Wednesday, July 29, 2015

BOOK/MOVIE: Where Eagles Dare (1967/1968)


                “Where Eagles Dare” is one of the movies adapted from an Alistair MacLean novel.  Others included “Guns of Navarone” and “Ice Station Zebra”. MacLean was basically my generation’s Jack London.  He wrote adventure novels for men and Hollywood loved him.  Note the fact that the movie came out just one year after the book.  “Where Eagles Dare” is one of my favorite movies and I have seen it several times, but I had not read the source novel until recently.  I was curious how the movie differed from the book.  Since the screenplay was written by MacLean, I did not expect much difference.  Based on my professed belief that movies should be better than the books they are based on, I expected the movie to be better.  I have already reviewed the movie.  You can go to “Where Eagles Dare” to read it.  The following concentrates on how the book differs from the movie.  Spoiler alert: don’t read on if you plan on reading the book.

                The mission is the same.  All of the Allied characters are the same, with some name changes for no particular reason.  They parachute from a Lancaster bomber.  No “green on – go!”, but we do get “Broadsword calling Danny Boy”.  One small difference is that Smith (Richard Burton) and Mary (the blonde) return to Harrod’s body to find that he was killed.  In the tavern scene, Heidi (the brunette) turns the men over to the Gestapo rather than Smith giving up.  Smith and Schaffer (Clint Eastwood) escape from their captors in the car by way of Smith conning them into thinking he is Himmler’s nephew.  In the first inkling that the book will differ in tone from the movie, they tie up the Germans and move on.  Smith and Schaffer blow up a truck as a distraction so they can get on top of the cable car for the trip to the Schloss Adler.  The note book scene is recreated in the movie, but with more exposition. Von Brauchitsch (the blonde Nazi)) interrupts and shoots Smith in the hand.  Smith and Schaffer get the upper hand again when  Anne Marie (the secretary) takes Mary into another room to torture her, but Mary kicks her ass and rescues the boys.  Von Brauchitsch and the others are drugged instead of killed.  They go to the radio room and Schaffer holds off the Germans in the corridor without killing anyone.  They put a rope outside a window to trick the Germans.  None of the trio of traitors is killed going down the rope.  Schaffer throws explosives into several rooms and they set fire to the records’ room to create distractions. 

In the famous cable car fight, it’s Smith versus all three agents.  They fire through the roof using a machine gun and the leader Carraciola (the book develops one of the trio as the lead villain) climbs on top and is about to shoot Smith when he is hit by a suspension arm.  He is the first German killed in the book!  Smith plants the explosives and hops onto an ascending car by way of a pylon.  When he, Schaffer, Mary, and Jones go down, they jump off a few feet from the station.  They do not drop into the river.  They leave in the bus and Schaffer throws out bottles to impede the pursuers!  They are fired on by a Tiger tank.  They do blow up a bridge, but after that it is smooth sailing to being picked up by a Mosquito.  They are not fired on at the air field and do no firing.  The face-off with Wyatt-Turner is the same, if a bit more verbose.  The movie closes with Schaffer and Heidi making plans to live happily ever after.

                As predicted the movie is superior to the novel.  If the book had been faithfully rendered, it is safe to say it would not be as memorable.  There is nothing significantly different in the screenplay, but it is obvious Hollywood told screenwriter MacLean to up the violence.  The novelist MacLean is a real humanitarian.  The only important characters that are killed are the three double agents.  Unbelievably, at one point, Smith runs back to untie a German who was in danger of being roasted by the fire that ends up destroying the castle!  When the bus runs into a German vehicle, the occupants are barely injured.  The screenwriter MacLean totals up an incredible body count.  It is hard to believe the novel and movie were written by the same person.  Another advantage of the movie (unless you are a wuss and don’t like to see numerous humans machine gunned to death) is it has half the dialogue of the book.  The book’s strength is not the quality of the dialogue.  There is too much of it and the bantering between the comedy team of Smith and Schaffer is tedious.  I wonder if Clint Eastwood glared at MacLean when he first read the script and then took a black marker to it.  If so, kudos.  It is unimaginable that Eastwood would utter lines like “say a prayer for us, honey.  And if you don’t know any prayers, keep your fingers crossed till they ache.”  There is even a running gag that Schaffer is from Montana, but he does not get along with horses.  Hilarious, not.

                If you have seen the movie but have not read the book I cannot recommend that you read the book.  It does not fill in any blanks and you will be constantly wondering when the killing is going to begin.  You also will be squirming as you imagine Eastwood uttering the lines MacLean puts in Schaffer’s mouth.

BOOK  =  B-


Saturday, July 25, 2015

DUELING MOVIES: Rambo: First Blood II (1985) vs. Uncommon Valor (1982)


                In the 1980s, Hollywood went through a “rescue the Vietnam War POWs” phase.  Some outstanding cinema resulted – according to fourteen year old boys.  The standard bearers were “Rambo: First Blood II” and “Uncommon Valor”.  I was surprised to find that “Uncommon Valor” came out first.  In fact, we were also blessed with “Missing in Action” before “Rambo: First Blood”.  “Uncommon Valor” was directed by Ted Kotcheff (whose previous film was the original Rambo).  It was a box office hit, but got mixed reviews.  RFBII was a sequel to the movie where a PTSD-sodden vet destroys an entire city police department in anti-heroic righteousness.  The body count was deemed to be wimpy, so the sequel was demanded.  Plus it contributed greatly to the trope of the unstable Vietnam veteran, so that instability needed to be channeled into positive mission.  It was directed by the one and only George Cosmatos (who redeemed himself a bit with “Tombstone”).  Believe it or not, James Cameron wrote the first draft of the screenplay, but Stallone insisted on more politics and got co-writer credit.  Stallone wrote all the dialogue for his character, I assume.  He has about twenty lines.  Stallone nixed the addition of a side-kick to be played by John Travolta.  The movie was a humongous hit, making $300 million.
"Yo, Adrienne - I got another franchise!"

                RFBII begins with Rambo in prison (what lame-ass jury convicted him?).  Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna) proposes a pardon in exchange for a mission to see if there really are American POWs still being held in Vietnam after the war.  Rambo asks “Do we get to win the war this time?”  However, the mission is strictly recon.  A slimy politician named Murdock (Charles Napier) is using Rambo to prove there are no POWs being held.  Only a Neanderthal like Rambo would not be aware that he is being set up.  He is also not bothered by the fact that there is no training or preparation for the mission.  Not even a montage.  When Rambo parachutes in (losing all his high tech equipment and his shirt in the process), he hooks up with a female agent named Co-Bao (Julia Nickson) who speaks better English than Rambo, of course.  When Rambo observes the camp he finds that there are Americans being held and mistreated to boot.  The movie tells the ignorant American moviegoers that the Vietnamese held Americans because we reneged on reparations payments!  He defies his mission parameters to rescue one of them.  Let the killing begin.  In Stallonesque irony, Rambo ends up back in the camp so he can be tortured by Russians.  Oscar please!  (Razzie instead.)  Co-Bao helps him escape and then something happens to her that breaks Rambo’s usual self-composure.  He is so angry, ordinary arrows will not express his feelings.  He has to have explosive tipped arrows.  There is some chopper on chopper action and enough gratuitous violence to sate any middle school boy.  He rescues all the prisoners and then confronts Murdock on behalf of all the veterans who were dissed when they returned home.  And through the power of film, America was able to feel better about the Vietnam War.
don't they know you don't want to make him angry?

                “Uncommon Valor” deals with a father’s quest to rescue his missing in action son from a Laos prison camp.  Col. Rhodes (Gene Hackman), with bankrolling from a millionaire who also is searching for his son, assembles a motle crew of the assorted types.  They include a PTSD "tunnel rat" (Fred Willard), a mentally unstable hulk (Randall Cobb playing himself), and a black guy who is an explosives expert called "Dead Meat".  (Actually, "Blaster".)    Their trainer Scott (Patrick Swayze) has never been in the shit, but eventually is accepted by the grunts.  Unlike RFBII, they go through extensive training, including a dress rehearsal in a mock-up of the camp.  It goes swimmingly so Hollywood can once more put the FUBAR doctrine into effect.  The first example of this trope is when their weapons are confiscated by the CIA in Thailand.  It seems the government is in cover-up mode when it comes to MIAs in Laos.  Since these mercenaries are at heart cuddly, they pool their money to buy some WWII surplus weapons. At least it will now be a fair fight with the enemy.  General Mayhem takes command at the camp and let the whittling begin.  The good guy mortality rate ends up at 40%.  The rescued sons’ rate is 50%.
Stallone got a lot of acting tips by
watching Randall Cobb's performance

                Naturally there are some similarities between the two movies besides the obvious "going behind enemy lines to rescue prisoners" plot.  Both blame the continued captivity of the Americans on a cynical government and shame the American public for its treatment of Vietnam veterans.  Each believes we could have and should have won the war.   They both have a schmaltzy song over credits.  When will war movies learn to avoid original songs?  Both have a very implausible romance thrown in to placate the women being dragged to the theater.  “Valor” spends more time on character development since it is not a one man show.  It has some humor, whereas “Rambo” is bereft of it.  The parodies have made up for that.
totally natural group shot

  Surprisingly, “Rambo” has the better acting, which is pretty damning for “Valor”.  Stallone may not be much of a thespian, but he does have charisma.  Nickson is not bad as his girlfriend.  The villains do a good job not overshadowing Stallone’s acting.  Cartoonish would be the best description of their performances.  “Valor” has a better cast, but is a disappointment.  If it had not been for the casting of Hackman, the movie would be complete crap.  “Valor” does have the advantage in dialogue because it is painful to listen to what comes out of the mouths in “Rambo”.  Especially the closing speech by Rambo.
maybe I should be more selective and not make ten movies a year

Cutting to the chase, the big comparison has to be in quality and quantity of action.  “Rambo” wins on both counts.  Hell, it does not even bother with the usual training scene.  Nobody cares.  Let’s get to Rambo being Rambo as soon as possible.  Before he’s done, he has killed 57 bad guys.  This is done with a variety of weapons.  All of them cool.  There are also the requisite explosions that the audience demands.  “Valor” can’t match the body count but is competitive in explosions.  The unit even withstands real explosions during training!  It also has a blown up bridge.  Got to love that.  Literally, because it’s the law.
the last sight of many an extra
I had not seen RFBII since I was a young adult.  At the time I took umbrage at its ridiculous right wing propaganda and attempt to rewrite the ending of the war.  I was appalled at how the movie had given my students a false impression of the war.  When I rewatched it, I discovered that it is no longer provocative.  If you have the right frame of mind (and lots of alcohol), it can be seen for what it now is – macho bull shit as entertainment for the masses.  Even though it has no humor, it is still a deeply hilarious movie.  “Uncommon Valor” is not nearly as much fun.  It takes itself more seriously, but the implementation of the predictable plot is underwhelming.

Rambo =  B-
       Valor  =  D  

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

CRACKER? Merrill’s Marauders (1962)

                “Merrill’s Marauders” is a Samuel Fuller (“The Steel Helmet”) film about the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional) that fought in Burma in WWII.  Fuller also co-wrote the script loosely based on the nonfiction book by Charlton Osburn, Jr.  Warner Brothers pressured Fuller to make the movie with the implication that it would consider making the movie he really wanted to make – “The Big Red One”.   The movie was a difficult experience for Fuller.  He wanted Gary Cooper as the lead, but ill health prevented this.  (Cooper died soon after.)  The studio angered Fuller by adding some feel good into the movie.  The movie was made in the Philippines with cooperation of the Philippine Army and U.S. Special Forces.

                The movie begins with a narrator explaining the war situation in Burma.  The Japanese had expanded into Southeast Asia in 1942 and the Allies wanted it back.  At the Quebec Conference, the Anglo-Americans decided to create a 3,000 man unit in India for operations behind enemy lines.  Gen. Frank Merrill  (Jeffrey Chandler) was given command of the 5307th by Gen. Joseph Stilwell.  In January, 1944 the unit was given the mission to destroy an enemy supply base at Walawbum.  It will be a 200 mile trek through the jungle that will take three months.
do you like watching men walk?
how about if donkeys are involved?

                This being a Fuller film, the action begins with a nifty little assault on a Japanese artillery outpost.  Rousing music backs a frontal attack with grenades and covering fire.  This is followed by a twenty mile forced march to reach Walawbum.  The focus is on a platoon led by Lt. Stockton (Ty Hardin).  He has a father/son relationship with Merrill.  He commands your typical heterogeneous small unit (although no one is from Brooklyn).  They lead the attack on a railway station.  Stock tells his men the attack will begin in 33 seconds.  He likes to be very specific.  He gives one of the men a single rifle grenade which is all he needs to take out an ammo truck.  Because he’s an American.  There are good battle sounds (much of it lots of gunfire).  The men actually reload, but the deaths are of the touchdown signaling variety.  Some of the filming was apparently done by midget cameramen which would explain the numerous upward angle shots.    End of movie since the Marauders had been promised relief after achieving their objective.  Enter Gen. Stilwell (John Hoyt). 

                Stilwell tells Merrill that they must now move on to take Myitkyana.  When Merrill points out that given the exhaustion of his unit this would be impossible, Stilwell basically tells him tough shit.  Merrill then has to break it to Stockton who informs his men via a long range shot that registers the slumping shoulders of the depressed men.  They push on through a swamp.  Trudging music.  A subplot develops involving Merrill’s heart problems.  Doc Kolodny (Andrew Duggan) is unable to stop him from killing himself.  He also has to deal with the rampant diseases like typhus.  Not to mention the lack of supplies.  When a supply drop occurs near Japanese forces, Merrill plays harsh bastard and orders his men to move on.
Stockton has his usual "you've got to be f'in kidding me" look
"Are you s******* me?!"

They reach the railway station at Shduzup.   The main fighting is in a mazelike structure that makes for a unique combat setting.  (There are no friendly casualties in the chaotic fighting because the Army insisted Fuller edit them out.)  It’s a phyrric victory as the unit has seemingly reached the end of its tether.  The doc reports to Merrill that the men are finished due to AOE – accumulation of everything.  Stilwell gives Merrill the “option” of continuing on to Myitkyina.  He decides he is not going to let anyone call him a pussy so he has to break it to Stock again.  “When you lead you have to hurt people – the enemy and sometimes your own.”  Now the march is through mountainous terrain.  Even the audience will be exhausted before they reach Myitkyina.  The survivors are faced with a last stand at the old watering hole when they arrive outside their objective.

“Merrill’s Marauders” was an obvious choice for Hollywood treatment.  After the success of “Objective Burma”, Warner Brothers was looking for a similar subject except this time without the controversy of Americans stealing British thunder.  The Marauders were fairly well known, having been press darlings during the war.  Fuller was a good choice to make the movie and his gritty style was appropriate for the subject and acceptable for a 1960s WWII movie.  In fact, Fuller wanted the movie to be even more gritty and ran into trouble with the studio over this.  The studio inserted some second unit footage to dilute the grit and tacked on a parade ground ending.  In spite of the tampering, the film is more realistic than most WWII movies.  It’s a pretty grim movie that lacks much humor.  Some of the deaths tug at you, but the movie concentrates more on the sacrifices than the mortality of the men.  The movie does a good job balancing the brass with the GIs.  You get an excellent study in command by way of Merrill and a soldier’s eye view of the campaign through Stockton and his men.  The interaction between Stilwell and Merrill and Merrill and Stockton provide both the macro view of the strategy and a micro view.
Claude Akins always gets the babes
The movie is well-acted, especially by Chandler.  It was his last role.  He injured his back playing baseball during the shoot, but insisted on continuing.  When he looks like he is in pain during the trudging scenes, it’s not all acting.  After the film was done, Chandler underwent back surgery and died under anesthesia at age 42.  Hardin is fine as the game, but questioning Stockton.  The members of the platoon include reliables like Peter Brown and Claude Akins.  Special mention to the acting by Eleanor the mule.
“Merrill’s Marauders” is a campaign movie, not a battle movie.  The combat scenes are exciting, but relatively brief.  The movie is more about the hardships the men went through.  It is clear that the soldiers were asked to go beyond human endurance and they accomplished impossible tasks.  The film is the rare war movie that spends some time on the effects of war on morale.  These guys do not want to do what ends up making them famous.  They are not out for glory.  They continue putting one foot in front of the other, but grudgingly.

SPOILER ALERT:  How accurate is the movie?  The unit was created at the Quebec Conference in August, 1943.  It was modeled after Orde Wingate’s Chindits which was conducting long-range operations in Burma.  The unit consisted of 3,000 volunteers (many of whom were veterans of Guadalcanal).  Some of them came from stockades (“The Dead End Kids”).  The unit was code-named Galahad.  They were trained in India after shipping out from San Francisco.  They then made a 1,000 mile march into Burma to be available to Stilwell.  At first the unit was used for harassing enemy supply lines and for patrolling, but then it was tasked with capturing Walawbum.  This is where the movie begins.

 They started out with 360 pack mules.  The path was through difficult jungle terrain.  They did not surprise the Japanese at Walawbum.  They had to withstand human wave attacks and heavy bombardment, but the enemy was forced to withdraw.  Stilwell then sent them to take a blocking position at Nhpua Ga.  Here they faced numerous attacks from various directions.  Dysentery and lack of supplies added to their miseries.  In spite of this, “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell ordered them on to Myitkyana across a mountain range with peaks 6,000 feet high.   There only remained 1,300 from the original 3,000.  The movie fails to show the two Chinese infantry regiments that accompanied them.  Merrill did not march with them on account of his latest heart attack.  His executive officer Lt. Col. Hunter was in command.  The trail had not been used in ten years and the biggest problem was getting the mules over it.  Lack of food (Stilwell’s decision that one K-Ration per day would be sufficient was laughable) and the fact that almost every soldier was ill caused an average drop in weight of 25 pounds. 

 The movie does not depict the numerous Japanese outposts that had to be taken and also does not show how the Marauders had mortars to use.  The air field was easily taken after an air bombardment.  Hunter was unclear if this finally completed their mission.  Gliders brought in an anti-aircraft unit instead of the infantry reinforcements necessary to take on Myitkyana.  When Stilwell made it clear they were not finished, Hunter argued that they were literally finished as a fighting force.  Stilwell responded by having the hospital combed for anyone who could still move and carry a weapon.  The movie does not go far enough in delineating what a dick Stilwell was.  The subsequent attack on the town was unsuccessful and resulted in a siege that further drained the unit.  This is when the typhus really kicked in.  At this point morale reached rock bottom.  Myitkyana only fell when Chinese forces attacked from the east.  The unit was disbanded on Aug. 10, 1944.  It had only 130 combat effectives at this point.  Of the original contingent, only two were alive and had never been hospitalized.  The unit had fought thirty-two engagements.  Hunter eulogized it as “the most beat upon, most mishandled, most heroic, and most unrecognized regimental unit in World War II.”  You can edit out “unrecognized” because of this movie.

In conclusion, “Merrill’s Marauders” is similar to “Glory” in that it brings recognition to a heroic small unit that deserved to be well-known.  It is not in a league with “Glory”, but it is respectable for a 1960s war movie.  It bucks Old School parameters enough to be gutsy in its griminess.  If Fuller had had his way, it would make my 100 Best War Movies list.  It might still sneak in.

GRADE  =  B 


Sunday, July 19, 2015

CRACKER? Barry Lyndon (1975)

                “Barry Lyndon” was directed by Stanley Kubrick and it came after a string of masterpieces that included “Paths of Glory”, “2001”, ‘’Spartacus”, and “Dr. Strangelove”.  The movie he made right before it was “Clockwork Orange”.  Kubrick wanted to make a movie about Napoleon, but “Waterloo” beat him to it.  Instead he decided to make a film based on William Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon which was first published in 1844.  The movie was filmed on location mostly in Ireland.  The film was not a hit and got mixed reviews.  It has gained stature over the years.  It won four Academy Awards:  Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, and Musical Score (Leonard Rosenman).  It was nominated for Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay.  Ryan O’Neal was tabbed for the lead because Warner Brothers insisted on a Top Ten box office star (this was the last time he was in the Top Ten) and the other choice (Robert Redford) turned the role down.

                Some scholars refer to Barry Lyndon as the first anti-hero.  Others simply consider him one of literature’s great rogues.  The movie starts with the young, lower class Barry fighting a duel over his cousin when she decides to marry a gentleman who has much better prospects.  After this he has to flee and ends up in the British Army during the Seven Years’ War.  He fights in a skirmish which is brief, but accurate other than the French soldiers not reloading.  In a portent of action interruptus yet to come, Barry leaves the battle early.  He then deserts and ends up in the Prussian Army.  Another battle ends prematurely, but Barry saves his commanding officer and is promoted to espionage.  Instead he becomes a gambler.  After some success in this line of work, he sets his sights on the social status that comes with marrying a rich widow.  Barry settles down to spendthrift wastrelry with his dysfunctional family.  He does not live happily ever after.
don't blink or you'll miss any combat involving this dandy
                “Barry Lyndon” has a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an 8.1 on IMDB.  I have to beg to differ.  If there ever was a movie that mesmerized people with shiny baubles, this is it.  Critics love Kubrick and were willing to overlook the plot in favor of the costumery and cinematography.  They gush over the way the movie was filmed.  They are particularly awed by the fact that John Alcott shot the interior scenes without artificial lighting.  As a nonprofessional I would classify that as neat, but not very significant in judging the movie.  I agree that the costumes and music are impressive.  The outdoor scenes are as pretty as a post card.

                My problem with the movie is it is excruciatingly boring.  184 minutes of boring.  The pace is glacial.  At one point the movie jumps eight years and I literally cheered.  To make matters worse, the movie is predictable and the death of one character could not have been telegraphed more if Samuel Morse was the director.   When you do get to an action scene, it is truncated and unfulfilling.  Some refer to it as a satire and even a black comedy, but I did not smile a single time and in fact the movie was depressing to me.  It is also poorly acted.  Ryan O’Neal is wooden and not nearly roguish enough.   Marisa Berenson is basically eye-candy.  It is no surprise her career did not take off after being in it. 
they weren't big on camouflage
in the Seven Years' War

                Movies about the Seven Years’ War are very rare.  Unfortunately, “Barry Lyndon” is not a war movie in my opinion.  You will learn little about the war from it.  It does have some historical value as a period piece.  You learn about what asses the upper class were and how they dressed and behaved.  That is little payoff for three hours of watching molasses flow.  Some will say that I just did not get it and I should rewatch it.  To those people I say:  not a chance in Hell!  First impression will have to be only impression.