The Great Raid (2005)

The Great Raid

The Great Raid, starring James Franco, Benjamin Bratt, Joseph Fiennes and Connie Nielsen, tells the story of the raid at Cabanatuan, on the island of Luzon, Philippines, in January 1945. The story is based on a true story.

The movie begins with original footage and a voice telling us what had happened before. In 1944 when the US closed in on Japanese-occupied Philippines, there were 500 prisoners of war held at a POW camp at Cabanatuan. They were some of the survivors of the notorious Bataan Death March, in 1942. The Japanese made 80,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war after the Battle of Bataan. Forcing them to move, caused the death of over 10,000 people. The men died of abuse or because they were shot when they tried to escape.

Since the Japanese had the order to fight to the last and not leave any POWs behind, they killed many before the arrival of the US in 1944.

The movie follows three different plot lines. One line focusses on the men of the 6th Rangers Battalion, assisted by Filipino guerilla, who were assigned to free the soldiers held captive at Cabanatuan, the second line tells the story of the prisoners around major Briggs, and the third follows the Filipino resistance headed by nurse Margaret Utinsky.

The Filipino resistance’s main concern was to smuggle medicine to the men in the camp. Most of them had malaria or suffered from various injuries because they were beaten and tortured.

I wasn’t familiar with the story and I think it was well worth telling. It was the biggest US rescue mission ever and took great courage and careful planning, both of which are illustrated in the movie.

The camp scenes were not very original. They had a small-scale Bridge of the River Kwai feel but were, of course, not as good. I didn’t think Joseph Fiennes was the best choice for the major but that’s because I have a bit of a personal aversion. I find the way he plays often melodramatic. It certainly was in this movie.

The resistance scenes were quite typical as well. What made the movie worthwhile in spite of a lack of originality were the actors who played the soldiers of the 6th Rangers and the combination of the three plot lines.

There’s a love story between Margaret and Major Briggs but it’s not corny. It adds another dimension and since it’s supposedly a true story it’s rather tragic.

I wasn’t too keen on the music. It sounded very 40s and was used like in the 40s, meaning—never ending background music. At first I thought the movie was a remake, but I don’t think it was.

It’s a watchable movie but it’s not great. If it had been cut and condensed it would have been better. Nonetheless, thanks to the long intro and because it’s a true story, I found it interesting. I’m surprised that as many as 500 survived the three years of captivity under these conditions.

One last word: if you’re looking for a movie that paints a positive or balanced picture of the Japanese, this isn’t one of them. All the Japanese we see in this movie are cruel and violent.

 

The Bletchley Circle (2012- 2014) British TV Series

Bletchley Circle

This post is meant to make you aware that while British TV Series The Bletchley Circle is well wort watching for its wonderful post WWII period feel, it’s not a war movie, nor has it anything to do with Bletchley Park per se. If you’re interested in a movie on the code breakers at Bletcheley, then you’d have to watch Enigma.

Still, there’s a link. The women in the series worked as code breakers during the war. In the series however they put their knowledge to a very different use and catch a serial killer.

I liked watching this because of the period feel. The crime story is OK, not that gripping in my opinion, but entertaining. The idea that you could break a serial killer’s crimes in applying the laws you used to break a code is quite fascinating though. What I didn’t know is that those who worked at Bletchley were not allowed to talk about it not even after the war.

It’s a very watchable series, just not set during WWII but many years later.

 

Das Boot (1985) TV Version

Das Boot

I love this movie. I can’t believe I didn’t rewatch it earlier. When I started this blog I wrote a Top 10 favourite war movies list and Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot was one of them. I’m glad to say that after rewatching it, it’s still among my Top 10, even among my Top 3. I don’t think war movies get any better than this. Or, I’d even say, movies don’t get any better than this. I’ve watched the longer TV version. I’ve not seen the Director’s Cut, so it’s hard to compare but I really love the slow build-up of this version.

Das Boot starts in 1941, in La Rochelle. We see a U-Boot crew leave the harbour. They are cheering, singing and looking forward to their mission. The crew members are mostly young, in their late teens and early twenties, only their captain is thirty years old. This time, they have a war correspondent on board, Lt Werner (played by German singer/songwriter Herbert Grönemeyer). He’s a lieutenant but inexperienced in combat, as it seems, and has never been on a U-Boot. We see a lot of the story through his eyes, and, as usual, when we have a young journalist/writer character like this among the crew, the movie is to some extent about the loss of innocence, the futility of war etc. But that’s the topic of many war movies, what makes Das Boot so outstanding is how carefully it’s been filmed, how accurate it is. After watching this, without ever having been on a U-Boot, you’ll have a good idea of how claustrophobic this must have been and of  how helpless the crew must have felt at times.

The first half of the TV series doesn’t do much more than introduce the characters and the daily activities on a U-Boot. Most of the characters are complex and likable and not exactly Nazis. The U-Boot gets in the line of fire of a destroyer but other than that it’s relatively quiet. The worst thing that happens is a three-week storm. And that is awful. Most of the time the U-Boot doesn’t dive and in a storm it’s even shaken more badly than many other ships. The captain lets them dive occasionally for an hour or two, just to give the men some rest.

The second part of the series, is much more action packed. They encounter destroyers and are shot at by planes. When they think they can finally return to La Rochelle after a few months, they are sent to Vigo in Spain, to resupply, and from there to Italy. The most exciting part is when they have to pass the straits of Gibraltar, get hit and sink rapidly. The fight for the boat and, ultimately, for their lives, is one of the most gripping scenes in war movie history. But as suspenseful as this is, there’s another scene I like even better. It takes place just before they leave Vigo. The captain and his officers are invited to dine with the officers stationed in Vigo. Spain is neutral territory and those stationed there have probably not seen any combat. They are well-groomed, well-fed and beyond clueless when it comes to the battle in the Atlantic or what the crew has gone through. Without ever being openly aggressive or rebellious, the crew sabotages the nice little dinner event by just being themselves— gruff looking, outspoken and past niceties. I loved how this showed the hypocrisy of those officers who were true to the regime but not willing to actually fight for their country.

Most of the action takes place inside but we occasionally see the U-Boot from outside, see how it silently glides through the waters, like a predator. Those shots are dark grey, almost like black and white shots, and I couldn’t help thinking of a wolf, before I remembered that the U-Boots were called grey wolves. Showing this like that is such a minimalistic approach but it works well. Even if you don’t know, your subconscious is going to register it. The music underlines the different elements and changes accordingly.

Sadistic officers abound in many war movies, luckily Das Boot is an exception. The movie gives us one of the strongest positive commanders I’ve ever seen in a war movie. I couldn’t think of a better actor than Jürgen Prochnow for this role.

According to a text following the opening credits, only 1 out of 4 U-Boot crew members survived, which means over 30,000 died. That’s a huge loss of lives. But not only are they in constant danger but they also have to put up with a lot of other dificult things: confinement, lack of space, air and fresh food. No wonder the men look far less cheerful and aged when they finally return to La Rochelle.

If you haven’t watched Das Boot yet, you should do so as soon as possible. It’s one of the very best (war) movies ever made.

For those interested: I’ve attached a music videos of Herbert Grönemeyer under the trailer. He happens to be one of my favourite German singers. His lyrics are simply brilliant.

Flags of Our Fathers (2006)

Flags of Our Fathers

 “The right picture can win or lose a war.”

I remember watching Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers shortly after it was in the cinemas and feeling less than enthusiastic about it. I’d been watching my way through the best infantry combat movies at the time, so, obviously, Flags of Our Fathers fell short. After re-watching it yesterday I must say, it’s not bad at all. Quite the contrary. Sure, it has some corny Hollywood moments, but overall it’s a very interesting movie about topics that are still relevant today: the power of images and the making of heroes.

Flags of our Fathers tells the story of the iconic picture that rekindled the American war effort. Looking at the photo below I would say it’s extremely powerful. I’m not surprised it had such an effect.

APTOPIX OBIT ROSENTHAL

The movie starts with two elderly men reminiscing and telling their story to the son of one of them. The son knows his father took part in the battle of Iwo Jima and that he’s on the famous picture but he doesn’t know much more. His father never spoke about the war. From this initial moment the movie is composed mostly of flash back sections, some of which showing what happened on Iwo Jima, some telling about what came after the picture was shot.

Iwo Jima – or Sulfur Island – was a strategic point. Taking the hill meant that the US might after all have a chance to win the war. When the troops land, the island looks bleak, dark, forlorn and empty. It’s quite a creepy moment, which is enhanced through a change in point of view. We first see the troops land and slowly walk towards the hill, scanning the landscape and then we get the point of view of the hidden Japanese who observe the troops from their fox holes. Needless to say that this first wave of US soldiers is quickly heavily decimated. Still, many make it to the top and that’s when they plant the flag. A senior officer later demands this flag and the commanding officer decides to exchange it and to let him have another one. Both flag raisings are photographed but it’s the second, which is the better picture, that makes it into the newspapers.

Three of the men who raise the flag survive. However, inadvertently, one of the first six is named as the sixth of the second group, which will cause a lot of heartbreak.

The three survivors are sent back to the States where they are touring the country and trying to convince people to help the war effort and buy bonds.

The three men who haven’t done anything more heroic than holding a heavy pole, feel uncomfortable about being called heroes. One of them, an American Indian, is especially uncomfortable. He feels like a cheat. Not only because he doesn’t feel heroic but because they were not even part of the initial flag raising. It feels like he’s deceiving people. The mix up of the sixth soldier makes it even worse.

The movie is sleek and visually compelling. The combat scenes on the island are shot in gritty almost black and white pictures, which form a contrast to the colorful home front scenes.

The actors, notably Adam Beach and Ryan Philippe, are very good. The score is discreet and well-chosen. It stays mostly in the background.

I thought Flags of Our Fathers was really watchable. More than that actually. It’s very good. It shouldn’t be seen as a combat movie but more as a movie about the impact of pictures, an exploration of the true nature of heroism and the way society treats heroes when they aren’t needed anymore. It was sobering to see their treatment. At no point were they seen as soldiers and men but merely as a possibility for propaganda. This became even clearer after the war when people lost all interest in them.

The Boys in Company C (1978)

Boys in Company C

The Boys in Company C is one of those Vietnam war movies you either like a great deal or not at all. I was surprised to find myself among those who really like it. It isn’t a masterpiece because it’s a bit patchy and the acting is not always stellar, but it has a fittingly pessimistic tone and some great scenes, which I appreciated a lot. Besides it was interesting to see the precursor of movies like Full Metal Jacket.

Vietnam movies are commonly divided into four sub-groups: allegorical-epics, veteran movies, revisionist movies and grunt/ensemble movies. The Boys from Company C is clearly a grunt movie or infantry combat movie. And it contains all the clichés of grunt movies, notably that we get to see a group of diverse people from various backgrounds and that each of them is more like a type than a real character. This is a weakness of the movie but, in a way, it wasn’t important to create characters, as the goal of the movie was another one.

Like a few of the more famous Vietnam movies it has two parts. A boot camp part and a part that takes place in Vietnam. The most interesting aspect is that the same actor, R.Lee Ermey, who plays the evil drill-inspector in Full Metal Jacket plays the drill-inspector here. He’s not as crass as in Full Metal Jacket but he sure is an unlikable character here as well.

After our group of grunts has survived the boot camp at Fort Bragg they are sent to Vietnam. There are a few combat scenes but more than anything we see how surprised our guys are when they realize that things aren’t exactly as they were told.

What are they fighting for really? And is there a justification to this war at all? There isn’t any moment in the whole film in which anyone thinks they are fighting for a good reason. Plus there’s the criticism of the military command. Officers sacrifice soldiers just to get a promotion. They order them to take hills although its impossible. They kill Vietnamese civilians to raise the body counts. The Vietnamese are shown to be just as corrupt.

The ending of the movie is unfortunately quite corny and the football game episode, which is meant to illustrate how futile and corrupt  the war is, isn’t exactly a movie highlight.

Still, this is one of the early films and it’s one of the most unambiguously anti-war. It’s dark and pessimistic. There’s no heroism, no glorifying of any acts. It’s overall very sober, has hardly any feel-good moments, hardly any music. No jungle scenes.

Sometimes I can appreciate a movie for its intentions and for its consistency.This is one of those. In my opinion, while not an artistic highlight, it’s still a must-see.

Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness (2011) A WWII True Story

In Darkness

Agnieszka Holland’s movie In Darkness is a Polish/German/Canandian co-production based on a true story.

Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) is a sewer worker and petty thief, living in Lvov, a Nazi occupied city in Poland.  One day he meets a group of Jews trying to escape the liquidation of the ghetto. After lengthy discussions he agrees to help them hide in the labyrinthine sewers under the city. Many of the Jews do not trust him, knowing well that the Nazis’ pay money for every Jew and that many Poles don’t like Jews either. Socha is rather poor and he and his family are struggling. Helping is not an act of altruism but a great opportunity to make money, as one of the Jews is very rich.

While Socha does a great job at providing them with food and helping them to change hiding places, when one gets too dangerous, he has not feelings or compassion for them at first. But over the months – the small group has to stay in hiding for 14 months – he gets to know them and admires their courage and determination. At the end, although they have run out of money, he still helps them, and risks his life and the lives of his wife and daughter.

In Darkness is a very moving film, based on an amazing story of resilience and courage. Staying in the dark and the stink, surrounded by rats, in close quarters, is very hard to imagine. Not all of those who are in the sewers in the beginning make it until the end. Quite a few, escape, some prefer to be sent to a camp.

When everything goes fine, the situation is bearable but hunger, illness, boredom and one woman’s pregnancy turn it into a nightmare at times.

On my DVD is a documentary called In Light, in which the film director Agnieszka Holland and Krystyna Chiger, one of the children who spent 14 months in the sewer, talk together about the film. When  Agnieszka Holland started filming, they had no idea that here still was a survivor although Krystyna Chiger had published her memoir The Girl in the Green Sweater shortly before that. A streak of luck brought them together. It was great to hear Krystyna’s impressions of the film. According to her, the movie manages to show exactly how it was. Everything, down to the smallest detail is correct.

Leopold Socha was one of many Poles who risked everything to hide Jews. It’s important to tell these stories as well.

There were quite a few well-known German actors among the cast – Benno Fürmann, Maria Schrader and Herbert Knaup – who were all good, but none of them surpassed Robert Wieckiewicz in the role of  Leopold Socha.

In Darkness is an excellent movie based on a true story that had to be told. Highly recommended.

 

Marine Raiders (1944)

Marine Raiders

Marine Raiders is a black and white US movie from 1944. I’ve got it with a bunch of other “forgotten” war movies.  Unfortunately, after having seen it, I’m pretty sure I know why it was forgotten. It wasn’t dreadful but it was certainly not very good. Fortunately it’s a very short movie (77 minutes).

The two friends Major Steve Lockhart (Pat O’Brien) and Captain Dan Craig (Robert Ryan) are fighting together at Guadalcanal. Dan shows a lot of bravery when he goes on a “let’s-kill-as-many-of-those-beastly-Japs-as-we-can-rampage” after having seen the cruelty inflicted on one of his buddies.

From Guadalcanal the two men are sent to Australia where Dan meets Lt. Ellen Foster (Ruth Hussey) and falls in love with her. During their date there’s a Japanese air raid and Dan is injured. Ellen is sent away for two days and while she’s gone, Dan is sent back home to San Diego where he and Steve will train new recruits.

Before being sent to an island in the South Pacific, they briefly return to Australia. Dan and Ruth get married before Dan’s sent into battle. The last 15 minutes of the film show intense fighting.

That’s the whole story. A romance bracketed by two major battles. The Japanese are depicted as cruel and vicious, but luckily the Marines win every battle. And there is some tired chow-related humour.

Marine Raiders is still interesting as it’s very similar to the outstanding TV Mini series The Pacific. One could call Marine Raiders an uninspired precursor. So, for those interested in film history, it’s still worth watching. Just keep in mind, it’s not only a forgotten movie, but a forgotten B-movie.