Heroes (1977) Another Vietnam Vet Tale

Last year I posted on the topic of Most Memorable Vietnam Vets and collected quite a list of movies in which a Vietnam vet is the main character. With the exception of four movies I had seen all of them. Heroes wasn’t on the list because I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I’ve watched it meanwhile and included it in the list. I still think that Jacknife and Taxi Driver, both starring Robert de Niro, are the most memorable ones, still, I would say Heroes is worth watching for many reasons, if only to see the young Sally Field and Harrison Ford in an early role.

Jack Dunne has escaped from a mental hospital. Not for the first time, he has escaped before but this time he is determined to not get caught again. His friends at the hospital have given him money for an unusual business involving earthworms. His plan it to travel to Kansas to meet a former comrade Ken (Harrison Ford) who was in the same unit and then travel on to see other buddies, who all served with him as well. On his journey he meets Carol who is just about to get married but for reasons even unknown to herself she wants to get away for a few days before the wedding and stay on her own for a while.

While she is at first somewhat alienated by Jack’s strange behaviour and the fact that he is chased by the police, she is also intrigued and fascinated by this odd fellow who carries around a box of worms and doesn’t seem to be able to take anything seriously. When they accidentally get into a bar fight and Carol has to pay for the mess Jack has made, she decides to follow him. Jack has promised that Ken will pay her back.

Ken, Jack’s friend, isn’t much better off than Jack. He lives outside of a town in a trailer hoping to make money with car racing. He is part of Jack’s fantastic business plan to make money with earthworms but not only does he not take the idea seriously, he is in no condition to think about business at all.

After having stayed with Ken, Jack and Carol take Ken’s car and go on a trip to visit Jack’s other buddies but nothing turns out as expected. One of them died, a fact Jack new but repressed, another one is hiding somewhere. On top of that the horrible war memories which Jack had tried to repress start to resurface violently.

Heroes is part road movie, part Vietnam vet tale and part love story. Both Carol and Jack have issues, both drift through life, do not belong anywhere and in meeting each other they find for the first time someone with whom a real relationship is possible.

As a road movie and a story about an intense relationship, the movie worked well. I also liked the character of Ken quite a lot. I was not too sure about the veteran part though. Jack suffers from PTSD and there are a few subtle moments (nightmares, flashbacks…) which show this very well, on the other hand, he seems to be a very naive, childlike person and one gets the impression that he must have had problems before he even went to Vietnam. That creates a bit of a mix. He is an interesting character but as a portrait of a vet it didn’t work all that well for me.

Still, Heroes is watchable and entertaining and it was nice to see the very young and pretty Sally Field and Harrison Ford in an early role.

I couldn’t find  a trailer, just this very short scene.

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Homeland (2011- ) US TV Series starring Claire Danes and Damian Lewis

I’ve finally got a chance to watch the first few episodes of The US TV series Homeland.

Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) went missing in Iraq eight years ago, one of his friends who was there with him was found dead. His return causes quite a commotion. Not only among the public, journalists and the CIA but also in his family. He left a young wife and two small children behind when he went missing. His wife is having an affair with a friend and superior, the children are almost teenagers and estranged. And then there is Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), an intense CIA officer who thinks that he has been turned by his captors and is plotting a terrorist attack on America.

Mathison made a lot of mistakes in the past and the CIA would like to get rid of her. Nobody believes her suspicions at first, she doesn’t get funding and decides to act on her own, breaking one federal law after the other, installing surveillance cameras in Brody’s home, following his each and every move, trying to catch him making contact.

The series kicks of well, it’s gripping and suspenseful, the premise, a US soldier who may only have survived captivity because he was turned, is interesting. Still, I had a few reservations. I wonder whether it is that realistic, to free someone from an eight year captivity and to push him right away to face journalists, politicians, CIA and the masses. The other problem I had, was the character Claire Danes played. She is driven and ambitious and a bit of a lunatic. On top of that she pops pills. We learn later that it is clonazepam – in other words a benzo – a heavy antipsychotic which is often used for unspecific or atypical psychosis. Hmmm…. Not sure what to think about that. Usually I have problems with the depiction of mental illness in movies and books. But I haven’t seen enough yet, so maybe they will get it right. It’s obvious that they want to make us doubt the character. It’s not an easy role, whether it will be believable in the end or not, and I think, Claire Danes does a great job.

Carrie is also tracking one of the most important terrorists, Abu Nazir. When she interrogates Brody she asks him whether he has met him during his captivity and he lies and says no.

As said, it starts quite good, quite intense but I couldn’t tell yet where it is going or whether I will really like it or not. But it’s certainly worth trying.

The Odd Angry Shot (1979) Australian SAS in Vietnam

A comment on my post Australian War Movies: A List put me in the mood to watch the Australian film  The Odd Angry Shot. The topic is quite unique as for once it doesn’t show Australians during WWI or WWII but Australians in Vietnam. The movie came with such high praise that I was really looking forward to it. However, before watching it, I had a look at Gary Freitas book on war movies and the movie had a rating of 1.5/5. I cannot remember having ever seen such a discrepancy between someone’s recommendation and Freitas’ assessment and was a bit puzzled and keen to find out for myself. The solution to the riddle is, in my opinion, that if you have the wrong expectations you might not like it but if you know what to expect chances are high you will.

The Odd Angry Shot tells the story of a group of Australian SAS soldiers who do a 12 month tour in Vietnam. Long stretches of boredom are broken up by recon and other missions during which there are casualties, some men are severely, others fatally wounded. During the periods in which there isn’t a lot to do, the men drink A LOT of beer, play games, tease each other. It’s an atmosphere of mateship and camaraderie and to watch them is nothing if not funny. Story-wise that’s it.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a war movie done like this and I can understand that if you think you are going to watch an intense war movie like Hamburger Hill or Platoon you will be very disappointed but that’s because you’re watching it with the wrong expectations. For me this is a war comedy, a movie that wants to show the spirit and the mateship in the Australian troops but still tries to show their sacrifice and achievements just without being graphic or gory. Judging from the reviews of a lot of Australian vets who commented on this movie, this is exactly how the Australians experienced Vietnam. They emphasized that most of the time, they were sitting around, waiting, being debriefed but that intense combat was pretty rare. Most of the time they were sent to capture the one or the other informant. In order to keep their spirits high, they did drink a lot, and try to have fun. A way to cope with the horrors of war.

The only real problem I had was that I still have no clue why the Australians felt they had to be in Vietnam. We hear absolutely nothing about the war as such, only that the majority of the people “back home” were not keen on it.

If you want to watch a gritty and graphic war movie in the vein of Platoon, don’t watch it. If you are interested in Australia and Australian movies, why not? If you look for an enjoyable and entertaining movie, it’s a great choice too. It’s very funny, the characters are extremely likable and Graham Kennedy does a great job. 

Here’s a short scene that captures the spirit very well.

Black and White in Color (1976) – A Guest Post by nem baj

I’m still in a movie watching slump and that’s why I’m really grateful to have another guest post from nem baj for you today. His post is dedicated to a movie I haven’t seen yet. In all honesty, I hadn’t even heard of it although I’m familiar with many of Jean Jacques Annaud’s movies. 

In a nutshell: two French and German outposts in 1914’s central Africa, cut away from their respective metropolitan authorities, mimic the European conflict once they have learned its existence – six months after the hostilities have been declared in Europe. Focusing on the French, the movie is a satire of patriotism and the ‘civilizing mission’ of french colonialism.

Director Jean-Jacques Annaud may be known to younger audiences as the craftsman behind international productions such as The Name of the RoseSeven Years in Tibet or Enemy at the Gates, but he started his career in France by directing two little rebellious films, Hot Head (about local sports celebrity and politics) and Black and White in Color, which is a war movie based on an actual event. It is a comedy, cliché-based from the start, the Germans being organized and professionals, whereas the French spend more time speaking, eating and making love than preparing for a fight. Yet the latter are so vain they launch the first offensive, which ends up being a disaster. Now they’re scared and in a defensive mode – which means time has come for a radical change in leadership.

For the main weakness of the French is the way the small community in their outpost envisions exploitation: the locals are not considered as men, crooked shopkeepers and even more crooked missionaries exploit the populations for immediate profit, and the only French soldier, a sergeant (seconded by a handful of tirailleurs, professional Black soldiers), is only a few months from retirement, and has never fought a battle except maybe against the appeal of booze and local women (those battles he seemingly always looses).

However, a young educated geographer, a pacifist and a socialist, decides to take over after the defeat. He engages the village chief, using the antagonism between villagers and bush tribes, to capture fresh cannon fodder from the countryside. Then he appoints the local White bully as a staff trainer, and takes a Black woman, possibly of high rank, as his mistress. The result is a brand new force of African soldiers, which is used to launch a new offensive on ‘German’ soil, this time with better, though inconclusive, results. They start digging trenches similar to those appearing in French magazines… I won’t spoil the ending.

The whole thing is a cruel satire, the story of a ridiculous war fought by Black proxies on account of racist White trash. Whether you’re a French with self-irony or a fan of French-bashing, it will surely please you. But its strength lies in the fact that is quite witty. The role played by language barriers is both symbolic and hilarious. Also, on one hand the Africans are real people, with their own identities, language and distinct approaches to the colonizers – yet on the other hand the recognition of their social existence by the French geographer gives him more exploitative power than his predecessors ever had… which in turn seems to give new strength to the contestation of colonial power. And finally, the intellectual betrays his own pacifist ideals for the pursuit of glory, sending more men into combat… in the name of humanism.

PS: this review refers to the international version of the film, which gained the Foreign film Academy Award in 1976 in the name of Ivory Coast, where it was shot. On first release, the movie received extremely bad reviews in France, then the international version was re-released in France after the Oscar…

Heaven and Earth (1993) The Third Movie in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam Trilogy

Heaven & Earth is Oliver Stone’s third Vietnam movie. He started his trilogy with the intense infantry combat movie Platoon (1986), followed by the harrowing tale of one soldier’s ordeal Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and then the third part, told from the point of view of a Vietnamese village girl Heaven & Earth (1993). It’s anti-climatic to start a review with a verdict, so let’s just say, Heaven & Earth is the weakest of the three. And the most sentimental.

The movie is based on the true story of Le Ly. It starts in the 1950s, with Le Ly as a little girl of five, living with her family in a beautiful village in Northern Vietnam. In 1953 the village is burnt down by the French. Her father teaches Le Ly that the most important thing is freedom and it’s not surprising that she and her brothers will later actively help the Vietcong. While the younger brother is executed and the older one hidden somewhere, Le Ly is captured and tortured by the Americans first and later raped by the Vietcong.

Le Ly (Hiep Thi Le) leaves her village and tries to make a living in Saigon. She and her mother work for a rich Vietnamese family until Le Ly has an affair with the husband and gets pregnant. They are chased away. Her mother returns to the village, while Le Ly stays in another city, Danang. Most girls from the villages end up as prostitutes but she sells cigarettes and other things, and fights off the advances of the American soldiers.

When her son is about five, she meets an American soldier (Tommy Lee Jones) who falls in love with her. They live together for a while and finally get married. Butler wants to take her back to America and some time later, after their first child is born, they leave for the US. Just in time to escape the chaos that breaks out in Vietnam after the war is over.

The US are a culture shock for Le Ly. But also a pleasant surprise. The way she sees it, this is the land of plenty. There is so much food and abundance everywhere. Everything could be great if her husband didn’t show signs of alcoholism and other issues. Le Ly who was a very independent woman in Vietnam, wants to open a business of her own but her husband is opposed to that. They fight more and more, the marriage is doomed.

In the final part we see Le Ly and her children return to Vietnam. She will forever be a part of both worlds, Vietnam and the US, Heaven and Earth.

I have seen a lot of negative reviews of this movie and while I was watching the first hour or so I didn’t understand why. The initial parts are not only beautifully filmed, they tell an intense and interesting story and the choice to focus on a girl from Northern Vietnam, to illustrate some of the complexities, wasn’t a bad choice. Unfortunately from the moment she meets Butler, the story starts to drift in a lot of different directions and from the story of a girl, exemplary for one nation’s suffering, it turns into the story of one woman and her failed marriage. It just didn’t work for me anymore, was too sentimental and lost its strength.

Heaven and Earth is cinematographically compelling and the first part is well above average. Then, unfortunately, it tumbles down and I don’t think it works well as a third part in Stone’s trilogy. It may however work as the story of one woman who may not have been able to free her country but herself.

War Movies Based on Novels – A Thursday Thirteen

A common feature on blogs is the so-called Thursday Thirteen in which you can share a list of thirteen things, books, movies and what not. I’ve never done this so far but since I’ve hit a dry movie-watching patch and don’t want to stop blogging entirely I thought, why not?

While a great many war movies are based on original screenplays, many, and even some of the best and most famous, are based on novels. Here are thirteen war movies based on novels:

  1. The Thin Red Line (1998) – based on the novel by James Jones
  2. Catch 22 (1970) – based on the novel by Joseph Heller
  3. 300 (2006) – based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller
  4. Ben Hur (1959) – based on the novel by Lewis Wallace
  5. Enigma (20019 – based on the novel by Robert Harris
  6. Behind the Lines aka Regeneration (1997) – based on the novel by Pat Barker
  7. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) – based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque
  8. Schindler’s List (1993) – based on the novel by Thomas Keneally
  9. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) – based on the novel by Pierre Boulle
  10. Dances with Wolves (1990) – based on the novel by Michael Blake
  11. Cold Mountain (2003) based on the novel by Charles Frazier
  12. War Horse (2011) – based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo
  13. Slaughterhouse Five (1972) based on the novel by Kurt Vonnegut

I have only read three of the books (Regeneration aka Behind the Lines, All Quiet on the Western Front and Cold Mountain) but seen almost all of the movies. Is there a book among my thirteen I shouldn’t miss or another novel/movie pair which is worth mentioning?

Another Movie I Couldn’t Finish – Iron Sky (2012)

For various reasons I am not watching a lot of movies these days but finally I had a bit of time this weekend and what do I pick? Iron Sky. I hardly got through the first half hour.

A brief look at the IMDb user reviews tell me that people “laughed all the way through this movie”, “enjoyed it incredibly”, thought it was “the best sci-fi” movie ever. What the heck?

I found the humour heavy-handed, from the Nazi to the Sarah Palin parody. And I couldn’t shake off the feeling that the producers liked the paraphernalia, symbolism and imagery of the Nazis  a bit too much for my taste. Plus Laibach made the music? Hmmmm.

Maybe this is the new Starship Troopers,  another one I found insufferable and couldn’t finish. If so, then this is simply not a movie for me. Or maybe it is really crap. I can’t finish it just to find that out.

Tell me, what did you think of Iron Sky?