They Were Expendable (1945)

I read that John Ford’s They Were Expendable was liked by the critics but not by the public when it was released. The public thought it was too patriotic and since people were tired of the war, they didn’t care for the movie all that much.

While I often share the critics’ view, I must say, not in this case. It isn’t a bad movie, it has quite a few scenes that are good but it didn’t work for me as a whole.

At the center of the story are Commander Lt Brickley (Robert Motgomery) and his friend and second in command Lt Ryan Rusty (John Wayne). Brickley is the squadron leader of a crew of PT Boats who are to defend the Philippines just after the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor.

Although Brickley is the commanding officer, Rusty is still the main character, he is also the one with a love interest (Donna Reed). For once I didn’t mind John Wayne, I would even say this is one of his better movies. Maybe because he isn’t the commanding officer.

There is a lot of emphasis on duty and honor and “getting the job done” no matter whether you will come back or not. All that is rather on the annoying side of things but what I truly liked is the battle with the speed boats. These are such neat little boats. Although it is said by an Admiral at the beginning of the movie that these boats were not likely to achieve much, their speed and agility makes them a dangerous opponent for the Japanese fleet and they manage to sink a few very big boats.  Their losses are high anyway as they are not only attacked by the Japanese boats but by their planes as well.

They Were Expendable was very important for John Ford who was one of those directors (like Capra, Huston and Wyler) who had served during WWII where he also filmed the documentary on the Battle of Midway (1942). He was chief of the Field Photographic Branch of the US Navy and also present during the Normandy invasion in 44 where he met the man who served as model for Lt. Brickley.

Funny enough what works best in this movie, apart from the speed boats, is the love story as it underlines how much the people fighting in the Pacific are in danger. The scenes with Donna Reed are quite languorous, I particularly liked the many shots with light falling through blinds. That always creates a nice atmosphere.

Something else that I appreciated is the fact that the Japanese are not demonized. They are only present through their planes and boats, we don’t see them.

While this is certainly not one of my favourites, I think it is worth watching for those who are interested in the development of the war movie genre. Despite its flaws, John Ford manages to tell the story in a very unique way with a lot of emphasis on all the individual people involved. Last but not least, I think it is a must-see for John Wayne fans as he is more interesting when he gets to play second in command.

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.

Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins (1996) The Irish Fight For Independence

Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins is a UK/US/Ireland co-production. International productions guarantee an international cast which can be nice but in this case, I would say, it did prevent the movie from being great. There is no drama teacher in the world who will achieve to make Julia Roberts or Aidan Quinn sound Irish. Liam Neeson as Michael Collins, Alan Rickman as De Valera and a very young Johnathan Rhys Meyers, striking the fatal blow, are well-chosen.

Michael Collins was probably one of the most controversial and tragic figures of Irish history. A charismatic man who knew how to convince those who followed him. A man who wouldn’t shy away from killing yet didn’t take it lightly.

The movie starts with the Easter Rising in 1916 with Michael Collins rallying the masses against the British occupation. It would take another three years until this initial movement lead to the Irish war of Independence. It is a fierce and bloody war. A the end of the war stands the treaty, something that was unthinkable for 700 years. The British government allowed the Irish Free State but kept the Northern Provinces and wanted the Free State to swear allegiance to the king. Michael Collins considered this to be the best he could achieve and wanted to sign the treaty but the men around the future president de Valera wanted a completely free Ireland and this is where the movement for Independence split into two sections who would fight each other fiercly.

The movie shows us a Michael Collins who is tired of fighting and bloodshed and longs for peace. He is sure, if the treaty isn’t signed the bloodshed will be endless.

An important part of the movie is dedicated to the friendship between Michael Collins and his best friend Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn). For four years they are also caught up in some sort of love triangle as both men love Kitty (Julia Roberts). It takes a while until she confesses that she loves Collins. Her confession is not the only thing that drives the men apart. Politically they are not on the same page anymore. Best friends become enemies.

Michael Collins is shot in 1922 by one of de Valera’s men. This is the beginning of the Irish Civil War.

I liked the movie despite its flaws, one being, as already stated, the choice of American actors, the other being quite a few historical inaccuracies. Apparently Neil Jordan had good reasons for altering the facts. I am not sufficiently familiar with the details to point out what is correct or not. There is one particularly awful scene in which a British tank opens fire on a the players in a sports game. In reality this was much more horrible.

Michael Collins is a fascinating character and I could very well see myself read a biography in the future. He was a leader and an adept fighter. His fighting tactics seem to have inspired quite a few future struggles. The group around him was constantly hunted by British secret agents and policemen. Michael Collins’ tactic was to know more about the agents than they knew about them and then to hunt them down. There are a lot of executions to be seen as they operated according to the dictum “who is not with me is against me”. At times the movie reminded me of movies about the resistance. Torture, execution, changing of sleeping quarters etc.

A while back I reviewed another movie on the Irish War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War, The Wind that Shakes the Barely. Michael Collins is never seen but constantly spoken of in the movie so I was really curious to see this. Comparing the two movies I’m afraid I must say, The Wind that Shakes the Barley feels more authentic, it is a truly outstanding movie.

Despite its flaws Michael Collins being a Neil Jordan film offers a lot and is beautifully filmed. It is as much a character portrait, as the story of a friendship and a romance. I enjoyed it and would recommend it.

Paths of Glory (1957) Kubrick’s WWI Anti-War Masterpiece

Paths of Glory was forbidden in the UK and in Switzerland until the 70s. French troops disturbed the opening in West Berlin. The movie was forbidden in American cinemas for soldiers. It was forbidden in France during the war in Algeria. It was shown in Paris for the first time in 1975. What’s that telling us? That this is a radical anti-war statement that openly criticizes high command. It is powerful and thought-provoking and absolutely unambiguous as to its goal. I felt a bit uneasy that Kubrick chose to criticize French command. Didn’t he have plenty of opportunities to criticize American command? Be it as it may, Paths of Glory, which is based on a true account, is a great achievement.

The movie opens  with the Marseillaise and a voice telling the horrors of  WWI, the numbers of soldiers that get killed daily to no avail. The incident on which the movie centers took place in 1916 in France. The movie moves back and forth between the trenches and the high command residing in an elegant Château.

An ambitious general asks of the equally ambitious general Mireau to take a hill, held by German troops, the so-called “Ant Hill”. A highly symbolical name if there ever was one as people are treated no better than ants and wiped out with one simple gesture. When general Mireau informs colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) of the order to attack the ant-hill, he is met with incredulity. Dax tells him that it is impossible and will cost an incredible amount of lives. The answer is a sarcastic calculation. 65% of the men will not survive and the outcome is not even sure. Dax wants to refuse the order but is threatened to be replaced.

The futility of the attack becomes obvious right away. Dax fights in the front line with his men who die one after the other. He and many others retreat after seeing that they can’t make it. Many stayed in the trenches, knowing damn well they would be killed and nothing could be won. Seeing the men’s reluctance to run into certain death, general Mireau orders to open fire on them but the officer who receives the order refuses.

The frustrated general then orders a court-martial. Three men are chosen in lieu of all the others and accused of cowardice. Colonel Dax, a lawyer in civilian life, takes up their defence. Like the court-martial in Breaker Morant, this is a pure sham.

Kubrick’s movie has a lot of interesting elements. Colonel Dax is one of the great war movie characters. A officer of high moral standards, free of carrerism and ambition, a just and human being. Kirk Douglas was very well-chosen for this role. He is very believable and gives a great performance.

The contrasts between the high command who is far from the action and thinks they can mock simple soldiers who are afraid, slap those who show signs of shell-shock and judge others that refuse to run into certain death, is fantastic. Paths of Glory is one of those movies that has scenes that will stay with you forever because they are emotionally true and powerful. The utter cynicism of the high command, the way they calculate losses without giving further thought to the fact that each number equals a human being, will make you cringe.

It is a movie that belongs to two sub-categories. The court-martial movies like Breaker Morant and the “Taking a hill movies” like Hamburger Hill, Pork Chop Hill, Gallipoli and The Thin Red Line.

Apparently there is a more recent French TV film Le Pantalon (1996) that quotes Paths of Glory in its major parts.

As much good as I may have said, I had my reservations. I did not understand the use of black and white. The movie doesn’t work so well from a cinematographic point of view. There are not so many contrasts and shadows as there normally are in black and white movies. Even Pork Chop Hill (far less good as a whole) looks much better. Kubrick is famous for the use of colours in his movies… I don’t see it as entirely logical that he didn’t shoot this in color. But that is the only flaw I could find. It still deserves a solid 4.5/5.

War Requiem (1989) Derek Jarman’s Impressive Interpretation of Benjamin Britten’s Eponymous Requiem

Futility 

Move him into the sun —
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds —
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, — still warm, — too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
— O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

 

I have never seen anything like the War Requiem before. Although I used to like Derek Jarman‘s movies (especially Caravaggio, Sebastiane and The Tempest) I wasn’t aware that this existed before I saw a review on the War Movie Blog. This is certainly not for everybody. If you don’t like classical music, especially requiem’s you will have a hard time. I tell you this right away. Jarman took Britten’s War Requiem, which consists of a proper requiem and sung versions of Wilfred Owen’s poems, and illustrated it. Wilfred Owen is the young poet we also see in the movie Regeneration. He was killed in action one week before the end of in WWI. As you can see I added two of his poems for you.

War Requiem is actually a silent movie so to speak. We see images, acted scenes and hear Britten’s music. In part it’s a reenactment of Wilfred Owen’s story, in part we see actual footage of different wars. Documentary and art are entwined and the result is extremely rich and interesting. The acting is of course somewhat exaggerated as the actors are miming not acting as they don’t talk (silent movie style). The two main actors are Nathaniel Parker (Owen) and Tilda Swinton (The Nurse): Sean Bean (The German Soldier) and Laurence Olivier (The old Soldier) are in minor roles. There is a bit with Tilda Swinton who plays the nurse that is very annoying (scene 10). But that was the only bit I found hard to take. The rest is impressive. Beautiful images. Colors are very important and highly overdrawn as they are in all of Jarman’s movies. In this one it is the color red that is artificially bright. Colors have a special meaning in Jarman’s work. He wrote a book, Chroma: A Book of Colors, dedicated to color interpretations and his last movie is dedicated solely to the color Blue. The tragedy behind all this is that Jarman was going blind towards the end of his life. He suffered from AIDS related illnesses and finally succumbed to them.

War Requiem is remarkable also because it is not only an anti-war movie but also an “anti war movie movie”. If you watch all of it and don’t give up in the middle you might be astonished to see what kind of actual footage you see towards the end. I have never seen anything like it before and felt very uncomfortable. The footage we see – especially from Vietnam and Angola – is horrible and gruesome. What is even more horrible is that you see the difference between wounds in a war movie and these head wounds and other wounds in these documentary bits. It simply doesn’t look the same. You see immediately that these people are really dead. I think to see something like this would be good for every person who regularly watches war movies. The atrocities of war are so much more horrible in reality. It was extremely sobering to say the least.

This is a really special movie. It is an interesting contribution to cinema history as well as to war movies  in general. But it is not for everybody.

Anthem for Doomed Youth 

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, —
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

 

Gardens of Stone (1987) Coppola’s Vietnam Oddity

What the hell was that? Sorry but I did not get this movie. I was so thrilled when I heard from one of my readers about this a while back and thought that would be just the movie for me. I was always fascinated by military cemeteries. Those rows and rows of crosses. Each cross a life. Each cross a story. To dedicate a movie to those who bury the dead seemed so worthwhile. But somehow Coppola‘s Gardens of Stone doesn’t keep the promise it makes. Instead of an in-depth exploration of what it means to be the one to bury those who come back in caskets we get a little bit of everything which sums up to nothing. The acting is quite good, James Caan, Anjelica Huston and James Earl Jones do a good job but the story is too predictable. The movie starts with a funeral and then rewinds so we know already what is going to happen.

Sgt Hazard (James Caan) and Sgt Goody Nelson (James Earl Jones), two  Korea veterans and close friends, are Honour Guards at Arlington military cemetery. Hazard wants nothing more than going to Vietnam and teach the young soldiers how to survive over there. When a friend asks them to look after his son Willow who joins the unit, it seems to be Hazard’s mission to keep him from harm. As the funeral of the beginning  shows us, all his endeavors are futile.

It is exactly this predictability that finishes off this movie. And then there is the relationship of Hazard with the anti-war Washington Post correspondent Samantha. Their discussions pro or contra war are so boring. And totally without any consequences as she keeps on dating him… Of course there is also the young man who want to fight for his country and who is exemplary for so many who died doing just that.

The movie intersperses actual TV footage in order to give a bit of  “real war movie” flavor.

Apparently – I am speaking as a total layman – this movie is highly appreciated by people in the military. It is said to be very accurate and true to military life and rites.

Before I give you my final statement here is what  Jamie Russell writes:

Beautifully shot, wonderfully acted (Caan and Jones’ performances offer a truly outstanding sense of military camaraderie), Gardens of Stone remains one of the most problematic films to have come out of the war – part pro-military, part peacenik, 100% pro-American. (Vietnam War Movies, p. 46)

In my own words: It’s deadly boring hotchpotch.

Here’s the trailer

The Army of Crime aka L’Armée du Crime (2009) The Latest Addition to my Top 10 War Movies or A Gut-wrenching Movie on the French Resistance

Robert Guédiguian‘s movie L’armée du Crime or The Army of Crime is one of the best war movies I have ever seen. I already said that it entered my Top 10 immediately. The question that remains: which one I am going to kick out? I’ll have to think about this later. For now let me tell you why I think The Army of Crime is such a brilliant piece of filmmaking. Apart from being based on actual events and being historically very accurate it is beautifully filmed. The actors are outstanding. The protagonists are heroical like not many but at the same time the movie doesn’t shy away to point its fingers not only at the Germans but also at the extremely shameful role the French government played during WWII. We had the heroism of the Resistance and Partisan groups on one side and the cowardly collaborators in the government, the police and among normal people on the other side. Shame on all of them. The movie shows all these aspects, nothing is hidden.  This is the third French movie I have seen in a short period, L’armée des ombres aka The Army of Shadows being the first, The Officers’ Ward aka La chambre des officiers the second.  I must say these movies manage something that not many others achieve. They get under your skin. You don’t only watch these movies, you live them. They don’t let you indifferent. Especially not this one.

1943, Paris, the Armenian poet Missak Manouchian (Simon Abkarian) becomes the leader of a special unit of the French Resistance. His people, men and women, are all very young immigrants. They are Hungarian, Polish and Romanian Jews and Spanish, Italian and Armenian Communists. They decide to form a group and fight for France, the country of the Human Rights, to free and to defend her. They are determined and well-organized and soon will be declared enemies number one. The German occupiers and the French police strike back savagely. They hunt them and use every possible way to capture and destroy them, be it bribery, torture or coercion. In the end they are betrayed and all of them are shot.

The movie tells not only the story of the group and their actions as a whole but shows many intimate portraits of all the individual members. I have hardly ever seen a movie displaying so much diversity. This is underlined by a brilliant score with influences of the music of all the different countries that came together in this fight.

The torture scenes are very graphic. We are not spared anything. The most incredible is that with the exception of one person none betrayed the others. Not even under the worst of torture I have ever herad of. While they were operating in the underground most of their families were being deported to camps. Manouchian is an exemplary man. A larger than life character. He does not use arms lightly unlike some of the other reckless young people. He is a poet, an orphan, a gentle man, married to a beautiful French wife, Melinée (Virginie Ledoyen), whom he loves dearly.

I would like to urge each and every reader to watch this movie as my words will never really manage to convey its utter beauty. It is also worth mentioning that we see a lot of Paris.  The Army of Crime is one of those very rare movies that are, simply put, masterpieces in which every element is perfect.

The following people died for France: (AR = found on the Red Poster or Affiche Rouge):
Celestino Alfonso (AR), Spanish, 27
Olga Bancic, Romanian, 31
Joseph Boczov [József Boczor; Wolff Ferenc] (AR), Hungarian, 38
Georges Cloarec, French, 20
Rino Della Negra, Italian, 19
Thomas Elek [Elek Tamás] (AR), Hungarian, 18
Maurice Fingercwajg (AR), Polish, 19
Spartaco Fontano (AR), Italian, 22
Jonas Geduldig, Polish, 26
Emeric Glasz [Békés (Glass) Imre], Hungarian, 42
Léon Goldberg, Polish, 19
Szlama Grzywacz (AR), Polish, 34
Stanislas Kubacki, Polish, 36
Césare Luccarini, Italian, 22
Missak Manouchian (AR), Armenian, 37
Armenak Arpen Manoukian, Armenian, 44
Marcel Rayman (AR), Polish, 21
Roger Rouxel, French, 18
Antoine Salvadori, Italian, 43
Willy Szapiro, Polish, 29
Amédéo Usséglio, Italian, 32
Wolf Wajsbrot (AR), Polish, 18
Robert Witchitz (AR), French, 19