L’Honneur d’un Capitaine – A Captain’s Honor (1982)

What an excellent movie. Even better than I thought it would be. It’s my second Schoendoerffer and it is as good as the more famous Dien Bien Phu.

L’Honneur d’un Capitaine or A Captain’s Honor is part court-room drama, part infantry combat. It is a thought-provoking look at the way France tried to come to terms with the war in Algeria. It shows one nation’s struggle to face the injustice it committed in the name of peace-keeping.

20 years after his death on the battle field Cpt. Caron is publicly accused of having been a torturer and an assassin. The man who accuses him is a famous professor of sociology who claims having known Caron well enough to be sure of the accusation. The accusation happens during a TV show. Some of the guests leave in outrage. It isn’t only about Caron. It is about what really happened in Algeria. To this day there is a rift in France. On one side are those who claim that the French army has tortured in Algeria and on the other are those who say it didn’t.

Caron’s widow decides to drag the incident to court. She wants justice for her husband and his reputation. Her uncle, a famous lawyer and member of the Parisian high-society, advises against it but finally gives in and even wants to help her in court.

Before they go to court, they try to gather information and this part gives the movie another dimension. It links WWII, Indochina and Algeria.

At 17 the future Cpt Caron was part of the French Resistance, he later served in Indochina and was captured by the Vietminh. This is illustrated by original footage, many of it taken in battle and in the prison camps during the liberation. Those French soldiers looked exactly like the Jews in the German camps.

The drama that unfolds in court is very gripping. We really want to know what happened. Did he, or did he not do it? In order to find out, they have convoked former soldiers and officers who served with or under him. They take apart each and every element of the accusation. The film moves back and forth between the court in the 70s and the battlefield in Algeria in the 50s.

During 18 days Cpt. Caron led a special alpine infantry unit. Three of the men of this unit had been captured by the fellaghas (anti-colonialist rebels). This usually meant torture and slow death at the hands of those rebels. The Cpt. tries everything to get the men back. During these 18 days many unpleasant things happen. Algerian informants are tortured, killed and disappear. After a while it becomes apparent that it isn’t so much about whether it has really happened, everything does indeed point into that direction, but whether Caron gave the order.

It is fascinating how they deconstruct the accusations bit by bit, but every time they have proven that it may be a wrong accusation, another one is brought up.

Without giving away too much, I’d like to describe one scene that I found particularly  amazing. Caron and a few of his men are at the foot of a mountain, while the rest of them are somewhere high up. It is said that during this part of the campaign an Algerian prisoner was killed. And indeed, the soldier in the court room states that Caron gave the order. He was up there with the men. Another officer however testified that, no, he hadn’t given the order. He was standing next to Caron during te whole incident. What had happened? Caron told them to bring the prisoner down (descendez-le in French) but they had understood to take him out (also descendez-le in French). Depending on where a person who says “descendez-le” stands, it could either mean “take him out” or “bring him down”.

This is just an example how the movie works, what type of complexities it shows.

It is a movie that makes you feel very uneasy (if you are French). The thing is, if the Cpt, who was such an exemplary officer, is found guilty, one can assume that torture and murder was a fairly common practice. But if he isn’t found guilty, if he is innocent, this does not automatically mean that these atrocities didn’t happened. This is where the movie excels, it it is excellent at showing the psychology of those who want to believe either the one or the other.

I haven’t found a trailer but attached the scene in which Caron’s widow watches the Indochina footage. There are no subtitles but that doesn’t matter as they only speak a few words in the beginning.

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Costa-Gavras’ Music Box (1989) A Court Room Drama About War Criminals

Music Box is not a war movie in the strict sense of the term, especially not since it takes place some 40 years after the war. But it is about what happened to war criminals after the war. The one or the other is still caught today. Many tried to hide in distant countries. Some live in South America but there are certainly also a lot in the US. Since I want to watch Der Stellvertreter aka Amen by Costa-Gavras, I thought it might be interesting to re-watch this one before. I remembered that it moved me quite a bit when I saw it for the first time. I found it totally gripping. As much of the suspense comes from the question whether or not the accused committed the crimes I could concentrate on other elements this time.

Just imagine for one second, someone told you, your mother, or your father was a war criminal. He is said to have left the country shortly after the war and gone to the US where he led an exemplary life as a devoted father, able worker and much liked colleague. Imagine the two of you had a very close relationship. You love the stories your father tells you about his childhood and his youth, the horrors of the war and how he managed to flee to a more welcoming country. Your son adores him, your in-laws respect him. But then, one day, the US government accuses him of being a monster and wants to extradite him to Hungary where he would be judged. That is the story of Music Box. Ann Talbot’s (Jessica Lange) father, Viktor Laszlo, a Hungarian immigrant is accused of having committed war crimes. Ann is a successful lawyer and decides, after some initial reluctance, to defend her father. She doesn’t doubt for one second that he is innocent and soon she is able to prove that there have been wrong accusations before, that the Communist countries often try to get at those who fled from them. She is outraged by the injustice that is done to her father and equally shocked by the crimes, the man who is called Mischka, has committed. Torture, executions and rape. But what is the worst he is accused of is the fact that he showed no mercy, compassion or any other signs of empathy. Mischka enjoyed what he did. Much of it took place on the banks of the Danube in Budapest, near the famous Chain Bridge. One of the last parts of this gripping court-room drama takes place in Budapest. A nice addition to the movie. Budapest is a town I am particularly fond of but when I had seen the movie for the first time, I hadn’t been there yet. I didn’t even remember that part of it was filmed there.

Jessica Lange, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Frederic Forrest, the main actors are fantastic. Armin Mueller-Stahl is one of the very great German actors. I have often problems when actors fake an accent but he does it well.

For one reason or the other, I always compare Music Box to Sophie’s Choice. I find them both equally convincing from a psychlogical point of view. Both have outstanding female actresses in main roles. And they both have this typical 80ies feel.

I was wondering how I would rate this movie. It is interesting and gripping, psychlogically accurate but doesn’t deserve 5/5. It is somewhere between 4 and 4.5 because it is a tad too sentimental.

Breaker Morant (1980) or An Australian Look at the Second Boer War

The Australian movie Breaker Morant is one of those movies that leave you thoughtful and pensive for quite a long time. It leaves you feeling helpless and infuriated as well by unmasking the hypocrisy of those in charge. It brilliantly illustrates the absurdity of war and deserves to be named together with the most important anti-war films ever done.

The movie is based on the true story of the court-martial of three Australian officers Lt Harry “Breaker” Morant, Peter Handcock and George Witton by a British court. They were accused of having shot first one, then six POWs and subsequently a German missionary. Their defense attorney Jack Thompson who was inexperienced and soon tried to accuse those in charge of the trial as well.

The movie tells the storiy alternating court-room scenes with flashbacks.

The second Boer war (1899-1902)  was by far worse than the first. The Dutch started to fight a guerilla war against the British who then fought back and organized a special troop, The Bushveldt Carabineers, for wich they appointed Australian soldiers. The idea was to fight the Boer with their own means.

Harry Morant volunteered to go to South Africa because he believed in the British Empire. How utterly tragic.  In Australia he was famous as a breaker of horses and poet. Edward Woodward plays this proud, upright and poised character with an excellence I have rarely seen. This is such a brilliant actor I wonder why he never made it to more fame.

The longer we watch the trial the more we realise that it is a sham. The British need scape goats to save their reputation. What those officers are ultimately accused of is what they were told to do. Only now no one wants to take responsibility for it. Of course this is also a meditation on what is good or bad during war.

Breaker Morant is interesting for cinema historic reasons as well since it is part of the so-called Australian New Wave, of which Gallipoli and The Lighthorsemen are other great examples.

This is without any doubt a 5 star movie.

Hart´s War (2002): A Dubious POW Legal Melodrama

There are numerous movies I could have watched while lying in bed with a cold the other day. I have a big “soon-to-be-watched” DVD pile and choice is far from scarce. There are many war movies and – believe it or not – a lot of non war movies to choose from. I didn’t really feel like watching anything too heavy so Hart’s War seemed like a good option.

It actually still seemed like a very good option more than half an hour into the movie but then it started to dawn on me that this was one of those hybrid movies, that are neither this, nor that nor anything else. Yeah well, seems as if disappointment is the daughter of bad choice and false expectations.

To cut a long story short: it was not my cup of tea. Although I appreciate the subgenre of the legal drama, this came across as a pseudo legal drama that I found less than convincing.

One good thing: Hart´s War is another movie that can be added to the small list of WWII movies with African American soldiers in it (see my post on African American Soldiers in War Movies).

Apart from that, you watch it and forget it and think: Too bad it could have been good if… If what?

What’s the story? A young law student, Lt. Hart (Colin Farrell), get’s captured by a German patrol while driving someone through the woods and ends up as POW after having been tortured before  giving away some information. The highest ranking officer among the prisoners in the camp, Col McNamara (Bruce Willis) immediately dislikes him as he despises him for lying about the fact that he has collapsed after a few short days under torture. As a sort of punishment he is not allowed to stay in the barracks with the other higher ranking officers but must join the barracks of the privates and the lower ranks.

This does not work out too bad until the day two black American pilots (Terrence Howard and Vicellous Reon Shannon), two of the Tuskegee Men in fact, appear and things get nasty. Full-blown racism hits them. Hatred and aggression follow until one is executed and the other one falsely accused of the murder of a white soldier.

Even though he has only been a second year law student before the war, Hart gets appointed as the defence attorney but after a while it gets clear that it is all a sham. Secret things are happening that need a cover-up. I found the justification of what is happening morally dubious. The end does not always justify the means.

The rest of the movie is a pathetic illustration of pride, honour and glory. Highly melodramatic.

The two black actors are good, Colin Farrell is quite all right but Bruce Willis is a parody of himself. Or maybe he had something in his eye. The height of his acting seemed to consist of standing there with one eye half closed and trying to look super imposing. (Just to make things clear, I do normally like Bruce Willis.)

Meaningless pseudo-court-drama with a melodramatic ending. 2.5/5 points (2.5 points are for cinematography, choice of the topic racism in the military… Forget the rest).

Judgement at Nuremberg (1961) or A Truly Outstanding Legal Drama

Judgment at Nuremberg is a brilliant movie by Stanley Kramer. Outstanding actors, great pictures and a gripping story. Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift, Judy Garland and Maximilian Schell. They are all good, very good.

The movie´s setting is post-WWII occupied Germany.  It tells the story of the trial of 4 German Nazi judges in an American court. They are accused of being responsible for sterilization and exterminations.

Spencer Tracy stars as Judge Dan Haywood who is conducting the trial, Marlene Dietrich plays Mrs. Bertholt, the widow of an executed Nazi army officer. Burt Lancaster is one of the accused judges, Maximilian Schell his defendant. One of the most convincing performances is given by Montgomery Clift who plays the role of one of the judges´ victims. His  interrogation is so touchingly performed, makes you feel really uneasy.

The film follows Judge Haywood in the court room and outside where he tries to get the full picture by befriending Mrs. Bertholt and talking to his housekeepers, Mr. and Mrs. Halbestadt to find out what the German people  really knew. It seems as if each one´s personal history and concerns overshadowed the things that happened around them. And even though they lived so close to Dachau, Halbestadts pretend to have been ignorant of the camps.

During the trial the testimonies of the witnesses, supported by original footage of the concentration camps and the interrogation of the accused, completes the picture of the past horrors.

Judge Haywood must now establish if, in believing to serve their country, the accused did right or wrong. Do exceptional circumstances permit different moral criteria? Does the conviction to do the right thing exempt  from punishment?

If you want  Judge Haywood´s  answer to these questions and if you like to see  truly outstanding movies and great acting, watch this one  as soon as you can.