War Movie Watchalong – Johnny Got His Gun – Sunday 23 September

The poll has decided and the movie we are going to watch and discuss is:

Johnny Got His Gun (1971 US)

It was quite close. Johnny Got His Gun received 5 votes, The Bomber – Ballada O Bombere was following with 4 and The Hurt Locker with 3 votes.

I think it’s a good choice and I’m looking forward to the discussion.

If you’d like to join and have a blog, please post on the same day, if you don’t have a blog, just watch the movie and join the discussion.

The discussion will take place on Sunday 23 September 2012

The Monocled Mutineer (1986) A British WWI TV Series

Mention WWI and TV series together and you will get my full attention. I had never heard of the four part BBC series The Monocled Mutineer before ordering another WWI movie and seeing this one mentioned as well. I’m particularly keen on movies on WWI and generally fond of made for TV productions. Plus reading how much controversy this show created, making it the most controversial British show ever, I was even keener on watching it. It has not been shown on TV again since its first and last airing in 1986. Pretty astonishing. Here is a review from IMDb by a user named dunkah.

The reason this drama has not been repeated is that after the first broadcast the BBC came under fire from the government and were banned from screening it again. This was due to the sensitivity of the subject matter, i.e. Percy Toplis and the mutiny at “The Bull Ring”, a harsh British Army training ground in Etaples, France. There is a lot of mist around Percy Toplis who was finally tracked down and killed some years after the end of the war. No one truly knows the events that transpired at the Bull Ring for certain and we won’t know until 2017 when the files on the event will finally be released. Until then all we have is this drama and I think there should be a demand that it should be broadcast again, some 18 years on.

The series starts with the shooting of Toplis that’s why the quote above isn’t a spoiler. It then rewinds and tells his whole story from his childhood, to the trenches and from there to the forest and finally back to England.

Toplis (Paul McGann) comes from a modest background, a mining town. Being a miner is not the type of occupation he sees himself in. From his early childhood on he figures he is better than his working class upbringing. Delinquent at a young age, he spends time in prison and finally when WWI breaks out he joins up. At first he’s doing his bit as cannon fodder but he’s the insubordinate type and gets into trouble more than once. Still he survives several offensives and while not keen on danger and the trenches, he isn’t bothered too much. What bothers him is the way he is treated and the way the officers treat his comrades.

He witnesses executions for no other reason than fear in battle. He observes cruelty and sadistic behaviour. But not only abuse infuriates him, it’s also clear that the British high command makes many bad decisions which cost lives.

Toplis is a tall and very handsome man and he is capable of speaking like and officer. This gives him the opportunity to live the life of an officer in the evenings. With a stolen uniform and pretending to be of high rank, all the doors are open.

When he’s finally had enough, he deserts and lives with a bunch of other deserters from different countries. They instigate a mutiny and create quite a commotion. Although many people are involved in these acts of insubordination it’s finally Toplis who is the most wanted man.

I can understand why there was reluctance to show this series again. Despite the fact that it has very slow moments, it’s excellent and I’ve hardly ever seen a British production in which the officers and high command were criticized like this. Watching this made me really furious more than once. Pair incompetence with arrogance and you will have a total disaster. The way the officers treated the soldiers was appalling. No respect whatsoever for the so-called lower classes.

Toplis is a fascinating character. He isn’t exactly a likable man, he cheats and lies and betrays wherever he can and very probably if he had been born noble he wouldn’t have cared much about those below himself. His character just exemplifies that all it took to pass for an officer was a uniform, manners and a certain size. He is one of those charcaters we usually find in novels. There are many like him in literture, Felix Krull, Bel-Ami, to name but two.

As I said before it has a few slow moments, still it’s highly watchable and interesting.

The Big Parade (1925) A Guest Post by nem baj

Today’s review is a Guest Post by one of my regular visitors, nem baj. It’s a post on one of the great war movie classics. I hope you will enjoy it.

The Big Parade (1925), the mother of all war movies?

The biggest hit of american cinema until Gone With the Wind was a war movie. Its commercial success was a surprise: in 1925, so close to World War I, the subject was still considered to be doomed at the U.S. box-office. King Vidor’s The Big Parade definitely reversed the tide, and its later influence on so many filmmakers makes it a must-see for the readers of this blog (1).

The Big Parade follows Jim, a young American man from an upper-class family who, like many others of different backgrounds, enlists in the Infantry and goes fighting in Europe. He will experience military life and love in the French countryside, then the horrors and glories of the Great War. This simple storyline is a perfect vehicle for a very strong theme in the director’s work: that of the individual at grips with society, the pressure of one’s social circles and the collective passions of the time (from The Crowd to The FountainHead).

Between two ‘book-ends’ sequences about Jim’s (John Gilbert) civilian life, the story is two-fold, almost perfectly symmetrical. The first part looks like a ‘military comedy’, young troopers making buddies and flirting with French women despite the language barrier, getting into rows, coping with the oddities of service… It is nicely shot, funny like only silents can be, and full of Vidoresque traits. For instance the scene when Mélisande (Renée Adorée) watches Jim’s buddy naked under their improvised shower – this was of course pre-code – which will find its clothed replica in The FountainHead; the moment when she rubs on her skin a rose she just picked, in order to smell good, and of course the chewing-gum initiation…

At some point the first time viewer might be tempted to wonder where this is going. After all isn’t this depiction of, well, American sex tourists, while so many others were dying, outrageous? Now, if these idyllic moments got to you by their simple poetry and lust for life, you’re in for a dramatic turn right in the middle of the film. In a masterful eight minutes scene – the departure of Jim’s unit for the front, leaving Mélisande behind – your heart should be wrenched, and you’ll start to feel exactly what humans leave behind when a war starts.

Then comes the second part, with its emblematic shots. The symmetry between the column of rookies riding to the front and the column of ambulances bringing back the wounded (Monicelli’s train scene in La Grande Guerra), the claustrophobia of the shell-holes (Milestone’s All Quiet…, Kubrick’s Paths of Glory), the difference between war and murder (Kobayashi’s Human Condition), the ensemble march in the woods (Kubricks’ Full Metal Jacket final shot), the contrast between disciplined fighting and the rage when your friends are killed (too many to list), etc.

Sure, you’ve seen all this in later movies. But this is the original grammar book, and Vidor is at his best: the cinematography, the editing are amazing, constantly switching between very wide shots and intimate ones to compose a lyrical vision of… hell. For war is undoubtedly a man-made hell in this film. Yet, the tour de force of Vidor’s movie is that it is beyond the pacifist debate: « The Big Parade charts a modern progress through a crazy world. Neither picaro nor pilgrim, [Jim] drifts, marches, stumbles upon a landscape he never made »(2).

The last ‘bookend’ sequence, the return to civilian life, might seem quaint. Yet it does not depart from the lyricism of the work, torn between human despair and hopes. The flashback in the mind of Jim’s mother, the ending between Jim and Mélisande (a soft rehearsal for Duel in the Sun‘s finale?) should please any opera lover, and the ‘lost generation’ gaze of John Gilbert when he rides home with his father is probably the best introduction to Scott Fitzgerald ever filmed…

1) No DVD yet, you may watch clips here (click twice on the “play now” links on the right to avoid the ads).
2) Raymond Durgnat & Scott Simon, King Vidor, American, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Thanks, nem baj, for a great contribution. 

15 WWI Movies You Should Watch

It’s an interesting thing that while there is a huge amount of American movies on WWII, the really outstanding WWI movies mostly come from other countries. It’s no coincidence but I’m not going to elaborate on the reasons, it may suffice to say, that the leading film making countries for WWI are Australia, France and the UK. There are many movies but those below are the ones I consider to be must-sees if you want to delve into the topic. I have reviewed all of the below mentioned movies with one exception. You can find the links at the end of each entry.

While I usually arrange these lists chronologically I did split them into countries of origin in this case.

Australia

Gallipoli (1981). One of the classic WWI movies. A Peter Weir film starring the young Mel Gibbson. The focus is on two friends who enlist more in a spirit of adventure than patriotism. They will take part in one of WWI’s most futile battles, at Gallipoli, in Turkey. The end of the movie is harrowing and gives a good impression of the absurdity of the war.

The Lighthorsemen (1987) This is one of the very rare cavalry combat movies. It has a nice “band of brothers” feel. Highly watchable. The Lighthorsemen were fighting in Africa and their achievement is legendary. Something the Australians are still proud of. Review

Beneath Hill 60 (2010).  Another movie which shows an outstanding and truly amazing Australian victory. The movie is set in the trenches and beneath them and shows how much the miners contributed to the war. Review

France

La Grande Illusion – Grand Illusion (1937) This is a classic. One of Jean Renoir’s great movies starring the unforgettable Jean Gabin. It has a very surreal touch which should emphasize the absurdity of war. It’s a prisoner of war movie. Review

La vie et rien d’autre – Life and Nothing But (1989). Beautiful movie focussing on the time after the war. So many men were lost on the battle fields, so many dead soldiers not identified. One woman is looking for her husband in this bleak but beautiful Tavernier movie. Review

La Chambre des officiers - The Officer’s Ward (2001). WWI is notorious for the facial wounds. No other war has scarred men like this one (due to the specific explosives). This is a movie which focuses on these wounds. Of all the war movies I have seen (many), this was one of the best but also one of the hardest to watch. I had nightmares. Review

UK

The Blue Max (1966). An air combat movie with a German POV. Themes are class and the arrogance and sporting mind of the combat pilots. Most pilots in WWI were aristocrats, not so Lt Stachel. Review

Aces High (1976). An air combat movie, not one of the best but not bad either. Less character driven than the last one. Review

Regeneration – Behind the Lines (1997). Based on Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy it looks into shell shock, the war experience of some famous poets and the birth of a medical discipline, namely psychiatry. Review

All the King’s Men (1999). The movie tells the story of a company who seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth. As if they had been swallowed. It illustrates how badly prepared some of the troops were, especially at the beginning of the war. The English had a hard time in some terrain, notably Africa. The story begins like a ghost story but you will find out what happened to the company. It’s all too real. Review

My Boy Jack (2007). The movie tells the true story of Rudyard Kipling’s son Jack. The story is exemplary. Misguided patriotism makes Kipling push his only son who is very illfitted and as visually impiared as a mole to join. At first I had a problem with Daniel Radcliffe as Jack but other than that this is an excellent and very emotional movie. And so heartbreaking. Tissues might be needed. Review

US

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). One of the first war movies ever. Quite ground breaking. Based on Erich Maria Remarque’s eponymous novel. It has one of the best scenes I’ve seen in a war movie. Review

Paths of Glory (1957). Kubricks’ classic look at the short comings of French high command and the horror of trench warfare. Review

Germany/France/UK

Joyeux Noël – Merry Christmas (2005). This is one of my personal favourites for more than one reason. It shows an incredible true story, the story of the little peace during the great war. During the first Christmas the troops stopped fighting and got together to play football in no mans’ land. The actors are all great and chosen from their respective countries. Review

The Red Baron (2008). This is one of those guilty pleasure movies. It was criticized in Germany because it didn’t emphasize the “hunting and sport” spirit that drove the aristocratic pilots like von Richthofen, called the Red Baron, to join up. He is shown like a hero. The negative side is not touched. Funny enough this is only true for the German version, the English got it better. Review

Birdsong (2012) Part II of the WWI Drama

This is just a very quick post, an update really. I watched Part II of Birdsong, the BBC One TV drama based on Sebastian Faulk’s novel, on the weekend.

Here is what I wrote at the end of post I.

I didn’t mind watching it, I even liked it, but it isn’t great, it’s just very watchable. I’ll tell you my final impressions once I have watched part II.

Well, here are my final impressions. While part one was heavy on the romance element of the story, part two is much more about the war. The story is still told alternating flashbacks and episodes in 1919. Stephen has been at war for the whole duration of the war. Part II managed to change my view of the whole series completely and I have to say, I liked it a lot. I even thought that Eddie Redmayne was after all the perfect choice for this role of a heartbroken man trying to survive the horrors of the trenches.

Don’t miss it if you get the chance to watch it.