A Matter of Life and Death aka Stairway to Heaven (1946)

After having watched and loved The Archers’ (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I decided that I will watch all of their movies sooner or later. I’m not sure I would have taken the same decision if I had seen A Matter of Life and Death aka Stairway to Heaven (the US title) first. It was too… Hmmm… Not sure what word I’m looking for here. It seems it is on position 20 of the BFI’s Top 100 list (yes, another list but one I like). Surprising.

The story is pretty simple. The RAF pilot and squadron leader Peter Carter (David Niven) tries to fly back to England in a burning Lancaster bomber. His crew has bailed out, one of his men is lying dead in the aircraft. Before deciding that he will bail out as well, despite the fact that he has no parachute, he manages to contact June (Kim Hunter), an American radio operator, based in England. They talk for a while and immediately feel a very strong connection.

Lucky for Carter, his Other World guide misses him in the thick English fog and instead of being guided to heaven, Carter wakes up on a beach. He thinks at first he’s dead but then realizes that he has somehow survived and only minutes later he sees a girl on a bicycle riding along the beach. He runs after her and – what a coincidence – finds out it’s June. When it dawns on them that they had been speaking to each other just a while ago and that he should actually be dead, they fall in love immediately.

Although Carter seems unharmed, he has hallucinations in which he meets his guide who wants him to come to heaven with him. Carter refuses and wants to appeal before the superior court in heaven in order to be granted to stay alive. While Carter thinks he is visited by someone from the other world, June asks a friend, Doctor Reeves (Robert Livesey), for help. Reeves thinks that Carter suffers from a rare condition and needs surgery.

I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when our two main characters fall in love so speedily and call each other “darling” only moments after having met. Still, it’s an amusing movie but the appeal for me was not in the story.

I liked that the real life scenes were shot in Technicolor, while the afterlife scenes were shot in black and white (reversing the effect in The Wizard of Oz) . The Archers’ use of color is quite special and I think they did a really great job here.

What was also interesting is the American-British theme. We all know that the British called the American soldiers “overpaid, oversexed and over here” and there was a lot of resentment going hand in hand with this expression. The Americans joined the war late and were fresh and crispy and had a lot of money and managed to seduce quite a lot of British girls, while the Brits had already fought for several years, were tired and worn out. The movie tried to reverse this in choosing to depict an American girl falling in love with a British officer. The heavenly court also plays heavily on this theme.

There is one sequence which is quite funny. The first heavenly jury has to be dismissed as the members are all from countries which had been wronged by the British at some point during history. The prosecutor is an American as well, Abraham Farlan, the first victim of the American Revolutionary war.

If you are a fan of The Archers or interested in British cinema and cinema of the 40s, don’t miss it. I think it’s interesting from the point of view of cinema history and amusing enough but I can’t say it was my cup of tea. As far as war romances go, I’ve seen movies I liked much more.

I couldn’t find  a trailer but you can watch the whole movie on YouTube. Here is Part I

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Yahoo! Users’ Top-Rated War Movies

It’s really hot today and to cheer myself up I thought of something rather less serious for a change. If you are like me you like to read lists. The Yahoo! User’s Favourite Top-Rated War Movies is a list I’ve seen before but forgot about it. The complete list consists of a total of 31 movies as you can see here.

It contains 31 war movies from all sub-genres. I agree with quite a few of their choices from 31 – 11, some of those movies are outstanding, but when we look at the top 1o, apart from a few exceptions, I find the choices highly questionable. Especially position 3 – 1. The fact that it contains only American movies is dubious too.

Let’s’ look at the list.

No. 10 – Glory (1989) I can agree with this choice, It’s a very good movie and although I liked it far less the second time I watched it, I don’t mind that it’s among the top 10 but would personally not include it anymore.

No.   9 – Patton (1970) This is a truly excellent biopic but considering how many movies have been left out, I don’t think it should be among the top 10.

No.  8 – Full Metal Jacket (1987) I have two Vietnam war movies in my personal top ten but Full Metal Jacket is not among them. Maybe it’s superior from a purely cinematographic point of view but apart from that I think Hamburger Hill is much better.

No. 7 – Hotel Rwanda (2004) This looks like some sort of “political correctness choice”. It’s not a bad movie but certainly not top ten material and not even as good as Shooting Dogs, another movie on the genocide in Rwanda,

No. 6 – The Pianist (2002) Very good but not top ten material.

No. 5 – Platoon (1986) Yes, that’s definitely among my top ten for many reasons.

No. 4 – Black Hawk Down (2001) This one too.

No.  3 – Schindler’s List (1993) If you like to be emotionally manipulated and go for tacky story telling, this is a good movie. In my book this is one of the highly overrated blockbusters. I really like the score though. It has a funereal appeal.

No.  2 – Braveheart (1995) Position no 2? For a movie that made me laugh from the beginning to end because Mel Gibson looks just too silly in it? No way. Not even top 100!

No. 1 – Saving Private Ryan (1998) I know this is a personal favourite of many but I’m not to keen on it. It has way too many corny elements and I’m not a Tom Hanks fan. Maybe in a top 50 because of its impact but certainly not among the top ten and even less as number 1.

I have moaned that this list is so heavy on US productions but even if we chose to make a top 10 US war movies list, I’m sure we could do better than this.

What do you think? Is it a good list? Which movies shouldn’t be on this list at all? Which would need to be included.

Paul Verhoeven’s Soldier of Orange – Soldaat van Oranje (1977) Dutch Resistance

I think it was obooki who first suggested I watch Paul Verhoeven’s Soldier of Orange – Soldaat van Oranje in a comment on my Starship Troopers post. I’m certainly glad he did. It’s like a companion movie to one of Verhoeven’s latest movie Black Boek – Black Book. While I thought Black Book was quite good – although not as good as many other resistance movies – I’d say Soldier of Orange is far superior and deserves to be named among the best.

I have a predilection for the WWII sub genre of resistance movies and I’m aiming at watching them all sooner or later. Most of the really good movies I’ve seen were either French or Nordic in the broadest sense (including Germany and the Netherlands).

Soldier of Orange is based on the autobiographical novel of the Dutch resistance leader Erik Hazelhoff Roezelma. It tells the story of six upper-class university students whose lives are profoundly changed by WWII. While one of them becomes a member of the German-Dutch SS, the others are soon joining the resistance.

The two best friends Erik Lanshof (Rutger Hauer) and Guus Lejeune (Jeroen Krabbé) are the two main characters. While Guus is a resistance leader, Erik is at first reluctant to even join but the longer the Nazi occupation lasts, the more he feels the urge to do his bit.

With the help of their friend Robby and his radio they get into contact with the resistance in England. The first mission they organize goes very wrong. One of their friends is captured, tortured and executed. Erik and Guus manage to escape but from now on they must be extra careful. Erik soon notices that he is followed. It’s obvious that someone has betrayed them and they are quite certain to know who it is. It must be one of their British contacts.

The first part of the movie is set in the Netherlands. It shows how Erik changes. While at first this is only an adventure for him which he doesn’t take too seriously, when he discovers he’s followed, he know he has to make a decision. Although his love interest, Robby’s Jewish fiancée, is in the Netherlands, he decides to escape to Britain and operate from there.

The second part is set almost entirely in the UK. Erik and Guus meet the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina, who is in exile in the UK. She wants to get in contact with the Dutch resistance and establish a connection between the resistance in England and those at home.

Shortly after their arrival in the UK, the two men are sent back again to fetch some of the Dutch resistance leaders.

The movie contains all the typical elements one would expect in any resistance movie; adventure, danger, missions, betrayal inside the own ranks, torture, executions. What makes Soldier of Orange especially good is that it rings so true. The characters are quite complex and so is the Dutch society which is depicted. The movie doesn’t idealize anything, it shows how many traitors and collaborators there were among the Dutch. It is one of the Queen’s biggest concern what she will do with those after the war.

The picture was remarkably fresh and from that perspective the movie could be very recent. The colors are intense and crisp, it’s really enjoyable to watch. The music however is dated. I’d say it’s a typical 70s war movie score.

What surprised me was how cheerful and uplifting the tone was. Most resistance movies are slightly depressing. This one is not. Erik and Guus are both rascals, they enjoy women and adventures and while they would be glad if the war was over, the idea to cheat on the Germans amuses them so much that almost feel it’s all worth it. Their cheerfulness is quite infectious.

All this together would have made me like the movie but what makes me love it is Rutger Hauer. Ever since I watched Blade Runner for the first time some years ago, I thought he was an extraordinary and very charismatic actor.

From the point of view of the tone, I’d say Soldier of Orange is at the opposite end of  The Army of Shadows – L’armée des ombres and Flame & Citron (Flammen and Citronen) which are both depressing and full of angst. The Army of Crime and Max Manus occupy the middle ground.

Here are the resistance movies I’ve reviewed so far:

Lucie Aubrac – French

Rome, Open City – Roma, città aperta – Italian

Female Agents- les femmes de l’ombre – French

Tomorrow We Live – British

The Army of Crime – L’armée du crime – French

Winter in Wartime –  Oorlogswinter – Dutch

The Army of Shadows – L’armée du crime – French

Max Manus – Frihedskæmperen Max Manus – co-production Norway/Denmark

Flame & Citron – Flammen and Citronen – co-production Norway/Denmark/Sweden…

I have seen many more pre-blogging and will need to rewatch some of those. Do you have any favourites?

Nordwand – North Face (2008)

Maybe the German/Austrian/Swiss co-production Nordwand – North Face isn’t strictly speaking a war movie but it contains one of my favourite subjects, Nazi ideology and propaganda and therefore still qualifies. Plus it’s a stunning movie which had me glued to the screen until the end.

Before I start the summary, let me share a little anecdote. I remember when I was a kid we stayed at the holiday house of my parent’s friends in the Alps. The house was facing the Eiger. I was just 8 years old and scared. I found the mountain to look as if it was looming. I had the feeling it was moving towards me and just about to swallow me. I had no idea at the time that Eiger means ogre. Funny enough, my father, a typical big city person, had a similar reaction. He wasn’t scared but admitted to feeling uncomfortable. My mother who had been living in Switzerland much longer, didn’t mind that much but she didn’t enjoy it either.

When I saw North Face I was catapulted back to this holiday. I’ve hardly ever seen a movie capture how scary those mountains are. The Eiger’s North Face (Nordwand) was called “Mordwand” (murder wall) for a reason.

The movie is set in 1936. Until then nobody had managed to climb the north face of the Swiss massif the Eiger. Athletism was an important pillar of Nazi ideology and propaganda. Athletes incorporated the Nazi ideal to perfection so naturally there was a lot of interest in Germans being the first to manage what nobody else had managed before. At the same time as Germany was about to annex Austria and the Olympics were imminent, a win on the Eiger would be good for the reputation of the Nazis.

Luise Fellner is a young woman trying to become a journalist. She grew up with Toni Kurz and Andi Hinterstoisser who are some of the best climbers at the time. When her boss, an eager journalist, finds out about the connection he sends her to her home village to try to persuade them to climb the North Face and give her the chance to prove herself as a photojournalist. Despite Andi’s efforts to convince his friend, Toni, the more thoughtful of the two, is reluctant. He thinks climbing the Eiger is by far too dangerous. Only when Andi finally decides to do it on his own, he follows him.

Luise and her boss travel to Switzerland and stay at the hotel in front of the Eiger. Meanwhile it has become a real competition. There are climbing teams from Italy, France and Austria. In the end only two teams, the German and the Austrian team, will start the climb.

Nordwand is an amazing movie. The cinematography is stunning. This is as close to climbing as you can get without actually doing it. It’s also a love story and the story of an emancipation as Luise faces a lot of prejudice and sexism in her profession. Furthermore it is a story of a unique friendship and one of the most tragic true stories I’ve ever seen.

The movie also shows nicely how the media contributed to the success of nazism, how people already then were keen on sensationalism, how they were hungry for drama and tragedy without thinking of the human pain and loss this meant. There are some interesting secondary characters who illustrate this well.

Another aspect which certainly contributes to the movie’s success are the actors. They  are outstanding, Ulrich Tukur plays the overeager older journalist, Johanna Wolkalek stars as the young photojournalist and the two mountaineers are played by Benno Fürmann as Toni Kurz and as Florian Lukas as Andi Hinterstoisser.

North Face is one of the best mountaineering movies, certainly a great war themed movie but most of all an incredible and really tragic true story.

Movies on the American Civil War: A List

Quite a long time ago I have written a post with a list on the American Indian Wars, now is finally the turn of the American Civil War. In a few weeks you can expect a list of movies on the war of Independence. Like with most of my earlier lists, I haven’t seen all of he movies and I may very well have forgotten some. Do, as always, tell me which are the ones you like best and add those I have forgotten. I still need to review Ride With the Devil, which is together with Glory my favourite. I had a hard time watching Gettysburg and really needed the subtitles. I could hardly understand the accents. Gone with the Wind is an epic I’ve seen more than once as a child. It was one of those movies that was always on TV around Christmas. I’m curious to know whether Gods and Generals and Andersonville are any good. If you have seen them, let me know.

  • The Battle of Gettysburg (US 1913) directed by Charles Giblyn, starring Willard Mack, Charles K. French, Herschel Mayall
  • Birth Of A Nation (US 1915) directed by David W. Griffith, starring Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall
  • The General (US 1926) directed by Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman, starring Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Charles Henry Smith
  • Gone With The Wind (US 1939) directed by Victor Fleming, starring Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland
  • They Died with Their Boots On (US 1941) directed by Raoul Wals, starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Anthony Quinn
  • The Red Badge Of Courage (US 1951), directed by John Huston, starring Audie Murphy, Bill Mauldin
  • The Great Locomotive Chase aka Andrews’ Raiders (US 1956) starring Fess Parker, Jeffrey Hunter
  • Friendly Persuasion (US 1956) directed by William Wyler, starring Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire, Anthony Perkins
  • The Horse Soldiers (US 1959) directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne, William Holden, Constance Towers
  • Major Dundee (US 1965) directed by Sam Peckinpah, starring Charlton Heston, James Coburn, Richard Harris
  • Shenandoah (US 1965) directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, starring James Stewart, Doug McClure
  • The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (US/IT/SP 1966) directed by Sergio Leone, starring Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach, John Bartha
  • Alvarez Kelly (US 1966) directed by Edward Dmytryk, starring William Holden, Richard Widmark, Janice Rule, Patrick O’Neal
  • The Undefeated (US 1966) directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, starring John Wayne, Rock Hudson, Antonio Aguilar
  • The Andersonville Trial (US 1970, TV) directed by George C. Scott, starring William Shatner, Cameron Mitchell
  • The Beguiled (US 1971) directed by Don Siegel, starring  Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page, Elizabeth Hartman, Jo Ann Harris
  • The Outlaw Josey Wales (US 1976) directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Clint Eastwood, Chief Dan George, Sondra Locke
  • The Blue and the Gray (US 1982, TV mini-series) directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, starring  Stacy Keach, Lloyd Bridges, John Hammond, Rip Torn, Warren Oates, Gregory Peck
  • North and South (US 1985–1986 mini-series)  starring Patrick Swayze, James Read, Kirstie Alley
  • Glory (US 1989) directed by Edward Zwick, starring Matthew Broderick, Cary Elwes, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington
  • Dances with Wolves (US 1990) directed by Kevin Costner, starring Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnel, Graham Greene
  • Ironclads (US 1991, TV) directed by Delbert Mann, starring Virginia Madsen, Alex Hyde-White, Reed Diamond, Philip Casnoff
  • Gettysburg (US 1993) directed by F. Maxwell, starring Tom Berenger, Jeff Daniels, Martin Sheen, Stephen Lang
  • Heaven & Hell: North & South, Book III (US 1994 TV mini-series) directed by Larry Peerce, starring Philip Casnoff, Kyle Chandler, Terri Garber, Lesley-Anne Down, Jonathan Frakes, Genie Francis, Terri Garber, Mariette Hartley
  • Andersonville (US 1996, TV) directed by John Frankenheimer, starring Jarrod Emick, Frederic Forrest, Ted Marcoux
  • The Hunley (US 1997, TV) directed by John Gray, starring Armand Assante, Donald Sutherland
  • Ride with the Devil (US 1999) directed by Ang Lee, starring Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich, James Caviezel
  • Gods and Generals (US 2003) directed by Ronald F. Maxwell, starring Stephen Lang, Robert Duvall, Jeff Daniels
  • Cold Mountain (US 2003) directed by Anthony Minghella, starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renée Zellweger, Ray Winstone, Brendan Gleeson, Natalie Portman
  • The Battle of Gettysburg (US 2008, TV) directed by Michael S. Ojeda, starring Allen Brenner, Michael L. Colosimo

Something which really surprised me when I linked the titles to the IMDb page was the fact that none of these movies has a rating which is lower than 7+. That’s quite amazing. Most movies are rated 7.5 – 8.2. Usually when I compile such lists I have quite a few with 5* ratings. Are they really all that good or were some die-hard Civil War fans voting?

The Eagle (2011)

I was in the mood for a guilty pleasure and The Eagle is just that. I must admit that I liked it far better than I expected. I even liked it quite a bit. It’s not historically accurate and you have to oversee the way “the barbarians” are depicted, the good versus evil vibe is quite heavy-handed but still, I enjoyed it for various reasons.

First of all The Eagle is visually compelling. The images are beautiful and I liked the atmosphere they created a lot. The other reason why I liked the movie was the main character, Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum). Tatum isn’t a very good actor but he does well when he has to play an introverted, wounded man.

In 120 A.D. Flavius Aquila, Marcus Flavius Aquila’s father, led the 9th Legion, 5000 Roman elite soldiers, far into Britannia, beyond the border of the Roman Empire. The Legion never returned and the emblem, the eagle, was stolen.

20 years later Marcus Flavius Aquila is sent to Britannia as Centurion of the remotest outpost near Hadrian’s wall. The soldiers under his command are not very keen on a man whose father disappeared. They think he means trouble but he is doing surprisingly well. We are introduced to a deeply religious man who is a very skilled and courageous soldier and a just commander. Unfortunately he’s gravely wounded in his first battle and sent to his uncle (Donald Sutherland) to recover. He gets an honorable discharge as his wound will not allow him to return to the life of a soldier. This is hard for him as being a soldier is all he knows and on top of that his secret hope was to restore his father’s honour.

When he watches some games with his uncle and sees a slave losing a fight against a gladiator he saves the slave’s life. While Esca, the slave, hates everything Marcus represents he still swears to be loyal. Marcus sees an opportunity to go beyond the wall, guided by someone who comes from there and speaks the language. He hopes to find out what happened to his father and maybe bring back the eagle.

Their quest is taking them far into enemy territory. The task is as difficult as it is dangerous.

A lot has been said about the bromance element in this movie. I’ve never really understood that term anyway. For me this was the story of an adventure and how two unlikely men become close friends. Call it “bromance” if you must.

As I said already, I liked this quite a bit. I thought it was well filmed and suspenseful. I spent two pleasant hours with this movie and wouldn’t mind watching it again. It’s not as good as Gladiator or King Arthur but personally I liked it better than Centurion and much much better than The Last Legion which is really not good. Watch it if you like movies set during the Roman Empire.

If you want to watch more movies set during the Roman Empire here’s my list: War Movies Set During the Roman Empire.

Valkyrie (2008) Operation Valkyrie or The Last Attempt to Assassinate Hitler

I suppose it wasn’t in Eichmann‘s favour that I re-watched Valkyrie just before I saw Eichmann. I would say I liked Valkyrie even better the second time. I’m sure it is a movie which aims at entertaining and plays on emotions but at least that is very well done and Tom Cruise is outstanding in this movie. I do have huge problems with the man Tom Cruise but I can’t help admiring the actor.

The movie opens in North Africa in 1942. Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) is far from content with the regime and openly utters his criticism. Before retreating with his troops he gets under attack and loses his right hand, an eye and two fingers on the left hand.

Some time later, back in Berlin, after a painful recovery, he is recruited by a group of high German officers and politicians who want to overthrow the regime. They think it is of the highest importance to do something in order to let the world see that there were not only Nazis in Germany.  The way to go according to these men is to assassinate Hitler. Preferably together with Himmler. After several failed attempts they recruit von Stauffenberg. He seems to be the only one to be able to come up with a plan and to see it through.

Assassinating Hitler isn’t enough. At the same time the group needs to assure that the Army is on their side. The idea von Stauffeberg comes up with is ingenious and based on adapting “Operation Valkyrie” to their own needs.  The amended Operation Valkyrie would enable them to seize control of Berlin after the assassination of the Führer.

As this movie is based on historical facts, I don’t suppose it is a spoiler to say that they failed. The plan was cunning, the execution well done but bad luck and bad timing prevented a success. All the men participating in the coup were executed.  This is one of those movies during which we hope against all hope and constantly wonder why it didn’t work.

Just like Sophie Scholl, Valkyrie manages to show what courageous and unselfish people are capable of doing.

The movie Eichmann illustrates very well that a fascinating topic doesn’t guarantee a good movie. Even though Valkyrie is a US-German co-production it’s pure Hollywood but it’s very well acted and gripping despite the fact that we know the outcome.

The way the story is told and the cast makes this such a good movie. Apart from Tom Cruise, the actors worth mentioning are Kenneth Branagh as Major-General Henning von Tresckow, Bill Nighy as General Freidrich Olbricht, Thomas Kretschmann as Major Otto Ernst Remer and Carice van Houten as Nina von Stauffenberg. The only bad choice was David Bamber as Hitler. I think he’s the worst Hitler I’ve ever seen.

Valkyrie is based on a great story and very well told. While it’s not flawless, it’s still a must-see.