Tagged: war film

In the Fog (V tumane, Germany-Netherlands-Belarus-Russia-Latvia 2012)

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No way out

It’s not surprising that the non-propaganda war films that came out of the Soviet Union, and come out of the former Soviet Union (in this instance Belarus), are particularly brutal in their representations. As The Unwomanly Face of War (1985) by Svetlana Alexievich details, the reality of war was virtually unimaginable depravity and, as the eastern European war was particularly a territorial battle, it was a fertile ground for ‘hell on earth’. British and American movies, at least, tend to emphasise heroism and, in the case of the former, contribute to the myth of British exceptionalism; a myth that’s been shown for what it’s worth during the current pandemic. Indeed, the recent VE day celebrations erased the Soviet contribution as if they had never been allies. The extreme right wing newspaper, the Daily Mail, even called the day ‘Victory over Europe’ somewhat ironic as, before the war, it was on the side of Hitler and no doubt would be today.

Director Sergey Loznitsa adapted Vasily Bykov’s novel which focuses on the consequences of an act of sabotage against the occupying Nazis. It was Loznitsa’s second film as director; he’s probably better known for Maidan (Ukraine-Netherlands, 2014) that documented the uprising in the Ukraine. In the Fog did compete for the Palmes d’Or at Cannes and although the tension sags occasionally it’s a fascinating film (available until May 23 on the Kino Klassika website).

The film’s narrative unveils itself through a series of flashbacks (although there is one scene that I cannot fit into the narrative at all; I must have missed something) that piece together how we come to the opening situation where Burov (Vladislav Abashin), a partisan, has come to punish Sushenya (Vladimir Svirskiy). This is preceded by a virtuoso long take, hand held camera through the village where the Nazis are staging an execution. The characters are taciturn, seemingly doing ‘what a man’s got to do’; what is striking about Alexievich’s book is how different the women she interviewed dealt with their war experiences compared to men who had sunk into silence. Sushenya, even though he does eventually explain what happened, knows that words are useless and he’s as trapped as Josef K is in The Trial.

Oleg Mutu’s cinematography captures to glorious beauty of the forest but I found the night time scenes less credible. Other than the uncinematic virtual darkness, night time in the countryside is incredibly hard to film; however, even taking that into account, I kept expecting to see an arc light appear in the scene: it was distracting.

That didn’t distract from the power of the film and its central metaphor: the fog of war. In Errol Morris’ documentary of that title (full title: The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, US, 2003) the US Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War candidly explained his reasoning for the brutality of war. Whether you agreed with him or not probably depends upon your political orientation but the fog our protagonists deal with is not abstract, they are in it. In the UK, many on the right are telling teachers to ‘be brave’ and go back to school (Private Schools, which the elite attend, are shut until September): keyboard warriors happy to have others take the risk. In the Fog firmly places the spectator in the nightmare ensuring the film speaks to our emotions.

The Cruel Sea (UK 1953)

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The mental scars of war

As a kid I saw many British war movies from the 1950s, World War II loomed over my generation as it had had a great impact on our parents, and no doubt they inculcated me with a belief that the British are the best. Maybe Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees Mog and their ilk watched too many war movies too but have never grown up. The genre requires many stiff upper lips in the face of adversity and there’s plenty of that in The Cruel but also, strikingly, tears from the hero (Jack Hawkins) as a consequence of his necessary killing of British seamen. Apparently the producer Michael Balcon and director Charles Frend had doubts about the scene; it does stand out against the conventions of the time.

Less worthy is the film’s treatment of the working classes: the faithful efficient types are there but Stanley Baker’s first lieutenant is shown to be far too uppity (and drunk) – he was a used car salesman in ‘civvy street’ – so he has to be dispensed with by the narrative. Women exist only as a virgin-whore dichotomy: Virginia McKenna’s nice girl vs. Moira Lister’s promiscuous show-biz wife.

Charles Frend had directed documentaries during the war, for example San Demetrio London(1943), as well as propaganda fiction films, such as The Foreman Went to France (1942), so he knew his onions. Documentary footage of sea battles – the film mostly focuses on ‘the battle of the Atlantic’ – are used but only serve to show up the weakness of the model work. To cavil about the (relatively) poor special effects misses the point; the film succeeds in giving us a sense of how terrifying the experience must have been. Frend also goes for some distinctive close-ups of characters to reveal their inner turmoil.

The ‘fifties cycle of war films can be seen as reassuring audiences of Britain’s greatness as it divested itself of the Empire and lost its preeminent position in world affairs (memo to Farage et. al.: ‘we no longer have an Empire’). The films celebrated the extraordinary war time effort but The Cruel Sea, at its conclusion, also reminds us of the futility of war when rescued German seaman are described as being ‘no different to us’ and Hawkins’ commander comments that they’d only sunk two U-boats in five years as they sail past numerous captured vessels.

The film was a box office hit, did good business in America, and made a star of Hawkins.

The Intruder (UK 1953)

There were many British films of the 1950s that referenced the 1939-45 war and its aftermath. For several reasons they’ve attracted negative coverage from many film historians, scholars and critics, much of it unwarranted. One misconception is that they are all similar. This particular example is from a sub-genre dealing with the ‘returning soldier’. In this specific grouping there are some interesting films which also draw on other genres/categories, especially film noir melodramas such as Mine Own Executioner (1947) and Cage of Gold (1950). Others drew on noir crime stories like They Made Me a Fugitive (1947). The Intruder isn’t quite the crime drama its title suggests, though there are crime elements in the mix. Neither is it a melodrama, though there is a kind of surrogate father-son relationship at its centre. It is a strange mixture of drama with a couple of comic sequences – a combination that IMDb implies was a feature of the work of Guy Hamilton, best known for his war pictures and later James Bond/Harry Palmer films. This was just his second directorial venture, working on Robin Maugham’s adaptation of his own novel.

Jack Hawkins as Col. Merton with George Baker as a junior officer

The film begins with stockbroker Wolf Merton playing golf. A wayward shot takes Merton’s ball off the course and into a scrapyard where later Hammer favourite Michael Ripper is cutting up war-time tanks. We will soon learn that Merton was a Colonel of a tank regiment. When he gets home (in Central London) he surprises a burglar (the ‘intruder’ of the title) who turns out to be one his men he hasn’t seen for seven years. Before he can reason with ‘Ginger’ Edwards (Michael Medwin), the young man runs off, taking Merton’s revolver. At this point we get the first of several flashbacks to wartime incidents and we realise that Edwards was a brave soldier who looked out for his mates. We also sense that Merton (Jack Hawkins) was a successful leader of men and that he was well aware of Edwards’ qualities. He determines to track Edwards down and find out why he has turned to crime. The film’s narrative thus becomes a succession of meetings with a group of men who were in the same unit, building up to a final showdown when Merton will again confront Edwards.

Merton with Ginger (Michael Medwin)

I enjoyed The Intruder. It looks good with photography by Ted Scaife and Maugham’s story ideas are strong (he later wrote the novel The Servant adapted by Harold Pinter for for Joe Losey). The ending is rather abrupt and may not satisfy everyone but that could be a budget problem. As it is, the film is a brisk 84 minutes into which a drama with plenty of action and several characters’ stories are inserted. The film was made by British Lion at Shepperton and received a circuit release in ABC cinemas. The cast is strong with Hawkins that year also leading in the biggest British film of the year The Cruel Sea. Hawkins is both the genuine star of the film and possibly an indicator of some of the problems for older audiences now. Throughout the 1950s, Hawkins’ gruff but almost avuncular authority figure inhabited similar roles in Army, Navy and Air Force officer roles as well as Police Superintendents/Commanders etc. Occasionally he could be less avuncular and much tougher as in The Cruel Sea and sometimes he could ‘go wrong’ as in The League of Gentlemen (1960). We soon know who he is in The Intruder which does diminish his impact a little – but he’s such a good actor he’s always worth watching.

Dora Bryan as an ENSA girl with Arthur Howard as a would-be tank crew member in a comic interlude

We also know who everyone else is, partly because we’ve seen them in later films. So, when we see Arthur Howard as a soldier in the Pay Corps we aren’t at all surprised that in civvy street he is a dotty schoolteacher, since in 1956 he began to appear on TV in the sitcom Whack-O! as a dotty public school teacher in the Jimmy Edwards series. Similarly, a young George Cole, like Howard and Dora Bryan as an ENSA ( girl, is in a comedy sequence (ENSA put on entertainment shows for the troops) and Dennis Price is a slimy and cowardly officer who becomes an equally creepy businessman (who keeps the title ‘Captain’ much to Merton’s disgust). I’m not sure if the comedy sequences really work in the context of the drama but the George Cole routine is used to show up the class divide in the army (Cole’s character is an enlisted man who is commissioned by Merton). When we do get to find out what started the trouble for Ginger, it too has an element of social commentary. So, I think overall, The Intruder works as a worthwhile ‘war aftermath’ picture. I won’t spoil the narrative, only point out that there is no indication of whether Merton has been married or has always been single and Ginger’s story could be related to Merton’s own story if there was more narrative space to explore such ideas. But there is quite enough there already. Enjoy The Intruder on Talking Pictures TV, Network DVD or Amazon Prime.

Sirk #5: Battle Hymn (US 1957)

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Battle Hymn is the film that probably puzzles Douglas Sirk fans more than any other. It’s a biopic of an unusual American military hero who was also a minister for an Ohio church. Though the film’s script doesn’t follow the story of Colonel Dean Hess with absolute fidelity, Hess was constantly on set and was able to veto the casting of Robert Mitchum (thought unsuitable because of his reputation – for smoking dope?) in this part-biopic. This presence reportedly drove Sirk to distraction because it prevented him going further in departing from the script.

Hess joined the USAAF after Pearl Harbour and, in a ground attack role in Germany, accidentally bombed an orphanage killing 37 children. The film suggests that the terrible memory of this incident caused Hess to return to active service in 1950 in order to train pilots for the Republic of Korea (i.e. the South Korean) airforce. The training took place close to the front line and Hess then became involved in rescuing several hundred Korean orphans/refugees caught up in the fighting. Later Hess used the proceeds from his successful autobiographical book and its film adaptation (both were released in 1957) to build a new orphanage in South Korea.

Battle Hymn is a Technicolor/CinemaScope epic starring Rock Hudson in the lead role as Hess. Drenched in a soupy score to enhance the religiosity of many scenes, Battle Hymn is as resolutely conventional as its plotline implies. It even begins with a propagandist throwback – an introduction to the film by the Air Force General commanding during the Korean War. Sirk had nothing to do with this and claimed that he had never seen it. But why did he agree to direct the film?

Production still of Rock Hudson with Korean orphans flown to the US for the shoot.

Production still of Rock Hudson with Korean orphans flown to the US for the shoot.

Sirk’s testimony in Jon Halliday’s interviews with him is quite revealing about his complex relationship with Hollywood. First he says that he liked working with children and that he was attracted to the idea of working with the Korean children (which he concedes might be because of their ‘foreigness’). Linked to this is his interest in Korean and Japanese culture. It is this which initially gets him interested in the story when he meets a Korean military attaché and then the notorious Korean President Syngman Rhee, whose wife turned out to be Austrian (and who enjoyed speaking German with the director). Although the film appears to have been shot in Arizona, Sirk did get out to Korea and Japan and Hess himself flew Sirk over North Korea at one point. This combination of children/Korean culture/German culture and flying was very attractive to Sirk. Unfortunately, the film also came with ‘front office’ interest, a sizeable budget and Rock Hudson (by now a major star). Sirk could see in the script the possibility of exploring yet again a complex character – a man with religious beliefs who could invest his energy in the seemingly opposite pursuits of killing the enemy and saving the children. Sirk wanted to emphasise this by finding a visual/dramatic expression of this split personality. He toyed with the idea of making Hess a drinker but the real Hess fought against this and his presence on set was enough to force Sirk to abandon the idea. Sirk also suggests that Rock Hudson should not have played the role. Instead it should have gone to an actor like Robert Stack who could represent this ‘duality’ more convincingly. It seems a little pat to suggest that only a few months after completing Written on the Wind and not long before The Tarnished Angels, Sirk would contemplate repeating the Hudson-Stack pairing in some way, but that might be the case. There are also two moments/two aspects of the script which intriguingly look forward to future Sirk projects – and two of his best films.

James Edwards as Lt. Maples during the sequence when he is given the wrong target.

James Edwards as Lt. Maples during the sequence when he is given the wrong target.

‘Hess’ is a German name and the character explains to his church deacon that his bombing of the orphanage in Germany was even more painful because of his grandmother’s memories of the area. This is yet another twist to the back story of this complex character (who is known to his old buddies from 1944-5 as ‘Killer Hess’). A year after making Battle Hymn, Sirk would go to Germany to make a film based on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel A Time to Live and a Time to Die (the title being slightly changed). In 1959, Sirk’s last Hollywood film was Imitation of Life and Sirk had long had a fascination with what he called the ‘race question’. In Battle Hymn he cast (I’m assuming he had some say in the matter) James Edwards, one of the pioneering Black actors in Hollywood in the 1950s, as Lt. Maples, one of the American pilots selected to help train the Koreans. This was a major coup for Hollywood (though it didn’t signal a breakthrough in better roles for Black actors). As recent films like Red Tails (2012) have depicted, the American Air Forces were segregated in the Second World War. Segregation in US Armed Forces didn’t end until an order from Harry Truman was issued in 1948, so the action in Korea in 1950 was barely into the new era. Battle Hymn emphasises Edwards’ role as Lt. Maples with two incidents. First, he is ordered to attack a target that later turns out to be a truck full of children – finding himself responsible for children’s deaths just as Hess had done in Germany. Later, when he has volunteered to help to look after the children on the base, he sings what was then known as a ‘negro spiritual’ song to them, ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’. To Sirk’s credit, the film at least includes the Maples character in the central narrative.

The other notable aspect of Battle Hymn is its focus on the rescue of the children. This chimes with a cycle of similar post-war films in several countries, including The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (UK 1958) in which Ingrid Bergman played a British woman missionary escorting 100 children to safety in China during the Japanese invasion in the 1930s. The rescue mixes with the biopic narrative to create a Hollywood storyline but the popularity of the film (to the relief of Universal no doubt) also depended on the aerial sequences which are well handled by Sirk and his crew.

1864 (Denmark-Norway-Sweden-Germany 2014)

Marie Tourell Søderberg as Inge in 1864 (photo by Per Arnesen)

Marie Tourell Søderberg as Inge in 1864 (photo by Per Arnesen)

The latest Danish serial to be broadcast in the UK is a historical drama focusing on the ‘Schleswig-Holstein Question’ and its aftermath. I remember studying this as part of British and European political history at school but it is only more recently that I’ve begun to appreciate what a major event the loss of these two provinces was for the Danish state and the Danish people. The serial is being broadcast over four Saturdays with two 57 minute episodes each week. I’m reacting to the first two episodes here but I hope to return once the serial is completed.

To get the history out of the way first, the geopolitics of Northern Europe in the mid-19th century focused on Schleswig, the area of southern Jutland that now straddles the Danish-German border. Along with Holstein to the South, the Duchy of Schleswig had traditionally been ruled by Danish kings even though the two duchies were not officially part of Denmark. In 1849 a new ‘Democratic Constitution’ in Denmark raised the question of sovereignty in the two duchies and the Danes sought to uphold their rights. In 1851 the First Schleswig War ended with the Danes defeating the Prussians, but in 1864 they faced the new Prussian First Minister Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck used the dispute over the two duchies that followed the death of the Danish King in 1863 to force a Second Schleswig War in which the Danes were defeated by the combined forces of the German Confederation and Austria. The Danish-speaking region of Northern Schleswig was returned to Denmark in 1920 but otherwise Denmark was reduced to its current size after the defeat of 1864.

Why was Schlewsig-Holstein so important? It had great strategic importance located at the ‘crossroads’ of trade, East-West and North-South. Russia and the UK were major powers concerned about trade routes and about the growing power of Prussia under Bismarck. Bismarck in turn saw the possibility of a ‘practice war’ for German military development. During the 1850s Denmark moved towards a ‘constitutional monarchy’ and gradually became reconciled to the major loss of territories in Scandinavia and the Baltic over the previous two centuries in a succession of wars with Sweden, losing control over Norway in 1814. With industrialisation arriving in the latter half of the 19th century the Second Schleswig War could be argued to mark the beginning of ‘modern Denmark’. 1864 is thus a ‘national popular’ celebration of a defeat which started the long development towards contemporary prosperity. That’s a huge task for any drama but it’s significant that Danish TV’s biggest budget has been trusted to a filmmaker with strong ideas. Ole Bornedal has written and directed the whole serial (with a co-writer for some episodes).

The serial is being broadcast in something like 2.0:1 (on my TV it looks like ‘Scope) and it has a genuine cinematic feel. Certainly in Episode 2 I felt that I was watching a costume/action film rather than a UK style ‘TV costume drama’. It helps that this isn’t a literary adaptation and that Bornedal has a free hand in constructing the narrative. Lots of money and a free hand isn’t always a good thing, however. I realise that I have seen at least one of Bornedal’s films – Just Another Love Story (Denmark 2007) – and that was both highly derivative but also full of energy and panache. It isn’t surprising then that 1864 adopts some familiar ‘tropes’ of contemporary film and television. The ‘national moment’ is explored through the device of a modern young woman reading the diaries of her equivalent in the 1850s to an elderly survivor of the Danish land-owning classes. Inge in the 1850s was the daughter of an Estate Manager and her two closest friends as a child are a tenant farmer’s sons. They will go off to war in 1864. The narrative will also follow the wild landowner’s son (the terrific Pilou Asbaek) and various leading political figures in Denmark (plus Otto von Bismarck and his family). Most intriguingly we are also offered the soft power of the leading Danish actress of the period Johanne Louise Heiberg (Sidse Babett Knudsen).

This is a serial and the first episode has to work hard to set up characters and situations. For me the story came to life in Episode 2, especially with the arrival of a group of Romany travellers on the estate. There is an obvious reference to contemporary migration just as there is a link via the young men going into the army in 1863 and Danish involvement in Afghanistan more recently. The serial jumps between 1851, 1863-4 and the present and it has been attacked in Denmark for ‘inauthenticity’, ‘political correctness’, ‘propaganda’ etc. I would expect nothing less – it is intended to be a ‘national story’. On the other hand, I don’t know what to expect from UK audiences. What I do know is that at times it reminded me of both European cinema and Hollywood depictions of the same period. It’s worth remembering that the main events occur at a time when the American Civil War was at its height. A barn dance/harvest supper at the end of Episode 2 made me think back to my two recent viewings of Far From the Maddening Crowd and also of John Ford films like The Searchers (1956). And, of course, the recent ‘Danish Western’ The Salvation (2014) featured two Danish brothers who migrated to the US after they fought in the Second Schleswig War. I’m delighted to have two hours of watchable TV for a month but I’ll reserve judgment on the serial until it is completed.

Private Peaceful (UK 2012)

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This was the latest film screened as part of the series WWI Through the Lens at the Hyde Park Picture House. On this occasion the University Students organising the series had arranged an exhibition before the film of WWI military equipment with explanatory notes. This included a soldier’s gas mask, later seen in one of the trench sequences in the film. There was also a short talk from the University Legacy Project. The speaker talked about two Leeds people involved in the WWI conflict. Horace enrolled in the army at 14 years and by 16 years was dead, killed on the Western Front. Mary was more fortunate; she enrolled in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corp, survived the war and benefited from a government-assisted passage to Canada.

The feature film told a story closer to that of Horace. Private Peaceful was adapted from a novel by Michael Morpurgo, who also wrote War Horse. This British feature was a long way from the adaptation of the latter novel by Stephen Spielberg. This film has a ring of authenticity, avoided over sentimentality, and enjoyed a rich roster of characters.

The two key protagonists are brothers, Tommo (George Mackay) and Charlie (Jack O’Connell, recruited again into the British army for the recent ’71). They are bought up in a rural setting in Devon, and when their father dies, by their strong minded mother Hazel (Maxine Peake). Later both enrol in the army and see service on the Western Front. It is here that the drama develops with a court-martial and subsequent execution. This is, of course, the territory of Paths of Glory (1957) and King and Country (1964).

The film opens in 1916 and then a series of flashbacks take us back to 1908. We see the experiences of the family suffering from economic deprivation and harsh landlords. Both personal disappointment and peer pressures lead to their enlistment. The film offers a rather sceptical representation of the patriotic values that were rife in the early stages of the conflict.

The picture of rural exploitation is entirely convincing as are the scenes of front line action that follow. Necessarily the plotting revisits situations and tropes familiar from other films set during this conflict. But the cinematographer, Jerzy Zielinski, does manage a distinctive palette for the scenes of wartime activity. This is partly due to the film including battle scenes set in Flanders from the early months of the war: many films focus on the later stages.

I did have one problem with the film, the plotting of the brothers’ experiences and the flashbacks. However, I checked out the novel and the film was faithfully following that in the book. I do not think it works as effectively on film though: in the book we read the voiced memories of Tommo. In the film these occupy the flashbacks and the literal depiction that one commonly gets in cinema made them seem [to me] rather contrived.

Morpurgo records in an afterword to the book that 290 British soldiers died by firing squad. The student notes for the film recorded that this was out of a total of about 3,000 court-martials. I am somewhat sceptical about the former figure. In Ken Loach’s memorable Days of Hope1916: Joining Up (BBC 1976) there is an example of the ‘informal’ style of execution practised by the British military. And the interesting television series The Monocled Mutineer (BBC 1986) recorded [without sufficient details] the violence inflicted on soldiers celebrating through rebellion the Great Soviet Revolution of 1917. There is an interesting sequence in Private Peaceful where the discussion of the ordinary soldiers pre-figures the type of ‘fragging’ that occurred during the US military aggression in Vietnam. But that feeds into an overall tone which is ant-military and anti-high command rather than critically opposing the whole rationale of the conflict. In the same way Charlie, before the war, expresses inchoate class antagonism to the landed gentry, but it does not achieve the coherence of the class and anti-war stance in Days of Hope.

The series is to continue with Oh What a Lovely War (1969 – in May): Paths of Glory (in June): and in July a film titled 120 (2008). The last is a Turkish film set during World War I on the Russian front alongside Armenia and what was then Persia.