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.

Rescue Dawn (2006) or One Man´s Ordeal in a Vietcong Prison Camp

Dieter Dengler, a young American fighter pilot of German origins, is shot down over Laos, in 1965, just when the Vietnam war is about to start. Naïve and enthusiastic he doesn’t think that much harm could come his way but when he is captured by Vietcong he learns otherwise. Thanks to his astonishing resourcefulness, his unabashed optimism and his sense for camaraderie he survives the worst imaginable circumstances. He endures torture, hunger, pain and humiliations by sadistic guards, petty accusations and nagging by fellow prisoners. He carefully plans their escape and finally succeeds, only to find his ordeal is not over.

Werner Herzog is known for movies that often have lush jungle vegetation as a backdrop. No difference here. The same cinematographic language that I knew from movies like Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, Cobra Verde and Grizzly Man that have made Herzog famous. The beauty of the forest, the plants and giant insects are captured here as well, but  then the comparison to other movies stops. Rescue Dawn was one of the most revolting films I have ever seen. Probably it is shockingly true to the events that Dieter Dengler had to endure, nevertheless I found it hard to watch. Seeing people eat handfuls of larvae and maggots was not my cup of tea. Sure it is well done and all but yuk, yuk, yuk.

Apart from being disgusted I am also awed. It´s incredible what some people can endure and how they manage to survive the worst.

Christian Bale is very good although  he acts quite badly at the beginning. Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davis are outstanding.

Required viewing for Werner Herzog fans, POW movie fans and every one like me mad enough to think they have to see every decent war movie no matter what´s at stake for the stomach nerves.

Hart´s War (2002): A Dubious POW Legal Melodrama

There are numerous movies I could have watched while lying in bed with a cold the other day. I have a big “soon-to-be-watched” DVD pile and choice is far from scarce. There are many war movies and – believe it or not – a lot of non war movies to choose from. I didn’t really feel like watching anything too heavy so Hart’s War seemed like a good option.

It actually still seemed like a very good option more than half an hour into the movie but then it started to dawn on me that this was one of those hybrid movies, that are neither this, nor that nor anything else. Yeah well, seems as if disappointment is the daughter of bad choice and false expectations.

To cut a long story short: it was not my cup of tea. Although I appreciate the subgenre of the legal drama, this came across as a pseudo legal drama that I found less than convincing.

One good thing: Hart´s War is another movie that can be added to the small list of WWII movies with African American soldiers in it (see my post on African American Soldiers in War Movies).

Apart from that, you watch it and forget it and think: Too bad it could have been good if… If what?

What’s the story? A young law student, Lt. Hart (Colin Farrell), get’s captured by a German patrol while driving someone through the woods and ends up as POW after having been tortured before  giving away some information. The highest ranking officer among the prisoners in the camp, Col McNamara (Bruce Willis) immediately dislikes him as he despises him for lying about the fact that he has collapsed after a few short days under torture. As a sort of punishment he is not allowed to stay in the barracks with the other higher ranking officers but must join the barracks of the privates and the lower ranks.

This does not work out too bad until the day two black American pilots (Terrence Howard and Vicellous Reon Shannon), two of the Tuskegee Men in fact, appear and things get nasty. Full-blown racism hits them. Hatred and aggression follow until one is executed and the other one falsely accused of the murder of a white soldier.

Even though he has only been a second year law student before the war, Hart gets appointed as the defence attorney but after a while it gets clear that it is all a sham. Secret things are happening that need a cover-up. I found the justification of what is happening morally dubious. The end does not always justify the means.

The rest of the movie is a pathetic illustration of pride, honour and glory. Highly melodramatic.

The two black actors are good, Colin Farrell is quite all right but Bruce Willis is a parody of himself. Or maybe he had something in his eye. The height of his acting seemed to consist of standing there with one eye half closed and trying to look super imposing. (Just to make things clear, I do normally like Bruce Willis.)

Meaningless pseudo-court-drama with a melodramatic ending. 2.5/5 points (2.5 points are for cinematography, choice of the topic racism in the military… Forget the rest).

The Brylcreem Boys (1998): A WWII Comedy, Drama and Romance in Ireland

The least I can say about this movie is that it is total fun. I did certainly never expect to laugh during a POW movie but that actually happened repeatedly. Admittedly it is not the most refined humor, it’s rather of the burlesque, slapstick kind. But it is never overdone. The movie is just sprinkled with it here and there. The overall tone is often quite serious. Still it is one of the very rare movies you could probably watch with  children (although planes and people get shot down at the beginning and there is some fist fighting as well).

Ireland having lost many of its young men during the Civil War had decided to stay strictly neutral during WWII. This was not much appreciated by the allies. Unlike Switzerland Ireland insisted that every soldier encountered on Irish soil was to be taken prisoner. What was not universally known however was the fact that they put all the prisoners, French, British, American, Canadian and German into the same camp.

The Brylcreem Boys is not based on a true story but on true facts that have been carefully assembled and put together to tell a convincing story. Two fighter pilots, the Canadian Miles Keogh  (Bill Campbell) and the German Rudolph von Stegenbeck (Angus Macfadyen),  shoot each other down over Ireland and are both taken prisoners and brought to the same camp. While on leave they  fall in love with the same girl, the strong-willed Mattie (Jean Butler),  which adds a bit of romance to the whole story. Their rivalry and mutual dislike is very intense in the beginning but over the course of the movie and during many incidents they realize that they are not that different despite being on different sides.

Much of the funny elements of the movie stem from contrasting the Germans and their rigid discipline and total lack of sense of humour with the  more easy-going other prisoners. (Unfortunately there aren’t any German actors in the movie and some of the accents that the cast adopted are a bit laughable.)

Even though they are far away from the war itself, one of the prisoners sort of brings it back with him when he returns from London from his futile attempt at escaping the camp.  His account from his stay in the British capital makes the tragedy of the constant bombing during the Blitz  utterly palpable.

I am a big fan of the Irish actor Gabriel Byrne whose character is the commanding officer of the camp. He also co-produced this movie. Seeing how much fun he exudes playing this role one can easily assume that this was a movie that was very close to his heart.

I am very glad the directors felt compelled to tell this story of this quite exotic camp. It provides an interesting insight into Irish history for which I am glad.

Since this is really a feel good movie but far from being stupid entertainment you might really  enjoy watching it.