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War

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Grim. Dreary and grim. As grim as any trench in World War I, where the entire film is set. We spend four days with a British unit about to be overrun by the Germans in the spring 1918 offensive.   There is no story arc, just the pitiful and doomed interplay between several officers.  War remains hell.

Mostly well acted, and in particular, Paul Bettany stands out as a doomed and comforting older officer, but that’s about it. This is a hard slog, though, mercifully short.

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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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Just as Dunkirk was an ode to English pluck and a representation of the viscerally brutal and arbitrary nature of war, The King’s Choice serves the dual purpose of a national homage to Norway’s resistance in the face of a Nazi invasion and the strain placed on the powerful and the ordinary in such circumstances.  Norway’s King Haakon VII, is a sweet, doting grandfather who is constitutionally deferential to a democratic body that is crumbling under the weight of events.  He must bolster the government while staving off the more muscular, ambitious desires of his son, which carry with them an implicit criticism of his father as weak.  Indeed, as the king suffers from a bad back, we often see him in a fetal position on the floor or a bed.  Meanwhile, the German attaché, who is juxtaposed favorably with the uncompromising Wermacht, desperately pleads with the king to accede to Hitler’s demand for submission, knowing that failure to do so totally will mean the deaths of many innocents.   The tension is palpable, the pace gripping, and the quiet moments – especially the scenes showing the effect on the families – poignant.

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This is a clever, touching story of harried Ministry of Information filmmakers working on a “Dunkirk” morale booster propaganda picture during the Blitz.  An ode to the magic of movies and Brit pluck, the script is sly and witty, and the love interests (Gemma Arterton and Sam Claflin) have actual chemistry.  But if none of that were true, I’d still recommend the picture unreservedly for Bill Nighy’s hilarious turn as a fussy, conceited, insecure actor who cannot accept that his age has negated his role as the hero.  As usual, he’s marvelous.  One reviewer aptly called Night “a colossally proportioned scene-stealer”, which is spot on.

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John Ford’s western, an extremely loose re-imagining of the Custer massacre, surprises in numerous ways.  The film has a heady sense of humor – the hard-boozing Irish of The Quiet Man are present, but not quite so cartoonishly so.  It again reveals that John Wayne was quite underrated as a dramatic actor.  But it is most unique in its melding of patriotic lore and bitter cynicism, ultimately concluding that the fraudulent propagation of patriotic heroism is at a minimum a necessary evil and perhaps even a critical component of the national ethos.  What matters, ultimately, is the myth.

It is also, of course, beautiful in its use of Monument Valley.

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A beautifully rendered film that both personalizes the cruelty and haphazard nature of war and presents it in the broader context of national sacrifice and pride. Christopher Nolan depicts the evacuation of Dunkirk from the vantage point of the officers responsible for the endeavor, the foot soldiers desperate to get away, and the military and civilian rescuers who, with the Nazis having inexplicably failed to press their advantage after Blitzkrieg and the collapse of France, race to Dunkirk to save upwards of 400,00 stranded troops.  Nolan’s approach is tonally somber, underscored by composer Hans Zimmer’s minimalist, ticking clock soundtrack.  Nolan also alters sequence, which has the effect of giving the audience a feeling in line with that of the troops: a constant need to get its bearings.

This one won’t win any acting awards, simply because it is so sparse, but almost everyone is very good (in particular, Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance), and former teen heartthrob One Directioner Harry Styles is perfectly fine.

The lack of dialogue does not denote an action film.  It is visually arresting but never comes close to being exploitative or flashy.  Thankfully, Dunkirk is not in the style of war film that has become the standard of late – brutal, unremitting and loaded with gore, always looking to surpass the hellish set pieces of Saving Private Ryan (Hacksaw RidgeThe Pacific, Fury).  Rather, it is meditative and as such, a great deal more effective.