The Great Raid (2005)

The Great Raid

The Great Raid, starring James Franco, Benjamin Bratt, Joseph Fiennes and Connie Nielsen, tells the story of the raid at Cabanatuan, on the island of Luzon, Philippines, in January 1945. The story is based on a true story.

The movie begins with original footage and a voice telling us what had happened before. In 1944 when the US closed in on Japanese-occupied Philippines, there were 500 prisoners of war held at a POW camp at Cabanatuan. They were some of the survivors of the notorious Bataan Death March, in 1942. The Japanese made 80,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war after the Battle of Bataan. Forcing them to move, caused the death of over 10,000 people. The men died of abuse or because they were shot when they tried to escape.

Since the Japanese had the order to fight to the last and not leave any POWs behind, they killed many before the arrival of the US in 1944.

The movie follows three different plot lines. One line focusses on the men of the 6th Rangers Battalion, assisted by Filipino guerilla, who were assigned to free the soldiers held captive at Cabanatuan, the second line tells the story of the prisoners around major Briggs, and the third follows the Filipino resistance headed by nurse Margaret Utinsky.

The Filipino resistance’s main concern was to smuggle medicine to the men in the camp. Most of them had malaria or suffered from various injuries because they were beaten and tortured.

I wasn’t familiar with the story and I think it was well worth telling. It was the biggest US rescue mission ever and took great courage and careful planning, both of which are illustrated in the movie.

The camp scenes were not very original. They had a small-scale Bridge of the River Kwai feel but were, of course, not as good. I didn’t think Joseph Fiennes was the best choice for the major but that’s because I have a bit of a personal aversion. I find the way he plays often melodramatic. It certainly was in this movie.

The resistance scenes were quite typical as well. What made the movie worthwhile in spite of a lack of originality were the actors who played the soldiers of the 6th Rangers and the combination of the three plot lines.

There’s a love story between Margaret and Major Briggs but it’s not corny. It adds another dimension and since it’s supposedly a true story it’s rather tragic.

I wasn’t too keen on the music. It sounded very 40s and was used like in the 40s, meaning—never ending background music. At first I thought the movie was a remake, but I don’t think it was.

It’s a watchable movie but it’s not great. If it had been cut and condensed it would have been better. Nonetheless, thanks to the long intro and because it’s a true story, I found it interesting. I’m surprised that as many as 500 survived the three years of captivity under these conditions.

One last word: if you’re looking for a movie that paints a positive or balanced picture of the Japanese, this isn’t one of them. All the Japanese we see in this movie are cruel and violent.

 

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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.

Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt (2012)

Hannah Arendt

I knew I couldn’t go wrong with Hannah Arendt. It can’t get much better than Barbara Sukowa starring in a movie by Margarethe von Trotta. Just recently I have watched another movie they’ve made together – Vision, which was amazing – and I was looking forward to watch Hannah Arendt. The movie is, as I expected, very good, but the title is badly chosen. It would have been much better to call it Arendt on Eichmann or some such thing. With her name as the sole title we’re led to believe it’s about her life while it’s only about her controversial book on Adolf Eichmann and the extreme hostility she experienced after writing it.

Philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt emigrated to France in 1933 and, after having spent some time at Camp Gurs, emigrated to the US in 1941 where she stayed until her death in 1975. She lived in New York.

The movie takes place in 1961. Eichmann had been captured in Argentina by the Israeli Intelligence Agency and brought to Israel to be tried. The New York Times sent Hannah Arendt to Jerusalem to report on the trial. The movie uses a lot of original footage of the trial; we see and hear Eichmann answer questions. And we witness Arendt’s fascination and shock. When she travels to Israel, like so many, she’s prepared to see a “monster”, an extraordinarily evil man, but what she witnesses is, what she later coins “the banality of evil”. What the film shows nicely is how Arendt came to understand that Eichmann was not extraordinary at all. On the very contrary. He was just a man who followed orders without ever thinking or questioning anything. People didn’t react kindly to her interpretation. Surely a mass murderer like Eichmann couldn’t be such a banal creature. But Arendt went one step further saying that without the support of the Jewish leaders the mass extermination would not have been as successful as it was.

Of course I knew her position of Eichmann’s banality but I didn’t know she had blamed the Jewish leaders. The uproar and outrage were incredible and for a long time her book Eichmann in Jerusalem was not translated into Hebrew.

The movie also touches briefly on her relationship with the philosopher Martin Heidegger, with whom she had an affair when she was his student. Heidegger is a controversial figure because he was affiliated with Nazism prior to 1934.

According to the film, Arendt was not only blamed for her positions but for being very cold. The victims felt that in saying Eichmann wasn’t a monster, they were blamed as well. I agree that some of the interpretation of her findings must have sounded harsh and brutal to the victims, but I think the movie also manages to show that wasn’t what it was about. In saying Eichmann was banal, Arendt warned us. She meant to show that it didn’t take extraordinary people for a totalitarian systems to work; ordinary people who follow orders and refuse to think are all it needs.

The original footage showing Eichmann is chilling, but without Sukowa’s stellar performance this would only have been half as good.

Not a lot of people stood by her side once her articles were published. But she always had Mary McCarthy (wonderfully played by Janet McTeer) and her husband Heinrich Blücher and some of her friends.

Hannah Arendt is one of the best biopics I’ve seen in recent years. I highly recommend it.

For those who don’t like subtitles: a large part of the movie is spoken in English.

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

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