Battle of Britain (1969)

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. (Winston Churchill)

Battle of Britain is one of the great war movie classics. It’s the favourite movie of many people and certainly the favourite air combat movie of many more. I have watched it for the second time on the week-end and I’m glad I did so, because now I know better what worked for me and what didn’t. The strength of this movie is – funny enough – also its weakness.

The depiction of this crucial moment in British history is done with great detail and accuracy. The director tried to get everything right, down to the cloud formations. An incredible amount of original planes was gathered from different collectors all over the world to make the battles look authentic. And yes, the battle scenes look very convincing.

The Battle of Britain was Göring’s idea. He had been a fighter pilot in WWI and the whole strategy of gaining the air supremacy over England was his. Only he miscalculated the whole thing and they made crucial mistakes.

The idea was to bomb all the air fields, hangars, docks and the like. Starting on November 14 1940 they dropped huge loads of bombs and also destroyed, among other things, the city of Coventry on November 15. Unfortunately they also bombed London which led to the bombing of Berlin and was ultimately the beginning of the Blitz.

The movie shows all these elements and changes constantly from the British HQ to the German side, from there to the air fields and the pilots. Unlike most other movies of the time they did cast Germans for the German roles and French actors for the French which adds another layer of authenticity.

What looks at first like a desperate and hopeless case, later becomes one of those incredible tales of heroism and courage.

Not only did the Germans make the capital mistake to bomb London, they also underestimated their enemy. The British pilots, later helped by Free French, Polish, Czech and others, were the far superior pilots and their fighter planes were superior as well.

When Göring asked one of his commanders what they needed in order to win the answer was “Spitfires”.

The tactics, the battles, the details, all this is incredibly well done but,  due to the epic nature of the movie, there are a lot of characters in this movie and one doesn’t really warm to any of them. Sure Michael Caine is great as Squadron Leader and there is a mini love story at the heart of which is Christopher Plummer but the characters are not very well developed. This was clearly not the focus. Battle of Britain is much more a documentary style movie and, as I already said, this is its strength and its weakness and that is why I will always prefer The Dam Busters. I like my movies to be a bit more emotionally engaging than Battle of Britain.

Still, despite all the criticism, this is one of the great epic war movies and an absolute must-see that one cannot rate less than 5/5. I would say it’s  a great companion to the US Pearl Harbor movie Tora!Tora!Tora!, another great and very authentic air combat movie.

Sorry for this lousy looking trailer but it was the only one I could find.

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Waterloo (1970) “Next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won”

Waterloo was more than just a movie for me. Watching it meant jumping head first into childhood memories.

“Waterloo, Waterloo, morne plaine…” No, this isn’t the French version of the AbbA song. I am afraid the words are not bound to tell you much. I can still hear my father’s voice drone this part of  Victor Hugo’s famous poem L’Expiation (an endless poem by the way) on Sunday mornings. I said it in my last post, I went through a bit of an obsession with Napoléon as a child and guess I deserved a little punishment and therefore frequently had to listen to the long and never-ending recitation of that poem. Sorry for this little digression… Back to my review.

I haven’t seen this movie before and I must say it was high time. It is a worthy candidate for a place among my Top 20. I loved every minute of it (with the exception of the animal stunts. Being reminded that this a Russian production and the well-being of horses might not have been high on the agenda did NOT help. It is funny how all of a sudden one likes the idea of CGI. I never thought I would ever write such a sacrilegious thing.)

As the title indicates, this is not a Napoléon biopic. It doesn’t show the great man’s life, only a fatal and tragic part of it, the battle of Waterloo. Maybe the best known of all the French battles (apart from Austerlitz) in France.

The movie starts with what has become in French the synonym for something long, endless and wearisome, namely “Les adieux de Fontainebleau” or “The Goodbyes at Fontainebleau” in which Napoléon, before being exiled to Elba,  says goodbye to his troops. He states in the movie that he deplores that he can not say goodby to each and every one of them still it is said that it took hours. After having been defeated on the battlefield he was forced to abdicate and go into exile to the island of Elba.

Rod Steiger manages masterfully to show how emotional Napoléon was. This man was driven by strong emotions and passions. And it seems that the troops loved him for this display of feelings.

He stayed at Elba some ten moths and then returned to Paris where Louis XVIII (Orson Welles) had taken back the throne. The moment when he meets the troops is another highlight in this movie. He wins them back easily and becomes emperor once more.

After this episode he heads the troops and marches towards Belgium to engage the troops of Wellington.

Before the movie takes us to the battlefield it briefly stops in a ballroom in Belgium where Wellington (Christopher Plummer) and his men are introduced.

Two thirds of this movie are dedicated to the battle of Waterloo. I think it is incredibly well done. I liked those costumes and the way we could see the battle formations. There was such a huge difference whether cavalry charged against cavalry or against infantry. The moment when the French cavalry attacks the British infantry is horrible. The horses are shot down one by one. The square battle formations of the infantry made it impossible to win for the attacking cavalry. Like this the horses could be shot down from every angle.

At moments, while I watched this and saw the tactics the two men applied, how they overlooked the battlefield, sent troops from here to there, removed them from somewhere else, I was reminded of chess.

The two great men, Napoléon and Wellington are shown as complete opposites. Naploéon goes through every possible emotional change while Wellington stays poised and self-possessed. While one is of very humble origins, the other is an aristocrat through and through.

We all know the outcome of the battle and when it is over, not even Wellington is unmoved and he says the famous words:

Next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won.

I really enjoyed Waterloo. I liked the costumes, the uniforms, the battle formations, Wellington’s poise, Napoléon’s sadness, the composition of the British regiment, the Irish troops with their rosaries and the Scottish with the bagpipes.

I would recommend this movie to every one who is interested in French and British history and the Napoleonic Wars, who likes costumes and has an interest in miltary tactics of the time.

A Bridge Too Far (1977) or A Movie Too Long?

Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far has, with some reason, been called a movie too long. Yes, I must admit I was tempted not to pause it when I needed to go to the bathroom. But then again… This is not doing it any justice because it has a lot of fine elements. For a start, what I am really enthusiastic about is the re-enacting. Nowadays it is all CGI but when they did A Bridge Too Far they had no choice but have people jump out of planes with their parachutes. And this is so beautiful. The scene where they jump is almost ethereal and all those hundreds of parachutes look like ever so many jellyfish. But there the dwelling on beauty ends, too horrible is the end of those frail looking creatures. Is there anything more helpless than a man hanging from a few ropes being shot at?

Operation Market Garden has been one of the biggest planning mistakes of WWII. What could have been a successful multinational cooperation turned into a farcical disaster. Two generals, one British (Montgomery), the other American (Patton), were so full of themselves that their egos put aside any consideration of a possible failure. Moreover Montgomery totally underestimated the German’s strength. 35000 paratroopers were to land in Holland behind enemy lines.  The idea was to secure three bridges, push back the German troops, invade Germany and end the war. While holding the bridges, the troops should have been reinforced by tanks. Unfortunately they forgot to provide supply lines for the paratroopers, the armored troops were held back and died on what was called “Hell’s Highway” and civilians got in between as the operation collapsed.

This movie is probably one of the most famous war movies of all times. It is an all-star cast, like The Longest Day, starring Robert Redford, Ryan O’Neil, Gene Hackman, James Caan, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Olivier, Dirk Bogarde, Maximilian Schell, Hardy Krüger and many more. A Bridge Too Far shows, like The Longest Day, a big operation from different points of view. I was not equally keen on all the actors but was impressed by Anthony Hopkins whose despair at the end is painfully obvious. He plays the role of Lt. Col. Frost whose troops had to defend Arnhem Bridge. The end of the movie is one of the saddest in war movie history. The troops are either defeated, taken prisoners or killed.

A Bridge Too Far is a tragic illustration of what can go wrong when egotism meets bad planning and how the price is ultimately only paid by those who must follow orders.

As I stated before it is a tad long but it will always remain one of the most important epic war movies and you should watch it if you haven’t done so already.

Everyman´s War (2009) is retelling The Battle of the Bulge

I don´t really know what to say about this movie. Basically I think it is a missed chance. It contains too many flaws to be really good but still has quite a few touching moments. One would like to grab the filmmaker and give him a good shaking because it would not have needed much to be satisfying.

Everyman´s War is based on the story of Thad Smith´s, the film director´s father. Sgt. Don Smith was part of the 94th Infantry Division fighting for Nennig, a small town in Germany during the Battle of the Bulge. The Battle of the Bulge was one of those notorious big battles that had to show up with an enormous cost in lives. Being one of the decisive battles, the last big Nazi offensive, it overshadows other battles like the one at Hurtgen Forest that was so skillfully depicted in When Trumpets Fade. The battle of  Bastogne Forest that we saw in Band of Brothers is also part of the Battle of the Bulge. Smith lands in Europe around Christmas 1944, just when the offensive begins and stays in Europe until the end of the war.

The tragedy of the battle is well shown in Everyman´s War. The Army command misjudging the German´s will to fight thought they would never attack during ice-cold weather, snow and temperatures below zero. But they did.

Sgt. Smith´s courageous fight, the love for his comrades and his despair about losing them is well shown. So are the battle scenes. As long as there is no music all is fine. Sadly the choice of music is bad and ostentatiously corny. And so is the background story, the home front bits  (think the end of Saving Private Ryan and dip it in sirup).

This is frustrating as the main theme, alluded to in the title, is nicely executed. This was everyman´s war. Everybody was in it. The French, the English, the Americans, but also the Germans and the German Jews. Moments where the film achieves to make us feel sorry for everyman involved are truly good.

One last word on the use of language that will only annoy people who understand German. 90% of the actors impersonating German´s are not Germans and have bad accents and an unintentionally funny way of pronouncing the German words. However this will not bother speakers of other languages. Apart from that the portrait of Germans is quite just.

Having said all this I just think it is a pity. This could have been a good film but now we are left with a 3 (out of 5) star achievement.