Friday, December 2, 2011
My Top Twenty War Movies Part 2
11.Patton,1970,Director: Franklin Schaffner
This movie came out at the height of American involvement in Vietnam...it's startling that it ever got made. Some of the execs at Fox obviously thought they had a very unfashionable film on their hands, and so they released the film, initially, under the title Patton: Portrait of A Rebel hoping perhaps, in their dimwitted suitish way, that they'd be able to sell General George S. as a countercultural sort of a guy. Well, that was of course, completely idiotic, especially when they never had anything to worry about to begin with...despite our southeast Asian debacle, there were still loads of right-wingers in the country, hungering for pro-american bellicose entertainment. Moreover, Patton could also be seen as a hero in the war against fascism, (even if he did loathe the Reds); and besides, the movie, thanks to a great script, great direction, and a tremendous performance by George C. Scott, was just so awesome. The writers were Edmund H. North and Francis Ford Coppola (who Milius would go on to work with on Apocalypse Now) working from books by Omar Bradley and Ladislas Farrago. The direction was by Francis Schaffner, who made a several of my favorite movies, including The War Lord, and the original Planet of the Apes...he was quite a good generalist, and he does an excellent job here.
Flick is very much a biopic, unlike any of the other films on this list...George C. Scott is most of the show. There's actually relatively little in the way of action, which is unavoidable, given the subject matter...after all, Generals just aren't in combat very much. What action there is features mostly anonymous fellows who we don't know and don't care about...the stuff functions pretty well as spectacle, although it's not very exciting or frightening. It does features nifty locations in Spain, which doubles as North Africa, Sicily, France, and the Ardennes...the Spanish armed forces contributed lots of extras and anachronistic tanks, as well as a couple of genuine Heinkel bombers...the film sure looks like it had a great big budget, although you could do a much better job on the battle scenes now, particularly the tank-to-tank stuff.
Pre-title, the film gives us a scary, hilarious monologue from the general,who marches up in a splendid dress uniform in front of a huge American flag and delivers some of the best lines in film history...since they're based on actual Patton quotes, I guess you could say they're some of the best lines in just plain history, period. Patton makes no bones about it...he loves war, and he expect you to do likewise...all real Americans love the sting of battle...it's a definitive American trait, and he wants you to make the other poor dumb bastard die for his country...he's really looking forward to leading you as you go through the enemy like crap through a goose. On one level, it plays as satire, and some people tried to justify the movie as an anti-war film. But frankly, I think those folks are just kidding themselves. Most people are going to listen to the speech and go fuck yeah and wonder why we don't have anybody around like that today.
The film begins with the grisly aftermath of the Battle of the Kasserine Pass; U.S. forces, in their first big engagement with the Krauts, have just had the crap kicked out of them. General Omar Bradley (Karl Malden) is pretty damn shaken by what he sees. At the same time, George S., the solution to his problem, is running the occupation of Morocco and pretending to enjoy it, telling some Berber noble, "It's like a combination of the Bible and Hollywood." The situation is soon rectified...he's summoned to whip our boys into shape...we see him riding through the dusky north African desert in the back of a speeding half-track, gripping the barrel of a Browning machine-gun. Reaching some town filled with sad sacks, he meets with Bradley, who the film presents as an unassuming rather sweet contrast to ambitious, ferocious George; once their relationship is fairly deftly depicted, Patton brings his foot down on all the damn slackers, frightening the living daylights out of everyone, officers and men alike. We also discover that he's none too fond of all the snotty Brits, who haven't been giving the air cover they're supposed to provide. This was actually fairly startling stuff; I don't think I'd seen a war movie up till this point that depicted so much friction between Yanks and Limies...it gets to be a major theme, with the rivalry between Patton and Montgomery coming straight to the fore.
Patton is a great admirer of Erwin Rommel, and is really itching for a showdown with him. After a scene in which we learn that Patton is a fairly crazy mystic who believes in reincarnation, (at some ancient ruins, he tells he Bradley he was actually present at a battle between Romans and Carthaginians) he finally he gets his chance to hurl his newly-honed troops into combat, at the battle of El Guettar. Oddly, the film depicts it as a big bushwhacking operation; but oh well. There are lots of extras and explosions...we get some big tank mockups that are actually blown apart...war movies could use more of those.
Flushed with his victory, Patton comes up with a plan for the invasion of Sicily that will give him the predominant role, but Montgomery has other ideas, and sells a different scheme to Eisenhower,who signs off on it, apparently in the interests of Brit-Yank solidarity. It calls for Montgomery to race towards Messina with Patton protecting his flank, but George decides he's not going to bother with it; when he hits the Sicilian beaches, he sprints west along the coast, then east, and reaches Messina before Monty does...we see the silly Brit prick marching in at the head of his troops, thinking he's gotten there first, only to discover that Patton has beaten him.
But Patton doesn't get to much time to bask...earlier in the campaign, he'd visited a field hospital, and had slapped a soldier suffering from shell-shock, calling him a coward and threatening to send him back to the front; news of this gets out, and Patton is relieved of his command. The Germans, who are paying very close attention to his exploits, can't believe it, and neither can we...after all, there's war on, and like, maybe, you really need generals of his caliber. But he promptly digs himself in deeper...sent to Blighty, he makes a speech some English ladies saying that America and Britain will dominate the postwar world, leaving out the Soviets...in some influential circles, this is beyond the beyond.
In the runup to D-Day, he's used as a decoy, to make the Germans think the Allies are going to strike at Pas-De-Calais rather than Normandy. Finally though, once Fortress Europa is breached, he gets a proper gig: leading Third Army after the breakout from the hedgerow country. His genius for full-blown sweeping mechanized warfare is given free rein; sweeping round the German flank, he inflicts incredible damage on the fleeing krauts, and is halted only by a shortage of gasoline...as his tanks grind to a halt, he's deeply frustrated, being very much of the opinion that all the stars are perfectly in alignment for a dash right to the heart of Germany. Inspecting a battlefield where his spearheads came to a halt for lack of fuel, he says, "I love it...God help me, I love it so."
Still, he gets one last chance to do some major damage. As winter comes down, the Germans launch their Ardennes offensive..the battle of the Bulge is on, Hitler's last major gasp gasp in the West...a tremendous salient is driven into the Allied Lines, and about the only thing that holds the krauts up is a determined American defense of a crossroads called Bastogne. Patton informs his superiors that he can turn Third Army around in a very short time and charge up to relieve the 82nd airborne...prevailing over British skepticism, he's given his head and goes rolling on up...when he hears about Gen. MacAulliffe replying "nuts" to a German surrender demand, he says, "A man that eloquent has to be saved." He reaches Bastogne, the Bulge is pinched shut.
We don't get any of Patton's drive down to Czechoslovakia...the German intelligence guy who's been studying Patton mourns for the poor guy,lamenting that "The Absence of war will destroy him." Patton meets up with some Russians, and has to sit through a banquet with them; asked to toast his ostensible allies, he tells his interpreter to tell the Russian general that he won't drink with him, "Or any other Russian son of a bitch." However, when the Russki calls him a son of a bitch, Patton relents, saying he'll drink with him, "One son of a bitch to another."
Patton settles unhappily into administration of postwar Germany...he raises some hackles by employing ex-Nazis in key posts, and causes further controversy by saying that some Nazis joined the party much the same way people become Republicans or Democrats. When his superior, Bedell Smith gets him on the horn, George offers to start a war between the U.S. and USSR...once again, he's relieved of his command...the film ends with him contemplating the fact that all glory is fleeting.
As I said, George C. Scott is the main thing here,but he delivers one of the best movie performances ever. His Patton is funny, frightening, heroic, crazy, profane, pious, inspiring, and egomaniacal, sometimes all at once. Karl Malden serves as an effective counterpoint, although he has rather a thankless task...his character seems simply life-size, whereas Patton is Cinemascope (Dimension 150?) and Technicolor. Movie won a slew of Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and of course, Best Actor, although George C. Scott, disapproving of the Oscars, decided not to accept the award. Jerry Goldsmith's classic score was nominated, but some some demented reason, didn't win...
12.Apocalypse Now, 1979, Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Hoo boy, I don't think George S. would've liked this movie, even though it was cooked up by a couple of the same minds that gave us Patton...post Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola was sitting in the director's chair for this war epic, having reworked a John Milius script based---sort of---on Heart of Darkness. The movie does serves up another warrior mystic, but in Coppola's final version, he's pretty damn unloveable,downright fiendish, in fact. Unfortunately he's portrayed by blimpy Marlon Brando, which vitiates the scariness, but...we're getting ahead of ourselves here, rather like Brando's belly.
Once the US booked out of Vietnam, Hollywood finally got around to doing some big movies about the conflict...aside from John Wayne's Green Berets, there just hadn't been too much, even though that was a big hit. But finally, Michael Cimino came along and made The Deer Hunter in 1978, and it garnered much acclaim; hard upon that came Apocalypse Now. Both were somewhat similar in that they were absolutely surreal and didn't appear to know it; they seemed to take place in a grisly theme park named Vietnamland, the sort of place where a guy could play Russian Roulette for a living for a year or two, or someone would take a boat upriver to the Cambodian border when he just could've flown in a helicopter. Oh well. But Coppola is, in my opinion a much better director than Cimino, who's a pretentious jackass(go suffer through the director's cut of Heaven's Gate sometime, I dare you), and the screenplay to Apocalypse Now is really something, absolutely saturated with cool subtext, while Cimino's script is, quite simply, a tale told by an idiot.
Even though Apocalypse Now isn't much like the actual Vietnam, it actually has some interesting things to say about the war...the central issue is inconsistency, how people are driven batty by it, and also by trying to rise above it. Col. Kurtz, who's taken up residence in the Heart of Darkness, imagines he can adopt a completely consistent approach to war, which is here seen as a metaphor for life in general; but inconsistency is something you can't get away from...by fleeing from insanity, you simply wind up getting nuttier than ever...
Our narrator/protagonist is one Col. Willard (Martin Sheen), a Green Beret who seems to be some kind of special duty hatchetman, the sort of guy you'd send upriver to assassinate a fellow Green Beret. Plucked from a binge at a Saigon hotel, Willard dries out and goes to a meeting with a bunch of creepy superiors. In the first of many subtext references to inconsistency, the man in charge, General Corman (G.D. Spradlin) tells those present to pass the shrimp "Both ways round the table." After some ruminations on the way Vietnam is confusing everybody, Corman turns the proceedings over to Colonel Lucas (a young Harrison Ford), who explains that Willard has to kill Col. Kurtz (Brando),who's jettisoned the program and has gone completely round the bend, operating totally outside the chain of command...gotten off the boat, as it were, way upriver in Cambodia. Kurtz has decided his superiors are just too wimpy, and he's determined to win at all costs, with an army of deranged Montagnards. Willard gets to listen to a weird audiotape of Kurtz rambling about a dream in which he saw a "snail, crawling along the edge of a razor...and surviving." Willard is ordered to go upriver himself, and terminate Kurtz "with extreme prejudice."
On the way to the boat which will bring him up the Nung River to Kurtz's lair, Willard reads up on his prey...Kurtz emerges as a superhuman sonofabitch, who rammed himself through the Green Beret course when he was in his late thirties...having decided the US effort in Nam was completely wrong-headed, he launched a sinister but successful assassination program against suspected collaborators with the VC...as he got more and more extreme, the authorities put the screws on him, and he fled upriver. A previous attempt to assassinate him, involving a guy named Colby (Scott Glen), simply failed when when Kurtz apparently converted Colby to his cause.
Willard gets on the boat...the captain and crew don't care for him. There are a series of episodes illustrating the incoherent nature of the American project. Guys water-ski behind the boat while someone plays "I Can't Get No Satisfaction." Willard wants the boat to be airlifted into the Nung by helicopters commanded by Lt. Col. "Killer" Kilgore, (Robert Duvall, in a hilarious turn) a surfing enthusiast from California...Kilgore doesn't want to until he learns that there's a great beach-break at the mouth of the Nung. Willard witnesses a ferocious airborne attack (choerographed to Ride of the Valkyries) on the VC village that guards the estuary...once the Americans on are the ground, Kilgore orders some of them to surf; after all, the breach-break means you can go "Left and Right simultaneously!" Hodads ride the curls as mortar shells rain down all around them.
Farther along, the boat stops so that the cook (Fredric Forrest), an ex saucier from New Orleans, can go ashore with Willard and get some mangoes...there's some discussion about what the service does to really fine beautifully marbled beef before they're reminded pretty forcibly that they're deep in the jungle, as a tiger comes charging out at them...they race back to the boat with the cook completely freaking out, blubbering, "Never get out of the boat" over and over again.
Even farther along, the boat puts in for supplies at a base called Hau Phat (get it?) where horny GI's are teased by gorgeous bunnies in a moronic Playboy show...when the soldiers rush the stage, the Bunnies are whisked away by helicopter. After that,the captain, Chief Philips, (Albert Hall), insists on searching a sampan...they don't turn up anything, but one of the Vietnamese makes a wrong move, and Clean (Larry Fishburne) lets loose with an M-16, killing everyone on the sampan with exception of one girl, who's desperately wounded. There's an attempt to patch her up, but Willard shoots her, the voiceover saying, "We'd cut 'em in half, then give 'em a bandaid."
The boat reaches the last US base before Cambodia. Everyone's hopped up, shooting grenades on the basis of marijuana and intuition...there's a bridge over the Nung that we rebuild every day..the VC blow it up at night. Things get even weirder beyond that point..the atmosphere thickens...the imagery, such a B-52 tailfins sticking out of treetops, gets more surreal. The natives start shooting arrows...a spear gets the captain.
Finally the boat reaches an ancient Khmer temple complex, complete with giant idols, where Kurtz is worshipped by the Montagnards. There are rotting corpses hanging from the trees and severed heads all over the place. A demented photojournalist (Dennis Hopper) comes out to greet Willard...he's been won over completely by Kurtz, who he describes as "a poet-warrior in the classic sense." We gets bits and pieces of Kurtzian philosophy as filtered through this wacko...I think this maybe be the first of Hopper's utter nut performances, and it's pretty damn amusing.
Willard is grabbed by the Montagnards and brought before Kurtz, who interrogates him. It's at this point that that the air seriously begins to go out of the balloon. For one thing, it's impossible to take Brando seriously as a hellish Green Beret razor...Brando has simply turned into a giant zeppelin and Coppola tries to fool us with camera angles and chiaroscuro, but it doesn't work at all. After so much buildup, we get a great deal of vaporing by Kurtz, some of it interesting, but none of climactic. He informs Willard that his big inspiration came from the communists...the Americans had innoculated some kids, but the VC came in the night and chopped off all the little innoculated arms. Kurtz had decided this was absolute genius; it was as though he'd "been shot with a diamond bullet" right in the head. You can be moral and do horrendous stuff and it's not inconsistent...okay.
But after some of the stupendous battle stuff earlier, we're expecting even more stupendous battle stuff. If not, then steadily tightening suspense, some other sort of big payoff. Yeah, Kurtz decapitates the cook (off camera) and dumps his head in Willard's lap in the rain, but then Willard is allowed to wander around and laze about and listen to Kurtz's increasingly bizarre lectures, with commentary by the photojournalist. There's a lot of moody stuff, and shadows, and close-ups of Montagnards. For some reason, Kurtz decides he's going to let Willard kill him, I guess because he's in mucho internal agony. The original Milius script had Willard siding with Kurtz as a North Vietnamese onslaught overwhelms the temple complex...the closest thing we have to a big finish in Coppola's version is Willard sneaking up on Kurtz and hacking at him with a brushhook, intercut with the savages outside sacrificing a cow. There's no tension whatsoever, because Kurtz doesn't seem to mind, and the Montagnards don't seem to either. Col. Big Fat Fatty goes out muttering, in his impressionist-doing-Brando voice...."the horror, the horror." Then Willard and a surfer dude escape, before the place gets blown up by B-52's, the end credits rolling over the blasts, so that you can't even get into the explosions.
It's really a shame that the film turns into such a damp squib, because it's completely enthralling until the last twenty-five minutes or so; the subtext stuff is extremely clever and interesting, the atmospherics are very persuasive, and the action, most notably the Ride of the Valkyrie sequence, is extremely well done. Even if the movie isn't like Vietnam, in any realistic sense, it's really about Vietnam, and its treatment of the issues is impressive..the movie isn't a left-wing screed by any stretch of the imagination.I would've liked to have had the commies actually showing up onstage in some sort of major way, as opposed to having them as mere external menaces...but oh well. That's nothing at all compared to the mess that Brando makes of the thing at the end. Apparently the reason that they didn't have any sort of apocalyptic finish was that he was just too much of a tub to do any running around. They really should've gotten someone else. Gene Hackman, maybe...just a thought...
This was, of course, a review of the theatrical cut of the film, not the redux version, which I thought was a pretty bad idea for the most part, especially that long stop-the-film-dead interlude with the Frenchies on the plantation...the only good stuff was the extra material with Killer Kilgore...
13.Come and See, 1985, Director: Elem Klimov
I have to admit, to my embarrassment, that I've only seen one Soviet WWII movie, and this is it...wasn't avoiding them, just didn't encounter them for one reason and another, and I really would like to rectify the situation, given that the War on the the Eastern Front was, in most respects, a much bigger deal than the stuff in Western Europe, horribleness on an almost unimaginable scale. Just at the Battle of Stalingrad, for example, in about five months, there were more deaths on both sides than all US combat fatalities in all our wars combined. Given the kind of resources that the commie government was known to lavish on their films, I expect that some of their war epics must really be amazing.
Now Come and See isn't a big sweeping spectacle, and I understand that it wasn't very typical...it almost didn't get made...the script was kicking around for seven years before it got greenlit. I'd have thought the Communist authorities would've signed right off on the thing since it's so powerfully anti-Nazi, but they had difficulties with the grunge and the "naturalism," which is not at all like Socialist Realism, it would seem.
Story is based on the recollections of a real-life Byelorussian partisan named Ales Adamovich, who co-wrote the screenplay with Elem Klimov, the director. I don't really know how much of it is true, but it sure is awfully plausible. People compare it to Apocalypse Now and talk about how hallucinatory it is...but as nearly as I can make out, it's very grounded...it isn't stylized, at least until an unfortunate sequence right at the end.
Title derives from the Book of Revelation, as in, "I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, come and see. And I Looked, and behold a Pale horse," etc. Story begins in 1943...Byelorussia has been under German occupation for quite a while. A couple of twelve-year olds are digging in a sandpit looking for guns so they can join the partisans. Young Florya (Aleksey Kravchenko) finds a rifle and goes home; shortly afterwards, partisans come and take him away from his horrified mother and sister.
He winds up in a camp in the deep forest...the partisans are led by a fellow named Kosach (Liubomiras Lauciavicius). He takes his men out on a raid, but insists that little Florya stay in camp. Pissed off, the kid stumbles across someone else who's been left behind, a young woman named Glasha, who loves Kosach...the camp gets shelled, Kraut parachutists land, and Florya and Glasha bug out.
They go to Florya's village...he finds his house deserted and full of flies...a meal is still cooking in the oven. Florya doesn't want to believe that his mother and sister are dead, but then he sees a huge pile of bodies...he and Glasha wade across a nasty bog to an island, where Florya falls in with a different group of partisans, who are saddled with a mess of refugees. Everybody's cold and wet, and some of them are horrifically injured.
The partisan commander, Roubej, is willing to let Florya fight...they have some adventures, see some SS units committing atrocities, then stumble through a minefield. Two of the partisans are killed. Florya and Roubej try to steal a cow from a collaborator...the cow and Roubej are sprayed full of tracers. Near the village of Perekhody Florya finds a horse and cart the next morning, tries to take them to the refugees on the island...the owner of the horse tries to stop Florya at first, but then decides to hide him as a German column comes roaring down the road, hellbent on atrocity...
If you decide to check this movie out, the sequence with the SS descending on the town is one of the most disturbing things you'll probably ever see. These are without a doubt the most horrible Nazis in the whole history of film. They're sort of like something from The Road Warrior...except that the Nazis actually had groups of mutants like them. These seem to be modelled on units such as the one commanded by the monstrous Oskar Dirlewanger...that is to say, criminals, rapists and perverts recruited from SS prisons expressly for the purpose of committing atrocities. Dirlewanger himself was a child molester who'd spent a bunch of time in a mental institution. Well, the film serves up a profoundly nightmarish tableau reminiscent of Goya's Disasters of War. The SS do a whole bunch of increasingly hideous things, then stuff everybody into a church and burn it. Finally they take off, but not before carrying an old crippled granny, bed and all, out into the middle of a field where she's going to die of exposure.
Rest of the movie is anticlimactic and clunky. The SS run into some partisans who wipe out all but a handful...but it's not depicted, and we'd really have preferred to see these guys get their comeuppance. The few Nazi prisoners are doused in gasoline, but some of Russians, relatively merciful souls that they are, shoot them before they can be lit up. Then we get a weird piece of ineffective pure propaganda showing Florya putting bullets into a picture of Hitler as a series of High Points of National Socialism (oh, excuse me, Hitlerism, or German Fascism) flash across the screen. It doesn't have any impact at all, precisely because it's devoid of the kind of awful plausible particularities that so characterized the rest of the film.
But up until the denouement, the movie is intensely convincing...the narrative is rather picaresque, but it just seems rather like real life in that respect. The photography is strong, and does a fine job of capturing the Byelorussian forest and the horrible bog. That Daniel Craig movie, Defiance, covered a lot of similar turf---true-life partisans in the forest, etc., but all the while I was watching that, I found myself thinking what a pale shadow it was compared to Come and See.
Now of course, Come and See doesn't give you the slightest idea that most partisans were fighting both the Nazis and the Communists, or indeed, that there was this little matter of Soviet atrocities and totalitarianism, or Joseph Stalin, or any of that. You'd never guess that Stalin's armies raped every woman between the Oder and the Elbe, going out of their way to molest old ladies, in the belief that if you raped an old woman, you'd live as long as she had....the scene where the partisans refrain from doing the absolute worst that they could to their prisoners was ludicrous.
But for the most part, the film works extremely well on its own terms.
14.Platoon,. 1986, Director: Oliver Stone
Revisited this the other day in preparation for writing this review. It's a very different kettle of fish from the other Vietnam epic on this list, namely Apocalypse Now. AN was made by guys who never went to Nam, and never saw any combat of any sort...their movie is abstract, symbolic, surreal. I like it better than I like Platoon, maybe because I just can't stomach Oliver Stone's leftwing posturing. But when you see the movies in close conjunction, you're left with no doubt whatsoever...Platoon is the one that reflects genuine experience. Stone served in Vietnam, is an actual decorated vet, and while he may be an asshole, he knows what he's talking about. He's actually humped it through the jungle, gotten bit by jungle ants and been incredibly short on sleep;he's been smack in the middle of breathless claustrophobic places waiting for the shit to hit the fan, before guys tried to kill him and he tried to kill them back. It's no surprise that he knows how to serve up action that is just plain (stone?) terrifying. Remember how I said that most war movies play it for spectacle and not for fear? Well, Platoon isn't one of those. Patton wouldn't have liked this movie either.
We open with Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), an idealistic young fellow who arrives in Vietnam and almost immediately decides he's made a terrible mistake...there's a voiceover with him writing to his grandmom, and he isn't putting a good face on anything. He sees a bunch of stuffed body bags as soon as he lands, and finds himself on a series of numbing patrols...it's nothing but discomfort and exhaustion, punctuated by some pretty repellent shit. His platoon has two sergeants; one is the scarred menacing Master Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger), and the other is the vastly more likeable Elias (Willem Dafoe). Dafoe's just as tough as Barnes, but he wants cherries to make it through, and dispenses lots of good advice: "You don't need this, you don't need this, you don't need this," a piece of movie dialogue I've really tried to take to heart.
Anyway, Chris gets his first taste of action in a dank jungle in the middle of the night...he nods off on watch, and when he comes to, no one else is awake, even though another guy is supposed to be on watch too. In a really creepy scene, NVA come out of the dripping fog...there's a firefight...a grunt gets killed...Chris is blamed for everything even though Red O'Neil (John C. McGinley), one of Barnes's numerous toadies, threw a grenade that maimed one of the other men.
They return to base. Chris cleans latrines and winds up hanging out with "the heads", Elias's little laid-back clicque, who distract themselves with dope while Barnes and his lickspittles party in a more evil lunkheaded way. The patrols resume...our guys encounter a big North Vietnamese tunnel complex that's just been evacuated...Elias, who apparently enjoys being a tunnel-rat, goes down to investigate...the rest proceed towards a suspicious village, finding a Yank who's been tortured to death by the communists. Things start getting really freaky at this point...when food and ammo are found, Barnes shoots the headman's wife, even though though it's not at all clear that the villagers had a choice. Chris finds himself in a hut with a mentally retarded villager...he torments the guy at first, then watches in horror as Bunny (Kevin Dillon), a grisly psycho, beats the kid's brains out with his rifle.
Elias returns from his tunnel-ratting, buttstrokes Barnes as he's about to murder some more villagers...the lieutenant (Mark Moses), who's been just watching all this stuff happen, finally steps in...the platoon sets fire to the village...as they're leaving, some of them try to rape some village girls, but Chris stops them.
When they get back to base, Elias tries to initiate charges against Barnes, but the Captain, (military adviser Dale Dye), is short on men, and can't remove Barnes...he does, however, promise that he will get to the bottom of all this crap, and that the guilty will definitely suffer. Barnes and his crowd start to plot against Elias, whom Chris gets closer and closer to...while they're out watching the stars, Elias tells him how he's completely disenchanted with the war, and is sure we're going to lose, simply as a reversal of fortune, since we've been kicking everyone's asses for so long.
They go out on another mission, which is a total clusterfuck. They're bushwhacked, then bombarded by their own artillery...a bunch of guys get killed including Big Harold (a young Forest Whitaker). We get to see Elias in action, and he's really a pleasure to watch as he races among the trees, greasing NVA, but he's still out there somewhere when the orders come down to retreat. Barnes goes looking for him---and plugs him. When he gets on his chopper, he tells everyone that Elias is dead, but, when they take off, they see Elias being pursued by a swarm of NVA and and getting bullet-squibbed to death.
The heads collect back at the base to mourn Elias...Chris wants to frag Barnes, but Rhah (Francesco Quinn) argues that "the only thing that can kill Barnes is Barnes." While they're bickering, Barnes appears in their midst, daring them to kill him. They want to escape from reality with their dope? "Hell," he says, "I am reality." Chris tries to kill him, but Barnes very nearly does him in, giving him a cut under the eye.
Again the guys go out...the NVA are massing. Taylor finds himself in a foxhole with Francis (Corey Glover) as the tension mounts and mounts. The jungle is depicted as the quintessential nightmare, there's excellent use of wavering, swaying light from parachute flares...finally the communists come on. This is the film's scariest sequence, but also the most exhilerating...Chris really gets into the slaughter, although everyone's pushed back. Bunny is bayonetted to death...the communists get all the way to the command bunker, where the Captain calls in napalm on his own position. Chris encounters Barnes, who gets shot in the crotch by a commie, then turns on Chris and is about to brain him with a big rock when the bombs drop.
When Chris wakes up, the enemy has been exterminated. Barnes is lying helpless...Barnes tells him to call a medic, but when it becomes plain that Chris is planning to shoot him, he says, "Do it!" Chris gives him three in the chest.
There's a bit of wrapping up after that...we touch base with various surviving characters...Chris is choppered out, waves goodbye to Rhah, tells us that inside, he's always going to be in Nam, the child of two fathers, Elias and Barnes...
Without a doubt, it's a good solid movie. As I said, Stone really knows what he's talking about, and he appreciates the thrill of combat as well as the horror...he's experienced them both. I believe I read an interview where he talked about how combat is just about the biggest rush there is. On the other hand, the realistic stuff is so persuasive that it highlights the bullshit that much more brightly when it comes on. I can't imagine that there were too many sinister master sergeants declaring things like "I am reality," a la Barnes, or very many episodes like the wildly overdone scene where Elias comes slow-motioning out of the jungle, being shot over and over again and Christ-symbolling as the world's sluggishest chopper crawls away through the sky, allowing a goggle-eyed Charlie Sheen to gawp endlessly at the exquisitely filmy doings in the jungle below. Yeah, you do want to see bullet-squibs popping off by the dozens all over Willem Dafoe, but...sometimes (not always) directors should control themselves.
Now also, I have to admit, I've got a bone to pick with this thing...Stone's on record talking about how the Vietnam war was just different from other wars, particularly lovely lovely WWII, where we were on the side of the angels and everything was swell and justified, and so on. The guy knows something about Vietnam, but he doesn't know a damn thing about the Big One, which was by far the most brutally waged war in in US history, characterized by the deliberate systematic massacre of enemy civilians by firebombing and nuclear weapons, and the slaughter of virtually every wounded or surrendering Japanese soldier that we ran across. We were allied to Joesph Stalin, and the results of the conflict (which was, after all, fought to keep China and eastern Europe free) were vastly more ambiguous than they are usually portrayed. Mr. Stone has been a propagandist for some very evil enterprises, and folks disposed to form their opinions about Vietnam from Platoon should beware.
Stone is the kind of guy who'd suck on Fidel Castro's dick like it was a cigar.
15.Glory, 1989, Director:Edward Zwick
There should be more movies about the Civil War. It's the most dramatic story in our history, and most of the battles were quite distinct, having their own terrible inner logic and external circumstance. I would, for example, really love to see a proper Gettysburg movie, one with a good budget that doesn't depend on well-fed porky reinactors. I know a lot of people really loved Gettysburg, and I thought it was pretty good, although it was basically just a big TV movie, and wasn't sufficiently horrible...also, it suffered terribly in comparison to Glory, which was a superior piece of work in every respect.
Now, maybe, I'm predisposed to like Glory better because it was about what the Civil War was actually about...namely slavery. With some regularity, I get into arguments with people, on both sides of the political spectrum, who want to argue that the Civil War was primarily about economic domination of the South by the North. Liberals want to downplay the basic correctness of the northern cause because, well, they generally detest the United States and prefer not to give America any credit...on the other hand, some conservatives like to make excuses for the Confederates for well, conservative, state-rights reasons, in spite of the fact that slavery was an atrocious, atrocious evil that we are well rid of. Well, the issue of the war being fought over the rights of black people is front and center in Glory, which puts its case very well without being preachy or annoying.
It was helmed by TV director Ed Zwick, working from a screenplay by Kevin Jarre, the guy who would go on to write one of my favorite westerns, Tombstone. There's nothing blindingly original about the presentation...the structure is pretty typical...you have this unit (in this case, the all-Black Massachusetts 54th), they're looked down on, they aren't expected do well, they're whipped into shape, we get a bunch of characterization as they become soldiers, there's a preliminary fight in which they're blooded, and then a climactic battle in which most everybody gets killed. In some ways, it's the same formula as the Dirty Dozen, or the Devils' Brigade, or a whole lot of other films, but it was exactly the right way to approach this material. There's nothing wrong with tried, true and totally sure fire. That being said, I don't recall any previous depictions of black units during the Civil War, and the matter certainly deserved to be covered...I believe about 300,000 blacks served in the Union Army (correct me if I'm wrong), and boy did these guys have something at stake---and to prove.
Film begins at the Battle of Antietam, the single grisliest day of the war. Massachusetts Captain Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) leads his men into some godawful slaughter and takes a splinter of shrapnel in the neck. While he's lying among the fallen, he's found by a gravedigger named Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), who gets him to a hospital. Returning to Boston on medical leave, Shaw stays with his abolitionist family and meets the imposing Frederick Douglass...he's promoted to Colonel, but receives the less-than-plum assignment of leading the 54th, an all-volunteer black unit. With him goes his close friend Major Forbes (Cary Elwes)...together they struggle to turn their recruits into soldiers, with the aid of a fierce racist Irishman, Sgt. Mulcahy, (John Finn).
We spend considerable time with the men. Rawlins has signed on, as well as a well-educated but timid freeman named Searles (Andrew Braugher); we also have surly uppity escaped slave Trip (Denzel Washington, real cool in the first movie I ever saw him in). Trip rags on Searles all the time...Rawlins mediates. The troops are given lousy rations and shitty uniforms. They need shoes real bad. Mulcahy puts them through hell...Forbes and Shaw quarrel over the harshness of the training; Forbes is of the opinion that it doesn't matter, since he doesn't think the men are ever going to find themselves in real combat anyway.
Word comes that the Confederates have orders to shoot any black found in uniform...the troops are given permission to take an honorable discharge...none of them do.Trip goes AWOL--Shaw has him flogged. When Trip's shirt is removed, everyone sees that his back bears the marks of numerous lash-strokes. Shaw learns that Trip was just out trying to get some shoes...he confronts the quartermaster, finds out that there are plenty of shoes and socks in stock, and forces the guy to cough them up. Shaw also learns that the army just isn't going to pay his troops the same as white soldiers...he sides with him men, refusing to take any pay himself until the situation is rectified.
Ultimately, the 54th is sent down south, and Shaw finds himself under the command of General Harker(Bob Gunton). Harker's evil second-in-command, Montgomery (Cliff De Young) is a Kentucky slaveholder with his own black units, which he employs to terrorize the Confederate population, and he has his own plans for the 54th, exploying them in a a brutal attack on a South Carolina town. Shaw can't stomach this, and confronts Harker, saying he'll raise a real stink about Montgomery if the 54th isn't committed to some real combat.
He gets his wish...the men are blooded in a vicious skirmish, earning themselves a the privilege of being the vanguard in an attack on Fort Wagner, a stronghold which guards the approach to Charleston. But Fort Wagner is a tough nut to crack, approachable only by a narrow strip of beach, and everybody knows that things are going to get real hairy. On the night before the battle, there's considerable praying and singing, and Rawlins exhorts the men...surprisingly, so does Trip, who's decided that maybe the whole enterprise is worthwhile.
The next day, Shaw leads them to the beach..as they pass in parade, a white soldier cries, "Give 'em Hell, 54th!" They form up, and Shaw gives the order. The Confederates unleash a murderous artillery barrage...as night comes down, Shaw orders his men to take cover in some sand-dunes, then resumes the attack once it gets dark. The Confederates can't really depress their cannons enough to get at them, so they have to rely on small-arms fire...the 54th lunges across a moat onto the soft sandy sides of the fortress and bogs down. Shaw tries to resume the charge and gets killed...Trip picks up the flag and rallies the men, then gets shot to shit. But the men take the parapet...Forbes leads them on a wild rampage through the fortress. But just when it looks like they've won, then come to a spot overlooking a courtyard and find the rebs aiming a great huge cannon at them...
In the morning, we see the Confederates burying everybody, and Shaw winds up in the same trench with Trip, both of them with their shoes removed. In a postscript, we learn that Abraham Lincoln thought that black troops played an absolutely vital role in the war; also that Fort Wagner was never taken.
16.The Hunt For Red October, 1990, Director:John McTiernan
Generally, movies based on books are nowhere near as good as the source material. Even when the movies are good, the sources are still better. Now, of course, a lot of times, this is simply because the people who make the movies are a lot dumber than the writers. But there's a basic problem with adaptation itself... film and the written word are very different mediums,and films are kind of intrinsically dumber. If you've ever seen a movie script, you'll notice that they're just pretty damn short. Downright insubstantial. Usually, they go about a hundred pages, and the margins are big, and the spaces between paragraphs are too. If the script runs a hundred and twenty pages, that's rather a longish movie. Most movie scripts have about as much material in them as a 70-80 page short novel. Your average novel runs about two hundred pages, maybe a bit less...but it includes twice, maybe three times more info than your average script. There's just no way around it...adaptors generally have to hack huge amounts of stuff out of the books they're adapting, and if the novelist actually knew what he was doing (one would hope, since his work's being adapted) there was a reason he included all the stuff that's going to get hacked out. As a result, movies are almost always extreme simplifications of the books they're based on, and probably make a shitload less sense.
Now, there are exceptions to this. There aren't many, but there are some. John Huston's Man Who Would be King was superior to the Kipling story it was based on...but there you had a brilliant filmaker expanding on really good material. In Angel Heart, a shift of scene from New York to New Orleans was actually an improvement on William Hjortsberg's Falling Angel...New Orleans is way more voodoo-y than the Big Apple. Some of the Harry Potter movies really benefitted from compression, especially when they were scissoring out lots of Puppy Love...and John McTiernan's Hunt For Red October, while doing justice to Tom Clancy's original, improved on it by tightening up the climax, and substituting really great performances by excellent actors for Clancy's rather undistinguished characterizations. I mean, you could stick Sean Connery in a movie of The Bible and improve on the source, and I'm speaking as a Roman Catholic here.
Now, it is a pity that a lot of Clancy's research couldn't be squeezed into the film; but the screenplay sure does cram in about as much as it can, without sacrificing characterization or pacing....it does this by making the exposition interesting...the whole thing seems very fast, even when you've got scene after scene of talking-head stuff. Not that you could do much about that in any case...visuals aren't going to be the key thing in a submarine movie anyway, because there's really nothing much to see down there...but it could've been real boring. In actuality, there's virtually no action till about the last fifteen minutes, but you don't mind. At least, I didn't.
Red October introduces Clancy's super-analyst Jack Ryan, who's played by Alec Baldwin. Disturbed by the film's right-wing thrust, Baldwin would relinquish the role to Harrison Ford in subsequent films, which was rather a pity...Baldwin was much better. Even so, this is Connery's movie, and personally I was delighted. As a kid, I'd been pissed off that he'd stopped being James Bond, but when I saw him in Wind and the Lion, and Man Who Would be King,, I realized that he was quite right to regard Bond as a straightjacket. Of course, it took a while for audiences to appreciate him in non-Bond stuff, Last Crusade being the breakthrough, although Red October really cemented his new status.
He portrays Soviet Boomer captain Marko Ramius...as the film opens, we see him and his adjutant Borodin (Sam Neill) on the conning-tower of a huge new Typhoon-class sub, the titular vessel, taking her out of Polijarny inlet, into the open sea.
Ryan is introduced in London...there's some family biz..when he arrives in Washington, CIA agents escort him to a briefing with his chief, Admiral Greer (James earl Jones). At issue are photos of Red October, which is longer and wider than a standard Typhoon...Ryan has been summoned because he's an expert on Ramius...as they pore over the pictures, Greer notices peculiar apertures on the sub, and everybody realizes that something very interesting is afoot...
In the Red October, Ramius retires to his quarters, where he finds the ship's political officer, Putin(Peter Firth), reading one of his books, on eschatology...Putin doesn't like such religious stuff...Ramius doesn't apologize...Putin says he should open his orders. Turns out Red October is to meet up with meet up with Konovalov, an Alfa Class attack sub, and run a series of cat-and mouse exercises to test the Typhoon's revolutionary new caterpillar drive.
But Ramius has other ideas, and murders Putin by bashing his head against a table...when Borodin and the ship's doctor (Tim Curry) arrive, Ramius explains that Putin slipped...then he removes Putin's nuclear-missile key. Ramius has his own key, but an actual launch requires the Zampolit's key as well.
Back in the US, Ryan takes photos of Red October to his analyst buddy Skip Tyler(Jeffrey Jones), who sees pretty quick that the strange apertures indicate a caterpillar drive, meaning the sub would be vastly more quiet than a typical Soviet boomer, able to park itself very very close to the American coast without detection...
Back in the Arctic, Red October passes the Dallas, an American attack boat captained by Bart Mancuso (Scott Glenn)...they realize it's a new Typhoon and open a file on it. In Red October, Ramius relates the orders to his men...the crew start singing and the caterpillar drive's engaged...on Dallas, they hear the singing, and then, to Mancuso's amazement, they lose contact.
In Moscow, a Russian Admiral opens a letter from Ramius, reads that he intends to defect and bring the Americans a lovely present, namely his wonderful new sub...On Red October, we learn that the remaining officers, Borodin included, are all in on the plot. In Washington, Ryan concludes that Ramius is planning to switch sides and argues that the US should do everything to contact Ramius and bring him in. Ryan gets authorization and finds himself on a task force in the North Atlantic, as the Soviets surge their whole North Seas Fleet. The Captain of Konovalov (Peter Skarsgaad) is notified that he must hunt Ramius---his teacher---down.
The situation gets steadily scarier. Flown out to an aircraft carrier, Ryan's got to convince skeptical guys in the US fleet...the Russians locate Red October and try to take her out...Ramius swings her down into the canyons of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Red Route one, as it's known, where the sub has to slip through gorges and avoid cliffs by precisely-timed manuevers...
Ryan winds up out on the Dallas, meets more skepticism from Mancuso, wins him over...Ryan is sure that Ramius must have some sort of plan to get most of his crew off his boat, and indeed, Ramius pulls this off by faking a radiation leak. He surfaces and the crew flees on lifeboats while the officers, supposedly to battle the leak, remain behind...once Red October goes back down, Mancuso moves in and dispatches a submersible, which attaches itself. Ramius and Ryan meet...this sets up the big finish, with the Konovalov closing and shooting torpedoes as our heroes contend with a loyal-commie crew member who stayed aboard and is planning to detonate a charge in the missile bay...
As I noted earlier, the climax is nice and tight and works real swell. The film was helmed by John McTiernan, who was just coming off Die Hard, and made a film that's at least as good here....given how different the movie is from Die Hard, and Predator, which he also directed, McTiernan demonstrated considerable versatility...he also made one more good Sean Connery flick, Medecine Man, which was, again, very different from his earlier films.
Lemme see, what else. Photographed by Jan De Bont (who would go on to direct Twister and Speed), Red October is real sharp looking; it also has a memorable, stirring score by one of my favorite composers, Basil Poledouris. If the film has a real drawback, it's the special effects; the undersea sub shots and seascapes were done digitally, by ILM, but in my opinion, the technology wasn't sufficiently developed..the FX look rather cartoony. The use of just plain old miniatures in Crimson Tide produced much better results, in my opinion, even though that movie was, overall, nowhere near as good. But, in the final analysis, Red October isn't an FX flick...it's really quite cerebral.
17.Saving Private Ryan,1998,Director:Stephen Spielberg
I already discussed SPR at length in my ultraviolent list, and I could just reprint that piece here, but I don't know, that feels like cheating to me...for those of you who've read the first critique, please forgive me if you've heard everything before. I haven't changed my mind about anything, although I might dredge up some stuff I didn't think of the first time.
Saving Private Ryan is a weirdly schizophrenic movie. There are some things Spielberg does spectacularly well; they're startlingly evident here. He's one of the great masters of the set-piece action sequence, and the battles that bookend this thing are among his finest action achievements. He is, however, pretty lousy at picking writers...even when you do encounter good writing in his movies, it's either sporadic, or undermined by ridiculous sentimental Hollywoody moments. Well, there are Spielberg movies that have a much higher filmi quotient than Private Ryan, but SPR sure has more than its share of doctrinaire oscar-clippish bullshit, a fact that's made all the more obvious by the quality of the non bullshit scenes. It's not as bad as the more ridiculous aspects of Hell's Angels...but it brings that film to mind.
Here it is. In spite of the fact that SPR serves up the most amazing battlefield carnage ever committed to the screen, the rest of the movie is well...just a movie. I think the guy who reviewed it for Time Magazine said pretty much the same thing. When it goes wrong, it does so in exactly the same way that most war movies go wrong. I was just reading Robert Leckie's Helmet for My Pillow...he was complaining about typical war movies with their tensions inside the squad and ethnic and geographical GI diversity...well, that's Saving Private Ryan, tarted up with ripped entrails full of sand and Kraut anti-aircraft guns literally dismembering guys. And the reason we keep seeing war movies like this is that Hollywood folks have this notion that war itself is just insufficient...it's not interesting enough. Yes, I bitched about this in my previous essay on SPR, and now I'm doing it again. How the fuck do you make a movie about Germans or Japs trying to kill you where that's not the primary, primary emphasis? Now, I've never been in combat, but...somehow I find myself imagining that getting shot at by guys who are really trying to murder you concentrates the mind far more intensely than...bickering. I wasn't on Saipan during the big one, but I have known bickering in my life, and, I don't know, it just seems to me that holding off a giant banzai charge must be more rivetting.
Well, on some level Spielberg himself seems to realize this, but this realization manifests itself in SPR in ways that really subvert the rest of the film. Ask anyone who's seen it...what's the strongest part of the movie? Ah, they'll say, the Omaha Beach scene. Well then, what does that tell us? We haven't had any Oscar clips. We haven't had any character arc stuff. We don't even know who any of our characters are, aside from the fact that they're played by actors we know. Yeah,that's Tom Hanks, and there's Tom Sizemore, and...we don't want to see Hanks or Sizemore blown up by the Nazis. It's just that simple. We don't need to know what Hanks or Sizemore did before the war. We just don't want to see these actors, who we like, get turned into tomato puree the way a lot of the anonymous other guys on the beach are being turned into tomato puree.
The pureeing itself and the small details are pretty much the thing. We see guys with plastic sheathes over the ends of their M1's to keep the water and sand out of the guns. We hear great sound effects, bullets striking underwater obstacles, etc. We get gross-outs of a sort we never thought of before, like that sand raining into opened body cavities. We learn innovative uses for chewing gum, that is to say, using it to stick mirrors on the ends of knives so that you can see around corners. You say to yourself, holy shit, I really buy this, and man, I don't like it. It really makes you feel as though you're there, and it's a tremendous achievement.
Then the movie settles down into a consistent annoying silliness. First off, there's the mission. We have to swallow the notion that General Marshall would be so concerned about a bunch of brothers all getting killed that he'd make a point of sending a single Ranger squad into contested post-D-day territory to save the last Ryan brother (Matt Day-mon!) before he gets croaked. Gimme a break. I mean, maybe things like this went on, but I've never heard of them...the closest thing to it was the government making sure that, after the Sullivans all got croaked, that all the brothers in a set wouldn't be allowed to croak...which usually meant that someone made a phone call, and the surviving brother in question would just go home. Certainly, sending a lone squad to wander around with no clear idea of where they're going wouldn't be the way to go about it. And really, nobody would care that much...not in the first coupla days after the landings. In the film, some of the characters comment on how goofy the mission is, but that only draws your attention to the fact...
Anyway, the guys start to meander around, and things get rather picaresque and episodic. It turns into something like a road picture, with our doggies walking and walking, frequently silhouetted nicely against ridgelines---always a great idea in a war---and having manly conversations. There's Tom Hanks, who's running the outfit, and there's speculation about what he did before the war, but we don't care. There's Vin Diesel, who's chiefly interesting because of his voice and the fact that we've never seen Vin Diesel before...he's an Italian, but we don't care. There's Tom Sizemore, who's been with Tom Hanks for a while, and who scoops up dirt from every country he's been in during the war...that's the extent of his characterization, other than the fact that he talks and acts like Tom Sizemore. There's Giovanni Ribisi's medic; he's a cipher. Ed Burns plays a guy who's unenthusiastic about the mission; he's crabby and grumpy. Jeremy Davies plays a wimp typist translator who's along for the ride...to the degree that he's interesting, it's because he's twitchy. Adam Goldberg plays a smartmouthed Jew named Mellish...speaks for itself. There's only one real character in the squad, and that's Barry Pepper's fundamentalist sniper; he's genuinely cool, he seems to have an actual outlook on life, and he really knows how to shoot.
Everybody gets an Oscar clip, but we don't care. There is sporadic action, including a ridiculous everyone-points-guns-at-everyone else homage to John Woo, whose everyone-points-guns scenes are absolutely the least interesting thing about him. There's an effective scene where our guys are going through dogtags at the site of a fucked-up glider landing where a lot of guys died, and they start joking about the tags, until they realize that the airborne guys would like to wring their necks. But afterwards, for no reason at all, Hanks decides to attack a German radar emplacement that they could easily bypass...Ribisi gets killed, and they capture a German who doesn't seem like such a bad sort, although they really want to kill him because Ribisi's dead...there's bickering in the squad over this, which Hanks defuses by telling everyone what he did before the war...it's uninteresting.
Finally our guys approach a town where Ryan might be. They get in a fight with a Kraut halftrack, which is somehow on our side of the river, although we find out that the whole reason for going after the village is because Ryan's unit is holding an intact bridge. We finally meet Ryan. He has an Oscar clip about his first sexual experience, which involves a girl who fell off the ugly tree. Instead of taking Ryan right back to the beach, our guys decide to stick around to hold the village against a kraut counteroffensive...the movie gets compelling again.
The climax is much more standard than the landing sequence, but it's great hold-the fort stuff. Just about every bit of business is pretty gripping, except for Jeremy Davies running around with all the Browning Thirty ammo...I mean, why didn't they just parcel out the ammo to all the Browning Thirty guys right from the gitgo? Oh well. There's some reconnoitering on a cute little Kettenkrad (I want one!), and we do get a pretty good Tiger Tank mockup---it seems to be the disguised T34 they used in Kelly's Heroes. The tank stuff builds nicely (there's a particularly unsettling bit with tread vibrations causing debris to settle) and then the action kicks in. Some of our guys hurl themselves against the Tiger, while Barry Pepper gets up in a belltower and snipes a lot of Germans. We get to see the krauts wheeling around an anti-aircraft gun and dismembering a bunch of our fellas. Barry Pepper gets blown up by a self-propelled gun; Adam Goldberg tangles with a Das Reich badass who knifes him slowly ...we figure the Jew's gotta win, but...he doesn't. Jeremy Davies has a chance to help him, but, just as we've suspected all along, his character is simply a wimp.
He does shoot the German that they let off the hook earlier...the kraut has gotten back into the fight, and Davies wastes him when he gets captured again. Tom Sizemore gets killed, but not before hurling his helmet at advancing heinies. Hanks gets killed but Ryan doesn't, although we kinda wish he would, because we like Hanks and Sizemore and Barry Pepper more than we like him. Grumpy Ed Burns survives too...Mustangs appear and blow up another Tiger before the krauts can take the bridge. You find yourself feeling pretty good about the movie.
And then...we flash forward to the Matt Damon character in the future. He's visiting graves in Normandy...he was at the beginning too, remembering Omaha Beach, which is a gigantic cheat, since he wasn't there. He breaks down at the sight of all the graves, bleating that he wasn't worthy to survive...it's quintessential Spielberg filmi horsecrap, like the scene where Liam Neeson breaks down at the end of Schindler's List.
Still, overall, you should see the movie if for some peculiar reason you haven't already, particularly for the landing scene and the climax. When it comes to action, Spielberg serves up stuff you've never seen before, and he shows you exactly the details that needs to be shown, many of them drawn, apparently, from a very close study of actual combat films and photos...that blood coming out of Vin Diesel's sleeve is one example. Just remember that the flick is only a movie, and that it's going to demonstrate that fairly relentlessly during the second and third quarters.
18.Black Hawk Down, 2001, Director: Ridley Scott
More Tom Sizemore battle action, this time in a flick that's almost the antithesis of Saving Private Ryan. There's very little speechifying, and the emphasis is almost entirely on the tactical situation...once the slaughter starts, the film doesn't slow down at all until maybe the last eighth, and given what actually happened, a certain amount of anticlimax is unavoidable. The action sequences aren't as impressive as the ones in Ryan, but there's much less filminess overall. The movie doesn't spend too much time on characterizations (it might've been easier to follow if there had been familiar faces in the various parts) but Eric Bana's Delta Force guy is about as cool and interesting as Barry Pepper's sniper...as for the other people, I found myself worrying about them because of the basic circumstances they found themselves in.
As I'm sure you know, the film's based on a real incident during our ill-conceived Somalia intervention, that nation-building brainstorm served up by both Bush One and Clinton...in my opinion, the initial mission, the humanitarian food-distribution thing, made a certain amount of sense, but once we decided we were going to put everything to rights in that ludicrous former communist failed state, things rapidly got completely out of control. Ultimately we chose to lock horns with warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid and try to capture some of his goombahs...the resulting Battle of Mogadishu was written up by Mark Bowden, and his book formed the basis for the flick.
Film begins with starving zombie-like Somalis and UN aid being stolen from them by Aidid's forces. We cut to a conversation between U.S. General Garrison (Sam Shepherd) and one of Aidid's captured lieutenants, Osman Ali Atto, (George Harris), who tells Garrison over whiskey and cigars that "You should not have come here."
We're introduced to a bunch of the Rangers and Special Forces fellows who are going to go in and get some of Aidid's other men. A huge number of characters from the real story are whittled down one way or another...some are composites. We have Danny McKnight, (Tom Sizemore) a Ranger battalion chief, and Mike Steele (Jason Isaacs), a company commander and a rather stern by-the-book guy...the Rangers, of course, are an elite unit, and are kinda pissed off by the presence of even-more elite Delta Force guys such as Hoot Hooten (Eric Bana), who are extremely cocky and laid-back at the same time. We get a pretty good sense of the difference in culture between the Rangers and the Delta Boys, who are such valuable assets that they pretty much get away with whatever they please.
Various other characters come and go...they're rather a blur. Finally we get briefed and down to business. Aidid's men are captured by Delta guys at a hotel, but things begin to go wrong almost immediately...Todd Blackburn (Orlando Bloom, in a dinky role) falls out of a Black Hawk Helicopter...the Humvee column assigned to bring him back to the airport gets ambushed repeatedly and lost. A Blackhawk gets shot down by an RPG...a lot of people start taking bullets...some are separated from their units. Rangers teams are dispatched to try and reach the crash scene, but are pinned down. Everything gets worse and worse. A second Blackhawk gets hit and goes down near the first with Shughart (Johnny Strong) and Gordon (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau), two fearsome Delta snipers, aboard...the pilot, Michael Durant(Ron Eldard), has his back broken, but manages to take cover in an alley...in the film's most harrowing sequence, Gordon and Shughart fight off wave after wave of Somalis and are eventually killed themselves...Durant holds out in the alley until his gun goes dry, then gets captured.
As night closes in, Ranger Chalk Four, led by Matt Eversman (Josh Hartnett) finally reaches the first crash site and forms a perimeter. The Somalis attack repeatedly, but are finally shot to shit by Little Bird gunships...the Tenth Mountain Division eventually arrives with enough men and firepower to evacuate Eversman's unit, but not before one of his men, Jamie Smith (Charles Hofheimer) bleeds to death horrifically. As morning comes, Steele's pinned-down unit breaks out and runs back to base in good order, being welcomed by solemn Pakistanis with tumblers of welcome ice-cold water. Things wind down...Hooten gets some grub, then goes back out...Eversman visits Smith's corpse before it's loaded onto a transport...we get a postscript about the withdrawal of the American Forces...end credits.
Movie looks great, but that's just what you expect from a Ridley Scott film...I was a bit apprehensive going in, because I didn't think his action sequences up till that point had been too good, but I thought he handled the gunplay in Black Hawk Down quite well. I have some issues with the screenplay...they should've boiled the material down a lot further...there were, apparently, quite a few rewrites, but they didn't solve the problem...I understand Sam Shepherd wrote a bunch of the dialogue. There's way too much confusion about who's going where, and why, although, as I said, much of that could've been mitigated by having recognizeable actors...it might not have constituted characterization, but at least you would've said, "Ah, that's so and so." From what I know, the movie doesn't look much like Mogadishu, which isn't nearly as built up...it was filmed in Morocco. The settings are impressive, however, and impart a nightmare reality all their own...it may not be Mogadishu, but it becomes one of the most inedelibly depicted battlezones in film history. The soundtrack is really fabulous...a lot of excellent original music by Hans Zimmer, combined with contemporary Euro-Arabic stuff, like Barra Barra...movie makes excellent use of The Minstrel Boy.
Interesting postscript. Just before we invaded Iraq and knocked over Saddam once and for all, he was showing this film to his troops, in the belief, I guess, that it would somehow inspire them. Well, even though the movie doesn't have too much use for the mission in Somalia, it sure shows US troops as devastating mankillers, and if I'd been those poor Iraqi schmucks, I would've felt pretty depressed by the time the lights came up...
19.Master and Commander, 2003, Director: Peter Weir
This was nominated for Best Picture the same year as Return of the King;; I really liked 'em both, but in the final analysis, I think I liked Master and Commander better. I had a lot of problems with Jackson's adaptation of Tolkien, whereas I'd never read any of Patrick O'Brien's Lucky Jack Aubrey books---I was dubious about a movie cobbled together from two separate installments of the series. But whatever violence was done to the source material---I'm assuming quite a bit, that being the way of things---the movie is a remarkably coherent whole that works extremely well on its own terms.
I heard some grumbling about it when it came out...a lot of people were expecting a big action spectacle thing, and while there is some spectacular action, that's not where the emphasis lies...flick's primarily about realistically drawn characters, and wonderfully researched settings. The movie left a writer like myself with the impression that I could flesh out a novel, set in that period, just using the visuals from the film. It's that plausible.
Film is set during the Napoleonic Wars...Lucky Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), Captain of the HMS Surprise, is hunting the Acheron, a French vessel that's been preying on British shipping. In the book, Aubrey was hunting Yanks; in reality, of course, the U.S. and Britain were indeed on a collision course, which resulted in the War of 1812. But I guess the movie decided to ditch that angle with an eye towards the American market, and that's okay with me, Yank that I am.
As the film begins, Surprise is drifting towards a fog-bank off the east coast of South America...A midshipman named Hollom (Lee Ingleby) thinks he sees something in the mist...there's a call to general quarters. Aubrey questions Hollom's judgement, and Hollom sounds kinda waffly...then the ship comes under ferocious attack. Surprise gets shot full of holes, her rudder is ruined, and her return fire just bounces off the French ship. The action is sharp, short and notable for its realistic portrayal of the cannon-fire, with the missiles depicted, accurately, as big bullets, not explosive.
Surprise limps off with the Acheron in hot pursuit, and this time she hides in the fog. A wounded cabin-boy (the kid who went on to play young Octavian so effectively in Rome) has his arm amputated by Maturin (Paul Bettany), the ship's surgeon. Aubrey discusses Acheron with a man who saw her being built in the the U.S...she's a revolutionary design, both heavier and faster than Surprise...Aubrey concludes his ship is completely outclassed. But he decides to pursue his duel; the ship is refitted; Acheron attacks again; again Surprise barely escapes, this time by use of a decoy.
Acheron pulls ahead, rounds Cape Horn, which is infamous for its storms and cold and heavy seas...Aubrey follows, loses a well-liked seaman in the surging waves, then heads up the west coast of South America, towards the whaling grounds near the Galapagos Islands.
While all this has been going on, we've had a lot of telling characterization and detail...we get a full cross-section of the ship's crew, everybody from simple seamen, to the cook and the ship's master. We see the close friendship between Aubrey and Maturin, a sort of proto-Darwin who serves as Aubrey's rather anti-military foil, but also plays string duets with him. There's also some nifty dialogue around the captain's table, and a great joke about "the lesser of two weevils"...we see what the sleeping and eating arrangements are like, and how the captain's cabin is open to the rest of the deck much of the time, but can be sealed off with a partition...an old salt gets some brain surgery...there's a wonderful sense of a tight-knit self-contained community in a beautifully realized setting.
We get to the Galapagos Islands. Surprise rescues a British whaling-crew who's been marooned by the French. Maturin sees enough of the islands to realize that they're pretty damn amazing from a naturalist's standpoint, and he's desperate to stay and study...but Aubrey heads back out after the Frenchies, much to Maturin's exasperation. Surprise is becalmed; the crusty old salt who had his head worked on declares there's a Jonah aboard; the crew decide it's Hollom, who's the world's oldest midshipman, quite unsuccessful, and unambitious and unlucky indeed. As the rumors escalate, he commits suicide.
The wind comes back almost immediately.
Taking potshots at an albatross, a Royal Marine puts a pill into Maturin by accident; Aubrey heads back to the Galapagos so that the bullet-removal can be performed on solid ground. Maturin operates on himself...the bullet comes out with a fleck of his shirt still stuck to it.
Since Aubrey has decided to lay off on chasing Acheron, he gives Maturin some time to explore the island...Maturin and the cabin-boy head cross-bountry, collecting stuff...on the far side of the island, they look down into a bay and see French vessel, and Maturin has to rush back to Surprise, abandoning his precious specimens on the way. Hearing that Acheron is so close, Aubrey decides to tangle with her one more time. Knowing he can't outrun or outgun her, he opts to disguise his ship, inspired by the example of a camouflaged insect that Maturin has told him about. With a big smoky fire to simulate a whaler's try-works, he lets Acheron spot him...the Frenchies think they're going to have easy pickings, but no. They come in close and grapple, and there's a savage-hand to hand fight in which several characters that we're pretty fond of get iced...I won't give away the ending, but it's quite satisfying.
Movie has a whole lot going for it. Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany are just great...that cabin-boy kid turns in a fabulous performance. All the minor characters are efficiently and skillfully drawn. Peter Weir does a wonderful job on both the direction and the screenplay...his action scenes are lacking in the sort of ridiculous bombast that abounds these days, but they're all the more effective for it. I really appreciated the visual effects; the movie is one of the great FX movies ever, although that might not be obvious to some people...for one thing, I think it was the first film I ever saw in which digital technology was used to get complete control over lighting and weather. That stuff used to be a completely insoluble problem...pay attention the next time you watch Jaws, for example. It's a great movie, but the weather forced endless reshoots, and scenes had to be cobbled together from many different takes, because of lighting and cloud conditions...one moment it's all sunny and bright, the next, it's completely overcast. Well, there's none of that in Master and Commander. You might not be interested, but I sure was, particularly during the Cape Horn biz...
I understand they're talking about doing another Lucky Jack flick. They should get to it before Crowe gets too old.
20.Valkyrie, 2008, Director: Bryan Singer
A lot of people, my wife included, just can't stand Tom Cruise, but I've never been a Tom Cruise hater...generally, though, I think he tends to be more successful in roles where he's playing kind of a shit, like in Rainman. I was never able to buy him as a heroic type, although I didn't puke when he showed up in heroic roles, either. Now, the unavoidable fact is, the protagonist of Valkyrie, Count Von Stauffenburg, happened to look a whole whole lot like Cruise, and it just plain made all the sense in the world for the guys who made this movie to cast Cruise as him. Also, Cruise just does a good old job. Yeah, he's a Scientologist, and he's weird and jumps up and down on Oprah's couch. But if you were going to exclude all movies with idiots in them, you wouldn't have any movies to see.
It does help that he's backed up by a sensational cast, Tom Wilkenson, Terrence Stamp, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, and Eddie Izzard, just to name a few. I'm always reassured when I see a team of arch-professional Brits in front of the camera. But here they also had a very good script to work with by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander, and were directed by Bryan Singer, who helmed The Usual Subjects (also from a McQuarrie script). Additionally, it doesn't hurt that the true-life story that the script was based on is just so unbelievably dramatic.You're going up against these astoundingly bad guys right in the belly of the beast, and you almost bring it off---what could be more compelling? There were some critics who felt that the film was merely workmanlike, and didn't real bring any juice to the presentation...well, I disagree. Valkyrie was made by grownups for grownups, and it's just so damn so solid, solidity being in short supply in Hollywood films these days. Now, maybe my attitude is a bit skewed; I just watched Transformers Three, which was a movie made by monkeys for morons, or perhaps the other way round...if you'd like to see something that's the diametric opposite of that, watch Valkyrie.
Of course, in reading the reviews, it was hard to overlook a certain sniffiness and discomfort with the material. A number of critics complained about revisionism, and about how they were being asked to root for bad guys, etc. But Nazi Germany just didn't work the way a lot of people think it worked...there was a lot of resistance to Hitler in conservative and military circles...he hated aristocratic Prussians, and they hated him back...army guys like General Beck started plotting to kill him in the late thirties, put their efforts on hold when his bloodless victories made it look as though he had overwhelming popular support, then got right back to it after he invaded Russia and things went wrong. Ultimately they put together a plan that came achingly near to succeeding. Moreover, they were working with civilian politicians who had already established a public record of opposing Hitler...Nazi totalitarianism isn't just wasn't airtight in a lot of key areas. Even though it might make some people uncomfortable, Valkyrie sticks pretty damn close to the facts.
The script is very well-constructed, meticulously researched, extremely nuts and bolts...it lays out the basic problems you'd have to overcome if you wanted to overthrow Adolf Hitler, then presents an extremely clearly mapped out strategy, how to get from there to there, to there, to there. Along the way, it serves up some nifty characterizations, which themselves have great explanatory value---one of the reasons the traitors got as far as they did is that one of the key players, Tom Wilkenson's character, General Fromm, was such a weasel, and they could pretty much count on him sitting on the fence...but on to the actual story.
We're introduced to Graf Von Stauffenburg in North Africa...he's writing in his diary, expressing his opposition to Hitler, and saying that his army oath of loyalty to the Fuhrer is trumped by his greater loyalty to Germany; in the next scene, we see him talking a general into fleeing North Africa, instead of lingering to be crushed by the Allies...shortly afterwards, Stauffenburg's column is strafed by Allied planes, and he's all shot up, losing an eye and some fingers.
The next sequence involves Heming Von Trescow, (Kenneth Branagh) an army conspirator who's been trying to ice Hitler for a while; the latest plan involves him slipping a brandy-box---with an bomb inside---onto Hitler's plane. When Trescow gets to Berlin, he learns that the bomb didn't detonate; he meets up with fellow conspirator General Olbricht (Bill Nighy), and then goes and calmly retrieves the brandy-box before anyone can discover its contents. Olbricht and Treskow discuss a replacement for a resistance guy who's just been arrested...Olbricht suggests Stauffenburg, who's known for his intensifying hatred of the Nazi regime.
Stauffenburg meets with some key anti-Nazi leaders, including the retired General Beck, (Terrence Stamp)...he suggests using an operational plan called Valkyrie, which is meant to call up German reserves in the the event of a coup, the advantage being, of course, that they could use the assassination of Hitler to mobilize a bunch of troops, pin the coup on the SS, round them up, and take over the government.
But before the foundations of the plan can be laid, Stauffenburg has got to win the tacit approval of General Fromm (Tom Wilkenson), the head of the Reserve Army, and get an okay from Hitler himself. Stauffenburg goes to see Fromm, who reveals himself as slippery indeed, someone who'll let things proceed, see how the wind blows. Stauffenburg then takes Valkyrie directly to Hitler's aerie at Berchtesgaden...Hitler signs off on it, congratulates him...the SS are shut out...the wheels really start rolling.
Stauffenburg, utilizing a key collaborator, Gen. Fellgeibel (Eddie Izzard) inside the Wolf's Lair, makes a run at Hitler in East Prussia...the plan is to place a satchel full of explosive inside Hitler's fortified briefing room. The plan gets cancelled at the last moment because Himmler isn't at the briefing; however, to the immense disgust of Major Remannn, back in Berlin, the Reserves get called up...only to be disbanded.
Stauffenburg gets another chance, returns to the Wolfsschanze...there's a screw-up, and he only gets to load half as much explosive into the briefcase as planned...also,because it's so hot, Hitler has decided to move his briefing from the bunker to a building that won't contain the blast the so well. Stauffenburg is pulled out of the room at the last moment by a call from Fellgeibel; the briefing-room goes up...Stauffenburg escapes and hops a plane back to Berlin, then activates Valkyrie again. Everybody thinks Hitler is dead...Stauffenburg blames the SS, then uses the reserves to arrest all the SS and party honchos, or try. Fromm is imprisoned, as I recall, in a broom closet. It all goes well for a couple of hours. Then news begins to leak out that Hitler is still alive. When Remann tries to arrest Goebbels, who's just on the verge of chewing a poison pill, Goebbels gets a call and hands the phone to Remann.
Hitler's on the other end...
Bit by bit, the plot crumbles. Officers all over the Reich begin to reject Stauffenburg's directives. Troops descend on Fromm's headquarters, free Fromm, seize Olbricht...Stauffenburg gets caught after a gunfight. Beck is allowed to commit suicide by Fromm, who has Stauffenburg and some other guys executed practically on the spot, so they won't reveal Fromm's treachery. Stauffenburg goes out shouting, "Long live our sacred Germany!" But Fromm hasn't fooled anyone; in a lengthy postscript, we learn that he is executed right before the end of the war. There's some mention of lots of conspirators hung from meathooks on piano wires (Hitler had color movies made, by the way); last of all we learn that Stauffenburg's wife and children escaped.
There was some controversy about this production in Germany; the company wanted to use the Bendlerblock and other actual Nazi-era government buildings, but the German government was reluctant to co-operate, because Tom Cruise is a Scientologist! That was, at least, the stated reason. It's sorta odd...you'd think the Germans would be pleased that he was making a movie about noble Krauts, as opposed to the sauer sorts. But I guess someone must've decided they had more to gain than lose, and they allowed the shoot. I am reminded of the controversy at the moment about Mel Gibson doing his Maccabees film...yep, the guy is an antisemitic loon, but if he turns out a Hebrew Braveheart with the Judas Maccabeus standing in for William Wallace, it's hard to see how Jewish folks would have much cause to complain.
Actually, I bet it would really kick ass...