Sunday 30 September 2018

Film Review: Sea of Sand, 1958

Although Richard Attenborough gets top billing, this is actually a very good ensemble piece. And the actors I didn't recognise were every bit as good as those I did.

The ensemble cast deliver good performances.

A scary apparition emerges from the desert... 

I only recognised Attenborough, who plays the cockney character Brody, and Percy Herbert, who plays a character called 'Blanco' White. It's actually White that's depicted on the (rather cool) cover illustration for this particular edition of the DVD, manning the machine-gun 'neath some netting, as 'Jerry' advances across the titular 'sea of sand'. I didn't recognise either Michael Craig, nor John Gregson, who play the two Captains, Cotton and Williams, respectively, leading the mission.

A nice 'strategic view' type image.

Trudging across the burning sea of sand.

The mission itself is to blow up a behind-the-lines fuel dump, and the unit is the LRDG, or Long Range Desert Group, to whom the movie is dedicated. War movie anoraks like me will bemoan the inaccurate arms and materiél. Those American half-tracks look nothing like the SdKfz 251s they're probably standing in for. 

Such inaccuracies also add to the fudging of a theme that occurs several times in the film, and no doubt happened for real as well, when our chaps pass themselves off as Germans by the rather overly simplistic means of Cotton donning an M43 Feldmutz!

The DAK did use captured materiél, but this smacks of expediency.

This Dodge looks rather more convincing.

Despite stepping on a few WWII cliché land-mines, this remains a very solid and enjoyable film. The mission is a tough one, and a lot goes wrong, causing one soldier to speculate on the presence of a 'Jonah' in their midst. But English pluck wins through, albeit not for all concerned. Not the greatest war film ever, and neither the most historically faithful nor the most hamfistedly patriotic, Sea of Sand is simply a very enjoyable boys-own adventure yarn.

The modern U.K. DVD cover.*

* What charm this has it owes to the vintage image that's been recycled for the artwork.

Film Review: Fortress of War, 2010

Yes, this Russian WWII film is rather chest-beatingly propagandistic, but it remains excellent, nonetheless. Whilst there's very much an ensemble cast, who, by and large, act extremely well, the story is presented as if being recalled by one of the film's younger protagonists, in later life.

At the start of the film, Sasha (Alexei Kopashov) is playing in the band...

... but the titular fortress is soon under attack.

The action is set in Brest Litovsk, which is overrun and besieged by the invading German Army. It's interesting to see how post-Communist Russia renders her own history. But even simply looked at as an action-packed war film, Fortress Of War stands strongly on its own merits, for all that the true history of such events might be rather harder to discern through the fog of war.

Fierce had-to-hand combat rages in the fortress.

Andrey Merzlikin, as Kizhavetov, bloodied but unbowed.

There are several attempts to break out.

Fomin (Pavel Derevyenko), also bloodied, also unbowed.

It's from that international school of war films, of which there seem to be an almost neverending supply, that revels in the dirt and blood of conflict. There are a good number of actors in this with terrific faces: all the male leads have a kind of rugged taciturn charisma, and physiognomies to match. And there's one guy (I couldn't work out who the actor was) who's a kind of man-mountain, a sort of physical embodiment of the Fortress and Russian resistance!

The Soviets had far more women involved in their WWII war effort than most belligerents, and yet the war still seems, as presented here, resolutely male. What the hapless women and children - the civilians who wind up hiding anywhere they can, as food, water and hope run out - think of their 'comrades' heroic self-sacrifice, which involves them all in a more communal sacrifice, is not something this film really addresses. 

Civilians surrender and exit the beleaguered citadel.

Wide eyed with trauma, and still rather beautiful.

Certainly war is seen to be hell. But it's a hell we seem, both literally historically, and in terms of movie appetite, to have an insatiable taste for. This is gritty, relentless, violent, and successfully emotionally manipulative... I loved it!

Film Review: The Train, 1965

This black and white movie, which stars Burt Lancaster as French railway controller Labiche, is really rather good. On the one hand it's just a ripping good yarn, with noir-ish thriller-like vibes, an aspect augmented by the monochrome styling. But on the other it juxtaposes two very different sets of moral/aesthetic value systems. And, to my mind, the film works pretty well on both levels.

The Germans gathering up the art loot as the titles roll.

Scofield as Col. Von Waldheim.

Initially Lancaster, a railway man who is also acting as an underground resistance organiser, couldn't care less about the art that a Nazi general is seeking to remove by train to Berlin. He wonders, quite understandably, why lives should be risked for the obscure and possibly dubious daubings of such modern masters as Matisse, Cézanne, Picasso, Braque, or whoever. But gradually he's drawn ever deeper into this new and unusual mission, responding more to the escalating human costs than the value of the art itself. 

Lancaster as Labiche, aided by Christine (Jeanne Moreau).

The fabulously knobbly Michel Simon, and the craggily handsome Burt.

A colourised lobby card; Labiche faces Von Waldheim.

Whatever his own position in regard to the latter - a position his taciturn man of action allows the film to leave ambivalently unstated - the film as a whole sets up a pointed contrast between the more liberal/democratic idea of preserving 'great art' for the benefit of all, as embodied in the female curator character, vs. the elitism of the Nazi worldview, exemplified by Paul Scofield's Von Waldheim, in which some art (inc. the cargo of The Train) is, despite being considered 'degenerate', something only the right kind of connoisseur - i.e. the aryan 'übermensch' - can properly appreciate. Indeed, only this higher breed even have the capacity for discerning between the good and bad stuff. 

The dastardly Hun uses French folk as a human shield.

But the resistance attack anyway.

Before returning to this theme, it's worth pausing to note that The Train benefits from a good deal of great acting - some of the supporting actors are superb, the port-nosed French engine driver played by Michel Simon being particularly terrific - good direction; an interesting plot; and it's beautifully shot and put together. And, without wishing to give too much away, in the end, Lancaster's rugged taciturn hero eventually answers that thorny conundrum of the value of art vs. the value of life, a question that has vexed philosophers down the ages, with ... a sub-machine-gun.

An iconic image, as the 'showdown' approaches.

Waldheim has remained with the train/art.

Lancaster expresses his philosophy.

Another nice vintage poster.

I love these old lobby cards!

The dreadful modern DVD cover.

Film Review: War Horse, 2012

Yes, it's a bit chocolate box, in its depiction of rural England, and the plot itself is a total fantasy. But we have always needed such comforting stories, and Spielberg - at his best - can really do this sort of thing superbly well. The film reeks of classic '70s/'80s Saturday afternoon matinee blockbluster entertainment, steeped in a huge dose of sloppy sentimentalism. It could be nauseating - and some reviewers clearly find it so - but I love it.

I'm a big reader of military history, albeit mostly Napoleonic and WWII, as opposed to WWI. The role of horses in the Napoleonic era, and the immense numbers killed by everything from cannonballs to overwork and starvation, or to feed starving humans - it could be pretty plausibly argued that the loss of horses during the 1812 campaign in Russia signalled the end of the Napoleonic era - has always fascinated me. I love horses, and they've been such a big part of the human story. So to see a film like this that celebrates and critiques our relationship with them is great.

I haven't read Morpugo's book, nor seen any stage versions of this. Having just watched this does make me wish I'd seen it at the cinema when it came out. I resisted it, however, 'cause I think modern mainstream cinema is, by and large, pants. Sure, this is cornball entertainment, on some levels, but it's also a moving story beautifully told. I cried like a baby at numerous points. Perhaps not seeing this in a cinema was sensible after all? So, I found it very cathartic, which is an appealing feature of a well done blockbuster.

Saturday 29 September 2018

Film Review: The Admiral, 2011

It's interesting to see a modern Japanese take on aspects of their history in WWII. Western renderings of this theatre of war range from the film's made during the war itself, usually propagandistic, via postwar epics like Midway, to more recent films, such as the HBO miniseries Pacific, the much criticised Pearl Harbour, or Clint Eastwood's attempt at a balanced view (Flags of our Father's and Letters From Iwo Jima), of varied quality and historical veracity/evenhandedness.

The real Yamamoto.

This depiction of Admiral Yamamoto casts him, and the leadership of the Japanese navy as a whole, as the doves amongst the otherwise mostly hawkish Japanese military. Western audiences might find this surprising, in the light of Pearl Harbour, famously described by Roosevelt as a 'day that will live in infamy'. But those who've read on the subject will know that there is indeed some truth in this. I can't recall from my own readings whether or not it's true, as depicted here, that the Japanese navy had been tricked into believing a declaration of war had been made prior to the attack.

I did enjoy this film, but it did seem rather hagiographic, casting Yamamoto as an ever-smiling and sagacious leader, a reluctant warrior, borne aloft on the waves of jingoistic militarism that sped Japan towards its ultimately cataclysmic fate. Still, it's fascinating to see the Japanese telling their own story. An impressive production overall, as well. But there were some less than brilliant CGI moments, a pet-hate of mine.

Not brilliant, but interesting, and worth seeing.