Machine Gun Preacher (2011)

Machine Gun Preacher is based on a true story, the story of ex Hell’s Angel and bad boy Sam Childers.

At the beginning of the movie Sam gets out of prison. He hasn’t learned anything from that experience and wants to get back to his former life. Drugs, booze, his Harley Davidson and his stripping wife. Unfortunately for him, his wife has found Jesus, works at a mall, doesn’t strip, drink or smoke anymore and goes to church on Sundays. Sam does what he always did, gets drunk and high and ends up fighting with everyone. Then, one night, something really bad happens and wakes him up for good. He joins the church to which his wife belongs, sobers up, sells his bike, gets a decent job.

But that’s not enough for Sam. The way he used to be, lies too heavy on his conscience, he wants more, do more, do better. He builds a church and travels to Africa to see what good the missionaries do there. When he crosses the border into Sudan with a soldier from the Sudanese Liberation Army whom he met in Uganda, he sees things he has never even heard of. Mutilated people, shot women and children, cruelty and violence. He hears about the child soldiers recruited by the LRA (Lords Resistance Army), led by Joseph Kony, sees the many orphans whose parents have been slaughtered. Sam decides that this is his cause. God wants him to help and he will help.

What makes him different from all the social workers down there is that he doesn’t only help and bring money, he also fights. He doesn’t only defend his property, he attacks the aggressors and intimidates them in using the same methods they use. Ultimately he doesn’t mind killing. For him – this is obvious – this is more than just helping, this is fighting a war. A war against oppression, exploitation, violence and cruelty.

If it wasn’t for that, the movie would be average but because of this, it’s a very interesting movie because it seems to state some uncomfortable things and ask interesting questions. Can there be a level of violence which makes it impossible to fight it with non-violence? Could it be dangerous to just try to do good without being prepared to kill and shoot people for the greater good?

I’m not saying I agree with Childers (I personally think we are not meant to intervene everywhere all the time but that’s my opinion. I think if we want to do good, we can start in our own cities, our own neighbourhoods and families.) but I understand his point and found the movie quite interesting.

Machine Gun Preacher reminded me of Lord of War and Blood Diamond and some other movies which make African civil wars and warlords their main topic. While I think it’s a movie which will generate a lot of discussions and I didn’t mind watching it, I still think that movies like Lord of War, Hotel Rwanda and some others were far better. But it’s decent and for Gerard Butler fans certainly a must-see.

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Glory (1989) A Tale of the American Civil War

When I first watched Glory it made my Top 10. Many movies later and after having seen it for the second time, it doesn’t make the Top 10 anymore but it is still one of the very best war movies ever. I would even argue it’s flawless. The acting is superior, cinematography is beautiful, score is great, themes are interesting. I suppose it’s accurate as well. It’s a 5/5 movie but… for me to really like or rather love a movie it needs to have something more than perfection, something like complexity. I decidedly have no problem with Matthew Broderick but I’m not very familiar with him. Some people criticized this choice because they saw him in other movies and thought he was too young at the time.

The movie tells the story of the 54th all black Union regiment led by Col Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick). This is the first all black regiment ever. The whole regiment is composed of volunteers who are eager to join, train and eventually fight. It’s not easy to train these men, many of them are former slaves, runaways, analphabets and all in all an unwieldy bunch. Especially Private Trip (Denzel Washington) isn’t one who easily takes no for an answer. If Shaw wasn’t such a truly humane, kind and just leader and if he hadn’t the support of his friend Major Forbes and the ever so wise older soldier Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) maybe the whole enterprise would have been a failure. Luckily it isn’t or we wouldn’t have this highly watchable movie in which people can be seen how they overcome the worst adversity.

Shaw has to fight hard to earn recognition and justice for his men. They are lacking everything, shoes, uniforms, weapons and when finally they get their equipment and have undergone a successful training they lack the opportunity to show that they are worthy soldiers.

There are a lot of infuriating scenes in this movie, after all it deals with racism. Racism has many faces but at the end of the day, whatever face it has, it’s an ugly one.

It’s uplifting to see the suppressed overcome obstacles and all the more because it’s a true story. Glory is based on the letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (you can find them here Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw)

I haven’t seen many Civil War movies, I think only three so far. While I had a hard time to follow Gettysburg, I thoroughly enjoyed this one but the one I prefer is Ride with the Devil.

How about you? Any preferences?

Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom (1995) A Story of the Spanish Civil War

At the beginning of Ken Loach’s movie Land and Freedom, we see a young woman sorting out the things her late grandfather has left behind. She finds a suitcase full of black and white photos, newspaper articles and letters that show her a hidden part in her grandfather’s life. Little had she known that he had fought in the Spanish Civil War and loved a Spanish woman.

In 1936 David Carr (Ian Hart) is an unemployed miner and member of the British Communist Party. When someone from the Spanish Communist Party shows up and tells them about the Civil War in Spain in which the people fight against General Franco’s Army and the rich landowners, David spontaneously decides to go to Spain and fight for the rights of the people.

On his train journey he meets people from the Spanish militia, part of the POUM, a communist group that fights independently of the International Stalinist Brigades. He has no particular place to be and decides to join them. The people in the little group he is fighting with are all idealists. They come from all over the world, the US, Germany, Italy, Ireland, the UK. They want to fight for the rights of the peasants and the poor and not join the Stalinist Brigades which they consider to be corrupt and only interested in their own cause.

David who at first seems to think he is living some kind of adventure, soon faces the harsh reality. Not only is the fighting often heavy and there are casualties but they are badly trained and equipped and the Stalinists keep the weapons from them. When one of those faulty guns explodes, David is injured and sent to the hospital. Blanca, one of the group visits him in Barcelona, after he has come out of the hospital. They spend a night together but she leaves disgusted when she finds out that David has decided to join the Stalinists.

David will regret his decision soon enough and return to his old POUM group. The movie ends tragically and on a note of utter disillusionment.

Land and Freedom was absolutely not what I had expected and I assume that is exactly what Ken Loach was aiming for. We all have our ideas about the Spanish Civil War, some very romantic ones mostly. We know that Hemingway fought in Spain and so many other writers, painters… It seemed to have been one of the very rare wars with a justified cause to fight for. Ken Loach destroys all our romantic ideas and that is why the movie is good and annoying at the same time. He tries to show how it must have been. The fights and differences within the Communist Party and their subgroups, the endless talking and theorizations. The middle part of the movie is one long annoying and boring conversation and dispute about collectivism.

An aspect I wasn’t familiar with is the fact that women were only allowed to fight alongside the men at the beginning of the war. Later it was decided that they had to do “womanly” things like cooking or being nurses. I thought that women fought all through this war. Another shattered illusion.

Loach has earned a lot of praise and got also a lot of scolding for this movie. Some think that finally someone told it as it was, others think he dirtied the memory of the Spanish Civil War.

I am a fan of Ken Loach‘s movies, he has done quite a few that I liked a lot, although I wouldn’t go as far as saying that I liked Land and Freedom, I must say, I appreciated it. I felt somewhat stupid for having to realize that my idea of the Spanish Civil War had maybe been a tad too romantic as well.

Unfortunately there was no trailer of Land and Freedom, only the first part of the movie.

Henry of Navarre aka Henry 4 (2010)

Based on Heinrich Mann’s eponymous novel Henry of Navarre aka Henry 4 is a large-scale epic about one of the bloodiest chapters in French history. This is a fascinating and eerily beautiful movie. It is a French-German co-production which explains why there are as many French as German actors.

I’m quite familiar with French history from Louis XIV on but what came before is somewhat blurred. I knew about the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day (La St. Barthélemy) and the Edict of Nantes, was familiar with the Queen Margot and Catherine de Medici, I had even heard the famous saying “Paris vaut bien une messe” meaning “Paris is worth a mass” but I wouldn’t have tied all this together and associated it with Henry of Navarre, future King Henry IV of France. What a bloody story, full of treachery, passion, fanaticism, civil war and murder.

Henry, King of the little kingdom of Navarre, is forced to go to war at an early age. By the time he turns twenty it is all he knows. It is the time in which France is divided in two. Catholics are on one side, Protestants (Huguenots) on the other. The Civil War or Wars of Religion rage and tear the country apart. Paris and the court are held by Catholics who are to a certain extent ruled by the Pope. They don’t get married without the assent of the Holy Father. The people of the kingdom of Navarre and Henry himself are Protestants. The opposing parties meet on the battlefield more often than anywhere else.

France is unofficially reigned by the scary Catherine de Medici, the King’s mother. Charles, the King, is an anxious man, constantly afraid of being poisoned or murdered. His fear is well grounded as we will soon find out. Catherine de Medici had the reputation of being a cruel, despotic woman who had people executed on a whim. But even she is tired of war and arranges a marriage between her daughter, the beautiful Margot, and Henry of Navarre.

The marriage is overshadowed by the death of Henry’s mother, presumably she was poisoned. As soon as they are married someone orders to massacre all the protestants in the city which will be the famous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

The following two-thirds of the story follow Henry until he finally becomes Henry IV, King of France. Many people had to lose their life to make this a possibility.

The movie excels in making these people come to life and shows us a King who was far beyond the ordinary. He was  much-loved, tolerant and accepting of people of every religious conviction. This may well have been the first step towards France becoming a secular country, something it has remained until today. Henry was also a womanizer, a trait the film-makers enjoyed to illustrate.

For those who aren’t familiar with the story of Henry IV, I’m not going to reveal too much. It should suffice to say that love plays a major role. He will also divorce the Queen Margot as she cannot give him the much-needed heir and will get married to Marie de Medici.

I didn’t know much about Henry IV, so I’m not sure how well-chosen Julien Boisselier is. He’s a pleasant, likable looking man and did a very good job.

Ulrich Noethen as Charles IX, is very convincing. He is an experienced actor who has starred in movies like The Downfall.

Having studied old French literature I had to read Agrippa D’Aubignés Les Tragiques. It’s a harrowing account of the times and the Wars of Religion. I liked that Agrippa played a prominent role in the movie. He is played by the excellent German actor Joachim Król. Agrippa was one of Henry’s best friends and only left him towards the end, to withdraw from the world and start to write his famous book.

The most fascinating character of them all, is Catherine de Medici. Hannelore Hoger, a German TV star, plays her very well. She gives an uncanny, eerie and quite scary Catherine de Medici.

All in all, I enjoyed Henry of Navarre a lot and will re-watch it. If you like epic movies, beautiful cinematography and French history you will enjoy it.

I’d like to thank Showbox Media Group for sending me a review copy of the movie.

Henry of Navarre is out to buy on Blu-ray and 2 disc-DVD on 4th July 2011, courtesy of Showbox Media Group.

Winner of the DVD Giveaway Henry of Navarre

As promised I have drawn the winner of the DVD Giveaway Henry of Navarre today.

I used random. org. and the winner is

Guy Savage

Congratulations Guy. Drop me a line at allaboutwarmovies at gmail dot com.

I have received my review copy yesterday and will be watching it shortly. At 148 minutes it is quite long. Maybe it would have been a worthy candidate for my 12 French war movies list. I’m eager to find out.

Henry of Navarre is out to buy on Blu-ray and 2 disc-DVD on 4th July 2011, courtesy of Showbox Media Group.

Voces Inocentes aka Innocent Voices (2004) Children as Soldiers in the Civil War in El Salvador

Based on a true story, Luis Mandoki’s Voces Inocentes aka Innocent Voices is going directly on my list of all time favourites, regardless of the genre. This Mexico/US/Puerto Rico co-production is an astonishingly beautiful movie despite the atrocities it depicts. It is simply awesome and as good as Army of Crime about which I raved last year. It is one of the movies on my Children in War Movies List and a s such worth watching in any case.

What makes this movie so incredible is the fact that it works on many levels. It is as much the story of a childhood and a little boy, as an in-depth look at a way of life we are less than familiar with and a civil war we have almost forgotten about. Last but not least it shows the portrait of a mother (Leonor Varela) whose spirited fight and love for her children makes her one of the most memorable and dignified characters I have seen in any movie.

The war, that started in 1980 and lasted 12 years, was initially a conflict between the army and the campesinos, the land owners, over land rights. When they didn’t come to an arrangement the campesinos formed a guerilla, the FMLN, to defend their rights. The war escalated into a bloody civil war. On top of that the US felt the urge to provide the Army with weapons and heir assisstance, fearing that the guerrilleros would be supported by the USSR. The war cost 75’000 lives and over 1 Mio people fled the country. Lacking men, the Army recruited young boys who were barely 12 years old. Oscar Torres, who wrote the script, is the model for Chava, the little boy, whose story we see.

The movie starts with soldiers escorting little boys holding their hands over their heads, to an execution place. They walk in the pouring rain and we hear Chava’s voice in the off. It’s a beautifully filmed scene that immediately sets the tone for the whole movie. We will see many scenes that take place in the pouring rain and are of great beauty despite the fact that they show horrors.

Chava (Carlos Padilla) lives alone with his mother and his little brother and sister. The father has fled the country and gone to the US. Chava’s young and beautiful mother, Kella, is truly a memorable character. Tender and fierce at the same time, she defends her children and fights for their survival. These are the poorest of the poor, their houses are only shacks with cardboard roofs. Kella tries to make a living as a seamstress. Imagine living in a shack when at night there is fighting in the roads. Bullets easily enter the walls of the houses and come flying past your head, there is hardly any cover apart from mattresses that are build up against those thinnest of walls. It is hard to imagine that people not only lived in such poverty but had to endure a war like this that threatened their lives on a daily basis. Many got killed like this, in their own house.

Young Chava is a cheerful and funny little boy. Despite the war, he plays with his friends, falls in love with a little girl, fights with his mother, finds a means to earn money. Even though they have nothing, live precariously, his childhood seems almost enchanted. The tiniest things amuse him, he lives with great intensity, knows no boredom.

The main theme of the movie is the threat that the soldiers will come and get Chava and his friends. We see many scenes in which little boys are recruited by force. The procedures are quite upsetting. Some of the boys around Chava finally decide to join the guerilla in order to avoid the military. And that is what little Chava does in the end as well. The final scene of the movie brings us back to the beginning. Chava and his friends have joined the guerilla and were caught by the Army. Unless they get help, they will most probably be executed.

The actors are amazing, especially the children. They are really awesome. The movie is full of beautiful scenes that allow us to have a look at these precarious lives in poverty. They convey a melancholic beauty that is quite special. There are a few songs that are important in the movie. They had been forbidden by the army but were listened to anyway.

The movie manages to mix a lot of different tones. At times it is sad and melancholic, at times it is thoughtful almost meditative, then again it’s funny or just downright tragic. Innocent voices is a gem, a must-see.

One final word: the people from El Salvador were apparently not entirely happy about this movie because none of the actors is from El Salvador and it has been filmed in Mexico.