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.

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.

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

The Desert Fox (1951) Biopic on Field Marshal Rommel’s Final Years

The Desert Fox

The Desert Fox, starring James Mason as Field Marshal Rommel, is based on the biography of Rommel by Desmond Young. The movie opens with British commandos trying to assassinate Rommel in 1941 and then forwards to 1943 showing Rommel at El Alamein.  Rommel, who is of poor health, is just back on the front line and faces a pretty desperate situation. The German troops are far outnumbered and any reasonable commander would give the order to withdraw. Not so Hitler whose consultants all encourage him to give orders to either win or die. For the first time, the movie tells us, Rommel starts to doubt the Führer’s sanity. It will not be the last time. On the very contrary. The movie tries to show a Rommel who goes from doubt to open criticism and even knows the group around von Stauffenberg will attempt to assassinate Hitler. While not tied to the assassination he’s still found guilty of treason and given a chance to either get a fake trial or to commit suicide in order to assure the future of his wife and son.

I must admit I expected this movie to be far better than it was. The story is interesting, of course, but the way this was filmed was not much better than a B-movie. Mason is good, I wouldn’t say he’s great but he’s good. There is just one problem. He doesn’t look like Rommel. What didn’t work is that most of the movie is either composed of real footage or scenes filmed in the studio which makes the whole movie look like a theater play broken up by documentary material.

The other problem is that we don’t really get to know Rommel. Given that the title of the movie is The Desert Fox and not “Rommel’s Downfall” or some such thing, I expected that we will learn why Rommel was considered to be such a great general. Although he was their enemy, the Allies admired and feared him. The movie only shows us a Rommel who is very realistic, who knows when a battle can’t be won, who makes great suggestions, but isn’t heard. The movie also fals in showing Rommels’ humanity. It seems he was never accused of war crimes. He refused to kill Jewish soldiers, civilians and prisoners.

The best part is that the movie shows how Rommel first doubts the people who consult Hitler before he doubts the man himself. Once he’s understood that his Führer is nothing but a maniac, he speaks his mind openly and confronts him.

I watched the movie Patton two years ago and thought it was outstanding. If anyone knows of a biopic of Rommel which is equally good, please let me know.

I didn’t mind watching The Desert Fox, but it’s certainly not the ultimate movie on Rommel.

Rommel’s son Manfred died last month. It’s interesting to know that he formed a friendship with Patton’s and Montgomer’y sons.

Here’s one of the best scenes in which Rommel confronts Hitler

Ballad of a Soldier – Ballada o soldate (1959)

Ballad of a Soldier

Grigory Chukhray‘s movie Ballad of a Soldier  aka Ballada o Soldate is an iconic Russian war movie, which is often mentioned together with another famous Russian movie of the same time, The Cranes are Flying aka Letyat zhuravli. Both films are excellent and combine heartfelt stories with luminous black and white cinematography.

Ballad of a Soldier begins with a scene showing a woman looking into the distance. The road we see is the only one leading to and from the village in which the woman lives. She doesn’t expect anyone to come. Her son has died during the war and nobody will ever know what would have become of him. The movie then rewinds to a famous scene on the Russian frontline and we see her son, nineteen year-old Alyosha, a young signalman, blowing up two German tanks on his own. This heroic act would bring him a  medal but he’d rather be granted a leave to visit his widowed mother and fix her roof. The general in charge, one of a few kind officers, allows him to take a five-day leave.

Russia is a huge country and travelling by train would always take a long time, but during a war it’s almost impossible. Alyosha’s trip quickly turns into an Odyssey. Because he’s kind and helpful, he misses his train more than once. At first he helps a soldier who has lost his leg, then he assists a young girl and the two young people fall in love. Later he helps people after the train is hit by a bomb. When he finally arrives at home, he has only time to hug his mother, exchange a few words and has to leave again immediately. Since we know that he will die during the war, this scene is all the more poignant.

The movie shows how everyone is affected by war, even those who don’t fight. In focussing on someone as kind as Alyosha, someone who genuinely cares for other people the movie makes a powerful anti-war statement. Much more than his heroic act of the beginning, his humanity and kindness make us sad and we deplore that he will never return to his mother, nor get a chance to find the girl he fell in love with.

Something that struck me was that all of the Russian officers, and most of the soldiers in this movie are depicted in a positive way.

Like in The Cranes Are Flying, many shots focus on the faces of the actors who are very expressive. While the first film sticks more to the point of view of a woman, this is told mostly from the point of view of a young man, which makes them great companion pieces. The scenes between mother and son are short but still I’d say it’s one of the most touching portraits of a mother/son relationship. After all, it’s his love for his mother, that makes Alyosha persevere on his journey.

I’d like to recommend this movie. It stands out and makes a powerful statement.

If you’d like to watch other Russia war movies – here is a list: 12 Russian war movies you must see