Upcoming Civil War Documentary on History.com

A couple of days ago I received an e-mail from History. com in which they asked me whether I would like to do a post on their upcoming Civil War documentary that will be aired on May 30th 2011.

As you can easily deduce, I was willing to do so as the program seems interesting and well done and I’m partial to Ridley Scott anyway, be it as producer or director. I will not have the opportunity to watch it as I’m not US-based but all of you who are, do not miss it.

Below is what has been written in the e-mail and should tell you all you need to know in advance.

At the bottom you can find a trailer. The trailer and the choice of music (I’m a HUGE Placebo fan and their cover of Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill is a favourite) make me feel really sorry for not being able to see it.

Summary: Gettysburg is a 2-hour HISTORY special that kicks off a week of
History programming commemorating the 150’th anniversary of the Civil War.

Executive produced by Ridley and Tony Scott, this special strips away the
romanticized veneer of the Civil War. It presents the pivotal battle of
Gettysburg in a new light: as a visceral, terrifying and deeply personal
experience, fought by men with everything on the line. Compelling CGI  and
powerful action footage place viewers in the midst of the fighting,
delivering both an emotional cinematic experience and an information packed
look at the turning points, strategic decisions, technology and little known
facts surrounding the greatest engagement ever fought on American soil.

The special begins in the high stakes summer of 1863, as the Confederate
Army of Northern Virginia crosses into Pennsylvania.   Trailed by the
Union’s Army of the Potomac, Lee’s 75,000 strong army heads towards
Harrisburg, converging instead near a quiet farm town, Gettysburg.  Known
then only as a crossroads where ten roads running in all directions converge
like a wagon wheel, this small town would become site of an epic battle
between North and South.  For three days, each side fought there for their
vision of what America should be.

In collaboration with highly esteemed Civil War historians, HISTORY combed
through hundreds of individual accounts of the battle to find the unique
voices of struggle, defeat and triumph that tell the larger story of a
bitterly conflicted nation.

More information can be found here History. com.

The 15 Most Original War Movies

The question you might ask yourself right away is probably: What is an original war movie? Is Stalingrad original or Black Hawk Down? I would argue, no, they are not. They are great, they are absolute must-sees but they are not original. They consist pretty much of linear story telling. Well filmed but nothing out of the ordinary. What about Enemy at the Gates? Admittedly according to my definition this  almost made it into the list, as it is originally beautiful, but so are others.

Original is about something more than beautiful cinematography, it is something beyond the well-trodden path. Either a different way of telling an old story, a new look at something we saw before, a different way of filming, a genre-blend, an original story etc. After thinking for a very long time about it, I came up with the following fifteen movies that are far from the ordinary. I guess that all these fifteen films are movies that mostly also appeal to cinema lovers in general.

Three Kings (USA, 1999): Taking place during the first Iraq war it is definitely one of the most original movies I have ever seen. The way certain things are filmed is pretty unusual. When someone gets hit by a bullet we follow the bullet on its way inside the body, see how it affects the system and causes gangrene. Quite astonishing. On top of that it is a crazy, fast-paced story. Like a filmed version of a rock song.

Pan’s Labyrinth aka El laberinto del fauno (Spain, 2006): Set during WWII in Franco’s Spain. A genre blend, half fantasy, half war movie. Uses lots of fantastic elements, striking colors. Absolutely different.

Ovelord (UK, 1975): WWII, UK just before D-Day. A very short movie that alternates original footage and filmed bits. Filmed in black and white, it has a very old-fashioned feel. The story is original as well as it focuses on one individual soldier who will be shipped to France. Uses dream sequences, elements of foreboding. Still straightforward storytelling. (see my post Overlord: An Overlooked War Movies masterpiece)

The Thin Red Line (USA, 1998): WWII, The Pacific. This is the most lyrical of all  war movies. Intense pictures, haunting voices in the off meditate about death and dying. It is one of those cases –  you love it or you hate it but can’t deny it is original.

War Requiem (UK, 1989): WWI, France. Silent movie. Visual interpretation of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem based o the life of the poet Siegfried Sassoon. Mixed with original footage that gets more and more gruesome towards the end. The most gruesome original footage that I have every seen. Heavy on symbolism, colors etc. Despite Sean Bean this is definitely not everybody’s cup of tea. (see my post War Requiem; Derek Jarman’s Impressive Interpretation of Benjamin Britten’s Eponymous Requiem)

Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (UK, 1943): Boer war, WWI, WWII. A movie that relies heavily on almost choreography like acting, loads of allusions to British culture. Extremely funny, filmed in brilliant Technicolor. Quite slapsticky at times, reminded me of one or the other Laurel and Hardy at war movies, but undeniably British humor. Two astonishing acting achievements. Deborah Kerr playing three different women and Roger Livesey playing the young, the middle-aged and the old Colonel Blimp. Amazing performances.

The Downfall aka Der Untergang (Germany, 2004). There have been such a lot of movies about Hitler but this concentrates on his very last moment, in the bunker in Berlin. Quite an unusual look. Creepy, spooky, with a fabulous Bruno Ganz in one of his best roles.

300 (USA, 2006): The last fight of the Spartans is original because of the heavy use of CGI, outstanding camera work and graphics. (see my post 300: This is Sparta! )

The Hurt Locker (USA, 2008). Iraq movie. Academy Award Winner. Different in the sense that it focuses on one special task, bomb disposal and one special man who is doing it his way. He goes about his business as if he was a player in some video game. Death-defying. Plus the movie has a thriller feel which is quite unusual for a war movie. At times it feels like Speed goes to Iraq. (see my post A War Movie Gone Thriller: The Hurt Locker)

Birdy (USA, 1984). Post-Vietnam. This is unusual in many ways. Outstanding acting, a story that is far from ordinary and a way to treat post-traumatic stress syndrome like we haven’t seen it often before. (see my post Alan Parker’s Birdy: A Tale of Frienship, War and Being Different)

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (USA, 2008). WWII, Holocaust. Haven’t we all seen a lot of Holocaust movies? This is one that will stay with you. The cinematography is brilliant and the story is haunting. Nobody would expect that ending. The Holocaust seen through the eyes of a child that has no clue what is going on, only sees the signs and interprets them his way, is creepy. (see my post The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas: An Unusual Look at the Holocaust)

Grave of the Fireflies aka Hotaru no Haka (Japan, 1988). Beautiful anime from the Ghibli studios. The sad and moving tale of two kids in WWII Japan, fighting for their survival after the loss of their family. (see my post Grave of the Fireflies: An Anime War Movies)

Waltz with Bashir (Israel, 2008): Israel.  Another animated movie but of an altogether very different kind. This looks more like a woodcut. Interesting take at the Lebanon war.

Apocalypse Now (USA, 1979). Considered by many to be one of the best war movies there is, it is also very original as it doesn’t show the Vietnam war as it was, instead more like a hallucinatory re-telling of The Heart of Darkness set during the Vietnam war. Using Wagner’s Valkyrie and The End by the Doors further underlines it’s aiming at being something different. Whether you like it or not, it is very original.

Full Metal Jacket (USA, 1987). This is a highly original movie as it creates images that will burn themselves into your memory. Visually one of the most powerful movies. Plus it tells two stories. Boot camp and street fight. This last element is also quite original as Vietnam movies mostly portay combat in the jungle. Plus the Vietnamese sniper…

Have I forgotten any and if so, why should they be included?

Sharpe’s Rifles (1993) First of a Series of 14 British TV Movies on the Napoleonic Wars

If America only knew how good this was, it would be the highest rated Made-For-TV movie series of all time (hard to believe there are more people out there that would rather watch “The Columbo Mysteries” than Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe Chronicles- that just goes to show the power of major network name-brand advertising. (Comment from a US IMBD reviewer)

The British TV movie Sharpe´s Rifles is the first of 14 installments focussing on the fictional character Lt.Sharpe. Bernard Cornwell’s novels are the source for this series. There are certain parallels to the Hornblower series (see Hornblower post) with the difference that Sharpe shows the Napoleonic wars on land. Unlike the Hornblower sequences these are full-length movies, each 110 minutes long.

I started to watch it on the last weekend and am really quite taken by it. This enthusiasm is certainly also due to Sean Bean´s starring as Sharpe. He is an excellent choice for this rough but likable maverick and daredevil.

In the first movie we get to know Sharpe and the motley crew of Chosen Men (snipers riflemen) that is very unwillingly under his command. Sharpe who is a sergeant is promoted to lieutenant because he saves General Wellesley´s life. Promoting someone from the ranks who is, like Sharpe, not a gentleman, proves to be somewhat problematic. The other officers don´t accept him because he is not one of them, the soldiers do not accept him because he is one of them. He really has a hard time proving himself and on top of that they are at war.

Sharpe´s Rifles takes place in 1809 in Portugal. Spain and Britain are supposedly allies against France but it seems as if Spain is not 100% decided on which side they want to fight.

Sharpe and his men, together with a company of officers and soldiers, are sent on a secret mission to find a banker that has disappeared and are attacked by a group of French soldiers. Apart from Sharpe and his men everybody gets killed.

In this movie Sharpe also meets Teresa or “El comandante Teresa” for the first time. Having survived rape and the butchering of her family by the French she holds  a bit of a grudge against the French and men in general. Even so, love at first sight strikes them both. The whole love story part did actually remind me a lot of the one in The Last of the Mohicans. Teresa is a strong woman, the leader of her men and a very capable fighter herself.

After they have met, the main story line follows Sharpe, his men and Teresa on their way to a little Spanish town where they must raise the Spanish flag. Ok, this is not a gripping idea but it is excusalbele as this was the first movie in a long series and its main goal is to introduce us to the characters.

From the reviews I read I can deduce that there are much better installments still to come. As a first part this was very, very promising and I am looking forward to watch more of it.

No worries, I am not going to review them all. I´ll probabaly do some sort of final assessment once if have seen the others. For the time being I just wanted to share my discovery.

Below you find the beginning of part I. I think this should help you decide if you want to go for it.

Danger UXB (1979) A Clever British TV Series about a Bomb Squad During the Blitz

I would say that this British TV series is one of the most realistic stories ever told about London during the Blitz and the dangerous duty of defusing the numerous unexploded bombs that hit the country. Danger UXB focuses on a young lieutenant, Brian Ash (Anthony Andrews), appointed to a bomb squad. His squad defuses all sorts of unexploded German bombs. This is highly stressful and very difficult. There are so many different types of bombs with different types of fuses. Magnetic, movement detectors, chemical reaction, clock work and time delay fuses. The bombs are found in many different places such as  schools, gardens, back yards, living rooms,  a night club, a factory  which gives ample opportunity to tell side stories and show the lives of ordinary people during this time. It is hard to imagine what it must have been like to be bombed every single night. The series manages to give a very good feel for the danger of this line of work.  I would say Danger UXB provides a rare combination of instruction and entertainment, combining historical accuracy with tales of everyday lives and the story of one young officer, his work , his dealings with fellow officers and commanders and  his love life. British TV is a great source for realistic historical series and movies. I haven’t seen Piece of Cake yet but it is sitting here, waiting to be watched. Danger UXB is far less known. I highly recommend it. I think it is also interesting to compare it to the ubiquitous The Hurt Locker (see my post on The Hurt Locker) and see the difference between a bomb squad now and then.

I attached a video for you, where you can see that each episode initiates with original footage to enhance accuracy. Unfortunately this video has an addition to it but it is the best I could come up with. I couldn’t find any trailer only some fan videos but they had insufferable music.

Sometimes in April (2005) Part I

This is Part I of the HBO production Sometimes in April on the war in Rwanda (see Friday’s post) starring Idris Elba and Debra Winger. As I said, I haven’t seen it yet but it looks as if the whole movie has been posted in bits on YouTube. It seems well worth watching.

Under Fire: A Century of War Movies, edited by Jay Slater (2009)

Under Fire is simply a must-have for people seriously interested in war movies or even movies in general.

It contains a collection of essays on all sorts of topics regarding war movies, from WWI to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many different people have contributed to this very dense work. Well-known film critics and academics alike.

This is really something to sink your teeth into. Quite demanding reading but extremely insightful.

For example did you know how important YouTube´s influence was on contemporary Iraq movies (yes, I even started to understand Redacted)? Or how Vietnam changed the war movies? Do you know a lot about British propaganda movies of WWII? Did you consider to interpret Starship Troopers as WWII and Nazi satire?

These are only a few topics of many that are analysed in these very thoroughly researched essays.

Sure, this is no movie guide as such. It is not recommending or rating anything. Under Fire provides criticism and analysis for those who like to interpret not only the apparent but also the subtext.

This book is really worth having and I am quite excited about this find that manages so well to show the variety, the depth and the virtuosity of war movies.

Here you find the link to the publishing house. It contains an interview with the editor and interesting additional chapters.

Barnes and Noble

amazon.com

amazon co.uk