Tag Archives: WWII

Coming of age in fascist Sicily, fixated on one who was treated as a “collaborator” after Mussolini’s fall

I think that “Malèna” (2000) is a better film than many of the other Italian films set in fascist times that have been honored as “best foreign language films”: Mediterraneo, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Life Is Beautiful, and even Amarcord. Indeed, I think that it is probably the best Italian film since “Cinema Paradiso,” which was also written and directed (twenty years ago) by Giuseppe Tornatore.

One admirable aspect is that the “macro context” is clearer in “Malèna” than in these other films. There is no need to stop and insert newsreel footage, because the local reverberations of the course of the war are very clear. Making historical sense is a rarely invoked criterion of excellence. “Malèna” has many others, but the passage of time is handled so ineptly in the much-honored list of films above, that I start with it.

Hardship is downplayed in all these films, though getting food is a problem for the title character in “Malèna.” Renato (Giuseppi Sulfaro) is propelled more by hormones than by hunger, but his family seems to have enough to eat.

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Renato is obsessed with Malèna Scordia (Monica Bellucci), the daughter of the small city’s new Latin teacher. Her husband is off fighting colonial wars in East Africa. She is very beautiful, very unprotected, and more than a little provocatively dressedand shod. Renato is not the only one obsessed with her. The whole city is! Men of all ages are drooling about—and occasionally on—her. Respectable women are outraged at the effect she has on the men. Both sexes resent her—the women because she distracts the men, the men because she is at the time so voluptuous and so unavailable to them. Renato seems to be the only one who does not resent her. He worships her as a goddess from whom one cannot expect anything, spies on her, fantasizes about her, is horrified at the good citizen’s treatment of her, fights to defend her honor, and is heartbroken by his inability to protect her from what others spitefully regard as and make be her fate.

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The film, beautifully photographed in Syracuse, Sicily by Lajos Koltai, from a story by Luciano Vicenzoni, takes Renato’s retrospective perspective on his wartime youth. What Malèna thinks of what befalls her, from the daily ogling and resentment to her “punishment,” is opaque to the viewer, because inaccessible to the boy. In a sense this means that the film objectifies her, just as the townspeople, including Renato did. Although she is the object of masturbatory fantasies in the film, I would stress that the perspective of the film is retrospective. That is, it is the adult narrator conjuring both the hormone-crazed boy that he was and the woman who probably never noticed him. Looking back he has compassion for both, as does the audience, or at least most of the audience. For the mob that hails Mussolini’s declaration of war, welcomes the Nazis and the American troops in turn, it is more difficult, and for the officials who go from being fascist officials to being aides to the Americans, it is impossible.

I know that the film has some detractors, mostly those expecting another celebration of the Italian past like “Cinema Paradiso” or the blitheness of “Amarcord.” And for the first hour or so, this film is lighthearted, even comic. But “Malèna” is not bittersweet in the manner of late Fellini movies. The violence is not stylized as it is in much recent American popular culture. What happens is excruciating to watch. The violence, when it comes, lasts an agonizingly long time.

I do not think that the leads are “wooden,” as some other viewers have. Monica Bellucci’s subjectivity is supposed to be unavailable, and during most of her scenes she is trying not to show emotion, but it’s hard for me to understand how anyone could think that Giuseppi Sulfaro is inexpressive! And, being an Italian movie, there are some other very expressive characters. There are plenty of theatrical gesticulation and operatically overdramatized speech available from the lawyer and from the mother in two of the film’s hilarious (yet not unserious) scenes.

I think that the film is at times extremely funny, but it plunges into horror and anguish, and ultimately provides catharsis. Is there anything else that art is supposed to do?

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The cinematography of Lajos Koltai (The Legend of 1900) is superb (and wasa Oscar-nominated), the pacing brisk, and the acting convincing. My only dissatisfaction was with the overly insistent music supplied by Ennio Morricone (composer for hundreds of films, including “For a Few Dollars More,” “Brun!” and “Cinema Paradiso”). Eventually, I predict that “Malèna” will be recognized as a worthy addition to the tradition of “The Bicycle Thief” and “The Nights of Cabiria,” two of the most poignant classics of Italian neorealistic cinema. It is also one of the few great films about those treated as collaborators, along with “Hiroshima, Mon Amour.”

©2001, 2019, Stephen O. Murray

 

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Chang-Rae Novels (2): A Gesture Life

The protagonist of  Chang-Rae Lee’s A Gesture Life (1999) is Franklin “Doc” Hata, a man of Korean parentage who was adopted by a wealthy Japanese couple and grew up in Japan. Hata, himself, though never married, adopted a racially mixed daughter, Sunny, whom he pushes to excel just as his own adoptive parents pushed him. Sunny, however, proves to be a bit more rebellious than was Hata.

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When A Gesture Life opens, Franklin Hata, now retired, is living in Bedley Run, New York, a pillar of respectability and decorum. He takes very good care of his exquisite home, he’s polite to his neighbors and he was almost venerated by the customers who came into his shop. Hata, however, may have missed out on much of life simply because an incident in his youth caused him to “play it safe” and refuse to take chances. Better to live a peaceful, quiet life, albeit a lonely one, Hata decided early on, rather than expose oneself to the pain of heartbreak.

Lee frequently jump-cuts back and forth between Hata’s life “now” in Bedley Run and his youth in Japan. In this way, we learn who Franklin Hata really is and why he makes the choices he does, for even in Japan, Hata felt like an interloper and this feeling of “not belonging” caused him to excel at everything he did, from academic to military work.

The event that, more than any other, set the stage for the rest of Hata’s life occurred while he was in the military: he met and fell in love with a Korean woman called K, a woman sent by the Japanese army to “comfort” its soldiers. Hata denied his feelings for K during the war, and so, partly in an effort to atone and partly to suppress the pain of heartbreak, Hata denied the full flowering to his own emotional life.. He sublimated his own desires.

Lee’s prose in A Gesture Life is elegant and quiet and contains none of the heavy-handed symbolism found in his next (third) novel, Aloft. His transitions from present to past and back again are almost seamless and the pace of the book is slow but steady. A few of the characters are rather one-dimensional, but Hata and Sunny are rich and complex. Although I preferred the narrative that took place during the past, both those and those set in the present are artfully composed.

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A Gesture Life is an elegant and beautiful novel and, one that is ultimately very sad. It reminds me and many others of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Franklin Hata, is a man, who, like Stevens, tugs at your heart until you find it impossible to forget him.

The grumpy old man and the refugee child

The French title of “The Two of Us” (1967), “Le vieil homme et l’enfant” (the old man and the child) is more precise. The movie intends to be a heartwarming memoir of writer-director Claude Berri’s (Jean de Florette, Manon of the Spring) being hidden in the countryside during the Nazi occupation of Paris. In Paris Claude’s Jewish parents were trying to maintain a low profile, something Claude (Alain Cohen. Born in 1958) neither understood nor seemed capable of.

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A Gentile friend of the family arranges for the truculent boy to stay with her parents. The old man, Pepe, played by Michel Simon (born in 1875, who was once Boudu saved from drowning and père Jules on L’Atlante) is a raving anti-Semite (and just as vitriolic about Freemasons, btw) who insists that he can detect Jews by smell. Claude has been taught the Lord’s Prayer and told that he must pretend to be Catholic, and listens with puzzlement to the old man’s rants.

Pepe has a 17-year-old dog whom he feeds, clad in a bib, at the dinner table. Indeed, spoon-feeding the old dog is the first glimpse the viewer and Claude have of his benefactor. The old man has a long-suffering, pragmatic wife (Luce Fabiole, The Bride Wore Black) but no friends except the dog, who is 105 in human years. Pepe adores his new audience and the boy is affectionate.

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In that it is Berri’s memoir, there is no suspense that French police will round him up and turn him over to the Nazis, which leaves only the question of what will happen when Pepe finds that he has been harboring and doting on a Jew.

A major disappointment with the movie for me is that that question is never answered. After the war, Claude’s parents sweep Claude up to take him back to Paris, but there is no scene of them thanking the old couple for harboring (not to mention feeding) their son. As they drive off with Claude looking out the back window, it is not even certain that Pepe has registered Claude’s Jewishness (and the challenge that presents to his confidence in being able literally to smell out Jews).

Simon is a somewhat amusing grumpy(/lonely) old man and Cohen was as liquid a dark-eyed boy as could be found. The relationship built on a false foundation is credible to me, but not especially involving (maybe I was fed too many Disney movies when young and impressionable?). The part I like best is actually the first quarter hour in which Claude’s father (Charles Denner (Z, The Bride Wore Black), who obviously loves his son very much and is very concerned that the boy’s trouble-making is going to get them all hauled away attempts to convince Claude not to make waves. (Zorica Lozic plays Claude’s mother but has little to do.)

 

The “true story” aspect is highlighted in a 1975 conversation between Berri and the woman whose parents harbored him in the countryside. There’s also a 1967 interview of Berri and a longer 2007 one. The Criterion Edition also includes Oscar-winning short, “Le poulet” (The chicken) about a boy child who gets attached to a chicken destined for the stew pot. There’s a very short (two-minute) interview of Simon and a 2005 reminiscence by Alain Cohen (running twelve minutes). Plus an excerpt from the documentary “The Jewish Children of Occupied France.” Apparently, the illustrated booklet which I have not seen has more from Berri and discussions of the film from François Truffaut and David Sterritt.

The black-and-white images are pristine in their clarity and the mono sound transfer cannot be faulted.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Early Fred Zinnemann I: The Search (1947) and The Kid Glove Killer (1942)

A quasi-documentary about World War II and concentration camp orphans, “The Search” (1947), is the movie that inspires the young Filipino whose parents have been ripped from him to envision Montgomery Clift as a patron in the Lavender Quill award-winning novel Letters to Montgomery Clift. Until I read Noël Alumit’s poignant novel, I had conflated “The Search” with “The Big Lift” in which Montgomery Clift also played an American soldier in occupied Germany. Having finally seen “The Search,” it is very clear why Clift would seem the kind of patron Bong Bong sought.

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The young boy who survived Auschwitz, Karel (Ivan Jandl) believes that when he and his friend/protector/fellow orphan are put on trucks to move children from a processing facility to an orphanage that they are being dispatched to be killed. They escape. The friend drowns, and Karel’s cap found in the river leads the authorities to believe he must also have drowned.

The now mute and feral child is lured out of the rubble of what is supposed to be Munich (but is actually Nuremberg) by a sandwich G.I. Ralph Stevenson (Montgomery Clift) sets out for him. Gradually he wins the boy over, takes him to the house where he is billeted with a wry but supportive buddy Jeff Fisher (Wendell Corey), and is making arrangements to adopt the boy and take him to America—having taught the child fluent English in about a week.

Karl’s mother, Hannah Malik (Czech opera star Jarmila Novotna) meanwhile has found the facility in which her son was last seen and recognized the cap dredged out of the river. Aline MacMahon (Man from Laramie, Ah Wilderness!) as Mrs. Murray), the woman in charge of sorting orphans (and the voice-over narrator is more benign than bureaucratic, convinced Mrs. Malik to help with other children traumatized like her (thought-to-be) dead son.

 

Although Fred Zinnemann (1907-1997) got his start in documentaries (and had won an Oscar for a documentary short), after the quasi-documentary of the first three-quarters hour, the movie turns Hollywood heartwarming, and there is little doubt that there will be a joyful reunion of mother and son. Rather than the neorealism of Rosselini’s portrayal of children who survived the war (the Naples episode of Paisá, and Germany, Year Zero) or of the young boys in de Sica’s Shoeshine, Zinnemann provided neo-Shirley Temple, adding a slew of wise, caring, and nearly saintly adults. If pressed, I’d claim that the leitmotif in Zinnemann’s films (From Here to Eternity, High Noon, A Man for All Seasons, Julia, A Member of the Wedding, etc.) is individualism, lonely standing out/standing alone. Though many of his films were honored and continue to be held in high esteem, no one has made a case for him as an auteur. His films do not share a particular look, even if there is a recurrent shared theme in them.

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Though ultimately cloying and conventional, there are some good reasons to watch this film:

(1) It is the first movie performance of Montgomery Clift that was released (though “Red River” was made first). (Zinnemmann also directed a quasidocumentary, “The Men,” which was Marlon Brando’s first screen appearance.)

(2) It is one of the few movies in which one may see Jarmila Novotna.

(3) It contains one of those striking child performances: Ivan Jandl received a special Oscar for Outstanding Juvenile Performance, and never made another film.

(4) Along with “Germany, Year Zero” and “A Foreign Affair,” “The Search” shows the devastation of German cities (records Sebald ignored in The Natural History of Destruction.

(5) Perhaps it is time to consider Zinnemann’s oeuvre as an oeuvre.

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Although Fred Zinneman’s first feature-film (“Kid Glove Killer,” 1942) is only 74 minutes long, it drags some in the middle with didactic crime lab stuff. It’s also perplexing that the suave mob-paid special prosecutor (Lee Bowman) would undertake planting a bomb to blow up the cleanup mayor himself, but if that is swallowed the rest of the film with Van Heflin’s skinny forensic expert handicapped by the love interest (Marsha Hunt) being an unwitting informant about the investigation for the killer is taut. The fistfight at the end is a little hokey too, but Van Heflin’s poor dart-throwing ability has an amusing and crucial payoff. Whodunit or why are never in question. The audience knows who the fall guy will be at once, and who the killer is almost at once, but there is still the suspense of evidence collection and destruction and wondering how the lab assistant will react. (Plus looking for Ava Gardner: she has a brief scene as a car-hop.)

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

“It is a shameful thing to win a war”

In one of the bonus features on the Cohen DVD of “La Pelle” (The Skin, 1981), writer-director Liliana Cavani (The Night Porter) contends that Curzio Malaparte (1898-1957, né Kurt Erich Suckert) was a reporter — indeed, a great reporter — rather than a novelist (though Kaput (1944) is somewhat fictionalized). She noted that even the most grotesque events in The Skin were accounts of things that occurred, indeed, recurred in Naples after the Nazis left and the Americans took over. In (1983) essay “The Tragedy of Central Europe” novelist Milan Kundera, focused on Kaputt, wrote: “It is strange, yes, but understandable: for this reportage is something other than reportage; it is a literary work whose aesthetic intention is so strong, so apparent, that the sensitive reader automatically excludes it from the context of accounts brought to bear by historians, journalists, political analysts, memoirists.”

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(Malparte in internal exile on Lipari, 1936)

The Skin (first published in 1949, quickly added to the Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum) has lots and lots of dialogue in French. The scenes go on and on and on and do not seem to cohere into even a baggy novel. The dialogue between liaison officer Malaparte and the naïve colonel, Jack Hanmilton, who is eager to be a good guy, include many lectures about human nature in general and that of a starving conquered people in particular. The welcome of “liberators” was short-lived, and without selling their flesh and that of their children (Cavani only shows boys being pawed over by Moroccan soldiers; Malaparte wrote about very young girls as well as boys being sold for food or a few liras.) I don’t think the boyish colonel from Cleveland ever grasps that the Neapolitans regard him and the soldiers expecting cheap thrills regard their new rulers as not very different than the Nazis who ruled Naples before the Americans arrived or the fascists who ruled before that. Each successive regime required resourcefulness from those wanting to survive—and acquiescence to the prostitution or rape of women and children. Lecturing the Johnnies-come-lately, Malaparte said “You’ve no idea what a man will do, what deeds of heroism and infamy he can accomplish, to save his skin . . . They think they are fighting and suffering to save their souls, but in reality they are fighting and suffering to save their skins, and their skins alone.”

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The movie replaces the colonel with 3-star general Mark Cork (a slight variant on Mark Clark), a publicity-eager commander of the 5th US Army annoyed by the arrival of the wife of a Massachusetts senator. Deborah Wyatt (Romanian-born Alexandra King in the only role in IMDB) is a pilot who flies her own plane in from Sicily. Malaparte plays Vergil to her Dante (though Malaparte is the one who writes about the post-apocalyptic reality).

Malaparte is urbane past the line of cynicism, but with compassion for the Americans as well as for the Neapolitans. Wyatt is another American unwilling to recognize the reality of either the locals’ desperation or the rapaciousness of the GIs. After she boards a truck filled with GIs and is manhandled she has had enough of occupation reality and goes home, much to the relief of Gen. Cork.

Malaparte shrugs in the Mastroianni manner. He has his villa on the coast of Capri and noble friends including the Principessa Consuelo Caracciolo, a mostly wasted Claudia Cardinale. (In none of the bonus features does Cavani comment on Cardinale’s reduced part. She enthuses about the graciousness and helpfulness of Mastroianni and Lancaster, however.)

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(Villa Malaparte, Capri)

Captain Jimmy Wren (Ken Marshall [Krull]) falls in love with the professional virgin (who displays her intact hymen to lines of soldiers for a price collected by her father) and retains some of his good cheer and eagerness to help Maria Concetta (Liliana Tari) and her light-fingered younger brother.

Malaparte does not call out hypocrisy, even while showing the deleterious effects of American naiveté mixed with self-righteousness: “No one on this earth save the Americans can move about with such easy, smiling grace among people who are filthy, starved and unhappy. It is not a sign of insensibility: it is a sign of optimism and at the same time of innocence,” he explains. “The Americans are not cynics, they are optimistic and optimism is itself a sign of innocence. He who is blameless in thought and deed is led not to deny that evil exists, but to refuse to admit that evil is inevitable and incurable. The Americans believe that misery, hunger, pain and everything else can be combatted, that men can recover from misery, hunger, and pain, that there is a remedy for all evil. They do not know that evil is incurable.”

Both book and movie show the American soldiers going all out to aid Neaoplitans after Mount Vesuvius erupts and a cloud of ashes fall on Naples. There is a great bit in the book in which American planes attack a could of molten particles before it can blow over the city. There is something crazy about machine-gunning a cloud so that it will drop what it is carrying, but the real folie de grandeur is plane that approaches too close, is sucked in, and explodes. The explosion results in the fall of the molten material over the sea. Before the advent of CGI, I assume that the scene was too expensive to try to film.

Concerned that American audiences would not accept a portrayal of “the greatest generation” as anything less than noble (well after “Catch-22” and “M*A*S*H”) led Warner Brothers to back out the contract to release “The Skin,” which never had a US theatrical release (though eventually receiving a splendid 2014 DVD with a commentary track and various bonus feature interviews of Cavani and set designer Dante Ferretti).

Not least for scaling back the portrayals of African American sex fiends and libertine homosexual communists (admittedly a switch from blaming fascism on homosexuals), but also in bringing out narrative lines, I think the movie is better than the book. I still think the greatest portrait of desperation in “liberated” Naples is the section of Roberto Rosselini’s “Paisa” in which an African American’s shoes are stolen and he follows the young thief to the cavern where hundreds of Neapolitans are living. Malaparte also reported the hunting of horny African Americans to rob, and with a greater taste for Grand Guignol, what Malaparte wrote fit with Norman Lewis’s more detached (and less probing) Naples 44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy (1978) and John Horne Burns’s more sentimental 1947 American best-seller The Gallery. (It seems to me that Malaparte was less harsh about the Americans than Burns, btw.)

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Aside from the universal practice of post-dubbing dialogue rather than shooting with sound (so that even the Italians’ lines are out of synch with lip movement; Mastroianni allegedly spoke English in scenes with Lancaster and Marshall), there is the oddity of lines in Italian being translated (by Malaparte) into Italian. I don’t see why an international release could not have had the Americans speak English and the Italians speak Italians (it’s not like “The Leopard” in which Lancaster was playing a Sicilian character…).

Malaparte, who had marched on Rome with Mussolini in 1922 and had official backing from various periodicals, was ejected from the Fascist Party in 1933, and jailed and/or sent into internal exile multiple times before landing a position as Italian Liberation Corps Liaison Officer to the American High Command in Italy from November 1943 to March 1946. Consistently sympathizing with authoritarians, he flirted with the Roman Catholic Church and the Italian Communist Party (though continuing to look askance at homosexual communists) and at the time of his death was enthusiastic about Mao, who was engaged in the famine-productng disaster of “the Great Leap Forward.” Malaparte’s will left his villa on Capri to the PRC, though his family succeeded in contesting the will.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

A slog across northern Burma ad majorem gloria of US Army generals

If ever there was a unit that needed a nickname it was the “5307th Composite Unit (Provisional)”! If Brigadier General Frank D. Merrill (1903-55) was as hands-on slogging through the jungles and over the mountains of Burma as Jeff Chandler (1918-61) portrays him in the 1962 Warner Brothers celebration “Merrill’s Marauders,” that moniker was apt. ((The “provisional” indicates that the unit is formed for a special mission or operation and will be disbanded after its completion… and there were only 103 soldiers of the original three battalions of 3000 volunteers left to be reassigned.)

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Merrill trained them and led them on a 90-day trek behind enemy (Japanese) lines to attack the Japanese after which they were to be relieved by British troops (and disbanded). Gen. “Vinegar Joe” Sitwell, commander of the relatively minor US forces in the western front of the war with Japan flies in and orders the exhausted and malaria-riddled 5307th on to attack Myitkyina in the far northeast of Burma (the Kachin state) a railroad hub as well as a hub for the road by which the Japanese planned to attack India. (In the movie, Merrill’s Marauders take Myitkyina by themselves in one swoop, though in reality there was a prolonged siege by Chinese (Kuomintang) and the British-Indian “chindits” were also involved.)

Director Sam Fuller had been an infantryman in Europe during World War II and wanted to film his own platoon’s story. He had already written the script for what many (18) years later would be “The Big Red One,” and made two of the best Korean War movies (Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets) and was not interested in making the jungle attrition movie in the Philippines. Though US Army officials had been very unhappy with the portrayal of US soldiers killing prisoners in “Steel Helmet,” Warner Brothers  received co-operation from both the US and Filipino armies in making  “Merrill’s Marauders.” (The US Army was displeased by the well-documented disregard for the health of the marauders and the failure to supply them with adequate rations, and succeeded in getting showing GIs shooting other GIs in the Shaduzup maze deleted.)

Gritty for its time, the movie shows Merrill’s determination and refusal to heed his attending physician’s (Andew Duggan) judgment that (he and) the men were not fit for combat. His protégé Lt. Stock (Ty Hardin) is in Merrill’s view too close to his men, though Stock soldiers on after Merrill refuses to relieve him of command of his vanguard platoon. Chandler was not just acting being in pain (Merrill had a second heart attack while on the mission) but was in pain from a back injury. Surgery (malpractice) on that killed him before the release of the movie.

In comparison to the two Korean War movies, I thought there was little characterization of the fragile cogs in the war machine. In common with many American war movies, it is a puzzlement that Japan conquered so much territory, including driving Merrill’s regular army unit out of Burma in the first place. Every direct encounter results in Japanese soldiers being killed with relative ease. There is only one in which the outcome is close (it involves a second American bayoneting the Japanese solider in the back). And on the scale larger than hand-to-hand combat, the Japanese flee from every attack. Even the Japanese snipers are easily picked off by a single US sharpshooter’s shot.

The movie incorporated battle footage from “Battle Cry.” Other than the censored Shaduzup maze (tank trap) sequence, there was nothing of particular visual note. On the other hand, there are none of the lapses of basic moviemaking competence that occur in most other Fuller movies. I don’t blame him for the music (Howard Jackson gets that), because I don’t think he had final cut authority. I’d like to think he wasn’t responsible for the epilogue, either.

There is one touch of Fuller black humor: Gen. Merrill is visiting the outdoor field hospital. The soldier being worked on opens his eyes and belligerently asks: “Who are you?” Merrill responds:”Merrill, who are you?” The feverish soldier asks “Did Lewinsky make it?” (I don’t remember his name and it isn’t in the credits.” He then drops back dead. Merrill a repeats the now-dead man’s question. The surgeon replies “He was Lewinsky.”

The movie provides no background on the politics that made Gen. Joe Stillwell to need an American contingent fighting in northern Burma. A British group passes through, but there is no indication that the British were involved in taking the rail depot at Shaduzup or that the marauders were not the main attack force at Myitkyna air field (that was the Chinese Expeditionary Force) on 15 March 1944 or that the the Japanese held on to the town of Myitkyna until 3 August (when 800 Japanese retreated from the town) long after the surviving marauders had been flown out. British troops were also involved at Myitkyna. The failure to show that there was anyone by marauders at Mytikyna is more than typical American ethnocentrism but part of a larger effort to valorize only the US military in winning World War II. It seems likely that the Mytikyna air field would have been taken if the exhausted marauders had not undertaken the arduous march across the Muzon mountains (the movie shows this being mostly swamps, though some Philipinne mountains do appear) and ended their expedition back at Shaduzup. They were exhausted, but Stillwell needed some Americans at the climactic battle (Myitkyna). Eighteen years later, Warner Brothers made it look like the remnants of the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional)”! took Myitkyna. (That they were sacrificed for the ego of Gen. Stillwell and jockeying among Allied commanders does not detract from the heroism of the infantrymen who went on long past the point of exhaustion.)

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The epilogue celebrates the Special Forces marching on (actually the rows looked ragged to me!) is jingoism at its worst, encouraging the hubris of increasing US military involvement in Southeast Asia, first with the Special Forces who were particularly doted on by President John Kennedy (who, among other things, encouraged wearing of green berets, which had been banned, and began their combat involvement in Vietnam). Though the movie shows exhaustion and sickness felling US soldiers in droves, the end stresses a sense of omnipotence that encouraged more military adventures (even under the shadow of the stalemate in Korea).

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Between a rock (Nazi occupiers) and a hard place (the Red Army)

There is a composer (played by Wladyslaw Sheyba in his screen debut) among the company that has been reduced to a platoon of the Polish Resistance 43 days in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 in “Kanal” (1957), the second of the trilogy of tragic movies about the Polish Resistance by Andrzej Wadja (between “A Generation” and “Ashes and Diamonds“). They stream by in the opening shot, with voice-over introduction that concludes with an exhortation to “watch them closely, for these are the last hours of their lives.”. Anyone with even a slight knowledge of the course of the Second World War knows that the Red Army had parked across the Vistula rather than aid the Poles’ insurrection against the occupying Nazis and waited for the Poles and Germans to kill as many of each other as they could. Those defending a bombed-out hill know that they are doomed as they take up positions with a small supply of ammunition.

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“Doom” is an abstraction. They expect to die defending a position that cannot be defended (the hill I mean), but nothing so noble as a Polish Thermopylae stand is ahead of them. After they repulse an attack in which the romantic lead, Jacek Kortab (Tadeusz Janczar), whom I recognized from “A Generation”) is wounded in a brave venture, Lt. Zadra (Wienczyslaw Glinski) is ordered to retreat and escape through the sewer system, an order that particularly enrages the hard-drinking Sgt. Kula (Tadeusz Gwiazdowski).

Impending doom in a position that is certain to be overrun is sometimes represented in war movies (and I’d bet that Stephen Spielberg remembered some set-ups from “A Generation” in making “Saving Private Ryan”), but there is nothing remotely heroic about dying like rats (literally in a rat habitat) in a vain attempt to retreat. There is absolutely none of the exhilaration of the chase through the Vienna sewer system of “The Third Man” in “Kanal.” Life in the sewers is nasty, brutish, and short with sewer gasses, the ordinary (less toxic) stench, and muck (carefully applied, to that the eyes of the actors stand out alarmingly).

The group gets separated, so that there are three groups wandering around lost. The only one who knows the way through the sewers, Daisy (Teresa Izewska) drags and coaxes Jacek to the planned exit point, but wounded, feverish, and exhausted, he is unable to climb up the tunnel. Viewers unfamiliar with the geography/history may find where they go melodramatic, but those who know them know the implicit message of that scene. These two are not the only ones to have melodramatic endings for their journey. Most everyone goes mad to some degree. Wherever there is light there is danger and/or ignominy. The scope for heroism is reduced to almost (but not quite) nothing.

I know that some people survived, because the film is based on the experiences of Jerzy Stefan Stawinski, who had been 24 at the time of the Warsaw Uprising. The second half of “Kanal” is uncompromisingly bleak. The first half is a “war film” above ground, but that there is an armed insurrection being annihilated becomes indistinct with the primal absurdity of trying to find a way out of the muck and confusion of the sewers. This is not what those who enjoy war movies want, even those willing to watch “the good guys” be overrun and die fighting (300 Spartans, Go Tell the Spartans, They Died with Their Boots On, etc.). It is not really an antiwar movie, either. It is 1950s-stylized existentialist absurdism set in a then-recent historical debacle.

The uprising was based on mistaken assumptions that aid would come from the Allies, both by air form England and on the ground from the nearby Red Army. Wajda’s 2004 interview of Jan Nowak-Jezioranski puts the background in perspective without “spoiling” the plot of this particular movie. A courier between the Polish government-in-exile in London and the Home Army (Polish Resistance) at the time, Nowak-Jezioranski, a master dialectician, explains a lot and finds two silver linings to a very dark cloud.

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I found the Wajda interview to the Criterion edition of A Generation useful for putting that movie in its historical context of how and when it was made. The Wajda interview (in which there are clips of the movie and some 2004 interview footage of Janusz Morgenstern (who was assistant director of “Kanal”), and critic Jerzy Plazewski in addition to Wajda) to the Criterion edition of “Kanal” is also very informative, but I would recommend watching it after watching the movie.

The Criterion transfer from the original negative is superb, allowing the viewer to see the clarity of Jerzy Lipman’s cinematography and seemingly infinite shades of gray. The (yellow) subtitles for the DVD are new and readable. There are also three galleries of production photos, publicity stills, and posters. It is another package for which Criterion deserves five stars.

The second half of the movie is so unpleasant to watch and the characters so much types rather than individuals (with the exception of the composer), that I’d be tempted to rate it a 3, despite Lipman’s bravura cinematography.

The movie is great for short-circuiting self-pity: Anyone who is able to watch a DVD is in as enviably good position in contrast to those in the movie!

BTW, I could not find even a hint of what the politics of the fighters was. “A Generation” was criticized for showing a leftist band (though, as I said in writing about it, in Lenin’s terms they were “infantile leftists” rather than disciplined revolutionaries). Polish viewers knew the Red Army was across the Vistula waiting for the insurrection to be put down, and a shot of the river was all the allusion they needed to remind them that the supposed “liberators” waited for the city to be destroyed and those who would rise up against foreign occupation to be eliminated. Somehow, Wajda was able to show one who had opposed Nazi occupation who engaged in a terrorist act against the Soviet-imposed regime in “Ashes and Diamonds,” another bleak but visually stylized portrayal of futility and absurd attempts at self-assertion.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray