Thursday, September 3, 2015

WAR SHORT STORY READALONG: The Conscript

 

   "The Conscript" is a short story by Grace Greenwood.  It is set in the Napoleonic Wars around 1804.  It leads with the fact that most conscripts were taken from the French working class.  They were forced to fight for "they scarcely knew what, with people against whom they had no ill-will."  One of those reluctant warriors is the local blacksmith Jean Moreau.  He leaves behind a mother and an adopted sister named Marie who he is betrothed to.  On the march to join the army, he meets a nobleman whose son is a captain in the army.  He hopes Jean will encounter his son, Captain De Lorme.

     Sure enough, Jean is assigned to De Lorme's unit and in the Battle of Austerlitz they have a mad moment under the eyes of Napoleon himself.  De Lorme rescues a captured standard and Jean rescues the wounded captain.  They end up in the same hospital and Jean loses his arm while De Lorme almost loses his life.  Eventually both return home.  Jean's journey home is plagued with fear that Marie will not want him any more now that he is disabled.

     "The Conscript" is a predictable story that one might tell as a bedtime story in France.  Greenwood writes as though the story is aimed at a boys' magazine.  There are no insights into warfare other than the above quote that unoriginally points out that draftees don't know what they are fighting for and have to kill similarly clueless draftees on the other side. The story relies on the clicheish "it's a small world" trope by having the main characters meet in a climactic moment.  This builds up to a satisfying climax that could not have been more pat unless Napoleon himself had appeared at the wedding.

     Grace Greenwood is the pseudonym of Sara Jane Lippincott.  She was an American poet and writer.  Not surprisingly she wrote for children's magazines.  She was also a reformer who campaigned for abolitionism and women's rights.  Some of her passionate poems indicate a lesbian relationship at a time (the mid 1800s) where that would have been quite scandalous.  She does not seem the type to be writing war stories, but this particular story is a bromance and romance set in a war.

      I am beginning to wonder about this list of war movie short stories that I have committed to read.  I just wish I had been able to find a web site that had stories equivalent to the books I have that have truly outstanding collections of stories.  Of course, many of the stories are polarizing, but there would be more to rant about.  Oh well, I'm not going to give up on this project just yet.  Plus no one is reading along anyway, so it's not like I'm catering to anyone.

GRADE  =  C

Next up:  The Crime of the Brigadier

Sunday, August 30, 2015

CRACKER? The Bridge at Remagen (1969)



                “The Bridge at Remagen” purports to tell the tale of a seminal moment in WWII Europe.  In March, 1945, an American unit won a race to capture an intact bridge across the Rhine River before the Nazis could destroy it.  The bridge at Remagen turned out to be the only bridge that was captured so it was unique.  The bravery of the men who risked being blown up with the bridge was worthy of a movie.  John Guillermin (“The Blue Max”) directed a story based on the book The Bridge at Remagen: The Amazing Story of March 7, 1945 by Ken Hechler.  The movie was filmed in Czechoslokia at a bridge similar to the real bridge (but they spent $250,000 blasting out a tunnel to recreate a tunnel at the actual site).  The  filming was interrupted by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia which prompted producer David Wolper to hire 28 taxis to carry cast and crew to safety.  The movie was finished near Hamburg and in Italy.

                The film opens with an American armored unit rampaging towards the Obercassel Bridge as a German troop train crosses it.  The bridge is blown before the Americans can reach it thus establishing the fact that finding an intact bridge will be difficult to capture and the fact that a bridge could be blown in their faces.  Cut to Gen. Von Brock being ordered to destroy the bridge at Remagen regardless of a large part of the 15th Army being caught on the other side.  In spite of these orders, Von Brock unofficially tells Maj. Kruger (Robert Vaughn) to hold the bridge as long as possible.  Meanwhile, the 27th Mobile Infantry is on the way to the bridge although Gen. Shinner (E.G. Marshall) is sure the bridge will not be available.
our no-star cast of anti-heroes
                The lead element of the 27th is led by a Lt. Hartman (George Segal).  He is cynical and far from gung-ho.  It is implied that his unit has seen more than their share of combat and are a bit miffed at having to be the spearhead.  His second in command Sgt. Angelo (Ben Gazzara) likes to loot dead bodies.  They do not get along.  Actually, Hartman is one of those leaders who is a cold bastard with no friends.  When they have to take out a farmhouse and Hartman is asked what might be in the house, he snarkily responds:  “I don’t know,  but it ain’t candy”.

                The unit moves on to the town of Meckenheim where there is no resistance.  They sack out in a jail and there is a young lady!  They stay only long enough for an awkward interlude with the girl.  We get to see one breast and are left pondering what the hell that scene had to do with the movie.  The only thing I can theorize is that a late 60s war film needs to have a female character and she has to show some skin.
don't be fooled into thinking this movie
is a romance

                At the bridge, Kruger arrives to find hardly any defenders and no explosives to blow up the bridge.  But the worst thing is that his exec is Capt. Schmidt played by Hans Christian Blech.  Never leave Blech in charge of blowing up a bridge!  The bridge withstands a bombing run by one B-25 which results in numerous explosions unrelated to the bomber.  Hartmann’s men arrive in Remagen where the killing of a Hitler Youth sniper causes Angelo to reassess his thieving ways and Hartman to soften toward him.  At least something good comes from the kid’s death.  The explosives finally arrive and the wiring of the bridge begins.  When Gen. Shinner arrives, he sees the intact jewel and immediately orders the storming of the bridge.  Hartman and his men are not thrilled with what they consider to be a suicide mission and Angelo is so incensed he commits a court-martial offense.  However, they go because somebody has to do it, damn this war! 
did you know war can be exhausting?

                There are some critics who think highly of this movie.  They are wrong.  It is a lamentable attempt to attach the late 60s anti-hero vibe to a noteworthy event.  The men who participated in the capture of the bridge deserved a laudatory treatment, not cynical crap.  Basically, they would have been better served with an Old School movie.  It was wise to change the names of all the characters based on real people.  Plus it avoided likely law suits by defamed families.  Both Hartman and Angelo are based on men who received the Distinguished Service Cross for their heroism at the bridge.  They belong in a Vietnam War movie.  It is unrealistic for a lieutenant and sergeant to question orders that would have been totally in sync with the American philosophy of aggressively targeting objectives and accepting short-term casualties for long-term gains that would shorten the war.  I’m not saying Hartman and Angelo would not have been war weary, but to portray them as insubordinate is not realistic.  The basic theme is "war is tiring".  Not surprisingly, another trope of this modern war movie is the crass Gen. Shinner.  He belongs in a WWI movie, but if you pay attention to what he says, his decisions make total sense.  The movie wants us to think his order to charge the bridge is mean when in actuality it was totally appropriate and sensible.  Generals have to send men to their deaths to save lives and men have to risk their lives for the greater good.
what other terrible war epic does this remind you of?
answer at bottom
                Besides besmirching good men, the movie is just not entertaining.  The only good thing is the score which is the only thing that qualifies it as a big budget, all-star battle epic.  The cast is the opposite of “The Longest Day”.  Christ, the fourth billed is Bradford Dillman!  Segal and Gazzara look like they were directed to act like guys in a Vietnam War movie.  They don’t work hard and the script does not develop their characters beyond jerk and thief.  Weirdly, the characters we are supposed to root for are wrong and the characters we are supposed to shake our heads at are right.  The combat scenes are pretty good and the military hardware is impressive.  There are enough explosions to keep an American audience happy.  Unfortunately,  there is not  enough combat to make up for the lulls which include two scenes (the girl in the jail and the kid in the hotel) that seem to have wandered in from another movie.

                In conclusion, "The Bridge at Remagen" does not belong on a list of the 100 Best War  Movies.  It botches an opportunity to laud some heroic Americans and the inaccurate portrayal of an important historical event is shameful.

                SPOILER ALERT:  The movie gets one thing right – Americans did capture the Ludendorf Bridge.  Other than that, read a book.  This starts from the very beginning.  The failed attempt to take Obercassel Bridge was by Americans disguised as Germans, not an armored column.  Lt. Gen. Walter Botsch (not Von Brock) was in command of the area, but it was Hitler himself who ordered for all Rhine bridges to be blown at the last minute.  Of course, not timing it properly would have shortened your life.  Botsch sent Capt. Willi Bratge  (Kruger) to command at the bridge.  The bridge had been rigged with explosives, but was promised more and also reinforcements.  The 9th Armored Division was racing to the Rhine, but not with the intention of capturing the bridge.  Hell, as the movie shows, the Americans tried to bomb the bridge.  All this changed when the bridge was sighted from a ridge and Brig. Gen. William Hoge (Shinner in the movie) ordered the attack.  When Capt. Karl Timmermann (Hartman) was given the task he logically asked what if the bridge was blown, he got no answer.  However,  I found no evidence he was crabby.  As the unit approached the structure, the bridge was blown but the inferior charges only opened a ten meter hole in the middle.  Then when Timmermann’s men were on the bridge (and under it removing charges), the eastern end was blown, but rose and settled back in place.  As far Sgt. Alexander Drabik (Angelo), he was the first to cross the bridge - on the run with his squad (none of whom were hit).  Bratge and his men and civilians were trapped in the tunnel.  He ended up being captured which means he was not executed for not blowing up the bridge.   


GRADE =  C


***  Answer to the caption question:  Battle of the Bulge

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

DUELING MOVIES: Top Gun vs. Meet the Spartans


VS.



               
                Some war movies lend themselves to parody and some beg to be satirized.  “Hot Shots!” and “Meet the Spartans” fall into the latter category.  That is because the movies they are making fun of are almost parodies in themselves.  And who can resist making fun of two movies that were huge successes in spite of the critics.  It would have been incredible if no one had taken on “Top Gun” and “300”.  All you can hope for as a war movie lover is they don’t blow the opportunity.

                “Hot Shots!” came out five years after “Top Gun”.  It was directed by Jim Abraham of “Airplane!” fame.  Abraham also did the underrated war movie spoof “Top Secret”.  "Hot Shots!" cost $26 million and made $181 million.  The movie stars Charlie Sheen, Cary Elwes, and Lloyd Bridges (who replaced George C. Scott).  Although a parody of “Top Gun”, the movie has its own plot involving the corruption of the military-industrial complex (I think that’s what they were targeting, right?) and Operation Slippery Weasel which involves a mission against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  The arc of Topper Harley’s (Sheen) daddy-issues therapy with comely Ramada (Valeria Golino) mimics the romance in “Top Gun” and is actually more realistic.  At least there is some chemistry here.  There is also the spoofing of the competition between the two hot shot pilots as Topper’s nemesis is Kent Gregory (Elwes). ( I don’t why he didn’t  get a funny name or nickname.)  Stumbling through the proceedings is Adm. Benson (Bridges).  One of the running jokes is his litany of war wounds which include his bladder on Guadalcanal, his head on Pork Chop Hill, ear canals on Corregidor, forehead in Normandy, and eye balls on Okinawa.  The movie takes on several air combat movie clichés including the love triangle, the fight in the bar, the doomed flyer (“Dead Meat”), and the ubiquitous motorcycle.  As per the subgenre, it parodies movies like “Dances With Wolves”, “Rocky”, “Gone With the Wind”, and “Superman” - all well-known classics.
Can you guess which movie is being spoofed?

                “Meet the Spartans” came out just one year after “300”.  It was directed by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer.  They had made names for themselves in similar movies like “Date Movie” and “Epic Movie”.  The movie cost $30 million (try to figure out where the money went) and made $84 million.  Not a bad profit for so little effort.  It stars Sean Maguire, Carmen Electra (of course), and Kevin Sorbo.  The movie attempts to lampoon each of the iconic scenes in “300”.  These include the training of Leonidas' (Maguire) son, the “pit of death” scene, the visit to the prophetess (Ugly Betty), the first encounter (a dance contest),  the opening battle (a “yo mama” contest), and the battle involving the monster (Rocky Balboa).  Meanwhile, back in Sparta, Queen Margo (Electra) squares off with Traitoro (Diedrich Bader).  The main running gag is that the Spartans are gay, but don’t realize it.  Besides “300” the film targets more TV programs than movies.  It is mainly interested in trashing celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton and making numerous snarky pop culture references.
The two dudes kissed!  Hilarious!

                This post came about because my coverage of the Battle of Thermopylae and references to “300” caused some of my students to prod me to watch “Meet the Spartans”.  They assured me it was hilarious.  I have to admit I should have done my war movie duty and have seen it before.  However, I trust critics and “Meet the Spartans” has a 2% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  Sometimes critics are wrong and teenagers are right, but not this time.

                “Hot Shots!” is very much in the “Airplane!” model.  There are lots of silly jokes and sight gags.  It is large quantity and some quality.  Not as high a percentage as "Airplane!", but that would be asking too much.  Most of the jokes are more smilers than guffaws, but the movie is consistently funny.  If you are like me and think “Top Gun” was a terrible movie that needed to be made fun of, you won’t be disappointed.  But the movie is not mean-spirited and can be enjoyed by undiscerning movie-goers who like “Top Gun”.   The ribbing of clichés is a nice touch to go along with the movie parodies.  The attention to this starts with the title and includes the nicknames given to the stereotyped characters like “Wash Out”.  Special kudos to the parodying of “Top Gun” style music.

                “Meet the Spartans” starts off strong with the birth of Leonidas and then a montage of his brutal training of his son which includes chasing him with a chain saw.  I did laugh out loud a few times in the first twenty minutes, but not again after that.  I don’t necessarily sneer at silly (having grown up with Monty Python), but this is infantile silly.  The level of humor is evidenced early when Leonidas battles with a giant penguin (a dig at “Happy Feet”).  Watch the unrated edition if you want more lewd penguin humor.  Although “300” should have been easy to parody, “Meet the Spartans” is too lazy to do it right.  It is a botched attempt at a sitting duck.  For example, it is the height of laziness to include “yo mama” jokes, but you could go on the Internet to find many that are funnier than the ones used in the movie.
"Meet the Spartans" offers more than it delivers

                “Hot Shots!” wins this match hands down and it is partly due to who it is aimed at.  The target demographic was not limited to the 14 year old boys who were the main audience for “Meet the Spartans”.  This means the level of humor is slightly higher and it is slightly lower on the silly meter.  “Hot Shots!” has a huge advantage in acting and casting.  Compare the top five billed actors to see what I mean.  No offense to Sean Maguire, but he’s no Charlie Sheen.  You can argue who is hotter between Valeria Golino and Carmen Electra, but one of them can act and the other is Carmen Electra.  By the way, a point in Golino’s favor is the catching of the  olive from her navel was not trick photography.
No CGI was used in this scene

                Most importantly, if you were to choose to watch either one today, “Hot Shots!” is clearly the better choice.  It holds up much stronger due to the choice of targets.  Making fun of Lindsay Lohan and Kevin Federline may have been hilarious in 2008, but talk about old news now.  It is like watching an episode of “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In”.  Whereas everyone is familiar with the classic movies “Hot Shots!” parodies, the TV-centric targets of “Meet the Spartans” are too lightweight.  Speaking of old news, 2008 was not that long ago in years, but the gay jokes that populate "Meet the Spartans" are already squirm-inducing.  If you are going to build a movie around pop culture references, you can’t expect it to have long-term entertainment value.  The war movie clichés that “Hot Shots!” takes on will always be with us, but who the hell cares about Sanjaya Malakar.
Cast rating:  8+6+8+7 = 7.25 avg.  

Cast rating:  6+2+5 = 4.33


HOT SHOTS!  =  B

MEET THE SPARTANS  =  F

Saturday, August 22, 2015

FORGOTTEN GEM? Assault at West Point (1994)



                “Assault at West Point: The Court-Martial of Johnson Whittaker” is a made for TV movie about a shameful incident from America’s past.  Whitaker was one of the first African-Americans to attend West Point and while there was the only African-American cadet.  He underwent the silent treatment and ostracism for four years.  In his senior year, he was accused of staging an assault on himself in order to get sympathy because he feared an upcoming philosophy exam.  He was court-martialed and expelled.  The movie covers the court-martial using transcripts from the trial.

                The movie opens with the elderly Whittaker and his sons defending their home against cross-burning racists.  A white reporter interviews him about his past and this launches the film into flashback mode.  The way back machine places us at the beginning of the trial.  Whittaker (Seth Gilliam) is accused of mutilating himself and tying himself up to his bed.  Gen. William Sherman insists on a court-martial of the “ignorant coon”.  Whittaker’s lawyer is a well-respected white man named Daniel Chamberlain (Sam Waterston), but Whittaker insists that a friend named Richard Greener (Samuel L. Jackson) be involved in his defense.  Greener is an African-American who graduated from Harvard.  He wants to approach the trial as an example of racism.  Chamberlain wants to defend Whittaker in a color-blind way.  The two will be at logger-heads throughout the trial.  The prosecutor is the Judge Advocate of West Point.  Major Asa Bird Gardiner (John Glover) is a formidable opponent, plus he has the decked stacked in his favor. 

                The movie uses the common format for a movie about a trial.  Witnesses take the stand and this usually leads to a flashback to reenact the testimony.  These scenes are broken up by arguments between Chamberlain and Greener about strategy and attempts by Greener to track down witnesses to refute the prosecution’s case.  There is also a subplot about the assorted newsmen following the trial.  They range from racists to liberals.  The key prosecution witness is a hand writing expert who testifies that Whittaker wrote a threatening note to himself prior to the assault.  Chamberlain’s idea of refuting this is to call another expert who disputes that it is Whittaker’s handwriting but then proceeds to expound that being colored, Whittaker was incapable of “shamming” an assault and was unconscious when discovered because he is a coward!  Another damaging witness is the doctor (Eddie Bracken) who dealt with Whittaker.  He lies and testifies that there was very little blood involved.  Greener convinces Chamberlain to put Whittaker on the stand.  He does well under intense questioning by Gardiner.  After closing arguments, the trial goes to the five judge panel.  A wild card development impacts the outcome.
"I know you're trying to get me to lose my cool and
start cursing, but I don't do that in a made for TV movie."
                This is a significant film that tells a forgotten story from America’s tainted past.  It does it accurately.  The movie was based on a book by historian John Marszalek.  The book reopened the case, but it was the movie that brought the attention that resulted in a posthumous commission by President Clinton in 1995.  (The verdict had been overturned by President Arthur in 1883, but West Point refused to award the commission because he had failed the exam.)  The movie covers all the basics of the trial and uses actual testimony.  The scenes outside the courtroom are probably enhanced, but it seems likely that Chamberlain and Greener butted heads.  Greener was a significant figure in the African-American community.  He was the first black to graduate from Harvard.  One theme of the movie is the depiction of how an intelligent colored man had to tread lightly in white society.  Jackson does an excellent job showing how has to control his righteous indignation in order to get things accomplished.  It is behind closed doors with Chamberlain that his true beliefs come to the fore.  These scenes are instructive in portraying the state of civil rights in the 1880s.  Chamberlain represents the supposedly enlightened whites. He ticks off all his pro-Negro bona fides and then argues that they don’t want to rock the boat by bringing up race at the trial.  The movie portends the future as Chamberlain, after the trial, let his racist flag fly in a number of ways.

                The movie is not showy.  It definitely does not have high production values.  It makes up for this in acting.  Samuel L. Jackson is perfect as the seething Greener.  You keep expecting him to jump up and yell “I’ve had enough of the mutherf’ing snakes in this courtroom!”  As it is the most the screenwriters give him is a simple “shit”.  It must have been difficult for him to suppress his normal screen persona.  Waterston is a good match as the closet racist Chamberlain.  Their scenes where they argue strategy are well done.  Glover does a good job as Gardiner.  He is not Snidely Whiplash – he does not twirl his mustache a single time.  But he realistically represents a archetype that existed in the military back then.  The supporting cast is fine for a low budget film.  Seth Gilliam is solid as Whittaker and it’s fun seeing Eddie Bracken as the doctor.  There is nothing special about the cinematography and music.  It is what it is for a made for TV movie that could easily be a teleplay.

                In conclusion, watch this movie.  If you are not infuriated, you’ll learn something about yourself.  And shame on you if you're not upset with what happened to Johnson Whittaker.


GRADE  =  B