Posts Tagged ‘classic films’

Film and Time Travel

March 9, 2011

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in“. – Always good to start and end with a Henry David Thoreau quotation…


For all intents and purposes, we can say that the modern time travel story began with H.G. WellsThe Time Machine (1895). Modern is another word for science – as opposed to magic – and thus, I guess, I’m speaking of science fiction. For stories about sudden movement in time to qualify as a modern time travel story, there must be, then, a speculative idea about time with some sort of connection to science, no matter how strenuous.


The concept of moving back and forth in time is not a new one. (Yes, we all move forth in time, but you know what I mean…) In the Nihongi, a Japanese collection of early myths and tales up until 697 AD, we find the story Urashimo Taro, about a fisherman moving hundreds of years through time. Washington Irving’s famous story Rip Van Winkle (written in 1819), is about a man falling asleep to wake up a hundred years after. And everyone knows Charles DickensA Christmas Carol (1843), in which Ebenezer Scrooge is taken back and forth in time to witness his own past and future. There are many more examples, with perhaps the Norwegian/Danish Johan Herman Wessel’s play Anno 7603 (written 1781) the most extreme in length of the journey through time. What all these stories have in common is that there is little to none scientific explanation for the chronistic anomalies. Mostly people just fall asleep and wake up in another time than their own. In Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the protagonist is transferred in time by being hit on the head. In Anno 7603, the young couple is transported through time by a fairy; neither a very scientifically sound means of transport…


Well’s The Time Machine is a science fiction novel that has stood the test of time better than many of the author’s other novels. His The Sleeper Awakes can be tough going at times, and as alluded to by the title, is yet another time travel book in which the means of transportation is a long, long sleep. (I think one could do interesting work interpreting the role of sleep in pre 20th century novels and stories). Anyhow, as I thought I should dedicate this post to time travel in films, The Time Machine serves a double purpose, as it is also the first (to my knowledge) mainstream film about time travel (1960). There were examples of time travel films in the silent era and in the 1930s, but these also lacked a certain science in their fiction, so to speak.

Without really having reflected too much on this, I think time travel can serve as a narrative device in almost any kind of stories: The Adventure story, The Comedy, The Thriller, The Drama. Of course, when time travel is introduced, these genres will often be overlapping, and perhaps it is typical of a pulp genre, as science fiction really is, to be gregarious, shall we say, in its handling of narrative strictness. Almost apart from these genres is the pure science fiction story, in which the concept of time is more than a narrative device to get a character to go from B to A, or from D to R. This is what I am tempted to call the hard science story, in which the time travel phenomenon is at least attempted to be explained as something more than the effect of a flux capacitor, and in which the consequences of temporal travel is given its due.


The Back to the Future trilogy contains a bit of all the genres, for example, but falls mainly into the adventure category. Still, there is probably no film that has done more to explain time paradoxes to generations of movie goers. The Terminator films also span a bit of all categories, but are first and foremost thrillers, while Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is, in spite of its title, pure comedy. Of the hard science films dealing with time travel, I can’t think of more than Primer, with perhaps Donnie Darko and 12 Monkeys close behind as what I’ll call serious entertainments.

“I’ve been on a calendar but I have never been on time.”
(- One of a number of Marilyn Monroe quotes I hope really belonged to her and not to some publicist…)

Characters on film can time travel for a number of reasons, they can travel far or very, very short. In Galaxy Quest, 13 seconds back in time is sufficient to avert catastrophe. Often one chooses to go to historically significant years, or periods easily reproduced on film. In Peggy Sue Got Married, it’s back to the 1950s, same in Pleasantville and Back to the Future. Perhaps because of the already mythological familiarity we have with this seemingly more innocent (American) time.

Often, it’s humans from/in the future who travel back to our time; perhaps to comment on contemporary mores from a pseudo-futuristic viewpoint, but not least to save a dollar or two in set design. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, is an example, 12 Monkeys another. In the various TV series incarnations of Star Trek, time travel has occurred quite often, beginning already in the fabulous original series (1966-69). By the way, The Voyage Home is jolly entertaining, at least if you are an Original Series fan!

Another possibility is people from the past travelling to our time, usually because of some freak accident of nature, as the technology is less likely to be available in the past. Two examples and decidedly mediocre films are Kate & Leopold and the French Les Visiteurs. I would instead rather recommend the highly entertaining Time After Time, in which H.G.Wells (played by Malcolm McDowell in one of his few sympathetic portrayals) actually invents a time machine, but unfortunately brings Jack the Ripper with him to present day.

Unfortunately, films about time travel are generally seen as lowbrow entertainment by many critics who should know better, but what can you do? It’s not like they are educated to be critics; no school for that… I still remember an article by the leader of the Norwegian film critics’ society, in which she gave the excellent Donnie Darko 1 of 6 stars, calling it “a terrible film about a rabbit and some time travel nonsense“. It still makes me angry to see that kind of ignorance being spouted by someone whose opinions are actually paid work. (As an aside, she similarly rewarded David Fincher’s Se7en with the solitary star…)

“Time flies like the wind. Fruit flies like bananas.” A bit by Groucho Marx serves to chase my bad temper…

A reason for the low esteem many so called critics – serious or not – hold of time travel films, is of course, that a number of these are very bad films indeed, and make few attempts to elevate themselves from the worst of their pulp origins. However, I do think that the percentage of good vs. bad films in a given genre is rather high when it comes to our current topic.


A couple of reasonably budgeted failures: The One, Déjà Vu and Timecop. While I like Jet Li very much, his English-speaking films have generally been more miss than hit. The perceptive reader will, perhaps, object that The One is more of parallel realities than Time Travelling, but I feel that the two concepts almost always overlap, so I’ll allow it here…The One is under no circumstances among the proudest entries in Li’s filmography. For a better film about parallel realities, see the Korean 2009:Lost Memories… Or, perhaps, the uneven The Butterfly Effect.

While Timecop is far from the worst entry that Jean-Claude Van Damme has blessed the silver screen with, it is indubitably a bad film and brings little of value to the genre. Tony Scott’s Déjà Vu, on the same hand, is so bland that it is forgotten the moment the credits start rolling; the opposite of what one wants from speculative fiction concerning time travel and paradoxes.

“Clocks slay time… time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life“. – William Faulkner.


One subgenre of time travel is where the protagonists don’t travel through time at all, but are, by some almost magical object, able to communicate with the past. In Frequency, it is an old radio that unites father and son, in The Lake House, it is a mailbox that can send letters from the would be lovers back and forth in time. I’ll also mention the romantic cult favourite Somewhere in Time, where Christopher Reeve hypnotises himself back in time by surrounding himself with old clothes and furniture. This mystical aspect can bring this kind of film closer to the fantasy-genre, than to SF. I don’t quite know, for example, where to place Darren Aronofsky’s ambitious but not perfect The Fountain. Some films are sufficiently complicated – or arty – that we can’t even be sure whether time travel actually is supposed to take place – suffice to mention 2001 – A Space Odyssey.


What, then, are the good time travel films? I’ve tentatively written a list of 10 and then some films, as lists of this type always go to 10. I have cheated, though, by including some sequels. These are a mix of entertaining and cerebral, with 12 Monkeys and Donnie Darko best combining the two traits, with Primer being cerebral, and the rest at the very least jolly entertaining. I guess some would have liked me to include yet another Terry Gilliam film, Time Bandits, but I’ve never managed to really like this, hard as I’ve tried.  Note that two of my choices deal with monkeys – or apes. Hmmm. Don’t tell Sun Wukong

Back to the Future (really all 3 of them)

Terminator (1&2)

Time After Time

Planet of the Apes (original 1969 version, of course)

Los Cronocrimenes

Primer

12 Monkeys

Donnie Darko

“As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”
Henry David Thoreau, “Economy“, Walden (1854).

Summer Reading: Part 7

September 2, 2010

The last book on this list of books I read this summer, mostly during my three week stay in Spain (Sevilla, Cordoba, Grenada, Mallorca), is Franklin Jarlett’s biography of Robert Ryan. Ryan is, I guess, my favourite film star ever, so I devoured the book in a day.

This is the only biography of Robert Ryan that I know of, at least in English. Like so many, he eventually became more popular in France due to the re-evaluation by the Cahiers du Cinéma – gang. This was a fate he shared with one of his directors, Samuel Fuller.

The biography is pretty much what you would expect and is a solid presentation of Ryan’s life. Jarlett is understandably a very positive biographer, highlighting the generosity of Ryan and talking in some length about his liberal political and social activism. If you are going to write a biography like this, you have to be a bit admiring of the man you are spending time portraying. In Ryan’s case, I see no reason not to be admiring. He seems like a rock of normality in a Hollywood so often driven by fame and superficiality. Ryan was more the down to earth type, but Jarlett does manage to let us glimpse the man outside his films.

Jarlett writes about how contemporaries like Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster made big careers for themselves, partly by taking an active part in setting up their own production companies, but not least by actively chasing roles with star potential. Ryan always seemed too modest for this. After his breakthrough role in Crossfire, where he played a racist thug, he was often typecast as unsympathetic or borderline psychotic characters. Jarlett writes well about how this possibly precluded Ryan in getting the same kind of stardom as the above mentioned gentlemen. He manages to show us the few occasions where Ryan expressed a certain resentment or regret about this. While never bitter, he mostly regretted not being offered more quality films, for too many years having to play in films not worthy of his talent just to earn an income.

Unlike some biographies, in this case, I think you definitely have to be a fan to enjoy the book. I’ve read autobiographies by John Huston, Roman Polanski and Samuel Fuller that were all so well written and downright exciting, that the reader could enjoy them cold. For one thing a biography is not an autobiography, so the genius of the protagonist is not necessarily reflected in the tale. Jarlett’s biography of Ryan is sturdy and solid, but lacks perhaps some spark or reason to read for the non-Ryanist. The book is also split in two, where the first half is the biography, and the second part is a “critical filmography”. This latter part is very handy for scholarly purposes, but also for the above average Ryan-fan. All his films are included, with full technical specifications (cast list, company, year, producer, screenplay, etc.), followed by abstracts of contemporary reviews of the film in question.

Jarlett’s language is not particularly adventurous, but serves its purpose. I am, however, left with a feeling that there should be more to this tale, and all biographies are indeed tales. For one thing, the characters never really come to life under Jarlett’s pen. Just because one is writing about real persons, doesn’t mean that the text magically will transform them into full-bodied specimen on the page. There is enough here, though, to mourn both Ryan’s lack of roles and his premature death of cancer at the age of 63. Jarlett seems to have talked to all the relevant players and I guess that this is the only Ryan biography we will ever see, as many of the interviewees have since died, such as John Frankenheimer. (The book is from 1990). And I have to compliment Jarlett for having both the inclination and the stamina to write this book, as I can’t think of a single movie star more deserving of a biography and critical filmography than Robert Ryan. If you are a fan, you should definately read this biography.

I don’t think I’ll write much more about this book now, as I plan to write a longer post about Robert Ryan at a later date. If you are at all curious about the man and what he was able to, I’d suggest the following films:

Act of Violence (dir. Fred Zinnemann 1947)
The Set-Up (dir. Robert Wise 1949)
On Dangerous Ground (dir. Nicholas Ray 1951)
The Naked Spur (dir. Anthony Mann 1953)
Inferno (dir. Roy Baker 1953)
House of Bamboo (dir. Samuel Fuller 1955)
Billy Budd (Peter Ustinov 1962)
The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah 1969)

I could mention many more, but in these, at least he is given a bit to do and they are all very good films. Inferno is a personal favourite of mine, but should be caught in 3-D. It is still the best film I have seen in that format. For once, the technology actually worked to enhance the story, letting us experience the desolation and aloneness in the middle of a brutal unforgiving nature. Act of Violence is another favourite. It is one of the best and truest Noirs I have seen; instead of a femme fatale, though, there is a histoire fatale, to put it a bit wankerish. I will, I hope, explain these choices, together with his other roles, in a later post.

Well, that was that for this year’s Summer Reading. I hope against reason, that these posts have not been boring to the point of suicide. I think I’ve written about 10.000 words now, in about a week, so that was a bit more than the quick overview I had planned. Perhaps these books are not all what one would consider suitable for lazy days at the beach or slumbering afternoons under the shade, but all in all I’m satisfied with my choices. This year, I actually aimed for readability and more or less accessible literary works, rather than the more convoluted narratives I’ve sometimes brought with me on my vacations. Maybe this means I’m getting even more lazy…

The Browning Versions; What is a Remake and When is it Not?

January 6, 2009

After my last post, regarding the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, I received quite some negative replies – as well as some positive comments. I’ve replied/clarified some of my points in a number of forums and on the IMDB. I’ll let this long winded series of musings serve as a final summing up of points I’ve not had space to address on previous occasions. Almost all the negative feedback had to do with the perception that I, being more or less familiar with film history, could never view a remake “on its own terms“; meaning, I assume, that the spectre of an original – and fondly remembered – film, would always come between me and the new “work of art”.

I mainly disagree with this notion, but I can’t dismiss it altogether. Film reviewing and criticism has as much to do with knowledge of what has come before as with anything else. Film criticism, it seems to me, is not the art of analyzing a film and only that single film, as if no other films have been made. Without the ability to compare films, to hold them up against each other, it would be very hard to decide what quality is and what it is not.

la_confidential_be1Can one, for example, fully appreciate L.A. Confidential with no knowledge of the period in which it is set – and in the kind of films they made in that period? One can like it for its plot, suspense, action scenes and to a certain degree its characters, but I would certainly claim that a more thorough appreciation hinges on recognizing certain archetypes and archetropes of film noir and in seeing this film’s treatment of such. Also, while one can easily like the film without any comparative knowledge, one can never know whether it is really good; if there has already been made 1000 better films in the genre, one would be hard pressed to find the thousandandfirst film more than average at best. No one ever sees all the films ever made, so a truly exhaustive comparison is never possible, but if one hasn’t seen enough films to have at least a tentative understanding of what constitutes a genre, one can well rent films and privately consider every seeming novelty the best film in the world, but one should keep silent about them in polite company, if not on the internet…

Genre is one of the ways we can make sense of films. It is also a tool that enables us to talk about films that in some ways have something in common, usually having to do with subject matter and/or film style. It is usually ridiculous to compare a film (in terms of quality )of one genre to one in another genre. While I may like, say, the anime Mononoke-hime better than Die Hard, I can’t really claim that it is definitely the better film (it is!!!), as both seem to succeed in what they set out to do in a manner that is exemplary for their respective genres (Anime and Mainstream Action). I can, however say that Die Hard is better than American Gangster. I could also imply that I prefer a well made Anime over a well made Mainstream Action film, and thus validate my preference. It is after all the reviewer’s subjective take on the films that constitute the review. However, this must not mean that he disregards films in a genre that he doesn’t hold in especially high esteem as positively inferior. Ideally a reviewer should be able to appreciate all genres for what they are, what they can be.

mononoke_hime_mediumGenre, thus, constitutes one way we judge newer films by what has come before. As mentioned above, there were some protests that implied that I, having seen the original TDTESS, was incapable of judging it in a way that had anything to say to those that had not yet seen the original. This is not far from claiming that the less informed a reviewer is about the history of film, the better equipped he is to communicate what the general public is likely to appreciate. I will approach the matter of judging and validating remakes by another example, that of sequels.

In the case that a film is deemed successful enough to warrant a sequel, one of two things generally occurs: 1: The studio hopes to earn some easy money by replacing everything that made the original any good (if it had ever been good in the first place) with a second rate production or less known faces in front of and behind the camera. Often these films end up going direct to DVD, or at least sells gradually less and less (a number of Disney films come to mind as well as any sequel featuring members of Saturday Night Live. And let‘s not forget any mildly or very successful horror-film; Puppetmaster, Halloween, Friday 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes, Tremors, Resident Evil, Child’s Play, Critters, Jaws, Highlander, Mimic, etc, etc. By the way, none of these has less than 2 sequels, and some have already been remade as well). 2: Other films were maybe so-called sleeper hits, or films that the studio felt insecure about upon their original release, and when having proved successful beyond expectations, a bigger, more expensive and expansive sequel is arranged, with as many of the same players as possible. Sometimes these films do reasonably well commercially, such as the mentioned Die Hard-films, the Jason Bourne– or the Matrix Trilogy, other times they bomb as if there is no tomorrow, as, let’s say, Speed 2. Once in a blue moon, the sequels are actually almost on par with the original of what has now become a kind of franchise, or it betters them: Godfather II, Superman II, Spiderman II, Empire Strikes Back, Dawn of the Dead, Mad Max II, The Dark Knight (which is not called Batman II, so I don‘t know if it counts as a sequel) and let’s not forget Revenge of the Nerds II.

In the case of the lower budgeted sequels, it is generally not that necessary to have seen the first part of the series in order to understand/appreciate the following films. I find that the opposite is usually true for the ones that add a bigger budget. This is strange, as one would assume that the more expensive a film is, the more the studios would want the film to be able to stand alone. Oh well, I digress. My point here is that in order to determine whether, say, The Matrix: Revolutions is any good, or rather, how bad it is, one would be expected to have seen the preceding film(s). Seen by and for itself, one could perhaps confuse it for an original sci/fi-action film utilizing exciting and ground breaking new technology. I find it strenuous to think that someone would accuse a reviewer of being biased because he had seen the first of the trilogy and found the sequels to be severely lacking in comparison. Again, the point is that the quality of the film is in some ways bound to comparisons with already existing films. I doubt that the fact of having seen Tremors invites the viewer to base his entire impression of the quality of the sequels upon whether they follow the same formula as the original. There are other aspects that come into play, such as competence, direction and story. I fail to see that judging sequels differs enormously from reviewing remakes.

In the matter of remakes, one has a very definite and literal source of comparison. The film makers have decided for some reason – and these reasons can be good or bad – that they want to have another go at a cultural product. I put it as loosely as that, because in most instances they don’t really want to make the same film again – Gus van Sant’s Psycho being the possible exception – but to take a story, a character, a concept or – in too many cases – merely want to capitalize upon an established title, a brand, so to say, and try to make something new or financially viable of it.

gabriel-as-the-winslow-boySeeing as the film makers – or studio – has thus invited comparisons by retooling an already existing cultural entity (how’s that for being obscure?), I think any reviewer would be amiss if he didn’t consider how the newer version differs from, improves upon, takes away from, or expands upon the original concept. This by no means implies that the reviewer should automatically perceive the original version as a biblical text and any deviations from it as heresy. I very much like Anthony Asquith‘s original The Winslow Boy, and, seeing as it is based on a play by the excellent Terence Rattigan, I could see very few ways in which to improve upon the film. In David Mamet’s remake, almost the exact same story was told in almost the exact same way, with a very few exceptions. These exceptions had to do with some of Mamet’s usual concerns, a certain delivery of speech and stressing of relationship between truth and seeming truth. For me some little extra scenes and a very slightly different ear for dialogue was enough to more than appreciate Mamet’s new version.

I think the biggest problem some reviewers and many mere viewers have with remakes has to do with the quality of the original. If a film was really good, why remake it? Wouldn’t it make more sense to remake a flawed product that one perceives as having potential to be better than it actually turned out to be? In other cases, usually concerning some supernatural or sci/fi- concept, the effects available at the time of the original were so few that one thinks that adding green screen and blue screen and sensors on everyone’s faces will automatically make for a better viewing experience. The idea is not silly. The better the effects in these kinds of films, the easier to lose oneself in the reality of the film, one might say. So one “reinvents” Planet of the Apes and The Day The Earth Stood Still. It is needless to say that none of these will survive the test of time. I think part of the reason is that it was not the technology per se that made them function as films but the story and direction. So any remake has very little to gain but much to lose by relying on better visual effects to validate its existence.

Sometimes the results are indeed honourable, as in the recent versions of King Kong and War of the Worlds. I still prefer the 1933-version of the former. This has to do with being able to compare it to other films of the time, and thus seeing how inventive and adventurous the film really was and is. Another reason might be almost archaeological in nature, as if it stands before us as a beautiful artefact of a time gone by, and we should be glad it still exists for our pleasure. Both these reasons might be said to be more theoretical or intellectual than aesthetic, but I think that one can’t overlook that the story is extremely well told and as long as the story is captivating enough to hold our attention, the technical means of telling it does not matter a whole lot. My preferring the original did not, however, make me disposed to hate Peter Jackson’s remake. On the contrary, I liked it and thought it among the better block busters of its year. Much the same I can say for Steven Spielberg’s retooling of the classic invasion film. While not his best work, it was by no means a disaster, and I particularly liked how he made the action happen outside the reach of his Everyman. It reminded me in this aspect a fair bit of Marvels, the excellent comic book by Kurt Busiek.

This begs the question: Why remake films where the only available new technology to speak of is colour, and even that was available for most of these films? Why remake Father of the Bride, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, 3:10 to Yuma, The Manchurian Candidate, The Women, The Pink Panther, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, and many, many more? If it was the story that seemed old fashioned, why remake it, why not make something entirely new? If one thinks the acting style seemed too old fashioned, well, why pander to fads and make everything so goddamn easy for everyone? And why have Steve Martin try to badly copy Peter Sellers? Even some of my favourite directors are guilty of this meaningless retooling of already very good films, as in the case of the Coen Brother’s remake of the Ladykillers. And that, as they say, is a shame.

Maybe the first lesson the Remakers should take is “never remake a film made by a distinct director, someone who has/had their own vision”. Try to remake some journeyman director instead. I don’t think anyone alive, maybe except Stephen King, much appreciates the remake of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Well, at least they had the wits to call it Stephen King’s The Shining… I shudder to think of the day they decide to remake A Clockwork Orange. David Lynch has made one film that is not a master piece, but seeing as that was based on a series of novels and not even he was satisfied with the final version, I don’t find it scandalous that they remade Dune. However, imagine in 20 years a producer wanting to have a go at Blue Velvet or conceive of Eraserhead: The Mutation!

Now, while mentioning The Shining and A Clockwork Orange, I took pause, wondering if any new version of a novel or play is really a remake of the film or just another version of the literary source. In, let’s say films based on works by Shakespeare, Austen or Dickens, one doesn’t really think of them as remakes of films, does one? Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V or Hamlet are not really remakes of Olivier’s versions as much as interpretations of Shakespeare, methinks. Neither are new versions of Emma, Othello, Oliver Twist, Wuthering Heights or Dracula as much remakes of existing films as they are yet another way to bring the book to life. War of the Worlds, though, is considered a remake of the 1956-film more than an interpretation of H.G.Wells, and a number of Western films that have later been remade also had a literary antecedent, without this being considered when we talk about the remakes. Maybe it has to do with the classic status of the original work, or whether the novels predates Film itself?

browning_version_1951_xl_01-film-bIn closing, I’d like to take the opportunity to mention a case where I saw the remake first and only much later the original work. I have seen Mike Figgis’ film The Browning Version two times. It is based on a play by already mentioned Terrence Rattigan. Neither viewing left much impression on me. I thought it a so-so film, with good actors trying to play as good actors should. Recently I saw Anthony Asquith’s original and was blown away. Michael Redgrave delivers a portrait of the retiring teacher that put Albert Finney’s portrayal if not to shame, than at least rendered more or less meaningless. The difference in acting and actors was not all, though. It was made in another time, yet the original felt emotionally a hundred times more relevant to me than Figgis’ remake. Why this is so, and why the earlier film was so much better is something I hope one day to put into more words, maybe here. Perhaps they just made better films before, or perhaps when something has been made once, it can very seldom be bettered. I don’t know. I do not, however, hate those that try. Unless they insist on bringing Steve Martin along. And unless they fuck with my favourite films. Now, go and remake the Phantom Menace. With a director.

War! – This is what it’s good for.

November 13, 2008

Only that man who has offered up himself entire to the blood of war, who has been to the floor of the pit and seen horror in the round and learned at last that it speaks to his inmost heart, only that man can dance. (Blood Meridian’s Judge Holden)

history_civil_war_battle_gettysburg

Preliminary Notes:

Taking to heart the French statesman George Clemenceau’s – whose terms to Germany after World War I was a contributing factor to the advent of the second – famous line that “war is a much too serious matter to be entrusted to the military”, I thought a rundown of how war has been presented on film could fit the bill. I will focus on films made after the silent era and mostly western films. For this first part of the article, I’ll concentrate on films made before 1980, as more recent films are generally better known, and as I opine, perhaps hazardly, that the modern War Film starts with Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One from 1980. Even though war is eternal, I’ll not discuss conflicts prior to the American civil war. Naturally, I will dedicate more lines to some films than others. I’ll try to only include more or less worthwhile films, so there will be no further mention of, say, A Farewell to Arms in any of its movie incarnations (read the book instead!). I’ll deal with them as they pop up in my mind, so don’t expect a strictly linear account!

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What is a war film? I think the genre can be divided into at least 5 sub-genres:
1-The Soldier’s War (These films should feature battles or at least mostly stay with the soldiers on and off the battle field.)
2-The /Leaders’/Generals’ war (These also normally include battles, but are more concerned with the machinations and tactics and are often indicative of History’s hindsight and received wisdom concerning the outcome).
3-The POW-film ( Prisoners of war).
4-The Home Front-film (Films relating the situation and state of morale away from the intense battles. These films can deal with the local resistance, with war-profiteering, with acts of collusion, etc. Often they are about everyday-people and how they “do their part”)
5-The Agent/Spy-film (This can at times overlap with all of the above, especially number 4).

All of these subgenres can have subgenres of their own: The Soldier’s War can be a submarine-film, for example, with all that entails of regular features such as the beeping radar and having to dive deeper than the hull can theoretically stand, claustrophobia, etc. It can also be a boot camp film, but most of these see action in the second half (Full Metal Jacket,1987, being an obvious modern example). I think that for most, the term War Film denotes soldiers fighting enemy soldiers in some way or another. Thus, I consider the first two subgenres I mentioned the only kind of “pure” war films. I’ll try to focus on these, but will mention other types as well.

Usually war films can also be separated by difference of intent; what is the purpose of the film? I think it is possible to separate between the Serious War Film and War As Entertainment. Of course, most films have a bit of both, but the weight tends to fall solidly down on one of the sides. In the latter case, war is often tangential, an excuse for blowing up things and tell an exciting story; almost what Hitchcock referred to as a MacGuffin; Kelly’s Heroes is an example, maybe also Casablanca. This doesn’t make them less worthy as films; it is not unusual for films like this to be better than the often propagandistic and preaching serious film. A rule of thumb is that the closer in time the film is to the conflict it portrays, the more likely is an overt element of propaganda. Then also, one has films that take place in a war situation – particularly films that were made during the war – but has little interest in the war itself except as a setting and a time for the story; Preston Sturges’ comedies Hail the Conquering Hero and Miracle at Morgan’s Creek (both 1944) are examples. They both feature soldiers aplenty and talk about the protagonists’ wishes to enlist, but neither film could care less about the war.

1-Lewis Milestone

One can’t well escape the name Lewis Milestone while talking of war films. He made All Quiet on the Western Front as early as in 1930. William Wellman had made Wings in 1927, also dealing with world war I, but Milestone’s classic was not only the first sound film on the subject, but one of the best ever. It holds up surprisingly well today, with the action scenes having a much more authentic feel to them than anything cooked up well into the 1990s. It is definitely on my top ten list of the best war films ever made.

rall_quiet_western_frontMilestone went on to make some more near-classics in the genre. I really like Pork Chop Hill (1959), about a true incident toward the end of the Korean war, with Gregory Peck as the stolid squad leader. It tackles the absurdness of having to defend a hill that has little – if any – strategic value. The soldiers are put in the war zone merely for reasons of allowing the time for political back room manoeuvres. Interspersed with the intense fighting, we catch glimpses of this other kind of war, where the participants risk nothing but lack of prestige. After having ploughed through at least a hundred war films, I’ve come to realize that most good films of this type are in fact anti-war films, and many pointing out the surreal aspect of war’s existence, which is hardly that difficult to do (see, or rather, don’t, Catch 22 or especially Mash – one of my least favourite films! – for the laughably evident and clichéd take on this subject). Pork Chop Hill is in the tradition of the antiwar-film, but as with his 1930 masterwork, Milestone manages to imbue the battle scenes with a sense of reality uncommon for the time the film was made, and the dilemmas and situations seem real to a degree that puts most Hollywood films to shame.

In between his films of the First World War and the Korean war, Milestone also made a film about the battles of the pacific, Halls of Montezuma (1951), with the ever dependable Richard Widmark, and one about the 1943 invasion of Italy: A Walk in the Sun. This is considered to be maybe the first film that captured the experience and everyday worries of the soldiers in a realistic way. I have not seen the latter due to it being impossible to find in a satisfying DVD release, but Halls…, while solid and containing some classic scenes and dilemmas, is not quite up to the level of these other films. Milestone made a bunch of other war films (I have a bit of faith in The Purple Heart, which I will see soon), but while most of these receive passable reviews, I have not yet seen them and can’t comment on their respective qualities.

Other good early war films include Jean Renoir’s WWI POW-drama La Grande Illusion (1937) and Michael CurtizCharge of the Light Brigade (1936), one of the few films about the Crimean War, though not all that historically trustworthy. I’d like to see Howard HawksThe Road to Glory (1936) about WWI trench warfare and with a script by William Faulkner, but haven’t yet had the opportunity.

2-John Huston and Documentaries

p059During World War II, many of Hollywood’s directors were made officers and sent out to shoot real documentary footage of the war. John Ford (Who made the Oscar winning documentary The Battle of Midway, not to be confused with the later motion picture of the same name), Frank Capra, George Stevens and William Wyler all made excellent reportage-films that mostly managed to elevate themselves from base propaganda. John Huston made some films in this way that today are considered classics, independently of which context they were made in (Battle of San Pietro, Let There Be Light). Most of the films he shot had to go through the military for approval, and as a consequence were heavily edited, or classified and only recently being shown to the general public. The men in power felt that Huston showed a side of the war the public were better off not knowing about. This included attempts to humanize the enemy, show less than wholesome examples of American soldiers and their behaviour in the war and examine the psychical scars of the soldiers.

Of course, Huston later went on to make some of the best films of the 20th. century – The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle, Key Largo, The Man Who Would be King. He had early on tried his hand at handling the war in a less serious way in Across the Pacific (1942), which was fatally cut without his presence, as he was on a boat on the way to the real war. Then he had more luck with the wonderful war drama Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957), starring Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr. This could almost have been a play between the two persons, as they are alone on the screen for 90% of the film. However, when the Japanese land on the island that our protagonists find themselves marooned on, the film becomes genuinely exciting and it avoids falling into the usual traps of cliché and contrivance. I like it a lot!

oneHuston made a final attempt to handle the war theme in the ludicrous Escape to Victory when he was well past his powers as a filmmaker. While this film didn’t pave his way into Director’s Heaven, the road was already neatly laid, as he made The Red Badge of Courage (1951). It is about the American Civil War, and is among the all time greats of war films. Huston’s original cut was probably about 30 minutes longer than the 69 minutes of the theatrical release. The studio made the cuts while Huston was in Africa to shoot The African Queen (which I could have included here, since it’s set in WWI, but I feel it is more of a romance than a war film. It is, though, very good!). They based their vandalism on preview screenings in which scenes of cowardice had angered the test audience. Maybe the Generals had been right in censoring Huston’s earlier war documentaries, as the audience evidently preferred the sanitized version? It says something about Huston’s understanding of war that the film is so good still in its butchered version. (Mind, The Red Badge of Courage is probably not for everyone. Huston uses on purpose an archaic way of storytelling, and this might in effect be estranging for some). It is one of my film historical dreams that the lost material will one day resurface, but I think the chances are slim.

3-The Europeans during the War

The British were perhaps more accommodating to letting reality creep into their fictions. David Lean’s In Which We Serve, a study about the personnel of a navy ship told in flashbacks as the survivors of a German attack clings to a raft, is notable for drawing a rounded picture of the men and their backgrounds, and as such bringing questions of class and position in society into the mix. It is at times sentimental, but it is more often true. Carol Reed’s The Way Ahead (1944) begins as a typical propaganda film about the importance of “doing one’s part”, but the film seems to grow and, because of the talent at hand, go beyond what one should expect from a film of this genre. It is one of the best “training” films I have seen, adding a pathos and realism to the boot camp-scenes that impressed me.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life And Death of Colonel Blimp is something as seldom as a genuinely intelligent and reflective film about the concept of war – and the men who make war – made during the war (It was released in the UK in 1943, but not until May 1945 did it premiere in USA). They also made the solid One of our Aircraft is Missing (1942), about a real case involving the Dutch resistance, and 49th Parallel (1941), which I haven’t seen yet, so I can’t comment upon its merits. I will say, though, that I have not yet seen a bad film from Powell and Pressburger, and at least five of their films are in my top 200 list (Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, which is also a war film of sorts and quite wonderful, I Know Where I’m Going, A Canterbury Tale, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes are all genuine classics).

lifeboat_hitchcockAlfred Hitchcock made Saboteur (1942) and Foreign Correspondent (1940), both of these are about spies/foreign agents and both well inside the War as Entertainment – and propaganda – category. – And entertaining they are! They are technically American films, and Foreign Correspondent ends with a passionate plea to the Americans to enter the war. He made a more “serious entertainment” in 1944, taking on John Steinbeck’s propagandist script about a group of survivors in the eponymous Lifeboat. It’s wonderful to see how the master manages to keep the camerashots of the film interesting and maintain a constant tension in such a limited set as a lifeboat.

50_mrs_miniverOne of the biggest film successes coming out of the war was William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver, about an upper middle class family and their tribulations during the blitz in England. It won lots of Oscars and even spurred a sequel, The Miniver Story, which is not particularly worthwhile. The original has been a bit of a pet peeve among modern critics, thinking it dated and anachronistic in its portrayal of the class system (rich people are really kind if you just talk nicely to them!). I think it holds up well, even though the first scene, where Mrs. Miniver just HAS to buy a birdlike hat, is a bit beyond the pale. Wyler’s direction is so good that the possible unfortunate political ramifications take a back seat to the “common spirit of the English” and some wonderful scenes of the family finding strength in each other, even winning over to their side a goddamn sentimental commie like myself. And Teresa Wright has never done a bad film as far as I’m concerned.

open_cityIn Italy, Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City kick started the Italian Neo-Realism. It was made while Rome was in ruins and the war almost not ended yet, and – as the movement’s name indicates – is indeed more realistic than its Hollywood counterpart in dealing with the people that fight a war, even though they fight invisibly and die unknown. Better than most films, it shows that you’ll find allies as well as enemies in unlikely places. Many of the featured “actors” had been in the resistance until days before shooting. There are scenes in this film that stay in your memory.

21aI’ll take the opportunity, while writing about Europe and the Resistance, to mention one of my all time favourites of the “resistance-genre”, even though it’s made much later (1969): Army in the Shadows (L’Armée des Ombres). This is a must-see for anyone interested in the subject. The director, Jean Pierre Melville, is definitely among my three favourite Frog-helmers. While I enjoy immensely Le Samourai (1967) with Alain Delon, I think this is his best film. (Mind, I’ve not seen Le Doulos yet…). As I have just seen La Silence de la Mer, made by people fighting for the resistance (Melville was a French jew) and based on an important novel of war time France, I simply must mention here how much I liked it. It is by no means an action approach to resistance work, rather dealing with ideas of nationality and personality; what does an occupation force want, and how can one repel it? It talks of the history of one country in consequence wanting to erase the history of another. It is a film that manages to be very literary (with voice-overs and long one-way dialogues that must not be mistaken for monologues, as that would go contrary to the film’s meaning) and very filmatic at the same time. It is enough to see how the dialogue is finally executed, the promise of a reply finally fulfilled, by the leaving open of a book by Anatole France. The following reaction shot zooms in on the messenger with a force that left me shaken and stirred, and is an example of the power of film, of moving images. The film is shot in a way to make it look older than it is, thereby accentuating the historic (history of cultures) and eternal aspect of the story’s ideas.

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Honourable mention, while discussing resistance films, must also go to Paul Verhoeven’s rascally 2006-film Black Book (Zwartboek) as well as the same director’s Soldaat van Oranje (1977). I did not think so highly of Gillian Armstrong’s Charlotte Gray (2001), which was more of a pure entertainment and not more than passable at that. And finally, let me not forget to mention the Norwegian classic Ni Liv (Nine Lives) by Arne Skouen. It was well deservedly nominated for an Oscar in 1958 and, while maybe a bit dated, is of a higher class both in terms of realism and art than most other Scandinavian films of that or any time.

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Let me finally add here that I know there are many Eastern European, in particular Russian, films from the 50s and 60s that would warrant an inclusion here, but as I’m not yet familiar with these, I’ll leave them for another occasion or a future post. I’ve read good things about the Rumanian film Mihai Viteazul (Last Crusade) (1970), which is about a war before the timeframe I’ve chosen for this article, and Roman Polanski’s old mentor Andrzej Wajda made a famous trilogy that I’ve not yet seen, with films like Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds, about the Polish war experience. As for Asian films, I’ll try to include them in a separate post, as this article seems to be long enough as it is…

4- Hollywood During the War

Not all film-makers were documentarists during the war. Hollywood also made more traditional war films. The best of the more or less realistic Hollywood films was probably The Story of G.I. Joe by William Wellman. However, Hollywood’s role was foremost to do what it does best: make entertainments. I have mentioned Casablanca (1942), which everyone knows. Michael Curtiz’ unexpected hit spurred a number of copies, one time even with the same director, most of the actors and a similar story; Passage to Marseille (Michael Curtiz, 1944). Bogart also played in Zoltan Korda’s Sahara, about some Americans and British troops that must join forces to stave off the thirsty German battalion that wants their water supply. Sahara is solid entertainment but not great. Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not (1944), again with Bogart, is in the same vein as Casablanca. It is very entertaining, with a script so full of one-liners it could put modern Hollywood to painful shame, and a fantastic film, but I feel it is stretching it a bit to call it a war film.

Some films chose a middle ground by portraying the war in a pseudo-documentary fashion and adding contrived traditional plots: Guadalcanal Diary (1943) about battles of the Solomon Islands in the Pacific and Wake Island (1942) (also about the Pacific) both starr William Bendix. The latter film is directed by John Farrow, who has made some wonderful Film Noirs. I have only seen excerpts of these films, but a general impression is that the scripts seem weak but the fighting real. This can partly be explained by the use of stock footage, but also by the participation – quite literally – of the US-army (and especially the US Marine).

Then there was John Wayne, who didn’t volunteer for service, partly because he wanted to capitalize on his new found fame in John Ford’s Stagecoach. While he didn’t really make any noteworthy films during the war years, when John Ford came back from the war, they made They Were Expendable together in 1945, about a group of Patrol Torpedo boaters in the Philippines, and that is a bit of all right. There are some impressive battle scenes (between boats and planes, between land based batteries and the boats) and a strangely “un-Hollywoodish” air over the plot: The hero doesn’t get the girl, the film ends in seemingly defeat, with the last caption saying “We’ll be back!” This feels a bit odd, considering it’s about events in 1942-43 and the film is from 1945. The defeat at the end of the film is also the subject of Tay Garnett’s Bataan (1943), with Robert Taylor as the tough sergeant famously yelling “come and get it suckers!” to the Japanese attackers. Bataan was evidently MGM’s answer to Paramount’s Wake Island, by the way. This film also ends with a declaration intended to give hope: “Their spirit will lead us back to Bataan.” It’s a bit ironic that the film could almost be a remake of John Ford’s 1934 film The Lost Patrol, about a group of WWI soldiers fighting off Arabs. Ford’s film was again a remake of a 1929-version of the film, and the already mentioned Sahara is a remake of sorts of both of them.

forwhomthebelltolls_stSam Wood’s film of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls – about the Spanish civil war – is marred by the director’s/studio’s insistence on not calling the rightwing Francoists “fascist” and Gary Cooper’s guerrillas “communist”. Sam Wood was, by the way, a staunch supporter for McCarthy and his Hollywood witch hunts (The Commie Scare), so I don’t think he was quite the right man for the task. As John Huston writes in his autobiography, An Open Book, Sam Wood was a rabid anti-communist and made a will on his death bed where he stated that his daughter would inherit everything, providing she didn’t prove to be a communist. Lewis Milestone, incidentally, conveyed to Huston that he was somewhat distressed that Wood had threatened to expose him as a commie. Apart from the film being less than what it could have been, it is still a grand entertainment and Ingrid Bergman is as always lovely.

Neither must one forget Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York (1941), which – although concerning WWI – was promoting general US patriotism and made the country ready for another war, so to say. And, talking about propaganda, who can forget Michael Curtiz’ splendid, though enormously jingoistic, semi-musical, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), with James Cagney in an eye opening and brilliant performance? Man, that man can dance! Let me at last give a shout out for veteran director Raul Walsh’s Objective Burma! (1945), which has an entertaining story and impressive fight scenes, good enough to outdo most films made 20 or 30 years later.

5-Hollywood After the War

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After World War II ended, there came a batch of films trying to show the people back home how the war had been for the soldiers fighting it. The best film dealing with the homecoming experience itself must be William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, which is one of my favourite films, period. It has all the elements that The Studio System at its best and most adventurous could deliver; an ensemble cast of great, great actors and actresses, a story that seems not only important but right to tell, feeling much more real than Hollywood’s recent batch of issue-films. Crash (2004), for example, looks inane in its political correctness in comparison. And I don’t think Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July (1989) holds a candle to the experience of a soldier’s return in Wyler’s masterwork. The closest in quality I have seen of dealing with the immediate post war experience is a quite different sort of film, focusing on the rebuilding of Berlin and the consequences of the American presence there: Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair (1948). It is at times a comedy, but the comedy is dark and mostly it is a very impressive contemporary take on the German’s situation. (For a pure comedic version, one can see Wilder’s later One, Two, Three (1961), which deals with the cold war and the divided Germany, and manages to be a savage criticism about both Capitalism and Communism while still being very funny. It’s hardly a war film, though!).

bestyears01I also think that without Fred Zinneman’s The Men (1950), Oliver Stone would have a few war films less on his resumé. – And, speaking of Zinneman, let’s not forget his classic army base film, From Here to Eternity, based on James Jones’ brilliant first novel about military life and death – and some reflections about the injustices of the military as an institution – just prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Many think of the film as a kind of romantic drama, a notion probably aided by the famous beach scene with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, which is one of the enduring images of the 20th century. Make no mistake about it, though, this film portrays a man’s world, which makes both the men’s and women’s lot in the film far removed from any chances of lasting happiness outside the rush of war. For a continuation of the action started in this film, see for example Otto Preminger’s In Harm’s Way, that I’ve written about in an earlier post, or Richard Fleischer/Kinji Fukasaku’s Tora! Tora! Tora! (Fukasaku took over the Japanese sections of the film after Akira Kurosawa got disillusioned about the production. Fukasaku’s last film was, by the way, the youth/media war satire Battle Royale).

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Battleground (1949) is considered to be one of the best early post war films dealing with the European Theatre, as they call it. It’s about the battle of the Bulge and is directed by William Welman, a man who can do little wrong, so I have every intention of seeing it soon. It is also hard to evade Twelve O’Clock High (1949), which was a very popular film of its time. It holds up well, even though it’s clear that the battle scenes are stock footage. The drama of the squadron and the narrative arches of the characters are so satisfyingly built, that I think it is near timeless. After the audience had grown tired of the war and had begun preferring films about soldiers returning instead, this film renewed an interest in the war film for a while.

I just rewatched Robert Aldrich’s Attack (1956) and was even more impressed by it than the first time. While it is at times evident it is based on a play, Jack Palance and Lee Marvin are two of the toughest actors ever and can make pretty much anything seem realistic. It is about a cowardly officer (who reminded me a lot of George W. Bush and how his army stint would probably have worked out had he not been able to evade military service) and the honest soldier who wants to kill him for leaving his men to die. (The coward, played by Eddie Albert, comes from a rich dynastic family with political pull). Attack! also has battle scenes that remind me a lot of the Medal of Honor-game, and that is never a bad thing!

1957 was quite the year for war films, as the observant reader will see. The classic sub film The Enemy Below, with Curt Jurgens and Robert Mitchum as German sub-captain and captain of an American Destroyer respectively, was a big hit of its day and widely referenced in the later Tarantino-scripted parts of Crimson Tide (1995). The Enemy Below is impressive in its sympathetic portrayal of the honourable German captain. I like how the film posits the viewer in Mitchum’s place to such an extent that when Mitchum finally salutes him, it’s like the viewer of the film takes part in the recognition. The year after brought us Robert Wise’s Run Silent, Run Deep, with an elderly Clark Gable and an always vital Burt Lancaster.

I must not forget two of the most famous war films in this section: Stanley Kubrick‘s excellent black and white film Paths of Glory (1957), which sums up so much of the human injustice of war, and World War I in particular, and David Lean’s epic masterpiece The Bridge on the River Kwai (also 1957). These films are so well known, that I won’t be saying a whole lot about them, except that if one for some strange reason has not seen them, do it, and do it now!

fuller-2But USA must always be in one war or another (as Plato said: Only the dead have seen the end of the war), so when the Chinese decided to back communist forces in Korea, the American war machine started huffing and puffing again. At least it gave the WW2 veteran and maverick director Samuel Fuller a chance to make a couple of break through films: Fixed Bayonets! and The Steel Helmet (both 1951; notice the opening shot of that steel helmet, seemingly a piece of debris on the ground with a bullet hole in it, and then, after the credits, it begins to move and rise and we see the grizzled face of the excellent Gene Evans!). I can only say that everyone should see these! Fuller has a style and approach to psychological realism that is almost unheard of – at least in the Hollywood of the fifties. Some ten years later, he proved to be too idiosyncratic for the studio system and became an early independent film maker.

6-War as Adventure

As maybe hinted at by the audience reaction to The Red Badge of Courage, the American Public soon wanted to put the seriousness of war behind them, or maybe many hadn’t been that interested in the reality of war to begin with, so Hollywood began to work its “magic” on these films and soon they were left with little reality, but perhaps more entertainment. As Barbara Bush said, “War is not nice”, so an injection of entertainment and implausibility helped keeping it popular. Maybe the problems with validating the Korean War as an equally worthy war as WW2 also had something to do with it. (The American public was early on told that it would be a quick policing affair and scarcely a war at all. This was hardly the last time one “sold the fur before the bear had been shot”, as the Scandinavian saying a bit clumsily goes. The English-speaking part of the world can focus on counting unhatched chicken instead).

protectedimageWe can thank the British thriller novelist Alistair MacLean for giving us two of the best of these entertaining war films, of which the brilliant The Guns of Navarone (J. Lee Thompson, 1961) was the first adaptation of his work and Where Eagles Dare (Brian G. Hutton,1968) maybe the best in terms of pure escapism. Even though the film features stars such as Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton, I have to give a nod to Derren Nesbitt’s icy protonazi; SS-Sturmbannführer Von Hapen. Seldom have I seen a face more suited to the role! Nesbitt got his breakthrough in the WWI aviation film The Blue Max (1966), but never got any big roles after the MacLean-film.

These films spurred literally hundreds of copies, and just 1978 sees two of the more well known of these: The sequel Force Ten From Navarone (by Bond-director Guy Hamilton, who had made The Battle of Britain in 1968) and The Wild Geese (by John Ford’s old assistant director and the man behind quite some mediocre Westerns, Andrew McLaglen) but few have come close to the originals.

dirtydozen130I ended up liking Von Ryan’s Express (Mark Robson, 1965) surprisingly much, seeing as it starred Frank Sinatra. It is an escape-film, but most importantly, it is the kind of action film they don’t make anymore. I was thoroughly entertained! One should also mention Kelly’s Heroes (Brian Hutton, 1970), which taught me never to look innocently on a Tiger Tank again. Not least, I must include already mentioned subversive director Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967). The latter features some of the coolest actors ever (Robert Ryan, Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes, Charles Bronson, George Kennedy, Donald Sutherland (even though he hasn’t been cool since 1978), Ernest Borgnine and, well, Telly Savalas. It was a very popular film all over the world and spurred numerous copies, of which the Italian B-movie Inglorious Bastards is well known, perhaps because it is being remade by Quentin Tarantino as I write this.

stalag_17-chess_and_stern_staresI feel that John Sturges’ POW-film The Great Escape (1963) also falls into this entertainment-category. It’s a bit of a strange film in that one sees the Germans as slightly cartoonish, but then the film turns decidedly bleaker after the eponymous escape has taken place. This seriousness is again offset by Steve McQueen’s histrionics on his motorbike, so in effect the film seems to be torn between war as realism and war as entertainment. Much of the same can also be said of the similar Stalag 17 (1953) by Billy Wilder, but this film keeps its tongue a bit more firmly in cheek and borders at times to satire. I’d like to advice most to try to see one of the better films about the war aspiring to be both entertaining and serious, namely John Frankenheimer‘s The Train, with Burt Lancaster. I particularly like Paul Scofield‘s protrayal of the German colonel, whose love of art and money bring him to desparation towards the end of the war in France.

(EDIT: And speaking of seriousness and quality in the genre, I should definitely not forget John Boorman‘s Hell in the Pacific (1968), with Lee Marvin and Kurosawa stalwart Toshiro Mifune. The story of two enemy soldier’s finding themselves marooned on the same island is a strong intimate story between the two protagonists that serves as a kind of metonymous tract on humanity by letting their initial animosity turn into pettiness and later respect. I can’t think of two other actors I’d rather watch for an entire film! The film is funny, tragic and exciting, and while these are standard adjectives, do believe this hype! Incidentally, the film was remade in 1985 by Das Boot-director Wolfgang Petersen. Curiously it had then become a science fiction film by the name of Enemy Mine. Here Dennis Quaid‘s astronaut learns interspecies’ understanding in his meeting with Louis Gosset Jr.’s heavily made up alien soldier. It goes to show that other genres, like S/F and the Western, are often disguised war films, or allegories for ongoing conflicts. EDIT END).

7- War as Epic

The biggest war epic is a film that many perhaps don’t think of as a war film: David Lean’s excellent Lawrence of Arabia (1962). It deals with the real figure of T.E. Lawrence’s participation in the Arab revolt against the Turks in WWI. I would be hard pressed to name many better films ever made. It is a long film, but it needs to be long. The story it tells is truly epic in the sense that it deals not only with the life of a man, but with the transformation of that man into myth. However, from the sixties onward, many films dealing with war evidently needed to be very long films, while not always convincing me that this need sprung from the material itself. This is still true today, where it is seldom that a war film clocks in under the two hour mark.

lawrenceofarabiaThe aptly named The Longest Day (also from 1962), starring every actor on the planet, is a three hour epic about the Normandy Invasion. It is told from the point of view of both sides of the conflict and is a solid, if not extraordinary film. A Bridge Too Far (1977) also goes on for three hours and has some splendid scenes, but as a film I feel it struggles to tell a coherent story. It wants to throw in any skirmish it can find and give cameos to as many known faces as possible. Anthony Hopkins’s character’s story seems worth following. Some images of his defence of the bridge – is it at Arnhem? (my memory fails me, as I’ve only seen the film once) – are truly memorable.

Zulu (1964) is also well past the two hour mark, but in this case I feel all the minutes are put to worthwhile use. This is an English film, with a very young Michael Caine, about a 4000 men strong Zulu attack on a field hospital defended by 139 British soldiers. The sound of the approaching Zulus stays with you! While it is these days difficult to feel sympathy for the British imperialists, the film is successful in that we come to admire this as one of the real historical “last stands”. Without this film, there would be no “battle of Helm’s Deep” in the Second of The Lord of the Rings-trilogy (The Two Towers). And, while we are celebrating British imperialism, I have to give a shout out to Henry Hathaway’s adventure film The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), which I thought almost shockingly good compared to many other contemporary films in this genre. I think it’s safe to say that Steven Spielberg watched this film prior to the first Indiana Jones-film. Stunts and war scenes are of a nature that I think most unions would forbid today. While the belief that the British were saviours to India and the – for the period – usual racist portrayals can seem jarring to modern sensibilities, there is actually much here to admire in terms of storytelling and a layered, and possibly subversive, plot. The film is about the British military fighting local war lords on the border to Afghanistan and, again, one can muse how little the world has changed. I can’t remember having seen many better films this year and actually want to rewatch it as I write this.

tone3aViet Nam should have its own section here, but since I assume that most are familiar with these films anyhow, I’ll include them under the “epic” banner. Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles (1966) is not about Viet Nam per se, but clearly at least allegorically linked. While not an unmitigated success, the film is often good and intermittently very good. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) lasts 153 American minutes and is deservedly a modern classic. The recently released Redux-version goes on for 202 minutes and, while adding some background for the characters and their actions, also takes some of the immediacy and momentum away from the film. The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978) is a good three hours and when I saw it again for about the fifth time recently, I felt it wasn’t quite as good as I once thought it was. It contains some exceptional scenes, but I’m not sure I like what the film is actually saying. Its view of America seems especially half-assed. The sentimentalization of small town values could have come from the mouth of Sarah Palin, and likewise some of the patriotism. Another film about Viet Nam was Go Tell the Spartans (1978), with Burt Lancaster, about the war prior to the bulk of US involvement.

By far my favourite of these epic films of the sixties and seventies is Franklin J. Schaeffner’s Patton (1970). Apart from letting us follow the great, but maybe not good, man through his worst and best times, the film also manages to say something about the nature of war and how it is mythologized. There are countless excellent scenes showing how Patton himself is obsessed with this self-mythologization, and I feel the film gives us a balanced and psychologically sound portrayal of the old warrior. The music by Jerry Goldsmith, in which he could “militarize” some of his ideas for Planet of the Apes (also directed by Schaeffner), which he had scored two years prior, is excellent and is so endemic to the war genre that it has been alluded to in almost all portrayals of the military thereafter, even finding its way into some episodes of the Simpsons. The staccato bugle is the sound of war from the first ever waged between warring tribes heralding their approach to the last anyone will ever die to see. Tellingly, Goldsmith’s score for First Blood, the first and best Rambo-film, also references his own earlier work. The short bursts of that signature trumpet line gives me goose bumps every time!

Patton is an example of The War Biopic, portrayals of real protagonists of real wars. It is almost a genre on its own, but doesn’t yet contain enough examples of quality, though there are some. Already in 1951, Henry Hathaway made The Desert Fox, about the latter days of one of the few admired German soldiers of WW2, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. James Mason did such a good role that he was called to repeat it two years later in Robert Wise’s The Desert Rats, about British soldiers, led by Richard Burton, trying to survive Rommel’s tactics. I feel that only the first film is truly good, not least because of some heart breaking scenes towards the end when Hitler has decided upon Rommel’s participation in the plot to kill him. A later example of the war biopic is MacArthur (1977), where Gregory Peck portrays the General as maybe too sympathetic. Peck also played the original Doctor Death, Josef Mengele, in The Boys From Brazil, but I don’t feel this is a war film even though it deals with Nazis. The same is true of John Schlesinger‘s Marathon Man (1976). It is about nazis, led by the dentist version of Mengele, Doctor Christian Szell, played by Laurence Olivier, hunting Dustin Hoffman in New York in the 70s.

cross-of-ironAnother sympathetic portrayal of the Germans with James Mason in a leading role is Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron (1977), which shows the Russian front from the point of view of the German soldiers. I wish James Coburn had gotten more juicy roles like his Captain Steiner in this film. I’m glad Peckinpah was able to make the film, even though he had to finance it with the money from a German Porn producer and was reportedly drinking four bottles of vodka/whisky every day during the filming. He never made a good film again. Maximilian Schell, who plays Steiner’s cowardly rival, was at the time still mostly known for his role as a defence lawyer for the German war criminals in Stanley Kramer’s solid “message movie” Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). He also had a role in the so-so wannabe epic The Young Lions (Edward Dmytryk,1958), in which we have the pleasure of hearing Marlon Brando speak English with an accent that is meant to be German. The Young Lions is mostly marred, though, by another Judgment at Nuremberg-actor, Montgomery Clift, whose eccentric portrayal of a character that is meant to be pretty normal rings false in many scenes. The strange effect, though, is that these scenes also become the most interesting. This film was among the first to show the liberation of the concentration camps, but doesn’t manage to convey the horror to the extent that Alain Resnais‘ short (and anti-epic) masterpiece Night and Fog (1955) does.

Now, I am sure that I have forgotten many films that someone out there feels should be included in this list. If some omissions are too glaring, let me know! I’ll soon come back with a shorter post about Asian and modern war films. “Our present business is general woe”, are we informed in King Lear. This is as fine a general description of the subject matter as we can hope for. Epictetus, one of my favourite stoics, calls Man “a pure soul burdened with a corpse”. I’ll venture, though, that if the films mentioned above have not helped us to avoid the proliferation of war in our age, they have at least made the burden recognizable and thus, perhaps, easier to bear.

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Words About Sexual Differences in Filmwatching.

October 28, 2008

No, this post is not about what you think. Nothing exciting, nothing to see here, move on… Numbers and facts, speculations and conclusions without any firm foundation is what you’ll find here. You are hereby warned. Welcome to Thunderdome for weaklings.

I have the utmost respect for women (pardon the term; they seem to prefer to be called girls these days). For one thing, I married one. However, this year has scared me a bit when it comes to their collective cineastic choices. Let me hastily add that these choices involve practically none of the women I know, and certainly not my wife, who I’ve indoctrinated to the best of my abilities (I would make Kim Il-Jung proud) and to the point that we are watching John Wayne Westerns every other night. I guess the group I’m talking about must be “the other half”; the one we never get to see but somehow know is out there, like the FrP-voter (Norwegian far right party with surprisingly – or unsurprisingly – many followers. I’ve never to my knowledge met one in the flesh).

There have always been films that have more or less aimed for a female audience (just as there are films that aim for the male counterpart). The Melodrama of classical Hollywood and the Romantic Comedy have usually been considered “women’s pictures”. Still, I’ve never considered this problematic. If a film is good it is suitable for both sexes, independent of which focus group the film studio had in mind while producing it. Even though the idea of a date film seems silly to me, I understand that romantic comedies and horror films traditionally have been considered the best date genres (which should be strange, since, generally speaking, I imagine that fewer women than men would see a horror on their own, and likewise fewer men go to see a romantic comedy alone. But somehow both genres are often perfectly acceptable to see together for both parties). No matter the practical uses a genrefilm has, if it has quality it will find an audience across the sexual divide – although with a dominating percentage of one of the sexes.

This year, though, has offered two films so far that I can’t imagine any sane and more or less heterosexual man would venture to expose himself to: Sex and the City and Mamma Mia. The former was the first out of the block, and if this had been the only oestrogen bomb of the year, I would dismiss the occurrence as akin to, let’s say, the first Star Wars film (for a while called Star Wars: A New Hope, now I guess it’s Star Wars IV or some such), that was very much a boy’s own film in its time (1977), and still is. I see that of the 200.000 grown up votes it has on IMDB, 175.000 of those are by males. This is not a real or accurate measure of the actual viewing percentage, as women tend to vote on the internet much more seldom as a rule. Even Sex and the City has a higher number of male voters, but in that case it’s much closer – 17100 to 12300. One can speculate that a large number of males have voted as a form of protest – their rating has an average of 4.7, while the female average is 7.3 – but this is hard to prove. One sees, though, that it is a film that is very polarizing: 22.5% give it a 10-rating, while 21.9% give it a 1.

The reason I mention the film at all is that I think it has marked a new tendency in the movie-going public, or rather, the female part of it. The film has apprehended many of the characteristics of a cult film from the get go. Like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, people went in masses or large groups to the film, making it serve as a kind of partystarter, and aperitif of the evening out. Rocky Horror, though, cemented its position as a camp classic over the years, and is a regular fixture in cineaste circles because it’s “so bad it’s good”. (I don’t agree. I think it’s a tremendous bore, but then again, so would most people describe me).

Sex and the City managed to draw a built in audience (of the TV-series), but also, judging by the sales, many new to the concept. This I must assume is because of a larger degree of peer pressure among women, or peer influence, to use a more positive, albeit invented, term; a wanting not to be left out, not to miss anything. It would be a royal folly for me to intend to analyze the wherefores without more data, and although I’m not averse to unfounded speculation I shall try to temper myself. I will say, though, that I personally find the concept of Sex and the City reprehensible. It celebrates one of the worst traits of modern society; blind and excessive consumerism, it disguises stupidity as feminism and, while it might be cleverly made, is so empty of meaningful insights that I can find little reason to forgive its existence, much less its success. I’ll readily admit this is more of a gut reaction on my part than a thorough and well founded analysis, but I don’t think it deserves one. So, for me, the female stampede to the cinema screens in this case is a lamentable matter.

Other films have been made of TV-series that have not approximated the commercial success of Sex and the City (Mission Impossible is an exception): Charlie’s Angels, Starsky and Hutch, X-Files, The Brady Bunch, Lassie, The Untouchables (that were made into a TV-series again after the success of the film), The Naked Gun films (based on the niche series From the Files of Police Squad), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Serenity (an underperforming film based on a TV-series – Firefly – that did not sell well by itself, but by far the best of these together with the Lynch-film), to mention some. I could add Hulk, The Lone Ranger, the Superman– and Batman-films, which were first TV-series, but these I consider to be based on a literary antecedent. (Often films become TV-series as well: Terminator (The Sarah Connor Chronicles), Peyton Place and The Thin Man, to mention examples from different eras). Even though some of these series had many times over the viewing numbers of the TV-version of Sex and the City, and managed intermittently solid sales in their movie incarnations, they evidently lacked the ingredient that would unite women – or men – all over the western world and beyond.

The case of Sex and the City shrinks into insignificance, though, when held up against the year’s other female hit: Mamma Mia. Many of the same instant cult features I mentioned in regard to that film are doubly relevant to the Abba-spectacle. The cinemas are even arranging special karaoke-passes for the film. While Mamma Mia’s earnings have not yet superseded Sex and the City in USA, overseas it has more than doubled the revenue of the shoe shoppers. Just here in Norway, it has sold more than 1 million tickets, meaning that about 25% of the Norwegians have seen the film, unless someone has been crazy enough to return for second helpings, which I’m afraid I can’t completely disregard. While I understand that the highest rating of the film is given by women/girls under 18 years (8.5), the scary thing is that the 8000 women or so that has bothered to vote has given it a median of 8 – against the 6.6 rating of the males.

I won’t say too much about Mamma Mia, as I think again the concept speaks for itself. One readily accepts that people like musicals (many of my favourite films are musicals; Singing in the Rain, of course, Yankee Doodle Dandy, An American in Paris, Moulin Rouge!, Dancer in the Dark, The Bandwagon, even the Sound of Music I can appreciate), but why on earth musicals that are about nothing? The term “empty of meaning” rears its head here as well. I can’t imagine a sane person would look at an Abba-lyric and say to himself: Hmm, this should be a film! (If that person is a visionary, I would be loath to be a part of the future he sees). One can be obdurate, but there are limits…

Maybe I should be threading carefully and not concatenate what are so far merely two examples of bad films with a large and dominantly female audience. And, after all, many people evidently like these films, so I shouldn’t be too quick to pass judgment, although quantity of followers and quality seldom go well together when it comes to art. Neither am I so naïve as to think that the cinema going public primarily visit the premises in order to broaden their horizons. If these films had been along the lines of Grease or Dirty Dancing (that is, harmless, not very good, but entertaining in their way), I would have no insuperable problem with their successes. However, as I think that Sex and the City is taken too seriously by many of its viewers as something positively instructing, I think the problem that arises is close to be downright of an ideological nature. Mamma Mia also seems to me to celebrate vacuousness, bad storytelling and a particular inanity that is scary by its popularity. Probably this says something about our society, but I don’t like to think about that too much (pun almost intended).

One can, of course, interject that God and Man both know that the last 90 years have produced their share of very bad films intended for a predominantly male viewing. For one thing, that is no excuse; one can’t, after all, set one’s sights on the worst examples of the form. Then, there is the flock instinct that seems to have overcome the ladies in these instances. If one by oneself decides that these are films one genuinely wants to see; fine. I know there are women who feel Sex and the City is a fine example of a film, two of them are even friends of mine. But the practice of going together some 20 or 30 in order to participate in a secular mass for female empowerment scares me. (Feminists would have a field day with that sentence!! – And, I fear, with the rest of this article…) I don’t mean that I’m afraid of the communal aspects of this, but rather the lack of personal choice and reflection it entails. Oh, well, people are different after all, and if someone’s idea of a good time is to sit in a cinema and sing Abba-songs – or not sing, as the case may be – I certainly would be amiss to belittle them this pleasure. (Even though belittling is what I do best…)

I initially thought that I could make a case for the male equivalents to these films to be Sin City and 300 (both based on comics by Frank Miller). Maybe that’s wrong, as these films have a somewhat younger core audience (both films are best liked by the under 18 years olds). But in terms of saying little about the world and appealing mainly to one sex, they do have something in common. Both these films, though, seem much better than the “female” films. (Of course I would say that, I’m male, one might protest). They may not at first glance say much about the contemporary world, but that isn’t to say that they don’t mean anything. Whereas the “female” films mentioned here to a large degree tell the story they have to tell – in a very safe and unadventurous way – and little beyond that, I think Miller’s work – and its cinematic reproduction – is definitely multifaceted.

This has to do with several things. Sin City is a pastiche, and as such comments upon a certain tradition as well as taking the noir trope of light and shadow to stark conclusions; it is also a formal experiment in reproducing another medium, and thus brings a level of innovation to Film itself. It is, however, not very clever when it comes to content outside its historical self-reflection. 300, though, has more narrative and hermeneutic possibilities, maybe because of its compact/minimal story. It is clearly bigger than life, and, being based on a part of history that has been aggrandized into myth, this is as it should be. Also the genre seems suited for contemporary readings (and it has been read as everything from a Republican tract to the complete other side of the political spectrum). While Miller can come off as bombastic and limited in his political understanding, knowing all of Miller’s work, I would venture that one has to look at the film more in terms of concepts like honour, destiny (whether one is born with it or shaped by social forces) and its inescapability, and the warrior’s code (Miller has an extreme interest in all things Japanese, it seems; his graphic novel Ronin is drawn in a style akin to Japanese woodblock printing). I could write an entire post about these films, but that is hardly the point.

If there is a point, it is in the vicinity of a general worry about how this possible trend of womencentric films will be interpreted by the studios and financiers of new projects. If they now see a new market group and decide that this is the kind of films they prefer, I’m afraid that the balancing quality that women’s pictures traditionally have had will be gone. Instead one will see a further sexual polarization at the movies based on rather low measures of quality. For every bad Mark Steven Johnson– or Jerry Bruckheimer-film aimed for the male teenager, there will be a pink hued nightmare about shopping disasters or shoe hunting for the middle aged woman of all ages, maybe with songs. What is the High School Musical-phenomenon if not an admission of marketing’s grip on young girls (catch them at an age before any kind of quality control comes into play)? And don’t get me started on Desperate Housewives or Bridget Jones; the original and in all her international permutations!

This post is by no means a call for not making woman’s pictures. On the contrary, I’m upset about the low esteem producers hold women in, of the low standards they think women will fall prey to if they just are told by marketing and commercials that this is what women should like. The current crop of women’s films reminds me of the commercials of the fifties aimed at women: how they tried to give housewives an illusion of control of their destinies by “giving them control in the kitchen” (with this new oven, you are now master of your domain!”; “With the Double Toaster you’ll keep your Man happy – doubly!”). Or the evergreen call for women’s attention; the always smiling women in shampoo or chocolate commercials; as if they have the time of their lives in the showers or while nibbling a dark chocolate of sorts (it always is dark chocolate for women…). And just imagine their happy faces when a new fabric softener makes junior’s shirts feel as new! I’m also reminded of female magazines of the time, whose ludicrous articles are by closer inspection not that different to what one finds today.

There was a time when women’s pictures were a sign of quality. Maybe there were grumps like me, complaining about the state of affairs with the release of George Cukor’s wonderful all-women ensemble film The Women in 1939, or sighs of exasperation at the thought of yet another Douglas Sirk film? What should one bother to see Joseph Mankiewitcz’s A Letter to Three Wives for, or any Bette Davis film for that matter, or a Joan Crawford-vehicle like Mildred Pierce? No matter the critical voices of the time, many of these were and are masterpieces. I know it’s futile and perhaps unfair to hold the recent films up to these earlier classics, but it is at least indicative that while the Woman’s situation was less than ideal in terms of liberty and personal freedom some decades back, one at least managed to make films that did not insult her intelligence. If film studios think that the concerns of women these days are what shoes to buy, what luxury handbags to collect or what Abba-singing ex-lover to choose, isn’t that a little bit derogatory? And if women fall for this, I can’t think other than that western civilization has reached is pinnacle and now the decline is slouching towards Bethlehem to rapidly spring from infancy.

But it’s all just a bit of harmless fun!, one might protest. If boys of all ages have their superhero films, can’t girls have their shoe shopping cosmopolitan-swillers or neurotic dancing baby-watchers? The sensible thing (apart from taking the fifth or ask for the word harmless to be stricken from the record) would be for me to sigh and say, yes, I guess so. That would indeed be the sensible thing.