Monday, February 28, 2022

The Long and the Short and the Tall (1961)


                “The Long and the Short and the Tall” was entitled “Jungle Fighters” in the U.S.  I guess because Americans were not familiar with the British WWI song “Bless ‘Em All”.  It is based on the play by Willis Hall.  The play was not called “Jungle Fighters”.  Leslie Norman (“Dunkirk”) directed it.  It was nominated for a BAFTA for Best British Film and Best Film from any Source.  It was a hit in Great Britain.

                The movie opens with the song over the credits.  There’s a nice tracking shot through the jungle.  Well, both movie titles have now been covered.  The movie is set in the Malayan Campaign in 1942.  A unit of familiar British faces is conducing sonic warfare.  Well, that’s different.  What’s not different is that this will be a small-unit dynamics movie.  There is plenty of dysfunction among the men.  Cpl. Johnstone (Richard Harris) and Private Bamforth (Laurence Harvey) hate each other.  Actually, no one seems to like anyone.  This is not a 1940’s British picture.  Sgt. Mitchem (Richard Todd) is in command and in need of redemption because he lost an earlier patrol.  When they capture a Japanese (“Nippo”), they call him Tojo (Kenji Takaki, who was 66 years old at the time). This just adds to the awkwardness as there is a debate whether to kill him.  This conundrum takes up the first half of the movie (and probably the whole play).  The second half has the unit on the run from the Japanese.  It morphs from a debate to a survival trek.  For a sonic detection unit with the worst noise discipline, don’t expect most to make it back to friendly lines. 

                You can see the fact that it was a play by the projection of the lines as though they were aiming for the cheap seats.  This might explain the noisiness, but why don’t they ever leave a guard.  For those reasons, it’s not a realistic look at a secretive unit behind enemy lines.  It’s not an elite unit because it appears the worst malcontents were all dumped in this unit.  A unit commanded by a disgraced commander.  The cast is a good one, but the characters are underdeveloped.  Laurence Harvey scores in the meatiest role.  His Bamforth goes from asshole to humanitarian too easily.  His bonding with Tojo is perplexing.  It’s a bizarre performance since the usually unsmiling actor is asked   to provide comic relief before things get serious.  Ironically, it was Harvey’s casting that caused dysfunction amongst the actors.  Peter O’Toole had played the role on stage (Takaki was the only stage performer who was cast in the movie) and Norman and Todd expected him to be tabbed.  The studio wanted a big star!  Todd and Harris despised Harvey and didn’t care much for each other.  (Ironically, most critics felt Harvey was miscast.)  It must have been a fun shoot.  At least, they weren’t in an actual jungle.

                For a screen-bound play, the dialogue is not special.  The “trial” of Tojo could have been better written.  And its resolution is flat-out ridiculous.  But I give credit for the movie trying to have some weight beyond just being a lost patrol movie.  It just seems that maybe the movie should have stuck to one plot.  The soundstage nature of the production detracts from the jungle warfare scenes.

                “The Long and the Short and the Tall” is acclaimed by some, but to me it seems to be a hybrid military justice / lost patrol movie that just does not work.  It may have seemed gritty at the time. However, today it looks like an actors’ movie in which the actors were given characters that did not match their talents.  And the decision to give some homage to sonic detection units and then portray them as noise-challenged is aggravating to this war movie lover. 

GRADE  =  C     

Thursday, February 24, 2022

War Flowers (2010)

               “War Flowers” is a straight to DVD feature that is currently playing on Netflix.  It was written and directed by Serge Rodnunsky.  He is a prolific director of straight to DVDs.  Somehow his low budget managed to pay for some recognizable stars.  Unfortunately, he didn’t hire a good screenwriter.

                The movie is set in the Civil War in North Carolina in 1863. It leads off with a montage of reenactors participating in a skirmish featuring cannons that do not recoil.  There’s the obligatory slo-mo and several explosions that launch stunt men off trampolines.  It’s not bad action for a low budget movie.  The movie is not about the fighting however.  It is the tale of a mother and her daughter and their trials as they wait for the husband to return from the army.  Sarabeth (Christina Ricci!) and her daughter Melody (Gabrielle Popa) are starving.  The other arc involves a Union officer named Louis (Jason Gedrick) whose father Gen. McIntire (Tom Berenger!) wants him out of combat.  Guess who ends up getting wounded in Sarabeth’s yard?  She and Melody nurse him in their basement.  Sarabeth’s home is now in no man’s land and is being threatened by the Union advance, but they are under more immediate threat from a local sinister creep.

                The familiar faces and the reenactors move the film up the ladder a bit, but it is still at a low wrung.  The acting is poor by the no-names, with the exception of Popa who is good as Melody.  Ricci, Gedrick, and Berenger class things up and Ricci seems sincerely into the project.  The characters are stereotypes and the plot is predictable, with the exception of a nifty twist ending.  The romance feels rushed.  The movie has the vibe of a Christian film, but the spirituality is underplayed and not pushed.  The movie is very micro and you get no idea of the big picture.  It also does not have anything to say about slavery other than having some positive slave characters.  The film does not take sides on the war.   It is more of a drama set in a war.

                The best I can say for “War Flowers” is it is sincere.  And you better sincerely be hard up for entertainment to watch it.  Don’t get Netflix just to see it.  What is it about the Civil War that it is so hard to set good movies in it?  


Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005)


                    As the title indicates, this movie is about the last week of Sophie Scholl’s life.  She was a famous resistance figure in Nazi Germany.  It is a German film directed by Marc Rothemund.  It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards (losing to “Tsotsi”).  It premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival where it was nominated for best film and won for director and actress (Julia Jentsch).  The movie covers the period from Feb. 17-22, 1943.  It was shot in chronological order. 

                    The movie starts with Sophie and three men mimeographing leaflets.  They  are members of the non-violent protest group called The White Rose.  Sophie’s brother Hans (Fabian Hirichs) plans to place them on the campus of the University of Munich.  When the others tell him it’s too risky, he says he’ll take full responsibility.  (He does not promise he won’t talk if he is arrested.)  Sophie supports her brother.  They proceed to put stacks in the hallways while classes are in session.  They get caught.  The rest of the movie concentrates on the interrogation of Sophie by inspector Robert Mohr (Alexander Held).  This allows for some debating of her liberal principles as opposed to his Nazism.  She, Hans, and the leaflet writer are put on trial before a cartoonish Nazi judge.  The trial gives the accused some opportunity to state their opinions about how Hitler is bringing Germany down.  The result of the trial is inevitable.

                    Sophie Scholl has become a heroine in modern Germany.  This is not the first movie about her or specifically about her last days.  Julia Jentsch is outstanding as the 21-year-old martyr.  Speaking of which, the movie does have a lot of lot of religion in it.  Alexander Held is the stand-out as the sympathetic Mohr.  The acting is important because the movie has the vibe of a play.  There is more dialogue than action.  Not a surprising amount of dialogue for a movie that concentrates on an interrogation and a show trial.  I have a feeling the movie took some liberties in allowing Sophie and Hans to make speeches before a hostile Nazi judge.  In fact, they are treated amazingly well for people accused of high treason, demoralizing the troops, and aiding the enemy.

                    The movie is a nice tribute to a brave woman, but it could have used some background on how she got to that week.  Her story is an interesting one, but this movie leaves you with the impression that she is famous not so much for her heroism, but for her following a foolish brother to their deaths.  One can’t help but wonder how much more she could have accomplished if she had not put herself in mortal danger.  But martyrs are better for a cause than live people sometimes.  The movie appears to be accurate with the exception of the speeches given in the court and the ridiculous arrival of her parents.  The Mohr character is based on a Gestapo agent who headed the efforts to ferret out the White Rose.  He claimed after the war that he had tried to save Sophie’s life by having her testify against her brother.  That seems unlikely to me.

                    “Sophie Scholl:  The Final Days” is a good movie that could have been better if it had not restricted itself to just the end of her story.  It is better than the similar “Alone in Berlin”. 

GRADE  =  B 

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  Sophie Scholl was born on May 9, 1921.  He father was a liberal politician who was mayor of her home town.  They were a middle-class family and she was well-educated.  She and her siblings were seduced by Nazism.  Her brother Hans joined the Hitler Youth and she joined the League of German Girls.  Hans became disillusioned with Nazi indoctrination and quit.  Sophie graduated from high school and became a kindergarten teacher.  She was forced into National Labor Service and she hated the military oppressiveness of the organization.  After her six months, she went to college and became a liberal and an intellectual and traveled in those circles.  In 1937, her father (who had warned his children of the evilness of Nazism) was arrested for criticizing Hitler at work.  Her brother was arrested for anti-Nazi activities.  He and his friends formed the White Rose to encourage passive resistance.  Sophie was not originally in it.  Her boyfriend wrote letters from the Eastern Front where he witnessed the executions of Soviet prisoners and Jews.  When she learned of Hans group, she insisted on joining.  The White Rose distributed leaflets and did some graffiti (“Down with Hitler”).  The leaflets would be left at Munich University.  On Feb. 18, 1943 they left leaflets at the university during classes.  This was the sixth set of leaflets and they began:  “Our current ‘state’ is the dictatorship of evil.”  They questioned students whether they wanted to accept “the machinery of state, under the command of criminals and drunkards?” Hans and Sophie were safely away when they realized they still had some leaflets in a suitcase.  They went back in to hurriedly place them.  Sophie threw some from a balcony and she was seen by the janitor who happened to be a fanatical Nazi.  Hans and Sophie were arrested.  Hans confessed under torture and Sophie decided to admit her involvement to shelter others.  She, Hans, and Christoph Probst were guillotined on Feb. 22, 1943.  Before her death she proclaimed:  “Somebody, after all, had to make a statement.  What we wrote and said is also believed by many others.  They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.”  Millions of copies of the sixth leaflet were printed by the British and dropped over Germany.  Sophie became the most famous female anti-Nazi figure in the war.