Category Archives: cinema

The best movies about the US in Vietnam

My list of he best movies in English about Americans warring in/on Vietnam includes some that are not “about” combat. I’ve mostly excluded portrayals of blowback (heroin trafficking, PTSD of survivors). I have not seen any Vietnamese movies about repelling the marauding would-be conquerors (French or American) and Vietnamese (allies or enemies) are rarely characters in the American movies about the stresses and discombobulation American soldiers experienced in a misconceived military intervention.*

Go Tell the Spartans (1978), directed by Ted Post

Set in 1964, it manages to provide a remarkable cross-section of the difficulties faced by American soldiers in Vietnam. Burt Lancaster is the star, as a grizzled major who has survived two wars to take up a command that “thankless” does not begin to sum up. Evan C. Kim is also notable for vividly portraying a very complex ARVN interpreter who is a sadist, but also a brave and effective leader. (Post was a tv director whose only other remotely notable movie was the Clint Eastwood vehicle “Hang ‘Em High.”) The title alludes to the defense of Thermopylae, but that mattered to the course of the Greek/Persian war, while this doomed stand (like those portrayed in “Hamburger Hill” or the Korean War “Porkchop Hill”) had no real strategic importance.

I think that “Wholl Stop the Rain? (1978), directed by Karel Reisz, based on one of the best books focused American soldiers in Vietnam, Robert Stone’s Dog Soldier,s is the best Vietnam blowback movie, though including some combat in Vietnam, too. It has one of the best performances from Nick Nolte and one from Michael Moriarty, and shows paranoia as well as heroin “coming home” to these United States.

I like both adaptations of Graham Greene’s prescient 1955 novel The Quiet American a lot. The black-and-white 1958 version, shot by Robert Krasker (The Third Man), with Michael Redgrave and Audie Murphy belies the rap against Joseph Manckewitz as uncinematic or visually deficient. Greene’s critique of dangerous American innocence/willful ignorance was less watered down in the 2002 color remake, directed by Phillip Noyce with Michael Caine taking on the cynical long-term resident Thomas Fowler and Brendan Fraser taking on the gung-ho American newcomer know-it-all Alden Pyle role (showing Americans’ dangerous —to themselves and others — ignorance about the world, before the buildup of US troops in Vietnam).

Casualties of War (1989) directed by Brian De Palma, shows stressed-out American soldiers running amok and then attempting to cover up their atrocities. It has compelling performances by Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn.

Rescue Dawn 2006 Werner Herzog’s expansion/enactment of his 1997 talking-head documentary “Little Dieter [Dengler] Needs to Fly” is more survivalist epic than a war movie, though it starts on an aircraft carrier and follows downed US flyers escaping a Viet Nong prison, played superbly by Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, (there is another pair going off separately). More a survivalist tale than a “war movie.”

 

Platoon (1986), written and directed by Oliver Stone, based on his experiences as an infrantrtyman in Vietnam. College dropout army volunteer Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) and other soldiers in his unit are torn between the idealistic pothead Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) and the cynical, hardened Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger). It includes execution of a civilian, and murder of one sergeant by the other. Both Berenger and Dafoe were nominated for Oscars. Neither won. Stone won the best director award and the movie won best picture, plus best sound and best editing (Claire Sumpson) Oscars. Along with some late-60s soul music, the soundtrack employed Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” to haunting effect. Speaking for Vietnam veteran Stone, Taylor (a character pretty like Michael J. Fox’s in “Casualties of War”) concludes that “t he enemy was within us.”

 

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), directed by Barry Levinson, is set in Saigon (ca. 1965) with a bravura performance by Robin Williams as Adrian Cronauer, an insubordinate Armed Forces radio dj, who goes to entertain troops (without the riot of the Playboy bunny show in “Apocalypse Now”), and makes connections with some Vietnamese, one of whom (Tuan, played by Tung Tranh Tran) he learns is a covert Viet Cong operative (and who saves Cronauer’s life twice).

Apocalypse Now (1979) directed by Francis Ford Coppola has a lot of delirium and befuddled American troops. I think that the mission portrayed is preposterous, and the bloated Brando’s (Green Beret Col.) Kurtz as an independent warlord also preposterous, but there is some amazing stuff in the movie, including the more believable PT-boat crew (as disparate as units in Hollywood WWII and Korean movies).

Full Metal Jacket (1987), directed by Stanley KubrickThe stateside, basic training of Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 movie’s first half is superbly disturbing (also see Robert Altman’s “Streamers,” Coppola’s “Gardens of Stone,” Sidney Furie’s “The Boys of Company C,” and Joel Schumacher’s “Tigerland”), the Vietnam combat second half shot in the UK not great.

Heaven & Earth (1993), Oliver Stone’s movie about a Vietnamese woman is not a “war movie” in the sense of being about combat. Also it follows her to America. (It is also runs 140 minutes.) If it is disqualified, the harrowing battle movie “Hamburger Hill’ (1987), directed by John Irvin, can be substituted to fill out the list, though half of it is also away from combat.

Aside from being set in Cambodia, “The Killing Fields “(1984, directed by Roland Joffe, with an Oscar-winning performance by Haing S. Ngor), mostly takes place after the war, during the genocidal misrule of the Khmer Rouge.

There are also many worthy and interesting documentaries. In chronological order of their release dates, I’ll mention

The Anderson Platoon (1967)

I Was a Soldier (1970)

Hearts and Minds (1974)

The Soldier’s Story (1981)

Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)

Regret to Inform (1998)

Sir, No Sir! (2005)

Oh, Saigon (2007)

Indochine (2009)

Soldiers of Vietnam (2016)

*I think that after WWII the US should have continued to work with and try to influence Ho Chi Minh. It is certainly possible that he would have established a Stalinist state in the 1940s, but after all the blood shed between then and the mid-1970s, the North Vietnamese overlords inflicted one on the South Vietnamese. The Truman administration’s support for reestablishing French colonial (or the attempted restoration, one that fizzled at Dienbenphu) rule was IMO a mistake that was exacerbated by the US (Eisenhower administration) blockage of the plebiscite it had agreed to in Geneva, and the support (JFK and LBJ) for unpopular South Vietnamese governments with more and more troops on the ground winning battles while losing the war (ye olde “hearts and minds”). Without the secret bombing of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge would almost certainly not have come to power. (Not that Sihanouk was a saint, but had he been supported rather than destabilized by Kissinger et al., Cambodians would surely have suffered less.)

©2017,  Stephen O. Murray

I’ve also posted lists of what I think are the best movies about WWI, WWII, and the Korean War.

Werner Herzog goes back to the jungle for “Rescue Dawn”

Christian Bale has recurrently gone far out on limbs in portraying a range of characters and taking physical as well as emotional risks. I guess that Steven Spielberg saw the resiliency of a survivor in Bale when he cast him as the lead in “Empire of the Sun”(1987). Batman is also a survivor, and Dieter Dengler, the German-born US Navy pilot who was shot down over Laos in 1965 and was one of very few Viet Cong POWs who did not sign the standard propaganda letter denouncing imperial aggression and is said to be the only one who escaped captivity and survived, provides him a role as a survivor of extreme hazards.

Especially given the availability of Les Blank’s great documentary “Burden of Dreams,” anyone signing on to go to a jungle with Werner Herzog to make a movie about survival has to be very brave. Bale and his costars, Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies, signed on and starved themselves before showing up in Thailand to make “Rescue Dawn.” Because the American POWs needed to look more emaciated as the story went on (and because radical weight loss should be done slowly with medical supervision), they showed up for work in a weakened, very thin condition, and had to shoot the scenes in reverse order, which obviously makes development of character considerably more difficult than shooting in an approximation of beginning to end.

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The rapport beween Bale and Zahn had to be at its most poignant in their first scenes shot. Moreover, the scenes of escaping barefoot through the jungle had to be filmed when they were weakest. In the making-of feature, they make abundantly clear that Herzog did not ask anything of them that he did not ask of himself. Indeed, he invariably went first, showing them what he wanted. What he wanted, as Herzog recognized, was taking risks and meeting physical demands far beyond what movie stars typically do.

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In the commentary track and the making-of feature, Herzog speaks of wanting the audience believe it could trust what it saw (not CGI effects or stuntmen). Bale chowed down on maggots and underwent tortures, including being hung upside down and spun, submerged in water, and dragged behind a water buffalo (and running through dense jungle barefoot). The physical demands of being at the forefront “Rescue Dawn” for Bale and Zahn were extreme, apart from having to create characters and relationships (backward).

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I think they are completely convincing: Bale as the savvy flyer determined to escape, Zahn as the follower whom Dengler kept going and protected as best he good. Their trek across Laos (impersonated by Thailand) during the rainy season, with basically no food, is arduous. Its impetus is war, but only the frame of “Rescue Dawn” is a war movie (on an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin, and the secret bombing of Laos). The middle is half survival in a prison-camp and half trying to get to the Mekong River and into Thailand.

Dengler’s optimism was not shared by the other prisoners (two Americans, two Thai) with whom he was incarcerated, but by force of personality and resourcefulness, he convinced them to attempt escape with him. From Herzog’s documentary about Dengler, “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” (1997), I knew about Dengler’s background. That he was inspired to become a flyer by brief eye contact with a US pilot coming in low and shooting up his childhood home in the Black Forest during World War II gets into “Rescue Dawn,” along with the story of his capture, incarceration, escape, and eventual rescue. Knowing the story did not get in the way of my admiring how the events (and Dengler) were portrayed in the film. There was considerable interpersonal and physical tension, abetted by the musical score that was varied and not over-insistent (as war movie music so frequently is!). (Klaus Badelt has also scored Gladiator, The Pledge, Constantine, and Curse of the Black Pearl)

The cinematography by long-time (including “Little Dieter Needs to Fly”) Herzog cameraman Peter Zeitlinger was outstanding. Herzog spoke of having to curb Zeitlinger’s inclination to make every shot beautiful, but Herzog, throughout his career, has shown the harsh beauty of various kinds of wilderness. There are striking shots of the scenery in “Rescue Dawn.” More remakrable still, is Zeitlinger’s shooting of Bale and Zahn going through dense (very real!) jungle. Even Herzog expresses astonishment at how the camera got in there.

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Both Bale and Zeitlinger report that Herzog focuses on the scene as a whole, and Zeitlinger figures out how to shoot it (though the hands-on director seems to look through the camera, too).

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Herzog has made some films I strongly dislike (Heart of Glass, Even Dwarves Started Small), but is a fascinating raconteur who always has interesting things to say about making movies. I think that the movie “Rescue Dawn” is outstanding. Herzog’s commentary track and the extensive making-of feature (with additional insights from Zeitlinger and the actors) make for a five-star DVD for anyone interested in how movies are made (on location with anticipated and unanticipated problems). Unusually for Herzog, there are also some deleted scenes with clear explanations of why Herzog did not include them.

And, returning to Bale, he shows Dengler’s charisma and ability to solve whatever problem comes his way. His matter-of-fact discussion of the role and what he did in Thailand on the making-of feature show an intelligence to match the courage (and that he has a sense of humor and good comic delivery!). He and the other actors playing Viet Cong prisoners underwent grueling location work at what looks like dangerously reduced weight (as Bale did for the less worthy project of “The Machinist”).

The only qualm I have to offer is that Herzog, as in “Lessons of Darkness,” has a fascination with fires and explosions that I think aestheticizes viewers to their horror (as with John Woo). I also have to note, again, especially after “Lessons in Darkness” and Herzog’s many statements over his career of not caring about distinguishing documentary from fiction that there is something dubious about his wish to allow the audience to believe what it sees. (Hereon, he makes the distinction between a feature film based on Dengler’s story and the documentary of Dengler telling his story and revisiting Laos with Herzog. And his recreations are certainly not “faked.”…)

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

Atrocities and coverups: Brian De Palma’s “Casualties of War”

At both ends of the 1980s  Brian De Palma produced masterpieces that not everyone liked. Well, they are so heartbreaking that one could justifiable say that no one “liked” them. In both “Blow Out” (1981) and “Casualties of War” the not especially heroic but determined male protagonist cannot save the female victim: Nancy Allen in “Blow Out”, Thuy Thu Le in “Casualties of War.” Both movies involve cover-ups, one successful, the second one ultimately not. As De Palma himself says in the making-of featurette to “Casualties of War,” the helplessness of characters to stop horror/evil is the leitmotif of his cinema.

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Both movies also had career-high performances by popular actors who got their start in television series: John Travolta and Michael J. Fox.

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De Palma wanted to film the story by Daniel Lang when he read it in The New Yorker in 1969. De Palma only had the clout to do so after the success of “The Untouchables,” which was also after “Platoon” and “Full-Metal Jacket” and “Good Morning Vietnam” (a set from which he used) and long after it could have any effect on the US military adventure in Vietnam (, Cambodia, and Laos). The half-hour DVD making-of featurette was made in 2001, before another catastrophically ill-advised military adventure of another Texan president (De Palma took that one on in his less accomplished but certainly not uninteresting 2007 “Redacted”).

There is not the slightest doubt that De Palma (who had made sardonic anti-draft movies during the Vietnam adventure: “Greetings” in 1968 and “Hi, Mom!” in 1970) opposed the US deployment and continued (in 1989 and 2001) to consider it wrongful. The movie is not about “Should the US be/have been in Vietnam?” The answer to that is unequivocally no for De Palma, but is not at issue.

To some degree “Casualties of War: shows the coruscating effects of counterinsurgency pursued by soldiers who know nothing and care less about the local culture and society and do not speak the local language. Early on, the movie shows the buzzing easily lethal confusion that has made Sergeant Tony Meserve (Sean Penn) impervious to regarding Vietnamese as human beings who may not be enemies. On nighttime patrol his platoon comes under mortar fire and Sgt. Meserve saves the life of the latest replacement cannon fodder, Pfc. Max Eriksson (Michael J. Fox) a married soldier with a young daughter, twice (from the same Vietcong soldier in a tunnel into which Eriksson half falls: this is the only enemy combatant in the movie with a face and none has even a line of dialogue). The next day, Meserve’s buddy, SPC 4 “Brownie” Brown (Erik King), is fatally shot while Meserve has his arm around him. Eriksson had just been detailed with Brownie and is only yards away when the ambush commences with the shot that fells Brownie.

The platoon has one night back at its base, Camp Wolf. Sgt. Meserve is furious that their passes are cancelled and he cannot go into the brothel servicing GIs as he planned. He says that he is going to requisition a girl the next day, and — with the eager participation of Corporal Thomas E. Clarke (Don Harvey) — does so. Eriksson objects and Meserve puts him on point (not only ending the conversation but increasing the danger for Eriksson).

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From my introductory social psychology course once upon a time, I know that the difference between one person dissenting and two is multiplicative, not additive (it’s hard to stand up for what is right alone, while two — particularly two out of five! — can have more impact). The American tragedy of the movie (in my reckoning, less than that of the Vietnamese girl who is kidnapped, raped, and eventually knifed and shot) is that Brownie’s replacement Private Antonio Diaz (John Leguizamo), who says he is not going to rape anyone and will support Eriksson, feels that he cannot take a stand and disobey the illegal order of Sgt. Meserve (who gives him first dibs) to rape the girl.

Sgt. Meserve is quite consciously committing crimes (including, eventually ordering Diaz to kill the girl so that the crimes of kidnapping and rape will not come out), but is not totally a villain. There is one, the sadistic, authority-abusing bully Corporal Thomas E. Clarke (Don Harvey). It seems to me that Sgt. Meserve has contempt for Cpl. Clarke, though it may only be that Meserve is calculating the need to have Diaz and PFC Herbert Hatcher (John C. Reilly) on board in committing and covering up the crimes Meserve has planned and executed.

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Eriksson spoke up and continued to try to protect the girl, knowing how easily his own life could be snuffed out in the field. (One of the most electrifying moments in the movie comes later when an officer attempting to discredit the story says he does not believe it, showing full awareness that US soldiers killed other US soldiers: “fragging”.)

The diminutive Fox does not posture or sermonize. He is quiet but firm in the face first of the histrionics of Sean Penn’s Meserve in the field, and then as the commanders, Lieutenant Reilly (Ving Rhames, who has a showy story of his own to tell) and Captain Hill (Dale Dye, the Vietnam veteran military advisor who also played a captain for Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” and was promoted to colonel for Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July”) refuse to launch an investigation (though he does break up the platoon and sit back as other officers attempt to discredit Eriksson and his story. Maybe because I’d never seen “Family Ties” (though I had seen “Back to the Future”), I did not balk at Fox’s casting as the innocent who refuses to go along with what he knows is wrong (and a war crime). This is the performance for which Fox will be remembered 50 years from now.

Penn (who is one year older than Fox) had turned in some impressive intense performances already and now has a substantial body of work that includes two best actor Oscars (and De Palma’s “Carlito’s Way”). He was very good (though certainly not restrained!) in making Meserve a complex character. Leguizamo and Reilly were unknown at the time and Rhames had made an impression only in Paul Shrader’s all-but-unseen “Patty Hearst” (as the leader of her captors). Harvey had been in De Palma’s “The Untouchables” (and John Sayles’s ensemble “Eight Men Out”) but reached the highpoint of his career early on herein. (Berkeley graduate Thuy Thu Le did not pursue an acting career, perhaps being another Falconetti or Bjork, who suffered so vividly in one movie role that she did not want to take any others).

(Though set in Vietnam, perhaps the movie to which to compare “Casualties of War” is not “Platoon” or “Full-Metal Jacket,” but “The Accused.” Or “On the Waterfront” or “Serpico”).

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De Palma was served very well, here and in other movies (The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way) by Stephen H. Burum’s cinematography. De Palma trusted Burum to capture the images he envisioned and storyboarded. Much as I adore soundtracks by Ennio Morricone (especially for Sergio Leone (including “Once Upon a Time in America” as well as the “man with no name” trilogy and “Once Upon a Time in the West”), Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso, Malèna, Baaria), and Gillo Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers, Burn!), his music can sometimes overwhelm scenes, and IMHO sometimes did in “Casualties.” It is certainly very effective in the suspenseful set pieces herein (and in “The Untouchables”), but swells a bit much in others (including a heavenly chorus at the very end as a Vietnamese student also played by Thuy Thu Le (but dubbed by Amy Irving) walks away in San Francisco’s Dolores Park after riding on the same streetcar (a J-Church) as Eriksson. Neither De Palma nor Morricone is invariably constrained by Good Taste. (That said, De Palma did not shoot the rape with even the slightest appeal to prurient involvement of viewers. Indeed, he mostly shot the rain-drenched face of Pvt. Eriksson instead of the rape itself.)

I don’t think the movie is perfect, and am aware that some didn’t/don’t like the casting of Michael J. Fox or the pacing or the music, while others don’t want US war crimes shown. I think that the casting of Fox (which was essential to the greenlighting of the project) was perfect in part because he is diminutive and would not be credible standing up to Sean Penn in a fight (without a weapon) and is credible in neither taking decisive action (shooting the rest of his platoon or deserting) nor doing what he knows is wrong (raping or covering up the kidnapping, rape, and murder).

I think that “Casualties of War” is a great movie, with a lot of great work (under adverse conditions, including a trestle of the railroad along the River Kwai in Thailand (yes the setting of the totally false British-constructed wooden bridge in David Lean’s meretricious, multiple-award-winning 1957 racist claptrap of a movie). The retrospects by Michael J. Fox (“Private Eriksson’s War”, 20 minutes) and Brian De Palma , producer Art Linsonand editor editor Bill Pankow (the half-hour making-of featurette), plus filmographies, trailers, and a superlative transfer make this a five-star DVD. (I’d have liked to hear from David Rabe (author of “Streamers” etc.) whom De Palma says did not like the ending, though he wrote it, but De Palma both wanted a measure of putting the traumas behind Eriksson decades later and to avoid repeating Elia Kazan’s (1972) “The Visitors” that also spun off from Lang’s reportage to an imagined backdraft.)

(The original Lang article was published as a book and  is reprinted in the Library of America’s Reporting Vietnam: 1957-1969, and was published in book form back in 1969. Follow-up for the originals of the characters is provided at http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/1989-08-30/news/there-is-yet-more-to-casualties-of-war/3/. That Meserve was acquitted of rape mystifies me, btw. He was found guilty of murder. And his real-life model had not saved Eriksson’s life.)

California Senator Hiram Johnson famously said (in 1918) that truth is the first casualty of war. In that the story of the abduction/rape/murder came out, “Casulaties of War” is more optimistic than that. Pvt. Eriksson says “This is not the Army” and with whatever reluctance, a military court ruled that murder is still murder in the field in wartime, and Eriksson (barely) survived being murdered (by Col. Clark) back on the base, and the ending of the movie is not the bleak despair with which “Blow Out” ends, but I doubt anyone would consider “Casualties of War” an upbeat movie!

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

“Apocalypse Now Redux” on Blu-ray

Four years after the helicopters left the US Embassy in Saigon, Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” dazzled audiences (including me) with its operatic portrayal of madness in the jungle, particularly that of two alumni of Coppola’s “The Godfather,” the top-billed Marlon Brando and second-billed Robert Duvall. The protagonist and narrator of the account of a difficult patrol boat upriver (the Nung, an fictitious river, not the Mekong) is US Army Captain Benjamin Willard, played by a 36-year-old Martin Sheen (who looked younger).

At the start, he has returned from leave “at home” and is waiting for a mission in Saigon, where he seems to have gone pretty far into crazy. He is assigned a mission by a three-star (lieutenant) general (G.D. Spradlin) and a bespectacled plainsclothes colonel played by Harrison Ford (whom Coppola had earlier cast in “The Conversation”), to “terminate the command [pause] with extreme prejudice” of a highly decorated once rising star in the army, Co. Kurtz, who opted to join Special Forces, took command of a sector on the Vietnam/Cambodia border and did his own terminating with extreme prejudice (i.e., executing as double agents) four South Vietnamese officials, including two colonels. The US (and South Vietnamese) Army wants to try him for murder, but because he has become the leader of a murderous cult that mixes those he commanded from the US Army and Montagnards (Hmong) across the border in Cambodia, there is no chance of arresting him. Hence the “extreme prejudice.” Capt. Willard is being sent to assassinate Kurtz.

Getting to Kurtz’s fiefdom is a challenge, with the enemy (“Charlie”) controlling much of the river. Another pretty insane (Lt.) Col., Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall in a role that won him a BAFTA and a Golden Globe, as well as an Oscar nomination) airlifts the patrol boat to the mouth of the river. (Couldn’t it go by sea?) Willard is a surfing fanatic and one of Willard’s (Navy) crew is a legendary southern California surfer, Lance B. Johnson (Sam Bottoms). The air cavalry (helicopters) strafes and bombs the village at the mouth of the river, and then calls in napalm of the jungle behind it, all to “The Ride of the Valkyrie” broadcast from Col.Kilgore’s chopper. The napalm ruins the surf configuration, and Willard takes off (with Kilgore’s prized surfboard).

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There are more set pieces upriver, including a a tiger attack, a USO show with three Playboy models, a sampan that the PT boat commander, Chief Phillips (Albert Hall) insists on boarding and having searched, and two US outposts in neither of which Willard can find a commanding officer. One of these sites has the Playboy bunnies (in an extended scene not in the 1979 release, but added to the 2001 “Redux” version). The “Redux” version also has a scene of being fed and sheltered by a French clan still in place (still running a place), headed by Christian Marquand. It includes a nude scene of Aurore Clement, a widow and mosquito netting that could not possibly keep out mosquitoes. This sequences accounts for about half of the 49 minutes of greater running time in the 2001 “Redux” version. IMHO it stalls the movie and was wisely removed for the 1979 theatrical release. Screenwriter John Milius welcomed the cut. (The Blu-Ray of “Apocalypse Now, Redux” has a conversation of nearly an hour between Milius and Coppola. Milius relates that he twisted “Nirvana Now” into “Apocalypse Now” in adapting Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness to the Vietnam War.)

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The images and sound of the 2001 version (allegedly edited from scratch, which is to say the two million feet of footage Coppola shot in the Philippines) are so great that I can’t recommend watching the original (1979) version, but I do recommend fast-forwarding through the French plantation interlude.

What has been a road movie turns into a horror film when the boat arrives at Krtuz’s base with the bloated Brando imprisoning Willard but then consenting to be killed by him, with the feverish blabbering of Dennis Hopper as a hero-worshipping photojournalist enhancing the madness. I think the Redux version has a bit more of Brando, but all the character development occurred as Willard read the dossier while traveling up river. I find Brando’s Kurtz more ridiculous than menacing, his hold over his followers mysterious (since I don’t recognize any charisma in Brando’s Kurtz), and the whole mission preposterous. More than Willard does, I bonded with the crew (billed as “Larrry,” Laurence Fishburne was 14-15 when “Apocalypse was being filmed; Frederic Forrest (who had been in “The Conversation”, Sam Bottoms (who was 22), Albert Hall (as the commander of the boat) and even Willard, despite his finishing off a wounded woman in order to get going again en route.

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The sound (Oscar-winning), editing, and cinematography (for which Vittorio Storaro [The Conformist, Reds, The Last Emperor, Coppola’s Tucker and One from the Heart] won his first well-deserved Oscar) were outstanding, though I think the 1979 cutting of the plantation scene was totally right, and think the opening scene of a line of palms that are napalmed set to the Doors’ “The End” is very self-indulgent. “Apocalypse Now” may be a great movie (sometimes I think so, other times I don’t), but it is not a good one for all the great work by cast and crew. The Blu-Ray, which includes both versions on one disc and many bonus features on another, is superbly and generously crafted.

The madness concocted for the movie involves baroque overkill. And, as with almost all American films set in the Vietnam War, the focus is exclusively on the American characters. There are no Vietnamese characters, and only a few lines spoken by a man on the sampan that the PT-boat stops and searches and some taunting from megaphones at the bridge the Vietcong/North Vietnamese blow up every night). There is no indication of anyone (like, say, the South Vietnamese amry) other than Americans fighting the Vietnamese. Vietnamese exist in the movie only to silently menace the Americans or to be killed by Americans.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

Also see Brian DePalma’s Casualties of War.

The other Korean War film Sam Fuller made in 1951

For being a writer-director who did things his own way, with minimal budgets and production values… and for being quite flamboyant, Samuel Fuller (1912-1997) has long been a favorite of auterist film critics. Although I think major defects in his work have been ignored by those mesmerized by Fuller’s personality, I also think that there are almost always some things of interest in his movies.

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I also think that, in 1951, while the Korean War was still raging, Fuller made one of the very best movies set in that conflict, “The Steel Helmet” with Gene Evans as a crusty sergeant. Later that same year, Fuller wrote and directed “Fixed Bayonets,” which also has as a crusty WWII-veteran sergeant. In both movies, the lieutenants are killed and command devolves down. In both movies, very small detachments of US soldiers are holding off the communist Chinese hordes. In “Fixed Bayonets,” a platoon is left to hold a pass while the division retreats and is supposed to “sound like a division.”

The situation is pretty much a replay of Thermopylae in the snows of the Sierra Nevadas (that are supposed to be Korea). The movie begins with fulsome thanks for cooperation from the US Army, and the first line spoken is that “it takes more than brains to be a general in the United States Army, it takes guts.” This is not a view expressed with much frequency by those on the front lines, and I felt that I had been given notice that Fuller (a WWII infantryman) was producing propaganda.

Much of the rest of the movie involves a corporal who had been in Officer Training School and is unable to shoot enemy soldiers or give commands being turned into a killer and leader of men. There is one private, Jonesy (Pat Hogan), who saw Cpl. Denno (Richard Basehart) not fire at an oncoming Chinese soldier and who expresses contempt openly for Denno. Sgt. Rock (Gene Evans) is aware that Denno is terrified of taking command and prepares him as well as he can, recognizing that Denno has brains and guts along with crippling self-doubt.

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Some of the action scenes are quite good and Basehart was great at playing ambivalence. There is, however, much that is very predictable in the plot (can anyone with any familiarity with Hollywood ear movies doubt that Denno is eventually going to be in charge and rise to the challenge?). Even at the length of 92 minutes, the movie drags—particularly for a round of internal monologues from soldiers who have not been distinguished from each other before (except for the know-it-all “Whitey” played by Skip Homeier, grown up from “Tomorrow, the World!”). There is also a puddle of water that is presumably very cold in a cave that everyone stomps through, rather than skirting. The studio cave also has some very phony-looking stalactites.

There are no DVD extras on the Fox release, but the cinematography of Lucien Ballard (who later shot “The Wild Bunch” and other Peckinpah films) is preserved/transferred to disc. The great(er!) “Steel Helmet” has alsobecome available on DVD (Criterion Eclipse, so also without any bonus features).

Entirely BTW, it seems to me that the command is “Fix Bayonets!” so that I don’t understand the exclamation in the descriptive title “Fixed Bayonets.” (Bayonets are attached to rifles at least twice, but only one of them is used.)

And James Dean is supposed to have had a bit part, but, if so, I missed it, and suspect that it was cut. (The soldier who says “Who goes there?” near the end cannot be Dean, nor can either of the other two men on guard with him by the river.)

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

Sam Fuller’s “Steel Helmet”

The 1959 movie, starring Gregory Peck, directed by Lewis Milestone, about taking and holding a tactically meaningless position, “Pork Chop Hill,” is probably the best American movie set within the Korean War (for discussion of others and of the great Korean movie set in the war see here), Sam Fuller’s (1951) “The Steel Helmet,” however, is my favorite, one from which Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg drew in “Raging Bull” and “Saving Private Ryan, respectively. (Spielberg also cast Fuller in “1941,” as did Wim Wenders in “The American Friend.”)

“The Steel Helmet” is available on DVD in the barebones (no extras) Criterion Eclipse series, along with Fuller’s baroque tale of forging land records, “The Baron of Arizona” and “I Shot Jesse James” with John Ireland (Red River) playing Robert Ford.

Racism was a recurrent subject for Fuller (most memorably the black “nlgger”-hater in Fuller’s surrealistic 1963 “Shock Corridor). Many Hollywood films set within the Korean War showed black men in the newly integrated US Army proving themselves, none more often than Sidney Poitier. The platoon in “The Steel Helmet” has considerable racial diversity even without the Korean orphan boy who adheres to the very gruff WWII survivor, Sgt. Zach (Gene Evans).

The helmet that is the backdrop for the opening credits turns out to be on the head of the sergeant, who has been tied up. The Korean boy, whom he will dub “Short Round”* (William Chun) approaches with a knife and cuts the bonds. Sgt. Zach doesn’t call him a “gook,” but provides the dubious compliment of saying that the boy “looks more like a dog face than a gook.” Throughout the movie, he resists the attempts of the boy to befriend him or turn him into a surrogate father. The viewer suspects that Sgt. Zach cares more than he admits, and eventually proves it… in a way that was so shocking to American audiences of the time that it led to an FBI investigation of Fuller (a very blunt-speaking WWII veteran, like Sgt. Zach). Back in those days, it was unthinkable that Americans might contravene the Geneva Conventions (let alone contend that there was no need to be bound by them, as the current president’s legal hacks like John Woo did).

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A North Korean major (Harold Fong) who has become a prisoner of the platoon goads Zach, along with attempting to establish a solidarity with Sgt. Tanaka (Richard Loo — who is called “Buddhahead” by Sgt. Zach) on the basis of race and the racism both know to be prevalent in the US, not least in the incarceration of Japanese Americans during the Second World War.

Not that American racism is ancient history within the movie or confined to the US homeland! Like the black medic, Corporal Thompson (James Edwards), Sgt. Tanaka is far more competent than the white soldiers — and the officer too stupid to listen to the voice of experience, when it comes from anyone nonwhite. Despite their ongoing frustrations, neither Tanaka or Thompson takes the bait and pull together against the assaults from without (a low-budget attack) and the Red Devil (communist) trying to mess with their loyalty to their country inside the Buddhist temple that shelters them — and is rather filled by a large Buddha that looms over the proceedings).

The camera, often shooting from low angles, moved fluidly, and Fuller overcame a tiny budget ($100K) that allowed only ten days of shooting (in the studio and in Griffith Park, a not obviously Korean-looking locale!) by showcasing hard-headed individuals (race not being the only basis of differentiation; for instance, there is Pvt. Baldy, who would return along with Evans in Fuller’s bigger-budget but more generic “Fixed Bayonets”).

Rational analysis would question the survival of the small band of Americans through a massive assault and the devotion of “Short Round” to Sgt. Zach can easily be interpreted as racial masochism in ways in which the story participates in rather than clearly critiquing (as would be the case for that in Fuller’s later “Shock Corridor.” I was able to suspend disbelief with ease (much greater ease than for Fuller’s would-be Summa, “The Big Red One”), fascinated by the dynamics both among the Americans and between them and their high-ranking captive.

A remarkable thing about “The Steel Helmet” is that it was made in 1951, while the war was raging, but that is far from being its prime or only interest.

—-

* None of the Americans is interested enough to ask the boy’s name. “Short Round” is insulting in that it refers to a bullet that does not make it to its (lethal) destination. It has some irony in that the boy was not short by American (let alone Korean) standards.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

Also see my review of Fuller’s other 1951 Korean War movie, Fixed Bayonets.

The Best World War I Movies

Writing about the 2001 tv movie “The Lost Battalion” forced me to think of other movies focused on “the Great War,” which was supposed to be the war to end wars and to make the world safe for democracy. In my view it was a particularly senseless war, entered into with great enthusiasm by Europeans. In the US, Woodrow Wilson was re-elected president on a platform of keeping out the stalemate. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think it would have been good if Germany had won. The fresh cannon fodder and supplies from the US won the war, but the peace treaties guaranteed future trouble. One instance is the creation of Iraq out of what had been three provinces of the Ottoman Empire. The most obvious one is that Germany launched another war in 1939 and conquered much more of Europe (and Africa) than it had during the First World War. My hindsight is that the Germany that had not been united for long should have been broken up (and a Kurdistan created, and…)

Movies and popular memory — insofar as the two can be separated — are dominated by romantic air duels in single-engine planes (Snoopy and the Red Baron even more than the actual WWI flyers) and the misery of trench warfare. The latter included going “over the top” across barbed wire under heavy fire from machine guns.

By the time the US was mobilized by revelation of the Zimmerman Telegram and the sinking of the (British) Lusitania, the European generals had learned a thing or two about machine guns, but the American ones came still mentally fighting the Civil War with massed infantry charges. The callousness about the lives of ordinary soldiers is the major leitmotif of movies about the WWI ground war. What many consider the best WWI film, Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” (1957) and Joseph Losey’s “King and Country” (1964) show a bit of the trench misery, but are mostly court martial trials (for, respectively, refusal to continue an impossible attack and desertion). The stars are the defense lawyers, Kirk Douglas and Dirk Bogarde, respectively. Both movies show the cynicism and lack of interest in the human costs of command decisions. “The Immortal Battalion” has some of this, too, though the operation was a success (and a third of the soldiers were able to walk out after having held a position that was indefensible by any rational calculus). Carnage there was, a lot of it.

Five Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded to leaders of the “lost battalion” (which was right where it was ordered to be, not wandering through the Argonne Forest lost). The most celebrated of WWI American war heroes was Sgt. Alvin York. Gary Cooper won his first Oscar portraying Sgt. York in Howard Hawks’s 1941 biopic of an Appalachian sharpshooting pacifist applying his technique for turkey shoots to capturing a German position (and 132 prisoners). Walter Brennan escalates the hokey hillbilly cliché-mongering, but Cooper makes it mostly work.

Hawks had earlier directed the romance/melodrama “Today We Live” (1933) based on a story by William Faulkner and also starring Gary Cooper, here vying for Joan Crawford with Robert Young. It is very gallant with war offering the loser a gallant exit.

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The great WWI submarine movie, “Hell Below” also dates from 1933 (the year Hitler became chancellor of Germany) with Robert Montgomery playing an insubordinate officer of the crusty Walter Huston. Lt. Thomas Knowlton (Montgomery) is in love with his commander’s married daughter (Madge Evans) who must stand by her man when he is badly wounded. If you don’t know the rest, extrapolate from “Today We Live.” Maybe there is a Hollywood WWI leitmotif of death with honor for those who lose in love… BTW, there’s another court martial within “Hell Below.”

And a fickle Jean Harlow was the apex of yet another triangle (well, the flyers were brothers, not just brothers in arms) in Howard Hughes’s “Hell’s Angels” (1930) which is mostly notable for its aerial photography.

William A. Wellman directed “Wings” to the first best-picture Oscar in 1927. It also involves a love triangle (stateside) played by Richard Arlen and for a woman Former “It Girl” Clara Bow, quite demure herein as Mary, is in love with Jack (Buddy Rogers). Jack is in love with cars and does not notice Mary. David (Richard Arlen) does notice and lust after her, but he and Jack become buddies in the Army Air Corps. Mary follows Jack to France (in the Women’s Motor Corp) and there is quite a melodramatic ending.

A comedy version (extending back to earlier armed combat) with rivals bonding (in the US Marines) was Raoul Walsh’s 1926 screen version of Maxwell Anderson’s play “What Price Glory?” with the points of the triangle played by Victor McLaglen, Dolores del Rio, and Edmund Lowe. John Ford remade it in 1952 with James Cagney, Corinne Calvet, and Dan Dailey as the triangle members.

I guess the two 1931 movies about the spy Mata Hari going gallantly to her death, “Mata Hari” with Greta Garbo and “Dishonored” with Marlene Dietrich have to be included. The European-born movie stars show as much sang-froid facing a firing squad as Robert Young and Robert Montgomery did piloting boats on kamikaze missions. Garbo had a better supporting cast (Ramon Novarro, Lionel Barrymore) but Dietrich had Josef von Sternberg at the helm. Also Dietrich was the better dancer.

And the 1947 French triangle in “Le diable au corps” (The Devil in the Flesh) with Gérard Philipe. Jeez! I almost forgot Georges Franju’s adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s Thomas l’imposteur (Thomas, the Impostor, 1965). Maddeningly unavailable on DVD, I still retain images from it after decades. A later (1989) and very good French film, directed by Bertrand Tavernier was “La vie  et rien d’autre”/“Life and Nothing But,” starring Philippe Noiret sorting through and trying to identify corpses form the Battle of Verdun. It also out of print.

I am a major admirer of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy. The 1997 movie condensation by Allan Scott (as “Regeneration”) is not bad, just the books are so great. Jonny Lee Miller was quite dashing looking as the fictional working-class lieutenant among the soldier-poets and shellshock-treatment pioneer William Pitt-Rivers (Jonathan Pryce).

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My favorite WWI movie is David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) with a megalomaniac British misfit, T. E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) organizing Arabs, being sodomized by a Turkish officer (José Ferrer), and disillusioned when the politicians (Claude Rains et al.) break the promises by which he led Arabs (Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, et al.) against the tottering Ottoman Empire. There is action, there is carnage, there is self-disgust and disgust at the conduct of those on Lawrence’s side (Arab and British). The movie also shows press manipulation and celebrity creation (Arthur Kennedy playing Lowell Thomas, making Lawrence a legend). (WWI looms in Lean’s 1965 “Dr. Zhivago,” also starring Omar Sharif, but I don’t consider it a “WWI movie.”)

I’ve been to Gallipoli and seen the narrow beach and high bluff Australian and New Zealand soldiers were thrown onto. I thought that Peter Weir’s 1981 movie “Gallipoli” was good, but it made Mel Gibson a star, which blocks positive memories of the movie, so is not on my list!

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Based on the international best-selling anti-war novel by Erich Maria Remarque, “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930, directed by Lewis Milestone) is remarkable for telling the story of disillusionment of a gung-ho recruit (Lewis Ayres) to the German army. Trench warfare was hell for the Germans as well as  for their opponents (the Americans were not technically “Allies” and eventually declared an end of hostilities after the Versailles Treaty was not ratified by the US Senate).

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Georg Wilhelm Pabst directed “Westfront 1918” the same year, showing not only the terror of trench warfare, but how bad things are back at home, when the soldier Karl, played by Gustav Diessl, goes back on leave. The small-town German boys do their part without ideology or enthusiasm. It has a near-documentary feel with pioneering sound engineering. And a harrowing tank attack. In Germany the movie was then ferociously criticized from the right for “defeatism” and from the left for failing to provide any indication of how the soldiers came to be in their hopeless position.

The most antiwar of WWI movies was Dalton Trumbo’s “Johnny Got His Gun” (1971) with a harrowing performance from Timothy Bottoms as a soldier who has lost his arms, legs, eyes, ears, mouth and nose, but not consciousness. Among his hallucinations (unfortunately) is Donald Sutherland as Christ. “Gods and Monsters” (1998) was certainly haunted by WWI traumatic memories, and links to “Johnny” (and other movies discussed above) in seeking death without committing suicide. Frank Borzage’s “Three Comrades” (1938, best remembered for supplying F. Scott Fitzgerald’s only screen credit) is mostly postwar. It interestingly involves Germans, including one played by Robert Young. As usual the comrades-in arms (Robert Taylor and Franchot Tone are the other two) are in love with the same woman (this time, a dying Margaret Sullavan).

Another portrayal of the detachment from reality of generals (on both sides) is “Joyeux Noel” in which those languishing in the trenches have a very unsanctioned-from-above Christmas truce. Though conflating several instances, this movie is, like “The Immortal Battalion” and “Sgt. York” based on what actually happened.

Jean Renoir’s classic “Le grande illusion” (Grand Illusion is a prison escape movie, the prisoners being French officers (Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay), the POW commandant an honorable Prussia Erich von Stroheim.

The classic airborne gallants movie, “The Dawn Patrol” (1930), starring Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., was directed by Howard Hawks. Though there are several dawn expeditions from which only about half the planes return, Hawks’ movie ends with a dusk suicide mission for one. The movie was remade in 1938  as an Errol Flynn vehicle, directed by Edmund Goulding. Flynn played the Barthelmess part of jaunty, insubordinate flyer promoted to making decisions about sending others out to be shot down.

I have not seen the 1965 German adaptation of Joseph Roth’s esteemed novel The Radetsky March or the 1933 RAF drama “The Eagle and the Hawk” (with Fredric March and Cary Grant) or the 1966 RAF “The Blue Max” with George Peppard and James Mason. More embarrassingly I have not seen more than a clip of  King Vidor’s (1925, silent) “The Big Parade” with John Gilbert.

I have seen both screen adaptations of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, but the hospitalized American lieutenant does not flashback to what got him wounded. And I’ve seen the Vivien Leigh/Robert Taylor tearjerker “Waterloo Bridge,” which also is set away from the fighting, so not a “WWI movie.” Ditto for “Cavalcade.” (which I also found exceedingly boring). And the lovin’-the-same woman “Legends of the Fall.”

An actual list? You want a list? OK. But it will be of my favorites, even if headed by what is also the best. (I know that some would accord this to “Grand Illusion” and would press for including “Paths of Glory.”) And four could be challenged as being included among “war movies.”

Lawrence of Arabia

Westfront, 1918

Thomas l’imposteur

Hell Below

Dawn Patrol (the 1930 one)

Joyeux Noel

Le grande illusion

King and Country

Dishonored

Wings

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

I have also posted a list of the best WWII movies and a survey of Korean War movies.

And I wrote about three WWI-set comedies made 50-60 years after the war here.