Laurel & Hardy at War – Pack Up Your Troubles (1932)

Pack up your Troubles is only one of many Laurel & Hardy movies showing them at war. There are better examples but it still has a few iconic and quite hilarious scenes. I grew up with Laurel & Hardy, during my childhood they were always on Sunday TV and so, no matter how silly, I’m fond of them.

The US are entering WWI. In his typical boasting way Hardy pretends he would join up if only he was given a chance. The chance is given soon enough in form of a conscription officer but the moment Hardy sees him, he tries to escape and weasel out. To no avail. They are drafted and end up in the trenches of France where they go about their own business pretty oblivious of the mess around them. Food, warmth and a few other things are more important for them. While this was certainly essential for all the soldiers, in Laurel and Hardy’s case it’s center stage. They behave in the trench like an old couple at home. The shelling and bombing is perceived as a major nuisance but not as the real danger it is. Sent to make a few prisoners, they turn a dangerous mission into a hilarious adventure that ends with a surprising success.

Edie Smith, a fellow soldier, tells them about his little daughter. He had to leave her behind with a couple of really abusive folk. When he goes missing, our two heroes decide that after the war they will bring the girl to her rightful grandparents.

The second part of the movie takes place after the Armistice and shows their adventures with the little girl and all their troubles and mishaps until they finally find the grand parents.

Pack Up Your Troubles is one hour long. It’s amusing, not one of my favourites, but still entertaining. They pack all the elements of WWI movies into a film –  the trenches, the barbed wire, the mud, the bombings – and add a humorous twist. Laurel & Hardy’s humour is slapstick, it’s not satirical, nor very profound. If you like it, you will enjoy this as well.

Do you have a favourite Laurel & Hardy at war? Or another favourite Laurel & Hardy?

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Bertrand Tavernier’s Capitaine Conan – Captain Conan (1996)

Have you seen Capitaine Conan? You haven’t? Well then I’d like to know why you are sitting here, reading this blog when what you should really do, is chase a copy of this unique and brilliant movie? This is one of the best war movies I have seen in a while. I’m doing pretty bad with movies these days and have found my attention span is quite short but this movie had me glued to the screen. WWI movies tend to be a bit repetitive, it’s either the atrocity of the trenches, facial wounds, the analysis of the shortcomings of the high command or the incredible amount of dead and lost soldiers. All of it worthy themes but done a few times and quite brilliantly too. That’s why it was such a surprise that there is hardly any of this in Capitaine Conan. 

Capitaine Conan is based on the largely autobiographical novel Captain Conan by Roger Vercel who won the prestigious Prix Goncourt for the book. Vercel based the main character on one of his comrades.

The most interesting aspect is that the movie (and the book) takes place on the Bulgarian border where French and English troops fought a guerrilla like war against Germans and Bulgarians. There are trenches but a lot of the combat is hand-to-hand combat, man against man.

The lieutenant Capt Conan is an insubordinate, extremely wild and brutal soldier. But also someone who cherishes camaraderie. Instead of eating with the fellow officers, he rather sits somewhere with the men. He leads a group of 50 men that he calls his wolves. They are all equally fearless, brutal and, as it seems, addicted to violence but also a tight-knit group, ready to do anything for each other. There is nothing they like more than fighting man against man and mostly with knives. Because Conan is highly efficient and can turn around the course of hopeless battles, his superiors let him do as he pleases but when the war ends, things go wrong. His bloodthirsty men are too easily bored. They start to commit one crime after the other. Pillaging, raping, robbery. Conan who calls himself a warrior, as opposed to a soldier, isn’t any better and let’s his men get away with everything. Conan has long-lost his sense of right and wrong and all that he cares about are his men. War has turned him into a brute.

Among this violent crowd is a more gentle lieutenant, who wants to become a school teacher in peace time. If it wasn’t for him, who is appointed as prosecutor, Conan and his men would be court-martialled. The friendship between these two men grows slowly but once it’s established, it is indestructible.

It’s quite difficult to do this movie justice as it is very complex and quite fast-paced. Conan is a fascinating character and the way Tavernier depicts him we can’t help but admire him. In the world of WWI, in which there are so many officers who never dirty their hands but make the most important decisions without having a clue, someone like Conan, with a sense of honour and dignity, despite the brutality, becomes admirable. He is ruthless but he has a sense of loyalty and justice. The problem is, that men like him cannot go back to a normal life, once the war is over. They have gone too far.

After the war has ended, they are boarding a train and sent around without really knowing where they go. They stop in Sofia for a long time and are finally sent to the Russian border to fight the Bolsheviks. The scene in which the general informs them of the Armistice is one of the greatest scenes in any war movie ever. It’s so absurd. We see the guy talk about victory and glory, while the rain is pouring down, half of the men are running away because of diarrhea and the highly decimated band plays an off-key Marseillaise and looks like a bunch of flea-infested hobos.

I really hope I could give a halfway good impression of this wonderful movie and how rich it is. It’s very witty with super fast dialogue that I hope is well captured in the subtitles. I have a French DVD so I turned them off. It’s one of the huge problems of French cinema in translation. French cinema does live to a large extent from the dialogue which is usually fast and a lot of it isn’t translated. This isn’t a comedy but it has a lot of funny elements because it shows how absurd war is and because it juxtaposes many different levels of French society and different French regions.

As I said, the movie is available with English subtitles but the only trailer I found is a French one with Spanish subtitles. It still gives a good impression of the movie.

The Christmas Truce 1914

January 1, 1915: Writing to friends in north Wales, a gentleman who is serving at the front in the City of London Territorials states:- “It was a memorable christmas Day in our trenches as we had a truce with the enemy from Christmas Eve till Boxing Day morning, not a shot being fired. The truce came about in this way. The Germans started singing and lighting candles about 7.30 on Christmas Eve, and one of them challenged any one of us to go across for a bottle of wine. One of our fellows accepted the challenge; that started the ball rolling. We then went half way to shake hands and exchange greetings with them. There were 10 dead Germans in a ditch in front of the trenches and we helped to bury these. I could have had a helmet but I did not fancy taking one off a corpse. These men were trapped one night while trying to get to our outpost trench some time ago. The Germans seemed to be very nice chaps and said they were awfully sick of the war. We were out of the trenches all Christmas Day collecting souvenirs.

This letter is taken from the site The Christmas Truce. If you don’t know it yet, go and have a look, it’s great. If you’d like to watch a movie on the truce, I highly recommend Joyeux Noël – Merry Christmas which I have reviewed last year (here is the review). It is one of my favourite war movies.

ANZACS Part III Ypres and Passchendaele (1985)

It is debatable when watching a series whether you should review each installment individually. I haven’t done it for The Pacific, nor for Hornblower or Sharpe, so why now do it for ANZACS? Because it is so good? Yes, it really is but so are the others. That’s not the reason then, the reason is that I’m in the mood to do it. Not everything needs to make perfect sense in life, occasionally we can do something just because we enjoy it and I enjoy reviewing ANZACS. There are not all that many good movies and series on WWI, it seems justified to re-emphasize that this one exists.

Part three is a s good as the first two parts and leads us even deeper into some of the catastrophic and notorious battles of WWI. Who hasn’t heard of Ypres or Passchendaele, who hasn’t heard how many soldiers died in these two offensives alone?

In this part we see that the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George and General Haig are really not on the same page. Haig is gung-ho, his strategy seems to demand too many losses and Lloyd George doesn’t think it’s justified at all.

Once more we also see how the British and the Australian culture clash when it comes to subordination. Another aspect that is covered in this part is the role of the respective churches. While the Church of England was fully supportive of the war, there were some voices in Australia saying that it might be high time to underline that Australia was independent by now and that the Australian church should adopt another attitude towards the war.

The man on the photo, Jon Blake is one of the main actors in ANZACS. He was also in in The Lighthorsemen. While finishing The Lighthorsemen he had a car accident and sustained severe brain injuries that left him in a near vegetative state. He died on May 29 2011. It’s a very sad story. He was a very promising young actor and many say he would have gone far. We will never know.

Here are the reviews of Part I Gallipoli and Part II The Somme and a List of Australian War Movies.

ANZACS Part I Gallipoli (1985)

I need to thank Soldier’s Mail who left a comment on my post Australian War Movies: A List mentioning ANZACS. This is really, really worth watching.

ANZACS has five episodes in total and I have just watched the first one that could be called “Gallipoli”. I would say it is easily as good – if in parts not even better – as Peter Weir’s movie Gallipoli (one of my top 10!).

The series starts in Australia where the young guys, full of enthusiasm and inspired by a sense of adventure, enlist. While some of their parents think it is their duty towards their motherland (some can still not fully grasp the idea of being independent by now), the young men see the war as a means to travel and see the world. A bit of fighting will be great as well. Why not bash some Germans? Sounds sporting, right?

They are a composite little group heading off to Europe (as they think). Some are farmers, some are sports heroes, others are students.

When they finally arrive in Gallipoli, they are told that they will fight the Germans by entering the back door. Once they have overrun the Turks there will be no stopping them and victory will be certain.

Gallipoli is one of those names that stands for an unsuccessful campaign and battles in which losses were extremely high. The young lads are mown down by Turkish guns like weeds and the sporting spirit dies as soon as they have lost the first among their ranks. I couldn’t help wondering whether the British sent the Australians on purpose on this futile mission but considering that they lost as many and more of their own in France and Belgium, it seems more likely that high command had simply no clue what they were doing. Anyone reading this who is better informed is welcome to explain/contradict.

I liked the way this first part was told. It seems very accurate, very realistic, not overly emotional. There is a couple of brothers and friends who are devastated by the loss of their siblings and friends but this isn’t overly exploited.

I’m extremely curious to see how this will develop and whether the next episodes will be equally good or even better. At the end of episode one they were ready to move on to France.

Here is part one of episode I

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.

Beneath Hill 60 (2010) Australian Miners Fighting in The Tunnels of WWI

I am really glad to be able to dedicate this year’s last review to a movie that came out in 2010. I am also glad that the Australian movie Beneath Hill 60 was one of the biggest surprises of this year. After having watched a few more recent war movies like Everyman’s War and Passchendaele my hopes were not too high. I was wrong. This is a thoroughly good movie in which everything is right. The main story, the accuracy, the flashbacks, the actors, the score, the pictures, all together make a great combination. Last but not least the movie is based on a true story that is maybe not universally known but truly amazing. In 1916 Australian miners were digging tunnels beneath the trenches. The worst of those tunnel systems was located beneath Hill 60, in Belgium. The aim was to blow up the whole hill and the trenches around it. The outcome was the biggest explosion ever. It could be heard as far as London and Dublin.

At the beginning of the movie the men around Captain Oliver Woodward are digging in the tunnels beneath the trenches in France. Woodward is a newbie and as  such has to prove himself first. Unfortunately he makes a mistake when he doesn’t realize that the sound one of the miners hears isn’t his own heart but digging sounds of the Germans. The movie is full of suspenseful moments when the digging miners have to stop and listen, if there are Germans close by. Whoever gets a chance will blow up parts of the tunnel system and the fight will rage underground. As claustrophobic as it is inside of the earth, it is still more secure than above. Every time the men get out of the tunnels, they see the madness of the war in the trenches, the constant shelling, the mud, the never-ending rain. The young miners can hardly handle to be outside; they are scared to death.

After his initial misjudgment Woodward soon proves to be more than worthy and he and his team achieve one difficult mission after the other, below and above ground. The story in the tunnels is interspersed with flashbacks. We see Woodward in Australia. He is an engineer with a mining company, freshly returned from Papua New Guinea. There is of course a love story but it is far from schmaltzy and just emphasizes Woodward’s character. He is gentle, intelligent, very able and has a great sense of humour. Newer war movies often operate with such flashbacks and mostly they are not successful. The flashbacks disrupt the movie and add a sugar-coating that is hard to swallow. This is not the case here. It’s a great diversion from the rest of the movie that shows mostly very dark scenes in the tunnels. Some of the tunnels are constantly under the threat to be flooded and water is dripping endlessly. A good sound system does come in handy. The sound effects are absolutely brilliant. Honestly, you will check your cupboards, to make sure, they didn’t start leaking.

The camaraderie between these fine men is depicted in a nice way, and every loss is felt by the spectator as well.

As far as setting goes, this is one of the most extreme. The men are in these tunnel systems almost day and night. Anything more claustrophobic is hard to imagine.

I would really urge you to watch this film. It is certainly the best that came out this year, and maybe one of the best of the decade. Australian filmmaking proves once more what it is capable of. The film director knew how to combine a well-told true story with the right amount of emotion. I couldn’t find the tiniest flaw.

I already attached the trailer in my List on Australian War Movies but decided to attach it again.