Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Blood and Gold (2023)


            I waited with high hopes for the premiere of “Sisu”.  I drove a half hour to see it in a theater on the opening weekend.  If you read my review, you know I was disappointed.  I knew it would be basically be a pissed off old man killing Nazis, but it was not the over the top mayhem that the trailer predicted.  I realize it did get good reviews from many, but to me it promised cartoonish violence and delivered nothing spectacular in quality or quantity.  When I first became aware of “Blood and Gold”, it arrived on Netflix with little buzz.  It looked to be a similar exercise in Nazi killing by an intrepid hero.  This would not make it unique and it seemingly had been done before, just this year by “Sisu”.  There was no reason to believe it would be better than its cousin.  And it didn’t even premiere in an American theater.

            “Blood and Gold” is a German film by director Peter Thorwath.  It is set in the waning days of Nazi Germany.  A private named Heinrich (Robert Maaser) has deserted to try to find his surviving daughter.  He is an Iron Cross recipient and a six-year veteran of several campaigns.  He has given a lot to Germany, but enough is enough.  Unfortunately, he is being hounded by an SS unit led by a creepy Lt. Col. von Starnfeld (Alexander Scheer).  Starnfeld is your obligatory evil Nazi that inhabits films like this.  In a nice touch, he wears a partial face mask like the Phantom of the Opera.  His second in command is a sergeant (Roy McCrerey).  The sergeant is an intelligent, but malevolent noncom.  He takes pleasure in hanging Heinrich and describes to him how he will linger before he dies twitching.  Naturally, the platoon does not stick around to see the whole process.  Good thing because otherwise we would have a very short and unfulfilling movie.  Heinrich is rescued by a young farm woman named Elsa (Maria Hacke).  She takes him home where she lives with her mentally challenged brother.  The next day, the sergeant shows up with a foraging detail and the movie takes off.  The confrontation between sarge and his men and Heinrich/Elsa is a great action scene.  It starts with the sergeant trying to rape Elsa and ends with a brutal brawl.  In the middle of the fight, Elsa throws burning hot coffee on his genitals.  It’s that kind of movie.  Round one goes to the duo, but the fight has just begun.  It will move venues to the local town where Starnfeld is searching for gold hidden by a Jewish family.  It turns out that some of the townspeople have the gold and we get a second group of villains.  And more heroes like the priest and a widow.  This all builds to a shootout in the church where the three arcs intercept with combat porn results.

            I had the opposite feeling to when I watched “Sisu”.  This movie rocks from start to finish.  The acting is much better than one would expect from a kill-fest.  I was not familiar with any of the actors.  Perhaps they are well known in Germany.  All of the main roles are strong characters and well-played.  The villains are not mustache twirlers.  Starnfeld is a not a caricature of the evil Nazi in the leather coat.  The sergeant is a thug, but a challenging foe for Heinrich.  Masser is outstanding as the Clint Eastwoodesque Heinrich.  In fact, the movie goes out of its way to pay homage to Westerns.  The music is clearly used to evoke that vibe.  You’d think it was a spaghetti western if you just heard the music.  Interestingly, besides the western motifs, the film makes use of popular German songs of the period which are thrown in mid-action scene.  This movie has some panache.

            What sets the movie apart from films like “Sisu” are the female characters.  Elsa is feisty and can defend herself.  She saves Heinrich’s life more than once.  We are given little background, so we have to assume she is just a survivor, not a trained killer like the men.  She is balanced by the local Cruella de Ville, Sonya.  Here is another character you seldom see in war movies.  Sonya is in the group that has stolen the Jewish family’s gold and she ends up having brassier balls than her partners.  A flashback to the town taking care of its local Jewish “problem” allows the film to remind its German audiences of Kristallnacht. 

            Besides Westerns, the movie seems to be influenced by Tarantino films.  The strong female characters and the outside the box action are clues to this. Tarantino has a way of depicting violence where you see things you haven’t seen in any other movies.  For instance, in “Blood and Gold” the death of Starnfeld (do I really need a spoiler alert here?) is one I have not seen in the hundreds of movies I have reviewed.  I love it when I get to see something I have never seen before.  I don’t think I’ve seen a heroine fire a panzerfaust at a church either.  Since I have brought up Tarantino, I have to say that nothing happens in this movie as outrageous as the theater scene in “Inglourious Basterds”.  That’s a compliment. There are many war movie buffs that will probably prefer this movie to IB.

            If you are in the mood for an entertaining little movie with great characters and some nicely done action set pieces, you could do a lot worse than “Blood and Gold”.  I’m not saying your significant other will like it, but it does have strong females. And although the violence is R-rated, the production did not use buckets of blood.  The body count is high, but you don’t get piles of bodies.  The movie is not afraid of killing off heroes and heroines.  Don’t bet on any of the SS surviving.  And it wraps up with a feel-good ending.  (Did I need a spoiler alert for that, too?)


Friday, May 26, 2023

Dunkirk (2004)

Today is the anniversary of the start of Operation Dynamo (the British evacuation from Dunkirk) on May 26, 1940.

            Dunkirk has been covered in two significant movies (I put the word “significant” in so I don’t have to hear anyone piping up about some obscure movie no one cares about.  The 1958 movie is a standard war movie following a squad that makes it to the beach and British civilians that cross the Channel to rescue soldiers.  The Christopher Nolan 2017 movie that daringly took a three part time frame to cover the soldiers, the small boats and the RAF.   We also have “Darkest Hour” which covers the time period when Churchill became Prime Minister and had to deal with the crisis.  If you watch all three, you will get a decent feel for the history of Operation Dynamo, but it won’t replace reading a good history of Dunkirk.  If you say “to hell with reading”, I have an alternative for you.  In 2004, the BBC made a docudrama about it.  It falls under the heading of edutainment.

            The 3 hour series covers Dunkirk day-to-day.  There is a little background on the Nazi blitzkrieg through France, but it then concentrates on the soldiers, the little ships, and Churchill.  The various characters are all real people and the scenes are based on first-hand accounts.  The series makes good use of archival footage, including color footage.  But most of the series is actors reenacting the evacuation and the military and political actions.  These scenes are of the quality of a movie and make use of a good cast of recognizable British actors.  For instance, Benedict Cumberbatch plays an officer in command of a rearguard unit.  It was one of his first acting roles and you can see his potential.  “Band of Brothers” fans will recognize Rick Warden (Lt. Harry Welch) as a doctor dealing with the casualties.  Simon Beale is good as Churchill.  The series does a great job covering Churchill’s conflict with Lord Halifax over whether to negotiate or not. 

            For a television series, the combat is quite good.  It doesn’t look like a low budget production.  The series focuses on several small units.  One is a group that is retreating and surrenders despite orders to fight to the last.  The series is not afraid to show some warts.  The captives are put in a shack and grenades are thrown in.  The two Dunkirk movies did not show German war crimes, so kudos for going there.  There is a scene where British soldiers trying to avoid fighting to the death are shot by officers as they attempt to get out of the trap.  Another unit does put up a last ditch stand and gets wiped out.  Cumberbatch’s unit is one of the ones left to hold the line to the end.  At one point, they use a machine gun against advancing Germans.  Later, the Germans return with civilians to shield them.  Cumberbatch’s character uses a rifle to pick off the Germans, but it just postpones the inevitable.  Rick Warden’s doctor is one of the medical personnel that draw the short straws to stay with the wounded and go into captivity with them.  There are some graphic surgeries that are shown.  The series is not for the squeamish. 

            “Dunkirk” eschews the standard talking heads combined with footage format of most documentaries.  Clearly, many of the characters were interviewed, but their reminiscences are used for the screenplay and actors portray their experiences.  The dialogue is excellent.  The soldiers talk like soldiers and then we have the actual words spoken by Churchill.  The production did not skimp on uniforms and weapons.  Obviously, they did not want to hear from veterans and WWII buffs.  The blending of footage is well done.  Footage is used effectively to show the German air attacks by Stukas.  I found this better than the clearly fake models used in “Battle of Britain”.

            I was surprised how good the series is.  I almost sent the Netflix DVD back, thinking I had better things to spend three hours on.  I am glad I watched it. I should not have been surprised at its quality because I have used similar BBC docudramas in my Western Civ classes.  “Colosseum” is excellent on gladiators and “Pompeii:  The Last Day” uses actors to show various people caught in the ill-fated city.  These kind of productions bridge the gap between documentaries and movies.  They are entertaining and educational.  You certainly will learn more about Dunkirk than you will from the various movies.  


Wednesday, May 24, 2023

BOOK / MOVIE: The Four Feathers (1902 / 1939)


                        “The Four Feathers” is based on the novel by A.E.W. Mason.  The novel has been made into several movies including three silent films and most recently a Heath Ledger version in 2002.  The 1939 film is considered the best.  It was directed by Zoltan Korda (“Sahara”).  His brother Alexander produced and spared no expense to make it a big picture.  He also used the new Technicolor process to present it in vibrant color.  The movie was nominated for Best Cinematography, Color by the Academy Awards.  Much of the shooting was done on location in the Sudan.  The battle scenes were shot on the actual locations.  Some of the extras had participated in or were eyewitnesses to the battles that had taken place 40 years earlier.  The Kordas were interested in fidelity and hired several technical advisers including Brigadier Hector Campbell, who drilled the actors so their soldiering would be realistic.  However, when the advisers told him that British officers would have worn their dress blues to a ball, Zoltan insisted on red because “this is Technicolor!”  The movie fits squarely in the subgenre of imperial adventure films.  Two other good examples came out that same year – “Gunga Din” and “Beau Geste”.  The Kordas, who were Hungarian refugees, loved Great Britain and lauded it in their films.  The public agreed as the movie was a huge hit.  It was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

                        The film takes place a few years after Gordon’s defeat in the siege of Khartoum.  Lord Kitchener is preparing an expedition to invade the Sudan to get payback.  Harry Faversham (John Clements) is with his friends Durrance (Ralph Richardson), Burroughs (Donald Gray), and Willoughby (Jack Allen).  Harry announces his engagement to Ethne Burroughs (June Duprez) and it is clear from his reaction that Durrance was odd man out in that triangle.  When Harry finds out their regiment is off to see the elephant, he resigns his commission and leaves the army.  This has been foreshadowed in the opening where the ten year-old Harry is forced to attend a geezer gabfest where his father regales on his bravery at the Battle of Balaclava.  His theme is war is glorious and there is no place for cowards.  In fact, cowards should commit suicide.  Harry is convinced that if put in the same position as all those stodgy relatives that grace the walls of his mansion, he will besmirch the family honor.  Better to admit your cowardice than prove it on the battlefield.  If he thinks his friends and fiancĂ© will have his back on this, he is soon set straight when they present him with white feathers.  The feathers tell Harry that they know he is a coward.  Harry realizes he has made a big mistake and is determined to redeem himself.  His plan is to save each of the officers’ lives while in disguise.  He will then return to England and shove the feathers in Ethne’s face.  It’s no more implausible than stealing the family sapphire and ending up in the French Foreign Legion (“Beau Geste”) or capturing a guru in a Thugee temple (“Gunga Din”).

                        If you want to see what passed for an adventure movie in the 1930’s, you can not do better than the trio of “The Four Feathers”, “Beau Geste”, and “Gunga Din”.  All three are very British.  The main characters are honorable, brave, and loyal.  Harry Faversham lacks these three traits, at first.  His acquiring them is ridiculous, but undeniably entertaining.  Implausibilities are necessary for the plot to work, so leave your intellect at the door.  It’s old school and unabashed about it.  The Kordas were not interested in revisionism.  Parts of the movie look like an early Tarzan movie.  The local color, although exotic to a British audience, has a tinge of cultural superiority.  For those of you not familiar with the Mahdist War and the Sudan Campaign that was part of it, you would think the British were in the right and were liberating an oppressed people from the dictatorial rule of religious fanatics.  They may have been religious fanatics, but Faversham’s regiment is playing the role of Custer’s Seventh Cavalry.  You see a similar historical flipping in movies like “Zulu”.  Perhaps the British Empire lasted longer because movies like this techni-colored what was actually happening in the empire. 

                        Aside from reversing who the good guys were, the movie can’t be faulted for telling the story the audience wanted.  And it can excuse itself by pointing out it was based on a popular novel.  It is certainly well-made.  The visuals are striking.  In some cases, it bears some resemblance to “Lawrence of Arabia”.  The cast is top notch.  Clements went on to a knighthood for his long career on screen and stage.  Ralph Richardson is outstanding as Durrance.  In this case, he really is playing a blind guy, unlike all his other movies where he appears to be playing a blind guy.  (Watch him next time you see one of his movies.)  C. Aubrey Smith is type cast as the blustery General Burroughs, but why not take him off the shelf for a role he was born to play.  June Duprez is lovely as Ethne and handles the character’s emotional turmoil effectively.  The love triangle is portrayed in an adult way and is not maudling.  Ethne has her own feminine sense of honor to deal with.  It’s not all romance and intrigue.  There are some rousing combat scenes of the mowing down the natives with modern weaponry type.  There is even a jail break.  Something for everyone, except humor.  The stiff upper lips of the characters do not allow for grins.

                        As a history lesson set within an adventure movie, “The Four Feathers” has some merit.  The Sudan Campaign is greatly simplified and the enemy is demonized, but the basic facts are there.  If you care to know them.  I definitely would encourage you to read up on it rather than swallowing Korda’s official position.  The Battle of Omdurman is reenacted in a simplistic way and there was no jail break, but no one expects it to be a documentary.  When it comes to watching the movie as a substitute for reading the novel, it has less merit.  (See my comparison below.)  But it does fit my theory that a movie screenplay should improve on the novel that is its source.  This movie improves on its novel much more than most.  Watch the movie, ditch the book. 

THE BOOK -  ***  Spoiler alert:  This section will discuss differences in the plot of the book and the movie.  It is best to read this section if you have seen the movie and do not intend to read the book (which is what I would recommend). 

                        The novel was written by A.E.W. Mason.  It is considered his masterpiece.  He also wrote “Fire Over England” which was turned into a movie in 1937 by the Kordas.  The screenplay was written primarily by R.C. Sherriff (with help from Lajos Biro and Arthur Wimperis).  Sherriff was a veteran of WWI and was severely wounded at Passchendaele.  He is most famous for his play “Journey’s End”.  He went on to a good career as a screenwriter.  He wrote “The Four Feathers” a year after being nominated for “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” and later wrote “The Dam Busters”.

                        Sherriff made significant changes to the book.  In the scene with the old veterans reminiscing, Gen. Feversham (Sherriff changed the spelling of the name for some reason) specifically calls out his son as a poetry reading wimp.  There is more emphasis on the loathsomeness of cowardice.  It is so harsh that a Lt. Sutch (in the movie this role is Dr. Sutton) goes to Harry’s room to commiserate with him.  Sutch perceives that Harry is stressed about upholding the family honor, but he does not go the extra mile to help him.  The book does a better job explaining Harry’s decision to resign his commission.  Sherriff simplifies the scene where Harry reveals his engagement to Ethne.  In the book, a mysterious telegram arrives that turns out to be word of the regiment’s deployment.  Trench (Burroughs in the movie) and Willoughby ferret out the message by visiting a Capt. Castleton.  When Harry resigns his commission (a scene that does not appear in the book), it is Trench, Willoughby, and Castleton who send the feathers.  In the book, Durrance is clueless about the feathers and Harry’s cowardice!  The confrontation with Ethne is harsher as she gives him her feather rather than having Harry insist she join the trio.

                        Durrance goes off to Egypt separate from the trio.  Most of the novel actually concentrates on the Durrance and Ethne relationship.  Durrance returns after an uneventful tour in Egypt and renews his courtship of Ethne.  All he knows is Harry has disappeared into the Middle East.  Ethne won’t tell him anything, but she is determined to not ruin another man’s career.  By this time, she is feeling guilty about the role she played in Harry leaving the army.  She jilts Durrance, but they can remain friends.  He returns to the Sudan and goes blind under circumstances similar to the book, but Sherriff adds the battle scene where Burroughs and Willoughby get captured and Harry saves Durrance’s life.  In the book, Harry is disguised as a Greek, not a mute native.  There is no reason for Harry to save Durrance because Durrance was not one of the feather-presenters!  When he returns to England, Ethne has changed her mind out of sympathy and Durrance accepts her change of heart.  Soon after, Ethne is visited by Willoughby who brings her his feather and his decision to forgive Harry.  In a ludicrous plot development, Willoughby does not forgive Harry because he saved his life.  It is because Harry finds some lost letters sent by Gen. Gordon during the siege of Khartoum!  How this is an act of bravery is left to the reader to puzzle out.  Even more perplexing is Mason’s decision to have Castleton die without an opportunity to return his feather!  Willoughby’s visit confirms her feeling that she mistreated Harry, but she is locked in to marrying the noble Durrance.  He is still totally clueless about the whole feather thing.  In the book, the widowed Mrs. Adair is a friend of Ethne, but a snoop who ferrets out the story.  She is determined to sabotage the Durrance/Ethne engagement because she is in love with Durrance.  This despicable character was excised by Sherriff in a good streamlining of the soap operaish plot.  The romance is tedious and almost comical.  Ethne spends all her time hiding that she is back in love with Harry while Durrance is trying to use his enhanced senses to determine if she is truly in love with him.  He moves back and forth on this.  He eventually pieces together the story of the four feathers, but the reader has known all this mystery from early on so there is no suspense to this. 

                        In the last third of the book, Mason finally concentrates on Harry.  Trench has been taken captive and put in the prison.  Harry gets himself captured and tortured as a spy.  He is thrown into the prison, but with no real plan.  The escape is laughably unrealistic and too easy.  Mason leaves his readers shaking their heads rather than on the edge of their seats.  Harry returns to Ethne, but although she now loves him again, she is loyal to Durrance who is in one of his “she loves me” periods.  When they next meet, Durrance uses his spidey-sense to finally understand the dynamic that has been hammered for a hundred pages.  Harry and Ethne get married and Durrance is their best man.

                        I am a book lover and a movie lover.  I do not favor one over the other.  I am not one of those snobs who feel it is next to impossible for a movie to be better than the book.  If you are a reader of this blog, you know my belief is that a competent screenwriter should be able to improve on the novel.  R.C. Sherriff is more than competent.  His version of “The Four Feathers” is considered the best adaptation of the novel.  A novel that was so popular it has been made into numerous movies.  I would have to question why because the novel is not good.  It is much too long and repetitive.  Much of it is tedious with a romance at the center that is uninteresting.  There is little action and the hero is gone for long stretches.  Parts of it make no sense.  If you have seen the entertaining 1939 movie, you would assume the novel would be a rousing story.  It isn’t.  Sherriff’s adaptation is nothing short of amazing.  He improves upon the novel in almost every aspect.  (This reminds me of the screenplay for 1992’s “Last of the Mohicans” which improved greatly on another terrible “classic”.)  Sherriff took the concept of the feathers and built a tale around them.  He set the movie in a historical context with the Battle of Omdurman as the centerpiece.  There are no battles in the book.  While his historical take is simplistic and there was no prison break, at least he has some action set pieces. 

                        His decision to have Harry darken his skin and play a mute seems unrealistic but is more swallowable than the book Harry’s machinations.  Some of the changes Sherriff made seem so appropriate that one must ask what Mason was thinking when he wrote the book.  For instance, only one feather is returned because of Harry saving one of his mates.  (He doesn’t even know Castleton, whose feather is not returned!)  Downplaying the romance of Ethne and Durrance in favor of the adventures of Harry was an obvious choice.  Eliminating Mrs. Adair and Castleton did not take a master’s course in screenwriting.  And it is hard to give him too much credit for making Durrance one of the feathered friends.  Every change he made was to make up for shortcomings in the book.

                        I have done several of these book/movie comparisons and the screenplay for “The Four Feathers” (1939) is second only to “Last of the Mohicans” when it comes to improving on the source novel.