “true account” claim and the movie is proud of its accuracy.  More on that later.  Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson – yes, that Patrick Wilson) attends a dinner hosted by Yamamoto in 1937 Japan and they discuss a future conflict between their two countries.  Yamamoto predicts that if their oil supply is threatened, it will mean war.  Spoiler alert:  there will be war.  At this point, the movie becomes the Richard Best (Ed Skrein – yes, that Ed Skrein) biopic.  It’s 1941 now and Best is a Dauntless dive bomber pilot on a routine flight.  He shuts down several things on the plane to simulate a worst-case scenario for their landing and then we get the second clue that my fears were justified because the landing defies all reality through the wonders of CGI.  It also serves as foreshadowing for his climactic landing at the end of the film.  And proves he’s a maverick.  Cliché alert:  his commander puts up with him because he’s the best pilot, damn it! 

                          If you have seen the trailer, you know Emmerich had the guts to bring us CGI Pearl Harbor again.    Once again we get Zeros flying between battleships while strafing what – the water?  And through the wonders of CGI, the Zeros can go below treetop level to strafe streets.  As with all the early scenes, the purpose is character motivation.  In this case, Best loses his best friend on the Arizona.   If we’re not Top Gunning with Best, we are going cerebral with intelligence savant Layton.  Joseph Rochefort makes a cameo appearance, but Layton gets the lion’s share of the credit for determining Japanese intentions.  In a ludicrous exchange, when his analysis is challenged, he proceeds to tell Nimitz the exact time and place the Japanese fleet will be discovered.  And he’s right!  The movie does intercut to Yamamoto and disses the Moore/Jonas fans by using subtitles.  The movie does the bare minimum in depicting the Japanese planning.

                        The movie makes barely a mention of Coral Sea, but decides to spend time on the USS Enterprise’s raid on the Marshalls.  Why?  Because Best needs to drop a bomb that causes collateral damage to a bunch of taxiing Japanese bombers, followed by a chase through mountains by two Zeros.  He’s in a Dauntless and they are Zeros, so you know where this is headed (if you are a history buff).  If not, get ready for the next big ride at Universal Studios!   Next is the obligatory Doolittle Raid starring Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckert) and only Jimmy Doolittle.  Enough foreplay, on to the main event.  The movie hops through the greatest hits:  discovering what AF stood for, Yorktown being repaired, Spruance taking over for Halsey, the USS Nautilus not sinking a ship, etc.  The battle begins at around the 1:30 mark meaning Emmerich only has time to film the story of how the USS Enterprise and Dick Best won the war.  He does manage to throw in an homage to John Ford’s filming his Midway documentary.  Note to Emmerich:  it is not wise to remind the audience of a great director.  The next twenty minutes is full of flak and flames.  (Note:  no Japanese were harmed in the filming of this movie.)  Safe your tissues, Yorktown fans. Once again, just as in 1976, the carrier somehow survives cinematically.

                         I have not read any reviews yet, but I know the movie is being crucified.  Justly so.  I don’t want to gloat about seeing this coming.  I wanted to like it and I’ve already mentioned I like the similarly crucified 1976 version.  But this movie is to 1976 what “Pearl Harbor” is to “Tora! Tora! Tora!  In other words, a CGI bloated war movie insult.  “Midway” (1976) and “Tora!” may have had wooden acting and quaint combat footage, but at least they were good history lessons.  Not that this movie is laughably inaccurate.  The seemingly most ludicrous historical atrocity (Bruno Gaido jumping into a parked plane’s back seat to shoot up a crashing Betty bomber), actually occurred!   It is more balanced between the command (Nimitz, Halsey) and the pilots than 1976 and all the airmen (Best, McCluskey, Gaido, Dickinson) are real people and are fairly accurate.  Emmerich's effort to bring these great warriors to the public's attention is by far the greatest strength of the movie.  It's just a shame that he has someone like Best (the only human being to bomb two carriers in one day) look like Luke Skywalker.  The others are treated more realistically.   Layton gets his due (at the expense of Rochefort).  But Fletcher is not even mentioned and Spruance is barely in the movie and comes off in a negative way as an overly cautious fill-in for Halsey.  As a Spruance fan, I was very irritated with his treatment.  So, as a history lesson, it won’t steer you the wrong way, but the coverage of the battle is half-assed as it concentrates on making Best into a superhero.  The CGI is good, but as usual it allows the filmmaker to defy reality.  For example, Best escapes a Zero by doing a hammerhead stall (climbing vertically until about to stall, then dropping the nose to reverse direction), something a Dauntless could not have done.  In fact, virtually everything Best’s plane does is ridiculous if you know anything about dive bombers.  He waits until less than 500 feet before releasing his bomb and then has to skim the water when pulling out.  Typically, each Best flight gets more ludicrous because Emmerich has to top the previous effect.  I was laughing by the end of the movie.  The CGI does allow for realistic looking aircraft and that is a treat for aviation buffs.  But then they just can’t stop themselves from adding two bombs to the torpedo planes!

                        We all know what to expect with CGI war movies by now, but can’t we get some decent acting just once.  While not as wooden as the 1976 cast, this one’s low rent all-stars sincerely do try, but they just come off like a high school play.  Skrein can be good, but here he labors through an atrocious accent and just can’t pull off the Tom Cruise imitation.  Wilson appears to be constipated through most of the picture.  Luke Evans sports a mustache that is equivalent to Skrein’s accent.  Nick Jonas and Mandy Moore are singers.  The bombastic music doesn’t cover for them.  The dialogue is as bad as you would expect.  “I thought you were dead.”

                        Well, we are still waiting for CGI to make the great air combat movie.  The effects have improved to where it might be possible, but if filmmakers continue to insist on using it to “enhance” the story we’ll never get there.  There will never be another movie about Midway.  Twice was enough.  However, I want you to imagine taking the screenplay for the 1976 movie, throwing out the romance, adding Best and the others without the melodrama, and doing a frame by frame replication of the combat using CGI.  Now you have a great war movie.  Someone should try it with the Battle of Britain.



Wednesday, November 6, 2019


1.  What is the movie the picture is from?

2.  What movie is this quote from?

You mean your only plan is to stand behind a few feet of mealie bags and wait for the attack?  

3.  What movie is this?

 It was the last film where all the stars participated.  The unfunny one gave up his fabled acting career after the film was finished. The movie was released in 1933, coincidentally (and I do mean coincidentally) the year Hitler came to power.  The movie was banned in Italy because Mussolini was personally offended (you can’t buy publicity like that) and in Germany (as with all their films) because the stars were Jewish.  It was directed by the only decent director that dealt with them – Leo McCarey (who did not enjoy the experience).  The movie underperformed at the box office possibly because its irreverence did not fit the Depression-era mood of the populace and its anti-government satire ran up against the optimistic mood of the early New Deal.  Critics were pretty brutal and the movie was not highly thought of until a revival in the 1960s.  Today it is considered to be their masterpiece and is ranked #60 (up from #85) on AFIs most recent list of great American movies.  It is #5 on the Comedy list.  The title apparently comes from a slang term meaning an easy task.

Friday, November 1, 2019

CLASSIC or ANTIQUE: The Frogmen (1951)

                        Have you enjoyed movies about the Navy SEALs?  Do you watch “SEAL Team” on CBS?  You might want to check out the father of the subgenre on YouTube.  “The Frogmen” is a 1951 black and white WWII movie.  Many SEALs have acknowledged that the movie influenced their desire to join the SEALs.  In a recent episode of “SEAL Team”, Sonny mentions that he wanted to be a frogman when growing up.  The movie was directed by Lloyd Bacon.  It was his only war movie.  His helming shows that the movie was not considered to be a major production, and yet it was popular and is still beloved.  The movie is a tribute to the United States Navy Underwater Demolition Teams which conducted reconnaissance and cleared underwater obstacles before amphibious invasions.  Although they participated in D-Day, they were more involved in the Pacific Theater.  Bacon was given a nice cast headed by Richard Widmark.  Widmark made “Halls of Montezuma” the same year.  He starred in several good war movies. 

                        The movie leads with a claim that it is a true story based on various incidents that occurred in the latter part of WWII.  Underwater Demolition Team 4 is chilling on deck of a transport and gets into a tiff with the ship’s crew.  Lt. Commander Lawrence (Widmark) is a by the book disciplinarian who has replaced the popular now deceased previous leader.  He tells the men that they are not special and they should respect their hosts.  In other words, he gets off on the wrong foot from the start.  Chief Flanagan (Andrews) leads the grumbling.  How dare frogmen be treated like sailors!  The dynamic is very similar to “Flying Leathernecks” with Dana Andrews playing the Robert Ryan role.  Speaking of other movies, the ship’s captain (Gary Merrill) plays Davenport (Merrill) to Widmark’s Savage (“12 O’Clock High. The dysfunction is ramped up after Lawrence makes the command decision to leave Flanagan and another survivor of a blown-up boat behind in order to get valuable information back to the ship.  He doesn’t seem very concerned with the dead men because he isn’t.  The whole unit wants to transfer.  Sound familiar?  If your answer is yes (and if it’s no), you know these heroes will stay to win the war and Lawrence will earn respect and become more empathetic.  To get to this resolution, we get scenes involving leaving a welcoming sign on the beach for the Marines, disarming a torpedo that inconveniently penetrates into the sick bay where heartthrob Jeffrey Hunter is laid up, and blowing up a submarine pen.  This rousing finale includes a vicious knife fight underwater.

                        This was the first time I have seen this movie and I have seen hundreds of war movies.  I am pretty ashamed of that, but excited by the fact that after 900 posts there are still good war movies I have not seen yet.  And some of them are on YouTube.  “The Frogmen” is much better than I expected.  It has a very good cast.  Besides the actors I mentioned already, we also get Harvey Lembeck and Robert Wagner.  They are given manly dialogue and put in manly situations.  No one has to bother with a mushy romantic subplot.  In fact, there are no women in the movie.  They do a lot of scuba diving and the underwater cinematography is excellent.  Those scenes are done without music which was a wise move.  It adds to the suspense.  The conflict between Lawrence and his men builds to a grand last mission and a satisfying conclusion.  As far as the “true story” claim, I can see where all of the scenes occurred at one time or another, just not all to the same unit.  The movie does not specify which island they are involved with, but it has to be Okinawa because their previous commander died at Iwo Jima.  The real Underwater Demolition Team 4 did serve in the Pacific and participated in the invasions of the Philippines, Saipan, Guam, and Okinawa.  They did have a boat blown up and they did leave a welcoming sign on a beach on Guam. 

                        If you have seen a lot of war movies (and if you haven’t), you have seen all of this before, except it’s underwater.  Don’t let the familiarity scare you away.  The movie is very entertaining, especially if you are a teenage boy.  You might even go and enlist in the Navy to become a SEAL.  They probably won’t let you in if you haven’t seen it.

GRADE  =  B+