Category Archives: cinema

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.

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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.”

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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.

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(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

 

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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).

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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.

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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).

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

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(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.

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(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).

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(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.

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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