Wednesday 6 December 2017

Film Review: The Longest Day, 1962

An absolute classic, exemplifying the WWII genre film in its most epic old school form. Nicely shot in black and white, which helps it look almost like wartime footage [1]. Also, the fact that all the different protagonists speak in their own proper languages, with subtitles for the audience, make this a properly executed piece of work. 

Chaos on Omaha Beach.

Juno Beach.

Action on the Pegasus Bridge.

 Rommel superimposed on the coast.

In a pre CGI production, there are a few clunky moments, most obviously when action is superimposed over a backdrop, as in the pic of Rommel (Werner Hinz), above. But by and large everything is done on the grand scale - see above pics - and extremely well. The French attack on Ouistreham - and this is a rare WWII film in how well it addresses all the different sides, both within the Allied coalition, and their German adversaries - includes a masterful long shot (see pic. below), that looks like it must've been filmed from a tethered ballon, or something similar.

This rather paltry still was the only image of the long aerial shot of the attack on Ouistreham I could easily find.

A truly iconic image. Understated, but powerful.

Wayne supplies some laconic exposition, prior to kick-off.

It's obvious from the credits that the production team canvassed a wide array of expert opinion, in adapting Cornelius Ryan's book of the same name (much as would later happen with another of his books, A Bridge Too Far), and have attempted to show as many threads as possible within the 178 minute time frame. 

We see something of the build-up, and the tensions of anticipation, prior to the landings finally going ahead, including stuff on the important role of the weather. And we also see partisans, Free-French troops, and both American and British special forces and paras, operating behind the lines in advance of the landings. Meanwhile the Germans are beset by chaos, caused by in part by the aforementioned sabotage, plus their own ineptitude, and some plain bad luck. 

Zanuck and Robert Wagner sit and smoke on location.

Sean Connery has a minor comedic role.

Brig. Gen. Teddy Roosevelt (Henry Fonda) goes in with the first wave at Utah.

The cast is incredible, and so stellar it might be in danger of the film collapsing in a supernova of prima-donnas, but actually - perhaps due to the constrictions of what might be long for a standard film, but remains short for telling such a massive story - the many stars don't get to hog the limelight. The number of famous familiar faces is huge. Fortunately they don't distract from the overall narrative arc.

Pvt. John Steele (Red Buttons), deafened by bells at St. Mere Eglise. [2]

Gert Frobe as 'Unteroffizier Kaffeekanne'.

And there are also loads of enjoyable supporting roles, from lesser known actors, who nevertheless contribute to the richness of the film, such as John Steele (played by the fabulously named Red Buttons!), the Yank paratrooper deafened by the church bells of St. Mere Eglise, or the tubby German - Gert 'Goldfinger' Frobe, as 'Unteroffizier "Kaffeekanne"' - who every morning takes food and drink to his kameraden in their bunkers. 

Dead paras, St Mere Eglise.

Lieut. Col. Vandervoort is rattled... 

'Dutch' Schultz (Richard Breymer) atthe crossing of the phantom patrols.

There are too many excellent and memorable moments in this full-fat classic to recount them all. Two of my personal favourites are when F Co. of the 505th U.S. Paras land smack dab in the middle of St. Mere Eglise, and when 'Dutch' Schultz (Breymer), of the 82nd Airborne, hooks up with troops of the 101st Airborne, and they pass within feet a German patrol coming the opposite way, on the other side of a brick wall, only for both patrols to disappear phantom-like into the night.

I'll not be tempted here to go into that rabbit warren of what's historically right or wrong in the movie. Suffice it to say that this is the sort of film that, if seen when young - as I did - can help ignite a passion for military history. And once that bug's got hold, one will be inspired by watching such films to ferret out whatever the truths may be.

Richard Todd plays Maj. Howard at Pegasus Bridge. [3]

Colin Maud (Kenneth More), with mutt 'Churchill'

As good as this is, and personally I think it's great, D-Day really does need the HBO style treatment; a full-on multi-episode telling, to further explore the many threads just touched on here. For one thing, this version stops once the Allies are off the beaches [4]. And these days a film could more accurately depict everything from the epic invasion armada, to the German materiel used to defend (panzers etc are most notable in this film - indeed, it's a central theme - by their total absence.


[1] Many post-war WWII movies use too much real stock footage from the war. The Longest Day resorts to this trick just two or three times, thankfully. The trained buffs' eye will of course spot these moments. But at least the makers of this movie showed exemplary restraint.

Mitchum makes gormless cigar-chompin' look cool.

[2] I've tried to refrain from nit-picking over the facts of history. But I feel I ought to mention that although Steele did get caught on the church tower - an accident that probably saved his life - he wasn't actually deafened by the church bells.

[3] Todd was himself present at Pegasus Bridge, during the Overlord operations, as a Captain.

[4] Well, more specifically, when Brig. Gen. Cota (Robert Mitchum) and co. finally get off the Omaha beaches.

And to round off this post, some images of some of the Germans:

Oberst. Josef Priller (Heinz Reincke) pilots one of two Me 108 'Taifun' used in the film.

Hans Christian Blech as Maj. Pluskat, an artillery commander...

... who, in this film at least, is the first German to spot the invasion armada.

Rundstedt (Paul Hartmann) and Blumentritt (Curt Jürgens).

Tuesday 28 November 2017

Book Review: Stalingrad, Antony Beevor

Antony Beevor has a talent for writing military history that reads almost like an action novel. His account of the demise of the German 6th Army - the largest in the entire Wehrmacht at the time - during the fight for Stalingrad, is gripping.

The colossal scale of war on the Ostfront, and the barbarism of both sides, driven by pitiless ideologies, make this theatre particularly and ghoulishly fascinating. And, as is often said, Stalingrad is commonly viewed as the turning point both in this conflict, and the war at large.

A saluting skeleton greets German troops arriving in Stalingrad. [1]

The Germans pressed all available resource into their service.

Hitler and Stalin both became maniacally obsessed with imposing their will in this contest, neither permitting their beleaguered troops to give up or retreat. The profligacy of lives on both sides is truly appalling. Beevor, like the reader, is clearly enthralled by the carnage.

It strikes me that Hitler allowed himself to be deflected from his original goal of securing the breadbasket of the Ukraine and the oil of the Caucuses, and was lured into a wasteful concentration on prestige targets, namely cities: Leningrad, Moscow, and Stalingrad.

Germans dug in beneath a knocked-out T-34.

A famous pic. of German troops amidst the rubble of Stalingrad.

These battles favoured the Russians, as they denied the Germans the undoubted advantages of their mobile 'blitzkrieg' tactics, drawing them into static battles of attrition, in which the weight of Soviet numbers could be used to wear the Germans and their sometimes less than enthusiastic allies (Italians, Romanians, Hungarians, etc.) down.

The detail of the battle itself is well conveyed. Although I'd have liked a few more maps to have helped track how things developed. And Beevor manages to move pretty deftly around the theatre, from the action amidst the rubble to developments elsewhere on the flanks, without spoiling the narrative flow.
Soviet troops fighting in the ruined City..

You can easily see how arduous such street-fighting must've been.

He also moves smoothly through the various gears, from the top brass, with their concerns of ideological and personal prestige, down the chain of command to the God-forsaken 'grunts', fighting for their lives in a Dantean inferno, the hellishness of which is made all the worse by the inhumanity of the political ideologies that drove this conflict.

On that topic, one thing that really strikes me, the more I read about Russian history during Stalin's reign, is that - whilst Hitler singled out certain groups, in particular the Jews, for merciless persecution - 'Uncle' Joe seems, whilst preserving a glacially cool exterior (unlike the often apoplectic Führer), to have been a psychotic mass murderer of a far more wide-rangingly brutal and paranoid type.
Russian POWs who starved to death in Stalingrad captivity.

Stalingrad literally became a blitzkrieg graveyard.

Another striking thing is how many Russians sought to join the Germans. Some might well have done so just as a means to survive. But many, especially those persecuted under Communism (e.g. Kulaks, Cossacks, Poles, Ukrainians) initially saw the Germans as liberators from the Stalinist/Communist yoke.

According to Beevor the NKVD, part of Stalin's internal police/terror apparatus, were shocked and appalled when they discovered how many Russians were collaborating with the German invaders. These 'Hiwis' (from 'Hilfswillige') in places made up as much as 25% of German forces, and some estimates - unsurprisingly uncertain in the fog of war - run as high as 80,000 for the battle at Stalingrad itself.

The pitiful remains of VIth Army, passing into captivity.

Young aryans of the vaunted 'master race', reduced to troglodytes.

In typically Stalinist fashion, such people became 'former Russians'. Caught between two such appallingly inhumane ideologies the sufferings of all concerned were, frankly unimaginable. But Beevor does a damn good job of trying to convey how things were, and it makes for terrifically gripping reading.


In researching images for this post I found a really cool post (click here) on abandoned German armour at Stalingrad. Some great images/info!

[1] Little did they know how prophetic this macabre roadside attraction would prove to be.

Book Review: Hitler & Churchill, Secrets of Leadership - Andrew Roberts

Subtitled 'Secrets of Leadership', this book grew, I believe, out of a radio programme of the same title Roberts produced for the BBC. It's an excellent book: an easy yet compelling read, in just over 200 pages Roberts uses that old 'compare and contrast' m.o. to examine these two Titans of 20th C. history.

Both Hitler and Churchill...

... liked wearing military uniforms.

This is the first of Roberts' books I've read in which his Tory position is made quite so plain, as he refers very disparagingly to liberals and the left, and their ideas, in a manner bordering at times on glib. Interestingly, however, whilst he's still an ardent Tory, Roberts' views on some issues appear to have evolved since this was written (2003); if you'd only read this book, you might find his later book Napoleon the Great somewhat surprising.

However, if the above sound like the potential criticisms they indeed are, nevertheless, this book remains an excellent and by and large very balanced examination of its complex, fascinating and difficult subjects. And what compelling subjects they are!

Both were powerful orators, capable of inspiring...

... who knew the power and drama of rhetoric.

Having said this, there is a slight (other reviews I've read prefer to say an extreme) imbalance, and in more than one way, in that the book not only gives Churchill more column space, ending with a study on how he's been perceived since his passing, but also falls in step with the vast majority of post WWII literature on the two men, in its fulsome praise of Churchill and sometimes crowing dismissals of Hitler.

But when the case is argued as eloquently and convincingly as Roberts does here, it's hard to disagree. And, in broad brushstroke terms, I personally don't. Nor is this book purely or simply Churchill hagiography vs Hitler as fall-guy punchbag. The failings of the former, and the strengths of the latter are examined.

Both understood the power ...

... of simple propaganda.

Roberts says very early in his book that he separates Hitler and Churchill by describing the former as a charismatic leader, and the latter as inspirational. To learn what what he means by that might require that you read this book. I'd highly recommend that you do.

A fascinating polemic which, despite not sharing the authors' politics, I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

Book Review: Sherman Tank, Gavin Birch (Images of War)

Culled from the Imperial War Museum's extensive archives, collected during the war by the AFPU (Armed Forces Photographic Unit), what we have here is a black and white only pictorial record of Sherman tanks during WWII. The Germans and Americans often managed colour photography. But for us Brits, colour was on hold 'for the duration'.

A lot of the pics in this book are akin to this: a Sherman in British service. [1]*

Breaking for food, near Caen, 1944.*

I bought this book to help me detail a small collection of 1/72 Sherman models I recently acquired. I have to admit, I was somewhat disappointed to find that the pics in this book are predominantly of Shermans in British/Commonwealth service, with only a brief chunk given over to Shermans in American service, as I'm intending my models to be U.S. versions.

'Somewhere in Germany', a Firefly camouflaged for the country... in the city.*

Another disappointment is the very limited nature of the sourcing of images. A trawl around the web is much better for diversity. And this book has very little on the 'funnies', or on captured Shermans, lend-lease tanks, of the use of the Sherman outside of WWII.

Despite these issues, the book remains an excellent and useful pictorial resource. All the pictures are captioned, and there's a text that gives light/brief coverage of the history of these tanks and the theatres/operations they took part in. However, the text is really quite poor in some respects. I've noticed this with some other Pen & Sword titles; clumsy prose littered with errors, and the general air of a distinct lack of editorial finesse.

One of my favourite U.S. Shermans in action pics not featured in this book.

This was the sort of thing I was after: Shermans in U.S. service in Europe, WWII

The pictures included herein cover North Africa, Europe, and the Far East. Some of Hobart's Funnies are covered, but mostly it's your ordinary tanks, as opposed to the many variants. I paid £5 each for two 'Images of War' titles. And at that price, I'm happy. 

The text only merits two stars, whilst the pics warrant five. In the end I've opted for three and a half balkenkreuz, which seems apt/fair to me, as - despite the issues with the text - I do like the book overall, and it is a handy reference resource.

Canadian Shermans, deployed during the Korean War.


* Images that appear in both this review and the book under review are marked with an asterisk.

[1] Tow-bars being fitted to a British Sherman about to be towed by a Grant ARV.

A Russian lend-lease Sherman.

It's a pity there's nothing on Sherman's in Russian service, or when captured by the Germans or their allies. Of course there's plenty of stuff to be found on the web, as the pics above and below illustrate.

Herman... a German Sherman.