Peaky Blinders (2013) British Post-WWI Gangster Saga

peaky-blinders-cillian-murphy-600-lg

Sometimes you just have to stretch definitions. I’ve included other movies and TV series which were not exactly “war films” but dealt with the aftermath of war or a post-war era, and that’s why I think it’s fair to include Peaky Blinders. That and because it is fantastic. I really loved it and have to thank my friend Novroz for repeatedly writing about it. Besides it just proves a point. These days a lot of the best visual story telling isn’t shown in cinemas but on TV. And did I mention Nick Cave, Tom Waits and the White Stripes? I’ll come to that later.

Set in Birmingham in 1920, Peaky Blinders tells the story of a family of gangsters. They work pretty much mafia-style. They intimidate people, extort money against protection, fix races, use violence. Arthur Shelby (Paul Anderson) is the oldest brother, Thomas (Cillian Murphy) the second, Jimmy is next and little Fin who is barely 5 years old is the youngest. There is also a sister, Ada, who’s in love with the communist Freddie Thorne. We never hear what happened to the mother, and the father, a thieving, whoring bastard, appears much later in the series. The only parent figure who is around constantly is aunt Polly (Helen McCrory). People assume that Arthur being the oldest is in charge but he’s far too dumb for that. The real boss of the Peaky Blinders is Thomas, assisted by aunt Polly. Thomas is the one with the business ideas, ready to strike, cold and calculating, and never shying away from violence. But he’s also loyal and courageous. Polly can be as cold and calculating as Thomas but she’s also diplomatic and keeps the family together on a more emotional level. Whenever there is conflict between the one or the other, she will reconcile them.

The world the Peaky Blinders live in is rough. It’s a world of poverty, delinquency, alcoholism and prostitution. Most of the money of the Shelby’s comes from bookmaking, contraband trade and robberies. The whole tragic story is set in motion when they steal a truckload of guns by mistake at the beginning of the series.

Winston Churchill sends for an Irish inspector who is an expert in the fight against the IRA. Churchill suspects that the guns are either in the hands of the IRA or the Communists. Both would be equally bad. The inspector is a self-righteous man, of those movie characters one really loves to hate – especially since he’s played by Sam Neill.

Thomas is intelligent and troubled. Like most of the men in the series he served in France and the trenches have changed him. He’s a broken man, who uses opium to fight his demons and distances himself from any feeling. Nightmares and visions of France haunt him like they haunt many others.

Music is very important for this series. The sound track is a mix of songs and original score by Nick Cave, the White Stripes and Tom Waits. Some sequences, notably those showing Thomas on his own or the “battle scenes”  are composed like stylish, gritty music video.

A gang like the Peaky Blinders is bound to have enemies and there are a lot of bloody confrontations with other gangs, bookmakers and the police. The power struggle between the inspector and Thomas makes is very suspenseful.

WWI is present all through this series. Many of the loyalties, the friendships and aversions in the series have a source in whether or not characters have served and whether or not they served together. The war left its mark on the society and on the people. The good and the bad in Thomas comes to a large extent from the war. He knows what courage under fire means. He’s been decorated twice. But he also knows that the war bruises and breaks you and leaves scars all over your body and your soul.

I’m not going to say  much more just this – watch it. I really loved Peaky Blinders and will watch it again. Before ending I should say that the series is a bit of a one man show. It wouldn’t have been as outstanding without Cillian Murphy‘s stellar performance, on the other hand it would be unfair not to mention that all the other actors are really good too.

Advertisements

Blackadder – Scene From WWI Series

I’ve spent a few hours compiling a WWI related book list and suddenly remembered I still haven’t watched Blackadder, let alone the final series Blackadder Goes Forth, which is set during WWI.

A Very Long Engagement – Un long dimanche de fiançailles (2004)

Very Long Engagement

It’s entirely the fault of movies like A Very Long Engagement that this blog lies dormant most of the time. Who wants to write about a film like this?

There are movies that I call “darlings” of the public. Everyone goes “oh” and “ah” and “oh so wonderful” just upon hearing the title. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Améelie is one of them, and – not surprisingly starring the same actress, Audrey Taoutou – Un long dimanche de fiançailles is another of those “darlings”. The fact is that most of the time these are precisely the movies I cannot stand. I watched Un long dimanche de fiançailles for the second time, hoping I’d succumb to its charm – but that didn’t happen. On the very contrary. I liked it even less. Why though? I’m not sure. It’s particularly sad because there aren’t all that many WWI movies.

A Very Long Engagament tells the story of two young lovers separated by WWI. Mathilde and Manech fall in love just before the war breaks out. They are still almost children. Both are outsiders. She because she is limping, he because he seems to be a bit simple-minded.

When he doesn’t return from the war, Mathilde swears to find him. It is said that he was court-martialled together with four others. The five men shot themselves in order to be sent home.

Mathilde acts a bit like a PI, interrogating people, following every lead. Although everyone tells her that Manech has been shot, she is convinced that he is still alive. Their connection is strong, she would feel it, if he was dead.

A Very Long Engagement is a typical Jean-Pierre Jeunet movie. His films often look like old sepia-colored photos and have a vintage feel. The trench scenes are not bad and from a purely cinematic point of view it’s a beautiful film but I always have a problem with his characters and find many of them off putting. I would still like to read the book by Japrisot.

Has anyone seen it? Did you like it and if so why?

Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

I’ve seen a few depressing war movies and the one or the other that affected me a lot, still I’d say the prize for most depressing war movie has to go to Johnny Got His Gun (1971 US). What a nightmare. If there ever was a movie which was completely unambiguous in its anti-war message, that’s it.

Dalton Trumbo’s novel Johnny Got His Gun was quite a success when it came out still no film director wanted to make it into a movie until Trumbo himself decided to do so. The result is unsettling.

Joe is a young man of 21 years when the US enter WWI in 1917. Patriotism and a feeling of duty, the wish to serve his country and democracy make him sing up. Once in France he is severely wounded, loses both of  his arms and legs and his face as well. They put him in a utility room in the hospital, his head covered with cloth. The doctor who is in charge declares that he is brain-dead. According to him he doesn’t feel or sense anything and isn’t much more than a vegetable really.

The scenes showing Joe in the hospital are black and white and they alternate with color scenes representing either dreams and hallucinations or memories. As the spectators soon realize, Joe isn’t brain-dead. He has a feeling for himself and slowly discovers the horrific state he is in. Together with him we realize at first that his arms are missing, then that his legs are missing too and later that there is only the top of his head and the brain left.

In the flashbacks we see his life before he signs up and in his dreams and hallucinations show how he tries to make sense, tries to find a meaning and some reason to live.

If it wasn’t for one nurse who is so shaken by compassion his live would be even more miserable than it is. She sees more than just a rump in him, moves his bed into the sunlight, touches him and tries to communicate with him.

The end is absolutely horrible. Joe finds a way to communicate with the people around him in using morse code. He tells them to expose him. As a warning, for people to learn. When the doctors see their mistake, that he isn’t brain-dead but knows what is happening to him, they lock him up, and deprive him of what little he had. He ends up as a secret and one can not even imagine what that means. Alone, abandoned and without the possibility to end his own life.

Johnny Got His Gun may be one of the most forceful anti-war movies ever but it’s really a very depressing movie. Not one I’m likely to watch again.

This was part of a watch along and I’m curious to hear other impressions or read other reviews.

The Lost Battalion (2001) WWI TV Remake

The Lost Battalion is a US made for TV movie based on a true story that happened during the last weeks of WWI. It’s seems to be a remake of the 1919 movie The Lost Battalion. I haven’t seen the film from 1919, so cannot comment on how well it’s been remade.

Set in 1918 The Lost Battalion tells the story of the 77th American division which got caught behind enemy lines in the Argonne Forest, in France. Major Whittlesey is assigned one of those incomprehensible suicide missions of which there were so many during WWI. Together with 500 men he is to attack the German forces in the Argonne Forest. Additional forces are sent out to give support through the flanks but before even arriving on the assigned post, they retreat.

Out of a sense of duty Major Whittlesey and his men hold out despite the fact that they have no food, no water, no ammunition. The siege lasts 5 days and costs the life of 300 men. Most of the men are from New York, they are Irish, Polish, Italian and Jewish immigrants which, according to Whittlesey, contributed to the success as they are known to be reckless fighters.

I know this is a movie that quite a lot of people like but I must honestly say, I found it quite boring. It’s combat intense and seems quite accurate but the story isn’t told in a very suspenseful way. There are no outstanding characters either. It has a few additional flaws which I’ve noticed in other TV productions and which bothered me after a while. The wounds look garish instead of horrible wounds because the color of the blood is an intense orange. The acting was average but not too painful.

Still, I suppose it’s a worthy effort as we don’t see a lot of WWI infantry combat movies from a US perspective and according to the film this battle helped break through the German lines and ultimately was a key factor in ending the war. That certainly deserved to be told. If accuracy is the most important thing for you, don’t miss it. I prefer a well-told or interestingly filmed story.

War Movie Watchalong – Johnny Got His Gun – Sunday 23 September

The poll has decided and the movie we are going to watch and discuss is:

Johnny Got His Gun (1971 US)

It was quite close. Johnny Got His Gun received 5 votes, The Bomber – Ballada O Bombere was following with 4 and The Hurt Locker with 3 votes.

I think it’s a good choice and I’m looking forward to the discussion.

If you’d like to join and have a blog, please post on the same day, if you don’t have a blog, just watch the movie and join the discussion.

The discussion will take place on Sunday 23 September 2012

The Monocled Mutineer (1986) A British WWI TV Series

Mention WWI and TV series together and you will get my full attention. I had never heard of the four part BBC series The Monocled Mutineer before ordering another WWI movie and seeing this one mentioned as well. I’m particularly keen on movies on WWI and generally fond of made for TV productions. Plus reading how much controversy this show created, making it the most controversial British show ever, I was even keener on watching it. It has not been shown on TV again since its first and last airing in 1986. Pretty astonishing. Here is a review from IMDb by a user named dunkah.

The reason this drama has not been repeated is that after the first broadcast the BBC came under fire from the government and were banned from screening it again. This was due to the sensitivity of the subject matter, i.e. Percy Toplis and the mutiny at “The Bull Ring”, a harsh British Army training ground in Etaples, France. There is a lot of mist around Percy Toplis who was finally tracked down and killed some years after the end of the war. No one truly knows the events that transpired at the Bull Ring for certain and we won’t know until 2017 when the files on the event will finally be released. Until then all we have is this drama and I think there should be a demand that it should be broadcast again, some 18 years on.

The series starts with the shooting of Toplis that’s why the quote above isn’t a spoiler. It then rewinds and tells his whole story from his childhood, to the trenches and from there to the forest and finally back to England.

Toplis (Paul McGann) comes from a modest background, a mining town. Being a miner is not the type of occupation he sees himself in. From his early childhood on he figures he is better than his working class upbringing. Delinquent at a young age, he spends time in prison and finally when WWI breaks out he joins up. At first he’s doing his bit as cannon fodder but he’s the insubordinate type and gets into trouble more than once. Still he survives several offensives and while not keen on danger and the trenches, he isn’t bothered too much. What bothers him is the way he is treated and the way the officers treat his comrades.

He witnesses executions for no other reason than fear in battle. He observes cruelty and sadistic behaviour. But not only abuse infuriates him, it’s also clear that the British high command makes many bad decisions which cost lives.

Toplis is a tall and very handsome man and he is capable of speaking like and officer. This gives him the opportunity to live the life of an officer in the evenings. With a stolen uniform and pretending to be of high rank, all the doors are open.

When he’s finally had enough, he deserts and lives with a bunch of other deserters from different countries. They instigate a mutiny and create quite a commotion. Although many people are involved in these acts of insubordination it’s finally Toplis who is the most wanted man.

I can understand why there was reluctance to show this series again. Despite the fact that it has very slow moments, it’s excellent and I’ve hardly ever seen a British production in which the officers and high command were criticized like this. Watching this made me really furious more than once. Pair incompetence with arrogance and you will have a total disaster. The way the officers treated the soldiers was appalling. No respect whatsoever for the so-called lower classes.

Toplis is a fascinating character. He isn’t exactly a likable man, he cheats and lies and betrays wherever he can and very probably if he had been born noble he wouldn’t have cared much about those below himself. His character just exemplifies that all it took to pass for an officer was a uniform, manners and a certain size. He is one of those charcaters we usually find in novels. There are many like him in literture, Felix Krull, Bel-Ami, to name but two.

As I said before it has a few slow moments, still it’s highly watchable and interesting.