Sunday, April 24, 2011
My Top Twenty War Movies Part 1
Right up front, I should make it clear that I've never been in combat, and I'm just a history buff and a movie fan, talking about what I like and don't like. You can take all this stuff for exactly what you think it's worth...not that youneed my permission.
I also feel I should explain my criteria for putting movies on this list. You'll notice that all the movies depict relatively modern warfare, say, from the Napoleonic period to the present. However, this has more to do with the individual movies than anything else...for some reason, movies set before that period tend to be movies involving warfare---mostly for the purposes of spectacle---rather than movies pretty much about war, the military life, etc. If there was a really good movie (i.e., one that I liked) that concentrated on the lives of Roman or Macedonian soldiers, and their experiences in battle, I'd be delighted to put it on the list. But most historical movies aren't like that. Mostly they're just not very good (I had real issues with 300, for example), or the war sequences are just set-piece stuff to keep things moving. All that being said, on with the list...
1. All Quiet on the Western front, 1930, Director: Lewis Milestone
This is the granddaddy of all war-is-hell movies, based on the granddaddy of all war-is-hell novels, by Erich Maria Remarque. The book was much hated by the Nazis, who felt it was a most emasculating influence...my father, on the other hand, recommended it to me as an antidote to a lot of the war movies I'd grown up on, namely WWII era propaganda flicks. I read it and it packed a considerable punch...having just watched the movie again, it seemed to me that it was a reasonably faithful adaptation, at least from what I recall. There was an even more faithful version with Henry Thomas, Ernest Borgnine and Ian Holm...but that was sort of hamstrung by the fact that it didn't have a budget as big the 1930 version. Remarque's novel got the full Hollywood treatment from a director, Lewis Milestone, who really knew what he was doing, and the result is genuinely nightmarish and very well realized, with lots of extras, big sets, and vast vistas of surreal slaughter. Also, it doesn't pull any punches. It's nastier than the later version. The explosions are bigger. Everything looks dirtier and stinkier. It's better because it's in black and white. And as much as I like Ernest Borgnine, Louis Wollheim's Katcynski is better. He's uglier than Borgnine. He's just about the ugliest guy ever, and it's just great...I don't think I ever saw him in anything else, and I'm kind of surprised. He really dominates the proceedings, and he's a far more compelling presence than the star, Lew Ayres.
Movie opens in a German town where everybody thinks the idea of WWI is just peachy...people are positively enjoying the war news, and we're introduced to the local postman, Himmelstoss, a jovial chap who's delighted to be exchanging his postman's uniform for a soldier's. In a classroom, a teacher (Arnold Lucy) is delivering a stirring exhortation, going on and on about how sweet is to die for one country, and encouraging his students to enlist en masse, which they do.
From this point on, we see things largely through the eyes of Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres), as aspiring playwright and sensitive young soul. But he and his classmates discover pretty quick that things aren't going to be swell. First off, they find themselves under the tender loving care of Himmelstoss, who, upon getting his new uniform, has undergone a shocking transformation into a horrible sadistic grind-your-face-in-the-mud bastard intoxicated by his own tiny little smidgin of authority. The guys manage to jump him and humiliate him one night just before they're sent to the front, but their triumph is short-lived...right off the train in some unnamed french town, they get shelled, and no one gets very much of anything to eat...a grizzled veteran named Katcynski takes them under his wing, and while he's friendly enough, he's definitely an instructor in the school of hard knocks...they endure a vile night stringing wire, get shelled again; one of them gets his eyes blown out. They wind up in the trenches, and endure day after day of shelling, enough to drive some of them bugnuts...the bunker set is a particularly effective bit of business, that actually rocks and shivers. Showers of dirt rains down as our guys play endless rounds of cards and kill rats with trenching-tools.
Finally they're summoned from their hole to face a French attack, which Milestone stages with considerable vigor...rank after rank of Frenchies are peeled back by machine-gun fire, but the rest come hurtling into the trenches for some grisly hand-to-hand slaughter...the Germans repel them and counterattack, whereupon they get peeled back by the French,in a series of shots identical to the ones where the Frogs were getting harvested.
Things settle down for a bit...Paul and crew decide to go to the local dressing station to buck up one of their own, Franz, (Ben Alexander). But he's well beyond cheering, burning up with fever; one of his legs has been amputated, although he's unaware of that until he says his toes are hurting, and a comrade helpfully points out that that's impossible, because his leg's been removed. One of them asks for his boots, because he doesn't need them anymore...he gets even more upset...most of them leave, although Paul sticks around to see him die.
The war drags on. The guys amuse themselves with a little contraption for roasting lice over a candle. Himmelstoss winds up at the front and reveals himself to be a contemptible coward. Paul finds himself in a cemetary that's being blown to bits by an artillery barrage, and tumbles into a grave with a shredded corpse. Later, he's pretending to be dead in a shellhole as Frenchies leap overhead...one of them realizes he's alive, and they tangle, and Paul stabs him, but doesn't kill him outright. He has to spend a night in the hole with the poor guy, and winds up trying to take care of him, although ultimately the Frenchman dies and lies there just staring, as Paul begs his forgiveness.
Getting back to the German lines later, Paul tells Katcynski about all this, and Kat counsels him to forget about it, because they're supposed to be butchering Frenchies people...as he speaks, a sharpshooter keeps sniping away in the background, bang, bang bang.
The there's an uninteresting romantic interlude with a French girl...afterwards, didn't care. Paul is wounded in the leg and sent to a hospital. He sees one of his ward-mates sent away to the little room where terminal patients go to die...Paul gets sicker, and the orderlies come for him, and he's pretty sure he's going to be sent to the death-room too...but rather to his own surprise, he comes back and heals up.
Paul returns home on leave for some maudlin stuff with his mother and sister...he finds he can't relate to the civilians at all. He tries to socialize with his father and some other armchair soldiers at a tavern, can't stand it...he visits his old teacher, who's still pushing the same rah-rah tripe that Paul has completely rejected; asked to give his impression of the war, Paul spills his guts to the students, and everyone's shocked with him. Ultimately, he's weirdly anxious to return to the front, where there isn't any bullshit...the life-switch is either on or off, and if you're still breathing, you know where you stand.
he finds that his company has been all ripped up during his absence...Katcynski is still alive, and they have a cool reunion, but Kat gets killed shortly after. Ultimately, in one of the most famous scenes in classic Hollywood cinema, Paul, back at the front lines, is reaching for a butterfly when a French sniper gets him on the last day of the war.
This movie goes on for a very long time before there's any bullshit at all. The treatment of the school teacher at the beginning verges on pacifist-emasculation propaganda, but...there's must've been guys like this. You completely buy Himmelstoss's transformation to harmless mailman to rabid little prick. All of the arrangements at the front are horribly atmospheric and plausible. Some of the acting, particularly Lew Ayres, seems rather theatrical by today's standards, but then you have Louis Wolheim and some other good character actors. The battle scenes are impressive and scary. As the film progresses, various Big Statements get expressed, rather to the detriment of the otherwise believable presentation...but it's not enough to damage the film too much. For the most part, the movie's a dead-serious attempt to give you the lowdown on war, full of very telling details, guys shitting their pants, how Germans would go about stringing barbed wire, what happens when you shell a cemetary. If you compare the movie to Hell's Angels, which came out later the same year, and is great stuff in its own way, the difference in approach is crystal clear. All Quiet seems to be taking place in the real world. Hell's Angels, for all its fleets of actual aircraft, is preposterous and hopelessly contrived. Later war flicks, such as Sgt. York and most of the movies churned out by Hollywood during WWII are primarily propaganda...and the more realistic movies that started to be made during the fifties are nowhere near as ballsy as All Quiet. . It wasn't until the sixties that war movies began to flirt with this kind of edginess again..that's what kind of an achievement this is. I think I'd have even more to say if I hadn't just watched the thing in little crummy Youtube version, although...thank God for those.
2. Hell's Angels, 1930, Director: Howard Hughes
Howard Hughes was really something. I mean, he was nuttier than Mel Gibson, but like Gibson, he also had a lot on the ball. Was a much bigger fish than Mel, of course, really making his mark in a whole bunch of fields. He designed planes, tested 'em, ran an airline, and contributed quite a bit to America's aerospace advances...but he also had an abiding interest in movies. He produced one of the greatest gangster flicks, the original Scarface, and he blew a gigantic wad of his own bucks on Hell's Angel's, which he co-directed with James Whale. Nothing like Hell's Angel's had ever hit the screen before, and you know what? Nobody's ever made anything like it since. The story is junk, very badly constructed...the acting simply sucks. But the aerial combat stuff...sublime. When they were simulating Hughes's footage in The Aviator, they had to CG the living Hell out of everything, but they still didn't come close to what he pulled off.
He spent years making the damn thing, very nearly bankrupted himself. He was using practically every camera in Hollywood after a while, and running through mile upon mile of footage.When he was only partway done, he found out about The Jazz Singer, and decided to reshoot his movie in sound. Most remarkable of all, he assembled a vast fleet of WWI aircraft and actually destroyed a shitload of them to get his shots, in some cases hosing them down with actual bullets...some of his actors were plugged with real slugs as well. Man, when the muse said jump, Howard Hughes asked How High, and jumped very high indeed. About the only action stuff that I can think of that rivals the flying sequences in this movie for sheer crazy verisimilitude is the chariot race in Wyler's Ben Hur.
It is a pity that the rest of Hell's Angel's is so slapdash.When he brought in James Whale (it was Whale's first Hollywood job) to reshoot the dialogue scenes in sound, Whale decided that the script was so lousy that it needed to be totally rewritten...that didn't help, though. The only stuff that Hughes seems to have been really interested is the aerial material...either that, or he just didn't have the aptitude to handle the other biz.
Story, such as it is, features Roy (James hall) and Monte (Ben Lyon), two brothers going to Oxford on the eve of WWI...they're English supposedly, but have extremely American American accents. This wouldn't have been a problem in a silent flick, but once the movie acquired a soundtrack, their manifest Yankness comes right to the fore.
Roy is a straight shooter, very courageous; Monte is a womanizer and a bit of a coward. Roy's in love with Helen (Jean Harlowe, in her first big part) who seems nice but is actually a slut; there's also a subplot about the brothers' best friend, a German student named Karl, who loves England and doesn't want to be involved in a war.
The damn thing breaks out anyway, of course...Karl is back in Germany and winds up as an observer in a zeppelin...Roy and Monte have joined the RAF...and Roy introduces Helen to Monte, whom she seduces. The romantic triangle stuff is a total bore and badly done, but just when you start to write the movie off, we get the big zeppelin scene. Unlike the later dogfight sequences, this had to have been done with miniatures, but they must have been very large miniatures indeed, and the effects are extremely impressive. The zepp, with Karl aboard, has been tasked with blowing up Trafalgar Square, but there's cloud cover, and he's sent down in an observation car for a look-see...he doesn't want to blow of Trafalgar Square, so he tell his fiendish duelling-scarred commander that they're over the target, when they're actually over a river or a lake or something. The bombs get dropped; the zepp starts to head for home...but it's got some Brit planes closing in on it (one of them crewed by Roy and Monte), and it can't get much speed up, because of air resistance on that pesky observation car. The german captain has it cut lose, and poor Karl tumbles to his death; trying to gain altitude, the captain insists some of his guys jump off to ditch some weight, and one by one, in a chillin sequence, they plunge out the bottom of the airship, shouting "for Gott Und Vaterland!"
Even that doesn't work, though. The Brit planes close in; three are shot down; Monte and Roy crash in a field; but one last Limie slams his bird into the zepp and blows it up. Great red explosions light up the screen...once again, the miniature work is sensational. Moreover, the whole zepp sequence was filmed in Multicolor, which is primitive but quite effective when those hydrogen bags start to rupture. The zepp nearly crashes on Monte and Roy, who run towards the camera with the thing crashing and burning, shades of the Hindenburg, behind them. Stunning stuff.
In the following days, rumors flying about Monte being chicken after he ducks out of a mission. To prove he isn't, he volunteers to man a gun on a captured German bomber (I believe they use a real one) that's being sent to bomb a Hun ammo dump...Roy discovers Helen with another guy (not his brother) and despairs of life after she notifies him what a tramp she is; he volunteers for the suicide mission too. We get some more excellent miniature work as the bombs fall. Then the bomber comes under attack by German planes....then the Germans are attacked by a squadron of Brits. The whole screen fills up with swarming WWI aircraft. We get all sorts of fantastic pilot's eye view shots, and shots where Monte is unloading his observer's gun right into real German planes which are in the same frame! Actual bullets shred canvas, sever control cables, turn engines into swiss-cheese, pepper at least one very game actor who must've been wearing something under his jacket...planes collide headon, drop nose-first into the ground from enormous heights, smash down into open fields...and it all goes one some while, too. When the brothers finally get shot down, Howard Hughes actually takes that genuine German bomber and trashes it right on camera.
The movie falls back into its bad old ways after that, though. The siblings get captured by the Germans, and because they were flying a German plane, they can expect a firing squad...they might save themselves by divulging secrets, though. Monte accepts this deal, but Roy will have none of it; he tricks a German into giving him a pistol, with which he shoots his bro...in the film's last startling bit, we see one of those real bullets drill into Monte's back. Then Roy, steadfast to the last, is executed by the Germans.
Scorsese devoted a whole lot of time to the filming of this flick in The Aviator, and he's obviously a huge fan...apparently it was the movie that made Stanley Kubrick decide to be a director. Universal came out with a very good restored version, back in the nineties, I think...it's got all the color stuff, which really does add big time to the zepp sequence. If you've never seen the movie, you really owe it to yourself...nothing like this movie is ever going to be made again.
3.Sergeant York, 1941, Director: Howard Hawks
Wow, as far as technical quality goes, movies took an incredible leap forward between 1930 and 1941. As cool as All Quiet on the Western front and Hell's Angel's are, they seem extremely primitive next to Sergeant York; Hollywood had gotten to its golden age in no time....but it was also beating the drum for another war. All that pacifist shit? Forget it. We were in for another Big One, practically everybody could tell, and Warner Brothers was right at the forefront of pro-war propaganda, had been ever since Confessions of a Nazi Spy.
I'm not knocking Warners, mind you; they making movies that needed to be done. But Sergeant York is poles apart from All Quiet, and inspired a whole generation of American guys who'd have to go off to war. In that sense, it was performing much the same role as awful Professor Kantorek in All Quiet. But Alvin York's WWI experiences were just as real as Erich Maria Remarque's...reality contains such weird mood swings...and those damn Huns didn't take Remarque's book to heart.
Unleash Sgt. York.
Movie was directed by Howard Hawks, one of the all-time great purveyors of American macho cinema. In my gangster list, I already said quite a bit about one of his earlier classics, Scarface, (produced by Howard Hughes)which was the single best movie to come out of the mob movie craze of the early thirties...after York, Hawks would go on to make one great film after another, but in 1941, he was already at the height of his form.
Story is simple and straightforward. Alvin York, (Gary Cooper) is a dirt-poor backwoods marksman in Tennesee...nothing delights him more than shooting wild turkeys, drinking, and kicking ass. One night he's returning home during a rainstorm and gets hit by lightning...he starts going to a church run by Pastor Pile (Walter Brennan), who makes a truly repentant Christian out of him. Alvin foreswears drink and fighting.
Along comes World War Two..he wants no part of it, but the army won't confer conscientious objector status on him because it doesn't recognize Pile's backwoods denomination. Once he's in camp, Alvin demonstrates that he's a hellacious shot, and the army's more interested in him than ever. His commanding officer gives him a book on American history that convinces him that the U.S. is worth fighting for. Alvin winds up in France on the eve of the Meuse-Argonne offensive.
In a battle scene at least partially influenced by some of the sequences in All Quiet, the Americans go over the top, advancing through a hellish shell-cratered no man's land...German machine-guns on a ridge command the field...Alvin's unit is badly ripped up, but they chance upon a section of abandoned German trench, and get some distance along it. They slam into Germans at an intersection, and engage in combat so close that there's practically no room to move. Busting through, they take a crowd of prisoners, but are spotted by Germans in the nearest machine-gun nest...with all his higher-ups shot, Alvin, a mere corporal, leaves the rest of his buddies to watch the prisoners, while he sharpshoots the living daylights out of the German position, then moves towards another emplacement. Completely absorbed in hosing down the Americans directly in front of them, the Germans don't realize their flank has been turned...Alvin methodically shuts down nest after nest with his Springfield rifle (he actually used an Enfield), and a succession of captured Lugers...when Germans insist on remaining hidden, he gobbles, they look to see what the wierd noise is, and get potted like Turkeys. He uses a captured German to talk other Heinies into surrendering...he and his surviving mates capture 132 prisoners. Some German officers try to incite the others and attack him...he does in six or seven of them.
Even though this might sound like something out of Rambo movie, it's all pretty well rooted in historical fact, as nearly as I can tell...the truth is, when a guy who knows what he's doing gets into a really fortunate situation and exploits it, the results can be astonishing. Now none of that would count for much if Howard Hawks didn't know how to handle the material, but he does a bangup job. He establishes the geography and stages everything beautifully...you know exactly what's going on at any given time,and why Alvin just keeps on winning. It's convincing and tremendously exciting, and its easy to see why the movie influenced the behavior of a lot of American troops during the subsequent war...they went into combat with this thing in their heads, and it really teaches a lot of lessons about firefights, individual initiative, the value of marksmanship, getting in on the other guy's flank and shutting it down, etc. It's just a sensational set-piece.
Needless to say, Alvin's efforts do not go unnoticed...he wins the Congressional Medal of Honor and returns to the US as a hero...the folks in Tennessee buy him a parcel of bottomland that he's always wanted, he settles down with his best girl Gracie. Happy ending. Everything is swell. If things got quiet on the Western front, Alvin was one big reason.
Movie had five guys writing it, and having a lot of writers is usually a sign that things have gone haywire, but in this case, the screenplay is very solid. Two of the scribes were John Huston and Howard Koch, not bad at all. Gary Cooper really carries the film as Alvin, but he's also backed up by an excellent supporting cast. One of the chief pleasures of watching these old studio classics is seeing all the wonderful golden age character actors...aside from the always-great Walter Brennan, you've got George Tobias, Ward Bond, Noah Beery Jr., and Howard Da Silva...June Lockhart plays York's sister. Bottom line: if you like your war-movies upbeat, inspirational, real patriotic, and exciting, you can't do better than Sergeant York. Our country was extremely well-served by the folks who made it, in a very very dark time.
4. Bataan, 1943, Director: Tay Garnett
This is another piece of straight up WWII propaganda, although it's very different from Sergeant York. The overall feel is sort of like a cross between Beau Geste and a horror movie; the emphasis is very much on impending doom and sheer hatred for the enemy. Yeah, those little Jap bastards are out there in the hundreds, they've got us completely hemmed in, but we're going to bayonet and blast as many of them to hell as possible. It's not realistic, but it sure is violent, and it ends on a note of feverish fuck-you intensity that must've gotten adolescent males really stoked, although...I doubt wives, sweethearts and moms would've been as susceptible to its deranged charms.
You know you're in for something special in the first few minutes. The Japs have invaded the Philippines and are driving into the Bataan peninsula (MacArthur's headquarters were on Corregidor, an island down at the bottom). Hardly are we introduced to the film's protagonist, Sgt. Bill Dane (Robert Taylor) when Jap planes roar overhead, dropping bombs, and we see a dogface with one leg blown off smashed under a collapsing buildings. As you might remember, in my violent movies list, I declared Ben Hur was the first flick where they used actually amputees to show severed limbs...but I was mistaken. Baatan had Hur beat by seventeen years.
Well, Dane winds up under the command of Captain Lassiter (Lee Bowman) who's been ordered to hold a key bridge over a gorge. Lassiter and Dane put together a ragtag squad of soldiers, sailors, Philipinos, anyone they can scrape together, and head out into the jungle. You've got Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Nolan, Robert Walker, Desi Arnaz (!), Barry Nelson...they've all got their stories, and as the action ramps up, everyone gets a certain amount of characterization...primarily so we'll care when they start to get knocked off, one by one. It's textbook hold-the-fort action writing, and yeah, you've seen it a skazillion times, (think of the final quarter of Saving Private Ryan,), but this is one of the first and strongest examples of the convention.
Lassiter gets killed. Dane takes over. The Japs close in on the bridge. The defenders blow it up a couple of times. They're shot in the head by snipers, strafed by Jap planes. A Philipino guide gets caught by the nips and is tortured and hung from a tree. A plane is repaired, but before the pilot (George Murphy) can fly out and bring help, he's tagged by the Japs, and asks his buddies to load the plane with dynamite...dying, he flies straight into the bridge, destroying it one last time. This buys us a final bit of breathing space, but the Japs are climbing up the cliffs, sneaking around the sides...our boys decide they're going to hold their position no matter what.
Even though the movie is somewhat hamstrung by its indoor sets and a very hazy sense of location (just where are the Japs vis-a-vis the Yanks, anyway?) the film really comes to life towards the end...heavily camouflaged, the Japs creep up like Burnham Wood, and the film explodes into rousing slaughter. Our troops acquit themselves magnificently, taking down multiple nips....Samurai Swords slice in close-up into the necks of heroic black dudes...bullet-squibs rip chests open...for a 1943 film, it's really something. At last only Robert Taylor is left, driven quite batty with bloodlust, ranting and raving, inviting the Japs to come on, whereupon they indulge him, from all sides. He shoots one after another, and we never see them get him...the last image is his sweaty face, as he laughs and screams and revels in the butchery. Holy Shit. This seems to have been the inspiration for the final freeze-frame in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, although the effect here is downright demonic (in a dulce et decorum way, of course) rather than elegaic.
Bataan was directed by Tay Garnett, who also made another very nasty propaganda flick called The Cross of Lorraine, which starred Gene Kelly in a non-musical role, and was maybe the most violent movie ever made in Hollywood up till that time... there's an bit with Nazi Peter Lorre getting a big knife through his neck in close-up that has to be seen to be believed. But Mr. Garnett is probably best known today for The Postman Always Rings Twice,, an absolutely definitive piece of film noire. He wound up gravitating into TV work, but he was way overqualified for such toothless kid stuff. The man who made Postman and Bataan deserved a better fate.
5. Paths of Glory, 1957, Director: Stanley Kubrick
This was Stanley Kubrick's first biggish movie...Kirk Douglas, who produced it through his own Brynafilm company, can rightly be said to have made the guy's career, and later had him helm Spartacus. That was a much huger project, and is much more famous today, I suppose, but I think Paths of Glory is the better film...it embodies all Kubrick's virtues as a film-maker, and his less palatable traits hadn't emerged yet. The man who made Paths of Glory was extremely ambitious, but still capable of sharpness and economy...moreover, he still seems to have had some sympathy for his fellow human beings. As far as I'm concerned, it's his very best film.
The story is simply constructed,elegant in the logical sense. The movie runs a scant 88 minutes, yet it does a whole lot of things extremely well, delivers a ton of telling characterization, and packs an enormous wallop. I don't know if there was an attempt to lense this thing in France...I think everyone involved would've been lynched. Filmed in Germany, it was banned in France when it came out. It presents the French military in WWI in the most exquisitely awful light, rather unfairly, perhaps; I mean, after all, the Germans had invaded their country...there's no effort to emphasize that...the French are portrayed as prosecuting a completely conflict with considerable cruelty towards their own people. On the other hand, the sort of evil nuttiness depicted in the film certainly went on.
The film opens with a voiceover about the military situation in France in 1916...we finds ourselves in a meeting between General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) and a subordinate, General Mireau (George Macready). Broulard is a smooth politician whose charm masks an extreme underlying wickedness; Mireau is hard, scarred, and unlovable. But even he shows some trepidation when Broulard proposes an assault on a formidible German position called The Anthill...Broulard has to flatter him quite a bit before Mireau decides he can pull it off.
Mireau visits the front lines with his toady, Major Saint-Auban (Richard Anderson)...we get some vintage Kubrick long takes, the camera pulling back and back as Mireau and Auban tour a meticulously recreated French trench complex. We're introduced to everyman Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker) and geeky giant Private Ferol (Timothy Carey)...Mireau asks them if they're ready to kill more Germans, and they tell the General just what he wants to hear. But when he pops the question to a shell-shocked soldier, the wretch breaks right down, and says he's sure he's going to die...Mireau goes apeshit and hits him, and tells Auban to "Transfer this baby!"
Shortly afterward, Mireau visits Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas) in his bunker. When Auban disparages common soldiers, Dax takes him to task...when Mireau tells him that he's going to lead an attack on the Anthill, Dax is anything but enthusiastic...when Mireau threatens to remove him, Dax agrees to co-operate, but only because he wants to stay with his men.
Before the attack, a three-man patrol is assigned to reconnoitre no-man's land. It's led by alcohol-soaked Lt. Roget (Wayne Morris), who's accompanied by Corporal Paris and one other guy, whom Paris orders to go ahead through the darkness and the muck and the shellholes. When the fellow doesn't come back promptly, Roget chucks a grenade into the dark, then splits, leaving Paris to go and find out what happened...Roget has just blown up one of his own men.
Paris returns to the French lines and confronts Roget, who pretends that he's glad to see him still alive...Paris threatens to report him, but Roget says that no one's going to believe a corporal over a lieutenant. All this is cut short when Dax comes in...Roget says his report isn't ready...things go no further.
Dax briefs his officers. Seems like the weather is going to be quite nice, which, in this instance, means the Germans will have an easier time shooting everybody. Later, Paris and his buddies discuss the sorts of injuries that they're most afraid of. The next day, there's another big long expert take as Dax inspects his troops, although this time the trenches are packed with men waiting to go over the top.
The artillery opens up, the shells falling close enough to the trenches that the French are showered with dust and dirt from their own shells. The barrage rolls forward...Dax blows his whistle...the trenches empty. As Mireau and Auban watch from an observation posts, the men advance through a lunar landscape in a sequence which owes very little to All Quiet or most other WWI flicks...we get yet another big, long, single take, lots of complicated bits of business, with Kirk Douglas out in front all the way, whistle in mouth, pistol in hand. He doesn't buy it, but just about everybody else does...his men simply don't have a prayer. The attack falters, and the French pull back. Mireau goes apoplectic, orders his artillery to shell his own men.
However, the artillery commander refuses to comply. When Dax gets back to the trenches, he's ordered to go over the top again, and tries to rally the men...a shell blows him back. The attack is a complete fiasco.
Dax is summoned by Broulard the next day...completely humiliated, Mireau is there, and he wants to execute a hundred men for cowardice, to make examples of them. Dax and Mireau argue furiously...Broulard intervenes, and proposes that one man from each of the three companies involved should be put on trial. Mireau agrees...Dax, an experienced lawyer, asks if he can represent the men. Broulard lets him.
Dax meets with the defendants. One is smartass Private Arnaud(Joe Turkel); the other two are Paris and Ferol. Arnaud was picked by lot; Ferol was picked because he's a wierd geek, apparently; Paris was picked by Roget. Dax tells them that he'll do his best, but...he doesn't have any time to prepare. As it turns out, the court is very much of the kangaroo variety, the trial stacked completely against the men, who are grilled by Auban in front of a panel of judges picked by Mireau. Dax isn't allowed to do much of anything...Auban demands the death penalty. The judges adjourn.
Aranud, Ferol and Paris are held in a stable, waiting for the sentence. When Paris sees a cockroach, he laments that tomorrow he'll be dead, but the roach will still be alive...Ferol squishes the insect, saying, "Now you've got the edge on him." A priests visits them, tells them they've been found guilty, tries to comfort them...when he's attacked by Arnaud, Paris rushes to his defense, and knocks Arnaud out. Arnaud lapses into a coma, but he's still going to be executed anyway...a doctor recommends pinching he's cheek so he'll appear conscious.
Dax summons Roget...suspicious about that nightime patrol, Dax asks why he chose Paris to be tried...Roget said it was just at random. Dax says he has the same problem, and puts Roget in charge of the firing squad.
Morning comes. Arnaud never regains consciousness....he's brought down to the parade ground on a stretcher as Ferol sobs uncontrollably on the priest's shoulder. Paris is manful and silent...Roget, terribly shaken, apologizes to him, asks him if he wants a blindfold...Paris doesn't. Arnaud is strapped, stretcher and all, to a post. Ferol keeps whining. Ready, aim, fire.
Dax goes to meet with Mireau and Broulard. Mireau tells him that his men died well...Dax can barely speak, although he's astounded when, without warning, Broulard brings up the matter of Mireau ordering that bombardment on his own men. As Mireau sputters and tries to defend himself, Broulard tells him that there will certainly have to be an inquiry. Mireau heads for the door....once he's gone, Broulard offers Dax Mireau's job. When Dax is incredulous, Broulard tells him, "Come come, my boy, we all know you've been after it from the start."
But Dax quickly tells Broulard what he can do with this promotion; when Broulard demands an apology, Dax replies, "I apologize for not telling you that you're a sick, degenerate, twisted old man." Broulard says he pities Dax, as he would the village idiot...but Dax replies that he pities the general, for idiocy of the moral sort. Then he's out the door too, completely disgusted with the world and everything in it.
He passes a tavern...the grunts inside are having a good time. For some reason, he lingers by the door. The innkeeper brings out a Captive German girl...the troops greet her with whistles and catcalls. Dax is more grossed out than ever, but as the girl starts a German song, a peculiar thing happens...the men stop harassing her, even begin to hum along, some with tears rolling down their cheeks.
A messenger comes to tell Dax that the regiment is going back to the front...feeling better about things, Dax tells him to leaves the guys alone for a little while yet, and walks away to his office...
Aside from the reservation I expressed at the beginning of this piece, I can't think of a single real mis-step in this movie...even that lack of balance can be seen as a virtue...what the film loses in fairness, it gains in intensity; you hate the higher-ups that much more. The dialogue is spare but literate...everyone expresses themselves very sharply. The black and white photography is crisp and beautifully composed...this is really the first time Kubrick showed what a great visualist he is. Those long takes are masterful; the acting is great; a lot of the images, such as Joe Turkel tied to that pole while strapped to the stretcher, will stick with you permanently. It's easy to see why Kirk Douglas decided to go with Kubrick again on Spartacus.
Plus, George Macready's scar is just about the meanest in movie history.
6. Hell Is For Heroes,1962, Director: Don Seigel
Even though there are huge numbers of war movies out there, it's pretty startling how few of them manage to evoke any real fear. They're frequently pretty gross, especially these days; and the battle scenes are sometimes very spectacular. But it's precisely the emphasis on spectacle that undermines the fear...it seems to me that what you want is an intense focus on a few characters, maybe only one, so as to create a powerful subjective identification. Now, the fact is, you can do this on a fairly small budget, and make an impression that's out of all proportion to the relative production values.
Compared to some of the previous entries on this list, Hell is For Heroes is pretty bare-bones, right until the end...almost the entire budget seems to have been expended on the final push scene, where the Americans make an all-out assault on the Siegfried Line. Up till then, things are fairly constricted, dark, claustrophobic. There's a lot of buildup and characterization, although the payoff is pretty harrowing, particularly in a couple of action scenes before the climax.
Flick was helmed by Don Siegel, who's mostly remembered as a b-list director, although he made a number of classics and near-classics, including the original and best Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Flaming Star (one of Elvis's best), Dirty Harry, Charley Varrick, and The Beguiled. Heroes was scripted by Robert Pirosh, who'd written Battleground, which was about guys in a fairly similar situation, although the effect there was much less grim and down-in-the-mouth. The movie also benefits from a real solid cast...you got Steve McQueen right on the cusp of hitting it big, Bobby Darin, Fess Parker (post Davy Crocket but before Daniel Boone), Harry Guardino, Nick Adams, L.Q. Jones, and James Coburn,who'd join McQueen in The Great Escape later on they'd both study karate under Bruce Lee! There sure were a lot of great ensemble movies back in the sixties.
Story has a some American doggies going up to the Siegfried line to hold some captured fortifications....the situation calls for a full company, but we've only got a squad...certain that a German counterattack is imminent, everyone is pretty edgy. The squad's commanded by Sgt. Larkin (Harry Guardino), who's intimidated by one of his men, Reese (Steve MacQueen) a scary loner and former sergeant who screwed up and was busted to private. Reese is a hellacious combat soldier but he alienates everybody and hasn't adjusted to his new status...he still thinks he should be giving orders, and he doesn't respect Larkin one bit.
Filling out the squad are scrounger/operator Corby (Bobby Darin), German-hating semi-psycho Polish refugee Homer (Nick Adams), Mr. Fixit Henshaw (James Coburn) and Kolinsky, (Mike Kellin) who's desperate to get back home to his family. They also dragoon amiable goofball clerk Driscoll (Bob Newhart) who's lost and comes driving up in a Jeep, yelling "Hi guys!" just before some mortar shells come raining. To make the Krauts think they've got a tank, Henshaw takes the jeep and jiggers it to backfire and make a lot of noise...when a live German microphone is discovered in an abandoned bunker, Driscoll is given the job of keeping up a running monologue to make it seem as though our side has a surfeit of manpower.
These stratagems work for a while, but eventually the Germans launch a probe. There's some brief, vicious well-staged slaughter...Reese kills some Germans, one with a big butcher-knife...in a memorable shot, we see things from the kraut's point of view as Reese slashes and slashes at him. The attack is beaten back, but Reese argues forcefully for a counterthrust, to reinforce the impression that they're stronger than they are...Larkin won't go along with this, but tries to head on out to get some reinforcements. He's killed almost instantly.
Even though he's only a private, McQueen takes command, and leads a raid to hit a German pillbox with a flamethrower, which Henshaw is carrying...Kollinsky's along for the ride too. But they have to go through a minfield...the mines are the sort that have little spines sticking up out of them...crawling on his belly, Reese locates them with his knife and flags them for the other two guys. But as he nears the pillbox, he misses one...Kollinsky goes by it too. But Henshaw trips it, and bursts into flames as his flamethrower explodes. The napalm lights up the whole minefield, and Reese and Kollinsky are clearly revealed to the Krauts...Kollinsky gets shot, and Reese has to hoist him onto his shoulders, and run back through the mines as the dying man raves and screams in agony. This is without a doubt one of the scariest war-movie sequences I've ever seen.
When Reese gets back to his own lines, reinforcement have come, but he's chewed out savagely by Captain Loomis (Joseph Hoover), who tells him, "You're a private! You don't give you orders, you take 'em!" and promises him that he'll be court-martialled....if, that is, he survives the big push the next day, where Loomis expects him to be right out in front.
Reese takes the hint...in the film's one big spectacular scene, the Americans advance, amid huge artillery blasts, through a landscape of dragon's teeth towards the German lines. The squad gets pinned down by a machine gun in a bunker. Some men try to knock the thing out with a satchel charge and are cut down. Reese takes a couple of bullets which go right through him...looking like something from a zombie movie, he picks up the fallen charge and stumbles towards the bunker, climbing right through the slit with it. The pillbox erupts in flames, the camera joining Reese in the inferno...end credits.
This thing is solid, unpretentious and savage. It gives you the distinct impression it was written by someone who actually saw some frontline nastiness, and that's indeed the case...Robert Pirosh fought in the Rhineland and the Ardennes, and Battleground and Hell is For Heroes appear to reflect his experiences. Reese in particular seems to be based on someone real, although that's just a hunch on my part. Pirosh would later go on to create the TV series Combat, which I believe I watched every single episode of. Apparently McQueen and some of the other cast members were pissed off over the film's budgetary restrictions, but, looking at the final product, I think they should've chilled out. Heroes may not be a superproduction, but it puts a lot of bigger epics to shame. The scene with the flamethrower in the minefield justifies the movie's existence all by itself, and McQueen delivers one of his scariest, most haunting performances.
Bob Newhart's monologue in the pillbox is pretty damn funny, too, particularly the bit about the vichy soisses.
7. The Great Escape, 1963, Director, John Sturges
Here we have another Steve McQueen war classic,with the single most iconic McQueen scene, namely, the thing where he jumps the motorcycle of the barbed wire...but we're getting ahead of ourselves here.
Love this movie. Love it, love it, love it. You know how sometimes you'll watch something you really enjoyed when you were a kid, and it just doesn't measure up when you're older and wiser? Well, The Great Escape doesn't fit into that category, at least as far as yours truly is concerned. I was thrilled to death with it when I was eleven, and when I watched it again recently, it hadn't aged at all. It delighted me as much, if not more than it had when it first came out...there was, actually, a whole lot of stuff about the structure and the writing that I wouldn't have appreciated when I was a young whipper-snapper. I remember being awfully put out when it didn't win a whole slew of Academy awards...I'm still amazed. Director John Sturges keeps so many balls in the air that it's simply mind-boggling, especially when you consider the crap that passes for storytelling in Hollywood these days.
The writing in this movie is preposterously good. First off, the actual story is fascinating stuff, and the story sticks pretty close to things that actually happened. Moreover, the script was by James Clavell, who spent some time in a Japanese POW camp, and really has a feel for the situation. There are screenplays that I like as well, but I can't think of one that I like better. The only movies that have better writing than this flick are based on Shakespeare. You've got a huge number of characters,and you care about every single one. There's a tremendous amount of nuts-and-bolts detail about how you'd go about achieving a great escape, you can follow every bit of, and it's all extremely plausible. The film builds and builds till the big breakout, and then it transforms very successfully into an extremely exciting action-suspense thing where you're completely caught up. The movie is funny where it means to be funny, and heartbreaking where it means to be heartbreaking.
And oh yeah, it's got one of the best casts in movie history. It's absolutely crammed with actors who were making their first big splash, or just about to...in this respect, it's even more astounding than The Magnificent Seven, which was made by much the same Mirisch team, and featured some of the same principals...John Sturges decided to use McQueen again, and James Coburn, and Charles Bronson, but he's also got James Garner working for him, and Richard Attenborough, and Donald Pleasance, James Donald, David McCallum, and loads of other good Brit character actors.
Elmer Bernstein's score needs to be mentioned too...wonderful theme song, right up there with his work on Magnificent Seven.
The story takes place in a special Luftwaffe prisoner of war camp, created to house all the biggest escape-artists among the captive Allied airmen, the theory being that you put all your rotten eggs in one basket. It's commanded by Col.Von Luger (Hans Messemer), a decent enough chap who doesn't like being a jailer, and doesn't seem to be a Nazi. His inmates include Roger "Big X" Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), who's planned a number of escapes. Von Luger warns Big X not to try anything; Big X makes no promises. Assisted by Captain Ramsey (James Donald) he promptly goes about assembling a team, most composed of previous conspirators....the Germans have erred mightily in giving them most of the men they'll need to pull off something big. There's a forger, Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasance), an expert scrounger, Lt. Hendley, (James Garner), and a Polish miner, Lt. Velinski (Charles Bronson)...they've got tailors and all sorts of technical sorts...and also a American named Hilts (Steve McQueen, in a role based on Barry Mahon, the guy who directed Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny), who isn't exactly a member of the team at first, but who distracts the Germans with his own idiosyncratic escape attempts.
Big X's plan is this...dig three tunnels named Tom, Dick and Harry, which will start underneath three barracks, and run well outside the wire...the tunnels will be reinforced with wood stripped from bunks and the interiors of barracks-houses, and the dirt from the excavations will be secreted in bags that hang down inside trousers, whereupon the men will go outside, release the stuff in the exercise yard, and mix it around with their feet. The tailors will produce all sorts of clothing...the forger will create German identity papers and passes...the scrounger will target a suitable chump among the guards, blackmail him, and get a particular type of camera for the forger to use...so it goes. One detail after another falls into place, and even though the film proceeds at a deliberate place, it's all extremely fascinating, never boring at all, even though there aren't any cliche contrivances, no tensions inside the squad, or fake-o suspense sequences introduced to keep things moving. Everybody involved in making this flick seems to have been convinced that the story they're telling is intrinsically interesting...the movie reflects an extreme confidence that completely reassures the viewer.
We get to about the halfway point. There's a fourth of July celebration...the Americans have made some moonshine, and the Brits are invited..everything seems to be going along swell until one kraut, inspecting a barracks-house, spills some coffee and sees it going down through the floor in an unusual way. One of the tunnels is discovered; a lovable little Scots digger called Ives (Angus Lennie), goes nuts with despair, and throws himself into the barbed wire..the Germans promptly fill him full of holes.
Hilts is inspired by this to volunteer for a one-man escape that's intended to fail...Big X is pushing ahead with one of the other tunnels, and needs to know about a particular stretch of territory outside the wire. Hilts gets duly captured, and winds up in the Cooler, where he's already spent some time, bouncing a baseball against the wall. But Big X gets his info, and Hilts has bought himself a place in the breakout.
Finally the big night comes....but when the the guys finally dig up through the grass, they find out that the tunnel doesn't reach all the way out into the woods, as planned...the exit's in the cleared space between the wire and the forest. The only solution is to send men out when the searchlights are trained elsewhere, and the sentries have marched off to the sides...a bunch of prisoners escape, including, Big X, Velinski, Hendley, Hilts, Blythe, Ashley Pitt (David McCallum) and Sedgewick (James Coburn). Finally the krauts catch on, but not before seventy or so inmates have bolted.
As I said, the last part of the movie really gets thrilling, as the escapees disperse across the German countryside, and the Nazis turn out their security forces to hunt them down. Some fugitives board trains; Hilts grabs a motorcycle and heads for the Swiss Border; Velinski makes for the Baltic, meaning to grab a boat for Sweden; Sedgewick goes down through France, minded to strike out over the Pyrenees into Spain. The sequence with Hilts making his run through the Bavarian countryside is perhaps the most famous stuff in the film, and climaxes with that fantastic jump over the wire as German forces swarm closer; but just about all the other story-strands are as exciting. One by one, for the most part, the prisoners are killed or recaptured...Ashley buys it when a Gestapo agent speaks to him in English and Pitt answers in kind, something that he'd warned his own men about, back in the camp. Big X seems to get away from the Gestapo at one point, but finally he's caught by a kraut played by the fellow who played the Tiger Tank commander in Kelly's Heroes. Accompanied by Blythe, who's gone blind, Hendley captures a German training-plane, but it conks out just before they can reach Switzerland...as soon as it crashes, Germans come rushing up...Hendley's taken alive, but Blythe is shot and killed.
Velinski and Sedgewick are among the only guys to escape...Big X and most of the men are interrogated by the Gestapo, then loaded in a truck, ostensibly to return to the camp. Big X wonders aloud if he did the right thing, actually accomplished anything. The truck stops, and they're told to get out and stretch their legs, which they do, not suspecting that a machine gun is being set up behind them...when they turn, the Germans spray them.
Other escapees are more fortunate. Hendley gets back to the camp...so does Hilts, in time to see Von Luger being replaced. Then Hilts is thrown back into the cooler, another inmate tossing him his ball and glove. The last thing in the film is a German guard listening to the sound of Hilts' ball knocking repeatedly against the wall. Up comes that wonderful theme music, and you've just a cinematic ride that runs the gamut of just about everything interesting except sexy.
As should be clear by this point, I can't recommend this thing enough. It's easy to see why it was a major stepping stone for just about everybody in it. It cemented McQueen's career...everybody in my school was talking about that motorcycle jump. Bronson went on to become, well, "motherfucking Charlie Bronson" and James Coburn went onto to become Our Man Flint. James Garner was Maverick already, but he got bigger than ever. Richard Attenborough had a wonderful career before and mainly behind the camera...Donald Pleasance got to be in everything after awhile...David McCallum became Ilya Kuryakin, although motherfucking Charlie Bronson stole his wife after awhile. James Donald would get a plum role as Dr. Roney in what is perhaps the best SF movie ever, Quatermass and the Pit.
And Tom Jones won Best Picture in 1963. It's a good movie, but...
8. Dr. Strangelove, 1964, Director: Stanley Kubrick
I suppose someone might argue that this is actually a science-fiction film...there's a huge element of what if, and it does feature a purely SF device, namely the Soviet doomsday weapon. But the movie is very much about the military and warfare, in this case nuclear warfare; there's a great deal of well-researched material about codes, and B-52's, and the Rand Corporation, and amusing swipes at guys like Kissinger, Leo Szilard and Herman Cohn. Major King Kong's stab deep into the Soviet Union is a horribly plausible depiction of a Superfortress bomb raid...Strangelove puts every other every other bomber movie to shame...among other things, the film is as nailbitingly suspenseful as it is viciously funny.
This is Stanley Kubrick's most ill-tempered film, made after he'd decided that people absolutely completely suck, and deserve only to be dissected by his camera...the turning-point seems to have come long about the time he made Lolita, but with Dr. Strangelove he got a whole lot more extreme...after all, instead of older guys being horny for young girls, we have the human race blowing itself up, and making plans to do it again if anyone survives. Strangelove's a much better movie than Lolita, but...it is remarkable to watch such a talented artist indulging in such sentimentalism, sentimentalism here defined as the willful imposition of a particular sentiment on material that doesn't justify it. The fact is, we didn't have that nuclear war, did we? I wonder if Mr. Kubrick even noticed.
What's not in doubt is that the man's technical skills were still as scalpel-sharp as they were in Paths of Glory. The movie makes its extremely cruel misanthropic points very well...Kubrick did a bang-up job on the screenplay along with Terry Southern, working from a novel called Red Alert, by Peter Berg, who also did some of the writing. The script is extremely funny in a way that a lot of people at the time found pretty hard to take, and still makes your skin crawl...the casting, which features Peter Sellers in a triple role, is dead on. The visuals are hard, well-composed and extremely crisp, and Kubrick picked exactly the right production designer, Ken Adam. Kubrick does as good a job as could have been done, I think, with the special effects direction at the time, and the sequences involving the army's attempt to take the airbase is excellent cinema verite stuff...you really feel as though you're watching genuine footage, and even though the film's main focus isn't on combat, the shots give you a pretty strong identification with the troops who have to assault the base. The overall impression of the movie is that you're watching something helmed by an exceptionally smart man who devotes a great deal of thought to every cinematic move he makes.
The credits roll over footage of a bomber being refueled in flight, the image hilariously pornographic...the music is "Try a Little Tenderness," and the lettering looks like little-kid blackboard scrawl. The story involves B-52's based stationed at Burpelson airforce base, which is commanded by General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden)---subtle the film is not. Empowered by a plan to launch bombers if the U.S. Executive Branch is pretty much knocked out, he sends his B-52's towards Siberia, telling his subordinates that America is under attack, and that anyone who approaches the base will be Soviets in U.S. disguise.
None of this has been authorized by Ripper's superiors, however, and Norad has noticed that the the bombers have been dispatched...President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) and the Joint chiefs meet inside a huge war room with a big map...the prez is briefed by general Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), who explains that they can't recall the bombers, because only Ripper has the codes for his planes, and he's shut down Burpelson and no one can get in or out. Turgidson explains further that the bombers have an excellent chance of getting through...our pilots and planes are damn good. Over Turgidson's objections, Muffley decides to alert the Soviets about the situation and give them whatever info they need to bring the B-52's down.
Back at Burpelson, an RAF officer, here on exchange, Captain Lionel Mandrake (Sellers again), is listening to a transistor radio and hears all sorts of normal broadcasting, pop songs, etc...he goes to speak with Ripper about this...Ripper informs him that he's launched the attack on his own recognizance, because the Soviets have been poisoning the U.S. Water supply with flourides, in order to pollute our "precious bodily fluids."
Back at the war room, the Soviet ambassador(Peter Bull) arrives, and tells Muffley the number of the whorehouse where the Soviet premier, Kissof, can be found...over the hotline, Muffley explains that one of our general has gone a little bit "Funny." Kissoff speaks to the ambassador, revealing that the USSR has deployed a "Doomsday Device" utilizing "Cobalt Thorium G"...since the Soviets couldn't keep up in the arms race, they decided to create this thing as a cost-effective means of destroying the world if the U.S. attacks. Notified of this, Muffley sends for his chief nuclear strategist, Dr. Strangelove (Sellers yet again) who seems to be kinda based on Henry Kissinger. Strangelove is a wheel-chair bound grotesque with a spastic arm which seems to have a mind of its own....his gloved hand tries to strangle him now and then, and he has a habit of lapsing into "Mein President" or even "Mein Fuhrer" when he's talking to Muffley. He delivers some exposition on doomsdays devices, but is puzzled by what the Soviets have done...why build such a device if they weren't going to publicize the fact? But The ambassador explains that they were going to reveal its existence shortly, at a communist party congress...Premier Kissoff, the ambassador says, "Loves surprises."
Burpelson, meanwhile, is under attack by army units...Ripper takes an active part in the defense, wielding a Browning thirty and dragooning Mandrake to feed him ammunition. But when it becomes clear that the base will fall, he commits suicide in the bathroom. Mandrake gets the codes and notifies SAC. The recall goes out...there's tremendous relief as the big board shows the bombers returning...
All but one. A B-52 commanded by Major "King" Kong" (Slim Pickens) has penetrated deep into Soviet Airspace, and has been struck by an SAM...the bomber's still functional, though its radio has been shot out,and it never receives the recall order. Resourceful, courageous and determined, Kong, short on fuel, shifts course towards a secondary target, a Russian base called Laputa...when the bomb-bay doors won't open, he goes down to deal with them himself. As as the weapon drops, he rides it down, hootin' and hollerin' and waving his cowboy hat. The Doomsday Device is triggered. The human race will be annihilated.
Or maybe not.
Strangelove explains how shelters could be dug deep underground...all the important men in the U.S. could go down there, with a ten-to-one ration of males to females, for breeding purposes...Turgidson warms to the idea, and declares that we must not allow a "Mineshaft gap." And as the Soviet Ambassador is leaving, we set him taking pictures of the war room with a microfilm camera.Over images of billowing mushroom clouds, we hear an old song called "We'll Meet Again."
Kubrick didn't make another movie till Clockwork Orange, which was his last great film. Barry Lyndon, (which has some nifty battle scenes, by the way), was atmospheric, innovative, impeccable looking, and full of wonderful performances, but...starred consummate bore Ryan O'Neal. This epitome of awful casting was exacerbated by the fact that Barry Lyndon himself is an extremely unlikable character.
The Shining had its moments, but should've stuck closer to the book, particularly at the climax...Kubrick should've left in the topiary animals too, God Dammit, even if the FX wouldn't have been perfect. He returned to the war movie with Full Metal Jacket, and I thought the first half was amazing...once the proceedings shift to Nam, however, it goes way downhill, not least because Kubrick really doesn't have much to say about the Vietnam War itself. Then there's the fact that he insisted on filming his southeast Asian epic in England. In blighty, for god's sake...you keep seeing the same unhappy-looking dying palm trees again and again...the climactic action, which is very well directed, is nonetheless set in a demolished power-plant complex that leaves one with the impression that Hue looked like a cross between Stalingrad and a science-fiction set.
As for Eyes Wide Shut, why don't we pretend that one never happened?
Also, once again, the central thesis of Doctor Strangelove needs to be challenged...in the final analysis, Kubrick's invincible pessimism was simply bullshit, comparable to the inevitable-totalitarian-future stuff Orwell was peddling in 1984. Cynics like to think of themselves as realists, but in actuality, they're a particularly and egregiously self-deluded bunch. The fact is, there was a nuclear war. It was WWII. People got a real good look at what nuclear bombs could do, and they decided not to go to that particular party...it was analagous to the use of gas weapons in WWI. In World War Two, you had Hitler and Stalin going at it, and neither of those monstrous assholes went with gas. So it turned out with Nukes. People may be pretty effing crazy, but they're not that crazy.
9. The Sand Pebbles, 1966, Robert Wise
Robert Wise was a great generalist director, and he's already figured prominently in my scary movies list, with The Body Snatcher, and what may be the all-time scariest flick ever, The Haunting. But he also made some classics in other genres, such a science fiction The Day the Earth Stood and The Andromeda Strain and musicals, (West Side Story, The Sound of Music). The Sand Pebbles was a further demonstration of his versatility, and here it is on my war movie list. It does a whole lot of things really well. It's got great scope, characterization, and period detail. It does a fine job with the issues. and it's got a couple of action sequences that really crackle.
When the movie came out, it tended to be seen as a critique of our increasing involvement in Vietnam, but it was based on a novel by Richard Mackenna, who'd actually served on US gunboats in China, and he was simply reflecting on what he'd seen...also, a big epic production like Pebbles must've been in the works for a while, and (I assume) would've just been getting started about the time things were hotting up for us in Nam. That isn't to say it doesn't have some larger relevance, regarding matters Asian, and Americans messing about overseas and getting in way too deep. But I think it's a mistake to view it as a Vietnam allegory.
For one thing, everything about it is way too specific, which is one of its great strengths. It's really about China, the way it was in the twenties, back before Pearl S. Buck, and the China Lobby, and we were actually as much at loggerheads with the Chinese Nationalists as we were with the communists. In this flick, for the most part, the guys we're threatening (and being threatened by) are KMT, Kuomintang; this is a world in which Soviets were backing Chiang Kai-Shek over the Chinese Communists. We really weren't occupying much of anything, except for some stuff along the coasts...the gunboats went upriver to protect various American interests, such as missions, etc. In most respects, the situation in Vietnam was vastly less complicated, which is only to be expected; China is a very big matter indeed.
The protagonist in Pebbles is a navy engineer named Holman who gets transfers onto the gunboat San Pablo (whose crew refer to themselves as "Sand Pebbles") on the Yangtze river in the mid-twenties. The film depicts a rather snug little self-enclosed world...the American gunboat sailors largely have a fairly comfortable life, with most of their needs met by Chinese coolies who've established themselves on board. The Chinese are very definitely the lower class, but things are so lousy outside that they're happy to accept the situation, while being fiercely protective of their own turf on the boat. Whenever Holman oversteps his bounds with a Chinese, he's told, "it's his ricebowl" and Holman backs off.
But Holman fully intends to run the engine, and this means he has to lock horns with the chief engine coolie, who hasn't been doing a very good job. Holman decides some maintenance is necessary...things have been getting rusty...because of some rusted out threads on a big gear, a locking brace fails, and the chief engine coolie gets crushed. The other coolies get mad at Holman, and Holman winds up in a right bad odor with Captain Collins (Richard Crenna), who'd been content to continue with the status quo...for the rest of the film, Holman will be getting into various conflicts with Collins, who's trying to make the best of the backwater assignment he's been given.
Holman trains a new coolie to replace the other guy...this is Po Han (Mako), who proves a pretty quick study, and we get genuinely attached to him...Holman backs him in a boxing match against a brutish American crew member (piggy Simon Oakes), and then has to personally shoot him when he's caught by a bunch of communists ashore, and being subjected to the Death of the Thousand Cuts. Because he's just plugged a Chinese, Holman runs into yet more difficulty with Collins...hell, whenever he does the right thing, or something close to it, he just gets less popular with the rest of the crew.
He does find some favor with Shirley Eckert (Candace Bergen) who works upriver at a mission named China Light...her boss, Jameson, is a very idealistic sort who wishes the great powers would just leave China alone. We visit China Light, and it does indeed seem to be a pretty benign establishment...Jameson has been indicted by a local student militia, but no one seems too vehement about it, and the Sand Pebbles ferry Jameson to a city where he's supposed to stand trial. But they're humiliated by the local KMT, pelted with garbage, etc, and things just keep getting funkier. Winter comes, and the water level goes down...the boat has to stay there till spring, getting rustier and filthier.
In the meanwhile, Holman's buddy Frenchy has been visiting a chinese girl ashore...swimming back and forth, Frenchy gets pneumonia, and the girl is snatched and killed by the gangster who owns her. Holman gets blamed for the crime...sick and tired of him by this point, the other crew members turn on him, and try to get him to surrender to a Chinese flotilla that comes to grab him. His crewmates back down ultimately, but the captain is so horrified by their behavior, and the general demoralization on the boat, that he's considering suicide.
But word comes of a general uprising; Collins decide to take the boat upriver to rescue the missionaries at China Light, even though they haven't asked for this; this sets up a bunch of action in the final quarter, with lots of hand-to-hand carnage as the Sand Pebbles blast and hack their way through a giant river-boom; there's a particularly horrifying bit when Holman catches this one student militiaman in the stomach with an axe. Afterwards, Collins leads a landing-party (Holman included) up to the mission.
But Jameson doesn't want to come with them; he was actually attached to that student militia, who Collins blew his way through at the boom....saying "it's too late in the world for flags," Jameson tries to negotiate with a bunch of communist soldiers...they shoot him on sight. Collins tries to redeem himself by acting as a one-man rearguard with a BAR; he gets shot down pretty quick. That leaves the rearguard duty to Holman, who takes the aforementioned Browning and conducts a heroic defense in the mission courtyard as Shirley and the remaining members of the landing party escape. It's a textbook Hollywood gunfight, very well thought through, with McQueen's having just enough of an edge (conferred by that BAR) to ennable him to dispatch a lot of guys. He buys it at the end, though...and after the rest of the movie, it's no surprise at all. Things seem inevitable...there's a lot of cause and effect in a swirl of events that no one has a handle on. The movie is wise in a very sad sort of way...it does justice to all sides, and it plays fair. You might very well have noble sentiments and try to do the right thing, but that doesn't mean you're going to get out alive. The Chinese seem both alien and all too human...the Americans seem pretty clueless, and far from home...the image on the film's poster, which showed a little gunboat overshadowed by a gigantic junk, said it all. One of the very best films on this list.
10. Dark of The Sun, 1968, Director: Jack Cardiff
I remember wanting to see this thing when it was released, but it just never came around, for one reason and another. When I finally did see it, I was out in Indiana, and my wife was going to Notre Dame, and we used to stay up and watch the CBS late movie...generally the TV censors would really cut the guts out of action and horror movies, so I don't know why we bothered, exactly. They ran Dark of the Sun and really mutilated it, or so it seemed to me...big chunks of it were plainly being hacked out. This was back in the day when they'd show The Wild Bunch, and virtually the whole climax was removed, with everyone apparently dying of heart attacks. Now Dark of the Sun didn't get treatment quite that drastic; in spite of everything, I could tell that I was looking at something really out there and intense, and ever since then, I'd been looking for an uncut copy.
I managed to locate one about two years ago, but it wasn't easy. It's kinda surprising...the movie has some pretty heavy-hitting admirers, such as Tarantino and Scorsese, and they've talked it up...Tarantino used some of the score in Inglorious Basterds, and made a point of putting the film's star (the underappreciated Rod Taylor) in Basterds as Winston Churchill. In any case, the DVD is out of print, and I had to get my copy from a dealer north of the border who may or may not be shady. The print was a bit dark;I suppose that's appropriate, given the subject matter and the title, but I was delighted to see that the thing (which was under the alternate title, The Mercenaries) seemed to be completely uncut.
The film is based on a Wilbur Smith novel, and it was made at just that moment when films were getting genuinely nasty. Up until that point, war flicks were kinda castrated by the fact that you couldn't really go all-out and depict warfare as the miracle of bad taste that it actually is. Even when you did have war movies getting really ghastly, it was usually an exercise in punishing the enemy...those bastards, look at the sadism they inflict, let's inflict some sadism on them, etc., not that I'm knocking this. But this strikes me as something rather different from...holy shit, boy, this is all really profoundly messed up, total nightmare. It's the difference between, let's say, Bataan, and the beginning of Saving Private Ryan. Well in Dark of the Sun, you're really going into the jungle, baby. You've got ex-SS guys on your team, and after the deranged simba rebels finish raping the nuns, they rape the mercenaries. You shoot the mercenaries after they've been raped, and then you get bayoneted by the SS guy who's stealing the diamonds you've been sent to get...this is fairly strong stuff even today, and I can only imagine what people would've thought at the time. The movie just sort of disappeared back then, and I wonder if it was considered to be way too unsettling...for some reason, I found myself being reminded of Peeping Tom, which was another on-the-cusp movie that was made by director Jack Cardiff's old collaborator, Michael Powell.
Movie is set in the Congo during the early sixties...it seems to be conflating the Katangan rebellion and the Simba uprising, but it's pretty plausible on its own terms. Actually, given the fact that the plot revolves around people doing bad things for diamonds in Africa, you could do a Blood Diamond type remake without any trouble. Rod Taylor plays an American mercenary named Curry who's hired by the Congolese president to take a train deep into rebel territory and fetch some diamonds from a vault, and maybe rescue some stranded Europeans as well. He's backed up by Ruffo (Jim Brown), an alcoholic doctor (Kenneth More), and the aforementioned malignant kraut, Henlein (Peter Karsten). On the way, they get strafed by UN planes, pick up lovely Belgian refugee Claire (Yvette Mimieux), and see ample evidence of Simba brutality, dismembered bodies, etc. Curry and Henlein are constantly at loggerheads, and we get a pretty good chain-saw fight which ends with Curry downs Henlein and nearly pushes his head under the wheels of a train...afterwards, there's a steadily thickening sense of doom as the train approaches the town where the diamonds are stored. All the white folks are overjoyed to see the mercenaries, but we learn, to our horror, that the diamond-vault has a time-lock, and everyone's going to have to sit around for three hours while General Moses and the simbas approach. Curry, Claire, and the doctor go to look in on some missionaries, who refuse to leave their sick folks...the doctor dries out long enough to repent of his life and volunteer to stay with the missionaries...Curry and Claire head back to the town.
The Simbas keep getting closer...the film gets rather sickeningly suspenseful...the lock opens just as the rebels enter the town. The Europeans and various friendlies get on the train...the mercs conduct a rearguard action, then pile aboard. But the rail-line is all uphill from there, across a bridge, and a rebel mortar shell cuts the couplings on the car containing most of the civilians. In one of the most horrifying sequences in the history of cinema, the car slides down hill as the rest of the train puffs away...the simbas get the women, the children, and the diamonds. Hell ensues, but the mercs figure they've got to descend into it, to get the gems.
Pretending to be a Simba, Ruffo carries Curry right down into the thick of ther atrocities...we see some of that very evil stuff I described right at the beginning. They get the gems, wind up shooting the one mercenary who's being raped...some other mercs show up at the right time and rescue them. Mission accomplished, sort of. But then Henline kills Ruffo for the diamonds, and he and Curry have an epic and extremely brutal hand-to-hand fight that ends up with Curry drinking Henline's blood, apparently to gain his power...all this witnessed by a poor decent African dude who is most disappointed in Europeans. Even after everything that's come before, the end is a remarkable kick in the nose.
My kind of movie. I've got a t-shirt with the wonderful poster art for the film (done by Frank McCarthy, the guy who did the art for the Dirty Dozen, and The Train, and Von Ryan's Express), but I haven't had a chance to wear it at any conventions...at some point I hope it'll spark some conversations, and I'll have a chance to talk this thing up. It deserves to be way more famous than it is.
Where Eagles Dare, 1968, director: Brian Hutton
I've always enjoyed Alistair Maclean movies, and this is my favorite. It was a flop in the United States when it first came out, but I understand it was a major international hit; there was all sorts of critical carping about Eastwood's performance and Richard Burton hamming it up. But I thought the film was a great deal better than Guns of Navarone, which is the Alistaire Maclean movie for most people...yeah, Eagles is a pretty nutty fantasy, but so is Navarone...Navarone just doesn't know it, and thinks it's got something on its mind. Eagles has no such pretensions, and in many respects, it was way ahead of its time. When it switches into all-out killfest mode about midway through, it anticipates later action flicks like First Blood Part Two...except that it's a much better movie. And up till that point, it's pretty darn clever in an utterly preposterous way.
If you know anything about intelligence matters in WWII, you'll feel like you're watching a movie set in an alternate reality...the Brits cleaned out virtually every intelligence asset the Germans had early in the war, turning and maintaining a few German spies to feed false information back to Der Vaterland...this movie postulates a full-scale German penetration of British Military Intelligence. Oh well. Just thought I'd mention it, but I really don't care. These days, it's a major relief to watch a movie with any sort of plot at all...holy shit, there was a time when movies actually had them!
Movie begins with wonderful Ron Goodwin music and vivid scarlet Gothic titles over footage of an actual Junkers transport flying at night through the snowy blue mountains of Bavaria. Inside we have a special British team dressed in German snow-camo...the leader is Major Smith, (Richard Burton), and he's backed up by a laconic yank named Schaeffer...there are a bunch of other fellows, but we don't give a rat's ass about them. Smith is pondering the mission, which is to rescue an American general named Carnaby, who knows about D-Day plans, has been captured , and is being held in the formidible Schloss Adler, the Castle of the Eagles, which is accessible only by helicopter, a well-guarded road, and a cable car from the nearby village. Burton's team has been tasked with getting Carnaby back before the Nazis get him to spill his guts, but, this being an Alistair Maclean flick, we know that that can't really be what the deal is.
The team jumps, lands in the snow...the radioman is killed under suspicious circumstances...evidently there are traitors in our midst. The survivors make for an alpine house to wait out the daylight hours...once there, Smith sneaks off and meets with Mary (Mary Ure) a hot blonde spy chick who jumped out of the plane after the rest of the team. Smith and Mary get it on; then the squad descends into the village, changes in Alpinekorps duds, and fans out through the town, which is this wierd, beautifully lit-and-shot nighttime Santa Claus fantasy full of Nazis. Smith and Schaeffer hit a tavern, hoping to learn some scuttlebutt about Carnaby...out in a woodshed,Smith meets with Mary and a barmaid who goes up to the castle regularly. Smith reveals that the guy they're trying to rescue is an imposter, actually an American actor....the plot thickens...we still don't know what Smith is up to.
He finds another member of his team dead, rejoins Schaeffer in the inn; a Nazi security team comes in and grabs them. But while they're being transferred to the castle, Smith and Schaeffer bust loose in spectacular style, get back into town, and plant tons of explosive devices everywhere, to create diversions as they head up to the castle atop a cable car. Mary lets them in through a window. While they're off making making mucho preparations for...something, she runs afoul of wierd doll-faced Gestapo-man Von Hapen (Darren Nesbitt, who should have played more doll-faced nazis in more movies), who just has the hots for her at first, but then realizes she's lying about a lot of things, and becomes convinced that something Allied is afoot. This stuff was the clear inspiration for the sequence in the basement tavern biz in Inglorious Basterds, although Nesbitt is way creepier than the Gestapo guy in Tarantino's movie.
Von Hapen gets more and more suspicious...questioned closely, Mary claims to have studied in Dusseldorf, but doesn't remember it very well. Meanwhile, Smith and Schaeffer bust into a dinner-and-interrogation session between the impostor an a gaggle of ghoulish Nazis, including Rosemeyer (Ferdy Mayne) and Kramer (Anton Diffring). I really shouldn't describe what transpires here...many switcheroos are pulled on the characters and the audience...Von Hapen busts in and complicates an already complicated situation...Mary busts in and starts shooting, and Schaeffer scoops up an MP 40 and starts hosing baddies down. Traitors get rounded up, and Smith leads everyone out in a ninety-minute long orgy of schmeissering and grenading and ice-axing and blowing up, the highlight of which is a hair-raising fight on a cable car over a yawning special-effects gulf, merely the best of a whole slew of action scenes staged by the legendary second-unit director Yakima Canutt, the guy who gave us the Ben-Hur chariot race. The latter part of Eagles is simply a marvel of breathless nonstop fantasy WWII mayhem, including a snowplow smashing into what appears to be a bunch of actual Focke-Wulfs on a landing field. It's a pity that a squad of vintage World War Two Nazi aircraft had to be destroyed, but at least it was captured on camera, dammit...it's truly in the spirit of Howard Hughes.That actual Junkers returns, and Smith and Schaeffer and Mary all climb aboard. There's one last twist, but I won't give it away. In comes the Ron Goodwin music over the Bavarian Alps, and we get The End in that luscious bright scarlet Gothic.
Movie was niftily directed by Brian Hutton...it comes off almost as a kind of World War Two James Bond flick. Hutton went on to direct another Clint Eastwood WWII movie, Kelly's Heroes, which is about some GI's who go awol to steal a huge deposit of gold bullion in a German-held bank. In its own way, it's about as crazy and far from reality as Eagles...among other thing, we're ask to buy into a squad of Sherman tanks commanded by a hippy played by Donald Sutherland. But a lot of it is fairly funny, and we do have an attempt to portray Tiger Tanks onscreen. They're actually T-34's mocked up to look like Tigers, but they look a whole lot more authentic than what you get in most WWII films...consider all the M47's and M48's you get in Patton, for example. Ultimately, one of the Tigers from Heroes seems to have made it into the climax of Saving Private Ryan. But Heroes is nowhere near as much fun as Eagles, in my opinion.
It does have a wierd theme song about Burning Bridges, however, which goes over titles done up in that same red Gothic script...
Come and See
The Hunt For Red October
Saving Private Ryan
Black Hawk Down
Master and Commander