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Reviews: Historical
Movies for MRAs
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Reviews: Historical
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Historical covers anything from the ancient world up to World War II.

MASTER AND COMMANDER

Master and Commander is set in a time when men on sailing ships circumnavigated the globe without the benefit of GPS, reality TV or anesthesia, but somehow they managed, and even fought battles which decided the fate of nations.

 

Russell Crowe is the titular “master and commander” of a Royal Navy frigate, while Paul Bettany is the ship’s doctor. There’s plenty of fighting, this is, after all, the Napoleonic Wars. But men also do scientific stuff and advance humanity, exploring remote islands and intellectualizing about their findings. One is reminded of Star Trek the Original Series in the movie's balance of military and scientific matters. There's a great scene where the ship's officers are carousing around the dinner table in a manner which would have weaker souls running in tears for their therapists.

 

LOVE AND DEATH

Woody Allen is an intellectual in Napoleonic Europe who must contend with, well, issues of love and death. The movie references (obviously) War and Peace as well as any number of film makers and Russian philosophers, including an anachronistic reference to Nietzsche. Yet the whole thing holds up surprisingly well and has many insights into dilemmas men face.

 

Allen plays Boris Grushenko, the scion of a family of the minor aristocracy in Russia who over-intellectualizes everything. Grushenko is in love with Sonja (Diane Keaton), who talks a good fight about transcendental love but in turn falls for Boris’s loutish brother. With Napoleon invading everything, Boris finds himself marching off to the wars, having affairs, fighting duels, and, after some plot convolutions, marrying the object of his affections. The movie uses a variety of comic techniques, so there is always something to laugh about. And it is incredibly well produced, with costumes and sets evoking early 19th century Europe. It's all sumptuously shot, and even the battle scenes are reasonably true to Napoleonic warfare. The score is lifted from Sergei Prokovief, and it fits into the absurdism of the goings on...and their dark underside.

 

Boris must face a crisis of the soul, one which nearly leads to his self-destruction, but he finds a reason to live. The last part of the movie has him and Sonja involved in a harebrained plot to assassinate Napoleon. It fizzles, of course, and he finds himself in a French prison awaiting execution. There, an Angel of the Lord appears and gives him hope. He nonchalantly faces a firing squad the next day and, well, he finds that it's best to not believe everything you are told.

 

In the coda at the end, Allen asks if has learned anything. Maybe he has. Like it's not a hot idea to let yourself be sucked into thinking that the opposite sex is the key to your own fulfillment.

 

 

MOBY DICK (1956)

There's a scene in here in which the Pequod's whale hunters take to four small boats, chase after a pod of whales any of whom could easily smash them to pieces, and in a running battle kill several. Now, what makes this so incredible are a couple of things. One is that here we have men on the high seas hunting literal leviathans and triumphing. Another is that this is like watching the wormriders in the movie Dune (reviewed elsewhere on this site), except that it really happened!

 

It’s the sort of thing that men do. I don’t mean merely kill big animals (and we must see the White Whale here as a symbol). Rather, they take on the most extreme situations that nature can toss at them and treat  the challenges as if they were everyday affairs.

 

Moby Dick is about a lot of things. It's an adaptation of Herman Melville's 1851 novel about obsession as Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck) chases after the eponymous white whale. But it is also about men coming together to complete a mission, even when that means going beyond their original mundane purpose (bringing back whale oil) and changing it to something higher--or infernal, depending upon your take on the story.

 

Along the way, there is conflict between Ahab and Starbuck (Leo Genn), the latter trying to keep the expedition on its original track. There's some good debate in there about the nature of duty, and the obligations owed the folks back home versus those involved with the male warband. We see men of all races coming together on the ship Pequod, defined by what they do and not who they are. Everyone, from the elite of harpooneers to the ship's carpenter down to the cabin boy have their functions. It's teamwork at its best. Richard Basehart, as Ishmael, narrates the tale as a sort of eternal wanderer who alone survives the final confrontation with the White Whale (ironically, he would later star in the television series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea). There's even a cameo by Orson Welles.

 

The movie was written by science fiction mastermind Ray Bradbury. I actually saw him lecture once on how he came to write it. After an initial writer's block, he turned in a stunning screenplay, in which every scene has meaning. He even added some material which improved on the book, a rare enough event for Hollywood. For example, the final scene in which "Ahab beckons" adds a level of profundity to the proceedings, and is nicely set up by a scene back in port when the “prophet” Elisha foreshadows doom. Yet the men are not to be deterred, with Starbuck declaring at the final confrontation that they are whaling men and they shall hunt whales.

 

OK, in the end, they just about all end up dead. But they would have been dead by now anyway, and this way they accomplished great things. Better that than staying in safe port and saying "what might have been".

 

There have been a couple of other film versions of Moby Dick. One was a 1930 travesty in which Ahab not only kills the White Whale (!) but also comes home to marry his sweetheart. Gimme a break! Then there was the 1998 television movie with Patrick Stewart (of recent Star Trek: the Next Generation service). This version almost worked. Almost. But the script was kind of weak, the conflict between Ahab and Starbuck doesn't seem convincing, and we see some characters set up (such as a trio of mysterious harpooneers that Ahab recruits) who are never brought to life. Still, there are some impressive scenes, such as the crew of the Pequod using gunpowder to blast its way through the Antarctic ice pack in which their ship has become stuck. The great thing about this scene is that this is what men really did in those great days.

 

 

GETTYSBURG  

Forget about the generally bloodless battle sequences, this is a movie about men and how they relate to each other. Gettysburg is the Ted Turner production recreating the battle fought around the eponymous Pennsylvania town on three hot July days in 1863 that became a turning point of the American Civil War. What impressed me was how well the movie portrayed men, and often in quiet scenes:  generals, officers, enlisted, even the occasional civilian, sitting around the camp fire discussing the political and scientific issues of the day (secession, slavery, evolution). Some men are motivated by idealism, others by the crassest self-interests, and some are there simply to stand with their comrades. Yet all have their say, and there is a rough brotherhood about the whole affair. At one point, a foreign military observer asks a Confederate general who are the men of his division. The response is that they are everyone from the descendents of presidents down to Virginia swamp rats, but here they are all brothers. 

 

The movie is not without conflict, but the human dimension is far more interesting than the combat. In one scene, General R.E. Lee (Martin Sheen) confronts errant cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart (Joseph Fuqua) over the latter's delay in entering the battle (historically, Stuart had taken his horse troopers on a raid into the Federal rear and thus was absent from the opening of the fracas). Stewart at first blusters something about honor, then offers his resignation. Lee tells him that there is time for neither because action is needed and now. It's a good scene of men overcoming petty emotion and tackling the business at hand. Meanwhile at Little Round Top, Colonel Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) takes command and organizes a last ditch defense. There's no Hollywood heroics here--given the nature of Civil War battles, such idiocy would be out of place. Rather, what counts is maintaining an even keel in the midst of impending disaster, and thinking through to a solution. 

 

As for the battle sequences, they are well staged by Civil War re-enactors and everyone looks like they know what they are doing. Pickett's Charge, the suicidal Confederate attack against the center of the Federal line on the last day of the fighting, is shown (apparently) in real time. But  for one of the bloodiest days in American history, there seems to be little blood spilt on the filmed battlefield--though earlier we get a quick shot outside of a surgery with a wagon load of amputated limbs.

 

Overall, there is a good discussion of the grand tactics of the battle, so you understand why  things happened the way they did, as when Lee argues with the phlegmatic General Longstreet (Tom Berenger) about where and when to attack. You see how misperceptions, chance and hubris lead to the historical outcomes, as well as individuals who seize the initiative. At the end of the third day, Lee faces up to his first great defeat, and his moment of self-revelation ought to give all men pause for consideration.

 

I'll just wrap this up by observing that in Gettysburg  we see men, even in the midst of a battle, taking time to live. Would that we see more of that in these declining days.

 

ZULU

Michael Caine, Stanley Baker, and a company of British infantry take on the Zulu army in colonial Africa. It’s based on a true action during the 1879 Zulu War, the Defense of Rorke’s Drift, in which a hundred or so British soldiers defended a mission station against several thousand Zulu warriors fresh from their victory against another British army. But the movie is really a study of men who, regardless of race, face impossible obstacles, establish comradeship, and triumph.

 

Interestingly enough, the grandson of the real war's Zulu King Cteshwayo was a technical advisor on the movie and he recommended the ending in which the Zulus salute the British as fellow warriors. (By the way, Zulu Dawn was made some time later and covers the same war, though with an antiwar stance.)

 

 

THE SEARCHERS

John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter search the West for a girl kidnapped by Indians. Their journey takes us through many of the Western genres with many an original look at it all: hardy pioneer families, sweeping vistas, corrupt officials, hardfighting cavalrymen, and the Indian civilization that was both a fierce foe and yet perilously on the brink of coming to an end.

 

Director John Ford kept the story on an even keel, showing the brutalities of frontier life matter of factly, as well as the simple pleasures. Men (and women) have hard lives and make hard choices. To reiterate a point I make elsewhere, much of the journey that Wayne and Hunter make is internal. Their quest is not simply for a kidnapped relative but also to understand themselves, and each other.

 

 

KHARTOUM

There's a rather famous painting depicting the last moments of Charles "Chinese" Gordon confronting Mahdist forces in the governor's palace in Khartoum when the city fell to an assault in January of 1885. The painting and the story behind it used to be a favorite of English schoolboys, showing the epic moment of one man standing alone and triumphing even in defeat. Khartoum is a move which culminates with a depiction of this event. It stars Charlton Heston as the British officer-mystic whom London sent to the Sudan in 1884 to try to salvage something in the face of a holy war waged by the Mahdi, a charismatic Islamic rebel leader.

 

Khartoum  is what used to be called a "thinking man's epic." Historical events unfold in a somewhat plodding manner and there is a lot of verbiage. But there is also a lot of thought behind the character of Gordon who takes command of the besieged city of the title, brings order out of chaos, and then manipulates events such that even though he is surrounded in a city in the heart of the Sudan, he can still control events back in Britain.

 

Sir Laurence Olivier plays the Mahdi with complexity and refinement. One can see an austere man who nonetheless has a full understanding of the world beyond his horizons. Some people might object to an English actor as the Mahdi, but then again, the movie has an American actor playing Gordon! In any event, one of the Mahdi's descendents apparently saw the film and gave a nod of approval. There are a couple of scenes in the film where Gordon and the Mahdi meet. While ahistorical, they nonetheless show two great minds, two different outlooks on the world, confronting each other.

 

It might be useful to read a quick history of the Mahdist uprising to get a better sense of the campaign, though the movie outlines it quite well. Khartoum has some nice portrayals of figures such as Gladstone, Wolseley, the Khedive, and Kitchener, the latter who would go on to retake Khartoum thirteen years after it fell.

 

As I said, the direction is somewhat lackluster. The battle scenes are cut and dried, but in a sense they work because when it came down to it, battles in the era of European imperialism were cut and dried affairs. As is depicted on screen, disciplined European firepower could cut down the "natives", but then if the discipline or the firepower failed, the natives could overrun the line. In any event, the real battle in Khartoum is between the two great men--or perhaps of two great men and the lesser mortals who surround them.

 

 

GUNGA DIN

This movie turns on a scene where one of the heroes dumps his fiancée in order to go off on a mission with two fellow soldiers: a guy’s gotta do what a guy’s gotta do! Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Victor McLaglen, and Archibald Alexander Leach (aka Cary Grant) are sergeants in British colonial India who take on a Thugee revolt, search for hidden treasure, and somehow manage to save the Empire in their spare time.

 

Gunga Din was loosely inspired by the Rudyard Kipling poem and I am sure there are some who would find it not exactly politically correct. Still, even the “bad guy” gets in a great speech about devotion to one's beliefs. All good clean fun with plenty of guy stuff.

 

 

THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS

There’s a scene in here which made the entire movie for me.  Michael Douglas, playing the Great Lion Hunter, tells Val Kilmer, a British engineer building a railroad in 19th century Africa, that he will not do anything to cause his men to lose their respect for him. Instead of what might have turned into a brainless competition we get cooperation among men. And cooperate they must in order to hunt down and kill the two man-eating lions of the title. Ghost and the Darkness  is based on a true story during the building of the Tsavo River railroad bridge in 1898. A few elements were fictionalized, but overall it’s a good film on a traditional male activity—hunting predators.

 

I watched Ghost and the Darkness  again the other night. It gets better every time around. Some of the best parts are simply men sitting around the camp fire, talking about real things. Michael Douglas, who plays the hunter Remington, has a quiet strength to him as well as an understated sense of humor despite his outward wildman appearance (the first shot of him is not unlike a 19th century biker). Douglas plays well off of Kilmer's more aristocratic engineer. It's similar to the relationship between the two lieutenants in Zulu,  commonality among men regardless of their station. There's also a good relationship with the African crew boss. It's little moments like this that make this a movie for MRAs.

 

 

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA

A movie with no speaking roles for women and a hit with both critics and audiences? Lawrence of Arabia is one of the great war fliks, about the rise and fall of a hero, or anti-hero, take your pick. And the hero is Thomas E. Lawrence, a British intelligence officer who became one of the leaders of World War One’s Arab Revolt against the once mighty Ottoman Empire.

 

Peter O’Toole’s portrayal of Lawrence has been the subject of controversy. Critics have claimed the movie makes Lawrence look too effeminate, though this was a genuine attempt to show the close relationships between men which were the norm at the time. We do see a solid friendship develop between Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence and Omar Sharif’s character of Sherif Ali. And Lawrence has to make some hard moral choices. In one scene he stops a tribal civil war from breaking out by personally executing a man whose life he once saved and who has since turned murderer. There's a price to be paid for all that power.

 

There are a lot of interesting touches. One is the contrast between the Arab camel-borne raiders and the emerging mechanized warfare of the World War with its armored cars, machineguns, motorcycles and aeroplanes. As British artillery lights up the night skies, raining death on the Turks, Omar Sharif can only watch in awe and horror, commenting, "God help the men under that barrage"--even though they are the enemy.

 

Lawrence of Arabia is a long movie, and you can get “director’s cut” which includes several deleted scenes. Modern (i.e., post-MTV) audiences might find some of it a little too dragged out, especially a sequence where they cross the desert to attack the Turkish stronghold at Aqaba. And the combat scenes are deliberately shown without the usual Hollywood heroics, as either sweeping actions or horrendous bloodbaths. The movie explains the politics behind the fighting quite handily and you can see something of how we got to the current situation in the Middle East today from the desert battles fought almost a century ago. 

 

If Lawrence has a flaw, it's that it never quite explains what the military situation is, as opposed to the political. It’s a good idea to read up about the historical events of the Arab Revolt of 1916-18 if you want to follow what is going on in the movie. Or even read Lawrence’s own account, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”. If not, just sit back and enjoy.

 

 

THE BLUE MAX

I first saw The Blue Max as a kid when it was on TV. There was a line I remembered forever after. Towards the end of the movie, aristocrat Ursella Andress (the female sex bomb of her day) invites flying ace George Peppard to escape Germany's imminent defeat in the Great War by running away with her to Switzerland. Peppard contemptuously dismisses the offer by telling her he will not be one of her "lap dogs." He then goes on to live his life on his own terms.

 

Seeing this, I realized at even an early age that this was the essence of what is now known as men going their own way (MGTOW, to use MRA parlance). The fact that Peppard could turn down the uber-babe of his day rather than go for the usual happy-ever-after Hollywood romantic ending was a real victory for men everywhere. You did not need a woman to give your life meaning. That meaning was something you found on your own terms.

 

Oh yeah, the plot. It's 1918 and the Kaiser's Germany is preparing to launch one final offensive in France which Berlin hopes will win  the World War. Peppard is an infantryman who transfers to the new German air service where he aspires to win the Blue Max, slang for the Pour le Merite medal. The aeroplane is a new technology, scarcely a decade old, but already men are using it to ascend ever upwards--and downwards in flaming deaths. Peppard quickly and ruthlessly applies himself to winning said Blue Max, cutting a blazing swathe through enemy aerial opponents, competing against his squadron mates for top honors.

 

The Blue Max was something of a bold move for Hollywood at the time, since its protagonist was a German, though given the lapse of time since World War I ended it could be ancient history for all we know. In any event, the story is not about the German air service as much as it is about universal conditions that men must face, and the choices they make.

 

Peppard must face another challenge in James Mason's German  general out of the High Command. Mason sees the rising ace as useful in the propaganda war. Despite its military advances on the Western Front, Germany is disintegrating politically at home due to the endless casualty lists and Allied blockade. Flying aces must be promoted in the media as war heroes to keep revolution from breaking out amongst the civilians. Amidst the rubble, certain things must be preserved and it is Mason's duty to hold things together and look to the future, preserved for a better day.

 

(There's a nice scene where Peppard has a photo op in a military hospital. His nurse--actually the wife of his squadron commander--changes out of her bloodstained smock into a clean white one for the cameras. Outside his antiseptic hospital room the corridors are filled with wounded soldiers. Even in those early days the media disguised the havoc wrought amongst men.)

 

Peppard is chosen to fly the new monoplane fighter which, Mason hopes, will turn the tide of the war in the air, or kill its pilots trying.  It's within this context that Peppard must make the choice between running away with Andress for happy-ever-after, or following his true passion. In the end, Peppard finds freedom, flying the monoplane. Nope, The Blue Max  does not have the typical Hollywood happy ending...thankfully. But it is an ending men can understand once they have liberated themselves.

 

 

CHARIOTS OF FIRE

Ian Charleson and Ben Cross compete in the 1924 Paris Olympics sprinting event. On one level, this is a pretty trite story. The biggest challenge the men have to face is a scheduling snafu. However Chariots of Fire goes a lot deeper than the athletics. It's about men believing in what they believe in, and refusing to compromise their core values. In the process, they take on Cambridge, the Prince of Wales and each other. But the movie is not about conflict; everyone really is on the same side. 

 

Despite the movie's surface patriotism, the men are not sacrificing themselves for abstract ideals as expendable heroes. They are living their own lives to the fullest by running. The triumphs are small in the grand scheme of things, but that makes them all the more meaningful. Since the movie is set in the immediate aftermath of World War I, the pursuit of non-military goals is all the more significant. 

 

Ian Holm has a nice supporting role as a trainer who has been banned from the stadium, but who still revels in his protégé’s victory. The score by Vangelis became quite popular at the time, though it feels anachronistic for a film set in the 1920s and gives Chariots of Fire a sometimes surreal aura.

 

 

THE 39 STEPS (1935)

Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps  is something of a time machine, taking the viewer back to an era when people lived real lives. The story starts with a sequence that seems cliched these days but back in those early days of film perhaps appeared original: a man meets a femme fatale who gets herself murdered; he then goes on the run across 1930s Britain, chased both by the police and foreign spies--the former for a crime he did not commit, the latter because conspirators think he will reveal the secret of the 39 Steps. In the meantime, we get a look at how people lived their lives in the days before 500 channels of television, before political correctness, and when there were still places one could go in Britain which were not under the lens of the surveillance cameras.

 

The 39 Steps takes our man on the go, Richard Hannay (played by Robert Donat), from London music halls to the bleak Scottish countryside, onto trains, and through election rallies. There's a nice bit where he is mistaken for a political candidate and makes a rousing speech about the importance of living in a country where you do not have to be under suspicion all the time. Perhaps this was Hitchcock's commentary on the world of the 1930s, caught between extremes of communism, economic depression, and the stirrings of what would become World War II. Yet it still resounds today.  Hannay can be seen as an everyman seeking for the truth which will free him. And he does so in a world where people, as noted lived real lives instead of being entranced by the spectacle of television and multi-million dollar election campaigns.

 

Hitchcock catches the grittiness of the era. In one sequence set on a train, you can just about smell the sulfur smoke of burning coal. Yet there's still room for some good natured humor with lingerie salesmen discussing their (under)wares. Along the way, Hannay gets handcuffed to a female, adding some screwball comedy to the incipient film noir. Through it all, Hitchcock propels the movie through scenes so quickly that the viewer, like Hannay, barely has time to realize what happened, though it all makes sense in the end.

 

And there's the picture of the people of the era, outspoken, lively, determined, this despite the after effects of the Great War and Great Depression. It's all kind of inspirational and makes you wonder what happened since then.

 

 

RKO 281

RKO 281 is a movie about a movie. It's about the clash between Orson Welles and William Randolph Hearst over the former making a film about the life of the latter--the film that would become Citizen Kane. We get to see two titans of the 1930s clash. Hearst did not want his life turned into public entertainment (an odd thing for someone who made an empire out of the popular media of his day, newspapers). Welles, who was the rising uberkind of his day, was determined to redefine the science of motion picture making.

 

RKO 281 was a HBO production, filmed mostly in London, oddly enough. Welles is played by Liev Schreiber and Hearst by James Cromwell. Welles' writer-collaborator, Herman Mankiewicz,  is John Malkovich, while Hearst's mistress, Marion Davies, is played by Melanie Griffith. And she sticks with her man, refusing to bail out on Hearst even when his world starts to disintegrate around the both of them. They have a solid relationship which weathers the storm.

If RKO 281 has any flaw, it is that it is just too short. I think we'd all liked to have seen more of the details of the actual making of the movie within the movie.  In the end, of course, Welles made his mark with Citizen Kane, but as RKO 281 sagely observes, winning the battle is not necessarilly the same as winning the war.

 

 

INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE

There’s some good stuff in here for men. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and his relation with his father (Sean Connery); a female villain who gets her comeuppance with poetic justice; and a closing scene in which the four men heroes ride off into the sunset.

 

The movie is a modern quest for the Holy Grail. Men do manly stuff, but most importantly, Indiana keeps his eyes on the quest. He is willing to give up something very important at the end of the movie rather than allow it drag him to his doom–unlike the female lead/villain who allows her own greed to consume her.

 

And yeah, a lot of this comes off as adolescent male fantasy, but hey, it’s all in the spirit of the “No Girls Allowed” sign in the treehouse!

 

 

THE MALTESE FALCON

Gumshoe Sam Spade takes on a host of sleazy characters in the film that defined the noir genre. They're all on the trail of the McGuffin of the title, and the bodies start dropping like raindrops on a San Francisco street. Humphrey Bogart's detective Spade is a hard case who, while tempted by Mary Astor's femme fatale, in the end makes her take the fall. He'd rather avenge his partner and buddy, Miles Archer.

 

 

RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP

Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster are officers on a US Navy submarine involved in a deadly game of cat and mouse with the Imperial Japanese Navy in WW2--and with each other. The movie is really about how men face up to and solve problems. The solution is not in out-killing the enemy, but in out-thinking the situation.

 

Gable and Lancaster each have different command styles: one is aristocratic, the other popular. Yet they find they have to work together to take on a wily enemy warship which is sinking US subs. They also have to gain the respect of their men the hard way, by earning it. And they triumph in a neat twist of an ending.

 

Among other things, Run Silent, Run Deep gives a gritty realistic depiction of life on a submarine on wartime patrol. The crew members do look a little older than you'd expect, and include a non-wisecracking Don Rickles.

 

 

TOBRUK

I first saw this on the big screen when I was a kid. I always liked it. At the time perhaps I did not know why. I do now. Let me digress.

 

The movie is based on an actual British commando raid against the Axis held port of Tobruk in Libya in 1942.  Torbuk was the main supply depot for Rommel's Panzerarmee Afrika (the former Afrika Korps).  By taking out the port's fuel storage bunkers, the British figured they could stop Rommel's advance on Alexandria.

 

Tobruk the movie stars Rock Hudson, Nigel Greene, George Peppard and Guy Stockwell as well as the tanks of the California National Guard dressed up to look like panzers, sort of. Normally, I do not think too much of "commando" type movies since they present a ridiculous view of special operations: an invinciple protagonist who slaughters dozens of his fellow men while barely breaking a sweat. Yep. But Tobruk  works on a different level. It's about men solving problems using their experience and their brains. At one point in the film, the commandos' desert vehicle column is faced with crossing a minefield. Hudson's character gets them through it, and how he does it is quite fascinating. Then there is some skullduggery. And some friendly fire. It's all set across a desert environment which makes the commandos seem to be isolated on a strange and hostile planet. But they make it through to their objective in the end. At which point the movie degenerates into the usual fireworks, but what the heck, it's what the ticket paid for.

 

I happened to watch Tobruk again the other night on a very deteriorated VHS tape.  The movie itself holds up rather well, even as drama. The major characters all have their conflicts with each other, and while they could be cliche, they come across quite realistically, perhaps because they represent real issues which transcend a war flik: Rock Hudson's quasi-pacifist commando versus Nigel Green's disciplinarian colonel versus George Peppard's proto-nationalist. Each represents a different approach to that perennial war movie problem of "getting the job done." In the end, the three men come to respect each other, a not bad thing.

 

Another thing that was interesting was the grittiness of the movie. The soldiers look like they have been in the field, with dirt encrusted uniforms and unshaven mugs. And even though the armored vehicles were mainly Cold War era tanks substituting for panzers, I appreciated their reality--the real clouds of dust they threw up, the sense of impending menace. No blue screens or CGI to give that cast of thousands, though I did perhaps spot a matte painting or two in the background. Even the explosion filled ending was something of a marvel as you could see the actors reacting to what are, apparently, real fireballs.

 

Shows you what we have lost in these days of high-tech movie making.

 

SANDS OF IWO JIMA

This film inspired more people to join the US Marine Corps than anything else...John Wayne leads a Marine squad at Tarawa and Iwo Jima, two of the biggest bloodbaths of the Pacific War. It's a tough look at how men fight, die and win.

 

The combat scenes are not glamorized Hollywood style. As Wayne's squad's landing craft approaches Tarawa during the amphibious assault, one of the marines comments that the pre-landing air and naval bombardment should have finished off the Japanese defenders. The other marines reply with grim silence, knowing that one of the hardest fights of the Pacific Theater of Operations is going to follow once they hit the beach. You see the combat from the infantryman's point of view. The marines land, take cover against murderous enemy fire, smoke a cigarette, move inland, storm a pillbox, and afterwards someone tells the survivors the battle's been won. There's no pushover enemy here, Wayne's men are informed they are up against Japan's best.

 

Afterwards, it's home for a brief period of furlough. Then it's on to Iwo Jima and the assault on Mount Suribachi, covered in volcanic ash and bullets.

 

The ending is a classic.

 

 

...and now for another view of the War in the Pacific...

 

 

THE THIN RED LINE (1998)

If you let the camera run long enough, you'll eventually come up with something good. It sounds cliche, but that is what Terrence Malick's version of James Jones' World War II classic novel does. Supposedly, the original cut of the film was six hours, but it was worked down to 170 minutes for theatrical release. And, admittedly, this can be a difficult film to approach. (Let me note there was an earlier attempt at filming this back in 1964 which took a more literal approach to the novel, though given its length, any conventional approach is bound to be limited.)

 

On first view, The Thin Red Line comes across as a somewhat disjointed war movie. A US Army infantry company lands on Guadalcanal, attacks a hill, takes it, the movie wanders off with characters making observations about the war, and then there is a final patrol with one of the central characters getting killed. It's as if it has a very long first act, a short middle, and a somewhat abrupt wrap up.

 

But upon seeing The Thin Red Line multiple times, the structure of the film falls into place. The movie's "real" level is not taking place in the South Pacific. Rather, it is a commentary on life, nature, and man's place in the universe. Viewers have to free themselves of the conventional view (unfortunately, The Thin Red Line came out about the same time as Saving Private Ryan,  a much more conventional -- while brutally real -- war film, and thus suffers from comparisons with Spielberg's opus).

 

Some of Thin Red Line's  message is pretty obvious. It starts off with Private Witt (James Caviezel) living in an Eden-like paradise on an island in the South Pacific, circa 1942. The US Army catches up with him in the form of Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn) who gets him back into the war. The Fall of Man and all that sort of thing. (By the way, the movie more or less keeps with the convention of the novel in giving the soldiers one syllable names, for the most part, as if they are call signs in military commo). The assault on the hill follows in grim detail. Yet through it all, moments of humanity emerge.

 

Penn plays Welsh just right (and much differently from the psycho sergeant of the book) -- as a young man prematurely aged by the burdens of reality. Indeed, the soldiers all seem to be reminiscent of Tom Lea's painting, The Two Thousand Yard Stare . Yet at the same time, they have a dignity all their own. Much of it is in subtle reaction shots which communicate more than mere words could ever do. Some of it is also in compassion among men. We see Welsh take a frightened soldier out of front line duty in part out of sympathy for him, in part to keep the attack moving forward. It's all part of the film's underlying conflict. When Witt asks where the "evil" comes from, he goes beyond the battle he is swept up in or even the petty struggles of humanity, instead examining the concept of nature at war with itself, the yin and yang of it all.

 

Much of the movie is in the voiceovers. Generally, these do not work in movies, but here we have men reflecting on life. Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) has to face up to his own failures as an officer. He tries to overcome them by ordering Charlie Company to make a suicidal attack up that hill. But the company commander, Captain Staros (Elias Koteas) refuses to send his men to their death (and compare this to the suicidal triple attack which ended the movie Gallipoli). Tall comes forward, relieves Staros, yet then shows some real leadership by explaining to the men what is at stake and adopting a new battle plan. The hill is taken, prisoners are captured (somewhat inconguously, one Japanese soldier is sitting on a prayer mat, chanting, as his position is overrun, but I think we get the point). One sequence that struck me was when one soldier uses pliers to extract gold teeth from corpses. Barbarous, no doubt. Yet later in a rainstorm he regrets his actions, the falling waters no doubt symbolic of tears and washing away of sins. Truly there is redemption in this universe, if only after descending to the depths.  

 

Another poignant sequence is with Private Bell. He's a former officer who resigned his commission so as to be able to stay with his loving wife...before being drafted into the infantry. There are what seem to be a lot of pointless scenes where he is flashing back to their halcyon days together. But it's all a set up for her betrayal of him. She sends the proverbial Dear John letter, and his reaction is truly tragic. In this world, women are not to be trusted, only the brotherhood of men.

 

Meantime, Witt returns to a native village only to find his delusions shattered, that the noble savages too manifest the same conflicts writ large by the war. Eden has fallen, if it ever existed. He realizes the answer is not in escaping the reality nature creates but rather in confronting it.

 

In the final act, one of the characters leads a patrol into enemy lines. He ends up sacrificing himself to ensure the survival of the rest of his company...or does he? Upon multiple viewings, the scene is not...repeat NOT...the usual men-are-expendable idiocy which infests too many war movie. Rather, it is saying that we all face death in the end, and we need to face it calmly and on our own terms. And on closer examination, we see that the character chooses  the moment of his own death when he has the opportunity to surrender. He has lived life to the fullest. You can interpret it as his enlightenment. Or simply choosing death to loss of freedom. This more than anything else is a direct rebuff to the idea that men are to be so much cannon fodder for society.

 

Witt tells us early on in the film that a man can create his own world and on his own terms. Welsh, the cynic, later comes to understand Witt's point of view, how society wants you to believe its lie, or die. But in understanding the lie, one can liberate oneself...something for men to think about.

 

Some more comments on The Thin Red Line at:  http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol6-2002/n48critchley

 

 

THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY

 In William Bradford Huie's novel from which this movie was adapted, to be "Americanized" meant for a British woman to have sex with an American serviceman. Well, the movie The Americanization of Emily  was made in the early 1960s when the Code was still somewhat in effect, so this meaning is not stated explicitly. The one time that the word is used is when very British Julie Andrews tells US Navy officer James Garner that she has been Americanized, which seems to imply that she now values Hershey bars or something to that effect.

 

Anyway, I am adding in The Americanization of Emily because it is a truly unique film insofar as it has Lt. Commander Charles Madison (played with the usual comedy-drama style of James Garner) calling into question a lot of the cliches. It's the spring of 1944 and D-Day, the Allied invasion of France, is rapidly approaching. Madison's job is dog-robber to a US Navy admiral. Being a dog-robber means you procure the finest foods, the fanciest accommodations and the classiest female companions for the high command—while not forgetting to take your cut. Then Madison runs into (what else?) a woman, the eponymous Emily Barham (played by the usual stiff-upper-lip Julie Andrews). The movie then proceeds to turn all the cliches on their head. And you begin to realize that this is not about World War II in particular, or war in general, but rather the existential dilemmas which men face. 

 

Obviously, this is not a rah-rah war movie—coming out, as it did, a couple years after The Longest Day, it serves as a counterpoint to the bloodless heroics of that film (compare The Longest Day’s sanitized depiction of D-Day with Saving Private Ryan’s  bloodbath on Omaha Beach). Yet The Americanization of Emily is not another cheap-shot antiwar flik. You know the one, where the chorus sings, "Oh boo hoo, isn't war terrible" all to a background of dismembered cherubs while audiences nod their heads and chant “Isn’t war awful” (repeat endlessly).  Instead, The Americanization of Emily carves out some new territory.

 

Charlie Madison has a philosophy: he is a coward. That's right, he refuses to do what a man's gotta do. In one of the more stunning scenes of the movie he states that the "good war" was the result of 2,000 years of European greed, barbarism, superstition, and stupidity.  In another scene, he cruelly shatters the illusions of Emily’s mother as she is prattling on about wartime heroics. The truth must be told. And part of that truth is that Charlie has no desire to be part of a heroic band of brothers making the ultimate sacrifice; he just wants to live out his own life, not being enslaved by such terms as "duty" and "honor."

 

Selfish? Charlie would agree. Cowardly? Charlie is a militant coward. It's the calls for duty and honor which force men in particular and people in general to take the path of  self-destruction. Look at how men are expected to not only sacrifice their freedoms by being conscripted for war (as opposed to volunteering), or to support families they will never see, or by supporting female interests over their own.

 

Of course, the movie’s events conspire to push Charlie to his inevitable destiny on June 6th 1944.  His admiral decides that Commander Madison will take a camera crew in to film the first casualty on the Normandy beaches, thereby ensuring the US Navy’s postwar budget. Charlie protests but then finds he is boxed in. Once he has declared his love for Emily, he needs to survive the war. Women will do it to men every time, won’t they? But then again, Charlie did it to himself by failing to go-his-own-way. In the end, he finds he has to make a critical choice based on his principles. Still, the movie is worth watching because it provides some philosophical basis for men breaking free.

 

Incidentally, the Huei novel on which the movie was based is well worth reading. It does not have the stuff about militant cowardice, but it is an interesting satire of wartime Britain, with some serious commentary on the political naivete of many of America's leaders during World War II. As with many other World War II era novels, it also presents a sexually charged world in comparison to the usually sanitized picture which emerged from the films of those years.

 

 

THE GREAT ESCAPE

This is, as they say, based on a true story: the escape of Allied prisoners of war from a German PoW camp in 1944. The movie gathered some of the great actors of the time -- Richard Attenborough, Steve McQueen, James Garner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn (with an Australian accent, no less!), Donald Pleasance, and a host of others -- puts them in an impossible situation, and then lets them go to work. They organize, they specialize, they get the job done. The result = freedom.

 

The movie Great Escape fictionalized the historical characters, but the central story is true. It really is a fascinating look at how men get things done. There's no victimization here. The men are too busy accomplishing great things. The processes of the "escape" are riveting: not simply digging the tunnels, but also the logistics and intelligence work. 

 

There's some cat-and-mouse in terms of outmaneuvering the Germans, but it's more of an intellectual battle than the usual action movie shoot-em-up. A lot of The Great Escape's interest is in how to out-think the foe. It shows that no matter how desperate the situation, as long as people can use their minds they can triumph. And oh yes, Steve McQueen did his motorcycle thing in one of the great iconic film sequences of all times. And while McQueen's character may end up in the "cooler", he is a free man.

 

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George Harsh, an American who participated in the real Great Escape, said in his introduction to Paul Brickhill's book: "It ... proves something that I believed then and know now -- there is nothing that can stop a group of men, regardless of race, creed, color, or nationality, from achieving a goal once they agree as to what that goal is. The aftermath may be sheer, stark tragedy -- that lies with the gods -- but the point is, men working together can accomplish anything . . . "