Peter Weir’s The Way Back (2010)

I wasn’t aware of this movie despite the fact that Peter Weir is one of my favourite film directors. I’m glad that The War Movie Buff told me about it.

Even though I like some of Weir’s older movies and also Master & Commander a lot, I didn’t expect anything before watching The Way Back. I’m glad I didn’t, I think I would have been very disappointed if I had.  I’m afraid it is Peter Weir’s weakest film ever. The story, based on true events, had a lot of potential, the actors were mostly well-chosen, the cinematography is stunning, the score is convincing and still…. There is something missing. I couldn’t help comparing it to another POW movie, also starring Colin Farrell, namely Hart’s War. While Hart’s War focuses on how the prisoners escape from the camp, The Way Back shows their long journey from the Siberian gulag to India.

The movie starts in Poland in 1941. Janusz has been captured. His wife denounced him under torture. He is a spy and sentenced to spend the next 20 years in a Siberian gulag. He’s a strong young man, optimistic, kind and resourceful. He makes friends in the camp, some tell him that it is possible to escape. He chooses a few who will follow him, they prepare their escape and one night they do it.

It’s a small group of seven people, headed by the spirited Janusz (Jim Sturgess). An American (Ed Harris), a Russian criminal (Colin Farrell), a Polish priest and others. One dies in the early days. The hardships of their journey are unimaginable. First they walk for weeks from the camp to Lake Baikal, then to Mongolia, the Chinese wall, across Tibet and into India. They cross the mountains and deserts, almost die from cold, hunger and thirst. After a few weeks, they are followed by a young girl who finally joins them. Some make it, some don’t.

On their way, each time they cross the border of a country, they see how far Communism has advanced. Since they escaped a gulag, they have to get to a country that is free of communism. The moment they enter Mongolia and then China, they know, they have to make it to India.

I’ve seen my share of POW movies. The Way Back is one of the weakest, it’s more a survival story that is told in a boring way. The fact that Colin Farrell was in Hart’s War (which I think was a bad movie here is my review) and in this one, made matters worse. One cannot help comparing those two movies and also see parallels between the choice of Ed Harris in this one and Bruce Willis in the other.

I guess you gathered that this movie left me pretty unfazed. It’s not bad it’s just lacking something.

If you want to watch a truly good newer POW movie watch Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn (here is my review). Of the older ones I like The Colditz Story best.

La Grande Illusion aka Grand Illusion (1937) The Classic French WWI Movie

What took me so long to watch La grande illusion one of the greatest masterpieces of French cinema?  Jean Renoir’s black and white movie is simply one of the best movies I have ever seen, regardless of any genre. It combines so many elements, to enumerate them all would make a long list. Compared to La grande illusion every other POW movie seems to be just a remake. Every element of later films is already there but the message is a different one. This is a movie that probably wouldn’t have been possible with the same core message after WWII. When Renoir shot his movie, there was still ample room for positive German figures. We don’t see any nasty or cruel guards.  La grande illusion is a work of poetical realism. The two points of view go hand in hand.

The central story is the story of two officers Maréchal (Jean Gabin), a simple mechanic, and de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), an aristocrat, shot down together over Germany. They are brought to a prison camp where, thanks to the food parcels of one of their rich Jewish fellow officers, they live relatively luxuriously while the German guards eat cabbage day in and day out. The people they are sharing a room with have been digging a tunnel for weeks. While waiting for the tunnel to be finished, they spend their days rehearsing for a theater play, dreaming of women and civilian life. When Maréchal announces that Douaumont has fallen, they all sing the Marseillaise together. Maréchal is locked up for this act of instigation and almost goes mad in isolation.

Before they can put the tunnel to use, they are all sent to another camp. After different attempts to escape, Maréchal and Boeldieu are brought to burg Wintersheim. Officer von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) whom they have met before is in charge of the burg. Von Stroheim as Rauffenstein is one of the most memorable war movie characters. He has fairytale like, fantastic aspects. Von Rauffenstein has been badly wounded, his spine has twice been broken, he has silver plates in his body and wears a corset. He looks like an artificial being. He is an aristocrat through and through and recognizing the same background and upbringing in Boeldieu he takes an intense liking to him. Boeldieu, even though, stiff and formal as Maréchal often says, feels closer to the simple officers and wants to transcend the class differences. Even though he likes von Rauffenstein a lot, he still helps the other prisoners in their attempt to flee. Maréchal and Rosenthal make it and find refuge on the farm of a German widow (Dita Parlo). They cannot stay but Maréchal and Elsa still dream of meeting again after the war.

Renoir chose deliberately to show no violence. The war is spoken of, we never see it. His aim was to show a world that transcends differences. This is socialism of the purest kind, the one, that unfortunately only ever existed as an idea. Renoir wanted to show in how many ways people of different classes and nationalities are alike. The French prisoners make fun of the Germans’ constant repeating “Das ist strengstens verboten (strictly forbidden)”. It’s like a running gag all through the movie. A ritual. The Germans try to coerce the French and the French in excahnge make fun of them. Contrasting the attitudes of France and Germany towards obedience is one that we find in many older movies. It is also symbolised in all the interdictions that we see in the movie and in the barbed wire and fences. It’s a very funny movie at times. Fun that stems from the contrasts of the different classes and their use of language. The late, great Jean Gabin was always an outstanding actor, but here, as Maréchal, the simple mechanic, born in the 20th arrondissement of Paris (pure working class), he surpasses himself.  I really don’t know how they did the subtitles for this movie as they speak rapidly (I did watch the French version). Judging from the trailer, parts of the dialogues have been left out, nuances have been flattened. That is a pity. The use of dialogue and languages throughout the movie is a very realistic one. Germans speak German, French speak French, English speak English. Working class people speak like working class people, and the aristocrats like aristocrats.

As I said before, I don’t think a movie like this would have been possible after WWII. The illusion that everybody is the same at heart was shattered by then.

The illusion in the title apparently refers to the illusion of the class system. But I think there is another interpretation. Towards the end Maréchal says “We have to finish this war and hope that it was the last one” upon which Rosenthal utters something like “That is just an illusion, old man”. In 1937 is was already obvious that peace wouldn’t last forever.

La Grande Illusion is a movie that every cinephile needs to watch and possibly re-watch as it is multilayered and full of symbolism. Truly a work of art.

The Great Escape (1963) Tells Actually the Story of a War Crime

Maybe 90% of my readers are yawning now. I am very sorry but since I have seen The Great Escape for the first time only recently I had no clue. I thought it was basically the story of an escape, which it is, of course. The scene of Steve McQueen on a bike was very familiar as well (one of those memorable movie scenes), but apart from that: zero. I never heard it mentioned anywhere that it is based on the true story of a war crime. Are there any others out there like me who haven’t seen it yet? Maybe. For their sake I am not going to reveal why it is the story of a war crime. Just telling you, that it is.

Apart from that? Did I like it? Obviously when everybody tells you how great a movie is you start to expect something and if that is not what you get then you are slightly disappointed. So I was slightly disappointed. I didn’t expect such a summer camp like joyousness in the beginning. I rather expected something in the vein of The Colditz Story. Something a tad bleaker and grimmer. The feel of The Great Escape is much more adventure story than war movie. Plus English actors who play Englishmen  who pretend to be Germans and get away with it despite their heavy accents are not the height of realism.

What is my final conclusion? No, you are wrong, I don’t write it off but I will have to watch it again without the weird expectations that are never going to be fulfilled. A proper review will be due by the time I have watched it for the second time. After all its a classic, with a fabulous all-star cast and it’s just bad luck  I never watched it as a kid when it was on TV cause everyone who watched it then has the fondest memories. It’s definitely nice to have fond childhood movie memories. My only childhood war movie memory is A Bridge Too Far. Yeah well, not a bad one either, right?

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) Almost Everybody´s War Movie Darling

Yes, I know, it’s hard to believe but until a few days ago I had never watched The Bridge on the River Kwai. I couldn’t give you any specific reason. Just never happened. I have never been to New York either. Just because something is great, famous or whatever not doesn’t mean everybody has experienced it. While I can go on blogging about war movies without having visited New York, it wasn’t any longer acceptable that I had not watched one of the all-time favourite war movies of so many. One of the six that made it on the list about which I wrote the other day.

So I did it. I watched it and… As odd as this is, it wasn’t what I had expected. I am not talking about the story. I was quite familiar with it as is almost everybody. No, it was the cinematography that stunned me. This is a lush and astonishingly beautiful movie with intense and memorable pictures. As I read after having watched it, this striving for esthetics has been criticized (especially the cute girls and half-naked men in shallow pools… William Holden had to shave his chest hair off and we can see him in every single of his half-naked scenes with glistening torso. Can’t say that impressed me much but it is an interesting detail).

Beautiful pictures, together with great acting, a gripping story, an anti-war statement, the juxtaposition of  British and American characters and an astonishing ending make a great combination. There is something for everybody in it, I guess. No wonder it got 7 Academy Awards including best picture, best director, best actor (Alec Guinness), best writing, best music, best film editing, best cinematography.

The story can be told in a few sentences. A Japanese prison camp somewhere between Rangoon and Bangkok. Colonel Saito, one of those sadistic officer types, forces the prisoners, including their officers to help building a bridge over the River Kwai. Col. Nicholson, the highest ranking British officer in the camp, opposes and offends him. As a consequence he is sent to a very harsh solitary confinement. He is in a certain way as stubborn and fanatic as Saito himself and won’t give in. Somehow though they realise that they need each other and come to an agreement. Nicholson will supervise the construction of the bridge that will be built by British prisoners only. The bridge is meant to bear testimony for future generations to the endurance and skills of British soldiers.

The American Shears (William Holden) is also in this camp. He can’t understand any of this. For him it is important to survive. Honor and courage are secondary. The only thing he wants is to escape. One night he manages it finally and makes it back to high command. There he is told that he will have to go back, accompanying a little troop, as he knows the terrain. It has been decided that the bridge will be blown up. From this moment on two stories run in parallel. The one in the camp and the other one following the little troop through the jungle (the movie has actually been filmed in Sri Lanka, should anyone wonder).

I won’t spoil the ending for those who haven’t seen it. Let me just say it is not a happy one.

I think one of the most important elements in this movie is certainly the juxtaposition of the two extremes as they are personified by the British officer Nicholson and the American Shears. Nicholson’s way is slightly outdated and not very life-affirming. Alec Guinness is memorable in this role. Apparently he turned it down at first because he thought it was too anti-British (I can’t blame him).

The Bridge on the River Kwai is based on the novel by Pierre Bulle. The ending is different from the one in the book though. Both are based on true events. The Japanese had indeed British prisoners build a railway line from Rangoon to Bangkok. Countless people died. Many years after the war the Japanese government apologized for these events.

The Ogre aka Der Unhold (1996) or Nazism, Symbolism and the Erlking

Volker Schlöndorff’s The Ogre aka Der Unhold (France/Germany/UK) is based on Michel Tournier’s novel Le Roi des Aulnes aka The Ogre. The Ogre is a highly symbolical, original and complex  movie that attempts nothing less than to explore Nazi symbolism and ideology, German culture and mythology by telling the incredible story of Abel Tiffauges, a man who loves children and animals and who makes himself believe he is more than just human. The movie is filmed in English, French and German.

Plot

Abel Tiffauge’s story has five very distinct parts. Part I. Childhood. The French boy Abel grows up in a Catholic private school for boys. He is the outsider, the odd one, the one others pick on, the one the priests punish whenever someone has done something. Especially a very fat boy exploits Abel whenever possible. But he is also his only friend. When Abel is wronged again he wishes a catastrophe upon everybody. And it happens. From now on he believes he is invincible and powerful. Part II. Grown-up. Abel is still odd and a loner but he is also an auto mechanic with a flourishing business. Abel is also an amateur photographer and likes to take pictures of kids. There is nothing he loves more than kids. This very innocent fondness is mistaken for child molesting. Instead of being sent to prison, the falsely accused is sent to war. Part III. POW. Abel is captured together with his officers and sent to a German camp, somewhere near the Polish (?) border. During the day when everybody works he sneaks off to an abandoned hut and befriends a moose. One day he meets Goering’s forester. Part IV. Goering. If Goering was anything like the Goering portrayed in this part, then he was one of the most revolting beings to have ever walked this Earth. Abel is to help on his hunting lodge and gets a close look at the way the Nazis and their friends spend their leisure time. Drinking, eating, hunting. Very vulgar. Part V. The Erlking. Abel is sent to Kaltenborn Castle an elite training camp for German boys. He is happy like never before and loves to be able to take care of these boys but he also takes an active part in their training. Soon he starts to collect the boys from the neighbourhood and the people who are afraid of him call him the ogre. He doesn’t realize that he is doing wrong. When the Russians approach and people from concentrations camps are liberated, he starts to understand what he has been part of. He tries to help a Jewish boy and almost gets killed.

Meaning

So much for the content of The Ogre. But that is only one part. The movie shows us in stunning pictures what it must have been like to face Nazi ideology. The power of the imagines they created by using potent symbols is amazing. The visualization of this ideology is fantastic. Just take a look at the trailer and you see some of it. The boys standing in the form of a giant Swastika holding burning torches in the night. But then there is also the undercurrent of German culture, of everything that was good about Germany and was perverted by the Nazis. The love of the forest, love of animals, children, poetry.  Goethe’s famous ballad The Erlking is quoted and put into pictures in a very spooky way. Without knowing this poem a great part of the movie’s meaning stays hidden.

Who’s riding so late through th’ endless wild?
The father ‘t is with his infant child;
He thinks the boy ‘s well off in his arm,
He grasps him tightly, he keeps him warm.

My son, say why are you hiding your face ?
Oh father, the Erlking ‘s coming apace,
The Erlking ‘s here with his train and crown!
My son, the fog moves up and down. –

Be good, my child, come, go with me!
I know nice games, will play them with thee,
And flowers thou ‘It find near by where
I live, pretty dress my mother will give.”

Dear father, oh father, and do you not hear
What th’ Erlking whispers so close to my ear?
Be quiet, do be quiet, my son,
Through leaves the wind is rustling anon.

Do come, my darling, oh come with me!
Good care my daughters will take of thee,
My daughters will dance about thee in a ring,
Will rock thee to sleep and will prettily sing.”

Dear father, oh father, and do you not see
The Erlking’s daughters so near to me?
My son, my son, no one ‘s in our way,
The willows are looking unusually gray.

I love thee, thy beauty I covet and choose,
Be willing, my darling, or force I shall use!
“Dear father, oh father, he seizes my arm!
The Erlking, father, has done me harm.

The father shudders, he darts through the wild;
With agony fill him the groans of his child.
He reached his farm with fear and dread;
The infant son in his arms was dead.

The Cast

John Malkovich as Abel Tiffauges is astonishing. I think it is one of his best roles. He is such a weird-looking actor and that is perfect for this role. I particularly like the three German actors Heino Ferch, Armin Müller-Stahl and Gottfried John. But everybody else, especially those many little boys and girls, are very convincing.

The Director

Volker Schlöndorff can look back on a career with many an important movie. He is not just any director but one of the very great. He has done the war movies The Tin Drum and The Ninth Day and the movies Swann in Love, The Handmaid’s Tale and Ulzhan.

The Score

Michael Nyman is one of my favourite composers. He is foremost famous for the scores he wrote for Peter Greenaway and Jane Campion. This one here is OK but not as outstanding as his other work like Draughtman’s contract, Gattaca and The Piano to name but a few.

For me this is a 5/5 star movie. It has incredible pictures, is dense and complex and invites you to rethink Nazi ideology and symbolism like not many others. It is better than the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas that is for sure. But not as good as Pan’s Labyrinth.

Other war movies with children as main characters can be found on my list  Children in War Movies.