Aces High (1976) British WWI Air Combat Movie

I was curious to watch Aces High as it is one of the few WWI air combat movies we have. I did remember vaguely that some critics didn’t like it at all and wanted to find out for myself. I had the feeling it might not be as good as Der rote Baron aka The Red Baron although that is decidedly more of a guilty pleasure than a movie providing historical accuracy. I was right. Aces High isn’t even remotely as good as Der rote Baron and certainly not on the same level as The Blue Max which depicts a fascinating if revolting character. Unfortunately, it could have been good. It’s a narrow miss. What is particularly annoying is the fact that the flight scenes and the contrast of the combat on the ground and in the air is shown very well. It also shows once more the complacency and inadequacies of the high command. While their pilots are shot down one by one, they sit together, eating, laughing, drinking and gossiping and even deny them parachutes because that would make them week in battle. The movie doesn’t spare us and shows one particularly chilling episode in which we see a pilot falling to a certain death that might have been prevented if he had been given a parachute.

The story is told in a few sentences. Young Lt Croft (Peter Firth) arrives in France after barely 14 hours of flying practice. The CO of the base he has been assigned to is his brother-in-law, Major Gresham (Malcolm McDowell), a man he admires incredibly. He finds Gresham extremely changed. Disillusioned, hardened, distant and a full-blown alcoholic. The rest of the lot is not much better; either they drink or they are shell-shocked. The only nice and cool-headed one seems to be an older officer, Capt. “Uncle” Sinclair (Christopher Plummer).

Gresham cannot spare young Croft and has to take him on dangerous missions right away. The young man enjoys every minute of it. He is naive and enthusiastic.

You will probably think that this doesn’t sound too bad, I agree, it doesn’t but it still isn’t a good movie. Aces High has a big problem with its characters. Apart from Christopher Plummer’s character, they are uninteresting, flat and two-dimensional cardboard figures. This is disappointing because, as said, the air combat scenes are decent, the planes are decent and there is one incidence in which they make a trip to the front line and see a group of blinded soldiers that is quite harrowing. I’m afraid, I can’t rate this any higher than 3/5.

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Regeneration aka Behind the Lines (1997) or Psychiatry, Poetry and Shell Shock during WWI

Based on British novelist Pat Barker´s incredible book Regeneration, the first book in her Regeneration trilogy, this movie has an awful lot to offer. Unfortunately like some other brilliant war movies (e.g. When Trumpets Fade) it never got its due appreciation by the public. This is a bit sad since everybody included in this film, especially the actors, did a brilliant job. Jonathan Pryce´s way of playing the eminent Dr. Rivers in such an understated manner impressed me a lot.

Set in WWI England and the French trenches Regeneration looks into so much more than  just into it´s central theme shell shock. Class and duty, courage and a sense of utter futility coming from the colossal losses of lives are some of many themes.

Another interesting aspect is that Regeneration also looks at the birth of a medical discipline namely psychiatry in its struggle to become a well-respected way to cure people. During the times depicted in the movie however its sole purpose was to restore the ill young men and make them fit to be sent back to the trenches.

A further central theme is the poetry of young poets such as Siegfrid Sassoon and  Wilfred Owen. The people we encounter at the heart of this movie are mostly intellectuals.

The story circles around the poet Sassoon (James Wilby) who is considered to be a war hero. He has written a letter of protest against this war that is still going on despite all better understanding. To avoid court-martial he is sent to the asylum to be treated for shell shock. He does have recurring nightmares but apart from that he seems unharmed.

As mentioned before we also find a thematization of the topic of class. The officers were mostly from the leading upper class. One patient however made it to a higher rank without the usually required background. One more  look from another angle at this complex mess of a war.

There are many other patients in the asylum that have been marked more deeply than Sassoon. Some stammer, some lost their speech altogether, others suffer from hallucinations, delusions or other forms of psychotic reactions. One of them, Billy Prior (Johnny Lee Miller), is a very interesting character, so is Wilfred Owen (Stuart Bunce), the young poet.

Dr. Rivers (Jonathan Pryce) who is also a leading anthropologist is a very gentle psychiatrist (We learn more about him in the novels. The sequels to Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road elaborate these aspects. Being an anthropologist myself I would have liked to see sequels of those movies. As an avid reader it is rare I am truly impressed by books but I was when reading this trilogy. Unbelievably good.). He tries to heal by listening to his patients and help them regain their memory of often unspeakable horrors. Empathy and compassion are Rivers´ trademarks. He cares deeply for his patients and it is tragic when he  ultimately realises that all he does is cure them to send them off to face a certain death.

During the movie we are also shown one other doctor´s techniques at curing mutism originating in shell shock. They are revolting to say the least.

What made this movie so remarkable  is the way it chose to show the scenes in the trenches. Even tough it is a color movie, the use  of color during the trench scenes is attenuated, creating almost black and white sequences. This is convincingly artful. The just middle between the black and white of All Quiet on the Western Front and the corny choice of color in Passchendaele.

Regeneration is one of the best war movies on WWI. It excells in showing the absurdity of war, friendship among men, the birth of a discipline, the power of poetry to convey even the most horrible adequately. Yes, it is a rich movie. Would I want to do it justice, this already long post would be at least three times  longer. Putting  my review in two words: Watch it!

Should you be interested in more background information you should read a first hand account of one the people shown in the movie.  Why not read Robert Graves´ (played by Dougray Scott) autobiography Goodbye to All That?  Graves was Sassoon´s closest friend and responsible for his escaping court-martial. Of course Paul Fussell´s book  The Great War and Modern Memory does also take a closer look at the above mentioned poets. This is dense however not less recommended reading.

Regeneration at amazon.com, amazon.co.uk ,amazon.de