Friday 9 June 2017

Book Review: The Retreat From Moscow, Delderfield

I do enjoy Delderfield's Napoleonic history books. It's a shame there aren't more of them, really. 

I finished this one a few days ago. Having read a fair bit on this campaign, I'd say that this isn't the greatest work on the subject. Some of the original protagonists memoirs, whilst very incomplete in their coverage, are superb. And Paul Britten Austen's 'word film' trilogy on the campaign is a masterpiece. 

A page from Korolev's fascinating Great Retreat.

Indeed, a lot of fresh information has augmented our understanding of this campaign since Delderfield shuffled off this mortal coil. Huge amounts or archaeological evidence has literally been unearthed (see above pic), and the role of disease in the dissolution of the grand Armée, for example, is now much better understood. [1]

Nevertheless, this is, as usual with Delderfield, an immensely easy and satisfying read. He draws heavily on numerous sources, particularly the memoirs of Bourgogne and Marbot, with a smattering of others, some familiar, some less so. He's wonderfully old fashioned and individualist about his sources, which is a refreshing change from the ultra-competitive hyper-academic nature of so much written these days.

The Grand Armée crossing the Niemen, 1812. [2]

The title is bit misleading, inasmuch as this is the story of the whole campaign, not just the retreat. It is, as books on the subject go, a brief and light treatment, of what was a massive and complex campaign. So he concentrates on the central body of the invasion, with only peripheral space given to the flanking forces, and other details not concerning the main invasion force.

It's not a book packed with revelations, rather it's the telling of a story that fascinates, written by a man fascinated with the story. And a man with a gift for easy yet compelling prose. As such, it'd be a great introduction to the subject. 

Delderfield has his heroes, such as Ney, with the rearguard...

and his villains, such as Bernadotte, turncoat and rival...

He does challenge some popular views, particularly in justifying Napoloen's actions at certain points (e.g. deciding to go to Moscow, instead of overwintering in Smolensk, and leaving the Grand Armée to return to Paris), but he also extols some familiar stories, being particularly taken with the bravery of Ney, the loyalty of Eugéne, and disparaging of the treachery of Bernadotte and the failings of Murat.

and even clowns... Murat flirts with his Cossack admirers.


Ronald Frederick Delderfield.

One of the homes where Delderfield resided for a period in his life, in Croydon, has been honoured with one of those blue plaques. It's a very ordinary suburban terrace! I don't know why, but I find that very pleasing.

[1] Stephen Talty's fascinating Illustrious Dead is well worth reading for more on this topic.

[2] This stunning still is from Bondarchuk's epic Russian production of War & Peace.

Thursday 8 June 2017

Film Review: Saving Private Ryan, 1998

Saving Private Ryan has an excellent if unusual premise at its heart: in a scene in an office in the U.S, letters are being written and sent to the parents of soldiers killed in action. A clerk notices that one family, the Ryans, has four boys, all serving, three of whom have been killed. It is decided that the fourth must be found and sent home. 

It's an excellent  plot, for both it's plausibility [1] (and, perhaps/paradoxically, it's implausibility) and humanity. And yet it's weird for contrasting the desire to save one life, amidst so much wasteful and indiscriminate death, at the probable cost of yet more lives. And it shows vividly how war itself and our relationship with it are very, er... conflicted.

The sequence of pics shown above come from the legendary opening sequence of the film. The landing on Omaha Beach is a shockingly violent entrée to any movie, even one set in WWII.  Tom Hanks is superb, as Captain Miller, the man given the task of leading a small group of soldiers in search of the titular Private Ryan.

Miller's bloody baptism of fire in the landing is hardcore.

A strong leader throughout, Miller hides his pain from his men. But he feels it.

A stirring quote, from an American master of stirring quotes, Abe Lincoln, is used to bookend the movie [2], as are more contemporary scenes of the elderly Ryan visiting a US armed forces cemetery in Normandy. I won't say more than that regarding the plot, as I don't want to spoil the movie for anyone coming to it fresh. Suffice it to say that right from the opening scene the film grips you, taking you on an intense and thrilling journey.

Contact with the enemy is always imminent.

The authentic gear is very pleasing to the buff's critical eyes. [3]

Private Ryan (played by Matt Damon) is eventually located, at the sharp end.

Upham's story within the film is very well handled. [4]

Everything about this film is extremely well done, from the meticulous attention to detail in terms of settings and uniforms, equipment, etc, to the superb direction and acting - Tom Hanks is particularly brilliant - making for a film that combines a serious-minded depiction of both the excitement and horrors of war with a sense of respect for history and an adroit gift for moving and exciting strorytelling.

In a word, brilliant!

Spielberg directs, on location.

The core cast.


It's always nice to find something in the mini-military world we inhabit that relates to a film or a book. Whilst looking for pics for this post I stumbled across this:

A pair of German model maker brothers built this diorama, based on the movie.

[1] The film's unusual premise is, as is often the case, based on something from the real world. In this case, the story of the Niland brothers. You can read about their story here.

[2] The quote is taken from the famous Bixby letter, written to a mother believed to have lost five sons during the ACW. 

Seeing a Kettenkrad in a WWII movie is great.

[3] There's a notable clash in that the German gear is so painstakingly authentic, whilst the SS-skinhead look isn't. In the pics below, Spielberg's SS men have very non-regulation skinhead cuts, whereas the real McCoy go for a more normal '40s short back'n'sides look, more akin to what British soldiers of the time would also sport:

It might seem like, ummm... (hair pun alert) nit picking, but given the trouble they went to to achieve realism, such a departure does smell of a deliberate choice, with an agenda behind it. I think the skinhead haircut is chosen for it's brutal look. Certainly the SS were infamous for being the stormtroopers of Nazi ideology, and it's interesting that stories of SS troops executing US soldiers gave many Allied troops what they felt was the license to take pre-emptive revenge measures. To Spielberg and co.'s credit, such instances of Allied brutality aren't altogether glossed over. But giving the SS skinheads is misleading propagandism. And, personally, I think that taking such liberties with history is a bad thing. .

[4] Upham, well played by Jeremy Davies, is a cartographer and translator, without any combat experience. Basically a rear-echelon guy. Plucked from relative safety, he evolves from a mild mannered civilian in uniform, into a man who is prepared to kill.

Tuesday 6 June 2017

Film Review: A Walk In The Sun, 1945

Made in 1945, this is a slightly odd movie, set in the Italian theatre of WWII, replete with baritone ballads [1], and lots of soliloquys, ranging from the dumb and banal to the quasi-philosophical. 

The opening is presented in an old fashioned storybook style, followed by a quite unrealistically quiet and stable (i.e. no hint of rolling seas, sight or sound wise) amphibious assault scene. Picture quality in the darker opening scenes is pretty poor as well. But actually, I prefer this to those older films where supposed night scenes are clearly shot in daylight.

The basic plot is that a platoon of the Texas Division has been briefed to take possession of a farmhouse held by the Germans. The action comprises of the landing, subsequent air attacks, and the trip inland, with the risks of enemy contact, to reach and take their objective. Within this framework the drama plays out in the form of character development, which makes it quite compelling.

Tyne and Ward have a quick pow-wow, with Archie and Windy listening in.

Dana Andrews is a good solid lead actor, and suits this role.

The recognisable faces are Dana Andrews and a young Lloyd Bridges, but there are plenty of other good characters. Norman Lloyd (who I kind of recognised*) is great as Archimbeau, or Archie, as is John Ireland as 'Windy'. The film is narrated by Burgess Meredith, whom some of us will know better as Penguin, or Rocky Balboa's trainer.

The Penguin (right), in wartime short 'Tail Gunner'.

I felt the film got off to a shaky start, the ballads, poor picture quality, and the lack of realism in the opening scene all hamstringing it somewhat. But it gets better, quite good in fact, once the troops move off the beach; command soon devolves upon Staff Sergeants Tyne and Ward (Andrews and Bridges, respectively), as the soldiers work inland towards their objective, a German held farmhouse.

Windy, the film's poet-philosopher.

Archie, sardonic but likeable.

Like many war films of its kind, it's an ensemble piece, populated by a variety of characters.

There are the wise-cracking Noo Yoik buddies, privates Rivera and Friedman, who continually rib each other, and tease those they perceive to be hayseeds or dumbos. Porter is the Sarge who cracks up after replacement leader Lt. Rand is killed, and command proves too heavy a burden. Pfc. 'Windy' is the voice of philosophy, frequently soliloquising quite eloquently, often in imaginary drafts of letters to his sweetheart back home.

Whilst some of the characterisation is rather formulaic, and there are some annoying catchphrases and period lingo, the banter is actually better than average, with the soldiers mocking each other, sometimes to the point of bullying. It's the kind of macho banter that groups of men really do have recourse to, and feels entirely plausible.

Director Lewis Milestone [2] and star Dana Andrews in step on location.

Once the movie hits it's stride (boom-boom) A Walk In The Sun proves to be a good film, capturing both the ennui of the downtime that comprises so much of wartime, and also the confusion and isolation, with the resultant difficulty of knowing what to do, when combat ensues. It also shows the fears, gripes, stresses and so on, that war naturally brings on. 

As is typical of WWII flicks made during and for some time after the war, use is made of stock footage. And elsewhere budgetary constraints are suggested, when action is alluded to but only indirectly shown, such as the Axis air attack on the landing flotilla, early in the film. The use of US materiel mocked up as 'Kraut' armour is also a familiar disappointment of the era, looking as lame and unconvincing to us military history buffs as ever.

A contemporary ad for the film.

Aside from these more minor gripes, I found the only things that really jarred were the 'stirring' ballads, and the often rather strident orchestral soundtrack. But these things also contribute to a certain period charm. [3] Although I do prefer how Beach Red utilises a similar and yet somewhat different approach to the idea of the 'war song'.

The movie Premiers at (?).

A Walk In The Sun was selected, as recently as 2016, for preservation in the national US film archives, as being deemed of sufficient cultural merit. I'd go along with that. Not quite a classic, to my mind. But still well worth watching.


[1] The ballads, composed by Millard Lampell and Earl Robinson, are sung by Kenneth Spencer. Interestingly the composers were both left wing, and the singer Afro-American.

[2] Amongst Milestone's other directing credits is the original 1930 version of All Quiet On The Western Front.

[3] Soundtrack composer, Freddie Rich, was irked that Milestone replaced much of his score with numerous ballads. Test audiences weren't too keen on some of the ballads either, so some were dropped. It seems the music was the difficult issue with this movie!

Friday 2 June 2017

Film Review: Battleground, 1949

The modern DVD cover.

A classic period piece title still from the film.

Dedicated to the 'Batterered Bastards of Bastogne', Battleground tells the story of a small group of soldiers from the 101st Airborne, who wind up holding the strategically important crossroads town of Bastogne, a key German objective in their final offensive, known to us now as the Battle of the Bulge.

Looks like it was marketed under a different title in some places.

There are a number of familiar faces here, from genre movies of the era, some almost unrecognisable, as they're so young. The big name star is Van Johnson, who plays Holley, alongside such actors I did recognise as Richard Jaeckel, as Bettis, and Ricardo Montalban, as Rodrigues. But really it's an ensemble piece. I didn't recognise John Hodiak (Jarvess), George Murphy (Stazak) or Herbert Anderson (Hansan), but they're all equally good, being both believable and sympathetic. One of the standout turns, however, is James Whitmore as Sgt. Kinnie.

This poster looks practically Soviet!

If you've seen Band of Brothers, this will be familiar territory. Partly that's 'cause the more recent HBO mini-series covers the same ground. But also it's partly 'cause this film is much grittier than most of a similar vintage. Indeed, one suspects that Band of Brothers might owe this earlier movie a debt, here and there. I'd certainly be incredulous if I were to learn that Hanks and co. hadn't studied this film as part of their research.

The film starts with two new recruits, privates Layton and Hooper, who've become buddies during training, arriving to find they've been assigned to different companies of the 327th Glider Regt, which in turn is part of the 101st Airborne. 

Replacements Bill Hooper and Jim Layton.

Bad news: all leave is cancelled.

About to go to Paris on a three day pass, everyone, newcomers and old hands alike, are pretty pissed at learning that a German offensive has begun, and all leave is cancelled. 'Pop' Stazak (George Murphy) is especially entitled to feel this way, as he's just found out he's due to be sent home to his family... as soon as the paperwork arrives.

An ensemble piece, populated with flawed characters you grow to care for

They were looking forward to Paris, but wind up in Bastogne.

There's a running gag concerning Holley's attempts ...

... to cook some eggs in a helmet.

Newspapers from home know more about the situation than those at the sharp end.

Cold comfort, served daily at the mess.

Watching buddies die, or get stretchered off the field takes it toll.

Layton finds it hard to be accepted by the old hands, and his initial experiences aren't encouraging. But eventually, mainly by just surviving, he becomes one of the old hands himself. Digging foxholes, hiding in the fog and snow, numbers are whittled down by constant bombardment and occasional contact. The men are turning into dishevelled tramps, contending with wounds, enemy infiltrations (some disguised as Americans), lack of adequate supplies, and foul weather. But, whilst they bellyache, or even plan ways to escape, their spirits are never truly broken.

The perils of the patrol...

One less in the company.

This is a pretty old film now, and image quality varies, being quite grainy and poor sometimes. Actually this doesn't bother me, and almost helps the stock footage blend in better. There's also a mix of studio and outdoor filming. Funnily enough, this looks no worse than the equivalent tricks used in Band of Brothers.

Nowadays such war-weariness as is displayed here is a familiar trope, but back in 1949 this was notably more risqué. The main thing, however, is that the characters are sufficiently engaging, so we care about their fates. Not a classic film, quite. But solid and worth watching nonetheless.

'Sound off!' 'One, two... three, four...' Battered, but proud.

Compare the image below with the still above. Looks like someone else thought Whitmore's Sgt. Kinnie was the biz:

Sgt. Kinnie, in miniature!

A more Technicolour version of the old poster.