Thursday, January 27, 2022

Khartoum (1966)


                        “Khartoum” is an epic about the siege of Khartoum in the Mahdist War in Sudan.  It was directed by Basil Dearden (“The Captive Heart”) with a screenplay by Robert Ardrey.  He was nominated for an Oscar.  It was the last film made using Ultra Panavision 70 until Tarantino’s “Hateful Eight” 49 years later.  The exteriors were filmed in Egypt.  Burt Lancaster turned down the lead.  Although the producers claimed no horses were injured in the making of the film, it has been claimed that over one hundred were killed or were so severely injured that they had to be put down. 

                        Remember when epics opened with overtures?   This one has a six minute one.  (There was also an intermission.)  Then a narrator wakes you up to tell you the Nile is a great river.  Along its banks rose an Islamic uprising led by a charismatic prophet called the Mahdi.  The British sent an expedition to put down the rebellion.  The movie opens with this expedition getting its ass kicked.  The massacre is brief, but features a lot of extras.  We meet the Mahdi.  He’s Laurence Olivier, which is bit distracting at first.  But so was Alec Guinness as Prince Faisal in “Lawrence of Arabia”.   If you can cast a great actor, to hell with the nationality of the character.  Meanwhile in Great Britain, Prime Minister Gladstone (Ralph Richardson) wants to wash his hands of this Sudan mess.  He decides to evacuate British forces, but is convinced to send the Pattonesque “Chinese” Gordon (Charlton Heston) to handle the evacuation.  Gladstone knows Gordon is the exact opposite of the type of general to follow orders and withdraw from a fight efficiently.  His advisers argue that Gordon will be a “gesture” of British concern for the Sudanese.  And if he fails, he can be blamed for the loss of the Sudan.  Gordon accepts the mission, although he knows what Gladstone is pulling.  His ego tells him he can walk into and out of this trap and besides, he has no intention of following orders.  A Col. Stewart (Richard Johnson) is sent as Gordon’s aide and babysitter.  His role is going to be as frustrating as Col. Brighton’s in “Lawrence”.  Gordon arrives in Khartoum to great acclaim and he eats it up.  The people now have their own messiah.  Do I have to mention “Lawrence” again?  Gordon has the obligatory cinematic meeting with the Mahdi.  The Mahdi makes it clear he is interested in more than just the Sudan.  Khartoum’s sacking will be a good example for anyone standing in his way.  And he’s not going to allow a peaceful withdrawal of Egyptian forces.  This gives Gordon the excuse to have no choice but to hold Khartoum.  The rest of the movie covers the siege.

                        Clearly the movie wants to be the next “Lawrence of Arabia”.  They both are basically biopics of charismatic Christians mingling with Muslims in the Middle East.  The problem for the box office is Gordon ain’t no Lawrence.  And he was a loser.  And deserved to lose.  Although well known in Great Britain, he was virtually unknown to American audiences.  Although the movie downplays Gordon’s erratic personality.  He is not heroic so much as a pompous ass.  That doesn’t mean the movie has the guts to make the Mahdi the hero.  It was made in 1966, after all.  The two leads are fine with Olivier outstanding as the Mahdi.  I’m not an expert of accents, so his might not be accurate, but the effort is mesmerizing.  The supporting cast is fine, with Richardson getting nominated for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA.

                        The battle scenes are big, but brief.  They don’t stop the show.  The siege is simplistic and does not really show the suffering of the people.  There is lack of suspense and frankly it is hard to care about Gordon’s fate.  I assume most Americans need a spoiler alert here.  He is in some ways the British Custer. For discerning viewers, Gladstone is actually in the right.  And he’s a politician.   As far as the exteriors, it’s no “Lawrence”, but the aerial views of the scenery are beautiful.  This is diluted a bit by some truly fake rear projection.

                        The movie is surprisingly historically accurate.  (See more below)  Gladstone was reluctant to send Gordon to the Sudan for the reasons outlined in the movie.  The movie does a good job on the political machinations, but the reasons why Gordon was an insane choice are only hinted at.  And then his actions are made to seem reasonable.  Those actions follow the historical chronology fairly well.   He, of course, did not meet with the Mahdi, but the scene does reflect the two men’s positions.  The movie implies that Gordon had no choice when actually he could have evacuated Khartoum.  Trying to hold the city was a big mistake.  The siege needed more emphasis on the starvation and exhaustion of Gordon’s forces.  Stewart’s death is what happened to him, but Gordon found out in a less shocking way.  The siege did end quickly as the movie shows and Gordon’s death is based on the most likely scenario.

                        “Khartoum” is a misfire.  It aims too high with a story that just is not epic-worthy.  It might have worked if the battles balanced the politics more.  For a long movie, there is not enough combat.  It also would have helped if Gordon was a more compelling character.  The real Gordon was mercurial and unstable.  Not exactly the type of character you hire Heston to portray.  A remake would be as different as “Little Big Man” was to “They Died with Their Boots on”. 


HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The Mahdi did launch a holy war (what we would call today a jihad), but the intro does not really explain why.  The Sudan had been written off by the British, but Egypt was trying to retain control.  The British government decided it was Egypt’s problem now.  The Mahdi tapped in to the resentment toward British, and now Egyptian rule.  Taxation was the main beef, but other sparks were religious, like the appointment of non-Muslims to government positions.  One of these had been Gordon who was governor from 1873-80.  He warred with a native chief for three years and retired in 1880, returning to England.  After he left,  Muhammad Ahmed (the self-proclaimed “guided one” or Mahdi) started his uprising.   Egypt sent a very poor army to put it down and it was surprised in camp and massacred by the ill-armed Mahdis.  They acquired arms, ammunition, and confidence from the battle.  The British government responded to public pressure by sending the Hicks Expedition led by Col. William Hicks and consisting of 8,000 Egyptians.  They were wiped out by 40,000 Mahdis in the Battle of El Obeid.  This is the battle at the beginning of the movie.  Gladstone decided to evacuate from Sudan.  This was basically the Egyptian garrisons.  Press and then public clamor for Gordon put pressure that Gladstone did not withstand.  The movie does a good job on how Gordon got the job and the cynicism of the government in appointing him.  Stewart’s role is accurate.  Gladstone was a aware that Gordon would be a problem and most likely not implement the policy.  The movie omits the biggest mistake Gordon made.  When he got to the Sudan, he unbelievably announced that he was there to supervise the withdrawal, thus destroying the morale of the forces loyal to the British.  The movie accurately has Gordon proposing the use of a former slave trader named Zobeir Pasha.  I doubt Gordon was responsible for his son’s death, but the British government did put the kibosh on that idea.  Gordon made reforms in Sudan which the movie skips.  Ironically, although he had abolished the slave trade when he had been governor, he reinstated it at this time because it was popular.  He was greeted as a savior in Khartoum and it did go to his head.  Gordon and the Mahdi did not have a sit-down, but they did communicate.  The opposing views are simplified, but the Mahdi insisted on the British abandoning the Egyptian garrisons and give up Khartoum and Gordon was not prepared to do so.  He felt it would be dishonorable to cave to the Mahdi’s wishes and pushed the domino theory that the Sudan would be first and then Egypt.  He did refuse orders to do the evacuating he had signed up for and at first Gladstone was taking a good riddance approach.  Public outcry forced the sending of the relief expedition portrayed in the movie.  The Khartoum Relief Expedition, led by a friend of Gordon’s – Sir Garnet Wolseley, drug its feet shamefully.  Some friend!  The movie throws in a confusing battle which I think was supposed to be the battle where the Mahdis slowed down the relief, not that it was busting ass before that.  Meanwhile, the siege was underway.  Gordon was overconfident in his men and the city’s defenses.  The siege lasted from March, 1884 to January, 1885.  Many months beyond the city’s six month food supply.  For a while, it was possible to take ships down river, but the Mahdis shut this down and the movie shows the deaths of Stewart and everyone on board one of them.  The Mahdi did not show Gordon his severed hand, but instead sent him letters that could only have been in Stewart’s possession.  The movie does not go as far as many historians in insinuating that Gordon had a death wish and a martyr complex.  The storming of the city was not well-contested as the movie depicts.  Most historians feel Gordon’s death was as shown.  He was descending a staircase and was speared.  The relief army arrived in the area several days late. 

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Operation Dumbo Drop (1995)


                In 1995, someone at Disney decided the time was right for a children’s movie about the Vietnam War.  But how to get a cute animal in it?  It turned out that a Vietnam vet had a story to be told.  Army Major Jim Morris remembered how the U.S. Army provided elephants to villages near Communist supply routes to win “hearts and minds”.  The elephants would be used for agricultural work.  Simon Wincer (“The Lighthorsemen”) signed on to direct and a nice cast was willing to go on location in Thailand. 

                In 1968, Capt. Doyle (Ray Liotta) is sent to the idyllic village of Dak Nhe to replace Capt. Cahill (Danny Glover).  Cahill has gone native and bonded with the Montagnard villagers.  It will take a while for Doyle and Cahill to bond, but you can count on it happening.  When Cahill takes Doyle to scout the local branch of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the village is visited by the North Vietnamese.  They kill the village elephant because of the collaboration with the Americans.  America owes them a new elephant and they need it in time for their annual ritual.  Cahill and Doyle enlist a comic relief black grunt named Ashford (Doug E. Doug), a hick named Farley (Corin Nemal) and a slimeball quartermaster named Poole (Denis Leary).  The elephant Bo Tat (Tai) comes with an orphan boy as his driver.  An elephant and an orphan boy – now we have a Disney movie.  The trek involves kid-friendly scenes that include chasing the elephant and falling in elephant poop.  There are also encounters with evil communists because this is a war movie.  Don’t expect anything graphic.  This all leads to the title air drop of Bo Tat.  But if you think the movie ends here with the elephant peacefully working in the rice fields, think again.

                Since I did not invest in it, I’m not going to wonder about how the Hell this movie was green-lit.  It’s a nice little movie and if your child is into Vietnam, they will probably enjoy it.  If they are not informed about Vietnam, you may have to do a lot of explaining.  Not that it is a complicated movie.  It’s just that you will have to account for the gunfire and explosions.  There is even a little suspense, although you clearly won’t have to worry about an Old Yeller ending.  The cast must have thought of their kids while making it because they give sincere performances.  They do not ham it up.  The best actor in the movie is the elephant.  Kudos to the animal trainer. 

                The movie won’t teach your kids much about the war, but it does pass on some cultural information.  The Montagnards are given some nice coverage and deserve it for all they suffered as loyal allies to the Americans.  It’s not a realistic portrayal, of course.  It’s a Disney portrayal.  The movie has something to teach about bonding and redemption.  It’s light-weight moralizing suited for kids.  Adults won’t see anything unexpected.  All the characters are stereotypes.  Kids will enjoy the humor, but none of it is aimed at adults.  You won’t have to explain any jokes.

                All things considered, it could be a lot worse.  The best I can say about it is it is not an embarrassing effort for those involved.

GRADE  =  C   

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Thud Pilots (2018)


            I have no problem reviewing war documentaries as part of the genre.  It’s just that with so many war movies to get to, I tend to put off watching the better documentaries.  I do have a to-be-watched list, but it’s for the future.  However, I was reminded recently of a war documentary that has a special meaning for me and I kicked myself that I had not reviewed it before.  It is personal because the subject is related to my father.  One of the defining periods of my life was the three years I spent in Japan as a kid when my dad was flying a fighter-bomber in the Vietnam War.  I was not old enough to fully appreciate what was happening. We lived on Yokota Air Force Base, so it was not even like we were living in another country.  I had a happy childhood with no concerns about the safety of my father.  It was only later that I realized that he could have been killed fighting for his country.  When we returned to the States, he stayed in the Air Force and then the National Guard.  I had to wear a buzz cut when everyone else in school had long hair, but I was proud to be a military brat.  My dad was not a drill sergeant.  He was not the Great Santini.  He did not have PTSD (which made him part of the majority of pilots).  He did not mind talking about his experiences, but you had to ask.  I asked and I immersed myself in books about aviation combat.  My favorite plane has always been the one my father flew in Vietnam.  I am looking at two models of it right now in my study.  Officially, the Thunderchief, it was affectionately called the Thud by its pilots.  For those familiar with WWII, the F-105 was the equivalent of the P-47 Thunderbolt (nicknamed the Jug). Both were fighter-bombers that could take a lot of damage and stay in the air.  (One difference is that while the Jug is an ugly airplane, the Thud is beautiful.)

            I learned from “Thud Pilots” and if you are not familiar with the air war, you will learn a lot.  The movie was written and directed by a friend of my father, Vic Vizcarra.  I played with his sons when we lived on the base.  Mark was driven to give recognition to the pilots, like his father and my Dad, who flew the Thuds in the messed up war that was Vietnam.  The film begins with background on the Thud before the war.  The plane was originally designed to be a supersonic nuclear bomb deliverer for the Cold War.  It is still the largest single engine fighter ever built, but very fast.  It set the world speed record in 1959.  In Vietnam, its role was adjusted to fighter-bomber.  It could drop more bombs than a B-17 and hold its own against MiGs.  Unfortunately, the movie makes it clear that the Pentagon took these two roles for granted.  Starting with Operation Rolling Thunder (the sustained bombing of North Vietnamese targets), the Thuds carried a large part of the war effort.  And suffered the losses resulting from that load.  The plane could take a beating and it got it.

            The movie is structured like a traditional war documentary.  There is a narrator to link the interviews and give historical background.  There are interviews with Thud pilots.  And there is footage to support the interviews.  The interviews cover several aspects of being a Thud pilot.  Some describe refueling, hairy missions, encounters with anti-aircraft fire and missiles, getting rescued from being shot down, or being captured.  (Another friend of mine’s father is featured as a POW.)  The interviews are basically in chronological order and fit the historical narrative that covers the early war years from 1965 to about 1968.  The string of interviews builds to the one with Vizcarra himself.  He was shot down and rescued by a chopper crew.

            What separates the documentary apart from most WWII docs, for instance, is its scathing take on the handling of the air war.  This is not “Memphis Belle”.  Vizcarra, by way of the narrator, describes controversies that would be hair-pullingly familiar to Thud veterans, but probably news to their grandchildren.  Special bile is aimed at the “rules of engagement” and the targeting decisions by the politicians.  The rules forbid striking at SAM (surface to air missiles) sites that were trying to kill them and the MiG bases that their adversaries launched attacks from.  The footage includes Pres. Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara giving excuses about not wanting to widen the war.  The F-105 pilots were “sacrificial pawns”.  The targeting decisions included hands off of Hanoi and Haiphong harbor, leaving these areas as refuges for the enemy.  Tactically, the use of the warplanes in formations that made them sitting ducks comes under criticism.  Unfortunately, when the gloves were partially loosened in 1966, it did result in heavier losses.  New tactics, like the use of two-seater Thuds (Wild Weasels) to pinpoint and take out SAM sites, are discussed. 

            The theme that comes across is these brave men were misused by their government.  And yet, they served to the best of their ability despite the odds.  One particularly poignant segment is on a pilot who re-upped for a second 100 missions and was shot down on mission #198.  It’s hard not to have the mixed emotions of anger and sorrow while watching this movie.  Unless your father was a dove during the war.  This movie definitely is aimed at the “we should have done whatever was necessary to win the war” crowd.  But we need documentaries that offer the counterargument that Vietnam was a just war and most warriors (especially pilots) believed in what they were fighting for.

            “Thud Pilots” is not just Mark Vizcarra putting together some home movies and talking over them.  It has a professional gloss to it.  It won the Best Film Made by a Veteran or Serviceman Award at the G.I. Film Fest.  The footage is amazing and coordinates with the narrative very well.  Some of the footage is actual footage of some of the interviewees.  The interviews are outstanding.  The men are allowed to talk at length.  There is no interviewer prompting them.  All of the speakers are eloquent.  They are not as bitter as they have the right to be.  That is left to the narrator. In a nice touch, a couple of the veterans are ground crewmen.  I’m sure all Thud pilots will agree they belonged in the film.  

            Although clearly aimed at the Thud community, this movie works well as a Vietnam War air combat documentary.  Since the Thud carried a large part of the bombing effort, the story of the Thud is in many ways the story of the air war.  Especially when it comes to the ROE, the targeting, and the rescue efforts.  F-4 pilots and the various Navy pilots certainly will nod heads while watching.  If I have to offer any criticism, I would say that it could have done without the constant soundtrack.  It is not distracting, but could have been cut for the interviews.  Also, I would have liked to have seen more discussion of the tactics.  For instance, there was a debate within the community over horizontal versus dive bombing.  The movie also forgoes discussion of dogfighting to concentrate more on anti-aircraft and SAMs.  But these are minor quibbles and might be addressed in “Thud Pilots 2”, which I have not seen yet.   

            If you want to know what it was like to fly the most important plane of the Vietnam War, this is the documentary for you.  You don’t have to be invested in it, as I am.  By the way, stick around for the song that closes the film.  No one ever accused fighter pilots of not having a sense of humor.