Thursday, April 28, 2016

CLASSIC or ANTIQUE: Submarine Command (1951)

                “Submarine Command” is a submarine movie directed by John Farrow (“Wake Island”).  Star William Holden put $20,000 of his own money into the film which was a mistake because the movie underperformed at the box office.  This may be partly blamed on the coincidental release of “Operation Pacific” which had a similar plot and John Wayne.  “Submarine Command” got a lot of cooperation from the U.S. Navy and the Department of Defense.  Almost all the scenes are filmed at naval installations or on board naval vessels.  It was one of the first movies to examine the effects of PTSD.

                The movie opens in the last few days of WWII in the Pacific.  The U.S.S. Tiger Shark is patrolling and on the outlook for downed airmen.  The executive officer Ken White (Holden) is morose because he has never seen action yet.  Be careful what you wish for in a war movie.  They pick up a hot shot pilot (are there any other kind?) named Pete (Donald Taylor).  This gives the crew a chance to school him on the importance of the submarine service.  This is followed by Commander Rice telling White that submarines will be forgotten in the peacetime Navy.  Prove me wrong, American public! 

                Literally on the last day of the war, White gets a chance to get blooded by sinking some Japanese ships.  Unfortunately, the lone fighter plane that always seems to be lurking in these movies shows up to cause White to order a dive with the Captain and Quartermaster still on deck.  CPO Boyer (William Bendix) draws the assignment of taking umbrage with White’s cowardly decision to save the boat.  This won’t be the end of this dynamic, nor have we seen the last of Pete.

                White and the sub return home.  He is emotionally torn by his decision to sacrifice Commander Rice.  In one of the numerous voiceovers he pouts that he is a “one day warrior who lost his captain and quartermaster in his one day of action.”  His girlfriend Carol (Nancy Olson – her fourth movie with Holden) is waiting and so is Pete.  Somehow Pete got back early enough to be seeing Carol.  Ken does not seem to be upset with this!  Let the love triangle begin.  White makes the visit to Rice’s wife and his father Admiral Rice and both are incredibly understanding.  It seems the only one that is critical of White is White.  Oh, and Boyer.

                Proving Rice’s prescience, life in the post-war navy is deskbound and boring.  Carol has a tough time living with a flagellant.  Not to mention Pete is sniffing around even after Ken and Carol get hitched.  When Carol asks Ken to abandon the dead-end Navy, he chooses his first love – the recommissioned from mothballing Tiger Shark.  Boats before hoes.  Coincidentally, the Korean War breaks out offering redemption for White.  Coincidentally, Boyer is part of the crew to growl at White.  Coincidentally, Pete is brought on board to lead a commando raid.  Coincidentally, White has to make another decision involving the safety of the boat.  Will White end his moping?  Will the commando raid provide the opportunity for action for a Korean War submarine?  How will the love triangle (actually love quadrangle since the boat is involved) resolve itself?  You’ll have to watch the movie or use your common sense.

                Although the movie is not well known, it is not bad.  The cast is a strength.  There are lots of familiar faces from the black and white WWII era of films.  In particular, Bendix and Taylor who play roles they could play in their sleep.  Both provide the comic relief in the form of what passed for witty warrior repartee for back then.  Overall the dialogue is pretty good.  Nothing to unintentionally laugh at.  Bendix is the crusty old salt and Taylor is the wolfish jock.  Holden brings star power, but is not real comfortable acting wearing a hair shirt.  By the way, Holden and Taylor became drinking buddies during the shoot and were often drunk.  (Holden did not remember much of the filming.)  Olson does a good job as the understanding wife/therapist who has to compete with a boat while fending off the flirtations of Pete.  The movie is unclear throughout whether Pete is a frenemy to Ken or his BFF.  At least the romance is not totally standard.

                The movie is not based on a true story.  There was no Tiger Shark.  How did the Navy overlook such a cool name?  The commando raid is set during the evacuation from the port of Hungnam in December, 1950 after the Chicom onslaught forced us out of North Korea.  I doubt seriously that there was a mission to liberate a POW camp as depicted in the movie.  The movie definitely benefits from the cooperation of the Navy.  The submarine interiors are those of an actual WWII era sub.  The firing sequence for White’s attack on the Japanese convoy is instructive.  Unfortunately, the rear admiral who served as technical adviser slept through parts of the filming.  He allowed the script to refer to the submarine as a “ship”!  In the final combat scene, the sub must surface to send a message when in actuality this would not have been necessary.  It had to happen because one of the legs of the quadrangle had to be eliminated.

                The weakness of the movie is in its predictability and surfeit of clichés.  There is never any doubt who Carol will end up with, but the resolution is slightly unorthodox.  This is a submarine movie so it has to have tropes, by law.  It is not the worst in this subgenre.  There is no command dysfunction between Rice and White, and no extended depth charging scene.  It does have several from my list of common submarine clichés.  There is one black on board – a messmate.  Someone is left on deck during an emergency dive.  The sub has to go on an emergency mission.  The sub lands commandoes.  The captain gets redemption for a previous action.  The movie is not in a league with “U-571”, but it is not trying to stretch the subgenre either.

               Classic or antique?  Antique.

Grade  =  C

Sunday, April 24, 2016

CLASSIC or ANTIQUE? No Man’s Land (1931)

          “Niemandsland” (No Man’s Land) is a German WWI movie.  It is also entitled "Hell on Earth".  It came out around the same time as “All Quiet on the Western Front”, but is much less familiar to war movie lovers.  Like most WWI movies, it is firmly anti-war.  The movie leads with a title card that proclaims:  “This is a story of conflict! Not of victory or defeat.  Not of armies and generals.  This film portrays the lives, loves, and hates of five men and their families.  Their experiences transcend war.  Their plea for understanding is a call to all embittered humanity?”

            The movie begins by introducing us to five soldiers who are identified as The Englishman, The Frenchman, The Russian Jew, The Vaudevillian, and The German.  There is a cool montage that jumps from country to country.  One thing the nations all have in common is the enthusiasm of the public for the war.  Suddenly we are at the front in a dugout in no man’s land.  The German and The Englishman rescue a wounded soldier who is shell-shocked to the point where he can not talk.  They are joined by The Frenchman and The Vaudevillian who mutters “we’re here because we’re here because here.”  At first their attempt to go back to their own lines is discouraged by machine gun fire, but soon they settle in because the war sucks.  This gives them time for exposition.  Meanwhile on the home front, the ladies are suffering.

            Obviously, the movie is meant to be an allegory.  The theme is the soldiers of WWI are all humans thrust into fighting each other.  If they could just get to know each other, the war would end.  This is a bit simplistic and not exactly ground-breaking.  The film is heavy-handed and predictable. The plot is like that of a play. There is a lot of talking, but little of it is confrontational.   The movie is very micro.  Almost all the action takes place in a basement.  The home front scenes add little to the narrative unfortunately.  Surprisingly, there is little character development beyond the names of the characters. In fact, as in the case of the black vaudevillian, they are stereotyped. He’s the comical one.  The acting is broad and none of the cast stands out. 

            “No Man’s Land” is a must see for any war movie lover determined to watch every significant WWI movie.  Everyone else can skip it.  It is definitely an antique.  Although a talkie, it plays like a silent movie.  It does not compare favorably with contemporaries like “All Quiet…”.  For instance, the one scene where Paul stabs the Frenchman in the shell crater and then ruminates on man’s inhumanity towards man, is more effective than the entire plot of “Niemandsland”.  But perhaps I am being too harsh.  The movie was a sincere attempt to avoid another world war and should be lauded for that although it is easy to snort at the execution.

 GRADE  =  C    

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

CRACKER? Wooden Crosses (1932)

       I am currently preparing for my annual tournament which this year will determine the best WWI combat movie.  It is surprisingly hard to find sixteen movies that fit my criteria. I solicited suggestions and one of the suggestions was this movie.  I was not familiar with it before it was suggested, but I’m glad it appeared on my radar.  It just goes to show that no matter how many war movies you watch and no matter how much you read up on the genre, you still can be surprised by obscure gems.  “Wooden Crosses” is a French film that was originally entitled “Les Croix des Bois”.  It is based on a novel by Roland Dorgeles. He was a veteran of the war.  The director was Raymond Bernard.  The movie is set in the Champagne sector midway through the war on the Western Front.

                The movie opens with the image of soldiers fading into crosses.  Theme established.  This will not be a feel-good movie.  A new recruit named Gilbert (Pierre Blanchar) arrives at a bivouac.  This will be a small unit movie.  The cast of characters is introduced and briefly identified.  They are typically heterogeneous.  The fat, jolly cook who never bathes, the dandy, the serious grandpa, the crafty singer, the meany, the gentleman, the moron, the loudmouth, etc.  It’s like a frat house and he’s a pledge.  In fact, there is a lot of singing and dancing in the film.  These guys are making the best of the war, at first.  I wonder if all these guys will be around for the end credits.  What do you think?

                It turns out that the film is basically a buddy film featuring the relationship between Gilbert and the loudmouth Sulphart (Gabriel Gabrio).  This dynamic reminded me of Paul and Kat in “All Quiet…”  Sulphart is the seasoned veteran who takes Gilbert under his wing.  Only Gilbert does not need much schooling.  He is mature and fits in immediately.  When the first man dies, it’s Gilbert who brings a letter he wrote to the gravesite.  The movie avoids the usual clichés of the subgenre of “who will survive?”  The deaths will be unpredictable.

                The plot facilitates the winnowing of the unit.   Over several months, the men are tested by the war.  Their enthusiasm wanes as they live through the monotony as well as the gut-wrenching combat.  The monotony includes the lice hunts and dugout discussions.  The soldier banter is not labored or faux.  These quieter moments are pauses between the very noisier scenes of bombardment and combat.  Several of the scenes are memorable.  At one point the group is in a dugout and they detect Germans tunneling under them to mine the position.  The movie intercuts with the Germans doing their work.  There is an extended section that depicts an attack across no man’s land to capture a village.  The movie concludes with another battle scene because some of the main characters are still alive.

                This is a remarkable movie.  Bernard directed it with flair.  He is a big fan of fades.  The cinematography stands out.  The night scenes are nicely lit with flares providing the eerie shadowing.   There are great sound effects, but I find that most WWI movies do explosions well.  The bombardments are so well done that when the first assault approaches, I found myself wondering how the Hell anyone could go out into that!  The sets are fine with a realistic no man’s land.  One flaw is the trenches are a bit too livable.  I did not see a rat and it does not rain.  There is not a lot of mud.  The movie does not lay the futility of the war on thick.  The soldiers have some cynicism, but they do not question the war.  There is no hint of the mutiny that is coming in the French army.  The movie also does not take many shots at command.  Both of these omissions are a bit puzzling considering Gorgeles was a veteran.  The only aspect that is clearly anti-war is the death total.  Unfortunately, most of the unit are not fleshed out, other than Gilbert and Sulphart.  It would take repeat viewing to figure out who is dying when.  The only characters that are fully developed are the main two.  Both of whom are engaging.  Gilbert is steady and acts as the unit’s conscience.  He is Paul Baumer from the start.  Sulphart provides comic relief, but he is a good soldier and a great friend.  I would hope to meet someone like him if I was sent to the front.

                The outstanding thing about the film is the combat.  It has both quantity and quality.  I have seen enough WWI movies to assure you that they seldom have very much actual fighting.  This movie manages to give good treatment to both the soldier life and the battles.  The attack on the village features twelve minutes of continuous balls to the wall combat.  The numerous deaths are random and not the usual cheesy overacting.  At one point they are defending a cemetery (similar to a scene in “All Quiet…”) and Gilbert and Sulphart take refuge in a grave.  Sulphart:  “They’ll bury us alive to save time.”  One of the unit gets one of the great death scenes in war movie history.  His last request is for Sulphart to visit his cheating wife and spit in her face!

                “Wooden Crosses” is a must see for war movie fans.  It is one of the best films set in WWI.  Don’t let the subtitles scare you away.  It will probably make my 100 Best War Movies list.


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

WAR MOVIE OR ROMANCE? A Very Long Engagement (2004)

                I am working my way through movies that could potentially make the field for my Best WWI Combat Movie Tournament.  It was suggested that I consider the French film “A Very Long Engagement”.  It has been sitting in my queue for some time, but I have not been motivated to see it because of my impression that it was not really a war movie.  Let’s see.

                The movie was released in 2004 and got some critical recognition.  It was nominated for Academy Awards for Art Direction and Cinematography.  The movie was directed and co-written by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and is based on a novel by Sebastien Japrisot.  The movie is very French, but does include Jodie Foster in the cast.

                The movie opens with a shot of a damaged crucifix in no man’s land.  Subtle.  It is Jan. 6, 1917 and a group of five condemned poilu are being led to their place of execution.  We get a little back-story on each and a flashback to their offense.  It turns out they all were court-martialed for self-inflicted wounds.  Specifically, a bullet through the hand.  The last is the twenty year-old Manech who is suffering from shell shock.  His method was holding up a lit cigarette at night to attract the attention of a German sniper.  The creative punishment is for the five to be shoved into no man’s land so the Germans can finish them off.  The movie then jumps two years to his fiancé Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) who is pining for him in the picturesque French countryside.  She refuses to believe he is dead and hires a detective to search for him.  She gets involved too.  Interviewing friends and family of the ill-fated quintet allows for some fleshing out of the characters.  This includes the Manach/Mathilde romance.  The film is very non-linear.  There is a mysterious subplot involving a prostitute named Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard) who is assassinating some of the officers involved in the incident.  Another subplot has the wife (Jodie Foster) of one of the condemned trying to get pregnant as per her impotent husband’s request.  She has a brief affair with Biscotte’s best friend Bastoche.  Bastoche is the one who accidentally shot himself in the hand while trying to kill a rat.  There is something of an “Odyssey” feel to the characters and tales.  There is also a mystery to be solved as apparently the punishment did not go as smoothly as the villainous court-martial board had hoped.  Could some of the five have lived?  It would be amazing if they did.  But this is a movie, after all.
is it a war movie?  well ...

                “A Very Long Engagement” is an interesting movie.  Is it a war movie?  I would describe it as a romance/mystery/war movie.  Most of the movie is set after or before the war.  There is not that much on the soldiers in the war.  The combat is brief and there is little soldier life.  The movie does indict French military justice, but it does not hammer that theme.  Although four of the five self-mutilations are related to the horrors of the fighting, the plot does not spend a lot of time making us understand why the men were driven to this.  You won’t get a feel for why the French army mutinied from this movie.  But the punishment was really a plot device to set up the parted lovers template.

                That plot needed a lot of manipulation and disbelief suspension.  Since the movie was not really meant to be a traditional war movie, I was able to overlook some of the outrageous plot developments.  I think Jeunet meant for the film to be surreal in spots.  For example, Bastoche knocks down a German plane with a grenade.  More egregious is a regrettable scene that crosses the line by having a hospital set up in a barrage balloon hanger with explosive results.  I love massive fiery explosions as much as the next guy, but come on!  Much of the plot is implausible, but what the heck.  After the five hand wound opening, you know what you are in for.
Damn, that plane is flying so low a person could knock it down with a grenade!

                Once I got over the fact that the movie was untraditional, I was able to enjoy the ride.  The acting is excellent with Tautou perfect as the spunky Mathilde.  She is lame from polio and plays a tuba.  She is not the only eccentric character.  The detective Pire (Ticky Holgado) brings a lot of fun in his search.  Tina Lombardi is a bizarre, but mesmerizing figure.  Jodie Foster’s Elodie is more than stunt casting, she’s a key to the mystery.  Speaking of eccentricities, the cinematography is the most memorable thing about the movie.  Bruno Delbonnel has some pizazz to his craft.  The movie has some awesome visuals.  He likes to have double images appearing together.  One is the present and the other a flashback.  To add spice, the flashbacks sometimes differ from the original flashback, which is the way memory sometimes works.  These baubles tend to overshadow some of the film’s flaws.  I need to see the movie again to figure out what was up with that coded letter, for instance.  I also am unclear why their commanding officer tore up the pardons. 

                Pairing romance and war has not been particularly successful for war movie fanatics like myself.  This movie is an exception.  It is not that it provided enough action and violence.  The film is definitely balanced for both sexes.  It really is more geared towards the female audience, but guys won’t sigh throughout.  That does not mean I did not shake my head a few times.  But it is what it is and that’s not bad if you go in knowing that.