War Movie Watchalong – Choose the Movie

It’s been a while since the last watchalong, 8 months to be precise, and I thought it was about time to do it again. Like the last time I will give you the opportunity to choose from a list of movies.

The “rules” are simple. 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 poll will decide which one we will watch.

Here are the choices:

The Bomber – Ballada O Bombere (2011 Russia)

Johnny Got His Gun (1971 US)

The Hurt Locker (2008 US)

I will announce the poll results on Sunday 9 September 2012.

The discussion will take place on Sunday 23 September 2012

István Szabó’s Sunshine (1999)

I’m in two minds about István Szabó’s epic movie Sunshine. It tells the story of a family of Hungarian Jews, the Sonnenscheins (which means Sunshine in German), from the end of the 19th century until the end of the 20th. While I think it told me a lot about Hungary and the treatment of Jews in Hungary, I was far less thrilled about the length (3hrs) and the choice to have the three main characters, grandfather, father and son played by the very same actor, namely Ralph Fiennes. I would have found this artificial with any actor but given my dislike of Fiennes, it added annoyance. If you do not mind seeing the same actor in three different roles and are fond of Ralph Fiennes, you will probably like this movie a lot. I do not understand why Szabó chose to do it like this, why couldn’t there be three actors? I remember the Archers chose the same approach in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp in which Deborah Kerr plays three different women but that worked much better.

The Sonnescheins are a modest family but then the patriarch invents a recipe for a tonic which makes them incredibly rich. As a direct result of their social ascendance, the two sons, Gustav and Ignaz, both study and become doctors, of medicine and law respectively. While Ignaz is loyal to the Emperor, Gustav feels more and more alienated by monarchy and becomes a communist. WWI changes not only Hungary but Europe as a whole. The biggest change in the lives of the Sonnenscheins’s however is that they choose to change their name from Sonnenschein to the more Hungarian sounding Sors. Long before WWII breaks out, the Jews are seen as a nuisance and it is very hard for them to integrate.

Ignaz’s and Valerie’s son Adam becomes the Hungarian fencing champion and wins at the Olympics in 1936. After having changed their name, the Sors also change their religion and the family converts to Catholicism. Still, this doesn’t help them, when WWII breaks out, the family first lives in the ghetto, some are killed, some escape and Adam and his son Ivan are sent to a concentration camp where Adam is tortured and killed. His son will never forgive himself that he just stood there and did nothing. After the war he joins the communist party. Anti-Zionist sentiments are spreading. The government changes often and depending on who is in charge, other groups are persecuted but what they all seem to have in common is that anti-Semitism reigns again.

When the end of the communist state has finally come, Ivan realizes that the only way to be really free, is to be true to yourself. He decides to change his name back to Sonnenschein and to be proud of his heritage, no matter what government and changes the future will bring.

While I wasn’t blown away by the movie and would have preferred if the main character had been played by three different actors instead of one, the movie isn’t bad at all. It had a lot of thought-provoking elements. There is the incident in the concentration camp in which three guards control 2000 prisoners. Ivan’s uncle later tells him that it is unforgivable that they didn’t do anything. This is a reproach one hears occasionally. People don’t understand why 2000 wouldn’t fight against 3 or 10 even if those were armed. The movie implies an answer which is interesting. It is obvious that if they had fought back the guards, some of the Jews would have been killed. The majority would have been saved but that would have needed the sacrifice of a few others.

Another interesting element is the fact that Hungarians sent Jews to the camps and not Germans. There were a lot of collaborators among the Hungarians. The movie underlines that the Hungarian society, whether it was during the monarchy or later under communism, was to a large part anti-semitic.

What I really liked is that the movie focusses on one family only and like that manages to give a much better feeling of the incredible changes which took place. To enhance authenticity Szabó included some original footage which in some cases was quite chilling. When Adam takes part in the Olympics of 1936, Szabó included original footage of the opening in which we see Hitler.

Because it’s a very long movie, it’s a very complex movie and I know I didn’t do it justice. There are for example some very troubled love stories which I didn’t mention in my summary but which are quite important. I liked the story between Valerie (Jennifer Ehle) and Ignaz but didn’t care for the love triangle including Adam, Hannah (Molly Parker) and Greta (Rachel Weisz).

I would recommend Sunshine if you like epic films and have an interest in the history of Hungary and the Holocaust from another perspective.

Help Needed – We Are Looking for a WWII War Movie With a Pacific Setting

As I wrote before (here and here) I often receive e-mails from people who look for movies. Luckily I find many of them but not all of them. This week I received an e-mail from someone looking for an “obscure WWII Pacific movie”. While I couldn’t find which one it is, I have a feeling, someone else will as for some reason the description sounds familiar and I think it’s a known movie.

Here’s the mail

I haven’t been able to find a movie that sounds like this one on any list of WWII movies.  At the time (admittedly,  I was still pre-teen at the time) it seemed like a very striking movie to me.  I don’t know, perhaps I would think it was terrible now but I’d like to find out.
I saw it, I would say, between 1960-1964, in a movie theater.  I don’t believe I ever heard of it since.  I don’t remember the title.
It’s an American film, in color.  My memory of it is that it was an American destroyer versus a Japanese sub and they’re locked in a struggle to the death.  I think the destroyer gets torpedoed.  Then it rams the sub.  I think that the two vessels are locked together after the ramming and they may even end up beached on some island in the South Pacific.  That’s all I can recall but it seemed very gripping to me at the time.
*****

Does it ring a bell? Any idea? Couldn’t it be a John Wayne movie? It would be great if we would find it.

While hunting for the movie I found this website which looks interesting War of Our Fathers.

The Small Back Room (1949)

In the comments to my recent post on The Archers’ A Matter of Life and Death Guy Savage (Phoenix Cinema) mentioned another of their movies, The Small Back Room based on Nigel Balchin’s eponymous novel. Since I have just read Balchin’s novel on the London Blitz, Darkness Falls From the Air, I was interested in watching The Small Back Room. While I had my problems with A Matter of Life and Death I really liked The Small Back Room a lot. Some say it’s one of the minor movies of Pressburger and Powell. Maybe that is true. It certainly is lesser known but I think that is a shame as it contains many interesting elements. It’s not as exuberant, flashy and over the top as many of the other movies, It’s much darker and thoughtful.

Sammy Rice is an embittered bomb disposal expert, the very best, the British have. He has lost a foot in the war and the constant pain and shame about being not intact make him a cranky fellow. The fact that he is taking heavy medication against the pain which he mixes with strong alcohol doesn’t make things better. Even his very patient girlfriend Susan, who works for the government as well, starts to lose patience. Sammy is part of a research team investigating German booby-traps. They are deadly devices and so far the mechanism isn’t known but it gets more and more urgent to find out what sets them off.

Hi battle with alcoholism, his fear of being alone and his struggles at work put the relationship with Susan under a lot of pressure. Finally she cannot take it any longer and leaves him. While he is on one of his pub crawls, one of the German booby-traps is found on a beach. Sammy needs to clean up as fast as he can and get to the place and deactivate the device.

In many movies set in war-time London we see bombings, people running to air raid shelters. Not in this one. Despite of this it captures the feeling of war-time London perfectly well. The light is dark, many of the shots are rather gloomy, people are dispirited, depressed. The bars are full and everyone seems to indulge in heavy drinking. Sammy may be more extreme than others but I’m sure there was more than one maimed soldier returning from the war, who took it less than gracefully. While Sammy does wallow in self-pity one can still understand him.

I liked the depiction of the relationship a lot. This isn’t a war-time romance but the relationship between two people who seem to have seen a lot, even too much already and whose only consiôlation is their relationship.

One of the best scenes is the bomb disposal scene which is handled in a very interesting way.

This is a very different Archers, it’s sober and dark, not much humor in it. It’s well worth watching though, it has a lot of interesting details and I’m sure it’s even one which will improve when seen a second time.

While I couldn’t find a trailer, I found the whole movie on YouTube.

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.

On Guest Posts and A Question to My Readers

I think this was the longest I haven’t posted on this blog but life – virtual and real – was beyond hectic. I also received numerous mails from people asking for the opportunity to write a guest post. I I’m a bit peculiar when it comes to guest posts. I thought I should be the one asking, not the other way around. So far I have only asked two people, nem baj, who wrote the last post on this blog, and Kevin aka The War Movie Buff whose post is pending.

Now you wonder, does this mean you are not allowed to ask whether you can do a guest post. No, it doesn’t mean that but your chances of being accepted are minimal. Especially when it is not about war movies. People have the weirdest ideas. Why the heck would I want you to write a guest post about “home schooling” on a blog dedicated to war movies? Duh.

This week I also received a request by a man who writes for the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance. It seems that this type of cancer is very frequent in veterans. It’s a type of cancer you can develop due to exposure to asbestos and often it is only detected 20 years later. As we all know early detection is key when it comes to cancer. I can see why he asked to have a guest post on this blog. The intention is to inform veterans of the condition and I am aware that I have a lot of veterans among my readers. To be honest, my first impulse was saying “no”. Or ask him to write it in a way that relates it to war movies. That would be tricky though. When I thought about it again, I realized that I might actually want to include this type of post. But since I’m not a 100% sure, I decided to ask you.

What do you think, should this blog include information for veterans related to health issues (physical and psychological)?

And if so, in a blog post or maybe on a separate page called “Veteran’s Health”?

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.