Tawny Pipit (1944)

Tawny Pipit

This is meat and drink to me. Fighter pilot Jimmy Bancroft (Bernard Miles) is recuperating from injuries sustained during WW2 in a Cotswolds village. He and his nurse Hazel Broome (Rosamund John) come across two rare birds they find nesting in a wheat field and have to stop two evacuated boys from stealing the eggs. Together with Colonel Barton-Barrington (Bernard Miles) and others in the local community they band together to save the area from roads development that would encroach on the nesting place, stopping army tanks from crossing the field and getting a boost from a visiting Soviet sniper Olga Bokalova (Lucie Mannheim) …  Most people have to start from the bottom and work up. We’ll start from the top and work down! Written and directed by star Miles and Charles Saunders, they created a rare propaganda picture of the bucolic home front during World War Two. Not only that, it dares to paint a portrait of deep eccentricity, silly officialdom and a bizarre scene of a female Russian soldier who inspires a moment of flag-waving solidarity between Britain and the Soviet Union. And in the middle of this romance about birds is an affecting narrative about a pilot getting better from his war wounds by saving those feathered creatures while developing a relationship with his nurse. The link between the thriving pipits and his successful mission is encapsulated in the final images of his aeroplane Anthus campestris swooping over the village’s church tower. Barmy and lovely, with beautiful cinematography by Eric Cross and an uplifting score by Noel Mewton-Wood. These eggs are yours and mine and his and his and his … they belong to England!

For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943)

For Whom the Bell Tolls

In our country, General, they say never blow a bridge until you come to it. During the Spanish Civil War, an American professor of Spanish and explosives expert, Robert Jordan (Gary Cooper) allied with the Republicans finds romance with freedom fighting peasant Maria (Ingrid Bergman) during a desperate mission to blow up a strategically important bridge in the mountains while the Axis powers attempt to establish a base in Europe … Each of us must do this thing alone. Bergman got another Oscar nomination for her performance and Cooper displays his stoic masculinity in Dudley Nichols’ romantic (and lengthy) adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s classic novel. The protean quality of both stars is much in evidence here – Bergman is luminous as the Loyalist and Cooper is a perfect hero, strong, reliable and deeply felt. I’ve always loved you but I never saw you before. They make an awesome couple.  They don’t shoot you for being a Republican in America. However the adaptation isn’t as focused on action as it ought to be, the dialogue is occasionally too on the nose (explaining that Germany and Italy are using Spain against Russia) and overall this is not especially well staged, confined as it is to studio settings (imagine if they’d done this somewhere as lush as Northern Spain). Katina Paxou got the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award and she’s tremendous as the tough plain-speaking older woman Pilar in this story of betrayals and compromise – and, inevitably, sacrifice. With Akim Tamiroff, Arturo de Cordova, Vladimir Sokoloff and Joseph Calleia in a characterful ensemble, this doesn’t lack for interesting exchanges or tension which escalates as the moment descends. The original running time was trimmed from 168 minutes to 130 and then restored to 165. It’s too long but as a relic of classic screen performances and despite the issues it’s still one of the better Hemingway adaptations and simply must be seen. Directed by Sam Wood. Each of us must do this thing alone

Red Dawn (1984)

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My father turned me in. Oh God, they do things you can’t imagine. When Soviet soldiers invade Calumet, a small Colorado town, sending Nicaraguan and Cuban paratroopers into the local high school football field, brothers Jed (Patrick Swayze) and Matt Eckert (Charlie Sheen) escape with friends (C. Thomas Howell, Darren Dalton) to the forest where they call themselves Wolverines after their school mascot. With their father Tom (Harry Dean Stanton) a prisoner of the invading army, the children decide to fight against the Soviets. As the country comes under increasing attack and bitter winter closes in, the group teams up with Lt. Col. Andrew Tanner (Powers Boothe) to take back their town but how long can they hold out as they discover they are behind battle lines in occupied America? … West Coast. East Coast. Down here is Mexico. First wave of the attack came in disguised as commercial charter flights same way they did in Afghanistan in ’80. Only they were crack Airborne outfits. Now they took these passes in the Rockies. What a film to watch in the week that Vladimir Putin declared liberalism dead. From a story by Kevin Reynolds, auteur John Milius bootkicks the US into surreality positing a Soviet landgrab when we all know they’d nuke the country to high heaven before that would happen. So far, so ridick, as what was supposed to be a small arty antiwar outing becomes a teenage Rambo with Milius toying with the original material assisted by General Alexander Haig, on MGM’s board of directors at the time, dreaming up a what-if scenario evolving from Mexico’s left wing sympathy splitting the US in half as Hitler’s plan for invasion is reworked.  It starts with a history class in Genghis Khan’s warring tactics and within 5 minutes of explaining his stratagems the Russian helicopters are on the ground.  Soon Alexander Nevsky is playing for free at the local cinema and William Smith is in town marshalling the Russkies (in reality he’d been a Russian Intercept interrogator for the CIA). When the drive-in becomes a re-education centre, it’s a nod to the potential for camp classic status as an ‘ironic’ acknowledgement of its own silliness but also reminds us a lot of WW2. Given that this was the first film to receive a PG-13 rating for its violence, it occupies a certain stratum of cultdom and not merely for an alt history:  here are some of the era’s top teen icons (half of The Outsiders!) shooting the hell out of everything in sight. What joy there is in seeing Lea Thompson manning a sub-machine gun and Swayze romancing Jennifer Grey long before Dirty Dancing. With astounding cinematography by Ric Waite and Frederick Elmes and an operatic score from the great Basil Poledouris, this is a salutary lesson in survivalism and resistance. Milius would describe it as “a Close Encounters with Cold War Russians”. Children did this

Battle of the Bulge (1965)

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I did not lose a war to die in the back seat of a car. At the end of 1944 American Lt. Col. Dan Kiley (Henry Fonda), a military intelligence whiz and former police officer, discovers that the Nazis are planning to attack Allied forces near Belgium. Certain that the exhausted enemy can’t muster much force, General Joe Grey (Robert Ryan) isn’t convinced by Kiley’s findings, and his men pay the price when the German tanks begin their offensive in the Ardennes. In the heat of this key World War II battle, Kiley must come up with a plan when it becomes clear that the Nazis are trying to steal fuel from the Allies, there are Germans disguised as American MPs diverting traffic from the new Western Front and an ambitious German Colonel Hessler (Robert Shaw) who intends keeping the war going as long as possible no matter how many are sacrificed as he leads the Panzer spearhead of the German counterattack … Having been an inspector of police does not disqualify me from thinking. Written by (formerly blacklisted) Bernard Gordon, producer Milton Sperling and Philip Yordan (with contributions by John Melson), this is proper WW2 entertainment about a huge episode that involved a million men and which I once had the temerity to describe to someone as an instance of poor project management on the part of Hitler and his cronies. I love me a good war movie, better still if there are tanks (my dream vehicle, particularly the camo models in Desert Storm. So sue me!) so this is perfect Easter (or Passover!) holiday fare. Criticised for not being 100% accurate and its Spanish locations being a poor imitation of the Ardennes setting, this has a lot going for it, not least the staging and the tremendous cast. There is detail by the yard – and the weather reports are crucial. The way that the strategy and tactics are exposed is a triumph of film storytelling. Shaw is sizzling as one of the nastiest Nazis outside the Bulgarian Waffen SS and it’s a star-making role. Fonda’s doggedness is wonderfully sympathetic, especially when you have the feeling (because you’ve seen him in other movies) that he’s probably right about everything and his bozo superiors find out, soon enough. It’s the perceptive structuring of the narrative from both perspectives that makes this tick along quickly. While not setting out to be a satire (hardly, although WW2 vet Sperling was no fan of warfare) the dialogue is sparkling with zingers – aphoristic and otherwise, particularly punctuating Shaw’s scenes – and there’s one out-and-out comic scene (played straight) when Savalas returns to his business to check how things are doing. Pier Angeli pleads for some promise of marriage because this is what she understands by the term ‘business partnership’ and wants a sign. But he’s rushing back to the front so he just tells her to keep feeding the chickens (they’re looking scrawny). This amusing character sidebar is one part of a dedicated soldier and Savalas plays it to the hilt. There’s a mass execution which won’t surprise you – but someone gets away and the payoff is very satisfying indeed. There are some good map room scenes; a really funny one-word message from US Command to German Command; and a breathtaking POV section with Fonda gliding down in silence over the attack position of the German tanks on the other side of the river:  just listen to the score. Such inventive work by Benjamin Frankel. The final sequence of tank battle is suitably fiery and an injured and vengeful Savalas joins forces with James MacArthur at the fuel depot where they get to blow up more than just the gas supply. Beautifully shot by Jack Hildyard in 70mm and a fine job of direction by Ken Annakin with not a moment to spare in its 163 minutes. Never mind what Ike said – this is simply sensational. When I have a brigade of tanks – that is reality!

The Train (1965)

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He won’t leave the train. I’m beginning to know him. In August 1944 art connoisseur German Colonel von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) is planning to take the great art works from the Jeu de Paume gallery under the curatorship of Rose Vallard (Suzanne Flon) out of Paris before it’s liberated. She approaches officials at the SNCF to stop the train crossing out of France and into Germany with some of the greatest paintings ever produced. Labiche (Burt Lancaster) and his Resistance colleagues (Michel Simon, Albert Rémy, Charles Millot, Jacques Marin) do everything possible to keep train no. 40,0444 running late, diverting it through disguised stations and interfering with the tracks but the Allies have a new plan … Keep your eyes open. Your horizon’s about to be broadened. Decades before Monuments Men came this gripping actioner, directed by francophile thriller maestro John Frankenheimer. Scofield and Lancaster are mesmerising as the men who are protagonist/antagonist to each other, with their unreeling taking very different forms. In this scenario adapted by Franklin Coen, Frank Davis and the blacklisted Walter Bernstein from Rose Vallard’s Le Front de l’art, the political just got personal. There’s a deal of portentous and pretentious verbalising about art and its meaning to the nation, but at base this is a great cat and mouse chase and you’ll learn more than you ever knew was possible about rail yards, tracks, lines and switches. Moreau has a nice two-sequence arc as a hotelier who helps out while there are really fantastic smaller roles for a marvellous lineup that includes Franco-Irish actor Donal O’Brien (as Sergeant Schwartz) who would appear the following year for Frankenheimer in Grand Prix and then enjoy a career in Italian spaghetti westerns, horrors and giallos.  Maurice Jarre’s score is intense. And the ending? Straight out of Sartre. Parfait. No one’s ever hurt. Just dead

The Rake’s Progress (1945)

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Aka The Notorious Gentleman. The private life of a magnificent heel…who brought out the woman in women! Posh boy Vivian Kenway (Rex Harrison) is sent down from Oxford after putting a chamberpot on a beloved statue. He is known as a cad, a playboy and a scoundrel. Seducing his best friend’s wife Jill Duncan (Jean Kent) and his father’s (Godfrey Tearle) secretary Jennifer Calthorp (Margaret Johnston) before ultimately marrying for money may be considered reprehensible and foolish. But when his questionable behaviour results in his serving in the Army during World War II, his actions and decisions just might lead him to redemption after being challenged by his conscience … Eton’s no joking matter old cock. Half the war cabinet came from there.  Zippy, funny and snide, its conclusion may be affected by the recent days of war, but this is a superb entertainment mostly set between 1931-1938, with a raft of comments about class, conduct and notions of masculinity. Harrison is ideally cast in a screenplay written by director Sidney Gilliat with his usual partner Frank Launder and Val Valentine. Harrison’s wife at the time, Lili Palmer, appears in the supporting cast. There’s a wonderful score by William Alwyn. Fast and rather furious about a lot of things.  It’s just that you’re the last straw that’s all. I’m sick and tired of teaching their jobs to gilded youths backed by influence and class privilege, and then watching them end up with better positions than my own

The Tin Drum (1979)

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There once was a drummer. His name was Oskar. He lost his poor mama, who had eat to much fish. There was once a credulous people… who believed in Santa Claus. But Santa Claus was really… the gas man! There was once a toy merchant. His name was Sigismund Markus… and he sold tin drums lacquered red and white. There was once a drummer. His name was Oskar. There was once a toy merchant… whose name was Markus… and he took all the toys in the world away with him. Oskar Matzerath (David Bennent) is a very unusual boy born in Danzig in 1924, after the city has been separated from Germany following WW1. Refusing to leave the womb until promised a tin drum by his mother, Agnes (Angela Winkler), Oskar is reluctant to enter a world he sees as filled with hypocrisy and injustice, and vows on his third birthday to never grow up as he watches his mother take her cousin Jan for a lover and she becomes pregnant – but by who? Miraculously Oskar gets his wish when he throws himself down a staircase.  His talent for breaking glass when he screams garners him attention. As the Nazis rise to power in Danzig, Oskar wills himself to remain a child, beating his tin drum incessantly and screaming in protest at the chaos surrounding him as his mother dies, his father takes a new wife who has a baby Oskar is convinced he has fathered and Hitler takes over while Oskar decides to join a travelling circus and entertain the Nazi troops in Paris … Günter Grass’ stunning 1959 novel was adapted by Volker Schlöndorff (and Jean-Claude Carriére and Frank Seitz Jr.) and he became the first German director to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes with this transgressive, arresting and surreal impression of Nazism and the breakup of Europe. It’s mesmerising, brilliantly conceived and performed – Bennent is one of a kind – and once seen can never be forgotten. It is the blackest of comedies about the darkness in Germany and the way in which Polish people handled the transition to Nazism. The coda in real life – that Grass was found to have been in the Waffen-SS as a teenager after a lifetime of denial –  somehow just gives this greater heft. Amazing.

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

Sgt. Bilko (1996)

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Can’t is a four-letter word in this platoon! Sergeant Bilko (Steve Martin) is in charge of the motor pool at his Kansas base but more importantly he oversees his base’s gambling operations and occasionally runs a little con game, all under the oblivious nose of his commanding officer, Colonel Hall (Dan Aykroyd). After Bilko’s old nemesis, Major Thorn (Phil Hartman), shows up, intent on ruining his career and stealing his girlfriend, Rita (Glenne Headly), Bilko must take extra care to cover his tracks while concocting the perfect scheme to take down his foe… I have been avoiding this since it came out (a long time ago) because I grew up watching the Phil Silvers show on re-runs practically every night. I even gifted myself a box set of the series a short while back.  However I’m glad to report that far from the grimfest I half-expected it’s a very likeable physical comedy with some great setpieces perfectly cued to showcase Martin’s adeptness at farce. The material and scenarios are somewhat updated to accommodate modern mores – which provide some fun during a dorm check – and Hartman gets a wonderful opportunity to exact revenge for a laugh out loud prank which we see in flashback:  the best boxing match ever on film with both participants taking a dive! And then Bilko gets his turn when all the chips are down and the guys line up to help him out. It’ll never erase the great TV show but there are compensations – Headly as the woman forever scorned (until she bests him) and the chance to see a soft side of Aykroyd who allows all the chicanery to take place without ever expressing a cruel word. And Austin Pendleton shows Bilko how to play poker! There’s even Chris Rock and Phil Silvers’ daughter Cathy who come to audit the base and cannot catch Bilko for love or money. It’s like watching a magician!  she declares. Very funny indeed. Andy Breckman adapted Nat Hiken’s show and it’s directed by Jonathan Lynn.

Sahara (1943)

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No dame ever said anything as sweet as this motor’s going to sound to us when she gets rollin’. The Libyan desert, 1942.  A group of American soldiers led by tank commander MS Master Sergeant Joe Gunn (Humphrey Bogart) become isolated in their M3 Lee during the retreat to El Alamein while behind them Tobruk falls. As they drive across the desert they pick up a group of Allied stragglers:  British medic Captain Jason Halliday (Richard Nugent), who cedes control to Gunn, four Commonwealth soldiers and Free French Corporal Leroux (Louis Mercier). The group comes upon Sudanese Sergeant Major Tambul (Rex Ingram) and his Italian prisoner, Giuseppe (J. Carrol Naish). Tambul volunteers to lead them to a well at Hassan Barani. Gunn insists that the Italian be left behind, but, after driving a few hundred feet, relents and lets him join the others. With their supplies of fuel, food and water running low, they try to reach a desert fortress. A large German detachment is also heading there. En route, Luftwaffe pilot Captain von Schletow (Kurt Kreuger) strafes the tank, seriously wounding Clarkson (Lloyd Bridges), one of the British soldiers. The German fighter aircraft is shot down and von Schletow is captured. Arriving at Hassan Barani, the group finds the well is dry. Clarkson succumbs to his wounds and they bury him there. Tambul guides them to the desert well at Bir Acroma, but it is almost dry, providing only a trickle of water, and the group have to delay their departure until they can collect as much as they can. When German scouts arrive soon afterwards, Gunn sets up an ambush… This is undoubtedly well-crafted propaganda urging international cooperation to fight the Nazis but it’s fiercely exciting, brilliantly played by a deftly chosen cast including Bruce Bennett and Dan Duryea and looks wonderful (it was shot near the Salton Sea in California). Adapted from a story titled Patrol by Philip MacDonald, the screenplay is by John Howard Lawson, James O’Hanlon with uncredited work by Sidney Buchman and directed by Zoltan Korda. Wasser!