Saturday, January 24, 2015

CRACKER? Casualties of War (1989)

                “Casualties of War” is Brian De Palma’s entry into the Vietnam War movies competition.  It was based on an actual incident known as “the incident on Hill 192” which occurred in 1966.  De Palma wanted to make the movie after reading Daniel Lang’s article in The New Yorker in 1969.  Lang later turned the article into a book entitled “Casualties of War”.  The movie was filmed in Thailand where the local cuisine ravaged the cast.  The bridge used in the climactic scene was part of the Japanese Burma railway system of River Kwai fame.  The budget was $22 million and the box office was $19 million.  The movie was a hit with most critics and is considered by some to be one of the better Vietnam War films.

                The movie opens with a night patrol in which PFC Max Eriksson (Michael J. Fox) falls partly into a Viet Cong tunnel and has his about-to-be-stabbed life saved by his Sgt. Meserve (Sean Penn).  Eriksson is a cherry who wants to be friendly with the Vietnamese civilians in spite of what the veterans tell him.  Their point of view seems to be confirmed when Meserve’s best friend “Brownie” is killed when a farmer throws a grenade while the squad is relaxing near a “friendly” village.  Back at base camp, Meserve outlines a mission to scout a Viet Cong camp.  He proposes they make a side trip to a village to acquire a Vietnamese girl as a sex slave.  Eriksson is not on board for this, but the other members of the squad go along with it. Clark (Don Patrick Harvey) is Meserve’s henchman.  He is a bitter ass hole who hates “gooks”.  Hitch (John C. Reilly) is a hick who is easily manipulated. Diaz (John Leguizamo) is a new addition who just wants to get along. 

You wanna become a movie star youse
gotta learn to chew the scenery
                They kidnap a girl and take her with them.  They set up in an abandoned hootch and proceed to rape her.  Each takes a turn with Diaz participating due to peer pressure, but Eriksson refusing in spite of threats from Meserve and Clark.  The next day they locate the Viet Cong camp and set up an observation post to call in an air strike and a gun boat.  Meserve decides the girl must be killed.  The resulting atrocity leads to Ericksson bringing charges against the other members of the squad.  A court-martial results.

Thuy and Fox react to Penn's performance
                 Michael J. Fox does an outstanding job playing the naïve, moralistic Eriksson.  It is his best performance in my opinion.   John C. Reilly (his first film), Don Patrick Harvey (playing his usual typecast bad guy), and John Leguizama (his second role) are solid. Thuy Thu Le is remarkable as the doomed Oanh (it was her only acting credit). Plus we get the bonus of Dale Dye in a fiery take on ass-covering brass. The only problem is the scene-chewing of Sean Penn as Sgt. Meserve. The performance has been praised, but not by me. His hammy portrayal of the villain is distracting.  (See the poster.)  He plays Meserve as a retarded bully and made the “actor” decision to vocalize him as such.  Oscar please!  Imagine a movie where he is the weak link in a cast with three comedians in their first substantial dramatic roles. His emoting of faux grunt slang is the worst thing about the movie.  At one point he spouts the familiar “this is for fighting, this is for fun” but gets the hand gestures backwards!  This is typical of a script that seems to throw in grunt slang to establish realism, but comes off as trying too hard and has Hollywood actors mouthing words they obviously don’t understand.  Meserve refers to an enemy ambush as a “mad minute”, for instance.  (For those not familiar with Vietnam War slang, a "mad minute" was when an American unit fired all its weapons into the bush for a minute.)  More bizarrely, when they locate the enemy camp Hitch proclaims “there’s a bunch of them cruel-hearted little people.”  Huh?

Penn dreaming of his Oscar
                Although the soldier talk is lame, the rest of the script is powerful and the movie tells a story that needed to be told.  In fact, the story was so powerful that the movie could not have been made until well after the war.  De Palma adds some military justice to combat to produce a movie that is similar to “Paths of Glory” in that respect.  It is not in a league with that classic, but it does tell a true story well.  The cinematography is what you would expect from De Palma.  He uses deep focus, odd angles, and off center shots.  The rape scene is especially well done as a stationary camera from mid distance gives the outside looking in perspective.  The music is orchestral with a lot of pan flute and surprisingly no Vietnam era tunes.

Dale Dye:  Look here Fox - you can not carry
a blow up mattress on a patrol! 
 The movie does not avoid some common Vietnam movie clichés.  We get the required death of the clueless cherry and the authorities trying to cover up the atrocity.  One of the unit is looking forward to going home soon when he is killed.  The movie would have seemed even more clichéd if it wasn’t based on a true story.  The movie does track the book fairly well until the obligatory Hollywood insistence on a big set piece battle to satisfy combat junkies.  The enhancements are acceptable because the movie does bring to the screen a story that needed to be told.  The Eriksson character was a real hero even though he does not fit the usual war movie template of killing the enemy in heroic ways.  In a war like Vietnam, more should be made of the heroism of the soldiers who did not succumb to the corruption of that war.  Unfortunately, although De Palma obviously was trying to make a statement about that corruption, he dilutes his message by not adding a post-script about the Army’s wrist-slapping handling of the war crime.

Is it going to crack my 100 Best War Movies?  Probably not.  It is a must see movie and well done, but it is only in the middle of the pack of Vietnam War movies.


the trailer
Thuy Thu Le > Sean Penn

Sunday, January 18, 2015

NOW SHOWING: American Sniper

                “American Sniper” is based on the best seller by Chris Kyle which is the autobiography of the “most lethal sniper in U.S. Military History”.  Kyle served four tours in Iraq from 2003-2009 and had 160 confirmed kills.  The movie was directed by Clint Eastwood after Steven Spielberg considered doing it.  The Iraq scenes were filmed in Morocco and if you look carefully you will recognize a setting used in “Black Hawk Down”.  The movie is doing well at the box office and has received six Academy Award nominations:  Best Picture (but not director), Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing.  Bradley Cooper gained forty pounds for his role as Kyle by consuming 8,000 calories a day.

                The movie opens with the beefy hunk on sniper overlook from a roof top as a Marine patrol moves through the rubble of an Iraqi town.  He has to make a decision as a mother and her son approach the patrol with what looks like a Russian grenade.  Suddenly we flash back to Kyle as a child being preached to by his father.  Mr. Kyle tells his son there are three types of men:  the sheep, the wolves, and the sheep dogs.  Be a sheep dog and protect the sheep.  It takes a while for this to kick in as Kyle became a rodeo rider until a cuckolding and the embassy bombings in Africa causes him to enlist in the Navy SEALs.  SEAL training montage.  Their drill instructors are as taunt-creative as some of their best cinematic brethren.  Kyle meets his future wife Taya (Sienna Miller) in a bar and they would have lived happily ever after except for 9/11 which gives him the chance to do that sheep dog thing.  The movie now returns to the opening scene and we get to find out whether he shot the kid and mom.

                The rest of the film covers Kyle’s four tours and his awkward interludes at home.  Taya has two kids and would prefer he stay home and take care of his own sheep.  She is the classic whiny military wife who hates her country apparently.  Kyle is the classic war movie husband who lives by the war movie maxim:  bros before hoes.  In the Iraq scenes, we are made aware that Kyle is very good at his craft and soon his comrades are calling him “The Legend”.  Every white hat needs a black hat and Kyle gets his in an Iraqi sniper referred to as “Mustafa”.  Cue the sniper duel as every sniper movie fan knows that two is better than one.  A movie made by an arch-conservative also needs a hissable villain to bring a face to the ‘’savages”, as the Iraqi insurgents are called.  Kyle and his team of not Bradley Coopers are tasked to eliminate Al Zarkawi’s second in command “the Butcher”.  He may be second in command, but he is first in torturing.  The Butcher’s weapon of choice is a power drill!  (And all we did was water-boarding.)   The cat and mouse with the Butcher and the sniper duel coincide.  Along the way, a SEAL with little knowledge of war movie clichés talks about the ring he has bought for his impending proposal.  Guess who gets shot?  The movie builds to an Alamo reenactment in a sand storm.  “The fog of war” becomes “the sand storm of war”.  Credit Eastwood with a unique take on the “last stand” trope. 

                “American Sniper” is well made entertainment for the masses.  Eastwood uses his usual spare story-telling style and the movie has an Old School feel to it.  When the Kyle’s get frisky, they go in the bedroom and close the door behind them.  The movie is also unabashedly patriotic and supportive of the war in Iraq.  Eastwood inserts some support for religion (our religion) although he does not bludgeon us with it.  The cinematography is no frills with none of the hand held frenetics that mark most modern war films.  The sniper kills are visceral, but Eastwood does not indulge in sniper porn like most in the sniper subgenre.  We only see a few of Kyle’s 160 kills.  The movie was not made for 14 year old boys.  But unfortunately, it was made for main stream adults.  This means that it oversimplifies the themes for popular consumption.  Kyle chooses country over family, but eventually gets both.   Every return home develops the PTSD theme, but Kyle’s recovery is much too pat.  This does a disservice to the men who Kyle helped after he gave up the game.

                The movie is very well acted by the cast of Bradley Cooper.  I think there were some other actors in the movie.  There must have been.  To give you an idea of how Cooper dominates the movie and no one else is able to develop, there is an early scene that proposes that Kyle overlook an operation.  When the soldiers are going to go out of sight, Kyle (Cooper) disobeys orders and leads the ingress and personally interrogates the suspect and gets him to collaborate.  And by the way, why waste screen time on Kyle having a spotter to bond with?  The movie has virtually no scenes without Cooper in them.  I wonder why so many women are going see a war movie?

                The movie has given a big boost to the sales of the book.  This is partly I would think due to the fact that people like me come out of the theater wondering whether some of the key plot points are bull shit.  I plan to read the book and do a “History or Hollywood” post on it in the future, but for now I will say that it is fairly accurate.  Some of the things I thought were very likely Hollywood turned out to be artistic license.  For instance, the reason for his enlistment was different.  There was no boy involved in the Russian grenade incident.  There was a Butcher type figure in Iraq, but Kyle was not involved in a hunt for him.  Needless to say, there was no sniper duel.  I questioned the ability of a serviceman in Iraq to call his wife while on a mission and found that he actually did call

                 Taya while waiting for targets and once was interrupted, resulting in her listening to the noises of a fire fight and it was a traumatic experience as depicted in the movie.  However, the call where he tells her he is coming home never occurred.  On a minor note (but symbolic of how hero movies work), the movie ups the insurgent bounty on Kyle to $180,000 compared to the actual unimpressive $20,000 for any sniper.  On the other hand, the movie does get some things right.  This is especially true of the marriage dynamics and the PTSD (but not the resolution).

                I may have come off too harsh on a war movie that is competently done and tells the story of a true American hero.  It advances its themes well and the combat scenes are among the best in recent war films.  They are edge of the seat and nicely unpredictable.  Cooper deserved the Oscar nomination and the movie should be titled “Bradley Cooper’s American Sniper”.  Considering the paucity of war movies, it is a good addition to the genre.  It makes a good companion to “Lone Survivor” and shows that there are some good movies being made about our two most recent wars.  Maybe some people will become aware that we did fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

NOVELLA / MOVIE: The Duellists (1977)


            En garde!  “The Duellists” was director Ridley Scott’s (“Black Hawk Down”) feature film debut.  He started strong as the movie won the Best Debut Film award at Cannes.  Scott was tired of doing commercials and had to actively pursue the project.  He was given a budget of under $1 million and a choice of four actors for the leads.  He chose Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel.   Keitel was available after Coppola dumped him from “Apocalypse Now”.  Carradine almost became unavailable due to his surprise #1 hit “I’m Easy”.  The  movie was based on Joseph Conrad’s novella “The Duel” which itself was based on two French officers who conducted a series of duels over decades.

            The movie opens in Strasbourg in 1800.  A French Hussar named Feraud (Keitel) skewers the mayor’s nephew in a duel.  The French general sends a staff officer named d’Hubert (Carradine) to inform Feraud that he is confined to quarters.  He catches Feraud at the wrong time and place which causes Feraud to challenge him to a duel.  Hey, don’t stab the messenger!  The movies second duel in ten minutes ends with d’Hubert victorious and thinking that’s the last time he will have to interact with this mad man.  “He is most unreasonable” will turn out to be the understatement of the Napoleonic War.  Speaking of unreasonable, when he returns to headquarters the general is upset with him.  It is unclear why – must be some French thing.

            Six months later the two meet up in Augsberg.  Their second duel features d’Hubert calling time out to sneeze.  It ends unsatisfactorily.  The third is down and dirty with heavy sabers.  The fourth is in Lubeck in 1806.  This one is on horseback and is a joust equivalent of a duel.  Tres cool.  d’Hubert manages to stay out of Feraud’s path for the next six years until they are both in the detritus of the retreat from Moscow.  Even though they are freezing, duel #5 is on until interrupted by Cossacks.  Spoil sports!  After the exile of Napoleon, d’Hubert retires to a country estate and weds.  End of story, right?  Wrong.  There are still some unresolved issues as far as Feraud is concerned.  Plus we in the audience demand closure!

            This is a very interesting movie.  And why wouldn’t it be when it is based on such an insane story.  Conrad based his novella on the real life adventures of two French officers named Dupont and Fournier.  The series of 30 duels over nineteen years began in 1794 under similar circumstances to what is shown in the movie.  The last one also ended similar to in the movie.  Scott takes the fascinating story and adds excellent attention to detail.  The sets are authentic to the time period and are reminiscent of “Barry Lyndon”.  The uniforms and weapons are spot on for the Napoleonic army.    And we see a variety of weapons in the dueling scenes.  They are all authentic and in some cases quite valuable.  When Keitel insisted on tossing his last dueling pistol, Scott had to make sure it landed on a mattress.  Scott is careful not to be repetitive in the duels.  Most importantly, although you won’t learn much about the Napoleonic Wars from this movie (with the exception of the Moscow retreat scene which will have you cuddling under a blanket), you will be steeped in the minutiae of dueling etiquette.  For instance, years pass by because d’Hubert has been promoted above Feraud and only equal ranks could duel.

I’m not sure if Scott was shooting for the big takeaway that their concept of honor was ridiculous, but the movie seems to push that idea.  Feraud is border line insane and d’Hubert may be worse because he realizes how insane things are, but risks his deserved happiness on these points of honor.  The duels are used as a metaphor for war.  By the end of the movie, Feraud can not even remember what started the feud.

The movie is essentially a two character affair.  Feraud is one of the great war movie villains and Keitel inhabits the part.  You get the distinct impression that he must have been an ass during the filming.  Carradine does some of his best work in a weaker part.  d’Hubert is too good to be true.  He has no flaws.  Although an extremely likeable character, the movie could have used a little less holiness.  This comes to an unrealistic head when d’Hubert prevents the execution of the man he most despises.  He also unnecessarily risks his future happiness to fight the last duel.  This does fit the age-old trope that military men will chose their profession over family.

            If you like duels, this movie is for you.  It has quantity and quality.  It also has two fascinating characters and a story that flows from start to finish.  It is definitely one of the 100 best war movies ever made.


            Don’t read this if you have not watched the movie.  The movie parallels the novella admirably.  The story does not open with the duel between Feraud and the mayor’s son.  The initial meeting between the two protagonists is from the story.  d’Hubert’s reaming by the general comes after their second duel.  He is understanding of the situation, but still forbids d’Hubert to duel any more.  The second duel, which is brief in the movie, lasts a bit longer in the story.  The third and fourth duels are very similar to the ones in the story.  In the story, the encounter during the retreat from Moscow occurred when both men were cut off from their unit and had to open fire on some Cossacks.  They had not been planning to duel.  The climactic duel is much more complicated in the short story.  They start on opposite ends of the forest.  d’Hubert deliberately exposes himself to a long shot which misses.  He lies on the ground pretending to be hit.  When Feraud comes up he surprises d’Hubert who leaps up, but Feraud misses with his last shot.  d’Hubert refuses to kill him.  He returns to his fiancé Adele who is waiting, thus proving she loves him.  Later, d’Hubert writes a letter of reconciliation, but Feraud remains an ass.

Movie  =  A-
Novella  =  B+

Friday, January 9, 2015



          I love to read about war and hope to find some kindred spirits.  For several years I have participated in my friend Caroline's readalong at "Beauty is a Sleeping Cat".  She is scaling back so I have decided to host a readalong of short war stories.  I would like to thank the web site "Short Story Archive" for providing an outstanding list of titles that are easily available on the Internet.  We will do one per month.  At the end of the month I will offer my thoughts on the selection and hope to hear from you.
     Here is the complete list:
     So first up is "The Aviator".  Join in and chime in!