Sunday, February 23, 2020

BOMB? Dresden (2006)

                “Dresden” is a German TV movie that sets a romance in the bombing of the German city of Dresden in 1945,  It was directed by Roland Richter.  The movie was inspired by the book “Fire” by Jorg Friedrich.  It touches on the controversy of the bombing and tries to put a civilian face on a military decision.

                Anna (Felicitas Woll) is a nurse working in a Dresden hospital.  Her father is the head physician and she is engaged to a doctor named Alexander (Benjamin Sadler).  Since Dresden has not been bombed and she is from an upper class family, Anna’s life  has not been effected much by the war.  This is about to change.  Robert Newman (John Light) is a British Lancaster bomber pilot.  When his bomber is hit, he parachutes and manages to make it to Anna’s hospital where he hides in the basement.  How else are they going to meet and start a romance?  Anna discovers him, nurses him back to health, and they fall in love.  Complications ensue and this is before the massive bombardment begins.  The movie throws in a Jewish subplot to add to the drama. 

                “Dresden” is an entertaining bit of ridiculousness.  It is best if you turn your brain off when viewing it.  The hoops the screenplay has to jump through to keep the love triangle viable are truly circuslike.  And laughable.  For instance, Robert shows up at Anna and Alexander’s engagement party wearing a German uniform.  This is just the first domino in a line of increasingly ludicrous domino falls.  It’s a small world in the fiery city of Dresden as the main characters keep bumping into each other.  The cast keeps a straight face through all this, although the wooden performance by Sadler makes one wonder if he can emote.  The rest of the cast is fine, especially Felicitas Woll.  The effects are surprisingly decent.  I was dreading the bombardment, but it is actually appropriately horrific.  The sets are excellent and the dead bodies piled in them pack an emotional punch.  I could put up with the credulity challenging love story better since it was dropped into the historical inferno that was Dresden.

                 As far as accuracy, the movie does not intend to be a documentary, but it does weigh in on the controversy about the bombing.  Before the bombing raid, bomber crews are briefed that Dresden is of “the highest value to the German defenses”.  It has a Gestapo headquarters, a munitions factory, poison gas facility, and is full of German troops headed to the Eastern Front.  The RAF will show the Russians how it’s done.  “Bomb the city until it burns”.  This pretty much conforms to the official line of why the raids occurred.  However, the bombing has been debated by historians ever since.  Dresden was a virgin city that “Bomber Harris” and Winston Churchill decided to target in the period after the Battle of the Bulge and as the Soviet offensive neared Germany.  There is evidence that Churchill wanted to aid the Soviet offensive and Harris saw Dresden as part of Bomber Command’s efforts to reduce German civilian morale.  The city was bombed from February 13-15, 1945 by over 1,000 British and American bombers.  Although the British have taken the brunt of the “terror bombing” accusations, the American bombers carried 40% incendiaries, which was a much higher rate than normal.  The resulting fire storm was Hiroshimaesque.  There is no way the movie could recreate the horror of what man can do to man.  1,600 acres were burned out and around 25,000 civilians were killed.  (Some studies place the number of dead at much higher.)  Although the movie is not intending to make a political statement about the “atrocity”, it is hard to watch the attractive cast go through it without thinking “Bomber” Harris is probably in Hell.

                Whether you watch “Dresden” should depend on how guilty you will feel about laughing at the ridiculous plot developments in the midst of so much inhumanity and suffering.  It is a standard romance set in a terrible historical event.  You won’t learn anything about love, but you will learn something about the most famous non-atomic bombing of WWII.

GRADE  =  C   

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

WAR SHORT: Coward (2012)

                        “Coward” is a war short set in the Great War.  It was directed by David Roddham and was his second and last short.  He went on to a career as a special effects technician.  “Coward” cost $250,000.  It lasts 25 minutes and is available on YouTube.

                        The movie leads off with a Kipling quote:  “I could not look on Death,/ Which being known,/  Men led  me to him,  /  Blindfolded and alone.”  That blindfold Is what we call foreshadowing.  Two Irish lads go off to war enthusiastically.  Andrew (Martin McCann) promises James’ (Sean Stewart) mother to protect him.  Suddenly, the duo are in a trench at Ypres in 1917.  We have no idea what transpired since 1915. They appear to be survivors who have lost their idealism.  The core group is slightly dysfunctional but much of it can be chalked up to the mud, rain, and dead bodies.  And the senselessness of the war.  They have a commanding officer who threatens to send them over the top after he accuses them of stealing some brandy.  This builds to a battle scene.

                        I have several problems with this movie.  First, the Captain is an inconsistent character.  He follows up his reprisal threat with an apology and extra liquor ration, then he turns on Andrew for no good reason.  Second, the battle is very confusing.  It begins with a small barrage that hits the trench.  This type of harassing barrage seldom presaged an attack and yet this one supposedly does.  Yet, we see no German soldiers.  In fact, the movie has Tommies advancing.  Somehow Andrew and James end up in no man’s land due to the barrage.  Andrew behaves bravely until shell shock sets in.  Third, the Captain orders a withdrawal even though there are no Germans attacking.  And he has the nerve to accuse Andrew of disobeying orders!  Fourth, the movie makes a point of Andrew and James being Irish.  We don’t know what motivated them to enlist, even though the war was not popular with the Irish.  In the movie, they’re being Irish is not brought up until the post script which implies Andrew’s fate was due to his being Irish.  Basically, I’m saying the movie needed to be longer so these plot points could have been fleshed out.  It feels rushed so its ending has diluted impact.

                        A longer version would have been nice because the effort is admirable.  The acting is good and Martin McCann went on to a good career, including a key role in “’71”.  The movie starts strong with James’ mother barely holding it together as her only son goes off to war.  A picture of her late-lamented veteran husband subtly reminds us of the effects of war on women.   The trench set is realistic and shows the sincerity of the production.  It is appropriately gross and barely habitable.  At one point, one of the mates is digging and is splashed with blood from a corpse.  You can see why the men are miserable.  The movie is very micro, but what little no man’s land it could afford is great.  It is hellish with its shell craters and dead horses.  (I admit it is hard to explain a horse in no man’s land in 1917.)   The effects are well done.  Andrew has legitimate shell shock.

                        “Coward” is worth the watch because it is short and watchable.  It will make you think and not just about the flaws in the script.  Too bad it wasn’t a rough draft for a feature film.


Sunday, February 16, 2020

CONSENSUS #49. The Big Parade (1925)

SYNOPSIS: A spoiled rich boy (John Gilbert) is peer-pressured into volunteering for the Western Front in WWI. He befriends two common Joes (Karl Dane and Tom O’Brien) and hooks up with a feisty French femme (Renee Adoree). Before they can consummate the affair, the trio of doughboys are off to fight the Battle of Belleau Wood.

BACK-STORY: The Big Parade is a very influential war movie released in 1925. It was directed by King Vidor (“Northwest Passage”) and was a huge hit. The film cost $245,000 and made over $22 million. It is the highest grossing silent movie in history. The screenplay is based on a play by Joseph Farnham and the autobiographical novel Plumes by Marine veteran Laurence Stallings. It made a superstar of its lead John Gilbert (previously known for romantic roles opposite Marlene Dietrich) and boosted the career of Renee Adoree, who sadly died a few years later from tuberculosis. Vidor had the cooperation of the War Department, specifically the 2nd Division and the Signal Corps. Vidor watched hours of Signal Corps film to get the rhythm of battle and used some of the footage in the movie.

TRIVIA:  wikipedia, imdb, TCM

1.  It was based on the autobiographical novel by Laurence Stallings.  Stallings had been a Marine captain in WWI and was wounded in the leg in the Battle of Belleau Wood.  He was awarded the Croix de Guerre and Silver Star.

2.  It was MGMs highest grossing film until “Gone With the Wind”.

3.  The movie made a major star of Renee Adoree.  Unfortunately, she died a few years later at age 35 from tuberculosis.  Her co-star John Gilbert died at age 38.

4.  The gum chewing scene was improvised after director King Vidor saw a crew member chewing some.  He and Gilbert were not expecting Adoree to swallow it at the end of the scene.

5.  Vidor had a contract that called for 20% of the profits.  The studio’s lawyers conned him into believing the movie had been overly costly and would underperform.  He sold out for a small sum, thus avoiding becoming a millionaire.

6.  After a successful screen testing, it was decided to expand the film.  Vidor reshot the column scene with 3,000 extras, 200 trucks, and 100 planes (all provided by the War Department).  Uncredited director George W. Hill added some more combat.

7.  First film to use the word “damn” (on a title card).  Gilbert’s Apperson says:  “GOD DAMN THEIR SOULS!”

8.  Vidor used a bass drum when the soldiers are marching through the woods to get the men to keep a relentless pace into death.

9.  It was the second most profitable silent movie after “Birth of a Nation”.

Belle and Blade  =  N/A
Brassey’s              =  4.0
Video Hound       =  3.8
War Movies         =  N/A
Military History  =  #58
Channel 4             =  no
Film Site                =  yes
101 War Movies  =  yes
Rotten Tomatoes  =   no

OPINION: If you define greatest as most important, The Big Parade belongs in the top 100 and probably should be higher than #49. It is one of the great WWI movies. It will be interesting to see how it stacks up against Wings and Hells Angels. As far as the most obvious comparison, it is definitely inferior to All Quiet which came out five years later. However, if you define greatest as best quality, The Big Parade" naturally comes up short due to its simplistic plot and the drawbacks of the silent era. I would not hesitate to call it a classic, but it is not one of the best war movies ever made.
The battle section of the movie is very good. It may lack a bit of accuracy and realism, but it is excitingly done. The deaths are unexpected. The fog of war is emphasized. Audiences got a taste of what it must have been like to be trapped in no mans land.

The movie is important because it showed the human dimensions of war. Previous movies about war had not concentrated on the grunts (or in this case, doughboys). You had not seen realistic deaths like Slims and Bulls. The main character would not have been crippled. Previous movies were either anti-German or propagandistic, or both. This movie is neither. It is anti-war, but not as strongly as some critics have claimed. It does have a happy ending which dilutes the anti-war message.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is the quote from?

"We're Airborne. We don't start fights, we finish 'em!"

3.  What movie is this?

It was the top box office attraction the year it was released.  It is based on the popular novel (1957) by Alistair MacLean, although the characters underwent major changes by screenwriter Carl Foreman ( for instance, there are no major female characters in the book ).  At $6 million, the film was one of the most expensive up to that time.  It paid off as the movie was a smash hit and critically acclaimed.  It served as a template for the James Bond series with its mixture of action, characters, and exotic locale.  It is often linked with similar movies from that time period, specifically with “Bridge on the River Kwai”, “The Longest Day”, and “The Great Escape”.  It was nominated for 7 Academy Awards and won for Best Special Effects.  It was awarded the Golden Globe for Drama.  One of the Oscar nods went to Foreman for his first credited screenplay since being blacklisted as a Communist.  The movie was filmed mostly on the island of Rhodes which hosted an all-star cast.  One of whom almost died during filming because of immersion in a pool of water for the explosives on the elevator shaft scene.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

WAR SHORT: The Sniper (2015)

          This week’s short is “The Sniper”, which was written and directed by Gerald Fowler.  It is only eight minutes long and cost around $300.  That’s a three with only two zeroes.  It actually looks like he spent twice that amount on it.  It opens with a title card that tells us:  “Two snipers who’ve become shells of their former selves, wander into the sinister recesses of their inner darkness”.  It is a good thing we are told this because there is no character development in the movie.  We are left to conjecture what caused them to be shells of their former selves.  They are involved in an unnamed civil war.  We have to assume they are cliched snipers who have PTSD from all the kills they have had to accomplish.  That’s where the cliché ends, because unlike every other dueling snipers movie, these guys are incompetent.  Since this is far from a comedy, I have to assume Fowler is just not an expert on sniping.  Or lacks common sense.  One of them goes outside in broad daylight after his foe has killed two others, wounded him, and is obviously in a high position with a clear view of the courtyard.  After surviving this, he exposes himself in a window, with no consequences.  His foe does not change position after the kills.   

                        Fowler must have intended for the sparse narrative to be thought-provoking.  What motivates the two snipers?  Why does one shoot a woman and a peace-keeper (so I assume)?  What is it about war that brings out inner demons?   He missed the mark if he wanted those deeper issues discussed.  Instead, I was left with questions like:  why is this woman standing in the open telling the peace-keeper there is a sniper in the area?  Why does the driver speed away without checking on the two victims?  Given the angle, how does the “good” sniper pull off that shot?  Why is he even still alive?  I would appreciate any answers to these questions. 

                        The movie is competently made.  Fowler uses a lot of hand-held and clearly knows his craft.  The lack of dialogue is a plus.  Less is more in a low budget film like this.  It’s hard to be too critical of a work that is clearly a sincere project and had little money to work with.  The problem lies with the unrealistic tactics of the two.  Also, in a crowded subgenre, it shows a distinct lack of originality to call your film “The Sniper”.  At the very least it should have been entitled “The Snipers”.  Or just call it “War is Hell”. 


Watch it here:  The Sniper

Thursday, February 6, 2020

R.I.P. Kirk Douglas

Kirk Douglas was one of my favorite actors. He could play any role (except a wimp) and did not mind playing characters that were dislikeable, unlike John Wayne. I read once that Wayne told him not to play Van Gogh in "Lust for Life", but Douglas was willing to take controversial roles. He made a lot of war movies and war movie lovers from my generation have probably seen most, if not all of them. Here is the list:
The Heroes of Telemark
Is Paris Burning?
Victory at Entebbe
The Final Countdown
He was more than just an actor. He made important movies. "Paths of Glory" was a movie he insisted on making. His stint in the Navy in WWII on an anti-submarine warfare vessel made him aware of the horrors of war. Although he volunteered after Pearl Harbor, he did not hate the Japanese and could empathize with crewmen of subs that might undergo a depth charging from his ship. This influenced him making one of the greatest anti-war movies of all time. When Kubrick wanted an upbeat ending, Douglas insisted on sticking with the firing squad.

But my favorite of his movies is "Spartacus". I showed it so many times in my Western Civ class that I have the dialogue memorized. It is an almost perfect movie and he was the main reason for that, not Kubrick. But more than perfect entertainment, it is a historically significant film because he insisted the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo be given screenwriting credit. This was a gutsy career move and helped drive a stake into McCarthyism. Watch the movie "Trumbo" to get a better appreciation for Douglas.
We will not see another actor like him.

The Final Countdown  (1980)

                       "The Final Countdown" was Douglas' last war film.  It is a alternative history science fiction film that also falls in the war movie genre.  Originally, it was entitled “The Last Countdown” and used the Bermuda Triangle to transport the aircraft carrier to the Mediterranean before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand which started WWI.  When producer Peter Douglas (Kirk’s son) got his hands on the screenplay, he changed it to Pearl Harbor.  He hired Don Taylor to direct.  Taylor is familiar to war movie fans more for his acting in films like “Stalag 17” where he plays Dunbar.  Douglas got full cooperation from the Navy which saw the movie as a recruiting booster.  It allowed Douglas to spend two months on the USS Nimitz.  48 members of the crew got acting credits for the film and some had speaking roles.  The Navy had no problems with the script and was pleased with the finished product.  The three Zeros were supplied by the Commemorative Air Force (originally called the Confederate Air Force).  These were replicas adapted from AT-6 Texans and they had previously been seen in “Tora! Tora! Tora!”   The climactic scene showing the attack on Pearl Harbor was footage from that earlier film.  The rock band Europe was inspired to write its hit song because it liked the title.

                        The movie is set in 1980…at first.  The USS Nimitz is at Pearl Harbor when a civilian observer named Lasky (Martin Sheen) comes aboard to inspect the ship for his employer who designed it.  He must be bad luck because soon after his arrival the carrier goes through a vortex.  The special effects are cheesy, but satisfactory.  Capt. Yelland (Kirk Douglas) calls for general quarters so the viewing public can see how efficiently run a modern carrier is.  Something is hinky as the carrier has lost communications with its escort ships.  And it is picking up “The Jack Benny Show”.  After a bit of head-scratching, Yelland realizes the date is December 6, 1941.  He now has a decision to make.  Should he change the course of history by destroying the Japanese fleet?  It’s a bit more consequential than Marty McFly sleeping with his mother.

                          If you are going to make a time travel movie involving an aircraft carrier and Pearl Harbor, you need to make it more fun than this movie.  “The Final Countdown” is too serious, and yet it does not get serious about the implications of defeating the attack.  Yelland does not host a discussion of the consequences.  And then we don’t get to see if he was right.  The movie’s payoff is a bit lame and proves that the plot existed mainly to reveal who Lasky’s mysterious boss is.  It’s not worth the wait.  The movie is focused on showing off the ship and setting up the twist ending.  To bring drama to the ship a foghornish Senator (Charles Durning), his curvaceous secretary (Katherine Ross), and a Zero pilot are brought aboard.  The acting is as wooden as a WWII carrier deck.  Not   Douglas, of course, because he is his usual reliable self.  The character would have been better as a Halsey instead of a Spruance. The best actor is the USS Nimitz.  It’s an awesome ship and is run efficiently.  We see a lot of procedures including takeoffs and landings.  Unfortunately, the Navy did not insist on a blaring rock soundtrack to goose recruitment.  Instead, the movie relies on patriotic pablum.  There’s a lot to be proud of if you are an American.  You certainly would not have to worry if the Japanese fleet of 1941 were to attack Pearl Harbor again.  
                        To write this review, I went to the excellent Guts and Glory by Lawrence Suid to see how much military cooperation the film got.  Some of our best war movies had a lot of trouble getting the Pentagon to help by giving free or cheap use of weapons, facilities, and personnel.  Cooperation always comes with vetting of the script.  The Pentagon wants a positive portrayal in exchange for the goodies.  Often it will demand changes in the script.  These changes usually dilute the entertainment potential of the film so sometimes the filmmaker revolts and goes without cooperation.  It is telling that the script for “The Final Countdown” raised no red flags from the Navy.  This might explain why the finished product is not as gonzo as the premise.  In fact, the movie would have been more entertaining if it were made by the Scyfy Channel without Navy cooperation.


Monday, February 3, 2020

FINALLY: A Rumor of War (1980)

          You would think that after a decade of doing this blog and watching over 800 war movies, there would be no war movies I still wanted to see.  But there are still a few great white whales out there.  One of them is “Ice Cold in Alex”.  But I got to check one off my list recently when I found “A Rumor of War” on YouTube.  I had the movie on VHS when it first came out and showed it to my American History classes a couple of times, but the tape got ruined and unbelievably it is still not available on DVD!  It is based on the memoir by Philip Caputo which was one the first significant books that came out of the war.  It was published in 1978.  Caputo went on to acclaim as a war correspondent (he reported from Saigon as it fell) and as an author.  “Rumor” is considered one of the classics books about Vietnam.  It was one of the first books I read about the war and still one of the best.  The miniseries took on a big task in adapting the book and had the added pressure of bringing the war to a TV audience for the first time.

                        It begins with a flashforward to Lt. Caputo on trial for the murders of two South Vietnamese civilians. The movie is basically divided into four parts.   In 1963, Caputo (Brad Davis) is a typical high schooler who can’t wait to leave home, although he has a cushy middle-class life.  He has problems with this father of the “I’m not a kid” variety and rebels against his parent’s plans for him to get “a respectable job, a respectable home, and a respectable wife”.  He stands in for his generation and just like many young men of that generation, he is seduced by Kennedy’s “ask what you can do for your country” challenge.  The Marines seemed a good way to avoid suburban hell and prove his manhood.  The second part begins with boot camp where the “lesson of the day is kill!”  As far as tactics are concerned, “ambush is killing and killing is fun!”  The idea that war is about killing will figure in the war crime he is eventually charged with.  His unit is sent to a place called Danang, South Vietnam.  They have to look it up on a map, as did all Americans.  His unit was the first one involved in what they called “a splendid little war” because it was going to be short and easy.  Make that frustrating and grungy.  They soon find out that their main enemies are the heat and dysentery.  The Viet Cong make their presence known through sniping and mines.  They are assigned to guard an airfield and that’s it, supposedly.  No one could have predicted the escalation on the horizon.  Although Lt. Caputo is technically in charge of the platoon and he is competent, it is actually run by a gruff Korean War veteran, Sgt. Coleman (Brian Dennehy).  They go on search and destroy missions where they are told to only shoot if the suspect is running away.  They do a lot of humping through the boonies and occasionally search villes.  It gets frustrating because there is no chance to fight classic battles like Gettysburg.  The third part begins with Caputo being transferred to a staff position at headquarters. He is in charge of the body count (“officer of the dead” as he calls it).  As a REMF, he learns that the brass is largely clueless about the tip of the spear and most are fixated on statistics and trivial pursuits like volleyball games.  He has a conversation with a chaplain (“sky pilot”) who questions the war.  “I hope none of these boys are getting killed because someone wants a promotion”.  Caputo is not anti-war, yet.  He wants back into combat and gets his wish in part four.  The innocent early days are over and the rules of engagement are being disregarded, especially when you lose men to booby traps.  Pair the frustration of losing men with the boot camp mantra of kill and you get the war crime Caputo gets accused of.

                        “A Rumor of War” is a good substitute for reading the book. Although one man’s story, the book is one of the most informative about grunts in the early years of the war.  Caputo was an idealist who became a cynic, much like the American public.  It took the public a lot longer because it was not there.  Caputo goes from green lieutenant to war criminal in one tour and it seems unrealistic, but the movie tracks the book fairly well.  He reminds me of Elias from “Platoon” if Elias had killed the villager.  The military justice part of the movie reminds of “Breaker Morant”.  It is essentially a movie about how a good man can do something bad due to the environment he is placed in.

                        The strength of the movie is it brings the book to the small screen with little enhancement.  Since it was a mini-series clocking in at 191 minutes, it is able to cover the book well.  The cast is made-for-TV, but not bad.  Brad Davis was two years from “Midnight Express” and was a good get for the movie.  He does a great job with Caputo’s transition from idealist to cynic.  Since this is the early war, you can forgive Caputo for being very naïve about war.  Dennehy is strong as a stereotypical sergeant and the dynamic between him and Caputo is true to the war.  Keith Carradine and Michael O’Keefe are solid as Caputo’s friends.  Look for a very young Laurence Fishburne (one year after “Apocalypse Now”).  Unfortunately, the cast was not put through any kind of boot camp so their movements look like actors playing army men.  The movie is good about showing some of the hardships of the war, but due to it being on TV, it has to pull its punches.  Still, you get a clear idea why Caputo becomes frustrated.

                        If you have seen a lot of Vietnam War movies, “A Rumor of War” stands out as an oddball.  It was made for TV.  It is a true story.  But most odd is it is not trying to be cathartic.  There is little combat and what there is is far from graphic and adrenaline-pumping.  His crime is not Nazi-worthy and the trial is hardly edge of your seat.  It’s the “Red Badge of Courage” of the Vietnam War.  Watch it after “The Quiet American” and “Go Tell the Spartans” and you will have a good idea of how we got to “Hamburger Hill”.


COMPARISON TO THE BOOK:    *** Spoiler alert:  This comparison will give away plot points.

                        The reason why I gave the movie a B is because it is so close to the movie, but there are some differences.  Caputo actually joined the Marines three years before the Kennedy assassination.  He wanted adventure and to prove himself.  There was no girlfriend involved.  He went beyond boot camp and graduated from Officers Candidate School.  The chronology of events in Vietnam is basically the same. Most of the incidents in the movie occurred to Caputo.  Coleman is based on a Sgt. Campbell and he does not die.  There is no McCoy in the book.  The role was apparently created for Keith Carradine and so Caputo’s character could be in the middle between the humane Cohen (Levy in the book) and the warrior McCoy.  The stint at headquarters is accurate, with the superior’s names being changed.  They may have been fictional, but they represented archetypes.  In the book, he mentions that he had more in common with the VC than with the rear echelon.  The movie gets a lot of the details about Vietnam right, but leaves out a lot.  It refers to the heat and dysentery, but not the mosquitoes and exhaustion.  The movie omits the enemy atrocities mentioned in the book.  The war crime is essentially the same, but Caputo was not on the mission.  He ordered it and what happened was due to his instructions to the patrol, so for the movie to place him on the mission was acceptable.  Why did he do it?  The movie does not do a good job on his motivation.  It is hard to match the book’s explanation.  Things rot in the Vietnamese climate, including ethics.

                        The book is better than the movie.  Caputo is a talented writer and the book reads like a novel.  I am not a big memoir fan, but I love this book.  He has a way of describing things that a movie cannot replicate.  He describes the “barbed wire spreading steel thorns through the late-summer rice.”  There are so many memorable lines in it.  Here are a few:
                        -  “The guerrillas were everywhere, which is another way of saying they were nowhere.”
                        -   “In war, a man does not have to be killed or wounded to be a casualty.”
                        -  “The one true god of modern war is blind chance.”

Saturday, February 1, 2020

CONSENSUS #50 - Ballad of a Soldier (1959)

SUMMARY: "Ballad of a Soldier" is a Russian movie set in 1942 on the Eastern Front. Alyosha becomes a hero by destroying two German tanks. His reward is a pass to return home. Thus begins an odyssey which sees him interact with various people. The young, humane soldier has a positive effect on those he meets. The backdrop is the desperation of the Great Patriotic War. His most significant encounter is with a young woman named Shura. They have an awkward, chaste, and endearing "affair". He finally arrives home having used up all of his leave getting there.

BACK-STORY: “Ballad of a Soldier” was a Soviet film released in 1959. It is a significant example of the movies made during the period after the death of Stalin and the rise of Khrushchev. The new Soviet dictator loosened the reins on Soviet cinema which resulted in some remarkably non-doctrinal films. In the case of “Ballad”, it helped that Khrushchev was a fan of the director Grigori Chukhrai and allowed even more leniency in censorship. Chukhrai made the daring decision to cast two inexperienced leads, but it paid off. The movie quickly acquired international acclaim including an Oscar nomination for Original Screenplay.  It won the BAFTA for Best Film From Any Source.  (It tied with “The Hustler”.)  It won a special jury prize at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival.  It is one of the most beloved Soviet-era films.
Belle and Blade  =  N/A
Brassey’s              =  4.0
Video Hound       =  N/A
War Movies         =  5.0
Military History  =  #81
Channel 4             =  no
Film Site                =  yes
101 War Movies  =  yes
Rotten Tomatoes  =  no 

OPINION: This is not so much a war movie as a movie set in war. It is certainly interesting and well worth the viewing, but I think it is a tad overrated. It almost seems the critics went overboard in accolades in order to encourage the new cinema that was coming out of Khrushchev
s Russia. Plus, compared to the pompously patriotic films under Stalin, this movie must have been bracingly refreshing.

There is some good cinematography, but some of it is a little artsy. We get lots of close-ups of stoical Russian faces. There are numerous long shots. There is lots of scenery from moving trains.

Some of the characterizations are not true to human nature. For instance, one of the guards Alyosha encounters is armed with a rifle and bayonet, yet turns out to be a pushover who can be bribed with a can meat when he could clearly have taken whatever he wanted. But most perplexing is the portrayal of the Russian officers, starting with the general. I
m not saying all Russian officers were tyrants, but certainly a majority were. The movie has all of them being nice to the enlisted men. This strains credulity.

On the plus side, the main characters are likeable. We want Alyosha and Shura to fall in love and live happily ever after. We root for him to get back to his mother. We cheer when the crippled soldier
s wife welcomes him back without flinching. We are incensed that Pavlov
s wife is cheating on him. The movie takes some unexpected turns. It does a great job showing the spirit of the Russian people.

Monday, January 27, 2020

WAR SHORT: An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1962)

The film is 28 minutes long and was featured on the classic "Twilight Zone" series.  It is a French film based on the famous short story by Ambrose Bierce.  It follows the story very closely.  It received the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the Academy Award for Short Film.   Very appropriate because the film is creepy.  It is set in the Civil War and opens with a military order posted on a tree warning civilians that any sabotage of railroad bridges, tunnels, or trains will result in execution.  A well-dressed Southerner is about to be hanged from a bridge for violating that order.  As the noose is tightened, he dreams of his family.  What happens next is a miracle.  Seemingly. 

 The director was Robert Enrico and he has a distinctive style. The movie is mesmerizing. There is no dialogue and in fact, there are no sounds. The first half is covered by funereal music which shifts to bizarre midway through. But it’s the cinematography that stands out. Enrico uses everything in a cinematographer’s bag of tricks. There are long shots, close-ups, even some POV. There is some amazing underwater camera work. It is a clinic on cinematography. There are long tracking shots as the man runs home. During this scene, the tint of the movie changes.  It is a must see for war movie lovers, fans of film, and lovers of literature.


Thursday, January 23, 2020

Should You Watch 68 Whiskey?

                        “68 Whiskey” is a new Paramount Network show.  It is set in present-day Afghanistan and follows medics working in a NATO coalition base.  It is based on an Israeli series entitled “Charlie Golf One”.  Paramount is hoping for its next big hit after “Yellowstone”, but this show has no Kevin Costner.

                        The tone is set immediately as the first words uttered are “f*** me” coming from a slutty female clerk.  Grace (Gage Golightly) is making love to medic Cooper Roback (Sam Keeley) in the medical supply building.  Before the scene is over, we get the words pussy and shit.  Welcome to the Paramount Network.  Roback is a playa and a schemer.  He and his buddy Staff Sergeant Davis (Jeremy Tardy) are in the war to make money.  This includes betting big on a boxing match between Roback and a hulk named Sasquatch.  He happens to be Grace’s boyfriend, so a cliched love triangle is established.  It is also established that Roback and Davis are poor gamblers.  This is supposed to be a war series, so Roback goes on a medevac to recover a soldier who turns out to be off base for black market activities.  On the way back, for no good reason, Roback is forced to ride standing on the skid.  Oh, the reason was it was cool.  Sgt. Alvarez (Cristina Rodlo) screws up and the G.I. dies.  Cue the PTSD.  They also bring back a wounded local.  Maj. Holloway (Beth Riesgraf) is the hard-ass doctor who laments having to care for a civilian.  She is also not thrilled to find Roback is hoping to cash in on the dead guy’s black market items.  It seems Roback will always be one step ahead of the law.  He and Davis go off base to meet a local warlord to do a drug deal.  Medical supplies for hashish.  They manage to rip-off the warlord for a cache of hash.  These are our heroes.  They end up walking back to base with no one in hot pursuit.  Cliffhanger ending.

                        “68 Whiskey” wants to be a 2020 mashup of “MASH”, “Sgt. Bilko”, and “Three Kings”.  It fails miserably.  There is little humor and the drama is laughable.  I have no idea who the technical adviser is, but he should be fired.  A medic gives shots through children’s clothing.  A trio of soldiers wander through enemy territory with no noise discipline and then threaten a goat for bleating.  The same trio manages to get back on base with packs full of hashish, no questions asked.  Much of what happens has holes the size of IED craters in it.  You have to suspend reality a lot.  This would be okay if the show was a farce and winked at the audience, but it appears to have no idea what it wants to be.  Other than naughty.  There are three sex scenes in the first episode, the last one to porn-style music.  That medical supply building is going to get a lot of action.  I mentioned no Kevin Costner.  In fact, the series has no one I’ve ever heard of.  Paramount must have bust its budget on Costner because this cast is low rent.  The goat is the best actor. 

                        I am not that familiar with Paramount Network, so I can not tell you who its target audience is.  I would guess, based on this series, it is not aiming for conservatives.  If you love the troops, you will find Roback and Davis less than medal-worthy.  They con a naïve kid soldier into going with them, not telling him about the drug deal which involves them trading medicine they stole from the base.  Then they introduce him to hashish.  Roback is insubordinate much of the time.  He’s supposed to be a likeable rogue, but he is not appealing.  A subplot has Alvarez being discharged and deported because she is an illegal alien.  Liberals will be incensed by her treatment.  Roback complains about the “asshole who wants to be reelected”.  There is a Blackwater type organization doing something nefarious.  (I’ll never find out what.)  Surprisingly, their Col. Potter is a firm, but fair leader.  The series is not trying to lampoon the brass.  I guess the satirizing is meant to be of the system.  Roback and Davis’ entrepreneurship is meant to be a thumb in the eye of the corrupt war effort.  Too bad you will root against them.  They ain’t Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John.  In fact, the logical approach would have been to bring “MASH” to Afghanistan.  Now that’s a winning formula.  This is a mess.  


Tuesday, January 21, 2020


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is this quote from?

"Sir, I got lost on the way to college, sir."

3.  What movie is this?

  In some ways it is a dinosaur marking the end days of the epic old school war movies like “The Longest Day”.  Similar to that film, it features an all-star cast and tells the story from both the American and enemy perspectives.  Unlike “The Longest Day”, it is not based on a book by Cornelius Ryan and thus does not have Ryan’s deft blending of commanders and grunts roles.  The movie was a disappointment at the box office in spite of its revolutionary Sensurround technology that was supposed to make the audience “feel” the battle.  (It was one of only 4 movies made with this dead-end technology).

Sunday, January 19, 2020

CONSENSUS #51. Birth of a Nation (1915)

SYNOPSIS:  “The Birth of a Nation” is the story of two families during the Civil War and Reconstruction.  The Stoneman’s are Northerners and the Cameron’s are Southerners and slave-owners.  Ben Cameron is in love with Elsie Stoneman.  The war breaks the friendship of the families.  The movie concentrates on the Cameron family as it has a pro-Southern point of view.  Ben Stoneman goes off to war and the film has a grand depiction of a battle.  During Reconstruction, Congressman Stoneman is a Radical Republican who is interested in turning over the South to black rule.  Ben fights against this by joining the KKK.       

BACK-STORY:  “The Birth of a Nation” was the first major motion picture and is both famous and infamous.  It was directed by D.W. Griffith and the innovations he incorporated into the production are mind-boggling.  The movie created cinema as we know it today.  Relative to its budget, the movie became one of the most profitable films in history.  When it opened in New York City, tickets were an astronomical $2 (equivalent to about $18 today).  The success was in spite of the controversy with regard to its treatment of blacks.  The NAACP encouraged boycotts of the film and it was banned in some cities.  

TRIVIA:  Wikipedia, imdb, TCM

1.  It was based on Thomas Dixon’s novels The Clansman and The Leopard’s Spots.  The original title was going to be “The Clansman”.

2.  The NAACP tried to have it banned.  It was banned in some cities like Los Angeles and Chicago.

3.  It was the first movie ever screened in the White House. President Wilson was a Southerner and not noted for progressive ideas on race, but he is incorrectly credited with the famous quote:  “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”  Most likely, Dixon made up the quote and attributed it to Wilson.  However, his historical take on Reconstruction appears on a title card in the movie and the plot fits his pro-segregation views.

4.  Director DW Griffith was the son of a Confederate officer and had a negative view of Reconstruction.  Surprisingly, he was taken aback by the backlash to the film’s racism.

5.  West Point provided the artillery and technical advice.

6.  The movie cost the enormous sum of $110,000.

7.  It was the highest grossing film until “Gone with the Wind”.  It’s premiere engagement at a NYC theater cost $2 a ticket which would be equivalent to $17-20 today.

8.  Most of the African-American characters were played by whites in black-face.  Especially if the character came in contact with a white actress.

9.  Joseph Henabery, one of the assistant directors, played 13 characters, including Lincoln.

Belle and Blade  =  N/A 
Brassey’s              =  4.0
Video Hound       =  3.8
War Movies         =  N/A
Military History  =  no
Channel 4             =  #92
Film Site                =  yes
101 War Movies  =  yes
Rotten Tomatoes  =  no 

OPINION:  How can a movie be both great and terrible?  Watch “Birth of a Nation” and see.  If you changed the word “writing” to bullshitting and the word “true” to false in the Wilson quote, you’d be spot on.  The film did hit the nation like a lightning bolt.  If it had come out ten years later, it would not have been successful.  It was the spectacle that drew people to the theater outside the South.  This is the best explanation for why the movie did well in the North.  Griffith was a master movie-maker.  His innovations helped cinema take off.  The movie was the “Citizen Kane” of its day.  The cinematography is astounding even today.  The battle scenes are epic.  The score is grand.  The problem is the plot is ahistorical and the stereotypes are vile.  It may be great filmmaking and entertaining story-telling, for that time.  But it is a reprehensible work of racism.  I strongly feel it does not belong on this list.