First Light (2010 TV) A TV Movie Based on the Memoir of a Spitfire Pilot

Geoffrey Wellum was only 18 when he joined the 92 squadron of the RAF in May 1940. He was one of the youngest pilots. He flew over 50 missions during 18 months, all through the Battle of Britain and beyond. After a forced break of several months he flew again but finally had a nervous breakdown and stopped for good. A while back he published his memoirs First Light on which this TV movie is based.

First Light is a treat for everyone interested in Spitfires, their pilots and the Battle of Britain. In between scenes we see and hear Wellum talk about his experiences. I think that hardly any pilot flew over such a long period and this many missions as he did. The strain and  stress of being a Spitfire pilot is really palpable.

When he arrived at the base no one thought he would make it as far more experienced pilots were shot down. The other pilots were a bit reluctant at first to accept him as he was so young. The RAF was in desperate need of pilots and couldn’t really be too choosy. Soon the other pilots realized that he was a good pilot and a fine man and they accepted him. During the day they flew their missions, sometimes even in the pouring rain, in the evenings they came together to sing, drink and dance with girls.

There are many moments typical for air combat movies. The moment when they fly back to the base and everyone is anxious to see if anyone is missing. The love stories, the drinking, the friendships. The older men who feel protective of the younger ones. The sadness when one of their friends dies.

Maybe First Light wouldn’t be so special as a movie if we didn’t know that it ‘s a true story. But the fact that it is a true story and the presence of Wellum himself make this worth watching.

Instead of a trailer I attached a mini-documentary. Hope you will like it.

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Enemy at the Gates (2001) or The Duel of Two Snipers

It’s interesting how often people mention Enemy at the Gates as one of their favourite war movies, yet I do not see it included very often in more official Best of Lists. I wonder why and can only guess. Maybe because it is too esthetic? Hardly ever have ruins looked this good. Or is it because of the love story? I must admit, I had a problem with it. I don’t mind a love story, although it is mostly a bit tacky in a war movie, but I would have liked this one to be left out. I thought it spoilt an otherwise perfect movie. And I think another cast would have been better as well, apart from an excellent Ed Harris, I didn’t care for the actors. Despite all these reservations, I think it is an excellent movie. The central story is suspenseful and it is one of the most beautifully filmed war movies ever and certainly one of those I will re-watch. And don’t you just love movies about snipers?

Stalingrad 1942. The city is under siege. The German army hopes to win the war and to secure the oil fields near the Caspian Sea. The Russians are well aware if they lose Stalingrad, it is over. The losses are high, morale is low and a little bit of propaganda might do every one a lot of good. That’s why Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins) thinks its high time to fabricate a hero and charges Danilov, an important oficer of the Communist Party, with this mission.

Enemy at the Gates is loosely based on the story of the famous Russian sniper Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law). Vassili has learned to shoot at an early age, and now, in his early twenties he is the best sniper in the Russian army. Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) decides to pick him, and turn him into the hero Khrushchev is looking for. Vassili gets newspaper coverage and publicity and soon his fame is known far beyond the Russian borders and especially the Germans are well aware what a dangerous enemy he is.

Amidst the rubble and the ruins we see two parallel stories unfold. The first story line, follows a love triangle. Through Danilov Vassili meets the Jewish woman Tania (Rachel Weisz). Both men are in love with her but as it seems Tania has only eyes for Vassili. This love triangle is frankly annoying and disrupts the movie. It isn’t even very plausible.

The second story line revolves around the competition between Major König (Ed Harris), a famous German sniper, and Vassili. König is sent to Stalingrad to take out Vassili. All the parts of this second story line are quite gripping. We see the men hunt each other, we see how they get to know each other, how they try to find out how the other will react, how and from where he will shoot, how they try to ambush each other.

Snipers are endlessly patient. They don’t just shoot wildly, they aim carefully, take their time, observe and shoot only when they are fairly sure of hitting their target. Enemy at the Gates perfectly captures this cat-like hunter quality of the sniper and that’s what makes this film so watchable despite its flaws.

The director Jean-Jacques Annaud is famous for his cinematography. He has made one of the visually most compelling movies The Bear or L’ours . Enemy at the Gates is equally stunning from a cinematographic perspective.

Under the Bombs aka Sous les Bombes (2007) A French/Lebanese Movie on the War in Lebanon


How many times was there a war between Israel and Lebanon? Let me tell you, many, many times. Some were longer, some were shorter. The war in 2006 lasted 33 days and cost, as always, the lives of many civilians.  The Lebanese/French movie Under the Bombs has a close look at what a war like this does to civilians.

Under the Bombs tells the story of a young mother who was in Dubai while her son stayed in the South of Lebanon when the war broke out. At the beginning of the movie she arrives in Lebanon and tries to find a taxi that will drive her to the South. None of the taxi drivers is willing to take her there. It is much to risky. The Hezbollah is still bombing Israel and Israel fights back. Or the other way around. At this point in time it isn’t exactly clear who is doing the fighting. The movie doesn’t really tell us why this war broke out or who is the culprit, it really is only interested in the innocent victims.

One taxi driver who fancies the good-looking woman finally decides to take her South. His own family lives there and he thinks he may have a look and find out about them.

The moment they leave Beirut the devastation can be seen. The movie was filmed right after the war and feels like a documentary. Those houses have so obviously been bombed, the cities and villages look desolate.

The trip South is a nightmare. Many bridges have been damaged and they have  a hard time to find the way. Whenever they arrive at  a destination they encounter people in distress but neither her son nor her sister can be found. The people tell them what they have been through and mostly have news of her son and indicate where he could be found.

During their trip, the taxi driver and the mother start to talk. They are an unlikely couple, and would never have met under normal circumstances. He is a simple man who dreams of leaving Lebanon and living in Germany while she is the wife of  a famous architect and has seen the whole world.

After a day or two they both start to reveal their fears and talk about the things that went wrong in their lives.

When they arrive in the South where the family used to live the only thing they find is a heap of rubble and confusing stories. It seems that her sister has died under the bombs but her son has been taken away by French journalists. Once more they chase after him.

This is a tragic, sad and very touching movie. The friendship between the mother and the taxi driver is quite moving. Both actors, Nada Abou Farhat and Georges Khabbaz are excellent. There are no easy answers in the movie, no taking sides, just the illustration of what misery the bombing of villages and cities brings to the inhabitants.

I can really recommend this.

I also included it in on my Children in War Movies List.

Upcoming Civil War Documentary on History.com

A couple of days ago I received an e-mail from History. com in which they asked me whether I would like to do a post on their upcoming Civil War documentary that will be aired on May 30th 2011.

As you can easily deduce, I was willing to do so as the program seems interesting and well done and I’m partial to Ridley Scott anyway, be it as producer or director. I will not have the opportunity to watch it as I’m not US-based but all of you who are, do not miss it.

Below is what has been written in the e-mail and should tell you all you need to know in advance.

At the bottom you can find a trailer. The trailer and the choice of music (I’m a HUGE Placebo fan and their cover of Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill is a favourite) make me feel really sorry for not being able to see it.

Summary: Gettysburg is a 2-hour HISTORY special that kicks off a week of
History programming commemorating the 150’th anniversary of the Civil War.

Executive produced by Ridley and Tony Scott, this special strips away the
romanticized veneer of the Civil War. It presents the pivotal battle of
Gettysburg in a new light: as a visceral, terrifying and deeply personal
experience, fought by men with everything on the line. Compelling CGI  and
powerful action footage place viewers in the midst of the fighting,
delivering both an emotional cinematic experience and an information packed
look at the turning points, strategic decisions, technology and little known
facts surrounding the greatest engagement ever fought on American soil.

The special begins in the high stakes summer of 1863, as the Confederate
Army of Northern Virginia crosses into Pennsylvania.   Trailed by the
Union’s Army of the Potomac, Lee’s 75,000 strong army heads towards
Harrisburg, converging instead near a quiet farm town, Gettysburg.  Known
then only as a crossroads where ten roads running in all directions converge
like a wagon wheel, this small town would become site of an epic battle
between North and South.  For three days, each side fought there for their
vision of what America should be.

In collaboration with highly esteemed Civil War historians, HISTORY combed
through hundreds of individual accounts of the battle to find the unique
voices of struggle, defeat and triumph that tell the larger story of a
bitterly conflicted nation.

More information can be found here History. com.

71- Into the Fire aka Pohwasogeuro (2010)

71-Into the Fire is based on the true story of 71 South Korean student soldiers who, in August 1950, fought back the North Korean 766 Commando Brigade. In an incredible act of bravery they held out for 11 hours. Thanks to their courage and commitment the allied forces were capable of holding a bridgehead at the Nakdong River.

This brief paragraph sums up the story pretty much but it will not tell you anything about the way this story is told.

Unlike most Western movies 71-Into the Fire doesn’t start with an introduction of the main characters. It doesn’t show our group of young men in a training or boot camp, nor are we slowly led into the action. No, this movie starts with intense combat scenes and only slows down after having shaken us for a good 15 minutes. In so far it has some similarities with Saving Private Ryan. But that is where the similarity stops. There is a lot of use of slow motion in this movie which I can’t remember having seen in Saving Private Ryan or other war movies that often.

The main character, the first of the students to which we are introduced, is Oh Jung-Bum. He is inexperienced and scared. When he sees how one of the superior officers is shot, he almost breaks down. He can’t even help him or fire a shot, his hands are shaking too much. Still he stays with the man until he dies and for this he is promoted immediately to captain of the newly formed student company.

The 71 young students, or rather 68 students and three young convicts, haven’t had any training before. Most of them have never shot one single bullet in their life. This is far from promising but as the graphic scenes have shown, there is need for desperate measures. The North Korean forces are advancing rapidly and if the Allies cannot defend the bridgehead on the Nakdong River, they will be overrun by the North Korean forces.

Oh Jung-Bum is far from being the leader type and he knows it. Unfortunately the others know it as well and he has a hard time to make them follow his orders. Only after he has proven himself worth and gained respect, will they listen to what he says.

When the North Korean army finally approaches, we get to see an ugly and desperate fight that doesn’t leave a lot of survivors. The boys really give everything and manage the sheer impossible and hold back a well-trained and well-equipped army.

It is a heartbreaking story and I liked some parts of it a lot but the last 15 minutes or so were totally over the top. There was too much dramatic dying for my taste and I found it quite propagandist.

Despite its flaws I would give it a 4/5 because it is really gritty and tells a story that isn’t known much and it is undoubtedly a must-see for people who like the genre. Additionally the filming is quite interesting. However, as said before, I have huge reservations as to the end.

Thanks again to Cine Asia for sending me a review copy of this movie.

Please also check out Novroz’ review of the movie. She was the winner of the DVD Giveaway.

Movies on the Crusades: A List

Kingdom of Heaven

It was high time for another list. The Crusades are a fascinating theme and there is nothing to infuriate me more than to watch a bunch of fanatic Christians (or any other zealots for that matter but during the Crusades the Christians were disreputably active) causing mayhem.

Of the movies on the list I have only seen Kingdom of Heaven and Arn The Knight Templar. While I almost fell asleep during the first one, I really liked Arn as you can read in my review. I have a feeling that my list is far from complete, so feel free to add/comment should you know other movies.

As you may have noticed there are two Arn’s on the list. The reason for this is that there is a longer and a shorter version available but the longer one seems to be in Swedish only.

Harry Brown (2009) Michael Caine Starring as WWII Vet

If Gran Torino had been good it would have been Harry Brown. This is one hell of a gritty movie. A pretty unvarnished look at today’s Britain. If you are in a somewhat no-future, modern-life-is-pointless-and-ugly mood, better stay away from Harry Brown as it will certainly not cheer you up. If you like movies like Let the Right One In (The Swedish film!!!), then you might like it although there are no vampires in this movie, only very ugly and depraved humans.

Harry Brown (Michael Cane) is a lonely man. He spends his time visiting his wife at the hospital or playing chess with his only friend Leonard. When his wife dies there is only Leonard left. The two men live in the same depressing housing estate, somewhere on the outskirts of a big British city. Local gangs are roaming the neighbourhood day and night and some of the places and pedestrian walkways are far from safe. Violence and drug trafficking go on, people who pass are molested and harmed. The kids from the gangs are a bunch of real scum, the lowest of the low. No education, no future, only using and abusing.

Harry and Leonard regularly meet in a bar nearby where they play chess. Leonard has been the gangs’ target for a while. They hustle him, threaten him, shove dog shit into his letter box. The old man is terrified and cannot take it any longer. One afternoon he tells his friend that he is now armed. He is carrying an old bayonet and, if necessary, will defend himself.

Not long after this conversation two detectives (Emily Mortimer and Charlie Creed-Miles) come to see Harry Brown to tell him, that his friend has been killed. Beaten up and stabbed to death. Four young blokes are arrested, one more horrible than the other, some in and out of prison and coming from families in which the father, uncle or some other male relative is constantly in prison. The police questioning shows them from their ugliest side. They verbally abuse the female detective, swear and cheer because they know there is no evidence.  Despite their obvious violent tendencies, the police have to let them go.

And that’s when Harry Brown takes a decision. He will avenge his friend. After the first gang members and drug dealers are found dead, the police now shifts from looking for the murderers to trying to catch a vigilante.

Up to now it may seem as if it wasn’t justified to include Harry Brown in this blog but the fact that Harry Brown is an ex-Marine and has served in WWII is important and gets even more important from the moment he decides to take justice into his own hands.

This isn’t a glossed over movie with a tacky ending, this is a tale that might happen, that shows an ugly reality that is far from overdrawn. It also takes a close look at the frailty and loneliness old age can bring.

Harry Brown is one of those old-school soldiers who never spoke about what happened in the war, who possibly tried to avoid thinking of it. The loss of his wife and friend and the brutality of the murder triggers something and liberates him.

Funny enough, this is as well a movie of vengeance as a movie of closure. It’s not pretty, it’s not nice but it’s highly watchable and it shows an absolutely excellent Michael Caine.