Saturday 25 June 2016

Film Review: Anzio, 1968

Robert Mitchum can be great. Peter Falk can be great. Both of them together? You'd hope it'd be great. However, I watched this recently with a buddy, with whom I regularly watch war movies, and we found ourselves continually drifting from the movie into chatting, etc. So... not that compelling, perhaps?

I got this DVD 'cause I'm developing a fascination for the campaign in Italy. Indeed, I might well be building my 20mm German forces for gaming that particular theatre. The 'march on Rome', that sort of thing. So, I was hoping to really enjoy this. But I have to be honest, on first viewing it was pretty disappointing.

Mitchum: fab face, pedestrian acting.

"Just one more thing... who wrote the script?"

It is worth seeing, and it does have its moments, but somehow, taken as a whole, it just doesn't really work. For one thing it's very slow getting going. The first real combat action occurs about an hour in to what is a two hour movie. The other key issue for me is that it doesn't quite cohere, instead feeling like a bunch of separate scenarios, simply strung together, almost at random.

Despite telling what could be a really good story, focussed on Mitchum's war-correspondent character (loosely based on  the real-life war correspondent Ernie Pyle), who refuses to arm himself but insists on going where the action is hottest, it somehow lacks a strong narrative arc. This isn't helped by Mitchum's rather leaden performance. This is not the same man who shocked audiences in Cape Fear!

Mitchum's character in Anzio is very loosely based upon real-life war correspondent Ernie Pyle.

An ugly looking crowd, spoiling for a fight. Perhaps they didn't like Jack Jones' song?

In fact, right from the get go it's odd, opening with a schmaltzy bossa nova sung by crooner Jack Jones (hardly the first port of call for a martial movie!), followed by the strange macho revelling of off-duty American troops, carousing and then having a big drunken punch up.

This said, there are some very interesting scenes, such as the stepping-stones over a minefield sequence, and the snipers and shell holes segment. The film also has some excellent settings, and the whole build-up and landing sequence is pretty impressive for a pre-CGI era production.

Falk and Mitchum trying to return to Anzio...

... without getting picked off by this guy.

Film critic Roger Ebert really rates this movie, and I agree with him that it is, in some respects, much more intelligent than many of your run of the mill war movies. But, for all that it asks some interesting questions (and even offers some uncomfortable answers), something doesn't quite feel right.

Mind you, this a Dino de Laurentis production, and I wasn't massively keen on Waterloo at first, another of his productions. But I've grown to love that film more with each viewing. Will I grow to love this? I must confess that I did like it better on second viewing. Perhaps my buddy and I just chatted too much whilst it was on? But then again, we don't usually do that. And particularly not if the movie is sufficiently compelling.

All roads lead...

... to Rome. Literally.

Initially the film follows the American troops as they head for an unknown landing, in an attempt to turn the stalemated Cassino line. It turns out to be Anzio. Once safety landed, and despite the reconnaissance of Mitchum, Falk and co., which shows Rome to be an open city, more or less, the Allies dig in.

Wolfgang Preiss has barely more than a cameo, as the German general Kesselring. But in the few moments he has on screen he displays more energy and charisma than either Falk or Mitchum. But the film can't make its mind up about what story its trying to tell. And whilst we see US Gen. Lesley (based on Gen. Lucas) sitting on his ass, and the Germans rubbing their hands with glee, despite all the exposition, there's previous little action.

Kesselring: 'Hold ze pepperoni Guizeppe, but lots of cheese, ja? Gut'

'Vor ist mein pizza?'

Finally Lesley consents to send out a probing force. But faulty intelligence means they walk into a trap. This is when the film turns from ambling behind the lines exposition, to (almost) a 'proper' war film. But the two halves seem almost unrelated. And even within each half, scenes feel too episodic.

Falk initially wanted to turn his role down, as he thought the dialogue was awful, and the movie likely to be a turkey. His character, like Mitchum's, is based on a real person. In Falk's case, a certain shady Jake Wallenstein, who - rather less romantically than is portrayed here, perhaps? - ran a brothel from a stolen ambulance! In the end Falk was allowed to write his own dialogue, and so opted to stay on board. Well, he was better as Columbo than as his own script-writer here!

Apparently the script was a team effort. A strategy often synonymous with a confused porridge. Ironically it was based in part on the far more succinct and lucid writing of British war correspondent Wynford Vaughan-Thomas. But as he wrote mostly about the British part in the Anzio campaign, and this was an Italian-Amercian co-production, they've inserted Mitchum. The Brits only make token minor appearances.

This is the cover of the DVD version I have.

As well as drawing on real characters culled from the actual history of this theatre, there is a short and rather small scale depiction of the very hard fought battle of Cisterna. If you look for pictures of the Battle of Cisterna online, you'll mainly find pics of the eventual Allied victory. But the infamous original battle was more like the disastrous ambush depicted here, in terms of its outcome.

The 3rd Rangers preparing to embark for Anzio. Most would soon be dead or POWs.

An American soldier fighting in a later action at Cisterna (not the original debacle!).

The US 3rd rangers were nearly all killed or captured in that sorry episode. Only six escaped! In the films version of events, seven escape the battlefield. But they don't all make it back to their own lines.

And that's another of the oddities of this film: the first half is much more general, whilst the second half zooms in on the misadventures of these few survivors. Having escaped Cisterna (not named as such), they evade a flame-throwing tank, a minefield, and deal with a German patrol that interrupts their pleasant stay in a house full of Italian women, before finding a construction site, and nearly going a bit 'commando'. But when that goes pear-shaped they decide to make a bee-line for home.

Hmmm? Certainly not a great film. Not even really a particularly good one. But nevertheless worth watching. Particularly if, like me, you want to see some WWI action set in Italy. To finish this review, here's a selection of attractive old posters for the film, that suggest the promoters were as confused about it as the team who made it, judging by the variety of options they try to cover.

Is it a D-Day landing type beach assault affair?

Or a 'commando' style hit and run movie?

Or is it hell in the trenches and shell craters?

Or perhaps it's a festival di bella ragazza?

Thursday 23 June 2016

Film Review: The Bridge at Remagen, 1969

A nice old poster for the film.

The current DVD version.

After the disappointment of Anzio this film was a welcome dose of good old fashioned full on WWII action. Loosely based on real events [1], this film dramatises the American actions that secured passage of the Rhine into Germany.

George Segal plays tough war-weary Lieut. Hartman, who succeeds to command of his unit during events in the opening scene of the film. The movie follows Hartman and his unit as they spearhead the advance of the U.S. 9th armoured division, approaching the Rhine as the German defences collapse.

Gazzara and Vaughan are excellent in the two central U.S. forces roles.

Core members of the cast take a break duty filming.

A publicity shot.

How a similar scene looks onscreen.

The strategic situation for the Germans was apalling, and Hitler was only making it worse with his no retreat/no surrender 'triumph of the will' pseudo-philosophy. Considering that around 75,000 German troops, the remnants of the 15th Army, were trapped in a pocket on the west of the Rhine, with the Beidge at Remagen as their only route of escape, it was a spectacular failure not to at least concentrate more of them in the bridges defence, never mind failing to get them back over the Rhine.

Robert 'Napoleon Solo' Vaughan is excellent as Major Krüger, a pretty sympathetic 'honourable foe' type German officer, given command of the bridge defences and demolition. En-route to his new command, whilst stopped at a checkpoint, he witnesses a fellow officer being executed by firing squad at the side of the road. His driver remarks shortly afterwards that surely the war is lost once you start killing your own military leaders in such a way.

Vaughan as Krüger.

A nice retro looking tinted black and white still: either side of Vaughan are Hans Christian Blech, and Joachim Hansen, Krüger's immediate subordinates.

Hartman's troops have a very mixed experience as they near the Rhine, ranging from ambushes in peaceful looking countryside to the almost unopposed occupation of German towns. Initially they are tasked with helping destroy the bridge; ironically the Allies desire this, despite it being the last intact bridge over the Rhine, the trapping and destruction of the 15th Army bring an opportunity to good to lose.

Catching dinner amidst corpses.

But these orders are contermanded, and Hartman's battle-fatigued and reduced unit is ordered to storm the bridge and take it intact, so the Allies can cross the Rhine and hopefully end the war quicker. The Germans, despite the late arrival of demolition materials, have set charges on the bridge, and the attacking Americans realise they're assaulting a potential death-trap. This scenario, based on the real events, makes for compelling viewing, and is very well realised here on film.

E.G. Marshall, as Gen. Shinner, decides to capture the bridge intact, if he can.

Both the Allied forces and the Germans bombed the bridge at various points.

U.S. armour pounds the German defences on the opposite bank.

German guns on the eastern bank reply.

I don't know exactly what these guns were, but they do at least look like 88mm.

Filling in the damaged approach to the bridge under fire.

Compared with the real events, the film-makers milk this situation for maximum drama, embroidering heavily on what actually happened. Personally I don't mind this at all. Intelligent viewers can enjoy an exciting movie and still discern truth from fiction by researching the real events if they're interested enough.

American forces crossing the Ludendorff bridge.

The famous sign.

I try not to give too much away in my film reviews, for any readers who might not have seen the movie in question. I'll keep to that modus operandi here. Suffice it to say that this is all that a 'classic' WWII film should be: action-packed, well acted, well made, and with sufficient respect paid both to real events and all parties involved. It's a good 'un!

Much of the urban combat was filmed in Most, a town in Czechoslovakia that was being demolished and relocated to make room for a mining operation. This means that some wonderful genuine old-town architecture could be impressively blown to bits, and, thanks to this film, that act of developmental vandalism at least helped produce some spectacular footage.

An interesting footnote relates to the film's production; the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia whilst the film was being made, forcing the entire circus to flee westwards in a fleet of taxis! [2]

The Ludendorff bridge remains now.

Allied forces crossing the Rhine on the Ludendorff bridge.

During the fighting the Germans did try and blow the bridge, causing quite a bit of damage, as seen here.

Ten days after capture the bridge collapsed, killing several and injuring many more. US army medics survey the carnage.

Gear nuts will also enjoy this movie, as the vehicles and weapons are, on the whole, much more authentic than in many war films. After recently seeing the opposite in the Desert Rats, it was nice to see German cars. Trucks, bikes and weapons such as MG34s, MP40s and even Panzerfaust. We see a Horch staff car, several motorbikes (they could all be the same one!?), which look like the BMW R61, Kubelwagens, and even an SdKfz half-track. Whilst we don't see Sherman's, the Americans were using tanks like the Pershing and Chaffee the end of the war, and most the U.S. materiél looks ok.

Ultimately both the actual events and this film version are compelling. I'll finish off this post with pics of the two real men upon whom Segal's and Gazzara's characters were, at least in part, based, Karl Timmerman, and Alexander Drabik. The former died of testicular cancer around the time of the Korean War, whilst the latter lived to a ripe old age. The fate of some of the senior Germans was somewhat bleaker!

Karl Timmerman, who, as his name suggests, was of German ancestry!

Alexander Drabek, the first U.S. soldier across the Rhine.

Drabek gets a medal for his part in capturing the bridge at Remagen.


[1] The Wikipedia entry on the historical battle (Battle of Remagen) is worth a read.

[2] Vaughan portrayed himself in a BBC R4 dramatisation of these events, circa 2007. Sadly I can't find a live link to this online.

There's an interesting article about German survivors of these events here

Tuesday 21 June 2016

Kit Review: 1/72 Pak 38 - Plastic Soldier Company

This small box from Palstic Soldier Company has eight sprues. Four each of two sets. One dedicated to the guns, and one to the crews. The guns can be built either as Pak 38 50mm, or Pak 38/95 75mm weapons. Rather strangely, perhaps, the cover of the box shows a gun with the wheel of a 75mm gun, but the muzzle of a 50mm gun.

I wouldn't have known this offhand. And indeed, the only reason I do is because, whilst the box I bought from my local model shop came with no instructions, I was able to find them, as PDF files on PSC's website. It's thanks to the online instructions that I can deduce the above, re gun types. Maybe it doesn't matter anyway? Perhaps both types of gun could sport either type - spoked or solid - of wheel?

I must confess that I was surprised there were no instructions in the box. What would someone without the internet do? And even the online PDFs aren't as informative as they could be. I had to deduce a few things about construction by using a bit of common sense, whilst dry-assembling various parts.

Quality of moulding and casting are superb. There's almost no trace of mould-lines, and pretty much no flash at all. Nor are any parts marred by ejector pin marks or other oddities. So snipping the parts off the sprues and cleaning them up for assembly is straightforward. Design and fit of the parts is also excellent, especially in regard to the guns.

These build into simple, robust models, ideal for wargamers. I chose to hollow out muzzles, which is tricky and requires a delicate touch. I didn't go as far as drilling all the tiny holes in the 75mm muzzle though! (I was sorely tempted!) I also left the trailing arms unglued, for adjustability purposes. The guns aren't designed to move either laterally or transversely, as they are fixed. 

At £12.95, they work out at roughly £4.25 per gun and crew. There are enough figures to make four six-man crews. I'll probably stick with four-man crews though, as it's easier then to achieve more variety in poses, etc. The crew figures are pretty cool, being all kneeling, and in mid/late war garb. I did some minor bits of fiddling, in order to get the crews individualised a little

There are ten shells, and the same no. of spent shell-cases, plus two ammo boxes, per gun, in each of the two calibres. Add this to the eight spare crew figures, and the unused parts for the alternate gun types, and you have a healthy amount of stuff, either to use to add detail when basing, or to go in the spares box.

I think these are excellent little guns, with decent crews. The spare stuff is great as well. Mould quality and overall production design, esp. re. the guns and how they assemble, is also superb. The way some of the figures are designed to go together is a little limiting or awkward. But they're still good, and can be modified wth relative ease.

The lack of instructions in the box is the main reason this doesn't get the full five stars, along with the rather basic nature of them, and the slight fiddliness involved in constructing some of the figures. But all things considered, these are a great product, and reasonable value for money.