A Bridge Too Far (1977)

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Fool’s courage. Operation Market Garden was the code name for the failed attempt to take the bridges around Arnhem in Holland as winter drew in during 1944. The Allies led by Montgomery and Eisenhower had the idea to power through to the damaged German factories on the Ruhr – and a combination of bloody mindedness, poor planning, bad luck and bad weather made it a pretty disastrous sortie and certainly did not end WW2 as anticipated.  The great Irish writer Cornelius Ryan’s stonking blockbuster books about the era yielded this (published in 1974) and Darryl F. Zanuck’s independent production The Longest Day (1962) and his brilliance as a journalist and investigative historian have cleared up a lot of myths about certain WW2 events, this not being the least of them. Both films have an A-Z list of stars in common but Richard Attenborough was the sole helmer here and William Goldman adapted the book, published in 1974.  General Browning (Dirk Bogarde, a real life WW2 soldier) is the man poised to lead Montgomery’s plan but when a doubting Private Wicks (Paul Copley) carries out an extra recce and supplies him with photos of concealed armoured German tanks in the area where the landing is planned he has him put out on sick leave. Bad idea. With seven days’ notice the paratroopers, infantry and air service both US and UK are sent in. It’s well set up with the Dutch underground – a father and son carry out some spying for the Brits on the Nazis assembled in the area – and the putting together of a team of doubting Thomas Allies with Sean Connery in particular being given some great moments as General Urquhart – confessing to air sickness before takeoff;  landing in a forest where the lunatics from the local asylum are literally laughing at him;  and in a lovely touch and a symmetrical moment after the disaster has happened, arriving at Browning’s Dutch HQ being greeted by geese – who are clearly laughing at him too. That’s good writing. Never mind the naysayers, and there have been a lot over the years amongst the critical posse, who probably wish this had had a very different outcome (don’t we all):  this is fiercely exciting, mordantly funny and has memorable moments of sheer bloody minded bravery, not least when James Caan pilots a jeep through a Nazi regiment with the body of a young captain he has promised he wouldn’t let die. If you’re not cheering at this then you’re not breathing, mate. Maximillian Schell is terrific as the German General who applauds his opponents’ courage and hands Anthony Hopkins a bar of chocolate upon capture. After he’s given the order to raze Arnhem. Thrilling, splendid and a history lesson we still need to learn – bad project management, not heeding early warnings and then stopping the Poles from parachuting in because of fog when it was too late to rescue those poor men who were being slaughtered by the thousand. And those bloody radio crystals. Why’d they bring the wrong ones when the drop zone was eight miles from the river? Sheesh. Exciting as hell. And with a bigger body count. Fantastic, with every Seventies star you could wish for, be they given ever so little but with a special mention to little known Paul Maxwell and Erik Van’t Wout. There is an absolutely iconic score by the great John Addison:  hear it and you know exactly where you are. What a shame Ryan didn’t live long enough to see it:  he died two months after the book was published. What a gentleman and scholar he was. His contribution to our knowledge is immense. Just the thing for a rainy summer’s day when you should be watching Wimbledon but they shunted it back by a fortnight. Again.

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Platoon (1986)

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I wasn’t in Nam. Hardly. The closest I ever got was playing Quasar and once being chased near Central Park West by an old one-legged vet on cheap wooden crutches. Maybe I reminded him of someone. But a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, this won a slew of Academy Awards. This being the season for it, time to pull it out again. And like the other big Nam movies – Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket – it’s pretty schematised in its design. But the letters that Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) writes home make it more personal and immersive because he’s so very young and idealistic (and ridiculously handsome) and in his first experience of ambush he’s pretty much responsible for his new friend’s death. It’s unbearably tense. The guys are stuck between the noble warrior Willem Dafoe and the deranged psycho Tom Berenger – characterised as the good and bad fathers, thus giving us Chris’ Freudian perspective on the drama. The final assault, a raid on the Cambodian border, is bloody and unbound. It’s gripping, gritty and tense, the juxtaposition between the scenes of combat and those of male bonding is masterful and the emotion not supplied by the action is there in the incredible score by Georges Delerue, with Barber’s Adagio for Strings touching the parts even he can’t reach: you won’t forget this quickly, its imagery sears the brain. Simply great filmmaking by that old tyro Oliver Stone, based on his own Nam and the first of his trilogy. Now, on the same subject entirely, where’s my copy of Hamburger Hill?

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

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Redemption. That’s the word that conjures the ambit of this film’s scope. The true story of conscientious objector Desmond Doss who rescued 75 colleagues on the eponymous battle site at Okinawa, a guy who enlisted in order to serve as a medic to redeem his own feelings of violence, because of almost killing his brother as a child, because of wanting to shoot his drunken WW1 vet father (Hugo Weaving) to stop his attacks on his mother (Rachel Griffiths), because of an obligation to serve his country and stand up for the values in which he believed. Andrew Garfield gives a heart-stopping, fully realised performance as the conflicted soldier and the film’s first hour delineates his family relationships, his meeting with the woman of his life, nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer) in the local hospital, and his awful training at the hands of a bullying Sergeant (Vince Vaughn), a tough Captain (Sam Worthington) and a bunch of fellows who like to beat the hell out of him. His Seventh Day Adventist beliefs lead him to a court martial but his father’s intervention with a former colleague saves the day. And he arrives in Japan. By 95 minutes we are entering the second wave of assaults and it is brutal and ferocious and horrifying. “They don’t care if they live or die,” exclaims one vet of the 96th whose battalion has basically been wiped out by the Japs. The action is reminiscent – inevitably – of Saving Private Ryan‘s opening sequence:  we are completely immersed  in a kind of hell with killings as unimaginable as have ever been put on screen. Doss and his mate Smitty (Luke Bracey) look out for each other – they’ve overcome their initial differences and bond at night, when Doss has a terrible nightmare. And then they go back in, and the results are awful. Doss hangs around, against all the odds, rescuing whoever he can.  He has prayed for help, not knowing any more if, as Dorothy accused him, his conscientious objection to combat is merely pride. He asks God for direction. So he saves lives. So many lives. One more, he keeps telling himself. One more. Written by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan, adapted from this incredible true story of one man’s courage, photographed by Simon Duggan, with a rousing score by Rupert Gregson-Williams, this is a return to the fold for Mel Gibson, the meta story at work here:  a man who burned a lot of boats in Hollywood is now in the running for Best Director awards and they are fully deserved. There is a bravery about bringing Christianity to the forefront of any film at present and it is remarkable that Garfield has been the lead in both outstanding recent releases. His performance here is more complete than in Silence thanks to the writing and the expansiveness of the explosive setting. Yet nothing feels forced or exceptional because every man is sharply written and there is a sense of bringing it all back home with the standout Australians in the cast (it was eventually co-financed through tax incentives there.) This story took a long time to reach the screen, with Audie Murphy expressing interest in it several decades ago, and Bing Crosby’s grandson Gregory eventually developing an  initial treatment. Randall Wallace took a pass at the screenplay at one point but you have to admit that this is just right: the right people making the right film at the right time. Quite remarkable.

Zoolander 2 (2016)

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Adam, Eve and … Steve. It’s a long time since we first met Derek and tried Blue Steel and social media appears to have radically filtered our narcissistic reality in the interim but this isn’t exactly Chanel No. 5 no matter how you cut the advertising. Justin Bieber never did anything to me but a lot of people enjoyed watching him getting machine gunned to death in the first few minutes. The setting in Rome is delectable. The cast are game. It’s a supremely silly satire about fashion vanity and everyone you have ever heard of is in it. YOU are probably in it. The story is about Fashion Interpol – run by Penelope Cruz – who get Derek and Hansel to help uncover the villain behind the assassination of pop stars. Derek finds his son in an orphanage and is horrified by his obesity. Hansel has fathered a bunch of children in Malibu (presumably an in-joke). Sting meets the irrelevant pair at St Peter’s and tells them an alternative tale of models’ origins which has a vague similarity to Christianity. Mugatu is back attempting world domination. Funny, daft, utterly inane. What did you expect?! Written by John Hamburg, Nicholas Stoller, Justin Theroux and Ben Stiller, who also directed.

The Planter’s Wife (1952)

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Aka Outpost in Malaya. Colonial pictures can present problems nowadays for the kind of people who wouldn’t dream of exiting their own parish for a pint of milk. But if you know anyone who settled anywhere more than a day’s travel away, you’ll know it’s never easy and it’s often done for reasons that are simply not relevant these days:  duty, opportunity, adventure, a desire for the exotic. Not a gap year, more a life choice. This was originally going to be called White Blood (a reference to liquid rubber) but that title was rejected by the Colonial Office (it was a thing – until 1966) on the basis that it could incite racial problems. It’s not often we see one of these stories set in the Malay peninsula and this is set in the Emergency that started in 1948 between the Commonwealth forces and the terrorist wing of the local Communist Party. Claudette Colbert and Jack Hawkins are under pressure with the local bandits threatening their livelihood – and lives – as rubber planters. Parents to a small boy, Mike (Peter Asher of Peter & Gordon fame), it’s time for him to go back to England to boarding school and Colbert thinks she’ll go with him and leave her husband for good. A local policeman (Anthony Steel) urges her not to bring Hawkins with her or her marriage will really be dead in the water. They give a sympathetic Malay a lift to town and he’s murdered after the Brits arm him;  then the plantation comes under sustained attack, Colbert uses a gun and the tension is non-stop until a lot of people are killed as the family are under siege. A neighbour/rival reluctantly calls for help but it takes a long time to come … A surprisingly violent and engrossing outing with some very exciting scenes, one of the best involving a cobra and Mr Mangles, Mike’s mongoose;  and Colbert using a Bren gun. (A sight I never thought I’d see. She was delighted to get the opportunity, and allegedly became very useful with small arms.) Based on the novel by Sidney Charles George which was adapted by Guy Elmes and Peter Proud and directed by Ken Annakin. It’s well edited by Alfred Roome and the cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth camouflages the fact that it was most of it was made at Pinewood with a second unit shooting in Malaya, Malacca, Singapore and Ceylon. Bill Travers and Don Sharp, who would become a noted writer and director, have uncredited roles as soldiers.

 

Viva Maria! (1965)

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Never did terrorists look lovelier than here, in Louis Malle’s subversive take on the buddy movie with Brigitte Bardot an IRA activist teaming up in Mexico with vaudeville performer Jeanne Moreau and getting more popular as they incorporate stripping into their musical act. They fall for the revolutionary leader Flores (George Hamilton) and join him and his comrades in trying to overthrow the regime of El Dictador (Jose Angel Espinoza). When Flores is shot Maria 1 (JM) agrees to fulfill his deathbed desire and the Marias organise a peasant army …  Malle instructed writer Jean-Claude Carriere to incorporate the tropes of the action adventure and westerns like Vera Cruz, just with female protaganists and financing was finalised only with Moreau’s participation. The two ladies got on very well together during a 16 week shoot on location and this was a huge hit in its day.  Hamilton is excellent as their male foil leading Malle to wonder why he didn’t act more. The cinematography by the great Henri Decae is sublime and Georges Delerue supplies a suitably gorgeous score. The laughs never quit!

War Dogs (2016)

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Comic auteur Todd (Hangover) Phillips doing a serious analysis of arms dealing in the Iraq conflict? Well … not so much. Arms and the Dudes was a Rolling Stone story about two supposedly clueless twentysomethings out of Miami who vacuumed up the crumbs of the US Army’s defence contracts and made a mint until their attempts to cover up ammo from China (literally – by rebagging them) caught them out when their Albanian contractor called the State Dept after their infighting left him without a payroll. Miles Teller is David, a college dropout with a pregnant girlfriend under pressure to earn more money than his private massages yield. Jonah Hill is his old friend and aspiring wheeler-dealer Efraim who needs help exploiting a gap in the defence market by the expedient of watching an Army provisions website. The story is set up like a comedy but with Scarface references (it’s the poster over Efraim’s desk and his drug intake is Montana-prodigious). There is a very funny sequence when they have to go to the Triangle of Death in Iraq to get their first delivery to its intended destination. This is expertly done with the amount of threat, humour and action you know Phillips delivers well. When they want to land a life-changing contract they head to Vegas (where else would arms dealers meet?) and encounter a very familiar figure (I was surprised, not having read any spoiler reviews) who can give them everything they need but he’s on a watchlist and they have to go to Albania to carry it through. The story is fatally wounded by David’s narration which is done as a serious commentary instead of a self-deprecating series of enlightening witticisms. (Teller was presumably cast to appeal to the youth market. Bad move. He’s about as funny as a funeral and his naif act is not a patch on Ray Liotta in Goodfellas.) His girlfriend is a wuss. The baby sentimentalises things too. So although this is a satisfying exercise in many ways we needed more fun, less moralising: when Efraim fires a machinegun in Albania like a gangster, that’s the real deal. And with this much money around and Efraim involved, you know there’s a stitch up on the cards. Jonah Hill is really good.  If this had had the courage of its convictions and weaponised the facts, it might have been great.

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

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The Great Escape. The Guns of Navarone. Where Eagles Dare. And this. This is what Friday night was for when I was a kid. And boy does it still work. Major Lee Marvin gathers a bunch of psychopaths headed for the gallows or life imprisonment to do One Last Job in preparation for D-Day, a raid on a French chateau where members of Nazi command are hanging out. A kind of OSS for nut jobs is produced. Adapted from EM Nathanson’s novel by Nunnally Johnson, this was rewritten by Lukas Heller for director Robert Aldrich, with some major alterations which might or might not have been a good idea. Nonetheless, this crowdpleaser is violent, fiercely funny, nasty, brutish and nihilistic in equal measure and never less than vastly entertaining. There is something to offend everyone as they are recruited, trained and then unleashed. Thank goodness for that!

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

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If you don’t like this, there’s a high probability that you’re either dead or German (preferably both) and you definitely hate Top Gear. So stop reading now. This, like The Great Escape and The Guns of Navarone, is the only litmus test for a common humanity amongst right-thinking viewers. The story of Allied agents trying to break into a castle (Schloss Adler) held by the Nazis to break out a British colonel, it has Eastwood and Burton and Mary Ure working their way into the fortress to stop losing headway on the planned D-Day landings.  Or … something else???? Twisty Twister McTwisted! Fabulous stunts, great scenery, terrifying cable-car scenes, amazing tension, wonderful action. Just what you want, really, from a film. Another reminder that the prolific Alistair MacLean wrote brilliant books. Happy New Year.