Saturday, August 29, 2020

CONSENSUS #37 - Breaker Morant (1980)



SUMMARY: "Breaker Morant" is the true story of Lt. Harry "Breaker" Morant (Edward Woodward) who, with two comrades Lt. Handcock (Bryan Brown)  and Lt. Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), is put on trial for killing prisoners and a German missionary during the Second Boer War. They become pawns in an unpopular British war.

BACK-STORY: “Breaker Morant” was released in 1980 and was the first of three films made in Australia that marked the arrival of Australian cinema as a force in war movies. The other two films were “Gallipolli” (1981) and “The Lighthorsemen” (1987). The film was directed by Bruce Beresford, has an all-Australian cast, and was shot in Australia. It is based on the play by the same name which tells the story of the court-martial of Harry “Breaker” Morant, a well known warrior/poet. It was a box office success in America and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

TRIVIA:  Wikipedia, imdb, Criterion essay

1.  It is based on a play by Kenneth Ross. 

2.  It was voted Best Picture by the Australian Film Institute. 

3.  It was one of the first of the Australian New Wave that continued with “Gallipoli” one year later.  These war movies, which included “The Lighthorsemen”, were typified by manliness, comradeship in dilemmas, and anti-It 

4.  Considering its anti-British vibe, it premiered at the Royal Charity Film Premiere in London.  Prince Charles attended.

5.  The “Rule .303” refers to the .303 caliber bullet used in their rifles.

6.  The poem at the end is “Mafeking” by Sir Alfred Austen, a British poet Laurette. 

7.  Breaker was a reference to a breaker of horses.

8.  The Morant poems were:  1.  “At the River’s Crossing” – in the jail cell  2.  “Westward Ho!” -  the night before the execution  3.  “Butchered to Make a Dutchman’s Holiday” – in the execution scene.  The song he sings was based on his poem “At Last”.

9.  It is a good companion to “Paths of Glory” and “King and Country”.


Belle and Blade  =  5.0

Brassey’s              =  3.0

Video Hound       =  5.0

War Movies         =  3.8

Military History  =  #91

Channel 4             =  #78

Film Site                =  yes

101 War Movies  =  no

Rotten Tomatoes  =  no 

OPINION: I’ll go out on a limb and proclaim that this is the best movie ever made about the Boer War. You get a feel for the war, although looking it up in an encyclopedia will help with the big picture. It also helps if you are familiar with the Vietnam War because you can transpose that war for much of ”Breaker Morant”. The closing speech by Thomas could have been given by Lt. Calley’s lawyer at his My Lai trial.

“Breaker Morant” is one of the great anti-war movies. I recently got into a debate about whether all war movies are anti-war. Realistically, they should be, but actually a lot glorify war without showing any of the seamier side. The themes of prisoner abuse, never-ending guerrilla war, and scape-goating lower echelon soldiers resonate today. I sure hope this movie is being shown at West Point these days! It would not hurt for cadets to be told to focus on the “war corrupts good men” theme. Officers coming out of West Point are in many ways our “Breaker” Morants. It is the second best “soldiers on trial as scape-goats for command decisions” movie. After watching “Breaker Morant”, pair it off with its sister – “Paths of Glory”.

The only problem I have with the movie is if you really think about it, Morant was guilty of war crimes. Before the death of Hunt, he was clearly conflicted about the verbal orders from higher-up to kill prisoners. When he takes over, he did not have to obey those orders even if he thought they were official and it is clearly implied he became vengeance-minded. It is one of the strengths of the movie that even the death of the missionary seems like a railroaded charge when, of course, it was an egregious breech of the rules of war. How many in the audience see it as it is accurately depicted – an assassination of a priest for choosing the wrong side and for potentially informing on a war crime?

 This is a great movie. The scenery is beautiful as Australia stands in for the unbroken horizons of the Transvaal. The acting is fantastic. In the courtroom scenes, watch the facial expressions of the actors. You can read a lot from those faces! Woodward is seething, Brown is roguish, Fitz-Gerald is naïve, and Thompson is outraged. Denny (the head of the tribunal) and Kitchener are appropriately hissable.

As a history lesson and a lesson in military ethics, the movie is valuable and should be viewed by a public that is at war in a war similar to the Boer War. Let’s say, Afghanistan. Clearly the film should be mandatory viewing for soldiers involved in a counter-insurgency situation and for the leaders who are fashioning that counter-insurgency policy.

Saturday, August 22, 2020



                It’s hard to believe, but this August marks the tenth anniversary of this blog.  The blog has been the culmination of a lifelong love of military history.  I know this love goes back at least as far as sixth grade.  I can clearly remember reading every history book I could find at the St. Rose of Lima school library.  For some reason, the only one of those books that I recall was entitled “Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys”.  I believe this love was fostered by my father who, besides being in the Air Force, had taught History in high school when I was younger.  When you love to read military history, you are naturally going to love war movies.  My father would take me and my brothers to war movies.  I don’t remember what was the first, but possibly “Battle of the Bulge” which we saw in a Japanese theater.  But it’s not just the love of military history that draws me to war movies because “Battle of the Bulge” is a classic example of how most war movies are not good military history.  However, the genre offers a lot.  You see men put under extreme pressure and how they react.  You learn the personal stakes in play when two nations go to war.  You learn the role chance plays in history.  A good war movie amps up basic emotions like love, hate, fear.  I am attracted to stories about comradeship.  I have been a leader in the classroom and on the playing field.  War movies often involve command and there are plenty of role models.  As a teacher, I loved telling historical anecdotes.  Good war movies are essentially stories told visually.  And even the bad ones are still telling a story, although poorly.  This is why I am not harsh with B movies usually.  At least they tried and something is better than nothing.

                I could have just continued watching war movies and gone about my life, but something changed when I saw the movie “Julie and Julia”.  The movie is about a woman who starts a blog where she made a Julia Child recipe each day and wrote about it.  I had recently gotten Military History’s 100 Greatest War Movies issue and I put the two together.  I decided I would watch one movie per week (starting with #100 “The Thin Red Line”, ironically a movie I hate) and post my review on a blog I would create.   The project was supposed to last two years, but it took more than four.  This was partly due to an early decision not to rush it and to add reviews of movies that did not fall in the top 100.  The first of those was “Five Graves to Cairo”.  Plus, there were the occasional new war movies coming out.  The first of those was “The Eagle”.   When I completed the project with #1 “All Quiet on the Western Front”, I just kept rolling along.  In the process, over the last ten years, I have reviewed over 800 movies. 

                Since I am being personal here, I thought I would highlight my tenth anniversary post with my ten most favorite war movies.

10 -  Hornblower: The Duel  -  I am a big fan of Napoleonic War nautical fiction and have read most of the Hornblower series.  This is the best movie ever made about sailing warships.  It has everything I love about war movies.  A heroic central figure who grows into command, a heinous villain, it balances command and crew, it has grand combat.  The fact that it was a TV movie exemplifies how I consider television war movies to be on an equal footing with theatrical releases.

9 -  300 -  When you see as many war movies as I do, you are impressed when one does things differently. At this point the clichés and plot tropes are well-established, but occasionally a movie breaks the mold.  When I saw “300” in a theater, I had never seen anything like it.  If you are going to violate history, do it with verve.  Unlike a movie like “Braveheart”, “300” makes no bones about it being a fantasy and it is fantastically entertaining.  No matter what your gender or sexual orientation, it appeals to every demographic.  Except Persians.

8 -  A Walk in Sun -  Although I love all generations of war movies and I am well-read in the history of war movies, I judge movies on how good they are, not how good they were.  For instance, this is why I think “All Quiet…” (1979) is better than the original.  But there are some black and white war movies that I cherish and this is one of them.  I have shown it in my History of Warfare class (partly because it is not rated R) because it tells a simple story of a unit of men doing a typical mission.  I love the banter and the interaction.

7 -  The Longest Day -  WWII is my favorite historical period to read about and this is one of the great old school war movies.  It was the first all-star battle epic and unbelievably, still the best.  No movie has used an all-star cast better.  It balances command and their soldiers and Allies and Germans.  Although I like “Saving Private Ryan”, this movie does not peak at the beginning and has memorable scenes throughout.

6 -  Waltz with Bashir -  Waltz is similar to “300” in that it is visually stunning.  I have watched a lot of foreign films since starting this bog (having seen very few before) and this is my favorite.  Plus, it is a war movie that forced me to learn more about an event I had never heard of.  I value that in war movies.

5 - Where Eagles Dare -  I have seen all the major movies in the suicide mission subgenre and this is my favorite.  I have to admit that when I first saw it I was still in my” teenage boys love body counts” stage, but I still love it.  It has the best twist (actually more than one) of any war movie I have seen.  It does not take itself seriously and just goes for pure outlandish entertainment.  From the iconic opening theme to the surprise ending, it is pure fun.

4 -  Platoon -  People forget the impact “Platoon” had.  It, more than “Saving Private Ryan”, brought war movies into the modern age.  Although some find the plot heavy-handed, I am intrigued by the dopers versus boozers dynamic.  I love the duel for Taylor’s soul between two of the great war movie characters – Barnes versus Elias.  In fact, Elias is one of my favorite war movie characters.  I have seen all the important Vietnam War movies and it is the best.

3 -  Spartacus -  I have seen this movie more than any other movie.  That’s because I have shown it in my Western Civilization class many times.  I have the dialogue memorized.  It is the perfect epic, although not the perfect epic war movie (because of the lack of combat).  The score, the cast, the acting, the humor, the drama…  I am also intrigued about the back-story and have read books about it.  The fact that it played a role in the end of communist blacklisting is just an added bonus.

2 -  Glory -  I remember seeing a making of documentary for this movie before seeing it.  Still, I did not have high hopes for a war movie starring Matthew Broderick.  I saw it in the theater and was blown away.  The acting is incredible.  It has one of the best scores ever.  And it tells the story of a unit that deserved to be memorialized in a mass medium.  Sadly, not every story that needs to be told is told well (see “Windtalkers”), but war movies can rectify wrongs.  I love and admire this movie.

1 -  The Great Escape -  This has been my favorite movie since I was a kid.  I know every inch of it and still find it wildly entertaining.  I now recognize its flaws (ex. turning a prison camp into an adult summer camp), but is beloved by my generation.  It is a great example of how historic license can take an actual event and bring it to a mass audience without offending purists like me.  You don’t have to be a teenage boy to be mesmerized by Steve McQueen’s performance.             

Friday, August 21, 2020

SERIES: Gallipoli (2015)



                    For the one hundredth anniversary of the Gallipoli Campaign, Australians were treated to a miniseries about some blokes that participated in the disaster.  The seven hour-long episodes covered the campaign from landing to withdrawal.  It was based on the nonfiction book by Les Carlyon.  The cast went through some military training to prepare for their roles.


                    The main character is 17 year-old Tolly Johnson (Kodi Smit-McPhee).  He enlists after his brother Bevan (Harry Greenwood) goes off to fight for his king.  They make friends with members of their 4th Battalion, including the intellectual pacifist Dave (Sam Parsonson) and the class clown Cliff (Tom Budge).  The series skips the usual enlistment and training sequences and almost immediately puts the men on the beach on April 25, 1915.  They charge up the bluff, but when they reach minimal Turkish resistance, they fall back before they take the high ground.  Spoiler alert for non-Aussies, this failure is going to adversely impact the campaign.  To say the least.  The Australians dig trenches and a stalemate reminiscent of the Western Front ensues.  The second episode jumps a month, by which time their sector is called “Shrapnel Gully”.  The men are dealing with flies, snipers, and the deaths of comrades.  Not all of the main characters are going to make it.  Surprise!  The soldier’s lives are intercut with command decisions by Gen. Hamilton – an ass leading lions.  Although Tolly and his mates are fictional, many of the officers are based on real people.  There is a third arc involving members of the press, focusing on Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett (James Callis) who becomes a major thorn in Hamilton’s side.  This builds to episode five entitled ironically “The Breakout”.  This covers Hamilton’s complex multi-attacks to break the stand-off.  Tolly’s unit is assigned a diversionary attack on a section of Turkish trenches called Lone Pine.  The unhorsed Light Horsemen are assigned The Nek.  (If you look closely, you’ll see Archy Hamilton and Frank Dunne.  Just kidding.)  The last few episodes deal with the aftermath of the fiasco for Hamilton and the survivors of Tolly’s gang.


                    I did not have high hopes for this series.  I am not a big fan of the movie “Gallipoli” or the miniseries “Anzacs” and don’t find the campaign particularly interesting.  Not being an Aussie, I don’t have a dog in that hunt.  However, this series is surprisingly good.  The acting is fine by a cast that had only two faces I recognized -  Smit-McPhee from “Slow West” and Callis from “Battlestar Galactica”.  Smit-McPhee does a good job as the teenager thrust into war.  The character arc is a bit unrealistic.  His first taste of combat has him stabbing, instead of shooting, a Turk.  Later he has a brief foray as a sniper for no apparent reason than to introduce the famous sniper Billy Sing and to give us some cool sniping scenes.  Tolly reminded me of Paul Baumer as he gets hardened, promoted, and disfriended.  The only references to the home front are periodic flashbacks to Tolly’s love triangle with his older brother Bevan’s fiancé.  I don’t have to tell war movie fans that the girl will not have two guys to choose from when the campaign is over. 


                    The movie has three focuses.  One, the soldier life and banter, which is realistically portrayed in some nicely rendered trenches.  The men have that familiar Aussie humor.  The comradeship is apparent.  Second, the flawed decision-making by Hamilton which accurately reflects the insanity of the strategy and tactics.  Third, the press coverage which runs the gamut from jingoistic fawning to “here’s what’s really happening” as represented by Bartlett, who belonged in Vietnam.  These intertwine nicely and we get a balanced look at the campaign, unlike “Gallipoli” and “Anzacs” which were small unit movies.  There is not a lot of combat, but what there is is pretty graphic.  There is a lot of bayonet stabbing in the series and some vicious hand-to-hand.  The deaths are unpredictable and sudden.  And heart-tugging.


                    I did not expect it to be much of a history lesson, but it is.  I am not an expert on the campaign and I have read that some Aussies were upset with inaccuracies, but based on what I read for this review, it gets the basics right.  The historical characters appear to be accurately depicted and it was nice to see Bartlett getting his historical due.  His role in the demise of Hamilton is well-depicted.  Including Billy Sing was a bit of a stunt, but now I know who he was, so that was cool.  The whole sniper sequence is a low point as Tolly inaccurately roams around without a problem.  It does a good job on the famous burial truce (which reminds of the Christmas truce as in “Joyeux Noel”) and although a bit heavy handed in its depiction of the bonhommerie of the opposing soldiers, at least it gives the Turks fair treatment.  There is even a significant role for Kemal Ataturk.  The series leaves no doubt which side was better led.


                    I was shocked to read that the series bombed in Australia.  Some critics claimed it glorified war and pushed the Anzac myth.  I do not know where those critics were coming from.  The series is clearly anti-war and anti-military.  It does not sugar-coat what the soldiers went through.  I recommend it to non-Aussies.  I don’t want to get into arguments with Australians about how little I know about Gallipoli.  After watching several Russian war series on Amazon Prime, it was a big step up.



Thursday, August 13, 2020

COMBAT! “Hills Are For Heroes” (1966)


                  I am working my way through the series as part of my “1st and 10” project on war TV shows. I will be reviewing the first and tenth episodes of series plus the best episode based on its IMDB rating.  To do this post, I jumped ahead to episodes 25-26 in season 3, which are tied for the best episode.  “Hills Are For Heroes” is a two part episode directed by Vic Morrow.  Morrow, who famously played Sgt. Saunders in the series, directed seven episodes of the series.  “Hills” is considered his greatest directorial work.  The title, whether planned or not, hearkens to 1962’s similarly grim “Hell is for Heroes”.  The script was written by Gene L. Coon.  He was one of the creators of “Star Trek” (he invented Klingons) and he was responsible for changing “McHale’s Navy” from a one-hour drama to a half hour sitcom.

                Since Murrow was in the director’s chair, this is a Rick Jason episode.  (The series alternated between episodes that featured Saunders or Lt. Hanley.)  Unlike the normal squad-size scenarios, this episode involves a platoon led by Hanley.  They are marching cross-country when Germans in two pillboxes take them by surprise.  They are pinned down and then have to make a run for it.  Saunders is wounded and several are killed.  Saunders:  “We stepped in it that time, Lieutenant.”  The rest of the episode will make this abundantly clear.  The two pillboxes are on hills dominating a road.  They will be very tough nuts to crack.  But they must be cracked, according to the brass.  There is a WWI “donkeys leading lions” vibe to the situation.  Hanley is told that the hills must be captured to straighten the divisional line.  Artillery, the answer to every American tactical problem in WWII, is unavailable for plot purposes.  Hanley tries several different solutions to the problem, all resulting in running back with bullets chasing.  The platoon is getting whittled down and the men are getting increasingly mutinous, especially Kirby (Jack Hogan).  Fans of the series know that Kirby is the classic griper, but in this case he is right about the suicidal stupidity of the mission.  Hanley is caught in a tough spot.  He clearly agrees with Kirby, but he is the officer and he can not allow any insubordination.  Orders are orders.  Not that he doesn’t try to get the orders changed.  He has several tense conversations with his superior.  (These do not remind of Bob Newhart calling in “Hell is for Heroes”.)  These moments between the five attempts to take the hills are also used for development of some of the guest stars.  Einstein (Joseph Walsh) bets with Kirby about the odds of them surviving.  Kleinschmidt (Paul Carr) and Morgan (Anthony Call) are best friends who are dealing with mortality.  They represent the theme that it is best not to get too close to a buddy in war.  (Or the theme that guest stars on Combat! tend to be expendable.)  Stick around for the “Hamburger Hill”esque WTF ending.

                I am a big fan of “Combat!”, but as a critic I find most episodes are not great.  This dual episode is a crown jewel in the series.  It is the best episode I have seen so far.  It works as a stand-alone war movie.  Morrow’s direction is outstanding from the get-go.  It has one of the best openings in the series.  And it stays strong throughout.  Coon’s script is very good.  There are several memorable lines.  Hanley tells Cage that if things get hairy on a one-man recon mission, he should “give me elbows and heels all the way down”.  But the best line is “are you through?”  This is what Hanley tells Kirby after he lets him rant for a while.  Later, when Hanley is almost brought to tears lamenting about how the brass forgets they are dealing with flesh and blood, Saunders shakes him out of it with the same line.  Brilliant.  The acting is stellar.  Jason and Hogan are showcased, but the guest stars do poignant work.  One gets a showy cinematic death that goes beyond the usual iconic “Combat!” cinematography.

                Few war movies are as hard-hitting as this.  The themes are not ground-breaking, but seldom will you see anti-war better expressed.  The pressures of command, the requirement of following orders, the randomness of death (unless you are a series regular) are all touched on.  You will be incensed by the callousness of the superiors on the other end of the radio, but if you know American military doctrine, you know Hanley is just being forced to conform to the belief that you win by bulling your way forward.  (Granted, usually with superior firepower.)  Tactically, the episodes are realistic in their portrayal of fire and manuever.  There is plenty of covering fire.  The series was not noted for a lot of action, but “Hills” is full of it.  It is a perfect blend of drama and action.

                If you are a “Combat!” fan, you owe it to yourself to revisit “Hills Are For Heroes”.  It has everything that made the series so memorable, but in an exemplary showcase.  It is readily available (as are all the episodes) on YouTube, although you will have to watch the first episode in three parts, for some reason.  Don’t let that discourage you.

GRADE  =  A+  (for a Combat! episode)

Monday, August 10, 2020



1.  What movie the picture from?

2.  What movie is this quote from?

Pilla: Colonel, they're shooting at us! Colonel, they're shooting at us! 
: Well shoot back!

3.  What movie is this?

 It was the fourth highest grossing film that year.  The film had its genesis from Adrian Cronauer shopping a script for a TV series or made for TV movie.  He was unsuccessful until a big star got wind of the story and decided he wanted to play the main character.  Barry Levinson directed from a script by Mitch Markowitz.  Very little of Cronauer’s script was used.  The movie was shot in Bangkok, Thailand.   The star was nominated for Best Actor and won the Golden Globe for his role.  The film is #100 on AFI’s list of best comedies. 

Friday, August 7, 2020

BOOK/MOVIE: The Sand Pebbles (1962/1966)


                        “The Sand Pebbles” is based on the novel by Richard McKenna.  It was directed by Robert Wise (“The Desert Rats”, “Run Silent, Run Deep”).  While he was developing it, he took some time off to direct a little movie called “The Sound of Music”.   The movie was filmed in Taiwan (where a planned nine weeks shoot lasted seven months) and Hong Kong (three months).  He wanted Paul Newman as the lead, but had to settle for Steve McQueen.  McQueen was paid $650,000.  I’m not sure he thought it was worth it as he had a horrible experience.  He suffered from an abscessed molar which he refused to have looked at until he got back to an American dentist.   He did not make another movie for two years (“The Thomas Crown Affair”). He received his only Best Actor nomination, losing to Paul Scofield in “A Man for All Seasons”.   The movie was nominated for a total of eight Academy Awards, but won none.  It was nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Mako), Art Direction – Color, Cinematography – Color, Film Editing, Sound, and Original Music Score (Jerry Goldsmith).  Richard Attenborough won the Golden Globe for Supporting Actor. 

                        The opening prologue informs that the movie is set in 1926 China.  The country is under the thumbs of warlords and is oppressed by foreign powers.  There are also political factions trying to unite the country.  The little gunboat San Pablo (known to the crew as Sand Pebble) is tasked with patrolling the Yangtze River to show the flag and protect American property and citizens.  Some of those citizens are missionaries who detest the gunboats because they remind the Chinese of foreign oppression.  The San Pablo is docked at Shanghai when a new crewman arrives.  Jake Holman (McQueen) is a machinist’s mate, first class.  He is a sailor, but the only thing he is interested in is engines.  When he comes aboard, the first thing he does in introduce himself to the engine.  “Hello, engine.  I’m Jake Holman.”  He befriends Frenchy Burgoyne (Attenborough), but his anti-military body language puts him on the outs with his by-the-book skipper Lt. Collins (Richard Crenna).  The rest of the crew also are slow to warm to him.  The crew (called the Sand Pebbles) does not officially include the Chinese workers on board.  They are called “coolies” and do most of the work, including taking care of the engine.  Holman butts heads with a coolie named Chien.  Chien is the boss of the coolies running the engine, but Jake plans on running his engine himself.  This rocking the boat makes Jake unpopular with the crew.  Jake takes on Po-Han (Mako) as his apprentice.  They develop a strong bond that will end with one of the more memorable deaths in war movie history. 

                        Life on board the gunboat is good.  They eat well and have the coolies doing all the menial labor.  They go ashore to a bar where they drink and go upstairs with the girls.  Frenchy falls in love with one named Maily (Marayat Andriane).  Jake is in an awkward relationship with a missionary named Shirley Eckert (Candace Bergen in her second movie).  Both these relationships will buck the tide.  Americans are supposed to use, not fall in love with, Chinese women.  Missionaries and sailors are on opposite ends of how America should deal with China.  The two romances are going to be impacted by the increasingly chaotic political situation in China.  Forces loyal to Chiang Kai-shek are attempting to unite the country by eliminating the power of the war lords.  Foreigners make convenient targets.  The San Pablo is a symbol of that colonialism.  The gunboat ends up besieged by Chinese mobs led by young revolutionaries.  Eventually, it goes on a mission to rescue missionaries (including Shirley).

                        “The Sand Pebbles” is an epic that does not feel like an epic, aside from the length.  It is set during a conflict (The Northern Expedition 1925-27) that very few Americans were aware of, then and now.  The most the movie cares to do for historical knowledge is to make it clear that things were very messy.  The San Pablo gets caught in the middle of this mess.  There is a debate about how much the movie was a criticism of our involvement in Vietnam.  Although the book came out before we sent troops, director Wise has stated that he was interested in commenting about the war.  Personally, I don’t see a lot in the movie that applies to Vietnam.  Even with a length of three hours, the movie does not spend a lot of time on colonialism.  It also does not hammer the racism theme.  The coolies are exploited and the Chinese are looked down on throughout, but this is not the focus of the film.  Essentially, the movie is the story of two doomed romances set in a tumultuous period of Chinese history.  Frenchy/Maily and Jake/Shirley reflect the two themes of condescension toward the Chinese people and the opposing views of the benefits of colonialism.  Actually, since Jake is apolitical and sympathetic through his relationship with Po-Han, it’s the crew that represents the worst aspects of colonialism.  There is boxing match between Po-Han and Stawski (Simon Oakland) in which the big American bullies the weak Chinaman.  The missionaries, like Jameson, are depicted as very naïve in their belief that the Chinese will make exceptions for the missionaries just because the missionaries hate colonialism and are neutral politically. 

                        There are three main reasons to watch this movie.  First, the acting is stellar from a good cast.  McQueen is excellent as the conflicted and emotionally frigid Holman.  He is more comfortable with machinery than people and McQueen gets this across.  It’s appropriate that there is little chemistry between him and Candace Bergen.  Attenborough is strong as the love-struck Frenchy.  His humanity contrasts well with the racism of the crew.  Crenna is perfect as Collins.  In the book, Collins is a good leader who follows the rules no matter what his better judgment tells him.  Although the movie is a small unit movie, it does not highlight a dysfunctional crew and is not anti-authority.  Mako had his first big role and it is probably his most memorable performance.  In a morose movie, he has the most poignant moment.  The second reason to watch is the setting and sets.  Filming in Taiwan and Hong Kong may have been expensive and problematical, but it results in a beautiful film.  You are transported back to 1920’s China.  The San Pablo is a star in the movie.  The $250,000 spent building a replica of a gunboat was money well spent.  The engine room set is a standout.  Third, although it takes a while to get to it, the movie has one of the best battle scenes in war movie history.  The San Pedro has to break through a boom blocking their path to rescue the missionaries.  The buildup is tense and supported by Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent score.  The action is visceral and realistically messy.  This scene leads directly into the powerful climax at the mission.  This movie finishes very strong.

GRADE  =  B+

THE BOOK:  Spoiler alert – I will be discussing the plot of the book through the end..

                        Richard McKenna served on gunboats in China in the 1930’s.  Gunboats like his had traditionally patrolled the rivers and coastline to protect American interests.  The coolies grudgingly benefited from this and bars and brothels were happy to take American money.  Sailors tended to look down on the Chinese they interacted with and underestimated the anger.  The book, more than the movie, makes this dynamic clear.   The book is able to go into more detail supporting the premise that the crew were ugly Americans.  It is clear in the book that the Sand Pebbles (as the crew was called) wanted to fire on the Chinese regardless of the international repercussions.  Collins is the only one who looks at the big picture.

                        The book begins with Holman arriving at the ship.  “Hello ship”.   He goes to see the engine.  “Hello engine”.  “Jake Holman loved machinery in the way some other men loved God, women, and their country”.   Boy, does the novel back this up!  He is not a fan of the coolie system.  He flashes back to meeting Shirley on the trip.  She is described as not pretty.  Lt. Collins is skeptical of Holman because his record shows he avoids leadership.  Chien runs the engine room and he and Jake take an instant dislike for each other.  Later, in an incident similar to the movie, Chien is mortally wounded trying to fix the engine.  The coolies do not blame Holman, they are upset because they think Chien’s ghost is haunting the engine.

                        The romance between Frenchy and Maily is fairly close in the movie.  The boxing match between Po-Han and Ski is similar (but even more unrealistic), but the reason is Holman has gotten the crew to agree that if Po-Han wins, the crew will agree to take Po-Han back after Lop Eye had fired him.  Frenchy does win enough money to get Maily.  The auction occurs after the fight.  In the book, Collins’ wants Holman to transfer because he does not like his attitude that the engine is an important job and can’t be left to the coolies.  He does not consider Jake to be a Jonah.  Po-han death is similar, but he was not set up by Lop Eye, he volunteers to go into the city to get milk.  Jake is totally broken up by what he had to do and takes a while to recover.  The incident where a shore party is pelted by a Chinese mob is essentially the same.  The courtship between Jake and Shirley is chaste and ends after an awkward moment of intimacy.  Shirley does plant in Jake’s mind the idea of deserting and going to China Light to run the machinery.  Frenchy’s death is similar, but more poignant.  No one else is involved, Jake simply finds Frenchy dead in an alley.  Maily’s fate is left unclear, but it could not have been good.  The Chinese do not surround the ship and demand Jake because they accuse him of killing Maily.  Their excuse is Jake punched Lop Eye in an incident involving a pig!  The crew is justifiably upset that Jake brought this mess on because of a pig and they do want to turn him over.  The morale was already bad because there is a food boycott.  Jake was already being viewed as a Jonah.  Reading the book gives you a better feel for why the crew is anti-Holman.  Collins refuses to turn over Jake and has a mutiny on his hands.  Collins comes close to committing suicide, but then decides to restore order and regain the ship’s honor by going to China Light to rescue missionaries who don’t want to be rescued.  With the prospect of action, the crew regains its morale.  The fight at the boom is enhanced in the movie.  Jake’s only role is to cut the cable with an axe. He is not armed with a B.A.R. and he does not kill anyone and certainly not Cho-Jen.  Collins leads a small group to China Light where Craddock (Jameson in the movie), Gillespie (not in the movie, possible love interest for Shirley) and Shirley refuse to leave.  They change their minds after a messenger arrives with word that Cho-Jen was killed at the boom and the Chung (a radical group) are coming to execute Craddock.    The Chung arrive and open fire, killing Craddock.  Holman convinces Collins to leave with the others and stays to be killed. 

                        I would recommend the book if you want to understand the movie better.  For instance, Jake is in the navy because he took the fall for alcohol at a high school party and the judge gave him the choice of the military or reform school.  Personal motivations and characters are fleshed out in the book, naturally.  You also understand the political situation better.  The crew is almost a person in itself with Jake being an outsider.  In the book the crew comes off as prejudiced, petty, lazy, and cowardly.  They can’t wait for a war to begin so they can open fire on their tormentors, and yet they are willing to give up Jake to a mob because they are afraid.  They respect Collins, but refuse to follow his orders during a crisis.  McKenna obviously knows his sailor life as the book is full of sailor slang and traditions.  The movie avoids most of this.  He also knows his engines as there is a lot of explanation of the parts of the engine and how it works.  I found those parts very boring.  There are other entire chapters that are tedious. Jake dominates the book (although not as much as the movie), but McKenna makes side trips to China Light to catch up with Shirley.  Cho-Jen, her genius prodigy, has a much bigger role in the book.  There are entire sections that are left out of the movie, for good reason.  Maily, after her “marriage” to Frenchy, lives with Po-Han’s family.  Jake and Frenchy visit several times.  The ship is stuck in Changsa harbor and the Chinese are inflamed by a drought which they blame on foreigners.  Rain ends this anticlimactically.  This is a good example of how a screenwriter can remove unnecessary scenes to tighten the narrative.

                        As usual, I find the movie better than the book.  The screenwriter Robert Anderson (who was nominated for a Golden Globe) had the advantage of the source material.  He was able to lop off some of the branches and trim the tree.  He made some changes to what he kept and those changes were for the better in most cases.  This is true for the Frenchy/Maily arc and the improvements he makes to the boom battle and the climax.   Because of time constraints, Anderson had to abandon the discussions in the book that explained why things were happening.  For box office purposes, this was a necessary decision.  No one watches this movie to learn about the Northern Expedition.  The tightening of the structure has the effect of sharpening the unpredictable nature of the novel.  When you read the book, you are less surprised by major developments like the death of Frenchy.

GRADE  =  B-

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

CONSENSUS #38. El Cid (1931)

SYNOPSIS: "El Cid" is the tale of a legendary Spanish medieval hero during the period when the Moors controlled parts of Spain. El Cid is a Christian knight who is the epitome of chivalry. He gets in trouble with the King when he treats some Muslim foes fairly. An accusation of treason leads to a duel to maintain his family's honor. He ends up killing his fiancé's father which puts a damper on her love for him. He then gets in trouble with the new king for accusing him of conspiring to kill his brother. This gets El Cid exiled. He is brought back to capture and then hold a key port. A villainous Muslim leader lands an army and attempts to take the city.

BACK-STORY: El Cid is an historical epic about the legendary Spanish medieval hero Don Rodrigo Dial de Vivar, known as El Cid. It was released in 1961 and was directed by Anthony Mann. It is in the same genre as Ben Hur and similarly stars Charleton Heston. His co-star Sophia Loren had a $200/week hairdresser allowance. The film was shot mostly in Spain. It was nominated for Academy Awards for Art Direction, Original Music Score, and Best Song. The movie was a box office hit and was well received by critics.

TRIVIA:  Wikipedia, imd

1.  The Moors (Spanish Muslims) called Rodrigo Diaz de Viver “El Cid” which means “the lord”.  Christians called him El Campeador (“the one who stands up in the battlefield”).

2.  Loren’s salary included $200 per week for her hairdres

3.  The film used 7,000 extras, 10,000 costumes, and 35 ships.

4.  Heston and Loren did not get along.  In love scenes Heston had a hard time looking her in the eye.  The main conflict was over her high salary.  Heston later admitted that he had been a jerk.


Belle and Blade  =  N/A

Brassey’s              =  4.0

Video Hound       =  N/A

War Movies         =  N/A

Military History  =  #63

Channel 4             =  #86

Film Site                =  yes

101 War Movies  =  no

Rotten Tomatoes  =  no


OPINION: El Cid was better than I thought it would be. Although I am a big fan of Ben Hur, most of the old-school historical epics seem so outdated and overblown. This movie has some of those characteristics, but it is highly entertaining and accurate enough to pass the sniff test. Its strengths overcome its flaws.

Some of the flaws include a sappy love story and twirl your mustache type villains. Heston and Loren do not have much chemistry and the ups and downs are not realistic. I doubt Herbert Loms Ben Yusuf is considered politically correct in todays Muslim-tolerant atmosphere. However, the movie is surprisingly even-handed in its depiction of the Moors. There is a nice balance of evil and good Christians and Muslims. The main flaw is El Cid is too perfect. He is unbeatable as a warrior, at one point he defeats a dozen knights virtually singlehandedly. He is totally loyal to his lords, even when they are corrupt and trying to kill him. He is the perfect mate, being understanding when his fiancé despises him and tries to have him killed.

The strengths include the wonderful (if too brightly lit) castle interiors and the Ben Hur style score that does a great job setting the mood. The 70mm Technicolor is vibrant. The action is crisp and is three for three with the duel, the trial by combat, and the beach battle. The ending is memorable, even though its ridiculous.

El Cid is a spectacle in the grandest sense of the word. It is epic in its scale. It is old-school Hollywood at its best, not its worst.  However, it is overrated at #38.  It might belong in the greatest 100, but not this high.  Plus, it is not firmly in the war movie genre.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

BOOK/MOVIE: The Good Shepherd (1955) / Greyhound (2020)

                C.S. Forester published “The Good Shepherd” in 1955.  It was the last novel he published before his death.  The novel was personal to him.  Although he is most famous for his novels involving British protagonists, like the Hornblower series, “The Good Shepherd” is about an American ship captain.  Forester had moved to the U.S. early in WWII and worked for the British Ministry of Information.  He played a role in convincing America to enter the war.  The novel was his attempt to give credit to the efforts of the U.S. Navy once it entered the war as Britain’s ally.  I am a fan of the Hornblower novels, but I was not familiar with this book until I began reading about the making of “Greyhound”.  I got the book on Kindle, but waited to read it until after I watched the movie.  This is my usual policy when it comes to books adapted into movies.  I don’t want to know the plo of the movie and reading the book after watching the movie gives me more details than could be shown in a movie.  As my readers know, I usually find that the movie is better than the book.  I believe that the screenwriter has the advantage of having the book as a template that he or she can improve on.  In this case, the screenwriter was Tom Hanks himself.  Let’s see how he did.

                When I learned that this American movie was based on a book by Forester, I immediately assumed the movie had changed the ship to American and changed the plot substantially.  (Think “U-571”)  I was wrong on both counts.  The USS Keeling is an American Fletcher class destroyer (in the book it is a Mahan class).  They were named after Navy and Marine heroes.  Not going with the title of the book was probably a marketing decision or an attempt to dilute the overt religiousity of the book. 

                The mission of the Keeling (code-named Greyhound) is as outlined in the novel.  It leads a group of four escorts in shepherding a convoy across the North Atlantic in 1942.  For two days, while crossing the area the movie calls the “Black Pit”, the convoy is without air cover and prey to a German wolf pack.  The novel covers only this period of the voyage.

                Although the movie is just 91 minutes long, it covers the book tidily.  The book starts with the convoy approaching the Black Pit (a term not used in the book) and ends with the Keeling freed to head to port.  In between, the film includes most of the incidents covered in the book.  It does skip over the first u-boat contact, but that is because it involves the Viktor and James working over a u-boat.  From this point on, the movie adheres to the book closely.  There are basically five encounters in the movie.  In the first, Krause (Hanks) tricks the sub (and rattles his crew) by reversing course to sneak up on the submarine.  In the movie, oil and debris confirm the kill, but in the movie there is no proof.  The sub is actually sunk when the Viktor joins and they depth charge in tandem.  The second movie encounter is when Greyhound joins the Cadenna in going to the rescue of a sinking cargo ship.  It does avoid a torpedo as in the book.  Third, they fire at the sub and miss and then rush to the front of the convoy to face a wolf pack.  Later, the Keeling again fires on a surfaced sub and misses.  It gets hit by friendly fire and is fooled by the “pillenwerfer” (in the book, Krause is not clueless about this type of decoy).  Krause does make the decision to pick up survivors from the oil tanker.  After this incident, the book covers a seven-hour cat-and-mouse duel with a sub.  This ends in frustration.   For the fourth combat scene, the movie picks up towards the end of the seven hours.  The movie mimics the book closely in the sinking of the broached sub.  (It apparently had a stuck bow plane due to a depth charge explosion.)  The movie enacts the funeral.  At this point, the remaining hours until reinforcements arrive are fairly uneventful with no u-boat activity involving the Keeling.  Hanks added the scene where the Greyhound has to dodge torpedoes from two subs and one torpedo glances off the side.  The book does not have a second sinking of a u-boat using deck guns.  And there is no PBY sinking of the other.  Hanks also added the cheering by the convoy.

                What you get in the book is you get inside Krause’s head.  You also get more background that explains his personality.  Hanks does an excellent job as the laconic and imperturbable captain, but Forester tells you why he is the way he is.  The movie barely touches on the fact that Krause’s career had stagnated before the war offered him the opportunity for command.  The phrase “fitted and retained’ is mentioned, but the audience probably did not pick up that Krause had gotten less than stellar performance reviews and had been passed up for command.  Of course, it would be hard to guess that because the movie Krause is a u-boat fighting savant even thought it is his first combat.  In the book, we learn that he is not as perfect and has his moments of doubt.  But, most importantly, the reader has access to his thought-processes.  He weighs the pros and cons of each major decision.  This is fascinating because you can make up your mind what you would have done in his shoes.  For instance, would you have stopped for the survivors when other ships were under attack?

                Hanks makes major changes with Krause’s back-story.  He throws in the superfluous flashback to Krause’s jilted proposal to Evelyn to give Krause a reason to come back alive.  In the book, Krause is more of a bitter man, having been married and divorced from Evelyn.  She cheated on him, but he recognizes that he was part of the problem by placing the service ahead of her (a common war movie trope that Hanks was perhaps avoiding).  Hanks did not invent the religiousity the movie is noted for.  The book Krause is the son of a minister and quite devout.  Forester throws in quotes from the Bible throughout Krause’s inner monologues.  Hanks does a good job of getting this aspect of his personality across unobtrusively, as when he says grace before eating.  What Hanks is not able to clearly portray in 91 minutes is the sheer exhaustion that Krause goes through.  The bleeding feet have to stand in for his whole body.  The man was on his feet with little food and no sleep for 48 hours.  It makes you wonder how many battles in history were decided by poor decisions based on exhaustion.  Not that Krause makes any really bad decisions. 

                Hanks wisely develops the character of Cleveland, the mess mate who tries to get the captain to eat and later perishes helping pass ammunition to one of the guns.  In the book, the character is Filipino and he is not one of the dead.  A less wise, but undoubtedly entertaining, move by Hanks is the taunting German (voiced by Thomas Kretschmann!).  This cheekiness evolved from a brief mention in the book of a German making rude comments over the radio to one of the other escorts.  But overall Hanks was loyal to the book, which was smart because the novel is very good and easily adapted.  Most of the dialogue, especially the nautical stuff, is straight from the novel.

                So which is better?  I would have to say the movie.  I liked the changes and additions Hanks made, mostly.  He adheres to the book admirably and throws in an extra combat scene.  He develops an African-American character.  Obviously, if you are not proficient in naval warfare, the movie makes it easier to follow what is happening and you can literally see the effects of navigational orders.  However, if you like to understand what makes characters tick and what their motivations are, you should definitely read the book.  It is a good blend of character study and action.  It puts you in the slippers of the commander better than the movie.

Book =  A

Movie =  A