Birdsong (2012) Part I of the WWI Love and War Drama

I finally managed to watch Part I of Birdsong, the BBC One TV drama based on Sebastian Faulk’s excellent eponymous novel. They chose to tell the story moving back and forth between 1910 and 1916.

Stephen is fighting in the trenches and thinking back on how he meet Isabelle, in France, in 1910. He stayed at her house and helped her husband, a factory owner, develop new machines. Those machines were going to make a lot of the workers lose their jobs.  The marriage is an odd one. The children are from a former wife, Isabelle and her husband have no children together. At night Stephen hears her cry, during the day he watches her sneak around. She tells him later that she brings bread to the worker’s families.

Isabelle is clearly what the French call a “mal-mariée” – a woman unhappy in her marriage. Stephen is much younger than her husband. He is kind, caring and very attentive. We can’t blame her for falling in love.

All this is shown in flashbacks while Stephen is fighting in the trenches. He is a Lieutenant and has the reputation of being very quiet and superstitious. He seems to have no family, friends or a sweetheart. The trench they are in is above a tunnel system dug out to lead under the German trenches where they could be blown up. The diggers hear that the Germans are digging on the other side as well and are quickly approaching. Usually miners were sent down, not infantry men, but the commanding officer decides that Stephen and his men have to go down as well. Stephen had a problem with one of the miners before and now he is sent down with him.

I’m looking forward to part II as I have forgotten the rest of the story. Or at least the rest of the love story. When I read the book I was much more impressed with the parts on WWI. Although the movie starts in the trenches, it still is much more of a love than a war movie and can’t even be called a war romance as I would only call a movie “war romance” when the romance is set during the war.

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.

The African Queen (1951)

The African Queen is one of those classics that many people like. Surprisingly I’ve never even seen it on TV although Hollywood classics are regularly shown on Sunday afternoons. I didn’t expect anything because other than that it’s set in Africa during WWI I knew nothing about it. After having seen it, I know that it is rather a screwball comedy than a war movie as such. Nevertheless I enjoyed watching it. It is entertaining and the actors are excellent. Being a bit of a Humphrey Bogart fan I had to watch it sooner or later.

September 1914, German Eastern Africa. Missionary Reverend Samuel Sayer and his prudish sister Rose (Katharine Hepburn) live on a farm isolated from any other colonists. They are regularly visited by Charlie Allnut who owns a crummy boat, the “African Queen” and travels up and down the river, bringing the mail and other things. He is boorish and has very obviously an alcohol problem.

When the war in Europe breaks out, the colonies are drawn into it as well. German troops burn down the mission and the Reverend dies soon afterwards. Allnut passes by on his boat and helps Rose to bury her brother and takes her with him on the African Queen. They face a very long, difficult and dangerous journey down the river and on top of that Rose is determined to help the war effort. She suggests, Allnut should construct a torpedo and that they should then attempt to sink a German warship, the Luisa.

As is to be expected their trip down the river is more than adventurous. Torrential rains, rapids, mosquitoes and German posts make the journey very daunting. What is worse for Allnut is the fact that Rose supervises him and throws away his brandy. She wants him to behave and at first they bicker and quarrel constantly. After several days on the boat and many dangerous adventures they get closer and end up falling in love.

What an unlikely couple they make. What I liked is the fact that Rose is the inventive and courageous one. Although she doesn’t exactly look like an adventurer, in her long skirts, hat and with her prissy little manners, she is quite gutsy after all. Something else that makes this movie memorable is the fact that it reminds us that the Germans used to have a few colonies as well. One tends to forget that as they lost them all during WWI.

It’s an adventure story and a very amusing tale in which two very different people on a shabby little boat, fall in love and successfully fight a whole crew of a warship. It certainly is an early version of adventure romances like Romancing the Stone.

Birdsong (2012) BBC Adaptation of Sebastian Faulk’s Masterful WWI Novel

Finally the long-awaited BBC TV adaptation of Sebastian Faulk’s WWI novel Birdsong is shown on British TV. It’s a two-part adaptation that got a lot of rave preview reviews.

I’m sure all those who loved the novel, would want to watch this and all those who are interested in WWI as well.

I missed part I but they will air it again shortly. As soon as I’ve seen part I and II will post my review.

War Horse (2011)

I find it much harder to watch anything depicting cruelty to animals than to humans. I can’t help it. And despite the fact that Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is decidedly tacky at times, it really upset me. Not so much the movie – things are toned down to make it suitable for all ages, I guess, – as to think about what those horses went through in WWI.

Based on Michael Morpurgo’s eponymous novel, War Horse tells of the friendship of a farm boy with a horse. It’s very Black Beauty in the beginning. Out of sheer folly Albert’s father buys an expensive race horse that he can neither afford nor use. Albert manages to save his father’s farm and the horse and trains the animal until it is able to perform the duties of a workhorse. He also teaches him to come when he whistles and many other tricks.

When the war breaks out, Albert’s father sells Joey to a British officer who takes the horse to France. This almost breaks Albert’s heart but the officer, a kind man, promises to take care of Joey. Sadly he is killed in a reckless cavalry attack that goes very wrong. The horse, one of the rare that survives, can escape but is captured by the Germans. After this an odessey begins in which Joey changes hands more than once and more than once faces death.

Albert who has sworn to find his horse wherever it is (a bit of a Last of the Mohicans moment), has heard of the death of the officer and signed up. Soon he finds himself in the trenches in France.

The movie isn’t too graphic, we don’t see wounds and atrocities that you would normally see in a war movie, still it manages to convey the horror. It just does it by focussing on other elements. We see how many horses died in cavalry attacks and how thousands were overworked until they died from exhaustion.

The parts related to the war were, in my opinion, well done. Without being too graphic they illustrated a lot that was typical for WWI like the trenches, the mud, the gas. What was tacky was how the story was told at times and the end which didn’t seem very realistic. On the other hand the scene of Joey who runs down No Man’s Land and gets caught in barbed wire, manages to convey a better anti-war statement than many other movies.

The acting is quite good and in the case of Benedict Cumberbatch, in a very short but effective role as British Major, and Emily Watson, as the mother of Albert, even excellent.

Apart from showing the harrowing destinies of horses in WWI the movie captures the beauty of the bond that can exist between a human being and an animal.

Bertrand Tavernier’s Capitaine Conan – Captain Conan (1996)

Have you seen Capitaine Conan? You haven’t? Well then I’d like to know why you are sitting here, reading this blog when what you should really do, is chase a copy of this unique and brilliant movie? This is one of the best war movies I have seen in a while. I’m doing pretty bad with movies these days and have found my attention span is quite short but this movie had me glued to the screen. WWI movies tend to be a bit repetitive, it’s either the atrocity of the trenches, facial wounds, the analysis of the shortcomings of the high command or the incredible amount of dead and lost soldiers. All of it worthy themes but done a few times and quite brilliantly too. That’s why it was such a surprise that there is hardly any of this in Capitaine Conan. 

Capitaine Conan is based on the largely autobiographical novel Captain Conan by Roger Vercel who won the prestigious Prix Goncourt for the book. Vercel based the main character on one of his comrades.

The most interesting aspect is that the movie (and the book) takes place on the Bulgarian border where French and English troops fought a guerrilla like war against Germans and Bulgarians. There are trenches but a lot of the combat is hand-to-hand combat, man against man.

The lieutenant Capt Conan is an insubordinate, extremely wild and brutal soldier. But also someone who cherishes camaraderie. Instead of eating with the fellow officers, he rather sits somewhere with the men. He leads a group of 50 men that he calls his wolves. They are all equally fearless, brutal and, as it seems, addicted to violence but also a tight-knit group, ready to do anything for each other. There is nothing they like more than fighting man against man and mostly with knives. Because Conan is highly efficient and can turn around the course of hopeless battles, his superiors let him do as he pleases but when the war ends, things go wrong. His bloodthirsty men are too easily bored. They start to commit one crime after the other. Pillaging, raping, robbery. Conan who calls himself a warrior, as opposed to a soldier, isn’t any better and let’s his men get away with everything. Conan has long-lost his sense of right and wrong and all that he cares about are his men. War has turned him into a brute.

Among this violent crowd is a more gentle lieutenant, who wants to become a school teacher in peace time. If it wasn’t for him, who is appointed as prosecutor, Conan and his men would be court-martialled. The friendship between these two men grows slowly but once it’s established, it is indestructible.

It’s quite difficult to do this movie justice as it is very complex and quite fast-paced. Conan is a fascinating character and the way Tavernier depicts him we can’t help but admire him. In the world of WWI, in which there are so many officers who never dirty their hands but make the most important decisions without having a clue, someone like Conan, with a sense of honour and dignity, despite the brutality, becomes admirable. He is ruthless but he has a sense of loyalty and justice. The problem is, that men like him cannot go back to a normal life, once the war is over. They have gone too far.

After the war has ended, they are boarding a train and sent around without really knowing where they go. They stop in Sofia for a long time and are finally sent to the Russian border to fight the Bolsheviks. The scene in which the general informs them of the Armistice is one of the greatest scenes in any war movie ever. It’s so absurd. We see the guy talk about victory and glory, while the rain is pouring down, half of the men are running away because of diarrhea and the highly decimated band plays an off-key Marseillaise and looks like a bunch of flea-infested hobos.

I really hope I could give a halfway good impression of this wonderful movie and how rich it is. It’s very witty with super fast dialogue that I hope is well captured in the subtitles. I have a French DVD so I turned them off. It’s one of the huge problems of French cinema in translation. French cinema does live to a large extent from the dialogue which is usually fast and a lot of it isn’t translated. This isn’t a comedy but it has a lot of funny elements because it shows how absurd war is and because it juxtaposes many different levels of French society and different French regions.

As I said, the movie is available with English subtitles but the only trailer I found is a French one with Spanish subtitles. It still gives a good impression of the movie.

The Christmas Truce 1914

January 1, 1915: Writing to friends in north Wales, a gentleman who is serving at the front in the City of London Territorials states:- “It was a memorable christmas Day in our trenches as we had a truce with the enemy from Christmas Eve till Boxing Day morning, not a shot being fired. The truce came about in this way. The Germans started singing and lighting candles about 7.30 on Christmas Eve, and one of them challenged any one of us to go across for a bottle of wine. One of our fellows accepted the challenge; that started the ball rolling. We then went half way to shake hands and exchange greetings with them. There were 10 dead Germans in a ditch in front of the trenches and we helped to bury these. I could have had a helmet but I did not fancy taking one off a corpse. These men were trapped one night while trying to get to our outpost trench some time ago. The Germans seemed to be very nice chaps and said they were awfully sick of the war. We were out of the trenches all Christmas Day collecting souvenirs.

This letter is taken from the site The Christmas Truce. If you don’t know it yet, go and have a look, it’s great. If you’d like to watch a movie on the truce, I highly recommend Joyeux Noël – Merry Christmas which I have reviewed last year (here is the review). It is one of my favourite war movies.

Lucie Aubrac (1997) A True Story of the French Resistance

I’m fascinated by Resistance stories and one of my projects is to watch at least all the French resistance movies that I can find. Claude Berri’s Lucie Aubrac is one of them. Like many other resistance movies it is based on a true story.

Lucie Aubrac is a quiet movie and despite some scenes of great violence, including torture, it has a gentle keynote.

At the beginning of the movie Lucie and her husband live in Lyon. He is in one of the resistance groups and, one afternoon, when they meet in the apartment of one of the members, he and his friends are arrested. If it wasn’t for his wife, who invents a cunning plan, he wouldn’t have been released so easily.

After this incident, they know, they have to move. Lyon isn’t safe anymore. They leave their apartment, get new passports and travel with their child to the South of France.

There are many different resistance cells all over France and Lucie’s husband is in the one that is in direct contact with de Gaulle. This is, of course, dangerous and it doesn’t take long and he is arrested again. Arrested and tortured, like his friends.

And that’s when the story takes off. Lucie’s love for her husband is so strong, she will do everything to get him out and save him from the firing squad. Her plan is amazing and to think that it worked amazes me even more.

This isn’t a very fast paced or dramatic movie, as I already said, it’s rather quiet and gentle. The focus is on the two main characters, Lucie (Carole Bouquet) and Raymond (Daniel Auteuil), their love and courage. The role of the nasty German is played by Heino Ferch.

If you are interested in the story of Lucie Aubrac here is the link to her book Outwitting the Gestapo.

The movie is available with English subtitles but I couldn’t find an English trailer.

ANZACS Part IV and V (1985) The Battles of Amiens and Hamel

This is just a short wrap-up post. I finally watched the last two episodes of the ANZACS mini-series and I liked them as much as the first three. There were a few predictable moments and the end was a bit anti-climatic but very realistic.

I would really like to recommend the series once more. It’s excellent. It’s also an amazing story. The bravery and courage of the ANZACS was really something. I already said it in another post that one thing that struck me was the way they went to war. They took it like some sporting adventure, they were big on comradeship and good spirits. It seemed a bit stretched at first but I’ve done some research and some of my readers confirmed that this was the way they were.

What you get to understand as well, when you watch this series is the huge difference the end of the war represented for the Australians and the French. All through the series you see the ravaged landscape, the bombed villages and although some places remind the lads of home, their country remained untouched. I’m not saying the contribution wasn’t great, no, but when they were finally back home, they could really leave the war behind. That was not possible for the French soldiers who had to cope with a devastated country. The land has still not fully recovered until today. There are still places where you see craters and trenches, where they left the barbed wire and there are still bombs exploding.

While Part IV is still heavy on combat, Part V, which is a bit anti-climatic, is a quiet part. It centers on the Armistice and the ANZACS’ return home to Australia.

Here are the reviews of Part I GallipoliPart II The Somme  and Part III Passchendaele.

Bertrand Tavernier’s La vie et rien d’autre aka Life and nothing but (1989) The Aftermath of WWI

This quiet and beautiful movie deals with the aftermath of WWI in France in a way I haven’t seen before.

Life and nothing but aka La vie et rien d’autre is set in France, in 1920. The landscape is destroyed. The villages are in ruins. 350’000 men are missing. Major Dellaplane (Philippe Noiret) is working in some sort of army hospital trying to find the missing soldiers. He analyses features and descriptions, looks at those who are so badly wounded that nobody would recognize them, looks at those who have gone deaf, blind or crazy and also at dead bodies. He has them drawn and measured and puts their portraits in huge albums. So far he has found maybe 50’000 soldiers but there isn’t a lot of hope of finding the remaining ones.

Into this mess comes Irène de Courtil (Sabine Azéma), the wife of a missing officer and member of the French high society, part of those who are responsible for this monstrous war. Irène is looking for her husband. Not so much, it seems, because she wants to see him again but because she wants to move on. Her memory of him is almost faded and they were not married for very long either. Dellaplane treats her very unkindly and tells her that her husband is only one out of 350 000 missing men. In other words, he couldn’t care less about one individual person.

She leaves the hospital and tries other places but much has changed, addresses do no longer exist. She meets Dellaplane again in various other places.

When she hears that there is a site in which they display the belongings of dead soldiers, she travels there to try to find something that belonged to her probably dead husband. Dellaplane is there as well. Every time they speak, they quarrel and shout at each other but they also start to understand each other’s positions. Dellaplane feels pity and promises her to help her husband’s body.

While this is happening, there is a second story line. General Villerieux has to find bodies of anonymous dead French soldiers. One of them should be picked and buried under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It proves to be very difficult as there are as many dead German and American soldiers in this region as there are French ones. The earth is saturated with dead bodies. Plus there were the Senegalese troops. Despite their being French, the government doesn’t want to bury an African soldier or one from another colony. As easily as these are ruled out, for obvious reasons, as difficult it is to make a difference between American and French soldiers.

Unknownsoldier paris.jpg

The idea of the tomb for the Unknown Soldier infuriates Dellaplane and he doesn’t help his superior. He thinks it is cynical and belittles the losses. 1’500’000 dead French soldiers shouldn’t be represented by one anonymous figure.

There are other important story lines in the film. One follows a sculptor who is making monuments for the villages. Each and every village wants a monument for their fallen.

La vie et rien d’autre is beautiful but also bleak. It’s raining constantly, there are accidents with mines that go off, the places are swarming with hopeless people looking for their loved ones. Everything is in ruins. Everything seems so senseless. The destruction, the deaths, the suffering.

I liked this movie a great deal. It’s also a touching love story. What I liked best is the fact, that it starts where most other movies end. After we have seen the last dead soldier fall on the battle field, WWI movies usually end.

I recently finished the mini-series ANZACS and watched this right after. I’m glad I did as the contrast is amazing. As much as the Australians, Canadians and Americans sacrificed, they returned to their countries, countries that had not been touched by war. They lost a lot of young men, but they didn’t have to cope with a war-ravaged country and destroyed cities. I think this shouldn’t be forgotten.

Unfortunately there was no English trailer but the French one will also help you decide whether you should track it down or not.

12 French War Movies You Must See Before You Die

France, a country that has endured and fought many wars, was at the center of many a battle and armed conflict, a country famous for its outstanding filmmaking has produced a very modest amount of war movies. You will find numerous WWII movies on the Resistance and a fair amount of rather psychological war-time movies but if you are looking for combat movies, you will not be lucky. I know of no French air combat or submarine movie at all.

There may be many reasons and I can only attempt an interpretation, comparing French cinema in general to the cinema of other countries. What becomes apparent soon is that the French are not keen on producing large-scale, epic or very action driven cinema. French movies are psychological and intimate. They focus on the dynamics between a few people, their interaction, the dialogue. Many of the most famous French movies focus on tiny details, small things. It’s easily understood that this doesn’t fit in with infantry combat movies with their huge casts and more action driven story lines.

In choosing 12 movies  I tried to pick the few real combat movies I knew and added the ones that I think excellent or that absoultely need to be watched. I also tried to covera wide range. I left out good ones, I’m sure.

For those who want to further explore French cinema the website French War Movies offers a great overview.

I discovered one huge problem for the non-native speaker when I watched La Grande Illusion recently as I bought a movie with English subtitles. Almost 2/3 of the dialogue was missing. I noticed the same when I watched and reviewed the Italian Rome, Open City (here is my review). Since French and Italian movies are dialogue driven, it’s very hard for a non-native speaker to fully appreciate them. I’m sure this is done better in more recent movies, still it is a problem.

With all this said, let’s open the curtain for twelve stunning movies:

La Grande Illusion aka Grand Illusion (1937): WWI. Jean Renoir’s movie is one of the great classics of European cinema starring the late great Jean Gabin. A POW movie that offers a lot. Interesting German characters included. (Here is the review)

Nuit et brouillard aka Night and Fog (1955): WWII. Alain Resnais’ Holocaust classic. Death Camps. Final Solution. Documentary/original footage about the horrors of the concentration camps. Gut-wrenching. Impressive. A must-see. (Here is the review)

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959): WWII. Another movie by Alain Resnais. A love story between a French woman and a Japanese man from Hiroshima. Interspersed with original footage of Hiroshima. Very special and poetic based on the scenario by Marguerite Duras. A must see for French cinema aficionados. (review upcoming)

L’armée des ombres aka The Army of Shadows (1969): WWII. Jean-Pierre Melville’s Resistance masterpiece. Another classic. Claustrophobic, impressive, sparse. Excellent actors. One of the most depressing movies I’ve ever seen. (Here is my review)

L’honneur d’un capitaine aka A Captain’s Honor (1982): Post war. Algeria. A captain who died on the battle field in Algeria is accused of having been a torturer and a murdered. His widow tries to prove that he wasn’t guilty. (review upcoming)

Dien Bien Phu (1992) : Indochina. Infantry Combat. Schoendoerffer’s movie shows the final defeat of the French in Indochina. Not nice to watch at all. (review upcoming)

Le pianiste aka The Pianist (2002): WWII. Holocaust. Tells the story of a Jewish pianist in the Warsaw ghetto. Harrowing and beautiful. My favourite Holocaust movie. Very moving. (review upcoming)

La chambre des officiers aka The Officer’s Ward (2001): WWI. Everything you never wanted to know about the horrible facial wounds that were so frequent during WWI. Made me quite sick. Painfully well-done  (Here is the review)

Un long dimanche de fiançailles aka A Very Long Engagement (2004): WWI. Based on Sébastien Japrisot’s eponymous novel it tells the harrowing story of young Mathilde who travels to the no man’s land of WWI in search of her lost fiancé.  This is one of the darling movies of international film critics. I did like it but wasn’t awed. Starring the much-loved Audrey Tautou. (review upcoming)

Joyeux Noël aka Merry Christmas (2005): WWI. The story of the little peace during the Great War. During the first Christmas in WWI, German, French and British/Scottish troops cease fire and play football together. Wonderful movie with great actors. One of  my Top 10 all-time favourites and one of the bestanti-war movies that exist. (Here is the review)

L’ennemi intime aka Intimate Enemies (2007): Algeria. One of the very few French Infantry Combat movies. Very good and very critical. About the ugly side of an ugly war that was officially no war. If you want to find out why I found this hard to watch, you’ll have to read the About page. (Here is the review)

L’armée du crime aka The Army of Crime (2009): WWII. French Resistance. Based on the true story of a group of young people and immigrants who fought a desperate fight against the Nazis. They were led by the poet Manouchian. This is an absolutely stunning and very tragic movie. One to watch and re-watch. It went directly on my Top 10. (Here is the review)