Friday, October 24, 2014

CRACKER? Cast a Giant Shadow (1966)

                “Cast a Giant Shadow” is a pro-Israel movie released in 1966.  Hollywood was looking for a way to put America into the heroic story of Israel’s founding.  It found an opening with the tale of an American soldier named David “Mickey” Marcus.  The movie is based on fact.  “The major events actually happened…. The major characters actually lived.”  Take that with a grain of salt.
                Around Christmas time in 1947, Marcus (Kirk Douglas) is recruited by an Israeli to help train the new Israeli army called the Haganah.  Although Marcus insists he’s an American, he decides to go.  It will not be the first time he abandons his long-suffering wife (Angie Dickinson).  She is used to playing second fiddle to war.  Marcus led paratroopers in WWII Europe.  The movie flashes back to liberation of the Dachau concentration camp just in case you forgot what the Jews had gone through.
                When Marcus arrives in Israel, it is under attack from several Arab nations.  He is transported in an armored bus through an Arab occupied town.  He is chaperoned by a sexy Jewess named Magda (Senta Berger) who is married, but open to flirting.  They visit an Arab chieftain who is entertained by a belly dancer to contrast to the Jews who are constantly engaged in communal singing and dancing.  Marcus is viewed with suspicion by his new comrades until he helps rescue refugees coming in by ship and participates in a lame attack against a Syrian supply depot.  Is it possible to have too many explosions?  Yes.  One positive development is Magda’s husband is killed, so end of that complication.  The relationship develops as Marcus rescues Magda from an ambush.  Unfortunately, Kirk Douglas cannot rescue Senta Berger from being a really bad actress.  Marcus has to leave her when she needs him because his needy wife has had a miscarriage. 
                When Marcus returns he brings a mercenary pilot named Vince (Frank Sinatra) to be the Israeli air force.  When Egyptian tanks attack a kibbutz, Vince flies a Piper Cub and drops seltzer bottles on the Egyptian soldiers causing them to panic.  This is followed by a jeep attack which uses feigned retreat to lure the tanks into an ambush by anti-tank guns.  Marcus is promoted to be the first Israeli general and put in charge of the relief of besieged Jerusalem.  A failed attack on a fortress blocking the road to the city is fairly well-staged and enhanced by flame-throwers.  Marcus then decides to build a road around the fortress.  Teamwork.  And communal singing and dancing ensue.
                The film is a pretty good tutorial on the founding of Israel.  Naturally it is very pro-Israel, but it does not make up the basics.  Marcus did have a background with the paratroopers in WWII, but his role was enhanced for the movie.  During WWII he was a valuable member of Civil Affairs and helped with several key negotiations including the surrender of Italy.  He did parachute into Normandy and participated in some of the fighting before his superior pulled him out.  He supervised the cleaning out of the concentration camps after the war and did visit Dachau, but not in the circumstances depicted in the film.  He was approached by an Israeli official in New York in December, 1947 and asked to find Israel a military adviser to train the nascent Haganah.  When Marcus could not find anyone, he volunteered himself.  His wife was not amused.  Marcus entered Palestine under the name “Michael Stone” and did a tour to determine the needs of the Israeli forces, which were many.  He wrote a military manual based on the U.S. Army manual and gave valuable advice about strategy.  He did have to return home when his wife was ill.  Marcus did lead a force of jeeps and half-tracks against an Egyptian tank force that had invaded the Negev.  It is very unlikely a mercenary pilot dropped seltzer bottles on tanks.  After a failed attack on Latrun, Marcus was appointed the first aluf (equivalent of a Brigadier General) to unify the forces working to relieve Jerusalem.  Marcus planned a second attack which also failed and then he came up with idea of what he called the “Burma road”.  His death is accurately depicted in the movie.  He was “the last casualty before the truce.
                The movie was a worthy attempt at a biopic of a hero.  Marcus was the first soldier buried at West Point who died fighting for another country.  It also made sense to make a movie about the founding of Israel.  The movie is not “Patton” however.  It is not a warts and all portrayal.  That does not mean Marcus was a loose cannon, but it does mean the movie is very pro-Israel.  That is totally to be expected from a Hollywood movie made in the mid-sixties.  The casting lends itself to the vibe as we see cameos by actors like Sinatra who probably wanted to be supporters of the cause.  John Wayne was recruited to bring war movie gravitas. 
                The movie is technically sound.  The cinematography is adequate.  Elmer Bernstein provides a good score.  The movie has a lot of singing in it which gets to be a bit schmaltzy.  The set pieces are nothing special.  Director Melville Shavelson had never directed a war movie and it shows.  The violence is typically non-graphic for a movie of that period.  The acting tends to be hammy.  Topol as an Arab chieftain is especially embarrassing.  Sinatra is slumming.  Wayne plays Wayne.  Douglas is his usual reliable self and is obviously sincere.  The dialogue does not help the actors.  The movie is stuffed with lines that are memorably sappy.  I was forced to pay attention to catch the bon mots.  Here are my favorites:
-           “We’ve been knocking off a lot of guys who have been making soap out of my relatives.” (Marcus at Dachau)

-          “War gets you more excited than I do.”  (Mrs. Marcus)

-          “You couldn’t advise a taffy bowl without slugging somebody.”  (Wayne to Marcus)

-          “ The olive branch has not worked around here since Noah ran the Ark into a mountain.” (Marcus)

-           “This has got to be the biggest bluff since the invention of falsies.” (Vince about his air attack)

-          “Did it make sense for a guy with a steady job building pyramids to march his people into the Red Sea?” 

-          “I’ve been so angry at the world ever since I was circumcised without my permission.” (Marcus)

                The plot is themey.  It hammers away at the “war is addictive” theme.  Marcus is not the first cinematic soldier who prefers his job to his wife.  You do feel sorry for Mrs. Marcus.  Especially since the movie throws in the romance subplot with Magda.  Angie Dickinson’s role is almost a cameo.  The real “get” by the casting director must have been Senta Berger.  She was a hot sex symbol at that time (coming off of “Major Dundee”), but not exactly known for her acting ability.  The romantic subplot shoe-horns the requisite soap opera elements, but ends up leaving the audience unfulfilled in a twist that would not have been a twist in 1966.  Another theme is that of the underdog.  You certainly root for the Israelis.  You would be standing and cheering at the end if it weren’t for…

                In conclusion, “Cast a Giant Shadow” is a movie that needed to be made, but it only ended up being average.  It’s too sincere and simplistic.  It does not belong in the Best 100 War Movies list.


Friday, October 17, 2014

NOW SHOWING: Fury (2014)


                “Fury” is the new WWII tank combat movie starring Brad Pitt.  It was directed and written by David Ayer.  He earlier had written “U-571”, a movie for which he had to apologize for historical inaccuracies.  This time he took on a purely fictional story of a tank in the waning days of World War II Europe.  The tank is a M4A2E8 Sherman and it is participating in the drive into Nazi Germany.  The crew is headed by Sgt. “Wardaddy” Collier (Pitt) and they have been together since North Africa.  They are part of the 2nd Armored Division (the “Hell on Wheels” division).  The movie was filmed in the English countryside and had a budget of approximately $80 billion.  The producers relied on four authentic M4s and a Tiger 131 loaned by a museum.  The Tiger is the only operational one in the world and this was the first time a genuine one was used in a war movie.

                The movie opens in the aftermath of what must have been a tank melee.  The title tank is the sole survivor of its platoon, but the assistant driver was killed.  This opens the hatch for a green replacement from the secretarial pool named Norman (Logan Lerman).  He is not exactly welcomed with open arms (like all other replacements in war movie history).  Collier is determined to make a man out of him.  Actually, he is determined to make him into the type of man that they have become.  Norman will become a productive member of the crew once he learns to kill anything that moves and executes any S.S. bastard that crosses their path (because that’s what they would do to you).  The arc is initiated with Norman starting off as a reluctant warrior with some naïve morals.  He’s going to gain some testicles and lose that pesky conscience.

                The movie moves through the typical war movie flow of action followed by rest and exposition.  The combat scenes are amazing and among some of the best of recent war movies.  There is an assault across a field that features a dual with anti-tank guns.  Urban warfare of the tank versus sniper variety.  A four on one scrimmage against the Tiger which ends up accurately reflecting the odds against Shermans.  This particular encounter reflects back upon the opening title card that proclaimed that American tanks were outgunned and outmaneuvered by more advanced German tanks.  What sets Fury apart from this fact is that Brad Pitt is in command.  The final cataclysm involves the defense of a crossroads against a large S.S. infantry force.  It’s last stand time.  Surprisingly, the combat scenes are not shot in the “Band of Brothers” and “Saving Private Ryan” style.  They rely mostly on explosions and tracers with a medium amount of quick cuts.  Add to that the unique tank scenarios where you are racing to get that shot off before it’s your turret that is blown to Hell.  The action will have you on the edge of your seat, but not feeling dizzy.  You also will not need sunglasses to shade any bright colors.  This film’s predominant color is mud.  In case you don’t understand the enemy, the music is very Wagneresque. 

                Unfortunately, the rest and exposition scenes are troughs.  Some of the interactions between the crew and the maturation and acceptance of Norman are awkward.  There is a painfully forced blooding of the newbie that defies reality and is offensive toward WWII veterans.  Ayer’s attempt to show the truly horrible effects of war on the psyches of the “good guys” veers too far into the trite territory of “warfare strips away your humanity”.  There is also the equivalent of a dysfunctional family’s Thanksgiving dinner that includes the war trumps civilization theme.

                The combat scenes create enough good will from war movie lovers to overcome some curious flaws.  The film has some extended lulls between the balls to the wall (which happens to be the only graphic wounding that the movie does not depict) action scenes.  Curious partly because Ayer finds no opportunity to develop the characters.  They are all stereotypes.  Pitt plays the hardened leader who is haunted by losses (although he has apparently lost only one man in over two years of serious action).  The movie hints at some deep psychic wound, but never delivers.  It also implies that the crew blames him for something, yet they are ready to die for him with little questioning.  The crew is heterogeneous with the Bible-thumper named “Bible” (Shia LeBeouf probably not having to act too hard), the psychopathic hick named “Coon-Ass” (Jon Bernthal chewing scenery as a cracker, not a Cajun), and the obligatory minority wise-ass named “Gordo” (Michael Pena loving not having competition for audience appeal).  The acting is inconsistent.  Pitt is solid and obviously has watched film of previous actors playing the exact same role.  LeBouef is effective in leaving one to wonder if “Bible” is supposed to be a nutcase or a role model.  Depends on if you are a fundamentalist, I suppose.  Lerman is in over his head and makes the arc hard to believe.  He is cursing up a storm by the end, so there’s that.  Bernthal is the weak link.  You would be obnoxious too if you had dead meat tattooed on your fore-head.

                The movie is definitely more enjoyable if you have not seen a lot of war movies.  I found myself recognizing all the characters (Norman = Upham) and themes from previous movies.  Heck, the movie ends with a last stand, who will survive scene.  “We ain’t never run before.”  And like all fictional cinematic last stands, don’t expect reality to interfere with the carnage.  It is instructive to remind that this last stand is not based on a true story like “The Alamo” or “Zulu”.  As usual in a war movie aimed at the general public, “Fury” builds to a climax that crosses over the line of reality into the realm of ridiculous.  However, up until the end the film is a pretty good portrayal of the lives of tankers.  The tank interior is authentic and the operation is well-enacted.  The soldier talk is not jarring, although the addition of a catch phrase (“best job I ever had”) is a bit lame.

                Once again I have the dilemma of not wanting to scare off any future war movies.  They come along so seldom these days that you have to lower your expectations to not be crushed by unfulfilled anticipation.  “Fury” is a bit better than I expected.  I was skeptical about a Sherman taking on the German army by itself.  The movie confirmed my fears, but it was not laughable and it’s not like we have a lot of great tank movies for it to live up to.  I am not a big Sherman fan, but I admire the men who went into combat in them.  This movie does them justice, but to be a truly great war movie it needed a better writer than David Ayer.  With that said, he has improved since “U-571”.

GRADE  =  B-

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

CLASSIC or ANTIQUE? To the Shores of Tripoli (1942)

                “To the Shores Tripoli” is a service film that was directly impacted by Pearl Harbor.  The movie was filmed at the Marine Corps Training Center in San Diego in 1941.  It was directed by H. Bruce Humberstone (remember that name when I discuss how good the movie is).  Adjustments were made in post-production to take advantage of the attack.  The movie was a big box office success and was credited with greatly increasing Marine Corps recruiting.
                The film begins with a dedication to the Marines and a reference to Wake Island (“Send us more, Japs!”).  Wealthy playboy Chris Winters (John Payne) arrives at boot camp to carry on the family tradition of being a Marine.  He’s not really into that macho bull shit and expects to be treated like God’s gift to the Marine Corps.  They wouldn’t dare make him peel potatoes.  His father, the ex-Marine, expects the Corps to make a man out of his worthless son.  Something has got to give.
                Winters meets a nurse, Lt. Mary Carter (Maureen O’ Hara), and targets her as his next conquest.  She is torn because she realizes he is a hound, but she can’t help being attracted to him.  She even sticks with him when she sees him with his gold-digger fiancé.  She can’t help it!
"I think I can help with that inflated ego"
                Winters other significant other is his Gunnery Sergeant Dixie Smith (Randolph Scott – “Randolph Scott!”).  If you want to know what kind of DI he is - think the exact opposite of R. Lee Ermey.  Smith is the sensitive type of drill sergeant.  He’s going to make a man out of Winters through soft love (as opposed to tough love).  He treats the rest of the recruits with equal restraint.  Boot camp is fraught with – nothing.  (Join the Marines – We’ll Treat You Right)  It turns out that Winters does not have to peel potatoes!  Surprisingly, Winters turns out to be a good soldier and leader.  In spite of all the love, Winters and Smith still have to have the obligatory fight.  It is one of the worst staged fights in boot camp fights' history.  Sarge lies and says he threw the first punch so Winters’ father will not die of shame.  Plus the Marine Corps needs a few good lounge lizards.  The men go on maneuvers.  Winters gets to save Smith’s life when the Sarge ineptly gets left behind at a gunnery target.  Could this movie get any stupider?  Yes.
Are they fighting or dancing?
                In spite of being made into a man, Winters decides to choose his fiancé and a cushy government job over the Corps.  They are riding off into the sunset when word of Pearl Harbor comes over the radio.  He doesn’t care.  Just kidding.  He races back to San Diego and his true loves – nurse Carter, Sgt. Smith, and the U.S. Marine Corps.  He joins his unit as it marches toward a transport ship.  He changes into his uniform as they march.  (Payne claimed this piece of “acting” was the hardest part of the shoot.  Being an actor is so hard!)  A guy in the crowd waves a flag while holding a placard that reads “Me Chinese”.  Gag!  Winters father calls out “Get me a Jap!”  Arrgh!  Mary is waiting to give him a kiss.  Barf!  Everyone sings the Marine Corps hymn.  Give me a break!
                “To the Shores of Tripoli” is one of the worst war movies I have seen.  If ever a terrible film benefited from timing, this one did.  The proximity to the attack on Pearl Harbor explains its popularity.  Plus, let’s face it, 1940s audiences loved patriotic crap.  A similar movie today would be laughed out of the theaters.  The producers deserve some credit for being crafty enough to tack on the ending.  The original ended with the standard smooch between the leads indicative that he was a domesticated male.
                The plot makes no sense.  The characters are all unrealistic.  Nurse Carter would not have fallen for Winters.  Smith is the biggest cream puff in drill sergeant history.  Winters is unrealistic, except in Hollywood terms where he is a stereotype.  It is painful to watch three good actors making asses of themselves.  But then, they all acted poorly in the film so there’s that.  The only positive I can say about it is that it was one of the first films shot in Technicolor.  Maureen O’Hara got her title of “The Queen of Technicolor” from this film.  Ironically, she was a brunette for the film instead of her trademark red hair.  Another example of how screwed up the movie is.
                Classic or Antique?  Dinosaur.

 grade =  F-

Sunday, October 12, 2014

SHOULD I READ IT? A Man Escaped (1956)

                “A Man Escaped” is a French black and white film directed by Robert Bresson and released in 1956.  It is the true story of a member of the French Resistance who was captured by the Germans  in WWII.  The main character Fontaine (Francois Leterrier) is based on Andre Devigny who was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to the inescapable Montluc Prison.  7,000 men died at this prison.
                In the movie, Fontaine is arrested when he tries to escape in a car and he is beaten and thrown into a cell at the prison.  He discovers that with the help of a purloined spoon he can loosen some of the door panels and get into the corridor to make contact with the other inmates.  The prison has a shocking lack of security.  Colonel Klink ran a stricter prison camp.   The cells are never searched even though the authorities threaten it.  Fontaine gets a package which allows him to make ropes and he hatches a plan to climb out of the prison.  This becomes an absolute necessity when he is condemned to execution.  To complicate matters, a German deserter is thrown into his cell.  The dilemma is whether he should trust this young man named Jost (Charles La Clainche).  He decides to take him along. 
                “A Man Escaped” is a highly regarded movie.  It was shown at Cannes.  It got good reviews.  It is historically accurate in portraying Devigny’s experiences.  The movie does simplify a bit as he made numerous escape attempts with the subsequent tortures.  Some of the tortures were by the infamous Klaus Barbie.  The escape itself is very close to the actual escape.  That may be part of the problem.  The movie is lacking in suspense and has long stretches of boredom.  Surprisingly, the treatment depicted is not very harsh.  You certainly do not get the impression that 7,000 men died in the prison.  The acting is okay with Leterrier solid in the main role.  The soundtrack stands out because it uses Mozart.
                “A Man Escaped” is overrated.  Devigny deserved a movie and the movie does a good job as a documentary, but it is just too slow moving for me.  And I think the same would be said by most war movie lovers.
Grade  =  D