Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Film Review: The 1000 Plane Raid (1969)





I picked this up, along with The Red Baron (1971), and Master Of The World (1961), all £3 each, with a Fopp voucher at the Cambridge branch of the now quite small Fopp chain. The plot basically concerns an American bomber group commander and his plan to try out a massive daylight raid against Nazi Germany, in the hope of dealing a 'knock out blow'.

Near the beginning of the film Col. Greg Brandon (Christopher George) nearly loses novice pilot Lt. Archer and his crew, when the bomber group is attacked. Fortunately a British Spitfire comes to their aid. But the brash pilot upsets Brandon. Back at base Brandon chews out Archer, and seeks retribution against the cocky Spitfire pilot.

George as Brandon. Suitably rugged leading male material.

The 1000 Plane Raid belongs to that quite large domain of WWII movies starring B-list, or second rank, acting talent. Such films, if you'll pardon the bombing pun, can be quite hit and miss. This is not as good as, say, Decision Before Dawn, but it's better than some star vehicles. Anzio, with Robert Mitchum and Peter Falk springs to mind.

The plot is familiar, akin to 12 O'Clock High, with a hard-ass leader alienating his subordinates, overworking both them and himself. But, in the time honoured tradition of the iron-butt commander, really, underneath it all, his heart is made of candyfloss and marshmallows. 'It's just this damn war', and 'I can't stand losing any more men', is the sort of thing our stalwart will confide to his token love interest (Laraine Stephens, in this case).

The well lit token woman.

And the less well lit token man, or rather, token Brit.

The problems the allies were facing - the incredible inefficiency, not to mention indiscriminate barbarity - of night bombing, were very real. To use the title of another bomber related tale, they faced a proper old Catch 22: bombing in daylight was deemed unacceptable, on account of the likely losses to the attacking side, but then night time bombing was not proving to be the weapon its inter-war years apologists had prophesied.

In this film, rather as in the much more recent U-571, Americans gleefully rewrite history to their own advantage. In U-571 Bon-Jovi and pals capture an Enigma code machine from a U-Boat. The events that travesty was based upon were a far different British action! And in this movie, Col. Greg Brandon, of the US 8th Air Force, is credited with the idea of the first 1000 Plane daylight bombing raid.

'No offence to you Brits, but we Yanks...'

Lt. Archer, centre, the not so ugly duckling...

Allegedly based on a book by British ex-RAF man turned author, Ralph Barker, that book's title, The Thousand Plan: The Story of the First Thousand Bomber Raid on Cologne, reveals how the plot of the film, in which the target is a more ethically palatable war objective (a Focke factory), diverges from reality.

And not only was the target different, but it was a British idea, carried out by the RAF. And furthermore, as a read of Overy's enormous The Bombing War informs, bombing was, in reality, always a deeply inefficient 'blunt instrument'. Far from the precision instrument depicted here, or, even more ludicrously, in 633 Squadron.


The title sequence looks fab.

The film's in colour. But this black and white still is nice.

Having moaned about the historical innacuracy, I'd like to do a volte face, and admit that this film is, for all that it's an ahistorical pile of propagandistic cobblers, really quite fun to watch. I remember reading someone else's review of this film (here), in which they said that Oakmont, the production company that made the film, were good at delivering 'first rate entertainment on a second rate budget'. I'd have to agree.

As with so many postwar WWII films, stock footage is frequently used, and - as per the norm - not always exactly seamlessly. What saves the film is, chiefly, the charisma of George, and the charm and humour of RAF liaison officer, Wing Commander 'Taffy' Howard (he of the cheeky Spitfire rescue), played, very engagingly, by Gary Marshal. The script and direction also help, so that one grows to care for even relatively minor characters, such as the put upon chief mechanic who's later pressed into service as a waist gunner.

So, not much cop in terms of historical accuracy. But, as the title implies, a gert big dose of bomb-dropping movie fun.
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NOTES:

Whilst looking for pics online, to illustrate this post, I stumbled upon this

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Film Review: The Red Baron (1971)

This is the version I have.



This proved to be a pretty enjoyable film. Directed by Roger Corman, more famous for his prolific output of B-Movies, it's a creditable stab at a more mainstream period/historical WWI dogfight drama. It was actually filmed and released as Von Richthofen And Brown. But has subsequently been re-released under the snappier and more obvious title, The Red Baron.

The real 'Red Baron'.

John Philip Law in the role.

This is also yet another war movie populated by actors I don't recognise, giving, by and large, very decent performances. [1] Or perhaps I should say very adequate? There’s a fair bit of wooden acting, and not a small amount of ham, at times, but not so much as to really spoil things. And the leads acquit themselves respectably enough. 

Wow, cool wings!

As well as an obvious passion for the flying machines of this period - the Red Baron's colourful 'flying circus' stealing the aerial show - this film also focuses on themes related to the evolution of class cultures, and how this might relate to methods of making war. 

The film starts with Richthofen joining the squadron of Oswald Boelcke. Scenes depicting his developing career are interspersed with scenes of his adversary, Roy Brown, who is portrayed as a rather surly disagreeable type, hell-bent on alienating his plummy British chums.

In this rendering of the story, or rather the popular myth, von Richthofen embodies the 'knights of old' idea - not only does he refuse to camouflage his planes, he goes the opposite way - see above pic [2] - making them more colourful and eye-catching, justifying his disobedience in chivalric terms - which is set in opposition to the down and dirty approach of (as this film has it) his nemesis, Canadian fighter pilot, Roy Brown.

The real Roy Brown.

I watched this with a regular war movie buddy, and right after it we watched an American (PBS?) documentary on the subject, in which the case was made that The Red Baron was probably killed by fire from the ground, and therefore not by Roy Brown, as was maintained at the tine, and as depicted in this film.

In this version of events, Richthofen is drawn into attacking a novice pilot Brown is trying to keep out of the fight. Ironically, Richthofen is coming to the rescue, in this film telling, of his brother Lothar. The way the films plays fast and loose with the historical facts, such as they are, or can ever be known or guessed, doesn't necessarily detract from the value of, nor the fun to be derived from, this film. 



And anyway, as well as cogitating on myths vs. facts, we military gear buffs can also both enjoy the uniforms and equipment, etc, whilst critiquing it! Most of the impressive aerial combat is between British SE5s and German Pfalz D IIIs. Only at the end of the film do we get to see some of the legendary - and very cool looking - Fokker DR I triplanes, including the Baron's iconic red beast. 

There's a very bizarre and very Corman-esque scene, in which Fokker shows off his new (and unpainted) triplane design - all shiny and silver - to Richthofen, and the two discuss 'her', in overtly erotic terms, whislt a Hun honey fondles the fuselage and offers herself to the Baron... bonkers, but great fun!
An older poster, from which the modern DVD cover (at the top of the post) is derived

The DVD Cover art, which is a rather handsome and evocative painting, shows Fokker Triplanes in a dogfight with Sopwith Camels, as indeed happened on that fateful day - his last day of active service, and only days before his 26th birthday - when Von Richthofen was brought down permanently. Sadly, what we actually get, as in The Blue Max [3], are the rather box-nosed SE5s, in place of the more attractively curvaceous Sopwiths.

Aerial scenes were shot in Ireland. Doesn't look like the Somme, does it?

If I were to be critical, then I'd find fault more keenly with the backdrops to the aerial combat - only one scene attempts to integrate the aerial warfare depicted with the ground war that it took place over (and none too convincingly then) - as opposed to the fact it follows the old and contentious line re events. 

What it does best, is recreate believable milieu for both sides, especially in terms of life (and death!) on the bases, in the air, and off duty, showing how the grim realities of modern mechanised war work against old-fashioned codes of chivalry. 

Law in airborne mode.

And the aerial combat footage really is quite something. Unlike many air war movies, this features footage that is clearly genuinely aerial filming of the key leads - perhaps sitting, miming combat, in the rear seat of a two seater, but definitely airborne. Films of this vintage that fake such scenes generally look rather lame as a result. 

Anyway, whilst far from perfect, this is a highly enjoyable portrayal of a compelling and fascinating aspect of WWI.

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NOTES:

[1] Well, actually, I did kind of recognise Law - it's hard to, with all his clothes on (and no wings): he's the blind angel in Barbarella!

'Jasta' (Jagdstaffel) 11.

Corman's pilots.

[2] Mind you, the colours and markings in this film aren't, like the story itself, entirely authentic. They're a kind of amalgam. But they still look very cool!

[3] In fact the planes in this movie are the same planes used in The Blue Max. One rather sad footnote to this later production is that during filming there were two serious crashes, one fatal, and the other seriously injuring two pilots.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Book Review: The Last Days of Hitler - Hugh Trevor-Roper

This is the edition I have.


Hugh Trevor-Roper's reputation as an expert on Hitler took a knock when, as Lord Dacre (he was made a life peer by Margaret Thatcher) he appeared to endorse the forged 'Hitler Diaries', which were actually the work of a certain Konrad Kujau. This whole farrago is the subject of the very interesting and entertaining British TV series Selling Hitler.

Oops! Hugh endorses the fake Hitler diaries.

Trevor-Roper in his Army Intelligence togs.

But way back in 1945 Trevor-Roper, as a British military intelligence agent, was commissioned, largely in response to Russian (or rather Stalinist) myth-mongering, to get to the bottom of what really happened to Hitler. After stating the facts pretty much as they were, Stalinist Russia was looking to exploit Hitler's downfall, and began to take the line that the Western powers were keeping the former F├╝rher in captivity, for some darkly malevolent bourgeois purposes. [1]

Trevor-Roper's task was to marshal all available intelligence - and he had access not just to documents, but surviving captive participants - and tell the sorry tale of Hitler's ultimate demise, in the G├Âtterdammerung of the collapse and, as it transpired, the literal self-immolation of the supposed thousand year Reich. Such a 'Viking funeral', as he describes it, 'is the natural end of a chapter in history; the history, it seems, of a savage tribe and a primitive superstition.'

Hitler Youth jump over a Solstice bonfire. [2]

Torches at Nuremburg. [2]

I've read The Last Days of Hitler twice now, and thoroughly enjoyed the read on both occasions. Trevor-Roper is not just knowledgeable on his subject, but he is also a very entertaining and adroit writer. He's as witty as he is well-informed. Indeed, his wit can be quite caustic. The subject - words like enjoyable and entertaining seem almost blasphemous in the face of the horrors this coterie of sinister clowns were responsible for - is not an easy or straightforward one. But he handles it about as adroitly as one could hope for.

Having said this, I'm withholding half a balkenkreuz for his indulgence in his own shorthand characterisations, which in some instances (see below) don't just border on, but march in and annexe, caricature. Another theme that might not stand too much scrutiny - and something that he shares with Kenneth Clarke in his magnificent series Civilisation - is his characterisation the Germans themselves, and Southern Germans in particular - in a way that does smack of the same kind of oversimplification of racial/tribal (stereo-)types that the Nazis so obviously took too far.

Hitler originally decreed that this man, Herman Goering, should be his successor. [3]

Goebbels, the family man.

Despite these provisos, the portraits that emerge are very compelling: Hitler himself is deemed to powerfully support the 'great man' idea, inasmuch as it was his dark charisma (to use a more modern historian's term) that was the catalyst for the terrible events of these years. Even isolated in the Berlin bunker, his word was Holy Writ. And indeed, he could even command from beyond the grave, as witness the performances of many of his former cronies, at Nuremburg.

In the Byzantine labyrinthine internecine world of Nazi power-politics, Himmler built the SS Empire. 

Bormann, the omnipresent intriguer, always at Hitler's elbow.

Himmler and Bormann both emerge as strange nonentities, able to rise to enormous power purely as ciphers or channels for the dark lord's will. When he goes, they effectively cease to exist. Some characters are portrayed as outright buffoons, like Schwerin von Krosigk, or Schellenburg, whilst others, Goebbels and Speer in particular, have rather more to them. But all depend on and breath the bizarre 'metaphysical' air of Nazism.

Hitler outside the bunker, 1945. [4]

And in the cramped isolation of the bunker, it's a stifling gaseous aura of neurosis, as euphoric dreams persist, and alternate, like the stormy weather of Hitler's volatile emotional character, with the bleakly nihilistic gloom that is, for Trevor-Roper, the core and lasting testimony of Hitler's fundamentally negative ideology.

Oberwallstrasse, near the bunker, as it looked after the fall of Berlin, 1945.

As Trevor-Roper points out, Hitler understood the power of myth. And whilst this book is an attempt to put the lid on the dangerous genie of Nazism, 'myths are not like truths; they are the triumph of credulity over evidence.' And, lest we get too smug, he adds 'When we consider upon what ludicrous evidence the most preposterous beliefs have been easily, and by millions, entertained, we may well hesitate before pronouncing anything incredible.'

Inside the bunker, at the end.

US press examine the grave Hitler and Braun were cremated in. [5]

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NOTES:

[1] Whilst publicly proclaiming such balderdash, Stalin's agents were in fact compiling a huge dossier on Hitler, which became a 'book' of sorts, expressly put together for Stalin to digest. It's subsequently been published in English as The Hitler Book.

[2] I include these pictures to evoke the pagan ceremony aspect of Nazism, as also suggested in Trevor-Roper's 'Viking Funeral' statement. There are some pictures on the web purporting to show the burnt corpses of Herr and Frau Goebbels, and their six children. But in the interests of keeping this a family friendly blog, I refrained from including them.

[3] But by the time of the period this book covers, Goering had long since ceased to be either a favoured or a credible successor.

[4] Pictures of Hitler in 1945 seem to be quite a rarity. This one is allegedly a photo of an event depicted in the film Downfall, in which Hitler decorated a number of Hitler Youth, in the Chancellery garden, just outside the bunker. The cover image of the Pan edition I have might also have been taken at this same event.

[4] The Russians, first on the scene as they were, told these guys that this was where they'd found the burned remains that they believed to be Hitler and his wife.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Film Review: White Tiger (Belyy Tigr), 2012

The Russian Titles: groovy Cyrillic font!




Wow! What an odd film that was.

I wrote this review some while back. The evening after watching this movie. And I must confess, it left me feeling perplexed. I wasn't always sure what I thought of the film itself, but, a few hours after the credits rolled, I knew that I'd been deeply impressed by the degree to which it got under my skin, and made me think.

The 'Tankist' when discovered... pretty much fried. But not dead.

The bulk of the film appears to centre around a Russian 'tankist', who miraculously survives a German tank attack in which a seemingly invincible phantom white Tiger tank appears from nowhere, destroys a large number of T-34s, and then disappears. Discovered in his burned out tank, our 'tanker' is 90% covered with burns. Several times he's nearly passed over, as already dead or past recovery. But he miraculously recovers, unscarred, but unable to recall his former life/self.

Miraculously healed, renamed, re-recruited, and about to be redeployed.

'Reborn' as Ivan Naydenov (i.e. 'Generic-Russki Found'), he's soon back in a tank. And before long he's selected to command a special prototype souped-up super T34, his mission; find and destroy this mysterious White Tiger. This develops into a bizarre supernatural angle, which is the first and most obvious thing about this strange film that sets it apart from your run of the mill war picture. Indeed, it makes it hard to categorise; I've seen this film variously described online as action, war, fantasy or thriller. I think a better description would be parable.

Naidyov, played by Aleksey Vertkov, in a perpetually calm state following his 'burning', claims he can communicate with tanks, or rather they with him. We first see this in a scene interesting not only for this oddball narrative turn, but because it depicts wrecked tanks that includes a lend-lease Matilda, as well as the expected Russian and German armour.



The Communist military machine, ostensibly anti-religious, inasmuch as Communism itself is purportedly so [1], unsurprisingly, has trouble digesting both the stories of an invincible 'ghost' Tiger tank, and what word of Comrade Naidyov's claims makes its way up the command chain. This aspect of the film culminates in what one might well read as a Russian riposte to the much longer (but no less mythical) American tradition, of the shoot out in the ghost town. Here Naidyov's T-34 does battle one-to-one with the elusive 'Belyy Tigr', the end of which duel I'll not give away, having already indulged in far more spoilers than I'd usually permit myself.



At this point the film rather abruptly changes scene and gear, shifting to the German capitulation, with, I think, Keitel, signing the unconditional surrender. Keitel, Stumpff, and another character, who are, I think, supposed to be, respectively, the heads of Germany's land, sea and air forces, then have a dinner together, and discuss, rather awkwardly, their feelings about the food.

It's all over now.

Signing the surrender.

This abrupt departure from the front, despite the fields of battle being themselves somewhat odd, is not in any way signposted or explained. And then we're plumped back, about as abruptly - I say abruptly, but this film has a slow pace much of the time - into the war zone. Only it's no longer a war zone; Russian troops and German civilians watch columns of German soldiers being escorted Eastward into captivity.

Major Fedotov, left, briefs Naydenov, literally in the field.

Finally, in the person of Major Fedotov (Vitaliy Kishchenko), an NKVD officer whose role renders him as an intermediary for us, the bewildered audience, we are reconnected with the original narrative thread. Fedotov visits Naidyev, who, as ever, is communing with his beloved tanks. In this case his own. Doing some maintenance. The exact content and outcome of this short scene, which is the key to unlocking the films more obvious metaphoric meaning, I'll leave unsaid.

Strangely, this doesn't feel at all like a film nearing its end, at this point. But it is. Only there's one more bizarre left-turn before the credits role. And this one, despite no references to supernatural tank type business, is perhaps the weirdest of them all: in a massive and very grandiose setting, Hitler explains his actions, reasoning, and vision of the future, to a shadowy character sitting opposite him, who doesn't speak, and whose identity is not made clear.

Karl Kranzkowski as Hitler.

This last development hits the viewer powerfully, as we all know - or ought to - that at this point, in properly chronological narrative time, Hitler is dead. This is not a film that - up to this point, at any rate - has used flashbacks or a backward narrative. Giving Hitler, literally, the last word, is a daring, provocative, even shockingly powerful ploy. Once again, there's no signposting or explanation. 

At surface level all this might be, or might appear to be, simply a resurgence of the old superstitious face of Mother Russia. Stalin himself rallied Russia around such ideas, in contradiction with the strict dogma of materialist Communism. And this is an aspect of this film that roots it in a decidedly indigenous Russian tradition. It's nowhere near as oddball-arthouse as, say, Tarkovsky. Yet it does have something of that dream-like quality.


Flaming tanks!

In stark contrast, it seems to me that, by and large, mainstream Hollywood style filmmakers attempt to make any meaning their films might have - beyond being product produced for entertainment - idiot-level obvious. Does director Shaknazorov have a higher regard for his audience's intelligence? Or is the meaning of this film, and in particular the key final scene, simply more obvious to Russian viewers?

Panzer Battles, in the edition I bought (for 50p!).

Funnily enough I also finished the Eastern Front section of Mellenthin's Panzer Battles memoir the very same evening I watched this. In that book the German general concludes his post-WWII musings on the relation between Europe and Russia in a way that does make interpreting this final scene potentially much simpler and clearer: 'we require an indomitable will to protect Western civilisation from the clutches of the Soviet Hordes.' That sentence would slot into Hitler's final monologue in this film very neatly.

Spoiler alert: perhaps I shouldn't show this...  but...

The juxtaposition of supposedly irreligious Communism with ghostly tanks, and a living 'tankist' who seems more medieval than modern, and even the invocation of Darwin - here used in a very bizarre attempt to reconcile supernatural goings on with rational understanding, by inferring that the odd events depicted are simply a natural outcome of the conditions of war - are challengingly uncomfortable for me, a Westerner brought up as a Christian, but who has rejected all religious dogma.

Fury this is not!

But, if one considers this film not literally, but as myth or parable, and we then start rooting around for readings and meanings, it does, I feel, get really quite interesting. One thing's for sure, this is an altogether different beast from Fury! And, strangely enough, although the latter never invokes such otherworldly ideas, nevertheless, White Tiger, for all it's mystical weirdness, is - rather bizarrely, perhaps? - on planes of a philosophical sense of truth, if not literally, a much more realistic film.

This is the cover of the DVD I bought.

One of the Russian DVD covers.

Well, in conclusion, a mighty strange film. But very watchable and thought-provoking. It's well made, despite some oddities, such as Tiger that isn't quite what a Tiger should be (well, it is a ghost Tiger!), and some heavy Russian seriousness in the acting that Western viewers might find veers towards the hammy. But for the most part the actors are actually excellent. I particularly liked Naydenov himself, and his two crew members, Kryuk and Berdyev.

The action in the film is far from being the central or only point of the movie. But it is nonetheless excellent.  Of particular note is the sound the  tanks make when they fire. Especially so the white Tiger, whose gun going off has a powerful and yet menacingly spooky sound. Rating this was really hard. In some respects this is a five star film. But it's not entirely consistent, and it's so damn weird... so I settled for four out five.

Naydenov's crew, Kryuk and Berdyev.

I'd be interested to hear what others who've seen the film think!

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NOTES:

[1] Like fascism, Communism has itself been likened to a religion, for its fervour, absolutism, and the rituals, orthodoxies and hierarchies (priesthood!) that go with it. And, just as in 1812, religion and superstition proved useful in fanning the flames of patriotism and nationalism.