The Eagle and the Hawk (1933) A US WWI Air Combat Movie

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I’d never heard of  The Eagle and the Hawk before seeing it included in a war movie collection box that I ordered from the US. I’m happy to say that it was a real surprise. At one hour and eight minutes, it’s rather on the short side but it still packs a punch. Fredric March (The Best Years of Our Lives, A Star is Born) and Cary Grant (North by Northwest, Notorious, To Catch a Thief)  star in this unjustly overlooked black and white WWI anti-war, air combat drama. And there’s even a short scene with the stunning Carole Lombard (To Be or Not to Be, Mr and Mrs Smith)

Jerry Young (Frederic March) and Henry Crocker (Cary Grant) are both pilots but while Young is talented and careful, Crocker is rather foolhardy. That’s why, when they are called to got to France, Young makes sure, Crocker isn’t summoned. One can understand why because not only is he not the best pilot, but he’s also cranky and mean-spirited.

Once in Europe, Young’s quickly covered in medals. While many pilots envy him for that, he’s getting more and more depressed. Not only is he shocked to lose all of his young observers after only a few missions, but he also hates to shoot down enemy planes.

He’s more than a little surprised when he discovers that his newest observer, who has just come over from the US, is no other than Crocker. They didn’t like each other in the US but now this dislike turns into hate. Especially since Crocker treats killing like a sport, while Young’s sinking deeper and deeper into his depression. The true conflict however stems from Crocker’s attitude towards the enemy. Even in war, there are some rules, but he just doesn’t stick to them and does a few atrocious things.

When Young shoots down Alfred Voss, one of the most highly decorated German pilots, he earns everyone’s respect but cannot forgive himself for killing a mere boy.

Seeing a decorated pilot suffer from his own victories, isn’t something I’ve seen often in war movies but it’s not entirely new. What was different though, was Cary Grant’s character’s development. I thought this was genuinely well done and led to a surprising end twist that I’m not going to forget soon.

I’ve seen people comment on the scene with Carole Lombard, calling it superfluous. In my opinion, it gives the movie a bitter-sweet quality and foreshadows tragic events.

It’s a neat, short movie with two interesting character portraits, a very outspoken anti-war message, a few pretty good air combat scenes and a great and surprising ending.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a trailer, which isn’t surprising as it’s a movie from the 30s.

Testament of Youth (2014)

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Two years ago, I read and reviewed Vera Brittain’s collection of letters Letters from a Lost Generation. It was one of the saddest, most harrowing books I’ve ever read. After finishing it, I read Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain’s memoir, which was equally moving. Needless to say, I was interested in watching the movie Testament of Youth.

Vera Brittain’s story is really one of the saddest imaginable. Not only did she loose her fiancé, but also her brother and their two closest friends. After the war, she met the writer Winifred Holtby – we see her very briefly in this movie – and they became very close friends until Holtby died at the age of thirty-seven. Besides being a testament to the friendships between Vera and her friends and brother, the books give great insight into the life of a nurse during WWI. Like the men, she joined up early and stayed a nurse until the end of the war.

The movie takes a long time to show us the idyllic pre-war years. Vera has a close relationship with her brother, Edward, who introduces her to his friends Roland, later Vera’s fiancé, Victor and Geoffrey. It is 1914 and Vera, who at eighteen is the youngest, tells her parents she intends to go to Oxford. The parents are shocked and oppose her. They don’t want her to become a blue-stocking. and minimise her chances to find a husband. Thanks to her brother she’s allowed to go to the exams and is accepted. As happy as she is to be allowed a higher education, when the war breaks out and her brother, fiancé, and friends sing up, she becomes a nurse.

The movie shows a few scenes of her as a nurse but it makes it look like she didn’t really do it for a very long time. Nor that she was moving from England  to different front lines in France and Malta. It rather focusses on the death of her fiancé and her brother. We then get to see her briefly after the war and how she meets Winifred Holtby. It’s a very short scene as well.

The movie tries to capture the mood of the era and manages more or less.

I guess, the tone of my review, tells you that I was disappointed. The movie’s neither fish nor fowl. Not a real love story, nor the story of the friendships or her years as a nurse and not very insightful about the war as such. The director tried to cram to much into a short film. It would have been much better if this had been a mini-series. More moving, more realistic. The way it is, it’s not very successful. It’s not dreadful, it’s beautifully filmed, well acted but not very engaging and stays at the surface. This is possibly also due to the rather large cast. It’s impossible to care for so many people in an average length movie.

You can watch it but you don’t have to. Read the books instead. They are some of the best books on WWI.

Peaky Blinders (2013) British Post-WWI Gangster Saga

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Sometimes you just have to stretch definitions. I’ve included other movies and TV series which were not exactly “war films” but dealt with the aftermath of war or a post-war era, and that’s why I think it’s fair to include Peaky Blinders. That and because it is fantastic. I really loved it and have to thank my friend Novroz for repeatedly writing about it. Besides it just proves a point. These days a lot of the best visual story telling isn’t shown in cinemas but on TV. And did I mention Nick Cave, Tom Waits and the White Stripes? I’ll come to that later.

Set in Birmingham in 1920, Peaky Blinders tells the story of a family of gangsters. They work pretty much mafia-style. They intimidate people, extort money against protection, fix races, use violence. Arthur Shelby (Paul Anderson) is the oldest brother, Thomas (Cillian Murphy) the second, Jimmy is next and little Fin who is barely 5 years old is the youngest. There is also a sister, Ada, who’s in love with the communist Freddie Thorne. We never hear what happened to the mother, and the father, a thieving, whoring bastard, appears much later in the series. The only parent figure who is around constantly is aunt Polly (Helen McCrory). People assume that Arthur being the oldest is in charge but he’s far too dumb for that. The real boss of the Peaky Blinders is Thomas, assisted by aunt Polly. Thomas is the one with the business ideas, ready to strike, cold and calculating, and never shying away from violence. But he’s also loyal and courageous. Polly can be as cold and calculating as Thomas but she’s also diplomatic and keeps the family together on a more emotional level. Whenever there is conflict between the one or the other, she will reconcile them.

The world the Peaky Blinders live in is rough. It’s a world of poverty, delinquency, alcoholism and prostitution. Most of the money of the Shelby’s comes from bookmaking, contraband trade and robberies. The whole tragic story is set in motion when they steal a truckload of guns by mistake at the beginning of the series.

Winston Churchill sends for an Irish inspector who is an expert in the fight against the IRA. Churchill suspects that the guns are either in the hands of the IRA or the Communists. Both would be equally bad. The inspector is a self-righteous man, of those movie characters one really loves to hate – especially since he’s played by Sam Neill.

Thomas is intelligent and troubled. Like most of the men in the series he served in France and the trenches have changed him. He’s a broken man, who uses opium to fight his demons and distances himself from any feeling. Nightmares and visions of France haunt him like they haunt many others.

Music is very important for this series. The sound track is a mix of songs and original score by Nick Cave, the White Stripes and Tom Waits. Some sequences, notably those showing Thomas on his own or the “battle scenes”  are composed like stylish, gritty music video.

A gang like the Peaky Blinders is bound to have enemies and there are a lot of bloody confrontations with other gangs, bookmakers and the police. The power struggle between the inspector and Thomas makes is very suspenseful.

WWI is present all through this series. Many of the loyalties, the friendships and aversions in the series have a source in whether or not characters have served and whether or not they served together. The war left its mark on the society and on the people. The good and the bad in Thomas comes to a large extent from the war. He knows what courage under fire means. He’s been decorated twice. But he also knows that the war bruises and breaks you and leaves scars all over your body and your soul.

I’m not going to say  much more just this – watch it. I really loved Peaky Blinders and will watch it again. Before ending I should say that the series is a bit of a one man show. It wouldn’t have been as outstanding without Cillian Murphy‘s stellar performance, on the other hand it would be unfair not to mention that all the other actors are really good too.

A Very Long Engagement – Un long dimanche de fiançailles (2004)

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It’s entirely the fault of movies like A Very Long Engagement that this blog lies dormant most of the time. Who wants to write about a film like this?

There are movies that I call “darlings” of the public. Everyone goes “oh” and “ah” and “oh so wonderful” just upon hearing the title. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Améelie is one of them, and – not surprisingly starring the same actress, Audrey Taoutou – Un long dimanche de fiançailles is another of those “darlings”. The fact is that most of the time these are precisely the movies I cannot stand. I watched Un long dimanche de fiançailles for the second time, hoping I’d succumb to its charm – but that didn’t happen. On the very contrary. I liked it even less. Why though? I’m not sure. It’s particularly sad because there aren’t all that many WWI movies.

A Very Long Engagament tells the story of two young lovers separated by WWI. Mathilde and Manech fall in love just before the war breaks out. They are still almost children. Both are outsiders. She because she is limping, he because he seems to be a bit simple-minded.

When he doesn’t return from the war, Mathilde swears to find him. It is said that he was court-martialled together with four others. The five men shot themselves in order to be sent home.

Mathilde acts a bit like a PI, interrogating people, following every lead. Although everyone tells her that Manech has been shot, she is convinced that he is still alive. Their connection is strong, she would feel it, if he was dead.

A Very Long Engagement is a typical Jean-Pierre Jeunet movie. His films often look like old sepia-colored photos and have a vintage feel. The trench scenes are not bad and from a purely cinematic point of view it’s a beautiful film but I always have a problem with his characters and find many of them off putting. I would still like to read the book by Japrisot.

Has anyone seen it? Did you like it and if so why?

Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

I’ve seen a few depressing war movies and the one or the other that affected me a lot, still I’d say the prize for most depressing war movie has to go to Johnny Got His Gun (1971 US). What a nightmare. If there ever was a movie which was completely unambiguous in its anti-war message, that’s it.

Dalton Trumbo’s novel Johnny Got His Gun was quite a success when it came out still no film director wanted to make it into a movie until Trumbo himself decided to do so. The result is unsettling.

Joe is a young man of 21 years when the US enter WWI in 1917. Patriotism and a feeling of duty, the wish to serve his country and democracy make him sing up. Once in France he is severely wounded, loses both of  his arms and legs and his face as well. They put him in a utility room in the hospital, his head covered with cloth. The doctor who is in charge declares that he is brain-dead. According to him he doesn’t feel or sense anything and isn’t much more than a vegetable really.

The scenes showing Joe in the hospital are black and white and they alternate with color scenes representing either dreams and hallucinations or memories. As the spectators soon realize, Joe isn’t brain-dead. He has a feeling for himself and slowly discovers the horrific state he is in. Together with him we realize at first that his arms are missing, then that his legs are missing too and later that there is only the top of his head and the brain left.

In the flashbacks we see his life before he signs up and in his dreams and hallucinations show how he tries to make sense, tries to find a meaning and some reason to live.

If it wasn’t for one nurse who is so shaken by compassion his live would be even more miserable than it is. She sees more than just a rump in him, moves his bed into the sunlight, touches him and tries to communicate with him.

The end is absolutely horrible. Joe finds a way to communicate with the people around him in using morse code. He tells them to expose him. As a warning, for people to learn. When the doctors see their mistake, that he isn’t brain-dead but knows what is happening to him, they lock him up, and deprive him of what little he had. He ends up as a secret and one can not even imagine what that means. Alone, abandoned and without the possibility to end his own life.

Johnny Got His Gun may be one of the most forceful anti-war movies ever but it’s really a very depressing movie. Not one I’m likely to watch again.

This was part of a watch along and I’m curious to hear other impressions or read other reviews.

The Lost Battalion (2001) WWI TV Remake

The Lost Battalion is a US made for TV movie based on a true story that happened during the last weeks of WWI. It’s seems to be a remake of the 1919 movie The Lost Battalion. I haven’t seen the film from 1919, so cannot comment on how well it’s been remade.

Set in 1918 The Lost Battalion tells the story of the 77th American division which got caught behind enemy lines in the Argonne Forest, in France. Major Whittlesey is assigned one of those incomprehensible suicide missions of which there were so many during WWI. Together with 500 men he is to attack the German forces in the Argonne Forest. Additional forces are sent out to give support through the flanks but before even arriving on the assigned post, they retreat.

Out of a sense of duty Major Whittlesey and his men hold out despite the fact that they have no food, no water, no ammunition. The siege lasts 5 days and costs the life of 300 men. Most of the men are from New York, they are Irish, Polish, Italian and Jewish immigrants which, according to Whittlesey, contributed to the success as they are known to be reckless fighters.

I know this is a movie that quite a lot of people like but I must honestly say, I found it quite boring. It’s combat intense and seems quite accurate but the story isn’t told in a very suspenseful way. There are no outstanding characters either. It has a few additional flaws which I’ve noticed in other TV productions and which bothered me after a while. The wounds look garish instead of horrible wounds because the color of the blood is an intense orange. The acting was average but not too painful.

Still, I suppose it’s a worthy effort as we don’t see a lot of WWI infantry combat movies from a US perspective and according to the film this battle helped break through the German lines and ultimately was a key factor in ending the war. That certainly deserved to be told. If accuracy is the most important thing for you, don’t miss it. I prefer a well-told or interestingly filmed story.