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

La vita è bella aka Life is Beautiful (1997) A Thought-Provoking Italian Holocaust Movie

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La vita è bella is a very unusual movie that you will hardly ever forget should you watch it. It is touching, at times funny, tragic and sentimental. It shows one man’s attempt to protect his child from the horrors of the concentration camp and how he fails in the end. It is one of the movies on my Children in War Movies List.

Roberto Benigni, the Italian main actor, writer  and director of La vita è bella is mainly known as a comedian. People were quite surprised when they heard he had done a movie on the Holocaust. I remember that I had mixed feelings but was really surprised how well this combination works. Other critics however felt offended as they stated it was in poor taste to attempt to combine a comedy with the topic of the Holocaust. But the comedy pretty much stops when the war begins. The movie has really two parts that are strikingly different which was obviously wanted. The beautiful before and the horrible after.

The Jewish man Guido Orefice (Roberto Benigni) is not a good-looking guy. He is not even very intelligent. He is clumsy and silly but also very funny and charming and has an eye for poetical and beautiful things. This is how he wins the heart of the attractive Dora even though she is already engaged to a future fascist leader.

The second part starts a few years after their marriage. They have a little boy named Guisoué. Anti-Jewish laws have been implemented in Italy and Guido tries to hide their meaning from his son by turning them into a game. When they know they will be deported, Dora, even though she is not Jewish, accompanies them to the concentration camp. Once arrived Guido pretends that this is all a game, some sort of summer camp for children and grown-ups alike. He makes his son believe that they have to follow all the orders strictly if they want to win.

I must admit that I did not totally approve of Benigni’s approach, but it is not a movie that is easily forgotten. And it is thought-provoking and will give ample material for discussion of various questions. Are we allowed to tell the Holocaust through comedy? Should a movie about the Holocaust be this sentimental? Wouldn’t it be better to tell it in a more sober manner? La vita è bella is also problematic when it comes to the historical facts. Children were not kept alive in the camps. Still the first part is a touching and funny story of an impossible courtship while the second is the story of a fathers attempt at keeping the horror at bay.

Did you see it? Did it work for you? And if you haven’t, would you want to watch it? Do you mind a Holocaust comedy?


Pork Chop Hill (1959) or The Best Korean War B-Movie?

Lewis Milestone’s Pork Chop Hill is based on the eponymous book by military historian S. L. A. Marshall and depicts the fierce Battle of Pork Chop Hill. Towards the end of the Korean War the U.S. Army’s 7th Infantry Division and Chinese and Korean Communist forces fought for this strategically unimportant hill.

The year is 1953, while the Panmunjeom cease-fire negotiations continue, a company of American infantry was to recapture Pork Chop Hill from a larger Communist Chinese army force. Successful but highly decimated, they were ready for the large-scale Chinese counter-attack which they knew would overwhelm and kill them in hand-to-hand fighting.

This movie is bothering me quite a lot for many reasons. I can’t say I did not like watching it as that is not true. (Maybe I am secretly an infantry combat war movie buff. At least no questions about whether this is a war movie or not. That seems settled.)  Unfortunately there are a lot of questionable elements in it. I can still hardly believe that the very same man, Lewis Milestone, who did All Quiet on the Western Front did this thing too.

This was my first US movie on the war in Korea. I read articles and list and it seemed as if there are not so many great ones. Gray Freitas terms Pork Chop Hill the best B-Movie. Aha. Others call this one of the better ones…

I hated the end. This was not the battle that finished the war. I hated that we have no clue what it is all about. And I hated that they had to choose an African-American soldier to play the part of the treacherous coward.

I did appreciate the battle scenes. They way it was shown how battle takes its toll. Those soldiers were so tired… It captured nonsensical high command orders very well. I also like the relationship between Gregory Peck and the Japanese-American officer. And I think Gregory Peck is very good in this movie.

I will post another, more general post on the war movies depicting the Korean war. And I will certainly need to review Tae Gu Ki aka Brotherhood.

I must honestly say, after watching Pork Chop Hill and reading a few things about US movies on this war, I am not extremely keen on watching any other ones. Maybe M.A.S.H.

Feel free to share your opinions and ideas on the topic.

The trailer will tell you that the DVD cover is misleading as Pork Chop Hill is a black-and-white movie.

The Ogre aka Der Unhold (1996) or Nazism, Symbolism and the Erlking

Volker Schlöndorff’s The Ogre aka Der Unhold (France/Germany/UK) is based on Michel Tournier’s novel Le Roi des Aulnes aka The Ogre. The Ogre is a highly symbolical, original and complex  movie that attempts nothing less than to explore Nazi symbolism and ideology, German culture and mythology by telling the incredible story of Abel Tiffauges, a man who loves children and animals and who makes himself believe he is more than just human. The movie is filmed in English, French and German.

Plot

Abel Tiffauge’s story has five very distinct parts. Part I. Childhood. The French boy Abel grows up in a Catholic private school for boys. He is the outsider, the odd one, the one others pick on, the one the priests punish whenever someone has done something. Especially a very fat boy exploits Abel whenever possible. But he is also his only friend. When Abel is wronged again he wishes a catastrophe upon everybody. And it happens. From now on he believes he is invincible and powerful. Part II. Grown-up. Abel is still odd and a loner but he is also an auto mechanic with a flourishing business. Abel is also an amateur photographer and likes to take pictures of kids. There is nothing he loves more than kids. This very innocent fondness is mistaken for child molesting. Instead of being sent to prison, the falsely accused is sent to war. Part III. POW. Abel is captured together with his officers and sent to a German camp, somewhere near the Polish (?) border. During the day when everybody works he sneaks off to an abandoned hut and befriends a moose. One day he meets Goering’s forester. Part IV. Goering. If Goering was anything like the Goering portrayed in this part, then he was one of the most revolting beings to have ever walked this Earth. Abel is to help on his hunting lodge and gets a close look at the way the Nazis and their friends spend their leisure time. Drinking, eating, hunting. Very vulgar. Part V. The Erlking. Abel is sent to Kaltenborn Castle an elite training camp for German boys. He is happy like never before and loves to be able to take care of these boys but he also takes an active part in their training. Soon he starts to collect the boys from the neighbourhood and the people who are afraid of him call him the ogre. He doesn’t realize that he is doing wrong. When the Russians approach and people from concentrations camps are liberated, he starts to understand what he has been part of. He tries to help a Jewish boy and almost gets killed.

Meaning

So much for the content of The Ogre. But that is only one part. The movie shows us in stunning pictures what it must have been like to face Nazi ideology. The power of the imagines they created by using potent symbols is amazing. The visualization of this ideology is fantastic. Just take a look at the trailer and you see some of it. The boys standing in the form of a giant Swastika holding burning torches in the night. But then there is also the undercurrent of German culture, of everything that was good about Germany and was perverted by the Nazis. The love of the forest, love of animals, children, poetry.  Goethe’s famous ballad The Erlking is quoted and put into pictures in a very spooky way. Without knowing this poem a great part of the movie’s meaning stays hidden.

Who’s riding so late through th’ endless wild?
The father ‘t is with his infant child;
He thinks the boy ‘s well off in his arm,
He grasps him tightly, he keeps him warm.

My son, say why are you hiding your face ?
Oh father, the Erlking ‘s coming apace,
The Erlking ‘s here with his train and crown!
My son, the fog moves up and down. –

Be good, my child, come, go with me!
I know nice games, will play them with thee,
And flowers thou ‘It find near by where
I live, pretty dress my mother will give.”

Dear father, oh father, and do you not hear
What th’ Erlking whispers so close to my ear?
Be quiet, do be quiet, my son,
Through leaves the wind is rustling anon.

Do come, my darling, oh come with me!
Good care my daughters will take of thee,
My daughters will dance about thee in a ring,
Will rock thee to sleep and will prettily sing.”

Dear father, oh father, and do you not see
The Erlking’s daughters so near to me?
My son, my son, no one ‘s in our way,
The willows are looking unusually gray.

I love thee, thy beauty I covet and choose,
Be willing, my darling, or force I shall use!
“Dear father, oh father, he seizes my arm!
The Erlking, father, has done me harm.

The father shudders, he darts through the wild;
With agony fill him the groans of his child.
He reached his farm with fear and dread;
The infant son in his arms was dead.

The Cast

John Malkovich as Abel Tiffauges is astonishing. I think it is one of his best roles. He is such a weird-looking actor and that is perfect for this role. I particularly like the three German actors Heino Ferch, Armin Müller-Stahl and Gottfried John. But everybody else, especially those many little boys and girls, are very convincing.

The Director

Volker Schlöndorff can look back on a career with many an important movie. He is not just any director but one of the very great. He has done the war movies The Tin Drum and The Ninth Day and the movies Swann in Love, The Handmaid’s Tale and Ulzhan.

The Score

Michael Nyman is one of my favourite composers. He is foremost famous for the scores he wrote for Peter Greenaway and Jane Campion. This one here is OK but not as outstanding as his other work like Draughtman’s contract, Gattaca and The Piano to name but a few.

For me this is a 5/5 star movie. It has incredible pictures, is dense and complex and invites you to rethink Nazi ideology and symbolism like not many others. It is better than the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas that is for sure. But not as good as Pan’s Labyrinth.

Other war movies with children as main characters can be found on my list  Children in War Movies.