Wednesday, September 20, 2023

The One Hundred Best War Movies: #94


        The Missiles of October  

            The war movie genre can cover a lot of subgenres.  I am a bit expansive in my determination of what movies are war movies.  For instance, I do accept sci-fi movies if they have combat in them.  This is why I consider “Aliens” to be a war movie. It features combat between Colonial Marines and Xenomorphs.  I am actually stricter when it comes to Cold War movies.  Although it has the word “war” in the name, I don’t include most war movies with Cold War settings to be war movies.  Most of the contenders are espionage related.  While I include espionage movies from WWII, I don’t usually include ones that are in the Cold War.  It’s not a shooting war, after all.  I made an exception for “The Missiles of October”.  It is clearly a Cold War movie and it has no combat.  Thank goodness.  But it is the best war movie when it comes to showing how a crisis can escalate into war.

            “The Missiles of October” was a television movie directed by Anthony Page (“Pueblo”).  It was based on Robert Kennedy’s book “Thirteen Days”.  The original showing in 1974 was popular and it was critically acclaimed.  It was nominated for eight Emmys.   Technical director Ernie Buttelman won for Outstanding Achievement in a Drama or Comedy Special.  It was nominated for Best Drama or Comedy Special, Supporting Actor (Ralph Bellamy as Adlai Stevenson), and Outstanding Writing in an Original Teleplay (Stanley Greenberg).  The title is a reference to Barbara Tuchman’s landmark book “The Guns of August”.  In the movie, Kennedy mentions the  book as an example of how nations can careen to war in spite of no government desiring it. 

            The movie begins with Kennedy (William Devane) giving a speech promising no aggression by Cuba will be allowed.  This throws down the gauntlet that tells the audience that if anything was to occur, JFK will have to wimp out or go to the brink of war or beyond.  He gets his chance to man up when it is discovered that the Soviets are secretly installing offensive nukes in Cuba.  They will be only minutes away from most of the U.S.  We then cross the globe to see Nikita Khrushchev (Howard Da Silva) claim to the Politburo that the missiles are purely defensive.  This establishes the format of intercutting between the White House and the Kremlin.  (Except in the case of the Kremlin, only Khruschev is ever seen, appropriate for a dictator.)  Kennedy, on the other hand, interacts with ExComm consisting of valued advisors.  What follows is a master’s class on weighing the pros and cons of actions.  In the Kremlin, the thankfully sane Soviet leader is faced with determining how far the President, who he humiliated at a previous conference, will be willing to go.  His is a gamble that could lead to nuclear war.  Kennedy, seemingly the leader less likely to fire the first shot, is pressured by the realities of American politics. Plus, he has to deal with a hawk/dove divide in ExComm.  Not surprisingly, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the CIA are pushing for a military solution whereas the politicians are pushing diplomacy.  Obviously, if you have any historical literacy, you know how this ends.  What the movie does is show you how we got there. 

ACTING:  A                         

ACTION:  N/A                     


PLOT:   A                 

REALISM:  A+                    


SCORE:  none                      

BEST SCENE:  the first meeting of Kennedy with his advisers

BEST QUOTE:  General:  You’re in a pretty bad fix.  JFK:  You’re in it with me.

            “The Missiles of October” has the look of a play taped for television.  A modern remake might even do it live.  It is very dialogue driven.  And most of the dialogue is actual quotes.  The cast is full of recognizable television veterans and the acting is excellent.  The standouts are Devane and Da Silva.  Devane is one of the best Kennedy portrayers and he gets the personality and accent right.  (Contrast this with Martin Sheen as Bobby who took a lot of grief for his inconsistent accent.)  I must mention that no actress has a significant role and only one woman speaks (Kennedy’s secretary Lincoln.)  But this is an accurate reflection of the government in the 1960s.

              If it wasn’t a recreation of the Cuban Missile Crisis, one would think a movie that is mostly politicians talking would be boring.  However, the crisis has the tension built in to where it can forego a soundtrack or a variety of sets and still be edge of your seat.  There are no subplots to get non-famous people into the mix.  None of the characters are fictional.  This teleplay is one of the most historically accurate TV movies ever made.  There are few significant examples of historical license.  There are some historical sources that were not available at the time, so the movie does not have some of the more recent scholarship, but even today it is still the best coverage of the crisis aimed at a mass audience.  It is a reflection of current state of historical movies that the movie “Thirteen Days”, which had access to all the records, is less accurate.  That’s because it sacrifices some historical veracity for a more melodramatic presentation.  The main character (Kevin Costner’s Special Assistant to the President) is given a much bigger role than the actual person.  I am a fan of “Thirteen Days”, but I went with “Missiles” for my 100 Best because it is more true to the crisis.  It gives us a look at both sides, so if you want to see how a crisis can escalate, you need to see the decision-making by both sides.    

            If you had seen this movie when it debuted in 1974, you most likely would have come away with the impression that we sure dodged a bullet in 1962.  And we most likely would run out of luck (and sane leaders) by the 21st Century.  Well, we’re still around and I’d like to think that both American Presidents and Soviet/Russian leaders have studied the Cuban Missile Crisis (and maybe have seen this movie, if they don’t believe in reading).  We may not be in the Cold War anymore, but we’re bound to have more crises.  Let’s elect someone who has seen this movie.


Thursday, September 14, 2023

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1993)


            This remarkable documentary on a remarkable film began with Francis Ford Coppola’s wife Eleanor filming behind the scenes at the fraught production of the classic.  Francis brought their three kids.  The documentary covers the epic problems like the storm that decimated the sets, the heart attack of the star, problems with an overweight superstar, etc.  It also chronicles the descent into darkness of her husband whose career was riding on producing his masterpiece.  Eleanor’s footage was turned over to George Hickenlooper and Fax Bahr who converted it into the documentary.  They added interviews, but not with Marlon Brando because he insisted Coppola owed him $2 million.  The documentary debuted at the Cannes Film Festival.  That was a good choice because Cannes awarded the movie with the Palme D-Or even though Coppola just showed a rough cut.

            The following are some notes I made while watching the documentary.

1.  Coppola describes the filming as being like the war.  It took place in a jungle (in the Philippines).  Too much money and too much technology led to insanity.

2.  The movie took 16 months to reach theaters.  The shooting took 238 days.

3.  The documentary includes the destruction of the last set (Kurtz’ base).

4.  Coppola likens the film as an odyssey.  Willard is Odysseus.  Kurtz is the Cyclops.  The Playboy bunnies are the Sirens.

5.  Coppola took John Milius’ original script and tweaked it so it was closer to Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness.

6.  There was lots of drug use by the cast and crew.  Especially by Sam Bottoms (Lance).  I bet he excused it as method acting.

7.  Sheen shot the hotel room scene on his 36th birthday.  He really was drunk.  When he hit the mirror, he cut his hand badly, but he insisted on continuing.

8.  Sheen was given last rites when he had his heart attack.

9.  Coppola had to overcome fear of failure, fear of death, and fear of insanity.

10.  At times during the production, Coppola insisted the movie was going to be a disaster.

11.  Brando was paid one million a week for three weeks.  He was given a one million dollar advance and he had to be talked into showing up instead of just pocketing the million.  When he showed up, he had not read “Heart of Darkness” and wanted to change the character drastically.

12.  Fishburne talks about Vietnam being “fun”.

13.  Fernando Marcos rented out his entire helicopter force, but he could pull them out if they were needed to fight rebels.  In the middle of shooting the village assault, some of the choppers were called away.

14.  600 people worked building Kurtz’s base.  They were paid a few dollars a day

15.  Replacing Keitel cost the production a few weeks.  He was replaced because he just wasn’t right for the part.

16.  Sheen felt old at age 36.  He was smoking three packs of cigarettes a day.  His heart attack removed him from the production for 5 weeks.

17.  The encounter with the bunnies (which was cut) was filmed during the typhoon.

18.  It took two months to rebuild the sets.  The cast was sent home.

Monday, September 11, 2023

THE 100 BEST WAR MOVIES: #95. Battle of Britain


“Battle of Britain” was released in 1969 and was specifically meant to be a tribute to “the few”. The movie fits into the sub-genre of old-school all-star epics with vignettes supporting the main story line. Its sisters are “The Longest Day” (1962) and “The Battle of the Bulge” (1965). In some ways it can be viewed as England’s response to those earlier films. It was directed by Guy Hamilton of “Goldfinger” fame. The screenplay is based on the book The Narrow Margin by Derek Wood and Derek Dempster. The book gives a traditional retelling of the Battle of Britain and thus the movie stands as the definitive film treatment of the battle. It is not a revisionist film. The film was big budget and it shows. Not only did the producers cast many of the great British actors of the time, but they went to a lot of trouble and expense to round up military hardware appropriate for a 1940 air battle. They assembled 12 Spitfires and 3 Hurricanes to represent the Royal Air Force. The Spanish Air Force cooperated with 17 ME -109s, 32 Heinkels, and 2 Junker 52s. The total of around one hundred aircraft made the movie the 35th largest air force in the world at the time. During the filming, more bullets (in the form of blanks) were fired than in the actual Battle of Britain.  The movie has a very impressive list of technical advisers which included famous aces Adolf Galland and Robert Stanford Tuck. Several airfields that were part of the battle were used in the film. The scenes at RAF Fighter Command were filmed at the headquarters of Fighter Command. Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding's original office was used.

The movie covers from the fall of France to the end of the Battle of Britain.  At the start, the RAF has to abandon its bases in France.  The Germans are preparing barges for the invasion of Great Britain.  The British are undaunted, but somber and the Luftwaffe is supremely confident and cocky.  The film intercuts between the German and British fighter pilots.  We also get an occasional look at command decisions.  Air Chief Marshal Dowding (Laurence Olivier) calmly deals with the insurmountable odds and Goering makes appearances to bask in success and rail at failure.  Although there is an Adolf Galland inspired fictional squadron leader named Falke, the film focuses mainly on three British squadron leaders (also fictional):  Skipper (Robert Shaw), Canfield (Michael Caine), and Harvey (Christopher Plummer).  Harvey gets the requisite romance.  His wife Maggie (Susannah York) is a Section Officer and does not want to transfer to be closer to her husband.  Instead of squadron dysfunction, we get marital strife. 

The film covers the greatest hits of the battle.  Events and incidents that would have been known to many older British, but would have brought the basics of the battle to the generation after the battle.  These include:  the Stuka attacks on the radar stations, the bombing of British airfields, the massive attack on Eagle Day, Goering tying his fighters to close air escort of the bombers, the controversy over Leigh-Mallory’s “big wings” tactic,  command and control involving women moving markers on a big map,  the accidental bombing of London which leads to the Blitz, the effect of the Blitz on British civilians, and the German decision to give up on the invasion.  It is a good primer, although a bit shallow.  The chronology is fine, but the movie fails to identify dates, so it is hard to know when the incidents are occurring.    

ACTING:  B             

ACTION:  A  (21 minutes of aerial combat)                     


PLOT:   B                 

REALISM:  B                      


SCORE:  A               

BEST SCENE:  the symphonic air battle 

BEST QUOTE:  Skipper (Robert Shaw):  takatakatakataka” 

CRITIQUE:  “Battle of Britain” was clearly influenced by “The Longest Day.”  In a move similar to “The Longest Day”, the movie switches back and forth to give the British and German command perspectives. The audience learns that there is a disagreement in British Fighter Command on how to deploy the fighter units. Dowding and Air Vice Marshal Park (Trevor Howard) favor using the fighters to defend the air bases and intercept bomber formations as quickly as they can be scrambled. This means smaller formations making contact with the German bombers. On the other hand, Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory pushes the “big wing” tactic of attacking the bombers with large formations.  On the other side of the Channel, Goering makes visits to his fighter squadron and this allows the film to include the famous exchange where he asks Falke (Adolf Galland) what he needs and he responds:  “A squadron of Spitfires.”  It covers both strategy and tactics so you get the pilots perspective as well as what the commanders were thinking.

            The all-star cast includes many British heavyweights, starting with Olivier.  Shaw comes off the best as the gruff, but empathetic Skipper.  Ian McShane is memorable in only his fifth film.  He plays a pilot whose character arc intersects with the bombing of civilians.  Caine and Plummer are fine. York was clearly put in the movie for the female audience and as eye candy.  Her Maggie is a bit of a pre-feminist, but her arc is not a series of speed bumps.    

            One of the themes is the doggedness of the RAF higher command as opposed to the hubris of the Luftwaffe commanders.  Dowding is the opposite of the preening Goering.  This theme is also touched on by the squadron leaders as the Germans start off cocky, but are sobered up as the battle continues.  Meanwhile, the three British squadron leaders are dealing with heavy losses of seasoned pilots and the need to use green pilots who are close to being fodder.  They develop thick skins as they lose their mates.  In one aviation cliché, a rookie who had a rocky start ends up leading his squadron because of attrition.  The movie is realistic about the cost to the RAF.  One squadron leader dies and one is badly burned.  This fits the theme of England is in a race against time to get enough qualified pilots in the air to replace its losses.

            The movie is fair to both sides.  It may be a celebration of “the few”, but the Germans are not demonized.  No parachuting RAF pilot is shot up by a German plane.  The Germans may be cocky, but they are worthy foes and there is a scene where an entire British flight is shot down.  Of course, that is nothing compared to the havoc put on the German bombers.  The bomber crews are in the movie to get shot up.  Literally, because there are number of shots with bomber crewmen getting ketchup thrown on them as Spitfires target them inside the bombers.  Most of the focus is on the British pilots and there are numerous cockpit views and aerial banter.  One of the most endearing scenes makes fun of the language barrier as some Polish pilots disobey an order and wade into the hated Nazi bombers.  (“Repeat please”)  I will point out that while the film commendably gives a shout out to the Polish pilots, there is no attempt to shoehorn in the Eagle Squadron to attract American viewers. 

            The strength of the movie is the aerial scenes.  The movie starts shakily with the Stuka attacks on the radar stations.  The planes are clearly models and all of them explode into pieces.  It’s an important part of the battle, but the special effects are weak.  However, the rest of the action involves real planes swooping around in spectacular dog fights.  The movie is the gold standard for WWII non-CGI aerial combat and the footage was used in several other movies.  And there is a lot of air combat – 21 minutes.  As the combat begins to get a bit redundant, the film smartly shifts gears and ends with a four-minute crescendo that forgoes the chatter in favor of a stirring score.  (Interestingly, the score for this scene is from the original composer and differs from the more bombastic, patriotic music that backs the rest of the movie.)  It is one of the best battle scenes in war movie cinema.  Not as memorable, but worthy of praise, are the special effects of air fields and London being bombed.  The movie has a big budget feel to it.

ACCURACY: “Battle of Britain” is a commendable attempt to pay homage to the RAF pilots and commanders who saved England during one of the darkest hours in its history. Anyone who knows little about the event and the participants will come out of the film with a basic knowledge of the battle. However, it helps if you already know some of the facts because in some instances the movie assumes you know the big picture already.

The chronology is accurate, but we are not clearly given an idea about the dates of events. It is hard to determine how much time has transpired between some scenes. For a movie that prides itself on having the German characters speak German, it seems odd that subtitles could not have been used to identify the various historical people and the dates of events.

I have a problem with the composite characters. Are you telling me there were not enough true to life participants to build a movie around? Why have a Major Falke when you could have Adolf Galland himself? Where is Robert Stanford Tuck? How about Douglas Bader?

The movie is justifiably famous for its air combat scenes. These are realistically depicted to the best of the film-makers ability. The aircraft are as close to the real thing as could be expected. The ME-109s look a little strange with their Spanish noses, but they are versions of the famous fighter plane. We do see more of the Spitfires than is warranted (Hurricanes did 60% of the heavy lifting in the battle), but this is due to the fact Hamilton had a lot more Spitfires to work with. Similarly, the movie has Spitfires and Hurricanes together in units going into combat, which is not actually the way the units fought.

All of the “greatest hits” that I mentioned earlier are accurately depicted.  Galland did ask Goering for a squadron of Spitfires, but he was alluding to the belief that Spitfires would have been better than Me.109s for sticking close to bombers.  Goring did say you could call him “Meyer” if Berlin ever got bombed.  And I give the screenwriters a lot of applause for throwing in the controversy about the RAF's inflated claims of victory.  A propaganda or flag-waving film would not have done that. 

CONCLUSION: “Battle of Britain” is the best movie on its subject. It could have been better, but it could also have been much worse. The producers tried hard and deserve to be credited with a game effort. You can learn a lot from this movie and if you hate to read it’s the best tutorial you will get. Unlike some other all-star battle epics, like “Battle of the Bulge” and “Anzio”, it is not laughed at.  If you are interested in WWII air combat, it is a must-see.