Saturday, August 28, 2021

FORGOTTEN GEM? Angels One Five (1952)


                “Angels One Five” was the first post-WWII movie made about the Battle of Britain.  It was directed by George More O’Ferrall from a book entitled “What Are Your Angels Now?” by Pelham Groom.  Wing Commander Groom served as technical adviser.  The title refers to radio code for a contact at 15,000 foot altitude.  The production had access to eight real Hurricane fighters and one ME-110.  The movie was popular when it was released.

                The movie opens with the famous Churchill quote:  “This was their finest hour…”  Like the audience needed to be reminded.  It is set in June, 1940.  Potential hot shot Pilot Officer “Septic” Baird (John Gregson) makes an inauspicious debut at his new squadron by pranging his kite into his Squadron Leader’s yard.  It’s not his fault, but the loss of a valuable replacement aircraft has Squadron Commander Ponsford (Andrew Osborn) miffed.  Apparently, he hasn’t gotten the memo that replacement pilots were more valuable than replacement aircraft back then.  He punishes Baird by putting him in the operations room (“the hole”).  On the plus side, we get to see WAAFs doing their part.  The squadron is like a fraternity.  I mean a college fraternity.  But it’s not all towel snapping.  Baird gets to woo the vivacious Betty.  All this while we wait for some action.  And wait.  And wait.  Until the 1:04 mark.  And it’s not worth the wait.

                Watching “Angels One Five” is like watching a talkative chess match.  We spend more time in the operations room than in the cockpit.  That might be acceptable if the payoff was good.  The payoff is the climactic dogfight with Baird getting the cliched redemption.  Speaking of clichés, check out the scene where the squadron is scrambled and the camera zooms in on one pilot’s unfinished drink.  Guess who doesn’t come back.  The dogfight turns out to be the worst I have ever seen.  And I’ve seen a lot.  Keep in mind that the movie was made in 1952 so its air combat is competing with many earlier movie scenes.  Scenes that seemingly would have been at a disadvantage in special effects.  Even with the authentic Hawker Hurricanes, the movie’s effects are laughably bad.  The German bombers are the fakest you will ever see outside of a high school A/V project.  Thankfully, the acting is okay by a reliable British cast. Everyone’s lip is stiff.  Even the women, who dust themselves off after a bomb caves in a roof.

                Why was this movie popular?  It must have been nostalgia on the dozenth anniversary of the Battle of Britain.  And love for “the few”.  But the few deserved better than this.

GRADE  =  D-

Thursday, August 26, 2021



       With the recent events in Afghanistan, many have rekindled memories of the fall of Saigon and America’s chaotic exit from South Vietnam.  This reminded me of the movie “A Bright Shining Lie”.  HBO produced this version of the book by Neil Sheehan.  Sheehan won a Pulitzer for “A Bright Shining Lie:  John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam”.  The acclaimed book came out in 1989.  Sheehan had known Vann in South Vietnam and used him as a proxy for the American effort in Vietnam.  The movie was written and directed by Terry George (“Hotel Rwanda”).  It was well received and was nominated for an Emmy.  Bill Paxton was nominated for a Golden Globe.

                The movie opens strong with the Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” over the credits with footage of napalm and white phosphorus exploding.  “When the truth is found to be lies.”  This will be one of the themes of the movie.  John Vann (Paxton) is a Lt. Col. who is excited to go to Vietnam because he wants a taste of war and he realizes fast promotions come with combat.  The movie advances the motivation by career soldiers early in the war that “it’s the only war we’ve got”.  Vann leaves his wife and kids thus firmly establishing the war before women cliché.  When he arrives in Saigon in 1962, he befriends Steve Burnett (Donal Logue).  (Burnett is based on David Halberstam.)   It will be a reciprocal relationship as Paxton uses Burnett to criticize policies and Burnett gets confirmation of his belief that the war is not going well.  Vann is the rare American who falls in love with South Vietnam.  He shacks up with a Vietnamese woman, but that is typical for a man who takes his marital vows loosely. 

                Vann has a theory that the key to defeating communism in Vietnam is to boost the peasants.  This of course contradicts the plans of Diem’s government.  Diem has no intention of treating the peasants with respect.  Vann is assigned as military adviser to a Gen. Cao.  When he arrives at the camp, he learns that the ARVN (S. Vietnam’s army) is faking the body count.  He also learns that the ARVN are not interested in confronting the Viet Cong in battle.  He participates in battles where the reluctance of the ARVN soldiers to duke it out is very frustrating.  Vann is not the type to take frustration stoically.  He makes enemies of ARVN generals and his superiors.  But he is eventually allowed to try his “hearts and minds” strategy out.   There is a sequence where he and Doug Elders (based on Daniel Ellsburg) help improve a school with disastrous results. Even when America is altruistic, it hurts the South Vietnamese peasansts.  He is there for the Tet Offensive and for Vietnamization under Nixon.  At the end, he is attempting to prove that if properly trained and led (by him), the ARVN can defeat the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army.  Kind of like the belief by some that the Afghan army would be able to beat the Taliban.

                “A Bright Shining Lie” is a biopic of a fascinating individual.  This is how Burnett eulogizes him:  “John Paul Vann was America’s warrior.  He personifies our good intentions, our arrogance, our courage, and ultimately, our folly”.  Paxton is great as this complex man.  He comes off less as a hero than as a Don Quixote.  There is enough of his personal life to prove he is a cad and a poor father.  Burnett makes a good foil as his pessimistic views of the war are contrasted with Vann, who goes from pissing into the tent to pissing from in the tent. 

                The movie has some fairly high production values for a made-for-TV movie.  Saigon is recreated nicely.  Unfortunately, the battle scenes are low rent.  The two battles (Ap Bac and Kontum) are very simplified.  But the emphasis is on Vann and he is allowed to participate in the action.  In one scene, he snipes two Viet Cong who are on the run from his chopper.  He acts as a one man blocking force after the Vietnamese commander refuses to put his men in that position.  This dude walks the walk and talks the talk.  That talking means he does not shy from telling off his Vietnamese superiors.  Or slapping them. 

                The problem with the movie is it has two hours to cover ten years.  We get the greatest hits of Vann’s career and two of his affairs.    This leaves little time for his training of ARVN soldiers and his tactic of aggressive patrolling.  There is a taste of his attempts to win over the peasants (with disastrous results that Afghan War veterans can relate to).  We also get an idea of the military incompetence and corruption of ARVN leadership and the poor morale of the men.  Sound familiar?

                If you want to see analogies to the Afghan War, “A Bright Shining Lie” is better for the beginning of the war than for the end of it.  Vann’s attempts to build up a viable fighting force ring a bell, but the movie concludes with a battle that seems to confirm that Vietnamization might work.  It does not get to the chaotic withdrawal from Saigon because Vann did not make it that far.  He certainly would have been one of the last to leave.  I would hope that the book was required reading in the Pentagon before and during the Afghan War.  The movie was also available for the nonreaders.  If so, the lessons were not learned.  It is incredible that the military thought that Afghanistanization would work.  We had no Vann and the conditions were much more challenging.

GRADE  =  B   

Sunday, August 22, 2021

LIVE: The Last Grenade (1970)


Somewhere in Africa  //  Stanley Baker has sure fallen on hard times and I’m not talking about his character  //  chopper arrives to rescue a motley band of mercenaries;  a hippie in the chopper opens fire;  “That bastard shot us.”;  the door gunner cackles, everything he shoots crackles;  conveniently located oil silos blow up;  this dude is named Thompson (as in machine gun) and he is played by Alex Cord on speed  //  the credits tell us this movie includes Richard Attenborough, Rafer Johnson, and Honor Blackman!  I had no idea it was an all-star epic  //  it’s based on a novel!  //  after his entire command is slaughtered by his ex-buddy, Grigsby (Baker) is tasked with eliminating Thompson (Cord) in your typical mercenary movie plot  //  Grigsby assembles a motley crew of four -  let the stalking begin  //  they go hunting with Grigsby in camo and Jackson (Rafer Johnson) wearing a bright red hat  //  Grigsby:  “Keep your head down.”  Jackson:  “I got all the holes I can use.”;  soon after, Thompson puts more holes in him than he can use -  damn, he didn’t have the same agent Jefferson of “The Dirty Dozen” had  //  Thompson has his own guerrilla army, like Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now” – a movie that this movie should not be mentioned with, sorry;  now that I think about it, if Brando had acted like Cord, that last act of AN would have been a lot better  //  Grigsby is captured, but he escapes while Thompson is feeding ducks and then shooting them with a sling shot  //  Grigsby and his surviving trio return to civilization to extend the length of the movie  //  for attempt #2, Grigsby brings a guide who looks like he has one foot in the ground  //  they stalk again;  they find an empty camp and decide to wait – inside!  with no security!  they boobytrap the dead guide because there are no oil siloes;  the idea of spreading dead guide all over the camp succeeds, but the ambush doesn’t, so it’s back to civilization for Grigsby to bed a general’s (Attenborough) wife (Blackman)  //  after a romantic weekend that includes a horseback ride, Grigsby is refreshed (if you know what I mean);  meanwhile his trio are visited in a bar by Thompson eating an ice cream cone and dressed groovy, man;  he kills one of them and melts back into the jungle  //  Grigsby decides he is going to settle down with Kate, so the movie is over… but wait, Kate and the general are ambushed by Thompson and Kate is killed -  “Your move, Harry”  //  attempt #3 -  Grigsby is having montage flashbacks in case we are too drunk at this point to remember key plot developments  // he walks smack into an ambush (this movie should have been called “Ambushes”), but even though he is killed we get to find out why it is called “The Last Grenade” -  how do you say “oh, shit” in hippie?

“The Last Grenade” was directed by Gordon Flemyng, who you might remember from “Daleks’ Invasion of Earth 2150 A.D.”, if so I pity you.  It is based on the novel “The Ordeal of Major Grigsby” and was almost entitled “Grigsby” but they were afraid of being sued by all the people named Grigsby.  Although the cast is better than normal, it seems like a macaroni war movie, especially with the title.  The actors do class it up, although Cord chews so much jungle scenery he must have remained regular for the rest of his life, which ended last week, RIP.  Baker seems in the “paycheck, please” phase of his career and clearly is trying to make enough money to afford a toupee.  Blackman is there for obvious reasons, but sorry fellas, you’ll only see lingerie.  The love affair is ridiculous and there is no chemistry between the actors.   As far as Attenborough, I can only guess he was hoping to get directing lessons from Flemyng.  The movie does not have the action the opening teases.  I doesn’t help that every time the Dirty Four go hunting, they crawl back and lick their wounds.  They have to do this because Grigsby is a poor leader.  How poor?  The only way he can get Thompson is to booby trap himself.