Thursday, February 4, 2016

FORGOTTEN GEM? Guns at Batasi (1964)

                “Guns at Batasi” is a British war movie directed by John Guillermin (“The Blue Max”).  It was based on the novel The Siege of Battersea by Robert Holles.  It was filmed at Pinewood Studios in the United Kingdom.  It has a cast of venerable British war movie stars and one up and coming sexpot.  Actually, Mia Farrow’s role was supposed to be played Britt Ekland, but newlywed husband Peter Sellers did not trust her to avoid the charms of John Leyton.  Leyton was a pop star and was coming off his performance as the dreamy Willie in “The Great Escape”.

                The movie takes place in an undisclosed African nation which most likely is Kenya.  Or some other nation prone to a coup d’etat.  I guess that means it could have been any African nation.  As far as the imperial power, it doesn’t take the accents to figure that it’s Great Britain.  The action takes place on a military base.  The country is newly independent and word arrives to turn over command to the senior African officer.  Into this awkward transitional phase comes a liberal Member of Parliament named Miss Barker-Wise and her sexy secretary Karen (Farrow).  At a dinner, the MP spouts about the Africans ruling themselves. Since the movie was released in 1962 one can imagine half the audience shaking their heads and half nodding theirs.  The British officers harrumph at her enlightened political views.  Especially Regimental Sergeant Major Lauderdale (Richard Attenborough).  He is a martinet and a blowhard.  If this was an American movie, he would be the villain.

                Before the new government can even begin to be corrupt, there is a mutiny in the army.  A traitor among the African soldiers at the base arrests the British commanding officer and his men lay siege to the barracks where the dinner is taking place.  A wounded African officer named Abraham has taken refuge with the Brits and they are not disposed to turn him over to sure execution.  All this turmoil really puts a crimp into the lame romance brewing between Karen and Private Wilkes (Leyton).  So the coup does have a positive side.  Lauderdale takes charge because in a situation like this you want a proper bastard.

                “Guns at Batasi” is short and sweet.  It means to tap into the debate over the fall of the British Empire.  Lauderdale represents the Winston Churchill wing and Barker-Wise represents the Clement Atlee wing.  The movie comes down on the side of Lauderdale, but Barker-Wise does get to tear him a new one at the dinner.  She perceptively accuses him of being a weapon that can’t wait to be fired.  The movie does not demonize the Africans, although it is a bit patronizing.  In an interesting touch, the African language is not subtitled.  The movie does not have a lot of action so the entertainment value is almost totally due to the very appealing cast.  The dialogue matches the performers.  There is some typically dry British humor. 

                Forgotten gem?  It is entertaining, but not a must-see.

GRADE  =  B             

Thursday, January 28, 2016

CRACKER? Theirs Is the Glory (1946)

                “Theirs Is the Glory” is a unique war movie.  It reenacts the British participation in Operation Market Garden.  It was “produced entirely without the use of studio sets or actors.  Every incident was either experienced or witnessed by the people who appear in the film.”  Everyone in the 200 person cast was either a British soldier who participated in Operation Market Garden or a Dutch civilian who lived through the battle.  The veterans were paid three pounds per diem.  They had a lot of input in the action and dialogue.  Director Brian Desmond Hurst (“Malta Story”) was a veteran of the Gallipoli Campaign of WWI.  He considered the movie to be his finest achievement in a stellar career. It was a labor of love. The filming began one year after the battle on the actual sites.  The premiere occurred on the two year anniversary of the battle and was attended by the Prime Minister.  A private showing was provided for King George VI.  The film was a huge hit in Great Britain and was the top grossing film for a decade.

What do you mean there's a Panzer division nearby?
                The movie opens with a view of the destroyed bridge at Arnhem.  A montage of sites familiar to students of the battle follow.  The Operation Market Garden plan is outlined via a map.  Several paratroopers in a barracks are identified by the narrator.  The campaign begins with an armada of gliders and transports dropping paratroopers.  Upon reaching the Arnhem Bridge, a flamethrower sets off ammunition and a mixed bag of Germans are taken captive, but the bridge cannot be taken.  The unit at the bridge is cut off from the main body that ends up surrounded at Oosterbeek.  The rest of the movie consists of the last stands of both these bodies of men.

                This is a gem of a movie.  It is unique in using the actual participants in an historical event.  Surprisingly, the “actors” do a commendable job.  They are obviously not professionals, but they are still better than many B movie actors.  Notice how they duck and flinch at explosions like they have been there before.  They have also seen enough death to know how a soldier dies.  No one throws his hands in the air and twirls around.  The dialogue is natural as is to be expected from men who had input in what they say because they may have said it.  One unfortunate decision was not to identify the men.  Only keen students of the battle will recognize Majors “Freddie” Gough and “Dickie” Lonsdale, for instance.  Look closely and you will see Kate ter Horst (the Liv Ullmann character in “A Bridge Too Far”) reading psalms to the wounded.
Set up Montgomery's reviewing stand over there

                The movie is an amazing blend of footage and reenactments.  Basically, whenever anyone speaks it is a reenactment.   A narrator provides the documentary feel and also does a great job informing.  The narration is sincere, but not treacly.  Maps are used well.  A nice touch is the use of an embedded war correspondent to give eye-witness accounts of what is happening within the Oosterbeek perimeter. 
                If the acting is satisfactory, the action is outstanding.  And there is a lot of it!  The bitter aspects of a last stand against overwhelming odds is reenacted with verve.  There is some realistic tank action and excellent bomb effects.  The only false note has a Brit throwing a grenade to silence a German broadcasting a surrender demand.  It stands out in a movie that is a sober portrayal of the hell of war.  There are some emotional deaths in the movie and one can assume they were emotional for the reenactors.  The movie ends by returning to the barracks to inform that most of the paratroopers did not return.
Hello, Monty - I have some bad news

                “Theirs Is the Glory” is as good as it gets when it comes to telling the story of the British 1st Airborne’s role in Market Garden.  It honors the participants.  It is not a propaganda puff piece, but it does leave out a few details that would slightly mar the theme.  The movie is mostly free of reference to the mistakes the campaign is famous for.  There are no communications problems in the film, for instance.  There is only brief mention of Gen. Urquhart being cut off from his men for crucial hours and no mention about the flaws in the overall plan.  There is no controversy, not surprisingly.

                “Theirs Is the Glory” has often been compared favorably to “A Bridge Too Far” as though one must choose between them.  In reality, they are both great movies and when paired do complete justice to the campaign and the men who participated in it.  “Bridge” gives the big picture and “Glory”concentrates on just Arnhem and Oosterbeek.  I strongly suggest you watch “Bridge” first and use “Glory” as an addendum.  Whatever order you choose, watch both because they both are among the 100 Best War Movies.


Saturday, January 23, 2016

CRACKER? Hanoi Hilton (1987)


                     A recent post on Face Book reminded me that I still had not posted my review of "Hanoi Hilton".  The post was about Jane Fonda and her horrible treatment of prisoners of war when she visited Hanoi during the Vietnam War.  I am no fan of Jane Fonda.  My father flew an F-105 fighter-bomber in the war.  I lived in Japan for three years while he was doing this.  My father harbored a hatred for Hanoi Jane because of her support for the people he fought against.  He partially passed this on to me, but I never went to the extent of never watching a movie with her in it.  Still, seeing her sitting in the seat of an anti-aircraft gun whose purpose was to shoot down my dad is hard to forgive.  With that said, my extensive reading on the war tempers my view of her because the war was a mistake and I am not a blind patriot.  She certainly can be taken to task for her method of voicing her opinions.  The fact is that the post accused her of heinous actions that she did not commit.  There is a character in this movie that reenacts some of the calumnies.

                “Hanoi Hilton” is a prisoner of war movie about the infamous North Vietnamese prison.  It was directed by Lionel Chetwynd.  It came out the same year as “Full Metal Jacket”, “Good Morning, Vietnam”, and “Hamburger Hill” and got lost in the wake of those other films.  It was an example of the backlash against the cynical, anti-grunt films like “Platoon” and “Full Metal Jacket”.  All of the characters are fictional, but the movie purports to enlighten the audience about the mistreatment of American prisoners.  It covers the entire history of American internment at the Hoa Lo Prison.

                 The movie’s main character is a Lt. Williamson (Michael Moriarty) who gets shot down early in the war.  Before that, he is interviewed and proclaims that we are in Vietnam to help the South Vietnamese get their freedom.  The movie says nothing to contradict this belief.  When Williamson is captured, his co-pilot is shot in the head.  This movie is not going to show empathy for the North Vietnamese.  Williamson is taken to the Hanoi Hilton where he finds out that because there was no declaration of war, the Geneva Conventions do not apply.  He is a war criminal.  The first torture is a dry shave.  A variety is yet to come.  These include shock treatment, beatings, and sitting on a pile of bricks.  At one point a group of prisoners is marched through the streets of Hanoi and it becomes a gauntlet with civilians assaulting the Americans. 

                Williamson interacts with other prisoners who are all dealing with the dilemma of when and whether to answer the questions.  How much torture is enough to justify telling the torturers what they want to hear?  Unfortunately, some of the torture is to break the prisoners.  A guy is whipped for yelling when a rat crawls on him.  Another is killed because of an escape attempt.
Don't worry, Jane Fonda is coming to get us out

                The movie has two themes.  The captors are evil and manipulating the prisoners for propaganda purposes.  The commandant tells the prisoners that the media coverage of their confessions will help win the war.  The guards are hissable with the volume turned up to 11 with a Cuban interrogator who kills a Puerto Rican who refuses to betray the USA.  Equally loathsome are the liberal media.  A Jane Fonda type wants the men to apologize and ignores tales of mistreatment.  And don’t forget the home front stabbing the men in the back as they do their duty to their country.  At one point the guards pipe in coverage of hippies protesting.  A new prisoner tells the men that most Americans consider them to be fascists.

                “Hanoi Hilton” is the counterpoint to all those Vietnam War movies that cast aspersions on the American war effort and the men carrying it out.  Although from a different subgenre (POW film), it’s most close kindred soul is “Hamburger Hill”.  Hmmm, both have double H’s.  They both portray the Americans as simply doing their duty under difficult circumstances and being betrayed by the home front.  Having read extensively on the war, I can see both the hawkish viewpoint and the dove perspective.  There is a place for both among Vietnam War movies.  There is room for “Hamburger Hill” and “Platoon”.  Needless to say with Hollywood being what it is on the political spectrum, there are quite a few more movies that are cynical toward the war.  It is a shame when a movie like “Hanoi Hilton” botches the attempt to balance the scale.  It takes a worthy subject and bludgeons it.

                It is no wonder the movie got lost in the 1987 box office duel.  It looks second tier.  The cast is B-list and is not memorable.  Moriarty was not a good choice for the lead.  He is too tepid in a role that could have used some emoting.  In fact, one surprise of the movie is the lack of scene-chewing, but sometimes the opposite can be almost as bad.  For a movie about mistreatment of prisoners, the movie is curiously flat.  This may be because most of the torture is implied.  The movie is not graphic.  Weirdly, Williamson does not seem to be terribly mistreated in his eight years in the camp.  In other words, Moriarty was given no chance for an Oscar campaign.

                The biggest flaw is the ham-handed steamrolling of its themes.  The movie is too anti-anti-war.  Jane Fonda is a cheap target and pushes buttons with the intended audience, but why not be factual in her depiction.  In fact, the decision to have all fictional characters was a perplexing and poor one.  Throwing in the hippies and a detestable Cuban was overreaching.  A documentary style film about the prison would have been better.  As it is, one is left to question how accurate the movie is in depicting the treatment.  A neutral viewer could easily watch this poorly made movie and blow it off as conservative propaganda.

                How historically accurate is it?  The Williamson character was probably based on Lt. Edward Alvarez, Jr.  He was the first American taken prisoner and spent almost the entire war in the Hoa Lo Prison.  The North Vietnamese did not honor the Geneva Conventions with the excuse that the Americans were war criminals fighting an illegal war of aggression.  The torture included rope bindings, iron foot stocks, beatings, and solitary confinement.  The movie does show a variety of methods, but is not graphic enough.  The gauntlet scene was based on the infamous “Hanoi March” in which prisoners were paraded down a Hanoi street for newsreels, but the crowd got out of hand and attacked not only the Americans but the guards.  The goal of the jailers was not so much to get military information as to get the men to make statements that could be used for propaganda purposes.  The men developed a code of honor that basically said that you should take as much pain as you could before you were justified in talking.  Almost every prisoner eventually broke and signed statements.  Most of which wer e fabrications.  Executions, torture, injury, and diseases took the lives of 65 prisoners.  Most of the deaths came in the period before 1969.  It was in that year that the Nixon Administration reversed policy and began to condemn the mistreatment of prisoners.  After this, treatment improved.  As far as the Jane Fonda character, Jane did interview some prisoners, but did not encourage them to apologize.  (P.S. to those who have read and swallowed the post about her actions in Hanoi, she did not turn over to the guards notes passed to her by prisoners.)

                "Hanoi Hilton" is not in the upper tier of Vietnam War movies.  If you want some knowledge about the treatment of American POWs, it is not without merit.  However, it could have been a lot better.  It is too simplistically pro-America.



Thursday, January 21, 2016

QUEUE CLEANSING: The Wipers Times (2013)

                “The Wipers Times” is a made-for-BBC movie based on the famous satirical trench newspaper printed on the Western Front during WWI.  The title refers to the name of the paper which was known by the British slang for the Ypres Salient.  Members of the 12th Battalion, Sherwood Foresters found an abandoned printing press and one of them had been a printer before the war.  Capt. Fred Roberts and Lt. Jack Pearson edited the paper.  It was printed from February, 1916 until the end of the war.

                The movie is book-ended by Roberts (Ben Chaplin) being interviewed for a newspaper job.  He is asked if he has any experience.  Queue flashback.  In war-torn France, a unit of Tommies discover a printing press in a bombed out town.  Since one of them was a printer, it is decided to put out a newspaper.  Roberts and Pearson (Julian Rhind-Tutt) discuss what should be included in the paper.  They agree it should be about “optimism” but in a snarky way. The humorous, cynical output draws the ire of a typically hide-bound British officer who takes the matter up with Gen. Mitford (Michael Palin), but the general has a good sense of humor and thinks the paper will be good for morale.  This subplot is reminiscent of “Good Morning, Vietnam”.  The war keeps getting in the way of production as the unit has to occasionally fight in the trenches.  These guys are not rear echelon types.  Roberts gets a medal for bravery.  They know what the war is really about.  Roberts sums it up as being “nothing more than wallowing in a dirty ditch”.  Why be glum about it?  Look at the humorous aspects.  Turn that soldier grumbling into published satirical grumbling.  They get moved around a lot.  They see action at the Somme, St. Quentin, Amiens, and Ypres. There is some action, but it is brief.  Don’t watch this movie if you are a combat junkie.

                “The Wipers Times” is a nifty little movie.  The acting is good with Chaplin and Rhind-Tutt making a nice team.  They combine for their version of the Cronauer character from “Good Morning, Vietnam”, but they are not manic.  The movie is actually closer to the vibe of “Black Adder Goes Forth”, only not as silly.  Their banter is intellectually cheeky.  There is a lot of talking and not a lot of combat, but the dialogue is rat-a-tat in its own way.  This gives the production the feel of a play.  But because it is a TV production, they have the luxury of seguing into black and white scenes that represent the newspaper’s articles and advertisements.  There are even some music hall type tunes.  It is certainly a different take on the Great War.  But like a vast majority of the other movies, it is distinctly anti-war.  And, of course, anti-brass.  Since the movie takes the soldier’s point of view, we get an appropriately “gallow’s humor” approach to the war.
                The best thing about the movie is it sheds light on a little known aspect of the war.  We are coming up on the centennial anniversary of the first edition.  I had never heard of “The Wipers Times” before, but researching it for this review was enlightening.  The movie is pretty accurate historically.  The newspaper specialized in poems (mostly pedestrian, but some high quality by the likes of Gilbert Frankau).  There was a running joke that the paper was being swamped by soldier submissions. It also included soldier accounts, satirical cartoons, and mock advertisements.  The adverts smack of “The Onion”.  Popular topics were the effects of shelling, sex, drinking, and rats.  The paper is an excellent primary source on soldier life.  It does not really question the war, but it does question how it was being fought.  It’s catch phrase was “are we as offensive as we might be?”  The movie makes clear that the soldiers were fighting for their mates and the newspaper was written for that same group.

                 Most of the movies I have waded through in cleaning up my queue have been losers, but this is one of the rare ones that I can recommend.  It is by far the best movie about putting out a newspaper in the Great War.

  GRADE  =  B