Flags of Our Fathers (2006)

Flags of Our Fathers

 “The right picture can win or lose a war.”

I remember watching Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers shortly after it was in the cinemas and feeling less than enthusiastic about it. I’d been watching my way through the best infantry combat movies at the time, so, obviously, Flags of Our Fathers fell short. After re-watching it yesterday I must say, it’s not bad at all. Quite the contrary. Sure, it has some corny Hollywood moments, but overall it’s a very interesting movie about topics that are still relevant today: the power of images and the making of heroes.

Flags of our Fathers tells the story of the iconic picture that rekindled the American war effort. Looking at the photo below I would say it’s extremely powerful. I’m not surprised it had such an effect.

APTOPIX OBIT ROSENTHAL

The movie starts with two elderly men reminiscing and telling their story to the son of one of them. The son knows his father took part in the battle of Iwo Jima and that he’s on the famous picture but he doesn’t know much more. His father never spoke about the war. From this initial moment the movie is composed mostly of flash back sections, some of which showing what happened on Iwo Jima, some telling about what came after the picture was shot.

Iwo Jima – or Sulfur Island – was a strategic point. Taking the hill meant that the US might after all have a chance to win the war. When the troops land, the island looks bleak, dark, forlorn and empty. It’s quite a creepy moment, which is enhanced through a change in point of view. We first see the troops land and slowly walk towards the hill, scanning the landscape and then we get the point of view of the hidden Japanese who observe the troops from their fox holes. Needless to say that this first wave of US soldiers is quickly heavily decimated. Still, many make it to the top and that’s when they plant the flag. A senior officer later demands this flag and the commanding officer decides to exchange it and to let him have another one. Both flag raisings are photographed but it’s the second, which is the better picture, that makes it into the newspapers.

Three of the men who raise the flag survive. However, inadvertently, one of the first six is named as the sixth of the second group, which will cause a lot of heartbreak.

The three survivors are sent back to the States where they are touring the country and trying to convince people to help the war effort and buy bonds.

The three men who haven’t done anything more heroic than holding a heavy pole, feel uncomfortable about being called heroes. One of them, an American Indian, is especially uncomfortable. He feels like a cheat. Not only because he doesn’t feel heroic but because they were not even part of the initial flag raising. It feels like he’s deceiving people. The mix up of the sixth soldier makes it even worse.

The movie is sleek and visually compelling. The combat scenes on the island are shot in gritty almost black and white pictures, which form a contrast to the colorful home front scenes.

The actors, notably Adam Beach and Ryan Philippe, are very good. The score is discreet and well-chosen. It stays mostly in the background.

I thought Flags of Our Fathers was really watchable. More than that actually. It’s very good. It shouldn’t be seen as a combat movie but more as a movie about the impact of pictures, an exploration of the true nature of heroism and the way society treats heroes when they aren’t needed anymore. It was sobering to see their treatment. At no point were they seen as soldiers and men but merely as a possibility for propaganda. This became even clearer after the war when people lost all interest in them.

The Boys in Company C (1978)

Boys in Company C

The Boys in Company C is one of those Vietnam war movies you either like a great deal or not at all. I was surprised to find myself among those who really like it. It isn’t a masterpiece because it’s a bit patchy and the acting is not always stellar, but it has a fittingly pessimistic tone and some great scenes, which I appreciated a lot. Besides it was interesting to see the precursor of movies like Full Metal Jacket.

Vietnam movies are commonly divided into four sub-groups: allegorical-epics, veteran movies, revisionist movies and grunt/ensemble movies. The Boys from Company C is clearly a grunt movie or infantry combat movie. And it contains all the clichés of grunt movies, notably that we get to see a group of diverse people from various backgrounds and that each of them is more like a type than a real character. This is a weakness of the movie but, in a way, it wasn’t important to create characters, as the goal of the movie was another one.

Like a few of the more famous Vietnam movies it has two parts. A boot camp part and a part that takes place in Vietnam. The most interesting aspect is that the same actor, R.Lee Ermey, who plays the evil drill-instructor in Full Metal Jacket plays the drill-inspector here. He’s not as crass as in Full Metal Jacket but he sure is an unlikable character here as well.

After our group of grunts has survived the boot camp at Fort Bragg they are sent to Vietnam. There are a few combat scenes but more than anything we see how surprised our guys are when they realize that things aren’t exactly as they were told.

What are they fighting for really? And is there a justification to this war at all? There isn’t any moment in the whole film in which anyone thinks they are fighting for a good reason. Plus there’s the criticism of the military command. Officers sacrifice soldiers just to get a promotion. They order them to take hills although its impossible. They kill Vietnamese civilians to raise the body counts. The Vietnamese are shown to be just as corrupt.

The ending of the movie is unfortunately quite corny and the football game episode, which is meant to illustrate how futile and corrupt  the war is, isn’t exactly a movie highlight.

Still, this is one of the early films and it’s one of the most unambiguously anti-war. It’s dark and pessimistic. There’s no heroism, no glorifying of any acts. It’s overall very sober, has hardly any feel-good moments, hardly any music. No jungle scenes.

Sometimes I can appreciate a movie for its intentions and for its consistency.This is one of those. In my opinion, while not an artistic highlight, it’s still a must-see.

Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness (2011) A WWII True Story

In Darkness

Agnieszka Holland’s movie In Darkness is a Polish/German/Canandian co-production based on a true story.

Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) is a sewer worker and petty thief, living in Lvov, a Nazi occupied city in Poland.  One day he meets a group of Jews trying to escape the liquidation of the ghetto. After lengthy discussions he agrees to help them hide in the labyrinthine sewers under the city. Many of the Jews do not trust him, knowing well that the Nazis’ pay money for every Jew and that many Poles don’t like Jews either. Socha is rather poor and he and his family are struggling. Helping is not an act of altruism but a great opportunity to make money, as one of the Jews is very rich.

While Socha does a great job at providing them with food and helping them to change hiding places, when one gets too dangerous, he has not feelings or compassion for them at first. But over the months – the small group has to stay in hiding for 14 months – he gets to know them and admires their courage and determination. At the end, although they have run out of money, he still helps them, and risks his life and the lives of his wife and daughter.

In Darkness is a very moving film, based on an amazing story of resilience and courage. Staying in the dark and the stink, surrounded by rats, in close quarters, is very hard to imagine. Not all of those who are in the sewers in the beginning make it until the end. Quite a few, escape, some prefer to be sent to a camp.

When everything goes fine, the situation is bearable but hunger, illness, boredom and one woman’s pregnancy turn it into a nightmare at times.

On my DVD is a documentary called In Light, in which the film director Agnieszka Holland and Krystyna Chiger, one of the children who spent 14 months in the sewer, talk together about the film. When  Agnieszka Holland started filming, they had no idea that here still was a survivor although Krystyna Chiger had published her memoir The Girl in the Green Sweater shortly before that. A streak of luck brought them together. It was great to hear Krystyna’s impressions of the film. According to her, the movie manages to show exactly how it was. Everything, down to the smallest detail is correct.

Leopold Socha was one of many Poles who risked everything to hide Jews. It’s important to tell these stories as well.

There were quite a few well-known German actors among the cast – Benno Fürmann, Maria Schrader and Herbert Knaup – who were all good, but none of them surpassed Robert Wieckiewicz in the role of  Leopold Socha.

In Darkness is an excellent movie based on a true story that had to be told. Highly recommended.

 

Marine Raiders (1944)

Marine Raiders

Marine Raiders is a black and white US movie from 1944. I’ve got it with a bunch of other “forgotten” war movies.  Unfortunately, after having seen it, I’m pretty sure I know why it was forgotten. It wasn’t dreadful but it was certainly not very good. Fortunately it’s a very short movie (77 minutes).

The two friends Major Steve Lockhart (Pat O’Brien) and Captain Dan Craig (Robert Ryan) are fighting together at Guadalcanal. Dan shows a lot of bravery when he goes on a “let’s-kill-as-many-of-those-beastly-Japs-as-we-can-rampage” after having seen the cruelty inflicted on one of his buddies.

From Guadalcanal the two men are sent to Australia where Dan meets Lt. Ellen Foster (Ruth Hussey) and falls in love with her. During their date there’s a Japanese air raid and Dan is injured. Ellen is sent away for two days and while she’s gone, Dan is sent back home to San Diego where he and Steve will train new recruits.

Before being sent to an island in the South Pacific, they briefly return to Australia. Dan and Ruth get married before Dan’s sent into battle. The last 15 minutes of the film show intense fighting.

That’s the whole story. A romance bracketed by two major battles. The Japanese are depicted as cruel and vicious, but luckily the Marines win every battle. And there is some tired chow-related humour.

Marine Raiders is still interesting as it’s very similar to the outstanding TV Mini series The Pacific. One could call Marine Raiders an uninspired precursor. So, for those interested in film history, it’s still worth watching. Just keep in mind, it’s not only a forgotten movie, but a forgotten B-movie.

Lone Survivor (2013)

Lone Survivor

I decided to watch Lone Survivor after having read a positive review on The War Movie Buff’s blog (here). I did not regret it, although I have some reservations.

Talk about a doomed operation. Lone Survivor is based on a true story – Operation Red Wing – which went horribly wrong. Given how the movie starts and its title, it’s not a spoiler to mention that the operation only had one survivor played by Mark Wahlberg. 

The movie is set in Afghanistan in 2005. Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) and three other Navy Seals are sent on a mission to capture or kill al Qaeda leader Ahmad Shahd. While hiding in the mountains goatherds literally stumble over them. The four men have a heated discussion about what they should do with them. Two want them dead, one wants to tie them and only Luttrell wants to let them go. Unfortunately their communication systems don’t work and they cannot reach their commander (Eric Bana) and ask for advice. Finally they let them go as that is in line with their rules of engagement. It’s clear that while this is the right thing to do, nothing good can come of it. And indeed, one of the herders runs down to the village and alerts the men surrounding Ahmad Shadh. What follows is an intense two hours of flight and fight.

First I’d like to say that the movie is well done. The pacing is good, there is some nice cinematography (stunning sunsets), the music works well, the action scenes are extremely realistic. The characters aren’t fully rounded, but that would be absurd in a movie like this. Last, but not least it’s very suspenseful, although we know there’s only one survivor.

I thought that in choosing this title and beginning of the film, which clearly shows that only Wahlberg’s character survived, the director stayed away from sentimentality and melodrama, which is so often annoying in movies of this type.

I’ve seen this compared to Black Hawk Down but I can’t see any similarity. I was reminded of Bravo Two Zero, in which the failing communication also played a major role. Lone Survivor has elements of both Act of Valor and the French Forces Spécilales, but I would say it’s better.

I’ve seen a lot of very harsh reviews of this movie. I think it’s not as bad as some say, but as is often the case with movies, which also find the approval of the military, there’s a mix up in the reception. One thing is the movie as such, and one can really not find a lot of flaws in that, the other thing is the reason that this movie was made in the first place. It depicts a true story and if you are against the way the US handle their war against terrorism, then you are probably inclined to be against this film. But that’s really mixing up two things. I thought that this movie stayed away from a lot of the glorifying we usually see in movies like this. It depicts  highly trained men on a mission that goes wrong. Sure, the characters want to kill as many Afghanis as they can, and they don’t try to apply a lot of empathy, but I’d like to see what all the liberal thinkers who criticized this film would do in a similar situation. Would they still try to understand and speak in a politically correct way about people who are trying to kill them?

I liked this film and the way it was done. I’m not keen on the US strategies against terrorism, but there is no denying that they exist. And there is no denying that the US military has some admirably well-trained soldiers who would do anything for each other.

Watch it if you like watching an action-driven movie inspired by a true story, leave it out if you expect criticism of the US military.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

The Best Years of Our Lives

I’m actually a bit surprised that I really liked this melodramatic movie, despite the fact that the gender roles and the messages about family and marriage are cringe-worthy. While I felt it’s dated, I could still understand why this won 7 Oscars when it came out.

The Best Years of Our Lives shows three WWII veterans returning home to small-town America. The three men meet on the plane home. Homer is a young marine, Fred is an equally young airforce captain and war hero, while Al is a fortysomething Infantry Sgt. The three men go back to very different lives. Homer who has lost both arms is scared that people will react badly, especially his childhood love Wilma. Fred returns to his wife to whom he’d been married for only 20 days before going abroad. He used to work in a drugstore before the war and hopes that becuase he is a highly decorated officer now, he will find a better job. Al, the oldest of the trio, has been married for twenty years and has two grown-up children. He used to work in a prominent position in a bank and is pretty sure to return to an equally good position.

On the rather lengthy trip they share some of their fears and hopes, and before parting they decide they will meet some day at a bar that belongs to Homer’s uncle.

The three men soon find out that returning is very difficult. They have changed, society has changed and people don’t react with a lot of empathy. By the time they meet at the bar for the first time, all three of them are disillusioned about their home and, even more about themselves.

The first part of the film is really good, but then it turns too melodramatic for my taste, although I liked the love story between Fred and Al’s daughter. The movie is worthwhile for many reasons. Some of the scenes are really gopd, the acting is great and the cinematography was convincing too. Some critics found the end too corny. While I wouldn’t exactly deny that, I liked the scene set at the aircraft graveyard, which takes place towards the end. I think it is one of my favourite war movie scenes (see below).

What is worth mentioning is that Howard Russell who plays Homer had lost both of his hands in 1944. I think you can easily imagine how authentic that makes Homer.

A trailer

And here’s the aircraft graveyard scene

Miklós Jancsó’s The Round-Up – Szegénylegények (1966)

The Round-Up

I suppose when you’ve seen quite a lot of the well-known prisoner of war films and are fond of the genre, you’ll come across Miklós Jancsó’s The Round-Up aka Szegénylegények sooner or later. Not only is it an unusual example of a POW movie, but it’s considered to be a masterpiece of European filmmaking and was highly influential.

Miklós Jancsó is a Hungarian film maker. He started out with documentaries before he moved on to movies. He’s made a few famous films – The Red and the White – My Way Home and many others. The Round-Up was the movie that made him famous and is still considered to be his most important film.

The Round-Up is set in a prison camp, on some God-forsaken stretch of land on the Hungarian Plain (Puszta). It’s the mid 19th century and the Austrian hegemony has just been re-established after the unsuccessful revolution of 1848. The men who are held in this prison camp are suspected to be followers of the leader of the revolution Lajos Kossuth. There is still a lot of guerilla activity going on and the Austrians, helped by their Hungarian counterparts, try to find out who are the guerilla leaders. Most of them are suspected to be among the prisoners and the guards use perfidious and sadistic techniques to find out who they are. 

What we see applied in this film is psychological torture. People are promised not to be executed if they can find others who killed more people than they did. Or the guards pretend that a guerilla leader will be pardoned which makes his followers cheer. Of course they have been set up and that was a means to find out who they are.

Humiliation is part of the tactics used. We see how one officer is stripped of his rank, how the guards rip all the insignia from his uniform and while they do not harm him, it feels extremely violent. We later realize that this was foreshadowing as other suspects undergo a fate that’s similar but even worse. One girl is stripped and whipped until she dies. Watching the whipping of the girl triggers a flood of suicides. Later men are stripped too.

Torture is always humiliating but this subtle use of psychological torture is, although less violent, just as effective in that regard.

I have to be honest, I personally didn’t like this film, although it has a lot of poignant scenes, which I’m not likely to forget, but overall this isn’t my type of movie. It’s visually expressive but there isn’t much plot and hardly any dialogue. I don’t need action or plot but I like more atmosphere and dialogue. The Round-Up is all about forms, shapes, space and minimal movement. Plus it’s set in the type of flat landscape I’m really not keen on. That doesn’t mean I didn’t appreciate the film, I just couldn’t relate to it much. But it’s an important movie if you are either a cinephile or a war movie completist. I’ll watch The Red and the White and My Way Home next.

You can watch the whole movie on YouTube