Friday, October 28, 2022

All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)


            Well, the day has finally arrived.  More than five years after I first heard of a remake of “All Quiet on the Western Front”, it is now streaming on Netflix.  It is a German film and is correctly entitled “Im Westen Nichts Neuss.”  This is appropriate because the novel by Erich Remarque is about German infantrymen in WWI.  The previous two versions – Lewis Milestone's Best Picture winner and the 1979 made-for-TV movie, were American pictures. Both did not show an American bias, but this new version promised to be better at showcasing the hardships German soldiers went through.  Edward Berger directed with an undisclosed, but probably hefty, Netflix budget.  Berger is a noted TV series director in Germany.  He co-wrote the screenplay.  The film was shot in Czechoslovakia.  It has been submitted by Germany for consideration for a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the next Oscars.

            The movie opens with a warning of “strong bloody war violence and grisly images”.  You had me at “bloody”.  A den of foxes in a woods shows the influence of Terance Malick (“The Thin Red Line”) on the cinematography (and the view that war does not harm wildlife and forests).  The camera moves to corpses littering no man’s land and then we are in the trench for a “Paths of Glory” journey through the trench pre-attack.  The over the top includes the oft-seen soldier killed as he climbs the ladder.  The “Paths” influence continues as we track a soldier named Heinrich as he avoids the random deaths to reach the French trench where he is last seen using his entrenching tool for hand-to-hand combat.  It’s a great combat scene, but sadly brief.  The revelation that Heinrich was killed starts a series of scenes moving his uniform from his corpse to women washing all the dead men’s uniforms to seamstresses repairing them to Paul (Felix Kammerer) and his school mates being handed them.  The boys are thrilled with their threads of glory.  The movie forgoes the usual boot camp segment to rush them to the front seemingly ill-prepared.  It is spring 1917.  Their first job is baling out the trench because of the constant rain.  Ludwig speaks for them all when he grumbles: “Somehow this is not how I imagined it.”  A sentiment soldiers of every war would agree with.

            The rest of the movie enlightens those who are not familiar with the Great War with scenes that reflect common soldier experiences.  The film makes an effort to bring something new to the table.  I mentioned the use of the entrenching tool as a weapon.  Paul has to collect dog tags from the dead.  A unit of replacements are victims of gas.  But for the most part, there is little that hasn’t been shown in other movies, especially the other two versions.  Davis clearly aimed his movie at Netflix viewers who would be seeing their second WWI movie (the other being “1917”).  The big difference is this film intercuts with the politics of the last part of the war.  Daniel Bruhl (who was originally tabbed for the Paul character but got aged out by the time production began) plays Matthias Erzberger, a Social Democrat (insert hissing from the generals) who is in contact with French Gen. Foch.  He is attempting to arrange an armistice.  This subplot necessitates Paul  making it to the end of the war.  This results in one of the worst endings of any prestigious war movie. 

            I recently watched the other versions of “All Quiet” for a comparison of scenes to each other and to the book.  I also listened to the book (the Audible version is outstanding).  It is one of my favorite novels and I have seen the movies at least four times each.  I couldn’t wait to add the new movie to my project.  Since the two earlier versions are both very good movies that cover the book well, I was intrigued to see how the new movie would handle the book.  Early word was that Davis’ version was outstanding and a worthy challenger to the other two.  The trailer had a lot of war movie fans salivating.  I am sorry to report you can towel off.

            I have had a hard time deciding how to approach this review.  Do I review it as a WWI movie or do I review it as an “All Quiet on the Western Front” movie?  So, I’ll do both.  As a WWI movie, it is logical to compare it to “1917”.  That film was overrated, but had the amazing cinematography to set it apart.  It is a much better movie than this movie.  The only strength is the combat scenes. One of them features French tanks and flamethrowers and is as graphic as the warning says.  This was an odd creative decision because if Davis meant his film to be the 21st Century version of the novel brought to screen, he created an R-rated movie that students can not watch.  The rest of the movie has a poor flow to it.  Scenes end abruptly.  But the biggest problem is the Erzburger subplot brings the film to screeching halts whenever it leaves Paul and his mates.  My theory was the film did not want to lose its star Daniel Bruhl, so his lame political machinations were added.  Catastrophically, the creation of this subplot was responsible for the inexcusable final chapter for Paul.  (Think “We Were Soldiers”, but worse.)

            When I did my usual research, I looked at Wikipedia.  It says the movie has received “critical acclaim for faithfulness to the source material.”  You have got to be f’in kidding me.  If you were to see this movie with a different title, you would be hard-pressed to realize that it was another version of the novel.  Any student using this movie for a book report instead of reading the book will surely get a big fat F.  I would have to theorize that Davis watched the other two versions and decided he could not compete.  Of course, he could have taken the attitude that many haven’t seen the other two, so he would cover the main scenes and possibly better them.  Nope.  Other than Paul and Kat (Albrecht Schuch), the other characters barely register.  The movie is essentially a buddy film, not a buddies film.  Amazingly, most of the iconic scenes from the 1930 film are absent and some of the ones that are recreated are minor scenes. The few times that the movie uses the book, the scenes are far inferior to the other films.  For example, the charming liaison with the three French girls does not involve a river and only Frantz Muller goes!  The camera does not go with him.  My favorite scene did make it - Paul and the wounded Frenchman in the shell crater.  This being the 21st Century, Paul stabs him 6 times!  The movie dispenses with Paul’s anguished response to what he has done.  Don’t hold your breath for the muddy field, the beat-down of Himmelstoss, the graveyard, Kimmerich’s boots (this movie moves a scarf from soldier to soldier), the Catholic hospital.  Paul does not return home on leave!  So much for contrasting the home front delusions with the realities of the front.  Instead, cover the disagreements between the generals and the politicians.  Yawn.

            As far as the acting, you will read some touting of Kammerer, but when you are out-acted by Richard Thomas…  The rest of the cast is not even well-known in Germany.  They must have saved money by cutting Himmelstoss, Kimmerich, Kantorek, Detering.  Kropp and Muller are blink and you miss them.  Bruhl is misused in a role that calls on him to mope. Technically the movie is eye-opening.  The combat features tracking shots and puts you in the middle of no man’s land.  The deaths are blood-chilling in their randomness.  When the soldiers reach the trench, all humanity is lost.  Wounded and unthreatening still gets you shot or bayoneted.  This is not a movie for children.  Although oddly, there is no swearing.

             I don’t want to discourage you from seeing the movie.  Watch it and make up your own mind.  Keep in mind this reviewer is very familiar with the previous movies and the book, so I am passionate about the subject. But I have seen hundreds of war movies and many WWI movies, so I feel I can weigh in on whether this movie holds up to the better movies in the subgenre.  If you have not seen "The Lost Battalion”, “Beneath Hill 60”, “Paths of Glory”, “Journey's End”, and “Gallipoli”, watch them ahead of this.  If you want a movie from the German perspective, try “Westfront 1918”.  And please watch the other two versions.


GRADE  =  C  (compared to other WWI movies)

GRADE =  F  (compared to 1930 & 1979)

Sunday, October 23, 2022

SHORT: The Door Gunner


                         I recently joined Vetstream TV in order to watch “The Door Gunner” which is a short documentary on door gunners in Vietnam.  It appears to have been made around 1965, but was actually  made in 1972.  I make this observation because it makes no reference to the nasty nature of the war at that time.   The short lasts 27 minutes (or more if you have buffering problem like me).  Prior to his documentary, I associated door gunners with the character in “Full Metal Jacket”.  Most of you have seen the famous scene where Tim Colceri blasts away indiscriminately as the Huey passes over rice paddies.  He explains that anyone who runs is a VC and anyone who doesn’t is a well-disciplined VC.  When asked how he can shoot women and children, his famous response is “Easy -  you just don’t lead them as much!”  (Tim Colceri got the role as a sop for losing the role of the drill sergeant to R. Lee Ermey.)  The public’s perception of door gunners as being trigger happy has been established by several movies.

                        The documentary is the opposite of “Full Metal Jacket”.  It is narrated by an actual door gunner in Vietnam.  In the flat tone of a high school biology teacher, he takes the audience from training to combat.  He starts in Hawaii where he volunteers to leave the cushy life to become a door gunner.  Why?  Because he wants to see action.  And for a good cause, because the U.S. is fighting to allow the South Vietnamese people to choose their form of government.  Or so he was told.  He has to pass a medical exam which includes checking out his heart.  Apparently, heart attacks are possible on this job.  He also needs good hearing and eyesight.  He passes so it’s off to training with the “mechanical beast” -  the Huey.  His third arm will be the M-60.  He goes through survival training.  (The movie does not mention that the odds of his mechanical beast being shot down were high.)  Julie Andrews pays a visit to boost morale.  “The hills are alive with the sound of machine guns.”  Then it’s off to the Nam.  He goes on his first mission, which is uneventful.  He outlines the jobs of a Huey -  medevac (which is a popular time for VC to shoot them up), bringing supplies, supporting convoys, and fire support for troops in a bind.

                        “The Door Gunner” is the type of movie that if you are a baby boomer, you can hear the clacking of the movie projector when you watch it.  It is a film that would have been used in an ROTC classroom back in the 1960’s (and yes they had ROTC in high schools back then).  And the deadpan narration will take you back to falling asleep to the monotone narration of almost all documentaries from then.  He does crack some jokes, but you wouldn’t know it from the tone of his voice.  However, the film does work well as an explanation of what a door gunner was and the various aspects of the job.  I can imagine guys (sorry gals, no openings for females) deciding what could be better than being a sniper riding in a helicopter?!  While fighting for democracy, of course.


Monday, October 17, 2022

NOW SHOWING: Woman King (2022)


                “Woman King” was inspired by a visit to Benin, Africa by actress Maria Bello.  There she learned about the female warriors of the kingdom of Dahomey.  These Amazons were called the Agojie.  Bello co-wrote the screen play with Dana Stevens and she became one of the producers.  Gina Prince-Bythewood directed.  She was influenced by “Last of the Mohicans”, “Gladiator”, and “Braveheart”, but the movie seems most similar to “300”.  The cast were put through weeks of martial arts training, running, and the use of swords and spears.  The movie was filmed in South Africa.

                The year is 1823. Agojie, led by Nanisca (Viola Davis), raid a camp to free some of their own people who had been captured in a slave raid.  The Dahomey are chafing at having to pay tribute to the Oya Empire.  Part of the tribute is slaves.  King Ghezo (John Boyega) wants to end that tribute.  This will mean war with the powerful Oya who are led by the ruthless General Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya).  The Oya have had more contact with Europeans and are armed with muskets.  Nanisca and Oba have a past which will be resolved in the coming war.  A new generation of Agojie are trained to participate in the war.  The movie has the mandatory training sequence.  One of the recruits is a feisty orphan named Nawi (Thuso Mbedu).  She is mentored by the seasoned Izogie (Lashana Lynch).  Nawi tends to bend the rules in the cinematic role of the maverick.  Nanisca sees something in the teenage girl, but is irked by her insubordination.  A subplot involves Portuguese slave traders.  The best friend of the villainous slave buyer befriends Nawi.   Malik (Jordan Bolger) is half-Dahomey and is open to switching sides.  After provoking the Oya, the Agojie must deal with a large Oya army that marches into Dahomey. 

                “Woman King” starts off with a clang as within minutes of the start, we get a vicious battle as Nanisca and her warriors bull rush a sleeping Oya camp. The battle is choreographed similar in style to modern sword melees.  The camera rushes from duel to duel, concentrating on the main characters.  It is vicious and frenetic and resembles “300”, but without the blood flying.  It’s still pretty graphic.  The war with the Oya is more of the same, on a larger scale.  It’s entertaining for action fans and for superhero movie fans because the movie is basically a superhero movie in a historical setting.  This is made more obvious when you compare the film to “Black Panther” with Dahomey standing in for Wakanda.  The Agojie inspired the Dora Milaje in that movie.  Nanisca is not a superhero in that she has no super powers, but she has the tormented personality of one.  The Agojie are her band of sisters and girl, they can kick male ass.  Not being a superhero fan, I was attracted to the premise of a war movie similar to one, but with some history thrown in.  I was disappointed that the movie offered no insight into military tactics used by African nations in the 19th Century.  If you believe the movie, everything was frontal attacks resulting in melees.

                The strength of the movie is in the acting. The cast is solid, although Viola Davis was the only one I recognized.  She is perfect as Nanisca.  (Lupita Nyong’o turned down the role when she found out that the Dahomey were not like they are portrayed in the movie.)  Thuso Mbedu does a wonderful job as Nawi, effectively playing an outcast who is driven to earn a place in society.  Like all mavericks, she will violate the rules, but the film follows her into perils that make for good action scenes and escapes.  She may get on Nanisca’s nerves, but all can be forgiven as long as she wins.  (Ask Pete Mitchell.)  Their relationship is not stock and the interaction of the two characters is multi-faceted.  The villains (Oba and the slave trader) are not mustache-twirling.  Oba is formidable opponent.  Nansica has two duels with him.  Guess who wins the second.

                The plot of the movie breaks no new ground.  You’ve seen the basics in other war movies.  The underdog army faces a larger, more technically advanced, expansionist army.  The smaller power has an elite force.  Its leader has a lot of charisma.  There is a scarred warrior who mentors a feisty youngster.  There is a boot camp sequence with a montage.  There’s some palace intrigue.  I didn’t have any problems with these tropes because of the unique depiction of African warrior women.  However, Dahomey is made into a much more enlightened kingdom than it deserved.  The capital has a huge wall which symbolizes the fantasy that the plot has contrived.  The movie glosses over the fact that the Dahomey owned and traded slaves.  The Agojie free slaves, but don’t take any.  The screenplay defies reality by having Nanisca convince the King that they should stop taking fellow Africans as slaves and instead rely on the export of palm oil.  Sure, they want to be less wealthy and end a long tradition!  The film has a white savior in Malik. 

                In spite of the straying from history to paint a politically correct homage to the Agojie, the movie is well-made and black-washing the Agojie is better than no movie about them.  I’m sure the movie will cause some viewers to do some research on the fabled unit.  On second thought, maybe that’s not a good idea.  I did it for you below, but if you are looking for role models stick with Nansica, not her historical equivalent.


HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The Kingdom of Dahomey existed from around 1600 to 1904.  It was located in western Africa.  It was a tributary of the Oya Empire and was required to pass on slaves to that power.  Dahomey also supplied slaves for the European slave trade, some of the Africans ended up in America.  It was inaccurate to have them backing off from capturing, selling, or using slaves.  In fact, it did not stop slave trading until 1852 when the Royal Navy put an end to it.  However, Dahomey did not stop owning slaves.  Dahomey was a military state ruled by an absolute monarch.  A documentary would not have shown them in a positive light.  For this movie to be accurate, there would have been no good guys (or gals). 

                As far as Amazon warriors (as Europeans called them), there is plenty of evidence for them.  Apparently, the creation of the unit was required because of the heavy casualties to the male warriors.  A King Houebadja recruited women who were elephant hunters.  They were called the Gbeto (also known as the Agojie).  His daughter Queen Hangbe is credited with expanding the unit in size and mission.  They were now her bodyguard.  There were about 600 women in the unit.  The members of the unit were a mixture of volunteers, captives, and women turned over by angry husbands and fathers (like Nawi).  They got training similar to the movie.  Some were armed with muskets, bows, or machete-like swords.  They led the army and helped in conquering other kingdoms.  These conquests were brutal.  It was not uncommon for them to return with severed heads. They were required to be celibate.  The romance between Nawi and Malik would never have happened.

                Nawi and Nanisca are fictional characters, but there was a King Ghezo who ruled from 1818-1858.  He expanded the unit to 6,000. He did fight the Oya and ended having to pay tribute to it.  The Agojie did urge him to increase the production of palm oil as an alternative to the slave trade (because the handwriting was on the wall now that Great Britain had intervened).  The Dahomey did not give up on owning slaves and continued slave raids. 

                It is obvious that research about the Dahomey was done to make this film.  It is also obvious that the screenplay had to change some facts to make the film viable at the box office.  Even with the bending over backwards to cast the kingdom and its female warriors in a positive light, the film had trouble getting financing.  It looks like the film will turn a profit (although I was the only one in the theater when I saw it).  Since making movies is a business and you want to put fannies in the seats, it makes sense that the movie does not reenact the annual sacrificing of hundreds of slaves in Dahoumey.  The movie doesn’t have a disclaimer, but it definitely was “inspired” by a true story.