Sunday, June 28, 2020


SYNOPSIS:  It covers the impact of the Vietnam War on some working-class buddies who live in a Pennsylvania steel town.  The first part depicts a traditional wedding of one of them.  Three of the friends go to Vietnam and are captured by the Viet Cong and tortured.  They eventually get away, but one stays in Vietnam as the other two return home.  Michael (Robert DeNiro) goes back to try to find Nick (Christopher Walken).

BACK-STORY:  “The Deer Hunter” was released in 1978 and was the first important major motion picture about the Vietnam War.   Its success marked the rise of the subgenre that has produced some great war movies.  Significantly, 1978 also saw the releases of “Coming Home”, “The Boys in Company C”, and “Go Tell the Spartans”.  The movie was directed and co-written by Michael Cimino and marked the peak of his career.  He battled the suits to get his vision on the screen and succeeded for the most part.  The movie was a big critical hit and did well at the box office.  It was awarded Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken), Editing, and Sound.  It was nominated for Actor (Robert De Niro),  Supporting Actress (Meryl Streep), Cinematography, and Original Screenplay.  It is ranked #53 on the most recent AFI’s greatest movies list.  The film was Streep’s first big movie role and ironically, John Cazales’ last film.  He was dying from cancer and passed before he saw the finished product.

TRIVIA:  wikipedia, imdb, TCM

1.  De Niro was a last minute replacement for Roy Scheider who left because of creative differences.

 2.  John Cazale was dying from terminal cancer.  When the studio wanted to drop him, Meryl Streep (who was in a relationship with him) and Cimino threatened to drop out.  Since he was uninsurable, De Niro paid the insurance.  nominated for Best Picture.

3.  Streep’s role was enhanced after she was cast.  Cimino had her write her own lines.

4.  It was based on a script called “The Man Who Came to Play” which was about Russian roulette in Las  Vegas.

5.  The scenes in Clairton were actually filmed in eight different towns in four states.

6.  The wedding scene lasts 51 minutes.  Cimino originally claimed it would last 21 minutes.  The Russian immigrants who were the extras for the scene were asked to bring wrapped boxes as authentic looking gifts. When production was over, the crew opened up the boxes and found actual wedding gifts.

7.  The deer (actually an elk) that Michael lets go was later used in commercials for Connecticut Life.

8.  The river Michael and Steven fall into was the River Kwai.  DeNiro and Savage did their own stunt – fifteen times.

9.  When Nick spits in Michael’s face, Walken ad-libbed it and De Niro was not happy.

10.  The slapping by the Viet Cong leader was for real.  Cimino cast an actor who hated Americans

11.  When Steven is in the cage and yells “Michael, there’s rats in here”, it was Savage telling Cimino that there were actual rats on the set.

12.  De Niro has said that Michael’s visit to see Steven in the hospital was the most emotional scene in his career.  He also said the movie was the most physically exhausting of all his movies.

13.  When Michael puts the pistol to Stan’s head to reenact Russian roulette, De Niro insisted on a bullet being in the gun.  Cazale insisted on checking the gun before each take.

Belle and Blade  =  2.5
Brassey’s              =  4.0
Video Hound       =  3.1
War Movies         =  4.4
Military History  =  #29
Channel 4             =  #12
Film Site                =  no
101 War Movies  =  yes
Rotten Tomatoes  =  #30 

OPINION:  This is an extremely well-made movie.  The cinematography and acting keep you focused through the slow moments.  The interior shots are intimate, the exterior shots of Clairton are industrially grimy.  The hunting scenery is breathtaking.  The camera work is not pretentious.  The score is fine.  The movie also has an eclectic mix of period songs.

                The acting could not be better.  De Niro and Walken are electric from their first appearance.  This was Walken’s first major role and seldom is it more obvious that you are watching the beginning of a great career.  Streep is Streep, of course.  She wrote some of her lines and the role was expanded because of her talent.  The rest of the cast is up to these three.  Special mention has to be made of John Cazales.  It was tragic that this was his last film, but he went out on top.  As usual, he plays a dislikable character, but he makes a good foil for Mike.  Savage is kind of odd man out, but he gives a sincere performance as the weakest of the “warriors”.  The screenplay tends to be a little heavy-handed.  The themes are hammered in.  War impacts not just the warriors.  There are different types of wounds – physical and mental.  Cimino comments on working class patriotism and male bonding in a knowing way.

                In conclusion, “The Deer Hunter” is an important movie.  It opened the flood gate of Vietnam movies and still remains one of the best.  I think it is appropriately placed at #40 on the list of great war movies.  

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

THE BEST CUSTER MOVIE: Son of the Morning Star (1991)

                        “Son of the Morning Star” was an epic made-for-TV miniseries about George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of Little Bighorn.  It aired on CBS in two parts.  It was based on Evan S. Connell’s bestseller.  Part of it was filmed on private property near Little Bighorn National Monument.  A fort was built for $200,000.  400 horses and 150 Native Americans were used.  100 re-enactors participated and served as technical advisers.  CBS considered Kevin Costner to play Custer, but decided that he was not a big enough name at the time.  Ironically, “Dances With Wolves” came out a few months ahead of it.  The movie got low ratings, but won Emmys for Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Make-up, and Costumes.

                        Spoiler alert:  Custer (Gary Cole) dies in the end.  The movie recognizes that anyone with half an education knows that already and starts (as does Connell’s book) with the aftermath of the defeat.  Capt. Benteen (David Strathairn) sets the theme by stating that “mistakes were made”.  The movie then flashes back to Kansas ten years before the Battle of Little Bighorn.  It is linear from here (unlike the book).  Although it is basically a biopic of Custer, there is an arc for Crazy Horse.  The Custer arc is narrated by Custer’s wife Elizabeth (Patricia Arquette) and Crazy Horse’s is by a Cheyenne named Kate Bighead (narration by Buffy Sainte Marie, role by Kimberly Guerrero).  The two women offer the white and Indian perspectives.  The movie hits the high marks of both men’s careers.  Although the movie is based on Connell’s book, the movie is closer to Stephen Ambrose’s “Crazy Horse and Custer”. 

                        “Son of the Morning Star” is by far the best of the many Custer movies.  It is the opposite of “They Died With Their Boots On”.   The history of the cinematic Custer is one that starts with adulation of Custer as a hero killed by savages (e.g., “They Died…”) to Custer as a villainous poster boy for the mistreatment of Native Americans (e.g., “Little Big Man”).  This movie does not shift the pendulum back, but is more even-handed than recent depictions.  The narration offers a debate between the two views of the man.  Elizabeth Bacon Custer’s is laudatory (which reflects her great literary effort to create his public image after his death) and is in line with movies like “They Died…”  Kate’s is the Native American view and reflects movies like “Dances With Wolves”.  For instance, Kate mentions the unverified claim that Custer had an affair with a Cheyenne woman.  That said, it was probably true.  The movie is amazingly accurate, especially when you compare it to the others.

                        The movie is clearly made-for-TV, but the production values are a bit above the average.  The costumes are excellent and the reenactors and Native Americans brought verisimilitude to their roles.  This reminds me of “Gettysburg” which is a similar movie dealing with a famous battle.  Interestingly, there is a connection between the two.  When “Son” tanked, CBS gave up on its “The Killer Angels” project and Ted Turner picked it up.  The cast here does not match “Gettysburg”.  Gary Cole was criticized for his portrayal of Custer, but I found his megalomaniacal Custer to be realistic.  Custer himself was a bad actor who had delusions of grandeur.  Roseanne Arquette could also be faulted for a weak performance, but Elizabeth was his publicist and worshipped him.  The romance is creepy, as it was in reality.  They clearly were in love and had a partnership which both hoped would end up in the White House.  The supporting cast is TV stock.  David Strathairn was coming off “Memphis Belle” and is excellent as Benteen.  The movie gets the Custer – Benteen dynamic right.  Rodney Grant was in “Dances With Wolves” and does a good Crazy Horse, although given the laconic, mystical nature of the man, it did not require much emoting.

                        The movie flows well as each scene is not allowed to linger.  This is partly due to simplified takes on famous incidents like the Fetterman Massacre.  The movie does an admirable job interjecting the political machinations into the narrative.  The true villains of the movie are Sheridan (Dean Stockwell) and Sherman (George Dickerson) as they manipulate the reluctant Pres. Grant (Stanley Anderson).  These political scenes also allow the movie to show the bipolar nature of Custer as he steps on Grant’s toes by criticizing his Indian policy.  The use of narration to introduce the episodes works well.  It is balanced between the two women and the two viewpoints.  A key moment in the movie is when Elizabeth claims 158 warriors were killed in the Battle of the Washita and Kate admits to 11.  The movie makes it clear that most of the Indian deaths were women and children and Custer was far from holding his men back.  It is reminiscent of the scene in “Little Big Man”.    Most of the combat is saved for an extended recreation of the Battle of Little Bighorn and it is worth the wait.  No movie has better covered the battle.  It is excellent at depicting the chaos of the last stand and although it has to pull its punches, the gore is implied efficiently.  The cinematography is good with some well-positioned slo-mo.  It features some excellent stunt work on horseback.  You will definitely be rooting for the Indians by this point and will be able to list the numerous mistakes that were made.  The movie makes it clear that Custer was a charismatic leader, but not a good one.  There is no question that Crazy Horse is the hero of the movie and Custer is the villain.  Most historians would agree with that.

                        I do not normally consider Westerns to be war movies.  This is one of the rare ones that I put in the war movie genre, because it is the story of a battle.  I am very familiar with the subject as I have read extensively on the Plains Indians, Custer, and the Battle of Little Bighorn.  This movie is as good as you can expect from a made-for-TV production, especially if you want accuracy.  Not only does it recreate many of the seminal moments in Custer and Crazy Horse’s careers, but there are numerous direct quotes filtered in.  It even throws in details that only fanatics like me would recognize, like the regimental flag ominously falling down the night before the battle.

                        The Battle of Little Big Horn has been the subject of many books and a few movies.  Most of the books have tried to offer an explanation for what happened and most of the movies have filmed the legend of Custer’s Last Stand.  This is the first movie to try to be an accurate biopic.  Custer is a fascinating figure and fits well into the modern style of biopics that were inaugurated with “Patton”.  In othe words, we get Custer, warts and all.  And it’s mostly warts.  What makes the film special is not only the accurate depiction of Custer, but the inclusion of a much better role model in Crazy Horse.  “Son of the Morning Star” is an acclaimed (and highly overrated book), but the movie is better and a better history lesson for those not familiar with this very famous battle.  It’s also a great antidote to the ridiculous movies that came before it.  Hopefully, the 21st Century will be marked by this movie’s interpretation of Custer, instead of “They Died With Their Boots On.”

GRADE  =  A    

Saturday, June 20, 2020

MINISERIES: Generation War (2013)

                        “Generation War” is a German miniseries set in WWII.  It is literally entitled “Our Mothers, Our Fathers”.  The series was shown in three parts on German television.  It was well-received, but has created some controversy.  It follows five friends from 1941-1945.

                        Charlotte (Miriam Stein) will become a nurse on the Eastern Front.  She is in love with Wilhelm (Volker Bruch) who is an officer in Russia.  His brother Friedheim (Tom Schilling) is a book-worm who has joined the army and is shipped east.  Greta (Katharina Schuttler) is an aspiring singer.  Her boyfriend is Victor (Ludwig Trepte) who is Jewish.  In June, 1941 in Berlin, the quintet has one last party before their paths diverge.  They make plans to meet again at the end of the war.  Their various paths will converge several times before the war ends because this is a miniseries.  Each character has a different arc.  Greta achieves her fame as a singer by way of an advantageous affair with a Gestapo officer.  Victor gets shipped off to a concentration camp, but escapes to join a Polish resistance group.  Greta works in hospitals where she sees the horrors of the war and worries about Wilhelm.  Wilhelm ends up in a disciplinary battalion.  Friedheim surprises everyone by becoming a warrior.  Not all of them will make that post-war get-together.

                        The series is well-cast with an attractive ensemble.  Each character is distinctive and you care about what will happen to them.  And a lot happens to them.  Some of it is unrealistic as the movie has a small world feel to it.  There are a lot of coincidences.  This was unavoidable given the need to intersect the arcs for narrative purposes.  It gets a bit ridiculous towards the end, however.  All five arcs make sense and take us to some rare cinematic destinations.  Greta in the hospitals.  Victor in the resistance unit.  Wilhelm in a punishment battalion.  Most of what happens is unpredictable which is something of a weakness in the end because none of them should have survived.  The series is clearly anti-war, but it dilutes this with a relatively positive ending.  
                        The series shifts between characters seamlessly which means we shift from soap opera (Greta) to medical drama (Charlotte) to partisan warfare (Victor) to combat film (Wilhelm and Friedheim).  The battle scenes are of the new style associated with “Saving Private Ryan”.  For example, Wilhelm suffers from sensory deprivation at one point.  The sets are realistic and the weapons and uniforms seem to be authentic.  These scenes are enough to keep the combat junkies satisfied, but the movie is a traditional war miniseries similar to “War and Remembrance” in that it concentrates more on human interaction rather than combat.

                        The series has been criticized for several theme choices.  Some were upset with the depiction of the Polish resistance as being very anti-semitic.  Victor has to hide his identity from his mates.  The same critics were upset that Victor did not get to the concentration camp. They felt the series did not reference the Holocaust enough.  I would argue that we have enough concentration camp movies and it was a bit refreshing to see Victor fighting the Nazis, instead of being a victim.  Ironically, another criticism is that the series seems to make the Germans the victims.  The four non-Jewish Germans are not typical Germans in that none are Nazi supporters.  The series gives the impression that young Germans were caught up in the flow of a war they did not support.  That anti-Nazi sentiment would not have been common.  These complaints are legitimate, but as entertainment, with some basic education, the series works.

                        “Generation War” is one of the better war miniseries.  Although legitimately criticized for being too sympathetic toward its characters, it is surprisingly harsh for a German production.  You certainly don’t wish you had been in their shoes.  It seems like the right story for our times.

GRADE  =  A-

Wednesday, June 17, 2020


1.  What movie is this picture from?

2.  What movie is this quote from?

"Well, here I am, anonymous, all right. With guys nobody really cares about. They come from the end of the line, most of them, small towns you never heard of: Pulaski, Tennessee; Brandon, Mississippi; Pork Bend, Utah; Wampum, Pennsylvania. Two years' high school's about it. Maybe if they're lucky, a job waiting for them back in a factory. But most of 'em got nothing. They're poor. They're the unwanted. Yet they're fighting for our society and our freedom. It's weird, isn't it? They're the bottom of the barrel, and they know it. Maybe that's why they call themselves grunts, 'cause a grunt can take it, can take anything. They're the best I've ever seen, Grandma. The heart and soul.”

3.  What movie is this?

The movie is based on the best-seller by Nicholas Monsorrat. Monsorrat  was a Lt. Commander in the Royal Navy in the North Atlantic so the novel was semi-autobiographical.  The HMS Compass Rose was played by the HMS Coreopsis which was on loan to the Hellenic Navy and was due to be disposed of.  The Royal Navy had already disposed of all its WWII era corvettes.  Scenes were shot in the English Channel and the water tank at Denham Studios.  The movie was the biggest hit of 1953 in Great Britain and a surprise hit in America.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

NOW STREAMING: Da 5 Bloods (2020)

                This review is aimed at the white people who would consider watching a Spike Lee movie.  Let’s face it, there are many who absolutely will not watch it, no matter what I say.  I am not a big Lee fan because he is overrated and his previous foray into war movies (“Miracle at St. Anna”) was terrible.  However, I will watch any new war movie, including “Top Gun:  Maverick” for the sake of my blog.  And to communicate my opinion to my open-minded readers.  So, open your minds and here we go.
                If you did not know this was a Spike Lee movie, you would know it within seconds.  It opens with footage of Muhammad Ali’s famous proclamation that he had no quarrel with the Viet Cong, so he refused to go to Vietnam.  If you hate Ali because of his politics, you might want to turn the movie off now.  It’s going to get “worse”.  Quickly.  Ali is followed by footage of Angela Davis, Agent Orange, Kent State, the 1968 Democratic Convention, the Loan execution, napalm girl, and the fall of Saigon.  All the hits!  As usual, Lee is anything but subtle about his film’s message.  One of the clips is of Bobby Seale railing against police brutality.  This from a film made before the current crisis, but a film that is perfectly timed for it.  At $35-45 million, it is Lee’s most expensive film.  I doubt his deal with Netflix recoups that cost, but he seems like the kind of activist who does not give a damn.  He certainly will reach a larger audience of shut-ins than he would ever reach in a theater.
                The movie’s premise is four African-American veterans have returned to Vietnam to locate the body of their slain brother and bring it back.  Otis (Clarke Peters) is the level-headed proponent of the quest who may have fathered an Amer-Asian child.  Eddie (Norm Lewis) is a wealthy black.  Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) is Paul’s foil.  Paul (Delroy Lindo) is the angry black man, who happens to be a Trump supporter.  Red is the new black hat.  Oh, and he has PTSD.  If you’re wondering how many of the four will survive and you guessed all of them, you are not reading Lee well.  One will die, fo’ sure.  They are joined by Paul’s estranged son David (Jonathan Majors) so we don’t have to look at just four old geezers and we can have a reconciliation arc.  The movie uses flash backs to apprise us of the original mission, which was to search for a downed CIA C-47.  It turns out the plane was carrying gold, so this is a heist film.  But its also a road trip film because they have to get to the site via river boat (cue the “Ride of the Valkyries”).  Then it becomes a camping movie as the five proceed through the jungle to the site.  Then it’s a chase movie as the quintet are pursued by neo-Congs who want the gold.  And finally, it becomes a last stand movie.
                Along the way, there is the requisite dysfunction.  Most of it involves the mentally unstable and belligerent Paul.  Lindo dominates the movie and gets to chew the jungle scenery.  Lee manages to slip in some history and current events factoids.  Paul represents Trumpers which allows for digs at the President.  Lee inserts “President Bone Spurs” and “Klansman in the Oval Office” into the script.  Trump fans will not enjoy this movie, even if I mention it is pro-Second Amendment.  But the dysfunction works as the vets (and their 1968 selves) interact and talk like comrades (or in this case, bloods).  (White viewers, slow the film down to get woke on Vietnam era dapping.)  Get Wikipedia ready so you can search for all the black historical figures that get shout-outs (Milton Olive, Crispus Attucks, Edwin Moses).  And we’re not talking about them just coming up in conversation.  When they are injected, they come with a convenient power point slide.  You’ll enjoy the movie more if you have a passion for learning more about history and can’t wait to read more about it.  That’s me.
                So, if you can sit through the preaching and protesting, is the movie entertaining?  It does have some tired clichés.  The main one being that greed for gold corrupts.  And yet, for the most part, it is unpredictable.  There is a land mine subplot that affords the inclusion of a white woman who happens to be a mine disposal expert.  The unpredictability of this is which of the quintet will blow themselves up.  The lukewarm unpredictability compliment is overshadowed by some nifty mysteries that the movie sets up for us to ponder.  How did Norman (Chadwick Boseman) die?  Will they get the gold?  Will Paul reconcile with his son?  And, of course, who will survive?  The resolution to all of these questions is satisfactory, although some of the plot developments are stretches.  Considering the heavy-handedness of the message rendering, the ludicrous discovery of the gold and the arrival of bomb disposal can be overshadowed. 
                The movie is well-acted and even Lindo is more restrained than his character could have been.  Lee made the questionable decision to not do the flash-backs with younger actors or de-aging technology.  This was a mistake as no amount of make-up art can make Lindo, in particular, look like a twenty-something.  So they don’t even try.   Those 1968 scenes (which Lee coolly delineates by narrowing the screen) are a weakness as Lee has little ability to stage combat. But they do allow him to give a taste of blood attitudes in Vietnam, post-King assassination.  Thankfully, the scenes are not long enough for people like me to pick them apart.  And there is some bow to reloading.  Don’t stress over the tactical ineptness.  It’s a given.
                I was prepared to sneer at this movie and it does have its sneer-worthy moments.  However, I do recommend it.  It is a big improvement over “Miracle at St. Anna”.  It helps if you have a tolerance for Lee’s overt activism.  If you cut all the teachable moments and the “fuck you, racists’ rants, you would have a much shorter movie.  But an entertaining one.  It gets better as it goes along and the ending is satisfying.  I’m talking about the slam bang final stand, not the post script schmaltziness.  I personally did not mind the factoids and the bashing, although they stick out like sore thumbs.  It’s a Spike Lee movie.  And a war movie.  I’ll take what I can get.
GRADE  =  B-

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

WAR SHORT: Kommando 1944 (2018)

                        Recently I have been turned on to war short films.  There are surprisingly a lot of them and many are quite good.  And they are short, for those with limited attention spans.  Starting with “Their War”, I had been on a winning streak lately.  My latest viewing was “Kommando 1944” which is written and directed by Derek Quick.  His goal was to highlight the shameful mistreatment of Japanese-Americans in WWII.  The main character is a Nisei whose family is being held in Manzanar.

                        The movie takes place in Germany in July, 1944.  A title card tells us:  “A massive famine has stricken Germany.  Thousands of Allied prisoners are sent to farms across the country to make food for the Nazis.”  The film immediately contradicts this statement by having a German farmer argue with an SS officer who is planning to take half of his workers to a death camp.  The farmer has seven POWs working his farm.  They are housed in barn.  One of the prisoners is a Japanese-American named Soo (Daniel Joo).  The others are antagonistic towards him because he is a “Jap”.  One of the men had a brother on the USS Arizona which adds to the tension.  Another prisoner is Jewish and God help him if the SS officer finds out.

                        “Kommando 44” has been a big hit on the film festival circuit.  It has won over 100 awards and claims to hold the record for most awards.  It is competently made for a low budget film.  The sets are basic, but it does close with a trip to Manzanar.  The German uniforms appear authentic, so the effort is there.  Unfortunately, the movie just is not anything special.  I was stunned to learn of all its accolades.  My first thought was that the festivals were judging it as a movie rather than as a war movie.  But even if you factor out what you would expect from a good war movie, you still end up with an average short movie.  In fact, the film relies on the audiences (and judges) to be uninformed about WWII and history in general.  If you are informed, there are some head-scratching moments that make the plot hard to take seriously.  (See below)  These distracting elements are not overcome by the acting and dialogue.  Although the cast has been lauded as an ensemble and Joo got some best actor nods, I found the acting to be amateurish and the dialogue to be trite.  The SS officer is stereotypically vile.  There is no nuance in this movie.

                        I hate being critical towards a movie that clearly was a sincere effort to make a statement about racism.  And if I hadn’t seen some truly great war shorts recently, I might have been more tolerant.  I also realize that I could be wrong because after all, I am swimming upstream from the rest of the critics.  But in my opinion, the movie is vastly overrated.


PROBLEMS:  The problems start with the title.  I have no idea why “Kommando 44” was chosen.  It seemingly has nothing to do with the plot.  I have already mentioned that the premise is these prisoners have been assigned to this farmer to help fight a famine.  And yet, half are going to be sent to a death camp.  This is obviously for dramatic purposes, but it is aggravating because I am not aware of the Germans sending American prisoners to death camps under any circumstances.  This is also the first I have heard of American prisoners being used as farm workers and billeted at the farm.  This seems to be sloppy history.  Why is the farmer siding with the prisoners?  The movie gives us no reason other than a story about a tree that is supposed to indicate that he is anti-Nazi.  And boy is he.  He is willing to risk his and his family’s lives by slipping a gun to Soo.  Speaking of Soo, history buffs must assume he was part of the 100/442nd Infantry Regiment which fought in Italy.  He presumably was recruited from Manzanar where his girlfriend is still interned.  The problem here is that when he is confronted by the other prisoners, he says nothing about being a legitimate Japanese-American soldier.  In fact, the film gives the impression he does not even speak English.  That is highly unlikely for a member of the 100/442nd.   He does not dispute that he is a Jap and is guilty by association for the death of the brother on the Arizona!  As far as the Jewish soldier, he is discovered because of a Star of David on his dog tags.  Wouldn’t the Germans have already checked his dog tags?  Three of the prisoners (Soo, the black G.I., and a thuggish white guy) are marched off to presumably the death camp.  They overpower their guards and learn that it is actually the ones remaining in the barn who will be liquidated!  The SS officer chose to spare the life of the one black guy.  Soo runs off to rescue them and the thug chases him because he is a runaway Jap who will rat them out to the Germans, and yet by the time they get to the barn, they are comrades.  Wait, what?  In the post script, the ex-thug goes to Manzanar to visit Soo’s girl.  He is in civilian clothes, but the guard at the gate salutes him.  An appropriate book-end to a movie that insults intelligence from start to finish.

Monday, June 8, 2020

CONSENSUS #41. Guns of Navarone (1961)

SYNOPSIS:  “The Guns of Navarone” is a WWII action/adventure based on the novel by Alistair MacLean.  A commando team of various talents is sent to a German controlled island to destroy two enormous artillery pieces that control the nearby sea and would prevent a British fleet from passing by.  They have to overcome obstacles like climbing a cliff in a rainstorm, a traitor in their midst, and getting into the well-defended emplacement.  The cast is led by Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, and Anthony Quayle.

BACKSTORY:  “The Guns of Navarone” was released in 1961 and was the top box office attraction of that year. 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, David Niven, almost died during filming because of immersion in a pool of water for the explosives on the elevator shaft scene.

TRIVIA:  Wikipedia, imdb, TCM, Cinema Retro

1.  The original director was Alexander MacKendrick.  He was fired (officially he was ill) by producer Carl Foreman for creative differences.  Foreman had set himself up as second unit director and was very protective of his script.  He also felt MacKendrick was not up to his standards.  Foreman also found fault with the script written by thriller writer Eric Ambler and decided to write it himself.  Foreman, a communist sympathizer, had been blacklisted in the U.S. during the Korean War.  Although he had dropped out of the Communist Party ten years earlier, he refused to name names before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. After finishing “High Noon”, he had relocated to England.

2.  Director J. Lee Thompson had had a great success with “Ice Cold in Alex”.  He later went on to direct “John Goldfarb, Please Come Home”.  He was known for frequent rehearsing.  The movie uses a lot of painted mattes for effects and rear projection.  Most of the shots of the boat are models.  The cliff scene was done on the floor of the studio with the actors lying down for the scaling.

3.  The Greek government provided a thousand troops, dozens of vehicles, and a number of ships.  Foreman was given access to all historical sites.  The cooperation soured after Thompson accidentally sank the ship in the scene where their boat is stopped by a German patrol ship.  Members of the royal family appear in the wedding banquet scene.

4.  The shipwreck scene was done in the studio tank using airplane engines that had water from fire hoses sprayed into them.  It took 10 days.  The tidal wave was an effect.  Peck suffered a deep gash on his head and was nearly crushed by the hydraulics.  Quinn injured his back.  Niven reopened an old war wound.  Darren nearly drowned.

5.  Peck was chosen after William Holden asked for too much and did not want to star because he felt the movie was too much like “Bridge on the River Kwai”.  Peck liked the anti-war theme because he was a confirmed pacifist who had not supported U.S. intervention in WWII until Operation Barbarossa.  He refused to do an English accent so the character was changed to American. He later admitted he was miscast.  His German was dubbed.  He was hoping to revive a career that was beginning to skid.

6.  Anthony Quinn loved the Rhodes location shoot so much he bought land in the area that is still called Anthony Quin Bay.  He and Peck did not get along at first, but bonded over chess (which Quinn was very good at).  He angered the cast by wearing the vibrant red t-shirt under his uniform and then using its uncovering to steal eyeballs in the climactic scenes.

7.  David Niven felt his role was underwritten and pouted a bit about it.  This movie was the only one that the anti-smoking Brit smoked in. Niven returned to the British Army at the start of the war.  He was the only British actor to return to serve in the war.  He was assigned to a commando unit, but did not like to talk about his experiences.  He suffered a serious viral infection shooting the rigging the rigging the elevator scene because the water was polluted.  He came close to dying and was hospitalized for several weeks.  The movie was in jeopardy until he returned.

8.  Anthony Quayle was a Major organizing guerrilla forces in Albania during WWII.

9.  Bobby Darren was hoping to change his teen idol image, but his next movie was the sequel to “Gidget” in which he played Moondoggie.  He had only ten lines of dialogue.

10.  Stanley Baker was a big star in England, but was not high on the movie’s totem pole.  He was bitter throughout the filming.

11.  Gia Scala (Anna) was a head-case and difficult to work with (she later committed suicide).  She was upset with director Thompson for having her character with short hair.  When given the opportunity to cut Foreman’s hair, she gouged the back of it.

 12.  Dimitri Tiomkin got a record $50,000 and a percent of the profits.  The score was the longest ever at 147 minutes.

13.  The guns were built by an armaments company and were functional.  The guns were based on Big Bertha.  The guns set was the largest ever built. It took five months.  It was three stories high and had and working elevator.

14.  The number of times Barnsby (Richard Harris) says “bloody” in his rant about aerial bombing of the guns – 9.  The British censor insisted it be redubbed “ruddy” for British prints.

 15.  *** Spoiler Alert:  Foreman made substantial changes to the novel.  He added the Pappadimos character.  He added the leadership dysfunction between Mallory and Miller.  He added the revenge issue for Stavros with regard to Mallory.  He added Stavros saving Mallory on the cliff.  He built up the scopolamine angle.  Mallory kills the traitor.  He added the wedding scene.  There was no well of water at the bottom of the elevator in the book.  (I bet Niven wished he had not added that!)  He made the story more anti-war.

Belle and Blade  =  2.0
Brassey’s              =  4.0
Video Hound       =  4.4
War Movies         =  5.0
Military History  =  #93
Channel 4             =  #14
Film Site                =  no
101 War Movies  =  yes
Rotten Tomatoes  =  no 

OPINION:  Although considered one of the great manly films, “Guns” is probably a bit overrated. It has some ridiculous moments like the escape from the German arresters and Pappidamos’ machine gun duel. Not to mention squeezing a song into a war movie! It also has several standard movie clichés like Stavros finding a woman in the end to restart his life. The Germans are depicted as not so much evil as stupid. The movie is also a little slow and talkie at times. When compared to a similar MacLean inspired movie, “Where Eagles Dare” (which did not make the list), it comes up short in almost every way.  However, as an example of an old school action movie set in war, it is pretty good. It has the old-fashioned soundtrack, stellar acting, and the twist of who the traitor is. It is rousing entertainment, but a bit staid.

Friday, June 5, 2020


                        “Danger Close:  The Battle of Long Tan” is an Australian movie about the most famous military action involving the Australian army in the Vietnam War.  It was directed by Kriv Stenders. For those of you waiting for movies like “Pegasus Bridge”, don’t give up hope.  This movie started pre-production in 2008, the screenplay was finished in 2014, and the movie was not released until 2019!  It took so long that Sam Worthington was supposed to star.  The exteriors were shot in Australia.  Veterans were used as extras.  The weapons were authentic with most of the soldiers armed with the L1A1 SLR.  One of the RAAF UH-18 Hueys was actually used in the battle.

                        A title card tells us that Australia supported American forces in a civil war between North and South Vietnam.  The soldiers were a mix of conscripts and volunteers.  Their average age was 20 and inexperienced.  This is a pure and simple battle movie.  It jumps right in on the eve of the battle.  An Australian base comes under mortar fire during the night of August 17, 1966.  A lot of the blokes are shirtless, ladies.  Some are drinking Fosters while on guard duty, guys.  In a disappointing cinematic development, their battery knocks out the enemy mortar in one shot.  Great shooting, mates!   The next day, Bravo Company is sent to make contact in a rubber plantation.  In a nod to the attitude of the Australians, it will be called Operation Vendetta.   Maj. Smith (Travis Fimmel – Ragnar of “Vikings”) argues for his Delta Company, but in a scene that establishes the command dysfunction theme, Lt. Col. Townsend shoots him down.  Later, Smith (a veteran of the counterinsurgency in Malaysia) asks for transfer to a fighting unit which will respect his warrior abilities.  Smith has a reputation as a hard-ass who grates on his superiors and is unpopular with his men.  He is in need of a respect-earning arc.  Sgt. Buick (Luke Bracey) asks him if he is pushing the men too hard.  Somebody had to.  So far, the movie has touched on some time-honored clichés.  Let’s hope the combat is more original. 

                        The day of the battle, the base is visited by entertainers that include Little Pattie, a pop star.  Delta Company won’t be enjoying her big hit “He’s My Blonde Headed, Stompie Wompie, Real Gone Surfer Boy”.  Smith is sent to relieve Bravo.  He briefs the officers.  Any questions.  Hands raise.  He ignores them.  Delta saunters into the rubber plantation and walks into an ambush by a large enemy unit.  The three platoons will each have to deal with human waves, culminating in a last stand.  Meanwhile, back at headquarters, Lt. Col. Townsend and Brig. Jackson (Richard Roxburgh) disagree over how to avoid disaster.

                       “Danger Close” is combat porn at its finest.  And there is a very high percentage of it. Director Kriv Stenders has a flair for action.  He uses all the tools of cinematography and effects. Slo-mo, super slo-mo, explosions, stunt men jumping on trampolines after explosions, following shells to their fiery destination, blood splattering on the camera lens, etc.  It has some vibrant bells and whistles like flame coming out of howitzer barrels.  Tracers whizz and wounds are graphic.  The combat most resembles “We Were Soldiers”, as does the battle itself.  Where they differ is “Danger Close” does not bother with the build-up.  It is only concerned with the battle, not the unit.  Obviously, there are no home front scenes, but there is some character development of the common soldiers.  Unfortunately, these men are stereotypical.  Lt. Sharp is the “cocky little prick”.  Pvt. Large is the screw-up who will be annealed by combat.  Unfortunately, he makes the mistake of talking about his upcoming wedding.   Otherwise, the deaths are refreshingly random, as in war.  The acting is good with Fimmel dominating.  He has a lot of charisma and was a good choice for Smith.  He simmers rather than blusters as the rogue warrior.

                        The greatest strength of the movie is its accuracy.  As you will see below in my accuracy section, it has a high degree of fidelity to the truth.  It gets many small details right, like the visit form Little Pattie.  It does not enhance the action and most importantly, it does not substitute a feel-good ending for reality like “We Were Soldiers” did.  The movie does not take a stand on the war.  It is more interested in lauding the soldiers as opposed to high command.  The movie is a tribute to the Australian effort in the war and does not question it.  You don’t have to be Australian to enjoy it.  You just have to be a war movie fan.  It could possibly be the best war movie of 2019.  If you don’t count “1917” as a 2019 movie.


HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The base was bombarded the night before, but it was much more extensive and the counter-battery fire was 240 rounds, not one.  Company B  was understrength, plus many of its men were due for leave the next day.  It was sent to find the mortars.  Most of the infantry did carry L1A1 SLR’s.   Little Pattie and Col Joye and the Joy Boys were giving a concert when the battle began. Bravo Company did locate some mortar positions, but did not encounter any enemy.  Delta was sent to relieve Bravo. Smith had 108 men.  He and Townsend were not told that there was a VC battalion in the area.  Smith claimed that Brigadier Jackson knew of the enemy force and withheld the intelligence.  They left with the standard ammunition for a patrol – 60 rounds per man.  Some members of 11th Platoon, led by Sgt. Buick did run into 6-8 VC crossing their path.  Buick fired, hitting one, and the others scattered.  The platoon pursued.  The cabin was a rubber tapper’s cabin.  Some grenades were found, but nothing else.  11 Platoon was attacked and pinned down.     The enemy had heavy machine guns and mortars.  Sharp was rising up to see where the artillery was hitting when he was killed.  Buick took over.  The radio was disabled after Buick took over.  The enemy did use bugles to signal attacks. Artillery fire was called in to aid 11th Platoon.  Smith had a forward observer, Capt. Maurice Stanley, who coordinated the fire.  Eventually, all 24 guns of the 1st Field Artillery were used, plus an American battery. The movie greatly downplays the role the artillery played in keeping the enemy at bay.  10 Platoon did attempt to reach 11, but it was pinned down. On the way, 10th ran into an enemy unit preparing to attack 11.  It broke up the attack, but was soon pinned down.  F-4s were called in but the rain and low clouds kept the Phantoms from seeing the smoke.  They had to drop their napalm away from the trapped platoons. Buick did repair the radio and contacted Stanley demanding artillery fire on his position due to the dire situation and their running out of ammunition, but Stanley refused and instead walked the fire in close.  The artillery hit an assault group.  The rain was harder than in the movie and continued for the rest of the battle.  Lt. Sabben (not Large) led the section of 11  to save 12 platoon.  They reached the cabin, but were pinned down.   Smith did send a radioman to 10 because their radio is out.  He did kill two enemy on the way.    The  chopper pilots did not defy orders to bring ammunition.  Their commander was reluctant to send them, but relented.  They did drop the crates from above.   Sabben (not Buick) popped the smoke.  It did guide the remainder of 11 in.  Only 13 of the 28 came in. Jackson did fear an attack on the base and was reluctant to reduce the defenders.  100 men from Company A were sent in 10 APCs under the command of Lt. Roberts.  Their experience was accurately depicted in the film.  He did send two APCs back for Townsend, but refused to wait.  They crashed into the flank of an enemy unit and one of the APC commanders was killed as his APC did not have a gun shield.  The company did make a last stand in a depression. Kirby did  run out to take out a machine gun.  The artillery fire was much more consistent than in the movie.  3,500 rounds were fired.  The enemy attacks were not as suicidal as the movie depicts.  The enemy tactic was to get through the artillery kill zone as quickly as possible and engage from short range.  Large’s death was similar to as in the movie.   With ammo having run out, Smith did  prepare for the last attack.  The APCs did arrive just in the nick of time.    The movie accurately proclaims that 18 Australians were killed. (11 of the dead were draftees.)  As far as the claim that 245 enemy were killed.  This is the official total that was told to the press.  Many have questioned it, including Smith.  It might have been as low as 50.  The VC claimed 700 dead Australians.