Wednesday, April 29, 2020


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is this quote from?

Pfc. Al Thomas: That’s war.
Pfc. Charlie Bass: What’s war?
Pfc. Al Thomas: Trading real estate for men.

3.  What movie is this?

The film is based on the book by the same name by William White.  The screenplay was written by Frank “Spig” Wead who war movie buffs will recognize as the hero of John Ford’s “Wings of Eagles” (“I’m gonna move that toe”) starring John Wayne.  Ford was good friends with the main character and spent five days with him during the Normandy invasion.  Ford had to step down from the director’s chair midway through shooting due to health reasons and surprisingly tapped Montgomery instead of Wayne to finish up.  In a side note, real-life nurse Beulah Greenwalt felt her portrayal “cheapened her character” and sued and won $290,000.  The movie was a hit and was praised for its authenticity.  It was nominated for Best Visual Effects and Best Sound Recording.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

ANZAC Day: Anzacs (1985)

                    Today is ANZAC Day, so I thought it would be appropriate to post a review of the miniseries “Anzacs”.  The acronym stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps which fought in WWI.  The series is specifically about the 8th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force.  The series is considered to be part of the Australian New Wave cinema which includes “Breaker Morant” (1980), “Gallipoli” (1981), and “The Lighthorsemen” (1987).  The miniseries incorporates the very Australian themes of mateship and larrikinism.  “Mateship” refers to the Aussie traits of equality, loyalty, and friendship.  A “larrikin” is a mate who is mischievous, rowdy, and insubordinate. 

                    The series starts as a buddy picture reminiscent of Gallipoli.  Martin (Andrew Clarke) and Dick.  Martin is a rich kid who has a domineering father and Dick is a poor stockman.  Martin is romantically interested in Dick’s sister Kate (Megan Williams).  When WWI breaks out, Martin’s father wants him to go fight and arranges a commission in his old British unit.  Martin is not interested in the war, but when Dick and the other lads enlist, he goes too.  And so does Kate, as a nurse.  We are introduced to the other members of the platoon.  One of them is the classic larrikin Pat (Paul Hogan).  They are first deployed to Gallipoli where they bond and some die.  It’s not a good idea to get attached to anyone in the cast.  Most of their action is trench warfare against the Turks on a very limited scale.  The series occasionally leaves the cameraderie for some jabs at their superiors.  The series is firmly in the lions led by donkeys school.  A recurring character is a journalist named Murdoch who voices Australian resentment toward British treatment of the Australian “hooligans”.  From Gallipoli, the unit is shipped to the Western Front where they learn that the Germans are not the Turks.  Kate goes too so the romance can continue.  New characters are added as only six of the original forty are still around.  Gen. Haig makes an appearance as a pompous ass.  He makes a point of decrying the Australian ban on capital punishment for its soldiers (a by-product of previous British treatment of its Aussies).  Lloyd-George appears as a foil for Haig.  The home front gets a little coverage.  Martin’s father and the local priest represent the opposing views of the war.  A jingoistic politician browbeats his milquetoast son into volunteering.  The lads participate in the Battle of the Somme .  The “flesh and blood against machine guns” whittles men and morale.  And then comes Ypres.  They go through a series of commanders, some good and some bad.  Finally, the Yanks arrive and the tide turns.

                    “Anzacs” looks like it was made to be shown on ANZAC Day.  It is a fitting tribute to the Australian soldiers who fought in the Great War. The main characters are fictional, but many of the generals (like Monash) are the real people.  And the battles and campaigns are all associated with the 8th Battalion.  Unfortunately, the reenactments of the battles are simplistic and small scale.  The action tends to be tactically unsound and unrealistic, but the movie is more of a character study than an action film.  The characters are well-developed and represent a cross section of Australian men.  Unfortunately, the acting is just average.  Hogan steals the show as the class clownish Cleary.  The part was written with him in mind.  It was his first role after his TV show ended.  The rest of the cast is filled with familiar Australian actors.  They die well.  The series has some poignant deaths and they are not maudlin.  They are also very unpredictable.  

                    The trench sets are impressive with a passable effort on no man’s land.  The combat does not stack up, however.  And it gets worse as the series progresses.  It is often at night, probably to try to hide the low budget.  Many Australian servicemen were used as extras for verisimilitude.  Although, the series makes a point of showing the machinations of higher command, the big picture is usually hazy.  For instance, in the first episode they are scheduled to make a diversionary attack to support the landing at Sulva Bay.  Their general argues it will be suicidal, but it happens anyway.  And yet, we not only don’t see the attack, we don’t learn if it was very bad.  Although there is a clear attempt to emphasize the hardships the Aussies went through, what you mostly learn is the war killed a lot of Australian actors.  They gripe a lot, but it’s unclear why.  Other than the hammered fact that the British general were ass holes.  As opposed to the happy-go-lucky Aussies.  Well, they don’t stay happy.  But that was realistic.

                    If you want to celebrate Australian soldiers and want to hiss at the British, “Anzacs” may be for you.  Drink a Fosters every time a character dies.  It will help you get through them. 

GRADE  =  B- 

Thursday, April 23, 2020

THE 317TH PLATOON (1965)

                        “The 317th Platoon” is a French film set in the First Indochina War.  It is based on a novel by the director Pierre Schoendoerffer.  He was a war cameraman with the French army at Dien Bien Phu.  He won the best screenplay award at Cannes.  Two years later, he directed the documentary “The Anderson Platoon” which was the Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards. 

                        The film takes place in May, 1954.  A French platoon, with Laotian allies, is ordered to abandon its position and withdraw to a base miles away.  They are naïve about the trek as evidenced by their taking a refrigerator with them.  In a great action scene, they ambush a Vietminh supply convoy that is using bikes.  Afterwards, they check a wounded soldier to see if he is pissing blood.  It’s little details like this that set the movie apart from the more big budget Vietnam War movies.  The convoy was a juicy target, but the ambush is a big mistake because now the unit is being chased.  The leader is Lt. Torrens (Jacques Perrin).  He believes in obeying the rules of war.  However, he is superseded by the arriving Adjutant Willsdorf (Bruno Cremer).  Willsdorf is a fascinating character.  He is a veteran from the German army in WWII.  He is a survivor who has seen defeat and feels that in a guerrilla war, there are no rules.  “In war, you must make sure your goals are worth the losses.  Otherwise you will lose.”  From this point on, the movie is a lost patrol movie.  Few of these men will survive the journey.  As Willsdorf says:  “This is not a stroll.”  It sure ain’t.

                        “The 317th Platoon” is a classic that is hard to find, but its worth the effort.  It has been compared to “The Battle of Algiers” because of its documentary feel.  It also has a cast of mostly nonprofessionals, although Perrin and Cremer are acclaimed in France.  The cast is excellent with no scene-chewing.  The movie is dominated by the Torrens/Willsdorf dynamic.  Each represents a different take on the war.  They remind me a bit of Elias/Barnes in “Platoon”.  Torrens reflects the American view of fighting in Vietnam (at least in the early years) and Willsdorf represents the French view circa Dien Bien Phu.  Willsdorf plants a grenade under a body while Torrens sniffs.  Torrens will risk lives to save the wounded, Willsdorf goes back to salvage a machine gun, but leaves the wounded behind.  After a bloody ambush, Torrens is disgusted, to which Willsdorf responds:  “No, it’s not disgusting.  It’s war”.  I have to admit that although I don’t necessarily agree with him, Willsdorf is one of my favorite war movie characters.

                        Another movie it reminds of is “84 Charlie Mopic”.  The cinematography is intimate, for the most part.  An ambush at a waterfall is filmed by a stationary camera at the top of the waterfall.  There is no music, but outstanding sound effects.  In fact, the soundtrack is used sparingly.  The movie puts you with the unit.  There are lots of close-ups.  You get a feel for the last days of a losing effort.  This is war without the frills.  Thus, it is realistic.  The soldiers are just doing their jobs.  A great war movie gets us to empathize with the men without having to undergo the hardships they went through.  The soldiers of the platoon know fear, bravado, stress, dissension, and exhaustion.  Few movies have done a better job of showing the effects of exhaustion on soldiers.  Torrens makes mistakes due to tiredness.  Mistakes even a good commander might make.  The enemy are not demonized and are faceless.  It is implied they commit atrocities, but the movie concentrates on the way the war has corrupted the French.

                        “The 317th Platoon” should have been required viewing at the Pentagon when it came out.  Since many of our leaders did not bother to read about the French experience in Vietnam, perhaps they would have sat down and watched a movie about it.  Just as they should have watched “The Battle of Algiers”.  You should watch it too.  It is one of the best Vietnam War movies.  Pair it up with “The Anderson Platoon” and then watch “Go Tell the Spartans”.  Your cinematic tutorial on the war has begun.


Sunday, April 19, 2020

BOOK/MOVIE: April Morning (1961/1988)

This post is in honor of the anniversary of "the shot heard around the world".

                I am a big fan of Howard Fast’s novel “April Morning”.  I used to assign it in my American History Honors classes.  Although not intended as a young adult novel, since the protagonist is high school age  it has become a standard assigned reading in middle and high schools.  Fast is an excellent writer and the novel has the theme of coming of age, so it is a good choice for English classes.  For my purposes, it is a great history lesson.  Fast has set his novel in Lexington at the start of the Revolutionary War.  We also get a nice dose of colonial life.  It took twenty-seven years to bring the book to the small screen.

                The book and movie cover about twenty-four hours involving the “shot heard round the world”.  The movie opens with a gun smuggler named Solomon Chandler (Rip Torn) being stopped by a British patrol and beaten up.  He arrives in Lexington to spread his tale. Moses Cooper (Tommy Lee Jones) is skeptical and wants to avoid confrontation with the British.  The issue will be brought up at the committee meeting held that evening.  Moses has a teenage son that is a thorn in his side.  Adam (Chad Lowe) seems to make a habit of chafing Moses’ posterior.  For instance, he says a pagan oath when drawing water from the well. That night at supper, Moses questions Adams maturity and makes clear his disappointment in his son.  A theme of the movie and book is that Adam feels his father does not love him and only finds faults.  Adam feels he is mature enough to be getting busy with his girlfriend Ruth (Meredith Salenger), but she is literally puritanical about it.  At the committee meeting, the adult men discuss the abuse of Chandler and the ominous signs that the British might be getting more repressive.  Moses, who loves the sound of his own voice, is against any provocative acts, but does insist on the minutes of the meeting being kept.  He is a man of principal, but basically loves playing devil’s advocate against anyone taking any position.  Later that night, the pleasant dreams of the Lexingtonians are interrupted by a rider (Paul Revere?) with word that “the regulars are out!”  The debating moves on to what to do about the imminent arrival of British soldiers.  And on a personal note, Moses must decide what to do about a teenage son who wants to use the crisis to jump into manhood.  The day will bring Adam the opportunity to come of age, but at what cost?

                The movie has a movie-of-the-week feel to it.  In other words, the production values are low budget.  They did manage to find a trio of colonial looking buildings to stand in for Lexington and the interiors of the Cooper home have 18th Century décor.  The clothing is era appropriate.  The British uniforms are lobsterbacky, but some of the reenactors are a bit old (which is not unusual for cinematic reenactors).  The cast is fine, but the acting is spotty, Chad Lowe is wooden as Adam and the character comes off as unlikeable.  Teenage boys can possibly relate to him, but most adults will find him whiny.  He is upset that his father does not show him love and is hard on him, but you would think he would have noticed that every father in the village was that way.  Tommy Lee Jones does not do any heavy lifting as the one dimensional Moses.

                 If you don’t want to force your class to read a book (God forbid!), the movie stands in well.  As a history lesson, it does a good job covering the incident at Lexington.  You get a taste of the debate that led to the Revolution, but the committee meeting discussion is not a pros and cons debate by historians.  As far as students watching the movie in lieu of reading the book, be careful.   The movie follows the book closely and retains much of the dialogue, but it substantially changes Solomon Chandler’s arc and tampers with Adam’s experiences once the fighting begins.  These changes are not for the better.  And there is no Levi!

                *** Spoiler Alert!  The book begins with the well oath and the family dinner where Moses’ character is established with his grace that demands better weather from God.  He proceeds to ream Adam, establishing his tough love policy.  The committee meeting does not discuss the British situation.  This debate waits for the arrival of Revere.  Four positions are outlined (but not in the movie):  Parker is in favor of mustering the minutemen to be prepared, the Reverend wants to wait for more information, Moses argues for calling another committee meeting, and Sam Hodley feels that the rider was spreading fake news.  Not long after, the disputative Moses argues against the Reverend’s wait-and-see approach and convinces the men that they must stand up to the British as a matter of principle.  The movie condenses all this arguing.  It covers the British arrival and subsequent spark closely to the book, with the major addition of Solomon Chandler firing the first shot from behind a wall.  (That’s ballsy as we still don’t know who fired the first shot.)  This is a follow up of the movie starting with Chandler being abused by the British and thus having a grudge.  In the book, Chandler does not appear until he runs into a fleeing Adam after he leaves his refuge in the smokehouse.  Speaking of which, Adam is not discovered in the smokehouse by Ruth.  In the book, it is his bratty little brother Levi.  The movie completely dispenses with Levi.  The Solomon Chandler of the book shares personality with the Solomon who comforts Adam and takes him under his wing.  Except that at this point in the movie, we know he is a jerk.  Adam’s experiences during the British retreat is much tamer (and cinematically boring) in the book. He does hook up with Cousin Simmons and the Reverend and they do take some shots at the British, but he does not get flanked by three British soldiers as depicted in the movie.  Chandler does not die in the book.  Adam actually whines more in the movie.  He does not close out his day by falling asleep in some bushes. In he movie, he convinces Cousin Simmons that he has had enough and they go home.  The movie closes with Adam’s mother giving him his father’s watch and comes full circle with Adam saying that evening’s grace. The book closes more logically with Adam discussing with Ruth and the Reverend whether he will join the rebel army.

                I usually find movies based on novels to be better than the source material. The screenwriter has the luxury of having the plot laid out for him or her and then they can make improvements for the movie presentation.  Obviously, this theory does not apply to books that do not lend themselves to cinematic treatment. This usually refers to sci-fi and fantasy novels.  This caveat does not apply to novels like “April Morning”.  The movie version of the novel is an exception to most of my book/movie postings because this movie is not as good as the book.  The changes made were not improvements.  Chandler is the most intriguing character in the book and although I found his sudden transformation from wise old man to bloodthirsty killer off kilter, I could see where Fast was coming from.  It was heavy-handed and beneath Fast, but he had only a few hours to point out that war corrupts.  The movie’s decision to make Chandler a villain from the start simplified him.  Making Adam less likeable was also a bad choice.  The book is told in first person, so it is easier to empathize with the teenage boy.  On the other hand, the movie adds a ludicrous action scene where Adam shoots two British soldiers and has Chandler sacrifice his life to save Adam from a third.  And the decision to eliminate the Levi character, while understandable, sacrifices the most realistic dynamic in the book.

                in conclusion, I normally counsel my readers to watch the movie and then read the book to get more depth.  In this case, I would say that it would be better to read the book first and then see how the movie depicts it.

BOOK  =  A-
MOVIE  =  C   

Saturday, April 18, 2020

CONSENSUS #45 - Sergeant York (1941)

SYNOPSIS:   "Sergeant York" is a biopic about the most decorated American soldier of WWI. The movie covers his wild and wooly teenage hillbilly days, his religious conversion, his attempt to attain conscientious objector status, and his exploits on the Western Front.  It’s big set piece reenacts York’s (Gary Cooper) Medal of Honor winning exploit.

BACK-STORY:  “Sergeant York” is one of the great American classic war movies.  It was directed by Howard Hawks (“Air Force”,  the original “Dawn Patrol”)  and starred the biggest Hollywood star of that time – Gary Cooper.  It was the first major American biopic that told the story of a living person.  The desire to avoid law suits and controversy led to great efforts by the studio to keep the film accurate and authentic.  Of course, the main effort was to keep Alvin York happy.  York (true to his portrayal at the end of the movie) was not interested in taking advantage of his fame.  However, persistence on the part of producer Jesse Lasky eventually wore York down.  York drove a hard bargain and insisted on veto power over the screenplay and would accept only Cooper playing him.  The movie was a huge success and was the highest grossing film of 1941.  (The studio insisted on the outrageously high ticket price of $2.20!)  The movie was also critically acclaimed and garnered eleven Academy Award nominations, winning for Best Actor (Cooper over Welles in “Citizen Kane”) and editing.

TRIVIA:  wikipedia, imdb, TCM

1.  It is based on York’s diary.  It took five writers to do the screenplay. One was John Huston.

2.  York did not want the movie made because he did not want the added fame.  He agreed after producer Jesse Lansky convinced him to do it, but York insisted on three things.  1.  His profits be put into the creation of a Bible school.  2.  His wife had to be portrayed by an actress that did not smoke and had no “oomph” (aimed at Ann Sheridan)  Jane Russell was considered!  They settled on the wholesome sixteen year old Joan Leslie.  3.  Only Gary Cooper could portray him.
Lansky sent a telegram to Cooper and signed it York.

3.  Cooper won the Best Actor Oscar and the film also won for Editing.  It was nominated for Picture (losing to “How Green Was My Valley”), Director (Howard Hawks), Supporting Actor (Walter Brennan), and Supporting Actress (Margaret Wycherly).  It was Brennan’s only loss in his four nominations for Best Supporting Actor.  It was also nominated for Original Screenplay, Art Direction,  Cinematography, Sound Recording, and Music (Max Steiner).

4.  It is #57 on AFIs list of greatest movies.  York is #35 on the list of heroes.

5.  It was the highest grossing movie of 1941 and one of the highest grossing movies of all time if you adjust for inflation.  It was often reshown in theaters during the war either to replace flops or in conjunction with bond sales or scrap drives.

6.  York visited the set several times.  The first time was so overcome when a crew member asked him how many Germans he had killed.  York began to sob and then threw up.  Later, York insisted that the man not be fired.

7.  It was Gary Cooper’s favorite film.  He considered it his contribution to the war since he was too old to serve.

8.  York was actually a corporal at the time of his Medal of Honor exploit.

9.  Incredibly, the movie reverses the most famous moment in the Medal of Honor action.  York actually shot the charging Germans from last to first (like he learned from turkey hunting days).

Belle and Blade  =  3.0
Brassey’s              =  4.0
Video Hound       =  4.4
War Movies         =  3.8
Military History  =  #19
Channel 4             =  no
Film Site                =  yes
101 War Movies  =  yes
Rotten Tomatoes  =  no 

OPINION:  “Sergeant York” could not have been much better considering when it was made.  It is definitely in the top rank of black and white war films.  It is technically masterful.  The sets are obviously painstakingly prepared.  The no man’s land set was constructed by 300 workers and entailed the use of five tons of dynamite and the defoliating of 400 trees.  The indoor sets are particularly commendatory.  Look around the rooms for the little details on the walls.  The lighting is often mentioned by critics.  The score by Max Steiner makes use of patriotic songs, folk tunes, and hymns.  The acting is a strength.  Cooper is at his best and said it was his favorite role (ironically, he was reluctant to play it).  He is a master of underacting.  The screenplay is a marvel of achieved themes.  The film can be viewed as two parts.  The first part takes York from disdain for religion to Bible-thumping .  In general, the dynamic is between the religious people (exemplified by Mrs. York and the Pastor) and the hell-raisers (York and his compadres).  The second half has him make the shift from fundamental belief in the Old Testament to love of country, duty, and honor. 
                Does “Sergeant York” belong in the top fifty?  It depends on how you define “greatest”.  If you read it as “most important”, then you can make a case for it.  It’s effect went beyond simple entertainment.  It is a very entertaining film, but it also tells an important tale of a warrior that deserved the coverage (similar to Audie Murphy’s “To Hell and Back”).  More significantly, it played a role in American intervention in WWII.  The most popular film of 1941 encouraged Americans to see the positive aspects of involvement in the world conflict.  The attack on Pearl Harbor seemed to confirm that theme.

Monday, April 13, 2020


                  I found a copy of Dalton Trumbo’s “revised final script”  to “Spartacus” and it was fascinating to see how the movie was different than the final script.  Although Trumbo was one of the greatest screenwriters of all time and won the Academy Award for Original Screenplay, it is interesting to note that, in my opinion, all the changes made to the script were improvements and made the movie better.  I am not sure why the changes and additions and omissions were made after the script was supposedly finalized.  It could be that Trumbo suggested changes during the shooting.  Some of the changes might have been done by Stanley Kubrick or Kirk Douglas (or other cast members).  Here is a list of some of the more interesting changes, additions, and omissions:

1.  Originally the movie was supposed to start with the scene where Crassus addresses his officers before the final battle.  He tells them to understand that the slaves are fighting like free men.  Don’t underestimate them like our other armies have.  He mentions that Spartacus is what the Egyptians called a “koruu” which means third generation slave.  This sets up the transition to Spartacus in the mines (the actual opening of the movie).

2.  In the scene where Marcellus dares Spartacus to kill him, Spartacus us given a long sword and Marcellus has a dagger.  Spartacus tries to kill him, but Marcellus gets in several dagger cuts until he collapses in exhaustion.  Earlier, when Batiatus mentions Spartacus to Marcellus, he does not tell Marcellus not to overdo it.

3.  In the conjugal visit scene, Batiatus refers to Varinia biting him, so he puts him in with another “animal” – Spartacus.

4.  A mock battle between the gladiators was cut.  In that battle, Spartacus offers to help Draba up, but Draba pulls him down and puts his sword to his throat.  

5.  In the Spartacus – Draba match, Spartacus gets ensnared and Draba moves in for the kill.  Batiatus has the line:  “Kill him, you imbecile!”  Draba does not throw a spear at the audience.  He kills a guard on the way to trying to get to Crassus.  He takes two pila in the back.

6.  Two gladiator characters got cut – David the Jew and Gannicus.

7.  Varinia bribes a guard to visit Spartacus in his cell.

8.  In the kitchen revolt, Spartacus tips a cauldron onto Marcellus.

9.  The script includes the scene where Varinia escapes from Batiatus.

10. When Spartacus returns to the school, he stops the fight between two Romans, but then he says “let’s burn this place down.”  There is no discussion of a plan.

11.  There are two other slaves in the snails/oysters scene.  After Crassus does his monologue about Rome and turns to find Antoninus gone, he runs into his bed chamber calling for him.

12.  Tigranes Levantus (the pirate negotiator) does not appear in the final script!   When they reach Brundisium, Antoninus is sent ahead and reports back to Spartacus that there are no ships.

13.  Spartacus does not give a speech before they leave Brundisium.

14.  When the gladiators are yelling “I am Spartacus!”, they are mocking the Romans and even Spartacus joins in.  They are also yelling other things.

15.  Batiatus offers to finger Spartacus in the line of captives.  Crassus declines the offer and has Batiatus flogged.  Crassus calls out Antoninus and adds Spartacus after he laughs at him.

16.  When Crassus comes to see Spartacus, Spartacus taunts him before spitting on him.

17.  When Spartacus is on the crucifix, there is a dialogue between two soldiers discussing the cheating of one of their wives.

18.  There is no scene where Batiatus introduces Varinia to Gracchus.

19.  The script has a scene where Gracchus commits suicide in a bathtub.

Saturday, April 11, 2020


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is the quote from?

“We’re all very different people. We’re not Watusi. We’re not Spartans. We’re Americans, with a capital ‘A.’ You know what that means? Do ya? That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world. We are the wretched refuse. We’re the underdog. We’re mutts! Here’s proof: his nose is cold! But there’s no animal that’s more faithful, that’s more loyal, more loveable than the mutt. Who saw ‘Old Yeller?’ Who cried when Old Yeller got shot at the end? I cried my eyes out. So we’re all dogfaces, we’re all very, very different, but there is one thing that we all have in common: we were all stupid enough to enlist in the Army.” 

3.  What movie is this?

  It is based on the famous book by a participant in the event.  He flew the “Ruptured Duck”.    The training phase of movie was filmed at Elgin Field where the actual training took place.    Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo made several flights to get a feel for air combat.  The movie also makes good use of newsreel footage.  There is even some actual footage from the event.  Participants served as consultants and the film was acknowledged as authentic by the group as a whole.  The film was awarded the Oscar for Special Effects and was nominated for Cinematography.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

WAR SHORT: Jugend (2018)

                        Shout out to Larry Brown for recommending this war short for the Watchalong.  It is a 19 minute film set in WWII.  The director is Alessandro Pepe, who also directed “My Honor WAS Loyalty”.

                        Johannes is a member of the Hitler Youth who is with a squad somewhere in France.  He wears glasses, so we know he is an intellectual who does not belong there.  He’s a rookie trying to fit in.  Flashbacks intercut with his interactions with his squad.  They give the back-story to his romance with a German girl named Klara.  She promised to write, but he has not heard from her in months.  Did she meet another guy?  Some of his friends suggest that would be par for the course.  He can’t imagine anything worse than that.  But there is.  The film closes with a nicely done small combat scene as the Canadians attack the Germans.

                        I keep getting surprised at the quality of some of these war movie shorts.  Pepe has a future in war films.  The cinematography includes some effective hand-held camera work which includes the cameraman crawling with Johannes.  The wound effects in the skirmish are impressive for a low budget film.  (I don’t have to tell you that every wound is mortal.)  The sound effects match.  The set, a trench on the edge of some woods, is authentic.  The soldier banter does not distract, even with the subtitles (which match the original German well).  The young men have the braggadocio of youth thrust into manhood.  They talk of sex and food.  They can be brutal with each other.  Every squad has an ass hole.  It could easily be an American squad.  You will learn that German slang for a bad-ass is “bear biter”. 

                        Pepe lays his themes out well.  He uses trees as a metaphor for war.  Johannes likes to draw them.  He reminds of Paul Baumer with his birds in “All Quiet…” (1979).  Johannes found them easy to draw before he joined the army, but in France it is difficult.  The home front scenes are in dazzling light, the trench is in a dark forest.  But both exteriors have the sound of birds in the background.  The best line is when Paul writes:  “Nature in Normandy is sarcastically happy.”

                        The movie does not bludgeon you with its anti-war message.  It leaves it unclear what happened with Klara until the end, but there are hints that preview the revelation.  This results in a poignant conclusion that might induce a few tears.  We recently remembered the anniversary of the bombing of Dresden.  I read people’s thoughts on it, which included a majority arguing it was justified.  This movie might make them think again.


Sunday, April 5, 2020

FORGOTTEN GEM? Tribes (1970)

                        Back when I was a teenager, there was something called the ABC Movie of the Week.  This was before DVDs and even before VHS tapes.  You went to a movie theater, waited for your favorite movie to play on TV, or you watched a made-for-TV movie like “Tribes”.  Most of those television productions were forgettable, but a few were noteworthy.  “Tribes” got huge ratings and struck a chord in Vietnam America.  It was directed by Joseph Sargent (“Tobruk”, “MacArthur”).  He was nominated for an Emmy for best TV movie.  The movie won Emmys for Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Original Teleplay.  It was so successful it was given a limited release in America and played in British theaters as “The Soldier Who Declared Peace”.

                        The movie states its theme immediately by having a hippie ballad play over the credits.  Nixon fans needed to tune out at this point.  Adrian (Jan-Michael Vincent) is one of a group of new draftees who arrive at boot camp to be reamed by DI Drake (Darren McGavin).  He calls them “do-dos”!  Adrian is dressed as a hippy and has long hair (until the end of the credits).  “You and me are not going to get along.”  Like the audience needs to be told that.  But don’t expect this to be a typical boot camp movie.  Adrian is actually not a bad recruit and although Drake is hard on him, he is not a villain.  That role is reserved for his frenemy Sgt. DePayster (Earl Holliman) who makes it his goal to wash-out Adrian.   There is no dysfunction in the platoon, but it does go through all the key boot camp moments.  They march.  They shoot.  (But miss on purpose if you are Adrian.)  They pummel each other with pugil sticks.  (Or get pummeled if you are Adrian.)  They run the obstacle course.  Adrian does not spout much hippie peacenik crap, although he does tell Drake:  “Your whole bag is death.”   He does turn the recruits onto meditation to handle the sadism of the system.  Unlike the Hartman/Lawrence arc in “Full Metal Jacket”, in this movie the DI adjusts to the recruit.  Or at least, they come to an understanding.  Agree to disagree.  Drake:  “We’re from different tribes.”  (This one line makes the renaming of the movie “The Tribe” totally ridiculous.)

                        The Movie of the Week series was a mixed bag.  Most were very forgettable.  Some were high quality with decent casts.  “Tribes” was one of the better ones.  Vincent and McGavin have chemistry and give solid performances.  This was Vincent’s first big role.  The dialogue is fine and keeps the preaching to a minimum until the end.  You can watch it today and not laugh at some screenwriter’s idea of how hippies talked.
                        The problem with the movie is its strength is also its weakness.  Although firmly in the boot camp subgenre, it avoids most of the clichés and stereotypes.  Adrian is not the first pacifist to be put in a movie boot camp, but he is far from Bozz in “Tigerland”, a movie that is the opposite of this one.  The movie is not predictable because it defies the conventions of the subgenre.  The lack of dysfunction within the unit reduces the drama.  Only one recruit cracks.  This tame depiction flies in the face of most of other boot camp movie scenarios.  This was probably a combination of the cooperation of the military and the cautiousness of a TV production.   Adrian has a hard time not because he is a troublemaker or a detriment to the unit.  Drake is harsh, but he is not trying to break him.  The wild card is having another DI interfere with the Drake/Adrian dynamic.  This is unrealistic, but allows the movie to achieve its goal of having the military (personified by Drake) show it can adjust to the Vietnam generation.  Yet, it can still conclude with a sobering conclusion that pacifism and preparation for war cannot coexist.  

                        “Tribes” hit the country at exactly the right moment.  People were souring on the war and it tapped into that, but it is not a polarizing movie.  Although clearly anti-war, it is not overtly anti-Vietnam War.  Adrian is not a Vietnam War protester, he’s a pacifist.  I doubt the movie changed any minds.  It’s pretty tame as you would expect from a TV movie competing for ratings.  Mission accomplished.  However, it did not just get great ratings, it became a water cooler movie.  It is largely a forgotten movie, although not so much by people who saw it live.  It is not out on DVD, but you can see a less than high quality copy on YouTube. 

                        GRADE =  B-

My top 5 movie drill instructors:
5.  Hulka  (Stripes)
4.  Drake  (Tribes)
3.  Moore (The D.I.)
2.  Foley  (An Officer and a Gentleman)
1.  Hartman  (Full Metal Jacket)

Friday, April 3, 2020

CONSENSUS #46 - Stalag 17 (1953)

SYNOPSIS:  "Stalag 17" is a WWII prisoner of war movie set in Germany.  The members of a barracks are frustrated by an apparent stoolie in their midst.  Suspicion naturally turns to a black marketeer (William Holden) who is quite a cynical jerk.  Matters come to a head when a heroic new prisoner, who sabotaged a train, needs to escape before Nazi justice ensnares him.  How to accomplish this with a traitor involved?

BACK-STORY: “Stalag 17” is considered one of the great WWII POW films.  It is sometimes mentioned with “Bridge on the River Kwai” and “The Great Escape” as the triumvirate of top tier POW movies.  It was released in 1953.  It was based on a stage play by two veterans of Stalag 17B in Austria.  Director Billy Wilder reworked the play for the better and got pretty boy William Holden to play the lead even though Holden was unhappy with the cynicism and selfishness of the Sefton character.  Holden walked out on the play when he went to see it.  Wilder refused to soften the character and Holden went on to win the Oscar for Best Actor.  Wilder was nominated, as was Robert Strauss for Best Supporting Actor.  The movie was shot in California and the mud was real.  Wilder made the interesting decision to shoot the scenes in chronological order to where supposedly some of the main actors did not know who the stoolie was until the end (which sounds like bull crap to me).  The movie was a smash hit in America and Europe.

TRIVIA:  wikipedia, imdb, TCM, DVD commentary

1.  It was based on a Broadway play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski.  Both were POWs in Stalag 17B in Austria.  Bevan had been a tail gunner on a B-17 and was the inspiration for the Sgt. 2.  McIlhenny character in “Twelve O’Clock High”.  Trzcinski has a cameo in “Stalag 17”.  He plays the prisoner who gets the letter from his wife telling of the baby she found.  Bevan and Trzcinski sued “Hogan’s Heroes” for plagiarism and settled for an undisclosed amount. 
2.  Director William Wilder insisted on shooting the scenes in order.  The cast and crew did not know who the informant was until a few days before the scene was filmed.  Wilder insisted on the script being followed to the word.  He especially meant this for William Holden who wanted to humanize Sefton more.  Wilder refused.  Wilder showed up on set in expensive shoes which he allowed the muddy conditions to ruin so he could show the cast and crew he was with them.  Wilder’s mother and stepfather died in a concentration camp. 
3.  Four members of the play appear in the movie.  Robert Strauss (Animal), Harry Lembeck (Shapiro), Robert Shawley (Blondie) and William Pierson (Marko).  Strauss was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.  He took over for the actor that started the movie, but did not fit the part.  Strauss and Lembeck did not get along during the shoot mainly because Lembeck felt Strauss was getting all the laughs.
4.  Charlton Heston was considered for Sefton, but Wilder decided he would not fit an unheroic figure.  Kirk Douglas turned down the role.  He later admitted he made a huge mistake.  Holden was not keen on the role.  When he went to see the play, he walked out during the first act because he did not like the character.  The studio forced him to take the role.  He pushed Wilder to make Sefton more sympathetic and Wilder refused.  Specifically , Holden wanted Sefton to make a statement about how he hated Nazis.  Holden won the Best Actor Oscar, but felt it was make-up for him not winning for “Sunset Boulevard”.  He thought Burt Lancaster or Montgomery Clift should have won for “From Here to Eternity”.  Holden’s acceptance speech was the shortest by any Best Actor winner.  He simply said “Thank you”, but it was because the ceremony was running long.  He paid for ads in trade paper to thank all the people he owed. 
5.  Release was postponed for a year by Paramount because of doubts about the marketability of a WWII prison movie.  It was released in 1953 in conjunction with the end of the Korean War and the release of American prisoners. 
6.  The commandant role, played by famous director Otto Preminger, was not in the play.  It was Wilder’s idea to have the commandant put on his boots to call Berlin. 
7.  The prisoner who sings at the Christmas party was Ross Bagdasarian.  He wrote the songs “Witch Doctor” and “Come On-A My House”.  He also created the Chipmunks singing group. 
8.  The opening escape is based on an actual escape from Bevan’s camp.  It was not exposed by a mole, it was exposed by the snow on the ground that gave away their tracks.  One of the escapees was shot 17 times, but he survived. 
9.  The play used an overturned stool as the signal.

Belle and Blade  =  3.0
Brassey’s              =  4.0
Video Hound       =  3.1
War Movies         =  N/A
Military History  =  #18
Channel 4             =  no
Film Site                =  yes
101 War Movies  =  yes
        Rotten Tomatoes  =  no 
OPINION:   Although it was not the first WWII prisoner of war film, “Stalag 17” certainly laid a strong foundation for the subgenre.  It established some of the templates.  Most of the action takes place in the barracks.  There is a lot of interaction between “hale fellows well met”.  Comic relief is thrown in.  The men try to make the best of their difficult conditions.  “Stalag 17” is not typical in its mystery subplot and the fact that it is not predominately about an escape attempt.  I can think of no other POW movie that includes humor, suspense, mystery, and a dislikable central character.  The main strength of the film is the acting.  Holden is great as possibly the first anti-hero in an American WWII movie, POW or otherwise.  In fact, Wilder works wonders with the cast.  It was genius and gutsy to cast Otto Preminger as the commandant.  Preminger was legendary for treating actors like Von Scherbach treats the prisoners.  Graves is appropriately hissable as the villain, although it is obvious to everyone (except the actors supposedly) that he is the bad guy early on.  Strauss did not deserve an Oscar nod, but he and Lembeck do have some humorous moments.  The movie is famous (and has been criticized) for its broad humor.  I have to admit much of it is silly, but there are some truly funny lines.  The movie is technically sound.  Wilder’s cinematography gives the movie a dynamism that overcomes the static nature of the barracks.  Many of the shots have depth to them.  The set is nicely authentic looking.  The barracks has nice touches like pin-ups, laundry hanging, and graffiti carved into the bunks.  The score is used sparingly and not to force a mood on the audience.