Black and White in Color (1976) – A Guest Post by nem baj

I’m still in a movie watching slump and that’s why I’m really grateful to have another guest post from nem baj for you today. His post is dedicated to a movie I haven’t seen yet. In all honesty, I hadn’t even heard of it although I’m familiar with many of Jean Jacques Annaud’s movies. 

In a nutshell: two French and German outposts in 1914’s central Africa, cut away from their respective metropolitan authorities, mimic the European conflict once they have learned its existence – six months after the hostilities have been declared in Europe. Focusing on the French, the movie is a satire of patriotism and the ‘civilizing mission’ of french colonialism.

Director Jean-Jacques Annaud may be known to younger audiences as the craftsman behind international productions such as The Name of the RoseSeven Years in Tibet or Enemy at the Gates, but he started his career in France by directing two little rebellious films, Hot Head (about local sports celebrity and politics) and Black and White in Color, which is a war movie based on an actual event. It is a comedy, cliché-based from the start, the Germans being organized and professionals, whereas the French spend more time speaking, eating and making love than preparing for a fight. Yet the latter are so vain they launch the first offensive, which ends up being a disaster. Now they’re scared and in a defensive mode – which means time has come for a radical change in leadership.

For the main weakness of the French is the way the small community in their outpost envisions exploitation: the locals are not considered as men, crooked shopkeepers and even more crooked missionaries exploit the populations for immediate profit, and the only French soldier, a sergeant (seconded by a handful of tirailleurs, professional Black soldiers), is only a few months from retirement, and has never fought a battle except maybe against the appeal of booze and local women (those battles he seemingly always looses).

However, a young educated geographer, a pacifist and a socialist, decides to take over after the defeat. He engages the village chief, using the antagonism between villagers and bush tribes, to capture fresh cannon fodder from the countryside. Then he appoints the local White bully as a staff trainer, and takes a Black woman, possibly of high rank, as his mistress. The result is a brand new force of African soldiers, which is used to launch a new offensive on ‘German’ soil, this time with better, though inconclusive, results. They start digging trenches similar to those appearing in French magazines… I won’t spoil the ending.

The whole thing is a cruel satire, the story of a ridiculous war fought by Black proxies on account of racist White trash. Whether you’re a French with self-irony or a fan of French-bashing, it will surely please you. But its strength lies in the fact that is quite witty. The role played by language barriers is both symbolic and hilarious. Also, on one hand the Africans are real people, with their own identities, language and distinct approaches to the colonizers – yet on the other hand the recognition of their social existence by the French geographer gives him more exploitative power than his predecessors ever had… which in turn seems to give new strength to the contestation of colonial power. And finally, the intellectual betrays his own pacifist ideals for the pursuit of glory, sending more men into combat… in the name of humanism.

PS: this review refers to the international version of the film, which gained the Foreign film Academy Award in 1976 in the name of Ivory Coast, where it was shot. On first release, the movie received extremely bad reviews in France, then the international version was re-released in France after the Oscar…

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A Matter of Life and Death aka Stairway to Heaven (1946)

After having watched and loved The Archers’ (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I decided that I will watch all of their movies sooner or later. I’m not sure I would have taken the same decision if I had seen A Matter of Life and Death aka Stairway to Heaven (the US title) first. It was too… Hmmm… Not sure what word I’m looking for here. It seems it is on position 20 of the BFI’s Top 100 list (yes, another list but one I like). Surprising.

The story is pretty simple. The RAF pilot and squadron leader Peter Carter (David Niven) tries to fly back to England in a burning Lancaster bomber. His crew has bailed out, one of his men is lying dead in the aircraft. Before deciding that he will bail out as well, despite the fact that he has no parachute, he manages to contact June (Kim Hunter), an American radio operator, based in England. They talk for a while and immediately feel a very strong connection.

Lucky for Carter, his Other World guide misses him in the thick English fog and instead of being guided to heaven, Carter wakes up on a beach. He thinks at first he’s dead but then realizes that he has somehow survived and only minutes later he sees a girl on a bicycle riding along the beach. He runs after her and – what a coincidence – finds out it’s June. When it dawns on them that they had been speaking to each other just a while ago and that he should actually be dead, they fall in love immediately.

Although Carter seems unharmed, he has hallucinations in which he meets his guide who wants him to come to heaven with him. Carter refuses and wants to appeal before the superior court in heaven in order to be granted to stay alive. While Carter thinks he is visited by someone from the other world, June asks a friend, Doctor Reeves (Robert Livesey), for help. Reeves thinks that Carter suffers from a rare condition and needs surgery.

I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when our two main characters fall in love so speedily and call each other “darling” only moments after having met. Still, it’s an amusing movie but the appeal for me was not in the story.

I liked that the real life scenes were shot in Technicolor, while the afterlife scenes were shot in black and white (reversing the effect in The Wizard of Oz) . The Archers’ use of color is quite special and I think they did a really great job here.

What was also interesting is the American-British theme. We all know that the British called the American soldiers “overpaid, oversexed and over here” and there was a lot of resentment going hand in hand with this expression. The Americans joined the war late and were fresh and crispy and had a lot of money and managed to seduce quite a lot of British girls, while the Brits had already fought for several years, were tired and worn out. The movie tried to reverse this in choosing to depict an American girl falling in love with a British officer. The heavenly court also plays heavily on this theme.

There is one sequence which is quite funny. The first heavenly jury has to be dismissed as the members are all from countries which had been wronged by the British at some point during history. The prosecutor is an American as well, Abraham Farlan, the first victim of the American Revolutionary war.

If you are a fan of The Archers or interested in British cinema and cinema of the 40s, don’t miss it. I think it’s interesting from the point of view of cinema history and amusing enough but I can’t say it was my cup of tea. As far as war romances go, I’ve seen movies I liked much more.

I couldn’t find  a trailer but you can watch the whole movie on YouTube. Here is Part I

Valkyrie (2008) Operation Valkyrie or The Last Attempt to Assassinate Hitler

I suppose it wasn’t in Eichmann‘s favour that I re-watched Valkyrie just before I saw Eichmann. I would say I liked Valkyrie even better the second time. I’m sure it is a movie which aims at entertaining and plays on emotions but at least that is very well done and Tom Cruise is outstanding in this movie. I do have huge problems with the man Tom Cruise but I can’t help admiring the actor.

The movie opens in North Africa in 1942. Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) is far from content with the regime and openly utters his criticism. Before retreating with his troops he gets under attack and loses his right hand, an eye and two fingers on the left hand.

Some time later, back in Berlin, after a painful recovery, he is recruited by a group of high German officers and politicians who want to overthrow the regime. They think it is of the highest importance to do something in order to let the world see that there were not only Nazis in Germany.  The way to go according to these men is to assassinate Hitler. Preferably together with Himmler. After several failed attempts they recruit von Stauffenberg. He seems to be the only one to be able to come up with a plan and to see it through.

Assassinating Hitler isn’t enough. At the same time the group needs to assure that the Army is on their side. The idea von Stauffeberg comes up with is ingenious and based on adapting “Operation Valkyrie” to their own needs.  The amended Operation Valkyrie would enable them to seize control of Berlin after the assassination of the Führer.

As this movie is based on historical facts, I don’t suppose it is a spoiler to say that they failed. The plan was cunning, the execution well done but bad luck and bad timing prevented a success. All the men participating in the coup were executed.  This is one of those movies during which we hope against all hope and constantly wonder why it didn’t work.

Just like Sophie Scholl, Valkyrie manages to show what courageous and unselfish people are capable of doing.

The movie Eichmann illustrates very well that a fascinating topic doesn’t guarantee a good movie. Even though Valkyrie is a US-German co-production it’s pure Hollywood but it’s very well acted and gripping despite the fact that we know the outcome.

The way the story is told and the cast makes this such a good movie. Apart from Tom Cruise, the actors worth mentioning are Kenneth Branagh as Major-General Henning von Tresckow, Bill Nighy as General Freidrich Olbricht, Thomas Kretschmann as Major Otto Ernst Remer and Carice van Houten as Nina von Stauffenberg. The only bad choice was David Bamber as Hitler. I think he’s the worst Hitler I’ve ever seen.

Valkyrie is based on a great story and very well told. While it’s not flawless, it’s still a must-see.

Eichmann (2007)

I was looking forward to watch the British Hungarian co-production Eichmann starring one of my favourite German actors Thomas Kretschmann. If I tell you it was entertaining this should ring a bell right away. A movie based on Adolf Eichmann’s interrogation should not be entertaining. No, it really shouldn’t. If it is, something went wrong. And that’s what happened. I should have known this wouldn’t be a good movie because most reviews are far from appreciative but I was curious and wanted to find out for myself.

The core question, which isn’t really explored as well as I would have wished, is whether someone who follows an order and gives orders, like Eichmann did, is as guilty as those who executed the orders or those who decided they should be given. It’s the same question that lies at the heart of plays like Macbeth. Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth to kill, does that make her less guilty than her husband who did the killing?

Eichmann was one of the highest Nazi functionaries. He had the position of Transportation Administrator of the so-called Final Solution. In this function he was in charge of all the trains that  brought Jews to the death camps in occupied Poland. It is said that he is responsible for the execution of 6.000.000 people. After the war he could escape to Argentina. He was one of a few Nazi criminals not to be sentenced at the Nuremberg Trials because he was in hiding. The State of Israel was established in 1948. Its official intelligence agency, Mossad, was formed one year later. One of Mossad’s principal assigned tasks was to hunt down accused Nazi war criminals. Eichmann was captured in Argentina in 1960 and brought to trial in Jerusalem in 1961. He was executed in 1962.

The movie however isn’t very explicit on all of this but focusses purely on the interrogation. Avner Less, a young Israeli police officer whose father had been on one of the trains sent to Auschwitz by Adolf Eichmann, was the one who interrogated Eichmann. The movie is told from Avner’s point of view. It shows the problems this interrogation brings to his family and to himself, the reaction of the public, how the media hunt him.

The interrogation as such had the aim to make Eichmann confess. Most of the interrogation we see consists of Avner asking and Eichmann denying. Whenever Eichmann lies, the movie shows what really happened in a flashback and that’s where the movie gets entertaining but absurd as we see Eichmann depicted like a gigolo with various lovers. Really weird.

On the other hand, while showing a shallow and silly Eichmann in the flashbacks, the way the people in Israel talk about him in the movie makes it sound as if they thought he was the sole responsible for the murders of so many people. Both are gross exaggerations and make this a really dubious movie.

I don’t understand why this incredible story could not have been done any better. It certainly would have deserved to be told well.

I have bought Hannah Arendt’s book on the Eichmann trial Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil a while back. I would have done better reading that instead.

One word about the actor. Many reviewers criticized Kretschmann for his wooden acting. I saw documentaries of the trial and think the man Eichmann was very wooden. In any case, it’s not the actor’s fault this isn’t a good movie. I’d say he was actually quite good.

Still, a movie like Eichmann has some value as it may generate an interest in people to find out more about this sinister character and it may trigger conversations about guilt and responsibility. But it’s not a good movie.

Pierre Schoendoerffer’s 317th Platoon – La 317ème section (1965) The Final Days of the French – Indochina War

I am not sufficiently familiar with the war in Indochina or the history of the French occupation although my great grand-father was posted there as a prison guard but I’m interested in the topic. I think studying it would help us understand the war in Vietnam much better.

Pierre Schoendoerffer is the go to director for those interested in the war in Indochina from a French perspective. I’ve seen his Dîen Bîen Phû (1992) a long time ago, pre-blogging, and remember having been impressed. Usually it is considered to be one of the top war movies. However, critics seem to agree, as great as Dîen Bîen Phû is, it’s nowhere near as outstanding as one of Schoendoerffer’s other movies, namely 317th Platoon – La 317ème section . It’s one of a very few 5/5* movies in Gary Freitas’ excellent book War Movies.

Schoendoerffer is a veteran of the Indochina war. He was an Army cinematographer and became a POW during the battle of Dîen Bîen Phû. After his liberation in 1954, he wrote books and directed movies. One of those novels was the 317th Platoon (French only) which he made into a movie later.

317th Platoon tells the story of a platoon which was trapped  behind enemy lines. In 1954, the war in Indochina is about to end. France was defeated by the Viet Minh and had just lost the bloody battle of Dîen Bîen Phû. The French forces are in full retreat. The risk to be overrun is constant. The 317th Platoon, a unit of French soldiers and Laotian allies, is one of them. The platoon is led by a very young and idealistic and inexperienced sous-lieutenant Torrens (Jacques Perrin) and his adjutant Willsdorf (Bruno Cremer), a former soldier in the German Wehrmacht during WWII. Torrens has just arrived in Indochina, barely two weeks ago, while Willsdorf has been there several years. The survival of the platoon depends on completing a trek through enemy territory, right through the dense jungle that lies between them and the next French outpost.

The movie has an immediacy you do not see often. The spectator is very close to the people in the movie, feels like being part of it. The grainy black and white pictures are like documentary shots and the sound is amazing. We hear all the animals in the jungle screaming and screeching. The jungle is a loud place to be, especially at night. For the soldiers this is an additional difficulty. The Viet Minh swarm the forest, the noise is deafening, the monsoon rain is constant, it’s hot and humid, they suffer from stomach cramps and diarrhea, dysentery. In the first few minutes, some are wounded horribly and to watch them suffer and die is agony. The death scenes are uncomfortably realistic.

The movie offers excellent character studies. The men portrayed, especially Torrens and Willsdorf are complex and arresting. While Torrens makes bad choices because he is kind and caring, Willsdorf has become a cynic but he is always right about his assumptions and predictions. The unlikely men come to appreciate each other in the end.

I liked that we get a feeling for the country and the terrain. We see this when they stop at a village to rest and treat the wounded. The wounded are given opium in the villages, Willsdorf tells Torrens how much he loves the country and that he cannot wait until he can leave the army and settle somewhere with a nice woman.

There are many quiet scenes in the movie but it’s never boring. The actors are excellent. In some of the shots their faces express more than others with words. We see that they feel lonely, how much they despair, the fear, pain and agony. It’s all there and palpable.

The way the wounded are treated is another excellent example of the movies realism. There is not shooting morphine without assessing the condition of the wounded first. The way they treat them is with  a lot of understanding and empathy.

The only other movie I have seen so far which offers such a compelling mix of character studies and combat scenes is When Trumpets Fade, one of my Top 10 favourite war movies.

I’m certain of one thing after having watched 317th Platoon, there is no way around Pierre Schoendoerffer’s movies for those truly interested in war movies. 317th Platoon – La 317ème section deserves to be on a Top 50 list, at least.

I found two things on YouTube. The French trailer and a dubbed version, Spanish with English subtitles, of the entire movie. It’s a bit weird for me, from a French perspective to hear it spoken in Spanish but if you are not a native French speaker you might not mind. At least you get a chance to watch, right?

Laurel & Hardy at War – Pack Up Your Troubles (1932)

Pack up your Troubles is only one of many Laurel & Hardy movies showing them at war. There are better examples but it still has a few iconic and quite hilarious scenes. I grew up with Laurel & Hardy, during my childhood they were always on Sunday TV and so, no matter how silly, I’m fond of them.

The US are entering WWI. In his typical boasting way Hardy pretends he would join up if only he was given a chance. The chance is given soon enough in form of a conscription officer but the moment Hardy sees him, he tries to escape and weasel out. To no avail. They are drafted and end up in the trenches of France where they go about their own business pretty oblivious of the mess around them. Food, warmth and a few other things are more important for them. While this was certainly essential for all the soldiers, in Laurel and Hardy’s case it’s center stage. They behave in the trench like an old couple at home. The shelling and bombing is perceived as a major nuisance but not as the real danger it is. Sent to make a few prisoners, they turn a dangerous mission into a hilarious adventure that ends with a surprising success.

Edie Smith, a fellow soldier, tells them about his little daughter. He had to leave her behind with a couple of really abusive folk. When he goes missing, our two heroes decide that after the war they will bring the girl to her rightful grandparents.

The second part of the movie takes place after the Armistice and shows their adventures with the little girl and all their troubles and mishaps until they finally find the grand parents.

Pack Up Your Troubles is one hour long. It’s amusing, not one of my favourites, but still entertaining. They pack all the elements of WWI movies into a film –  the trenches, the barbed wire, the mud, the bombings – and add a humorous twist. Laurel & Hardy’s humour is slapstick, it’s not satirical, nor very profound. If you like it, you will enjoy this as well.

Do you have a favourite Laurel & Hardy at war? Or another favourite Laurel & Hardy?

The Devil’s Whore aka The Devil’s Mistress (2008)

What troubled times these were. 17th century England. Thomas Rainsborough. Oliver Cromwell. The English Civil War. The Levellers. The execution of Charles I. Put all this together and use as a central figure a beautiful young woman, married three times, said to have seen the devil, accused of being a whore and surviving her execution and you have the ingredients of a very entertaining mini-series.

The Devil’s Whore or (called The Devil’s Mistress in the US) tells the story of the fictitious Angelica Fanshawe. Related to King Charles I we see her married to one of his relatives who ends up being executed. The English Civil War is seen through her eyes and its troubled history told in a very dramatic way. It makes you want to brush up your history immediately. As the addition of this fictitious noble woman tells us, the filmmakers have taken some considerable liberties, still they mange to convey how chaotic these times were. Cromwell was at the head of the Parliament, together with Thomas Rainsborough, the head of the so-called Levellers. These two men occupy two extreme positions. One wants to gain power over the parliament and have the King listen to them, while the other, as the name of the movement says, want’s all men to be the same. No more aristocracy and hierarchy. The land should be divided among everyone. As much as they are friends in the beginning, they clash and when Rainsborough is killed, it seems likely that Cromwell is responsible.

After the beheading of Charles I Cromwell is the most powerful man in England. He sends the army to Ireland and fights on many different fronts. But the war doesn’t bring peace to the country. Cromwell finally realizes that England sn’t ready yet. If he wants to restore peace there must be a new king.

I love this mini-series and have already watched it twice. Admittedly I didn’t only like it for the historical and political background but because I enjoyed Angelica Fanshawe’s story that is interwoven with the facts. In the beginning of the movie, when she is only a little girl, she sees the devil in a tree. He seems to mock her. But at the same time he transforms her into a woman, far more gutsy than women were at this time. She chooses her husbands, she speaks freely, she disguises as a man when needed and fights like a man as well.

The Devil’s Whore is an entertaining tale and a guilty pleasure set during the English Civil War, starring actors that have become famous with other movies and series. Dominic West (The Wire) plays Oliver Cromwell and Michael Fassbender (300, Inglourious Basterds, Shame, Fish Tank) is Thomas Rainsborough, John Simm (Life on Mars) is Edward Sexby and Angelica Fansahwe is played by Andrea Riseborough.

The only English trailer I found has Portuguese subtitles but that shouldn’t matter too much.