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70s

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This is a dinosaur, a sweeping, big budget 70s war flick loaded with A and B+ stars of the time, directed with an accomplished economy and flourish by Sir Richard Attenborough (Gandhi).

Imagine the equivalent of this cast in one movie today:

OSCAR WINNERS

Laurence Olivier

Anthony Hopkins

Robert Redford

Sean Connery

Gene Hackman

Michael Caine

Maximilian Schell

OSCAR NOMINEES

Elliot Gould

Ryan O’Neal

Liv Ullman

James Caan

BAFTA WINNERS

Edward Fox

Dirk Bogarde

The picture is appropriately cynical for the post-Vietnam era, as the movie depicts the tragic clusterfu** that was World War II’s Operation Market Garden, an ill-fated attempt to cripple Germany quickly post-D Day via a lightning paratroop strike into Holland.  Everything that can go wrong does go wrong, due in no small part to bureaucratic incompetence and the willful ignoring of intelligence.

This is a solid, meticulous picture that manages to let stars be stars while incorporating the performances seamlessly into a well-thought out and accomplished military drama.  William Goldman’s script is also very moving, empathetic to the plight of the foot soldier and bereft of a lot of hoo rah!  There is only one casting weakness.  I get that you wanted “young” for General James Gavin, who was 37 years old at the time of the operation, but O’Neal is just too pretty and soft for the role, and his attempt to overcome it (being stern) is unavailing.

Some fun tidbits:  The stars took a pay cut, agreeing to a $250,000 weekly fee.  Also, with two lines, and a spot right behind Redford on a collapsible boat in a brutal river crossing, it is none other than John Ratzenberger (Cliff Clavin from Cheers).  Spoiler – Cliff doesn’t make it

 

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This expensive, sweeping, surreal saga was an international production but most of the heavy lifting was done by the Soviets, who lent their land, 17,000 soldiers, their director and many millions of dollars to re-creating the battle.  From Wikipedia:

To recreate the battlefield authentically, the Soviets bulldozed away two hills, laid five miles of roads, transplanted 5,000 trees, sowed fields of rye, barley and wildflowers and reconstructed four historic buildings. To create the mud, more than six miles of underground irrigation piping was specially laid. Most of the battle scenes were filmed using five Panavision cameras simultaneously – from ground level, from 100-foot towers, from a helicopter, and from an overhead railway built right across the location.

Actual filming was accomplished over 28 weeks, which included 16 days of delay (principally due to bad weather). Many of the battle scenes were filmed in the summer of 1969 in often sweltering heat. In addition to the battlefield in Ukraine, filming also took place on location in Royal Palace of Caserta, Italy, while interior scenes were filmed on the large De Laurentiis Studios lot in Rome. The battle sequences of the film include about 15,000 Soviet foot soldiers and 2,000 cavalrymen as extras and 50 circus stunt riders were used to perform the dangerous horse falls. It has been joked that Sergei Bondarchuk was in command of the seventh-largest army in the world.  Months before the cameras started filming, the 17,000 soldiers began training to learn 1815 drill and battle formations, as well as the use of sabres, bayonets and handling cannons. A selected 2,000 additional men were also taught to load and fire muskets. This army lived in a large encampment next to the battlefield. Each day after breakfast, they marched to a large wardrobe building, donned their French, British or Prussian uniforms and fifteen minutes later were in position. The soldiers were commanded by officers who took orders from director Sergei Bondarchuk via walkie-talkie. To assist in the direction of this huge, multi-national undertaking, the Soviet-Ukrainian director had four interpreters permanently at his side: one each for English, Italian, French and Serbo-Croatian.

The expanse of the endeavor is breathtaking and the efforts of the Soviets are plainly evident in the cinematography:

The script is, well . . .  dated.  The players intone with great import, and before most lines, they damn near lean into the frame.   As Wellington, Christopher Plummer is so effete and aristocratic, he approaches the Monty Pythonesque.  I implore you, go to 4:03 of the above scene for my brief in support.  Yet, somehow, he works.  Rod Steiger’s Napoleon is a raving consumer of all things Lee Strasberg, yet he too seems to work.  Indeed, one of the charming qualities of the script is when, in the middle of the goddawful melee, the soundtrack goes silent and we hear each man’s thoughts in voice-over.  “Who is this man, who fights on his ass,” Napoleon muses as he watches Wellington dig in.

Full disclosure:  this move was a staple on the 4 o’clock move when I was growing up and along with Zulu and Where Eagles Dare and countless other war pictures, informed my young sensibilities in the areas of hyper-masculinity, glory, bravery under fire and all the rest of it.  White collar life is empty of such things, so my emotional nostalgia may be at play here.

Still, it is really a wondrous picture to watch.

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(Reporting from the blizzard of ’16)

My childhood memories of kick-ass Clint Eastwood are vivid. I think I was first mesmerized by him as the cool, sardonic killer in the World War II drama Where Eagles Dare, and after that, as Dirty Harry Callahan, a cops’ cop, rejecting Miranda and spitting in the eye of pencil-pushing bureaucrats who were the real menace to San Francisco. Somehow, I missed the westerns, catching them in the 80s.

The Eiger Sanction was on the Channel 7 daily movie rotation, and I’m sure I saw it several times. It’s a testament to the sway of Eastwood that I did, because I watched it today, and the impact was decidedly different. Eastwood directed (his fourth feature) and let’s just say he wasn’t at peak form. Very pedestrian, and hum drum, it tells the story or an art professor (Eastwood) who is actually a retired assassin for the government. He is summoned by his former boss, a straight-out-of-early-Bond albino with a Germanic voice who will die if the sun touches him, and cajoled into taking on a contract, an unknown member of a party he is to join attempting to scale the north face of the Eiger mountain. Eastwood’s clue as to the man’s identity? The man has a limp.

The mountain climbing sequences are the best thing about the film. Eastwood performed many of his own stunts, and, certifying the danger, a stunt climber was killed in the filming. But this is a dated flick, not only in its blocky, unimaginative feel, but in its dialogue.  For example, the bizarre line Eastwood gives to a stewardess he is seducing: “You never know. Sometimes people do things…they thought they’d never do again. (pause). Like rape, for instance. I thought I’d given up rape, but I’ve changed my mind.”  And then they kiss and make love by the fire.

This is the second film Eastwood got after Paul Newman passed.  Newman was wrong about Dirty Harry but not this one.

Richard Donner’s devil picture was a big hit in 1976, and 40 years later, it’s easy to see why. Rejecting the dour, sinister tone of The Exorcist, The Omen also lacks that film’s intelligence and gravitas. In its stead, however, is schlock elevated by top-notch performances (Gregory Peck, Lee Remick and David Warner play it straight and true, and Billie Whitelaw is chilling as a modern Mrs. Danvers) and some truly terrifying scenes. A suicide by hanging at a child’s birthday party, an impalement of a priest, and poor Remick’s two falls are memorable, as is the demon child’s first visit to church (he is not happy) and his drive through a wild animal park (they are also not happy).  But it also follows the rules of a mystery.  Clues are given, investigation follows, and then, terrible dawning.  Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar winning original score rejects subtlety, and even as over-the-top as it is, heightens dread.

Best, any film that ends with Peck about to stab a child with ceremonial knives and an unmitigated win for the devil has a place in my heart.

Of Apocalypse Now, Director and co-writer Frances Ford Coppola famously told a room full of reporters, “”My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam.” Putting aside the cockiness and disrespect of such a statement, it is fair to say the film (and it is merely a film) is about a certain concept of Vietnam, one unique at the time it was released. Most Vietnam films fall into three categories. The first uses Vietnam as a mere location for a story about man’s triumph over adversity (see The Hanoi Hilton, Uncommon Valor, Rescue Dawn, Bat *21). The second, in the tradition of The Best Years of Our Lives, hones in on the war at home and the effect of the conflict in a much-changed stateside (Rolling Thunder, Coming Home, Birdy, Jackknife, Gardens of Stone and even the ridiculous Forrest Gump).  The third category shows the war in-country and orbits a central thesis; the war was not only a bad war, but it was a pernicious war, one where America lost its soul, to the jungle, militarism, hubris, the military industrial complex, or some combination of same. The Deer Hunter, Born on the Fourth of July, Casualties of War, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon all fit this bill.  Most of these films are well made . But none bear any resemblance to Apocalypse Now, a harrowing visual nightmare drawing from all three categories, paralleling a novel (Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) as interpreted by a macho right-winger (John Milius) and Coppola himself.

The film begins with a portrait of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), an intelligence officer and assassin, as he endures a drunken nervous breakdown in a Saigon hotel. Coppola got Sheen wildly drunk for the scene, baiting him with verbal cues to elicit a reaction, and the effect is mesmerizing; Sheen even cut open his hand smashing a mirror, which perhaps should have been a portent for Coppola (later in production, Sheen suffered a heart attack that significantly delayed filming). Here, Willard has already been home to find his world changed, and he is back, hollowed out and estranged from his family, to take a new assignment.

That assignment, to “terminate the command” of a rogue American Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who has created his own army as a god-like figure in Cambodia, propels us forward, as we travel with Willard and his boat crew to a final confrontation. The trip is a grotesque menagerie. A thrilling and sickening helicopter attack on a VC area led by Lt. Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) shows American ingenuity, power and recklessness. I’d never seen a battle re-creation so skilled and visceral until Spielberg’s rendition of the D-Day landing in Saving Private Ryan 30 years later.

Further up the river, Hollywood comes to Vietnam, as the USO brings in playboy bunnies for the entertainment of troops who are this point so on the edge, a near riot ensues. The scene is jaw-droppingly audacious, a brilliant representation of Willard’s observation, “the more they tried to make it just like home, the more they made everybody miss it.”  Willard tell us that “[Charlie’s] idea of great R and R was cold rice and a little rat meat. He had only two ways home: death or victory.” Coppola’s juxtaposition?

The crew also searches a suspicious junk, and edgy and exhausted, opens fire on its passengers, almost all of whom die (one woman survives, briefly, but Willard puts her down with his pistol so his mission is not delayed). This is Coppola’s My Lai.  Even further is the Du Lung Bridge, a stalemate where GIs either beg to be rescued by the boat or hunker down in a drug-induced haze, in a never-ending firefight with the VC (Willard asks a wired GI “Who’s in charge here?” and gets the response, “Ain’t you?”). Through it all, Willard provides a voiceover, which is half Sam Spade evaluating the situation, half epitaph for everything that went wrong for America in Vietnam.

Unfortunately, Willard’s mission ends. He finds Kurtz, distressingly played by Brando, who has shown up solely for the check. Brando was fat, unprepared, and uncooperative. In a 1979 interview with Rolling Stone, Coppola protected the actor, but only so much: “I shot Marlon in a couple of weeks and then he left; everything else was shot around that footage, and what we had shot with Marlon wasn’t like a scene. It was hours and hours of him talking . . . . Marlon’s first idea – which almost made me vomit – to play Kurtz as a Daniel Berrigan: in black pajamas, in VC clothes. It would be all about the guilt [Kurtz] felt at what we’d done. I said, “Hey, Marlon, I may not know everything about this movie – but one thing I know it’s not about is ‘our guilt’!” Yet Marlon has one of the finest minds around: Thinking is what he does. To sit and talk with him about life and death – he’ll think about that stuff all day long.”

Brando’s deep thoughts notwithstanding, there is no way around it; the last 20 minutes of the film near grind it to a halt, even with the addition of a frenetic Kurtz acolyte played by Dennis Hopper.  It is a testament to Coppola’s gifts that he was able to utilize Brando’s ramblings in as coherent a form as he did.

It hardly matters.  The film is otherwise a masterpiece and should be watched in conjunction with the documentary of its making, Hearts of Darkness, A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.

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(actual ticket to a Washington, D.C. showing of the movie found in my father’s dresser drawer)

The quintessential biopic, Patton (which was co-written by Francis Ford Coppola) gets everything right.   Let me count the ways

It is content to present its subject without the context of some anachronistic cause. In Coppola’s hands, Patton is not emblematic of something larger and more ominous or glorious, be it the hubris of American imperialism, the degradation of war, blah blah blah. He is a flesh-and-bones person who grafted himself onto and shaped one of history’s more momentous times.

It is nuanced. Coppola never lets you get comfortable with Patton and by the end of the film, you remain torn as to the sum of his virtues and vices, which is so much more interesting than the hagiographies or hit jobs we see so often today.

It’s largely composed of true events. Patton did say the outrageous things attributed to him (if not in the form presented by the film), and he was every bit the preening ass and decisive, bold general portrayed in the film. The two incidents where Patton slaps soldiers are condensed into one, and Patton is given too much of a role in the plan to invade Sicily, but otherwise, the picture hews closely to history without becoming tedious. Most historical criticisms of the film zero in on what it doesn’t depict (much as with American Sniper), which is a legitimate criticism only if you give credence to the “I would have done it this way” school.  When it does take poetic license, it comports with other established facts. Patton did not shoot his pistol at attacking German aircraft, but the attack occurred just as he was berating the Brits for failure to provide air cover, and Patton’s risky bravado in the face of enemy fire was legendary. Patton did not shoot mules blocking a convoy, but he did order them shot and their cart dumped into the river.  Patton did not tell a British general that he had been in a battle centuries old, but he was a strong believer in reincarnation.  Indeed, he wrote a poem in 1922, “Through A Glass Darkly”, a stanza of which reveals his inclination:

Perhaps I stabbed our Savior
In His sacred helpless side.
Yet I’ve called His name in blessing
When in after times I died.

Patton is also noteworthy because the actor playing the subject gives a commanding performance. George C. Scott reportedly made a determined study of General Patton and by most accounts, captured him (save for Patton’s higher pitched voice). Incredibly, Rod Steiger, Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum and Burt Lancaster all turned down the lead role.

It also looks authentic, in large part, because the producers rented out WWII-era materiel that had been sold to Spain and largely filmed the picture there.  Obviously, shortcuts were made (the Spaniards didn’t have a passel full of Tiger tanks), but director Franklin Schaffner (Planet of the Apes) does great work with what he has in terms of equipment and locale.

Finally, what a Jerry Goldsmith score.

The movie won 7 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Original Screenplay and sits at #89 in AFI’s top 100 films.

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Robert Altman’s Phillip Marlowe (Elliot Gould) isn’t a hard-bitten cynic but rather, a seemingly scattered, chain-smoking hippie in a suit (his mantra? “it’s okay with me”), as bemused by the conservative cops who roughly bring him in for questioning (“Someday all the pigs are gonna’ be in here and all the people are gonna’ be out there. You can bet on that. You’re not in here. It’s just your body”) as the perpetually stoned yoga nudists who are his neighbors (“They’re not even there. It’s okay with me”). The truth is that much is decidedly not okay with Marlowe, in particular, his being used by old friend Terry Lennox (former NY Yankee pitcher and baseball whistleblower Jim Bouton) after the mysterious death of Lennox’s wife.  As Marlowe floats through a Los Angeles that feels desolate and burnt out, he moves closer and closer to the truth, navigating the authorities, hangers-on and brutes while standing by his friend.

Mark Rydell, who later became a decent director (Cinderella Liberty, On Golden Pond), stands out as a particularly chilling gangster who peppers his threats with loopy new age nonsense and boasts about his physical fitness regimen and the fact he lives near Nixon.

Altman and screenwriter Leigh Brackett aggressively revamp the source material, but Marlowe is still Chandler’s in many ways.  He needles the cops (“Is this where I’m supposed to say, ‘What’s all this about?’ and he says, ‘Shut up! I ask the questions’?”), can shake from his seeming fog to register a keen read on the situation, and when he arrives at the end of the journey, he is all Chandler’s Marlowe, with his own unyielding code.

Critic David Ehrenstein once told me that The Long Goodbye “was” Los Angeles and while the film doesn’t figure prominently in Los Angeles Plays Itself, it’s hard to argue it doesn’t have Hollywood in its marrow. Movie memorabilia can be found in Marlowe’s otherwise bare bones apartment (which was just recently available for rent), presumably from a prior occupant.  The security guard at a gated ocean community specializes in impressions, from Barbra Stanwyck to Jimmy Stewart to Walter Brennan.  The score is some version of the torch song “The Long Goodbye”, be it Muzak in a supermarket or a cocktail lounge piano number, the same ditty re-packaged as only Hollywood can.  Son of Old Hollywood Robert Carradine shows up as a jailhouse prophet and Altman exhibits prescience in his casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a mute thug.  LA itself seems an otherworldy ghost town, where everything seem to be trying to pass as a facsimile of the real thing.  As Ehrenstein noted, “Back then the city was a sprawling, sleepy, empty place — Altman’s The Long Goodbye capturing its ultra-casual look and feel perfectly.  ‘But there’s nothing there,” my east coast friends would say”).

This is a seminal picture, and a prime example of reinventing a genre.