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?

Bertrand Tavernier’s Capitaine Conan – Captain Conan (1996)

Have you seen Capitaine Conan? You haven’t? Well then I’d like to know why you are sitting here, reading this blog when what you should really do, is chase a copy of this unique and brilliant movie? This is one of the best war movies I have seen in a while. I’m doing pretty bad with movies these days and have found my attention span is quite short but this movie had me glued to the screen. WWI movies tend to be a bit repetitive, it’s either the atrocity of the trenches, facial wounds, the analysis of the shortcomings of the high command or the incredible amount of dead and lost soldiers. All of it worthy themes but done a few times and quite brilliantly too. That’s why it was such a surprise that there is hardly any of this in Capitaine Conan. 

Capitaine Conan is based on the largely autobiographical novel Captain Conan by Roger Vercel who won the prestigious Prix Goncourt for the book. Vercel based the main character on one of his comrades.

The most interesting aspect is that the movie (and the book) takes place on the Bulgarian border where French and English troops fought a guerrilla like war against Germans and Bulgarians. There are trenches but a lot of the combat is hand-to-hand combat, man against man.

The lieutenant Capt Conan is an insubordinate, extremely wild and brutal soldier. But also someone who cherishes camaraderie. Instead of eating with the fellow officers, he rather sits somewhere with the men. He leads a group of 50 men that he calls his wolves. They are all equally fearless, brutal and, as it seems, addicted to violence but also a tight-knit group, ready to do anything for each other. There is nothing they like more than fighting man against man and mostly with knives. Because Conan is highly efficient and can turn around the course of hopeless battles, his superiors let him do as he pleases but when the war ends, things go wrong. His bloodthirsty men are too easily bored. They start to commit one crime after the other. Pillaging, raping, robbery. Conan who calls himself a warrior, as opposed to a soldier, isn’t any better and let’s his men get away with everything. Conan has long-lost his sense of right and wrong and all that he cares about are his men. War has turned him into a brute.

Among this violent crowd is a more gentle lieutenant, who wants to become a school teacher in peace time. If it wasn’t for him, who is appointed as prosecutor, Conan and his men would be court-martialled. The friendship between these two men grows slowly but once it’s established, it is indestructible.

It’s quite difficult to do this movie justice as it is very complex and quite fast-paced. Conan is a fascinating character and the way Tavernier depicts him we can’t help but admire him. In the world of WWI, in which there are so many officers who never dirty their hands but make the most important decisions without having a clue, someone like Conan, with a sense of honour and dignity, despite the brutality, becomes admirable. He is ruthless but he has a sense of loyalty and justice. The problem is, that men like him cannot go back to a normal life, once the war is over. They have gone too far.

After the war has ended, they are boarding a train and sent around without really knowing where they go. They stop in Sofia for a long time and are finally sent to the Russian border to fight the Bolsheviks. The scene in which the general informs them of the Armistice is one of the greatest scenes in any war movie ever. It’s so absurd. We see the guy talk about victory and glory, while the rain is pouring down, half of the men are running away because of diarrhea and the highly decimated band plays an off-key Marseillaise and looks like a bunch of flea-infested hobos.

I really hope I could give a halfway good impression of this wonderful movie and how rich it is. It’s very witty with super fast dialogue that I hope is well captured in the subtitles. I have a French DVD so I turned them off. It’s one of the huge problems of French cinema in translation. French cinema does live to a large extent from the dialogue which is usually fast and a lot of it isn’t translated. This isn’t a comedy but it has a lot of funny elements because it shows how absurd war is and because it juxtaposes many different levels of French society and different French regions.

As I said, the movie is available with English subtitles but the only trailer I found is a French one with Spanish subtitles. It still gives a good impression of the movie.

ANZACS Part III Ypres and Passchendaele (1985)

It is debatable when watching a series whether you should review each installment individually. I haven’t done it for The Pacific, nor for Hornblower or Sharpe, so why now do it for ANZACS? Because it is so good? Yes, it really is but so are the others. That’s not the reason then, the reason is that I’m in the mood to do it. Not everything needs to make perfect sense in life, occasionally we can do something just because we enjoy it and I enjoy reviewing ANZACS. There are not all that many good movies and series on WWI, it seems justified to re-emphasize that this one exists.

Part three is a s good as the first two parts and leads us even deeper into some of the catastrophic and notorious battles of WWI. Who hasn’t heard of Ypres or Passchendaele, who hasn’t heard how many soldiers died in these two offensives alone?

In this part we see that the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George and General Haig are really not on the same page. Haig is gung-ho, his strategy seems to demand too many losses and Lloyd George doesn’t think it’s justified at all.

Once more we also see how the British and the Australian culture clash when it comes to subordination. Another aspect that is covered in this part is the role of the respective churches. While the Church of England was fully supportive of the war, there were some voices in Australia saying that it might be high time to underline that Australia was independent by now and that the Australian church should adopt another attitude towards the war.

The man on the photo, Jon Blake is one of the main actors in ANZACS. He was also in in The Lighthorsemen. While finishing The Lighthorsemen he had a car accident and sustained severe brain injuries that left him in a near vegetative state. He died on May 29 2011. It’s a very sad story. He was a very promising young actor and many say he would have gone far. We will never know.

Here are the reviews of Part I Gallipoli and Part II The Somme and a List of Australian War Movies.

Paths of Glory (1957) Kubrick’s WWI Anti-War Masterpiece

Paths of Glory was forbidden in the UK and in Switzerland until the 70s. French troops disturbed the opening in West Berlin. The movie was forbidden in American cinemas for soldiers. It was forbidden in France during the war in Algeria. It was shown in Paris for the first time in 1975. What’s that telling us? That this is a radical anti-war statement that openly criticizes high command. It is powerful and thought-provoking and absolutely unambiguous as to its goal. I felt a bit uneasy that Kubrick chose to criticize French command. Didn’t he have plenty of opportunities to criticize American command? Be it as it may, Paths of Glory, which is based on a true account, is a great achievement.

The movie opens  with the Marseillaise and a voice telling the horrors of  WWI, the numbers of soldiers that get killed daily to no avail. The incident on which the movie centers took place in 1916 in France. The movie moves back and forth between the trenches and the high command residing in an elegant Château.

An ambitious general asks of the equally ambitious general Mireau to take a hill, held by German troops, the so-called “Ant Hill”. A highly symbolical name if there ever was one as people are treated no better than ants and wiped out with one simple gesture. When general Mireau informs colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) of the order to attack the ant-hill, he is met with incredulity. Dax tells him that it is impossible and will cost an incredible amount of lives. The answer is a sarcastic calculation. 65% of the men will not survive and the outcome is not even sure. Dax wants to refuse the order but is threatened to be replaced.

The futility of the attack becomes obvious right away. Dax fights in the front line with his men who die one after the other. He and many others retreat after seeing that they can’t make it. Many stayed in the trenches, knowing damn well they would be killed and nothing could be won. Seeing the men’s reluctance to run into certain death, general Mireau orders to open fire on them but the officer who receives the order refuses.

The frustrated general then orders a court-martial. Three men are chosen in lieu of all the others and accused of cowardice. Colonel Dax, a lawyer in civilian life, takes up their defence. Like the court-martial in Breaker Morant, this is a pure sham.

Kubrick’s movie has a lot of interesting elements. Colonel Dax is one of the great war movie characters. A officer of high moral standards, free of carrerism and ambition, a just and human being. Kirk Douglas was very well-chosen for this role. He is very believable and gives a great performance.

The contrasts between the high command who is far from the action and thinks they can mock simple soldiers who are afraid, slap those who show signs of shell-shock and judge others that refuse to run into certain death, is fantastic. Paths of Glory is one of those movies that has scenes that will stay with you forever because they are emotionally true and powerful. The utter cynicism of the high command, the way they calculate losses without giving further thought to the fact that each number equals a human being, will make you cringe.

It is a movie that belongs to two sub-categories. The court-martial movies like Breaker Morant and the “Taking a hill movies” like Hamburger Hill, Pork Chop Hill, Gallipoli and The Thin Red Line.

Apparently there is a more recent French TV film Le Pantalon (1996) that quotes Paths of Glory in its major parts.

As much good as I may have said, I had my reservations. I did not understand the use of black and white. The movie doesn’t work so well from a cinematographic point of view. There are not so many contrasts and shadows as there normally are in black and white movies. Even Pork Chop Hill (far less good as a whole) looks much better. Kubrick is famous for the use of colours in his movies… I don’t see it as entirely logical that he didn’t shoot this in color. But that is the only flaw I could find. It still deserves a solid 4.5/5.

Beneath Hill 60 (2010) Australian Miners Fighting in The Tunnels of WWI

I am really glad to be able to dedicate this year’s last review to a movie that came out in 2010. I am also glad that the Australian movie Beneath Hill 60 was one of the biggest surprises of this year. After having watched a few more recent war movies like Everyman’s War and Passchendaele my hopes were not too high. I was wrong. This is a thoroughly good movie in which everything is right. The main story, the accuracy, the flashbacks, the actors, the score, the pictures, all together make a great combination. Last but not least the movie is based on a true story that is maybe not universally known but truly amazing. In 1916 Australian miners were digging tunnels beneath the trenches. The worst of those tunnel systems was located beneath Hill 60, in Belgium. The aim was to blow up the whole hill and the trenches around it. The outcome was the biggest explosion ever. It could be heard as far as London and Dublin.

At the beginning of the movie the men around Captain Oliver Woodward are digging in the tunnels beneath the trenches in France. Woodward is a newbie and as  such has to prove himself first. Unfortunately he makes a mistake when he doesn’t realize that the sound one of the miners hears isn’t his own heart but digging sounds of the Germans. The movie is full of suspenseful moments when the digging miners have to stop and listen, if there are Germans close by. Whoever gets a chance will blow up parts of the tunnel system and the fight will rage underground. As claustrophobic as it is inside of the earth, it is still more secure than above. Every time the men get out of the tunnels, they see the madness of the war in the trenches, the constant shelling, the mud, the never-ending rain. The young miners can hardly handle to be outside; they are scared to death.

After his initial misjudgment Woodward soon proves to be more than worthy and he and his team achieve one difficult mission after the other, below and above ground. The story in the tunnels is interspersed with flashbacks. We see Woodward in Australia. He is an engineer with a mining company, freshly returned from Papua New Guinea. There is of course a love story but it is far from schmaltzy and just emphasizes Woodward’s character. He is gentle, intelligent, very able and has a great sense of humour. Newer war movies often operate with such flashbacks and mostly they are not successful. The flashbacks disrupt the movie and add a sugar-coating that is hard to swallow. This is not the case here. It’s a great diversion from the rest of the movie that shows mostly very dark scenes in the tunnels. Some of the tunnels are constantly under the threat to be flooded and water is dripping endlessly. A good sound system does come in handy. The sound effects are absolutely brilliant. Honestly, you will check your cupboards, to make sure, they didn’t start leaking.

The camaraderie between these fine men is depicted in a nice way, and every loss is felt by the spectator as well.

As far as setting goes, this is one of the most extreme. The men are in these tunnel systems almost day and night. Anything more claustrophobic is hard to imagine.

I would really urge you to watch this film. It is certainly the best that came out this year, and maybe one of the best of the decade. Australian filmmaking proves once more what it is capable of. The film director knew how to combine a well-told true story with the right amount of emotion. I couldn’t find the tiniest flaw.

I already attached the trailer in my List on Australian War Movies but decided to attach it again.

Joyeux Noël aka Merry Christmas (2005) Christmas in War Movies III

This is not only the best of the three movies on the theme Christmas in War Movies that I have reviewed but it is one of my Top 10 favourite war movies. And definitely the one, with L’armée du crime aka Army of Crime, that is closest to my heart.

Merry Christmas aka Joyeux Noël is based on a true event, the so-called “Little Peace during the Great War”. It’s a multinational co-prodcution, in three languages, English, French and German, filmed by the French writer and film director Christian Carion. One of the most European movies of all time. It portrays cultural differences of the involved parties in a truly amazing way. It is one of the most outstanding anti-war movies and achieves to make a profound pacifist and humanist statement.

Pretty much like Stalingrad, Joyeux Noël focuses on very few people. At the heart of the movie are the soldiers in the German, French and Scottish trenches. The central figures are the three lieutenants of the respective trenches, and one or two of their soldiers.

After endless days of shelling, Christmas 1914 arrives. The soldiers in the three enemy trenches are having their Christmas meals. A simple meal, accompanied by a lot of whisky, in the Scottish trench, hundreds of Christmas trees and a frugal meal in the German trench and nicely laid tables, candles, wine and a sophisticated meal in the French trenches. Towards the end of the meal, the Scots start to sing and play the bagpipes. The German’s are startled at first and finally join in. Amongst their ranks is a soldier who was a famous opera singer (Benno Fürmann) in his civilian life. He leaves the German trench with a Christmas tree and walks singing into no man’s land until his angered lieutenant follows him. Meanwhile, the Scottish lieutetnant has also left the trench and approaches them. For the sake of the evening and their men, they discuss a ceasefire. All this time the French look at this with wonder and utter puzzlement, until their lieutenant joins in as well and they all agree on the ceasefire. The evening is spent with a mass (Gary Lewis is fantastic as the priest) and the fiancée (the very beautiful Diane Kruger) of the opera singe,r who has been there for this evening, sings for them. They also share food, drinks and get to know each other.

The next day they have a hard time going back to the normal routine of shooting at each other. They first agree on letting each other bury their dead and then start playing football until the shelling starts again. The Germans start first and so all the soldiers are allowed to seek refuge in the German trench.

The commanders of the three armies hear of this and all the involved parties are severely punished. If they hadn’t been so numerous they would have been shot.

What I liked the most about this movie is how emotional it is. Carion says in an interview that he wanted to remind us of this little miracle and to really experience it. He states that he is a pacifist and a humanist, in the sense of believing in human values. The choice of the three lieutenants was extremely important in conveying this. If I ever do a post on the most likable commanding officers in war movies, those three are all going to be on it. My personal favourite is the French lieutenant Audebert, played by Guillaume Canet. The choice of such a sensitive and fragile actor was a stroke of genius. The German Daniel Brühl is very good too, and so is the Scottish actor Alex Ferns, but they do not have the versatility of Canet. Lieutenant Audebert is a very determined but just and utterly emotional commander. He throws up at the beginning of the battle but still manges to give strength to his people, to guide them. Apart from Platoon’s Sgt Elias, Audebert is the most touching soldier I have ever seen. Brühl as Horstmayer is the most complex of the three, the only one who speaks all three languages and changes considerably during the movie. Ferns as Gordon is the one that men would want as their mate.

An absolutely outstanding aspect of the movie is the way it renders the differences of the trenches that do mirror the differences of the mentalities of the parties involved. This might seem clichéd for an outsider but if you are familiar with the cultures of those countries and know something about the life in the trenches you will notice how highly accurate it is.

The British trenches had the reputation of being very shoddy and muddy, whereas the Germans transformed theirs into real homes. The French on their side had the best food and coffee. The trench system is very complicated and the narrow steep walls didn’t allow outside orientation, that’s why they had a system of signs that showed them where which enemy was. We see the sign “Rosbif land” in the French and “Froggy trench” in the Scottish trench which is very accurate and funny.

It is after all also a humorous movie, especially in the French and the Scottish parts. The Germans are shown as more sober. One of the nicest touches of the movie is the story of the trench cat. Each trench believes the ginger tom is theirs. At the end of the movie the cat is caught with a bit of cardboard around the neck. He has become a messenger between the trenches and is duly  arrested for high treason.

If someone wanted to get familiar with war movies or never has seen one,  Merry Christmas is the war movie I would recommend he or she should watch. There is everything in it: tears and laughter, despair and hope, misery and joy, combat and trench life, criticism of the high command, class differences and a love story thrown in for good measure. 5/5

I couldn’t find an English trailer and attached a scene instead.

And the original trailer.

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