Cromwell (1970)

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Put your trust in God – and keep your powder dry! In 1640s England, King Charles I (Alec Guinness) is engaged in a power struggle with Parliament, and civil war seems imminent to House of Commons member Oliver Cromwell (Richard Harris), who’s preparing to depart for the American colonies. When he’s asked to stay to fight for the Parliamentary cause, however, Cromwell agrees and proves himself a brilliant leader of the Roundhead army and determines to rid England of its king and install Parliament as the ruler of the people. Soon, it’s up to him to lead his army to victory over the king’s Cavaliers … With Robert Morley as the Earl of Manchester, Guinness as the quietly steely Charles and Harris giving it large as Cromwell, this is a study in contrasting performing styles if nothing else. As an historical drama and despite a plethora of inaccuracies (wrong dates, wrong about the armies and their respective numbers, etc etc) it goes a way to delineate the pernicious Puritanism at its heart (has everyone forgotten that Martin Luther was a vile anti-Semite?!) not to mention the genocidal policies executed in Ireland in a power grab. It’s well staged with some nice touches particularly among the exchanges involving family members and children of both protagonists but it’s tilted in odd ways dramatically speaking. However Harris does well in a typically bombastic creation – tracing the rise of a man who believes himself to be godly but is at heart a destructive, ruthless, hypocritical dictator in waiting. Written and directed by Ken Hughes.

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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

Green for Danger (1946)

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‘In view of my failure—correction, comparative failure—I feel that I have no alternative but to offer you, sir, my resignation, in the sincere hope that you will not accept it.’  Full stop. During a German bombing raid on rural southeast England during World War II, a hospital undergoes heavy shelling. Postman Joseph Higgins (Moore Marriott) dies on the operating table when a bomb explodes in the operating room. But when Sister Marion Bates (Judy Campbell) dies after revealing that this is not the first patient of anaesthetist Barney Barnes (Trevor Howard) to die under suspicious circumstances, Scotland Yard’s  Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim) is brought in to investigate… Knotty, fast-moving, hilarious and satirical, this is one of the very best British films, a murder mystery (a variant on the country house genre) that thrives on dismantling the very conventions of cinema at that time – if you can tell one of the female characters from the other (Sally Gray, Rosamund John, Campbell… ) you’re a better man than I, which is kinda the point of this! From the team of Launder and Gilliat, with Claude Gurney and Gilliat adapting Christianna Brand’s wartime novel this moves like the clappers and you won’t realise whodunnit until it’s too late – just like the droll Cockrill!  It was the first film to be shot at Pinewood in the aftermath of WW2 and the production design and sense of fear and enclosure works perfectly. The plot is ingenious and even while everyone’s being offed in highly unsentimental fashion you’ll struggle to figure it out despite the structure. Sim is wonderful but he’s matched all the way by Leo Genn as the Harley Street surgeon. And all the while the German doodlebugs (V1 bombs) keep everyone in a state of terror.  Brilliant.

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.

Waterloo (1970)

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I am France and France is me! Napoleon Bonaparte (Rod Steiger) is being defeated at every juncture and following an enforced period of exile on the island of Elba he escapes. With the support of Marshal Ney (Dan O’Herlihy) who defects from Louis XVIII (Orson Welles in a colourful cameo) he sees a chance to reclaim his name at Waterloo in Belgium after defeating the Prussians and where he faces the Duke of Wellington (Christopher Plummer) leading the British… The most precious quality in life is loyalty. This is a fabled war epic notable for the problematic performance by Steiger which fails to elicit the empathy that even the most ardent of his supporters (c’est moi!) requires. His competing voiceover with that of Wellington basically asks you to choose between will and grace – because he is the man under pressure and Steiger’s performance doesn’t permit you to digress from that impression. The contrast between the two military leaders is exemplified in the scene when Wellington is found dozing under a newspaper beneath a tree before battle commences on the ground of his choosing while Napoleon is pacing, sweating, dying inside. I did not usurp the crown, I found it in the gutter and picked it up with my sword.  It was the people who put it on my head This is an absolutely beautiful historical work, resplendent in its narrative and aesthetic choices but also rather smart as a quicksilver screenplay. Irish screenwriter H.A.L. Craig’s work has great clarity of construction, synoptic sequences and epigrammatic dialogue, which I can’t get enough of – there’s some brilliant byplay between Wellington and one of his Irish infantrymen, O’Connor (Donal Donnelly) especially when the man is found secreting a squealing piglet on his person:  This fellow knows how to defend a helpless position! Their irregular encounters punctuate the drama, first with humour, then with sorrow.  There’s a rousing, appropriately imperial score by Nino Rota which greatly enhances the philosophy being worked out here:  the utter futility and brutality of war. Even the poor piper gets it. And as for the unfortunate horses … Directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, who along with Vittorio Bonicelli and Mario Soldati made additions to the screenplay, and produced by Dino de Laurentiis. It’s wonderfully shot by Armando Nannuzzi whose compositions allow you to see exactly how (not) to engage the enemy. Epic. Wellington. Wellington! Why is it always Wellington?

Millions Like Us (1943)

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You can’t cook or sew, I doubt if you can even knit. You know nothing about life, not what I call life. You’re still only a moderate hand on a milling machine and if you had to fend for yourself in the midst of plenty you’d die of starvation. Those are only your bad points. I’m not saying you haven’t got any good ones. At the outbreak of World War II, Celia (Patricia Roc) and her family must join the domestic British war effort. Celia is recruited to work in a munitions factory building aircraft, where her co-workers represent a variety of social classes. She falls in love with Fred Blake (Gordon Jackson), a young pilot, and the two are married. Fred is soon deployed to battle, however, and Celia must face the harsh realities of life as a soldier’s wife, while continuing her crucial work on the home front… Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat’s film is a morale-boosting propaganda effort that still stirs the heart and mind all these years later and even boasts Charters and Caldicott, the auteur’s favourite Brit double act as part of the ensemble. Roc’s performance is winning with the challenge of leaving home for the first time and sharing digs with educated Gwen (Megs Jenkins) and her relationship with Jackson believable while the exchanges on the factory floor hammer home the stratification of social class that was such a feature of film drama at the time. Their relationship is mirrored in that between snobby Jennifer (Anne Crawford) and foreman Charlie (Eric Portman). Part of the film’s ongoing attractions are the famous song South of the Border, composed by Jimmy Kennedy and Michael Carr.

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.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)

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Filigree, apogee, pedigree, perigee! During the Battle of Britain, Miss Eglantine Price (Angela Lansbury), a cunning apprentice witch, decides to use her supernatural powers to defeat the Nazi menace. She sets out to accomplish this task with the aid of three  children who have been evacuated from the London Blitz and they go along to get along after a difficult introduction – they’re city kids stuck in the wilds of rural England and she’s forced to take them into her very big house where she serves healthy food which is utterly alien to them. Joined by the hapless Emelius Brown (David Tomlinson), the head of Miss Price’s witchcraft training correspondence school in London, the crew uses an enchanted bed to travel into a fantasy land and foil encroaching German troops as well as dealing with an unscrupulous conman … Well it’s a very snowy day here at Mondo Towers so there was nothing left but haul out Uncle Walt to toast up my chattering tootsies. This is a childhood favourite, a long and entertaining part-animated fantasy comic WW2 drama with not a little music thrown in to complete the Poppins-a-like formula perfected by the studio during the previous decade. Lansbury has the role purportedly rejected by Julie Andrews and David Tomlinson returns as the slightly bewildered adult male – albeit Mary Norton’s wartime books which provide the source material have no relation to the earlier film. The Magic Bedknob, Or How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons and Bonfires and Broomsticks provide the arc of the narrative which is enlivened by integrated cartoon and musical sequences. Let’s face it, it takes the House of Mouse to turn WW2 into a delightful musical fairytale with songs by the Sherman brothers, a fantasy football match on a desert island, a resourceful Territorial Army and a very cool cat making for totally bewitching family fun. Hurray! Screenplay by Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi, directed by Robert Stevenson.

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Veteran British director Lewis Gilbert has shuffled off this mortal coil at the grand old age of 97. His is a career marked not merely by longevity or versatility but by the power of making films that speak to generation after generation not least my own James Bond years because he directed the first of that series that I was allowed to go see at the cinema, Moonraker. It might not have been one of the best Bonds – or even one of his best Bonds – because he had already made The Spy Who Loved Me and You Only Live Twice – but for a kid it had tremendous value, hopping up the cartoon-like aspects and the ingenious potential of the effects. The impression you get is that he likes the characters whose stories he is shaping (even Alfie!) – and then you learn he was a child actor, born to music hall performers, which explains his generosity towards them. This goes some way toward why he was as much at ease doing war films with Kenneth More as he was female-centric dramas with Julie Walters. The realisation that he was responsible for so many of those war movies broadcast on Sunday afternoons in my childhood (and how I adored the Seventies iteration, Operation Daybreak) and other youth-oriented and equally affecting films is a testament to his own taste as much the material that might have been on the table – Susannah York in The Greengage Summer is an adolescent favourite and remains a wonderfully made drama;  later Free Love stories like Paul and Michelle offer more contemporary takes on the concept of youthful relationships and the negotiating required to attain maturity.  He would make films that found massive audiences in the Eighties with two projects adapted from Willy Russell’s plays about middle-aged lower class women getting their mojo back, Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine. He played a small role in The Divorce of Lady X opposite Laurence Olivier and made such an impression on mogul Alexander Korda he offered to sponsor him at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Gilbert instead opted to study directing and assisted Alfred Hitchcock on Jamaica Inn. He acquired technical knowledge during his wartime service with the American Air Corps film unit where he was seconded to the director William Keighley and after making a handful of short documentaries for Gaumont British put it to excellent use in those brilliantly crafted post-war British films that still tell us so much about the mindset that combated WW2 and dealt with the tricky (cinematic) aftermath. He married Hylda Tafler, sister of the actor Sydney, and it was she who found the property Alfie while visiting the hairdresser one day, seated beside an actress who was appearing in the Bill Naughton play. It was the standout of his career because it was the culmination of his studies of working class people who were finally being dramatised in complete narratives but it was also a theatrical style of filmmaking which broke the fourth wall. He often said his worst experience was working with Orson Welles on Ferry to Hong Kong and his biggest mistake was turning down Oliver! Lewis Gilbert, truly a professional man for all seasons and showman who was an excellent and amusing interviewee and recorded his memoirs in All My Flashbacks. Rest in peace.