Category Archives: cinema

Vienna bike-messenger go-between

Despite what I consider excessive graphic violence, I thought that Stefan Ruzowitzky’s 2012 movie “Deadfall” starring Eric Bana was interesting. Among other facets, it includes the tensest “traditional” Thanksgiving dinner I’ve ever seen (onscreen or off). Ruzowitzky’s 2007 “The Counterfeiters” was much acclaimed and won the Oscar for best foreign-language film. His 1996 movie “Tempo,” which was his first feature-length film, focuses on Jojo (Xaver Hutter), a heavily fantasizing 17-year-old high school dropout who has moved to Vienna and become a bicycle messenger, rooming with another bicycle messenger not long out of reformatory, Bastian (Simon Schwarz).


A lot of screentime is occupied by Jojo’s fantasies about being interviewed on tv (MTV?) about his (s)exploits. He is, and, I think, remains a virgin, though fantasizing about being seduced by Clarissa (Nicolette Krebitz) to whom he delivers a rose and a package from Bernd (Dani Levy) most days. Jojo imagines Bernd and Clarissa have a grand passion. Eventually, he is shocked and disenchanted (as was “The Go-Between”).

At the start of the movie, the distinction between what is his prosaic life and what is fantasy is clear (as in “Billy Liar”), but the line becomes blurrier and blurrier until what seems to be really happening is more surreal than his fantasies. I think that makes the movie sound more interesting than it is, alas.


Though tongue-tied around women, Jojo is positively garrulous in his fantasies, especially those involving tv interviews. I find Bernd more interesting than Jojo (or Bastian or Clarissa), though not interesting enough to carry the movie.


Pros:Bernd and Clarissa

Cons: Jojo and his fantasy life

©2015, Stephen O. Murray


Lonely adults in the Kunsthistoriches: “Museum Hours” (2012)

I wanted to watch the 2012 movie written and directed by Jem Cohen, “Museum Hours,” primarily because it was mostly shot in Vienna’s Kunsthistoriches Museum, one of the world’s great art collection.The movie made me glad that I have never visited Vienna in winter. The sky is gray in every scene shot outside the museum in the movie, and there is often haze/fog. rather than the golden light for which Vienna is famed.


Still, I was interested in the shots of Vienna as well as of art in the great museum that inherited the Hapsburg art collection, including a Vermeer and a whole room of Breughels. I was totally uninterested in what the Montréal visitor, Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), sang, and, indeed in her character. She frequents the museum while ostensibly there to visit a cousin in a coma in St. Josef Hospital.

A sixty-something guard in the museum, Johann (Bobby Sommer). Is kind to her, and they have coffees and beers together in addition to his accompanying her to look at her inert cousin. The best part of the movie for me was docent Gerda Pachner (Ela Piplits) providing an unorthodox perspective on Pieter Breughel’s “The Conversion of Paul” (ca. 1567 [below]), though I have difficulty believing it would be delivered (in English) to a group of ordinary tourists. (I agree with her that the rear of a horse is an incongruous focus, both very large and close to the center of the painting, and that it is difficult to find Saul/Paul on a very un-Syrian road in the busy painting.)

There is very minimal development of the two main characters, neither of whom has much of a life, and no plot. Maybe the movie was too subtle for me, though I found the last part in which some scenes of the current city were analyzed as paintings are was very unsubtle in trying to relativize the notion of priceless masterpieces.


I felt that many shots (not those of artworks) were held too long and was bored by the 107-minute movie as a movie, though it supplemented my visit by showing stuff in the Egyptian collection (I skipped it, the movie skips the Roman sculpture that I did spend some time examining).

The Blu-Ray includes Cohen shorts, Amber City, Museum (Visiting the Unknown Ma), Anne Truitt, Working, and Museum (Visiting the Unknown Man), which run 48, 13, and 8 minutes, respectively) and two trailers.


Pros: art

Cons: pace, O’Hara’s character

©2014, Stephen O. Murray




Eighteen- (or nineteen-) year-old Roman Kogler (Thomas Schubert), the young Austrian protagonist of Karl Markovics’s 2011 “Atmen” (Breathing) is very close-mouthed, if not quite catatonic, through much of the movie. He is incarcerated for murder in a juvenile detention facility, shunned by the other young men for reasons I didn’t catch (if they were alluded to in the movie). The others wait for him to swim his laps before playing water polo in scenes that show off Schubert’s physique in a swimming suit.

Breathing - FINAL Quad.jpeg

Roman is not going to be paroled without having a job, and has failed to hold a series of placements. Despite the hostility of some coworkers and a repugnance for touching corpses, he gradually assimilates to a job picking up corpses for a funeral home.

The corpse of a woman in her late-30s named Kogler (and unclaimed by any relative) makes Roman curious about her mother, who gave him up to the first of the institutions in which he has spent almost all of his life when he was an infant. Being a movie, the viewer can be certain that he will find her (Karin Lischka plays the role quite well), though how she will react is less determine by the genre of searching for a parent.

The pace, especially during the first half half, is a bit slow and Roman a bit affectless (for reasons that are easy to understand), but he engaged my interest more than Jojo did. Roman has a social worker (played by Gerhard Liebmann) determinedly on his side.


The tourist Vienna that I know is invisible in both movies, except for the skyline visible from a cemetery in the last scene of “Breathing,” and the light used by DP is quite cold (not at all gemütlich) and there are no pastry confections on view in either film. And most of the scenes are filmed from some distance (mid-shots rather than long-shots or closeups, for the most part). “Breathing” is not just devoid of violence (apart from what is recalled at the parole hearing in which a video of the numb boy at the time of his arrest is played) but very restrained as Roman submits to indignities about which he can do nothing. If he fantasizes about sex and popular acclaim, this is not visible in the film. (And there is no freeze-frame at the end, as in “400 Blows.”)

Bonus features on the Koch Lorber DVD of “Breathing” are limited to a theatrical trailer and a “stills gallery” (typically barebones for KL).

Rating: 3.5/5

Pros: eventually becomes interesting

Cons: slow and opaque start

©2015, Stephen O. Murray


John Steinbeck’s [Viva] Zapata screenplay

The Zapata Screenplay contains  Nobel Prize-winner John Steinbeck’s (Academy Award-nominated) screenplay for “Viva Zapata!” that in 1952 became a film directed by Elia Kazan with Marlon Brando as Zapata (109 pages), a very discursive (lecturing even) pre-screenplay treatment, “Narrative in Dramatic Form of the Life of Emiliano Zapata” (183 pages), informative and insightful introductions to both documents by Steinbeck Quarterly editor Robert Morsberger (34 pages), film credits, a filmography of adaptations to film of Steinbeck work (22 pages) and a pithy essay by Morsberger on Steinbeck on film (6 pages). I found what Morsberger wrote more interesting than the Steinbeck materials, which is not to say that what Steinbeck wrote about Zapata and his dramatization of Zapata’s career as an agrarian rebel is uninteresting.


Morsberger deploys Albert Camus’s distinction between those who rebel at injustice and “revolutionaries” who use dissatisfactions to bring about their own rule of social engineering in the name of the people and recurrent waves of terror. Camus’s and Steinbeck’s rebel “stands for freedom and is willing to die for it but reluctant to kill for it…. The revolutionary, by contrast, speaks of liberty but establishes terror; in the name of equality and fraternity, he sets up the guillotine or the firing squad. For the sake of an abstract mankind, he finds it expedient to purge the unorthodox individual.” For the anticommunist critic of oligarchy and oppression Steinbeck and for the former communist HUAC “friendly witness” Kazan, the doctrinaire communist was the anti-Christ. Although the Mexican Revolution preceded the Bolshevik seizure of power from the first 1918 Russian Revolution, the character of Fernando (played by Joseph Wiseman) is sinisterly inhuman and bloodthirsty a revolutionary, competing for the soul of the revolution (and direction of the commander of the revolutionary Army of the South, General Emiliano Zapata) with the humane (read liberal anticommunist) Pablo (played by Lou Gilbert). They parallel Mac and Jim in Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle in particular but also the union boss and priest (Lee J. Cobb and Karl Malden) in Kazan’s “On the Waterfront” made two years after “Viva Zapata!”

Both the real Zapata (1879-1919) and the one in Steinbeck and Kazan’s movie are charismatic leaders, not ideologues. Although the vigorously anticommunist Steinbeck was recurrently accused (especially by California agribusiness) of communist leanings, it is clear that what he venerated (consider the dream of George and Lenny in Of Mice and Men, and also of the Okies who fled to California in The Grapes of Wrath) was the small-scale, independent farmer, which is to say the Jeffersonian ideal, which was an echo of the civic virtue of Republican Romans, embodied by Cincinattius taking up arms and returning to his farm as soon as he could (or George Washington refusing to be king). The political theory of “Viva Zapata!” is explicitly stated by Zapata: A strong leader makes a weak people. strong people don’t need a strong leader” (echoing The Moon Is Down). Or as Zapata’s (later: 1969) biographer, John Womack, put it, Zapata “did not want power. He wanted an end to harassment from outside, and local peace” (with land seized by hacienda owners returned to the peasants.”


The drama of the clash between the humane Pablo and the inhumane Fernando was close to the hearts of Steinbeck and Kazan, but was one of the ways of making the film dramatic (another was the contrast between the single-minded Emiliano and his undisciplined and self-aggrandizing older brother Eufemio (played by Anthony Quinn). In the pre-screenplay treatment Steinbeck addressed the problem for someone trying to write a drama rather than a hagiography: “Character on stage is usually a balance of weaknesses and strengths but this man [Emiliano Zapata] had practically no weaknesses. Therefore, he has practically no character dramatically. For drama is a resolution within one’s self during the play. The resolution in Zapata seems to have been born in him. That is the way it really was, and if I make it anything else, I will be lying about him. Even the people who hated him agree that he was devoted, incorruptible, and fearless always. There was no internal struggle in the man…. Compared to him, Eufemio, with his weaknesses, his violence, his drunkenness and lechery, becomes rather dear.”

In the screen treatment, Emiliano dealing with Eufemio’s excesses is far more central than in the screenplay (though Anthony Quinn managed to make the character vivid enough in the reduced number of scenes allotted him to garner an Oscar in the role). Eufemio is the head of the family and the deference due him complicates his being subordinate to his younger general within the revolutionary army.

Kazan cut the scenes of the enlightened—or pragmatic—hacienda owner trying to convince his peers to moderate their usurpation of land rather than risk losing everything, and a scene of Zapata’s grubby father-in-law complaining to his daughter that Zapata was not paying attention to enriching himself (like a good cacique, this also puzzled Madero when Zapata refused a ranch for his service to the revolution.

Kazan also extended the entirely fictitious dramatization of wanting to learn to read. Contrary to historical fact, Steinbeck turned Zapata into an illiterate and made this a major component of Zapata’s unease in dealing with politicians in the capital (both the old dictator Diaz and the reformist Madero, the Kerensky of the Mexican Revolution). Kazan turned Zapata into a monogamous husband (Steinbeck having already made Josefa more important than she seems to have been to Zapata). Steinbeck is responsible for making starting to learn to read the climax of the wedding night, and Kazan piled more onto this, but Steinbeck included other amours.

In addition to a capsule history of Mexico at the start of the treatment, Steinbeck began with scenes of childhood of Emiliano and Eufemio and early consciousness of their father’s land being taken away. Having just seen the 1934 movie “Viva Villa!” I wonder if that had some part in Steinbeck’s schema. Even more than “Viva Villa!”, “Viva Zapata!” ignores the later parts of the Mexican Revolution. Both show the defeat of the Diaz ancien regime, Madero’s vacillations about acting against his class and the general (Huerta) who will seize power and have Madero assassinated. Both films show taking up arms again, this time against Huerta. (Neither film shows the US ambassador’s supporting Huerta’s coup and the murder while in custody of Madero.)

“Viva Zapata!” misrepresents the attempt to disarm Zapata’s followers and kill those close to him as entirely Huerta’s doings, whitewashing Madero’s role (early) and the role of the final victors (who became the ruling Institutionalized Party of the Revolution for the next 90 years) who had Zapata eliminated (though the successful plot is shown accurately, involving a disgraced colonel pretending to defect, proving himself, and then luring Zapata to his death).

To learn about Zapata and his role in the Mexican revolution, one should read John Womack’s biography (first published in 1969). Morsberger shows how the characters Steinbeck imagined (based on considerable familiarity with Mexico and interviewing a number of those who had known Zapata in 1948-50) fits in Steinbeck’s oeuvre and how the screen treatment and screenplay dramatizes some recurrent Steinbeck themes such as the nature of leadership (specifically leadership of oppressed farmers who have lost their land), the willingness of those like Fernando to sacrifice the lives of others to advance their agendas (though Fernando was right that toppling Diaz was not enough to recover the peasants’ land), the ultimately self-defeating greed of agricultural capitalists, the corruption that can tempt reformers once they gain a modicum of power, the brutality of people carried away by mass violence, and the mythologizing of slain idealists. Despite an overlay of conventional romance, considerable telescoping/simplification of history and some mythologizing (especially the white horse escaping at the end), “Viva Zapata!” is a dramatization of political ideas, and the commentary of Robert Morsberger brings these out as well as providing considerable information on the genesis of the film project.


(Steinbeck in 1962, public domain photo from the Nobel Foundation)


This was part of a writeoff on epinions that I hosted for Steinbeck’s centenary.

©2002, 2017, Stephen O. Murray


John Steinbeck’s East of Eden on big and little screens

Both the 1955 feature film and the 1981 miniseries based on John Steinbeck’s 1952 blockbuster best-selling novel East of Eden have females top-billed: Julie Harris and Jane Seymour, respectively. They did not play the same role (Abra and Cathy/Kate, respectively). Moreover the actresses playing Cathy/Kate won awards: Jo Van Fleet the best supporting actress Oscar and Jane Seymour a Golden Globe. They played a meaty role, though the character verges on being a demon onf Steinbeck’s misogynist imaginings.

The novel is “about” two generations of Cain and Abel antagonists (Trask brothers), though Steinbeck seems to have wanted there to be an offsetting focus on the Hamilton clan, the patriarch of which was to some degree based on the author’s mother’s father. And in the third part (the part on which the movie was based) Kate’s orneriness is balanced by the very sympathetic Abra (Harris).


In that the 1955 movie directed by Elia Kazan is a masterpiece, the primary interest of the miniseries is in the first two parts that provide the East Coast backstory of Adam (and his disfavored, brutal bully of a brother, Charles). Their father Cyrus (Warren Oates) is a rascal bilking the Civil War veterans (GAR), who forces Adam (Timothy Bottoms) into the army and Indian wars (and away from Charles, who nearly slew Adam after the initial version of the welcome and unwelcome gifts from the boys).

Adam returns home to find Cyrus dead and learns he is a beneficiary of a $100K inheritance (in addition to his half-interest in the Connecticut farm). For a while the brothers work the farm. Adam knows their father swindled the money but assures Charles that he must have come by it honestly (if insider trading is “honest”).

The miniseries also follows the life of destruction and false innocence of Kate, whose most recent patron (Howard Duff) beat her to a pulp. She crawls up the Trasks brothers’ steps. Charles recognizes her innocence as fraudulent, but Adam dotes on her and marries her. She knocks him out (laudanum in his tea) on the wedding night and seduces Charles. Then Adam and Kate go west.


Adam wants to irrigate in California’s Central Valley (somewhere between King City and Salinas), buys a ranch, and hires Will Hamilton (Lloyd Bridges) and his sons to drill wells.

Kate attempts to induce a miscarriage, but carries a pair of non-identical twins to term. After which she leaves Adam and the farm, shooting him in the shoulder when he attempts to stop her. The boys, the goody-goody Aron and the bad boy Cal are raised by a wily Chinese servant, Lee (Soon-tek Oh) and believe their mother is dead and buried in the East. Lee’s character was dropped form the movie.

Cal learns otherwise. Cathy, now known as Kate, was doted upon by the madame of a bordello, Faye (Anne Bancroft), whom she kills pretty much immediately upon seeing a will that leaves everything to her. Kate’s is the plushest bordello on “whorehouse way” in Monterey (19 miles across a mountain range from Salinas, where the male Trasks reside).

Adam’s scheme to ship lettuce to the East with icebox boxcars fails. Cal wants to make money to restore Adam’s wealth and hooks up with the savviest of the Hamiltons to buy bean futures in anticipation of a price rise when the US goes to war (which Woodrow Wilson has just been re-elected promising to keep out of).

Cal cannot borrow money from Lee, who is not a character in the movie, and convinces Kate to lend him the money. In both versions the scheme succeeds and Cal presents an envelope with fifteen grand to his father (for Thanksgiving in the miniseries for his birthday in the movie, also celebrated with a turkey dinner). Adam is on (miniseries) or heads (movie) the draft board and rejects the profiteering loot. In the movie Aron very deliberately upstages Cal’s gift by reporting that he and Abra have gotten engaged, which comes as a surprise to her, and a surprise she does not at all welcome, having tried to help Cal squeeze some love from his father. In the miniseries, Aron only lets his father assume what he wants (that Aron will return to Stanford).


(James Dean, Burl Ives, and Richard Davlos sending off train with lettuce)


(Sam Bottoms and Hart Bochner, looking less twin-like!)

Heartbroken that Aron again has received all the paternal approbation, Cal takes Aron to Monterey to meet his(/their) mother. That he is the sone of a whore shakes Aron (planning to be an Episcopalian priest in the miniseries and even more moralistic than his father) who gets drunk and enlists in the army, going off to be killed. Cain de facto kills Abel in the guise of Cal and Aron (though the movie’s Aron exceeds Cal in sibling rivalry in the movie version, and is rather Cain-like, even if his offerings are pleasing to the family god, Adam).

In both versions, Abra had become increasingly dissatisfied with Aron and eager to repair Cal even before the re-enactment of the pleasing and the rejected filial gifts.

Annex - Dean, James (East of Eden)_10.jpeg

(Dean and Harris)

Though Aron’s visit is unwelcome to Kate in the movie, on rewatching it I did not find any hint that it drives her to suicide or to leaving her wealth to Aron with whom she has no affinity (she has some with Cal for rejecting Adam’s self-righteousness).

In the movie, Adam has a stroke after his favorite son flees. In the miniseries Adam has a stroke upon receiving news that his favorite son has been killed in action. Both versions end with Adam being convinced (by Lee in the miniseries, by Abra in the movie) to bless Cal and help him become whole.

The movie is electrified by the yearning and hopelessness of James Dean (who had similar problems trying to please his father). In his first movie role, and the only one that he lived long enough to see the finished version, Dean was nominated for an Oscar. Sam Bottoms could not compete with (the memory of) Dean for anguish and comes across as much less neurotic, more resigned to always being judged inferior to Aron. Richard Davlos’s Aron in the movie is less puritanical, but more jealous and competitive to his brother than Hart Bochner in the miniseries.

Given the much longer time span of the miniseries, Jane Seymour was more demonic than Jo Van Fleet. The latter’s Kate was bitter, but more sympathetic to Cal (having to lend him his start-up capital with Lee excised).


(Jo Van Fleet)

The miniseries has an earlier-generation Cain, Charles, played by Bruce Bochner, Oh’s wise Chinese male mother, Anne Baxter’s naïve lesbian madame, Howard Duff’s whoremaster betrayed by Kate, and a flamboyant turn by Lloyd Bridges as the other one who dares to speak truth to Adam. Both have sheriffs maintaining order through personal authority (Burl Ives and M. Emmet Walsh).

Though Sam Bottoms was criticized for not being James Dean or a reincarnation of him, my casting problem is with Timothy Bottoms as his father (Adam). There is a family resemblance, but Timothy was only four years older than Sam. And for me, Timothy Bottoms was not convincing as a patriarch. Raymond Massey (in the movie) was, though showing an occasional sense of humor (especially when getting driving instructions). Kazan conspired with Dean to get Massey riled, and Massey has a fury I can’t imagine Timothy Bottoms coming close to conveying.

Julie Harris’s Abra was a bigger part than Karen Allen’s. Jack Warner opposed casting her, thinking her too old, but Harris had continued playing Frankie in “A Member of the Wedding” into her mid-20s. She does not look or seem her age (30) in “East of Eden.” Dean was six years younger, but could not pass for 17 (IMHO). Nor could Davalos, who was 25. (Sam Bottoms was 26, Hart Bochner 25 when the miniseries was made).

I think Frank Stanley’s cinematography for the miniseries (it was Emmy-nominated), but the look, not just the sweeping exteriors, but the closeups Ted McCord (Treasure of the Sierra Made, The Sound of Music) shot, stretching the then newish CinemaScope color-film technology of the day, was superlative. It included some unconventional (outside the noir universe) angles. (I can’t say that I agree with Kazan’s decision to shoot Cal and Abra blocked by a willow tree for most of their post-dinner-blowout scene.

I also don’t understand the need for a movie running less than two hours to have an overture with a shot of waves breaking on Portuguese Beach with a view of Mendocino (standing in for 1917 Monterey). I’m less than enthused but not annoyed by the music in both versions: Leonard Rosenman’s for the movie, Lee Holdridge’s for the miniseries. The musical themes sound similar and for my taste are repeated too often in both.

I am glad to have the miniseries that has much more of the book (it had better, being more than three times as long!) as well as the Kazan/Dean classic. The current 2-disc video release of the movie has lots of interesting bonus features, the (belated, only appearing in 2009) version of the miniseries has a very entertaining interview of Jane Seymour and a reasonable text-based biography of Steinbeck.


©2017, Stephen O. Murray


On the corpus of screen adaptations of Steinbeck fiction see here.


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.


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).


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.


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).


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