In Which We Serve (1942)

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This is the story of a ship. After the dive-bomb sinking of the destroyer HMS Torrin during the Battle of Crete in 1941, the ship’s survivors including Captain Kinross (Noël Coward), Chief Petty Officer Hardy (Bernard Miles) and Seaman Blake (John Mills) of the Royal Navy recall their tour of duty in flashback – including Dunkirk and their life under the Blitz – while awaiting rescue in lifeboats.  They are still being strafed by German aeroplanes as they cling onto a Carley float in the open waters of the Mediterranean … Inspired by the experiences of Lord Louis Mountbatten, his friend actor and playwright Noël Coward made his directing debut, co-directing with editor David Lean. It’s an outstanding piece of propaganda, delineating the class differences between the different levels of serviceman with Coward a model of condescension, carefully creating scenes designed to unify people. Brilliantly stirring piece of nation-building with a marvellous score and Mills beginning a long career as the embodiment of British Everyman. Shot by Ronald Neame, edited by Lean with Thelma Connell and narrated by Leslie Howard. Shoot when you see the whites of their eyes!

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The Wild Bunch (1969)

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If they move… kill ’em! In 1913, ageing outlaw Pike Bishop (William Holden) prepares to retire after one final botched robbery on the Mexican border. Joined by his gang, including Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine) and brothers Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector Gorch (Ben Johnson), Bishop discovers the heist is a setup orchestrated in part by his old partner, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) now a ruthless mercenary. They’ve wound up with washers, not silver. As the remaining gang cross the Rio Grande and take refuge in Mexican territory, Thornton trails them, resulting in their taking on a suicide mission if ever there were one – as they are engaged by double-crossing Mexican General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) to hijack a stash of guns from a train while he fights Pancho Villa under the military guidance of a German Commander (Fernando Wagner) on the eve of WW1 … This was going to be my last.  Sublime filmmaking from one of the iconoclasts of American cinema, Sam Peckinpah, who wrote the screenplay with Walon Green, the writer of the original story with Roy N. Sickner.  The titles sequence with scorpions tells us that this will be so much more than your regular western:  it’s a meditation on masculinity, ageing, violence, warfare and revenge.  Like all of Peckinpah’s genre work its focus is on the male in a hostile environment and it abounds in visual style with Peckinpah and cinematographer Lucien Ballard using multiple camera setups and different film speeds to accentuate the conflict between the old and the new, mythology and modernity. They demonstrate that there can be honour among thieves, if it is of a singularly macho variety. There is also friendship, pragmatism, humour and resignation.  The final shootout is glorious. This is one of the crowning achievements in cinema. Walk softly, boys

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

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Someday we might look back on this and decide that saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole godawful, shitty mess. Like you said, Captain, maybe we do that, we all earn the right to go home.  Following the Normandy landings of June 1944 Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) takes his men of the 2nd Ranger battalion behind enemy lines to find Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) a paratrooper whose three brothers have been killed in combat. Surrounded by the brutal realities of war, while searching for Ryan each man embarks upon a personal journey and discovers their own strength to triumph over an uncertain future with honor, decency and courage… Robert Rodat’s men on a mission script has the classic features of the WW2 combat movie – a selection of guys or types from all walks of life with their own business and point of view and declamatory lines. But the first thirty minutes constitute probably the best fighting scene ever put on film:  a literally visceral evocation of the beach landings with things you’ll wonder any man could have survived.  There are images that are seared on the brain. It’s a wholly immersive set up and utterly shocking, as real as you’ll ever want a war to be.  Then the film cannily shifts in tone, content and performance from sequence to sequence ranging from the subtle to the spectacular both in terms of visuals and narrative as the story hook about the military’s single survivor policy kicks in and has its ripple effect on this battalion of soldiers reluctantly tramping across France who seem like a proper cross-section of society:  Tom Sizemore, Ed Burns, Adam Goldberg, Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel.  Spielberg said he wanted the kind of faces he saw in WW2 newsreels … and they work out their individual and collective issues under sniper fire and figure out what matters and try to keep going. The film has been lauded for its accuracy but some don’t like the dramatic coda.  That doesn’t matter. Hanks is brilliant as the heart and soul of the outfit. When he is on the verge of hysteria at the enveloping chaos and confusion we are on the edge of our seats, with him. The horrors of war are never hidden from the audience.  We get different perspectives – religious, personal, intellectual, about the rights and wrongs of bloody and vengeful action. It’s been a day of historical and war movies for me but I started out with Spielberg’s latest (Ready Player One) and I’ve concluded with this, one of the best WW2 films of them all, a stunning and perfectly judged achievement on every level because he is a director who can tell more in one frame than some directors can in entire scenes. Astonishing. MM#1700

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

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I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I’ve still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. And I want to help you.  An imposing black structure provides a connection between the past and the future. When Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and other astronauts are sent on a mysterious mission to investigate an object hidden beneath the lunar surface their ship’s computer system, HAL, begins to display increasingly strange behavior, leading up to a tense showdown between man and machine that results in a mind-bending trek through space and time… One of the great auteur works that has the courage to make an intellectual (and visual) leap that would elude lesser writers and filmmakers. Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of Arthur C. Clarke’s story The Sentinel (they wrote the novel and screenplay simultaneously in their unique collaboration) has not lost its oddly intimate power and remains the benchmark for everything that followed in science fiction with its take on evolution and man’s relationship to the universe.  The Star Gate sequence, zero gravity scenes and visual effects are transcendent. Kubrick abandoned Alex North’s commissioned score for the existing recordings of classical music which he had used for the guide track. A film of utter audacity.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

 

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No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing. Due to his knowledge of the native Bedouin tribes, British Army Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is sent to Arabia to find Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) and serve as liaison between the Arabs and the British in their fight against the Turks. With the aid of the native Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), Lawrence rebels against the orders of his superior officer and strikes out on a daring camel journey across the harsh desert to attack a well-guarded Turkish port… The greatest film ever made? Probably. One of my more shocking cinematic excursions was to see this at London’s Odeon Marble Arch when it was re-released in a new print:  I hared to the early evening screening, thought I was incredibly late when I got my ticket because the foyer was deserted, ran upstairs two steps at a time and took my seat. And realised I was the only person there. This is one of the most feverishly protagonist-led narratives you will ever see, by which I mean that what you are seeing is the world created by Lawrence, whether or not it is true to The Seven Pillars of Wisdom or the entire facts of the matter or the man.  Like Psycho, everything in it exists to explain his perspective, his character, his essence. And it starts so shockingly, in a way that horrified me when I first saw it on TV one afternoon when I was probably nine years old:  his death in an English country lane on a summer’s day on a motorcycle. This frames an action adventure rooted in archaeology, espionage, politics, propaganda and the division of the vast desert lands and their warring tribes into convenient nation-states. It’s a narrative that is free of women but includes issues of homosexuality and torture. It uses the trope of the journalist Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy) rewriting history as it is being made. It is filled with imagery that pulses through your brain – the arrival of Ali across the shimmering sands;  the (literal) match cut;  Lawrence shot from below in his white Arabic robes, stalking the hijacked train;  the magical appearance of water. I watch this on a regular basis and get lost in it every time. It’s extraordinary, arresting, brilliant, startling, stunning. O’Toole is utterly luminous as this complex man. Blacklisted Michael Wilson and British screenwriter Robert Bolt did drafts of the script and it may not be entirely historically accurate but it is true. Shot by Freddie Young, scored by Maurice Jarre, directed by David Lean. Magnificent. Happy Birthday to me.

The Colditz Story (1955)

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Escaping’s verboten, isn’t it? Allied prisoners of war who have tried to escape from other POW camps in Germany are sent of Oflag IV-C Colditz, a castle in Saxony which is the most secure holding place for the repeat offenders. At first, the different nationalities try to initiate their own independent escape plans, but these cause friction and conflict with the French tunnel collapsing on the British one and every escape being stopped by the Germans. Eventually, Colonel Richmond (Eric Portman), the Senior British Officer, steps in and suggests co-operation between the different contingents via the appointment of a number of Escape Officers:  Pat Reid (John Mills) represents the British. An agreement is reached and co-ordinated escape plans are set in motion. But soon, these too fail via early detection by the German guards. Eventually, a spy is discovered amongst the Polish captives and, after his removal, escape plans run more smoothly.  The prisoners of Colditz are high-spirited and eager to needle the Germans. There are many escape attempts made, both planned and opportune. For example, prisoners tunnel underground, leapfrog over fences during physical training, hide in mattresses being taken out of the camp. Some of these escapes are successful, some are not. The plans are always scuppered by the exit route from the camp and what to do to make it out of Germany. Mac McGill (Christopher Rhodes) comes up with a well thought out plan to escape disguised as German officers but his excessive height will compromise him and his fellow escapees. He is devastated but accepts the Colonel’s judgement. On the eve of the escape, he makes a reckless attempt to scale a wire fence during daylight and is shot dead by German guards.  Reid is at confused as to why Mac would do such a thing right before they can carry out their plan but the escape goes ahead…  This is a classic 1950s WW2 actioner, based closely on what actually happened. The efficient screenplay by director Guy Hamilton, Ivan Foxwell and William Douglas-Holme is adapted from Pat Reid’s autobiographical book. They even stage a version of an old Flanagan and Allen routine during the crucial escape, with Ian Carmichael and Richard Wattis doing the double act while the more important work goes on beneath the proscenium. Mills is the reliable Englishman while Portman is the troublesome snob – at first. Characterisation is deftly wrought in a typically broad selection of types and not merely among the British:  this is the Allied war effort in microcosm, with violence kept to a minimum and the end credits filling in the historical facts – Airey Neave was the first to break out from this supposedly impregnable fortress in 1942 but he wasn’t the last.  It’s never as exciting as you’d like but nonetheless it’s pretty fine escapist entertainment!

Battle of Britain (1969)

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The essential arithmetic is that our young men will have to shoot down their young men at the rate of four to one, if we’re to keep pace at all. Britain’s Finest Hour. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding (Laurence Olivier) must rally his outnumbered pilots against Hitler’s feared Luftwaffe. Besieged by German bombing runs, the Brits counter with an aggressive air campaign of their own but the argument rages as to whether the Big Wing strategy is helping or hindering. Within months, the Nazis find themselves on the run, thanks to Dowding’s tactical genius and the work of talented squadron leaders (Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer) and other brave patriots… An all-star cast was assembled for this little-screened epic adaptation of Derek Dempster and Derek Wood’s book The Narrow Margin by James Kennaway & Wilfred Greatorex. Director Guy Hamilton (himself a WW2 vet) does a pretty crackerjack job of balancing the politics with the dogfight aerobatics and the toll taken on both sides (Curt Jurgens is Baron von Richter) as the brave young men take to the skies in this do-or-die campaign in which even well-known names are sacrificed for the greater good. If you want a really great written account try Len Deighton’s book but in the interim this will do very well. Fabulous stuff if the dialogue is a tad on the wonky side, with luminous cinematography by Freddie Young and a stirring score courtesy of William Walton.

The Devil at 4 O’Clock (1961)

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I was a pretty good thief in my time. Father Matthew Doonan (Spencer Tracy), a hard-drinking eccentric priest on a South Sea island is being supplanted by a younger, virtuous replacement cleric Father Joseph Perreau (Kerwin Matthews). He recruits three reluctant convicts, Harry (Frank Sinatra) Marcel (Gregoire Aslan) and Charlie (Bernie Hamilton) from their hellhole prison to help him rescue a children’s leper colony from a Pacific island near Tahiti which is menaced by a smouldering volcano. When the Governor orders an evacuation bringing the sick children to safety on the last boat means a life-threatening trip up the mountains… A priest who’s lost his faith, a convict who wants to make good:  this morality tale has the fundaments of the disaster films which it predated by a decade. Sinatra falls for the blind Camille (Barbara Luna) and the romance underscores the issues of choice for this disparate group on a mission when action speaks much louder than empty words. Max Catto’s novel was adapted by Liam O’Brien, brother of actor Edmond and it layers in religious references with not a little wit and sympathy. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy.

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

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Kong’s a pretty good king. Keeps to himself, mostly. This is his home, we’re just guests. But you don’t go into someone’s house and start dropping bombs, unless you’re picking a fight. Scientists, soldiers and adventurers unite to explore a mythical, uncharted island in the Pacific Ocean. Cut off from everything they know, they venture into the domain of the mighty Kong, igniting the ultimate battle between man and nature. As their mission of discovery soon becomes one of survival, they must fight to escape from a primal world where humanity does not belong. Tom Hiddleston is Conrad, the British Special Forces op (retired!) hired by monster hunter Bill Randa (John Goodman) who’s finagled money for the expedition from a disbelieving Senator. Samuel L. Jackson is Lt. Col. Preston Packard, in charge of a special chopper squadron chomping at the bit for a final military excursion. Brie Larson is Mason Weaver (hmm…..) a photographer and anti-war activist. She’s there for the Pulitzer. This is one last op for Nam vets who ain’t too happy at ‘abandoning’ a losing war. A man who believes in monsters. A Bermuda Triangle-type of island where God didn’t get to finesse His creations. Set in 1973, ie the Vietnam era and just before the 1976 remake starring Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges of the wonderful 1933 classic, this is a kind of gung-ho Apocalypse Now retread with extra monsters and gore. Yeah, right:  if you thought Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) was a gorilla. And there’s more than that because Marlow is played by John C. Reilly and he’s a soldier who’s been hanging on the island for nearly 30 years waiting to be rescued and he knows that Kong is in fact their only hope in this island that is hollow at the centre – and Kong needs to win the turf war against some incredibly frightening creatures who are even worse to humans than he is! So this plugs into modern myths too – all those Japanese soldiers on Pacific islands not aware WW2 ended long ago. The character of Marlow narrates all of Joseph Conrad’s books, including Heart of Darkness, establishing the framing story. Hmm, now you’re talking. With a horrible, unlikeable cast (what is it these days? Why are actors so yucky?) and a screenplay by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly you might think at some point someone would have pulled the plug or cast people empathetic enough for an audience to perhaps care if they survive an encounter with a gorilla minding his own business in his own home. Nope. They had to do it. They went there. But it is saved by the built-in snark (okay, self-awareness) that is a de facto part of all action blockbusters nowadays, reflecting from early exchanges in the dialogue the knowledge that the monster is …. us.  Sometimes the enemy doesn’t exist till you’re looking for them.  There’s a very high body count and the romance is at a minimum but it looks dazzling and moves quickly – even with a little jungle stealth and camouflage. This takes no prisoners – it eats them. I blame the parents. Golly! Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

Hellfighters (1968)

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He’s not too smart about which fires to walk away from. Chance Buckman (John Wayne) is injured fighting an oil field fire and his assistant Greg (Jim Hutton) brings his boss’ estranged daughter Tish (Katharine Ross) to visit him in hospital – they’ve just got married a mere five days after meeting and Chance isn’t too pleased given Greg’s promiscuous ways. His marriage to Tish’s mom Madelyn (Vera Miles) ended because she couldn’t take the pressure of his work and Tish swears it’ll be different for her.  After seeing Greg get hurt she starts to fray at the edges and play solitaire a lot. When he takes over a gig in Venezuela and the team comes under fire from revolutionaries it’s time for Chance to return and his remarriage to Madelyn is postponed … A fascinating premise derived from the biography of legendary firefighter Red Adair, this moots the potential of examining the process and plumps for the melodrama of being the woman on the sidelines. Ross’ gorgeous sorrowfulness isn’t exploited but there are some good, colourful scenes and a nice barroom brawl to keep Wayne’s donnybrooking fans happy in between the talking shops. Written by Clair Huffaker and directed by Andrew V. McLaglen who had worked with Wayne in McLintock! Wayne got a million dollars to star.