It took me a while to understand the structure of None Shall Escape (1944) the words first uttered at the America’s entrance to WWII in 1942. Released two years into the conflict I was confused as to why I was seeing a court of war-crimes in a film released in 1944. I had to check the date to be sure that I wasn’t seeing things before I could really invest in what I can call an oddity of War time propaganda for public consumption. Of course all films released during WWII about the conflict were obviously constructed to stir up support for the forces, boost morale which they did for a few years before the public interest started to wane during the time of this films release.
The previous war film I saw from this period – Sahara (1943) complete with a starry cast lead by Humphrey Bogart and set as the title of the film suggests in the African front. The earlier film has a lighter tone to the film, we only see a few Nazi’s until the closing act of the film. Instead we’re thrown into an idealized future where the war is over, the Nazi’s have been defeated and are being tried for their crimes against humanity. The two leading actors are little known to wide audiences in the B-movie. I know the label means a lower budget so you won’t get the big names of the earlier film. Nonetheless it was an engaging film that held my attention.
Even though after all these years after its first release it feels inaccurate in places. First it was not truly known the extent of the crimes against humanity. It was obviously known that the Nazi’s were antisemitic, but not to the degree that Russian soldiers found them in the concentration camps, or what they went through. It’s very innocent in that respect. It has instead to go on their persecution of what is known or thought to have been known at the time. Building up an image that would ensure support for the troops, what they are fighting for. This is rare film when there is not a single U.S. soldier on-screen. Even in the court-room (not Nuremberg) where we have an American judge whose our introduction to the film after we are told it has been won in the prologue. A hopeful future where justice prevails is projected, the thought of defeat is not an option.
We are witnessing the trial of one Nazi – Willhelm Grimm (Alexander Knox) who with the help of heavy make-up is a senior member who has made his way up since the end of WWI. We are given a short history lesson that begins with the treaty of Versailles up to the early part of WWII. The consequences of the West’s intervention after the Great War as we have learned only lead to Hitler and WWII. Grimm’s portrayed as a broken man returning home to Poland where he taught in a local school, alongside Marja Pacierkowski (Marsha Hunt) who is to marry this changed man, wounded like so many other soldiers he wants to find acceptance but only finds disappointment and resentment.
Through the testimony of three witnesses we learn of the build-up of the Nazi party, Grimms home life and the crimes they committed. Grimm acts as his own defense as the prosecution delivers its evidence in the form of flashbacks away from the camera. It’s not the best quality image, you can see where in places where scenes have been pasted together, which does detract from the overall image of the film. It is however a reminder that this is a forgotten war film of the golden age of cinema. It shows up the budget spent on the film too, looking at the few sets used the actors that you recognise. I only knew Henry Travers myself who played the priest who did his best to stay neutral w=until he couldn’t ignore the persecution to the Jewish community.
It’s not supposed to be as entertaining as Sahara which is meant to rally support more than likely to donate metal or the increase of war bonds. Depicted with characters that we all know. It wasn’t just an American win on-screen, it soon became an allied effort to hold a well in the desert from being thirsty Nazi’s. In 1943 they’re seen very much as the enemy to fight in the present. By 1944 it’s about looking forward to the future when the war’s been won, how do you deal with the enemy. How do you make sure it doesn’t happen again.
In terms of acting there is no stand-out performance, its more about delivering a message to an audience. For the audience to see that once the war’s won we have to deal with the consequences with the hindsight of history in mind. The film ends not on the classic high, all guns blazing, or a flag flying. We are left with two messages, one from Grimm who is relenting, the Third Reich will rise again, and another from the lead judge warning us of the long job a head to secure peace. Both delivered directly to camera, making sure we can’t ignore the message, breaking the fourth wall to ensure we know we aren’t being entertained, this war, its reality and we can’t ignore that.
- None Shall Escape (1944) (cin-eater.blogspot.co.uk)
For Christmas 2014 I received a book that I’ve only just finished (I’m a slow reader) Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris, the focus of the book on the journeys and events surrounding five directors who gave up their careers to document the war. Namely John Ford, John Huston, Frank Capra, George Stevens and William Wyler. Who all did their bit for their country, driving the message home that there was a war going on. Men were away from home fighting for freedom. I was making connections between the directors experience and later works, especially that of William Wyler who came away practically deafened in the name of filming the conflict for audiences back home and in uniform. His last completed documentary being Thunderbolt (1947) released after the war to the public. Only able to hear via a hearing aid and only just His adjustment back to civilian life was hard, needing to find subjects that reflected his experiences. His last civilian effort – Mrs Miniver (1942) may have been a winner at the awards yet for him it lacked the reality of real warfare. I personally left that film, uplifted, experience a classic war film on the home-front, even though made across in Hollywood. Maybe it was the actors who made it, maybe it was the on-screen comradely. The general public doesn’t go in looking for accuracy, they go for escapism and that’s what Mrs Miniver was and still is.
His first film back in civilian life The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) sees a grounding in his working, looking at those soldiers who have to return to the lives they left behind. As if they are stuck in a moment in time, whilst the rest of the world carries on. I want to seek out this film to understand it more. However what I want to talk about is a film that I haven’t seen in some time – The Big Country (1958) from a director who made very few westerns in his career. This one stands out in the genre, it has a universal quality to it. The sweeping iconic score from Jerome Moross who is much forgotten himself over the vast landscape where this bold Western plays out.
So where does the rawness come into The Big Country? that’s what I wanted to know, where are his experience of life on the screen. I have to look at this film from the point of view of the director not so much the characters which act more like vessels for himself. Each different aspects of his life. The open country that is so breathtaking for us to eat up is a reflection of the land of opportunity that Wyler came too in the early 1930’s when he escaped Nazi Germany before it could have killed him. Entering into the middle of cattle country, the big-business of the 19th century, of course a mirror of 2oth centuries being film. James McKay (Gregory Peck) is the outsider who has live a life in the refined East, and on-board sailing ships, a gentlemen entering a world that is alien to him, and where the meaning of being a man is very different, bringing with him some 20th century ideas as we find out. Coming out West to marry the woman Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker) he met whilst she was out in his world. He is making a massive sacrifice to literally leave his world behind him for the rugged outdoors.
His manhood’s tested not long after his arrival in the form of the Hannassey brothers, the rival cattle family. They are a what McKay is not, rough with a gun at their side, not so bothered about their appearance, these are cowboys the man of the West who knows how to handle himself, nothing scares them, at least on the surface. The test is a failure of sorts, not fighting back in front of Patricia whose gun is lost and forced to bring her carriage to a halt to be harassed. She is starting to really see the man she is about to marry. Not a complete mirror image of Wyler’s first few years, having to adapt to a different way of working. The films he was given to direct. Yet come to be-known for his multiple takes, pushing even the hardest of actors which included Bette Davis.
Of course it’s only when we meet the older men of the cast, the heads of the Terrills – Maj. Henry (Charles Bickford) and Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives) who is the complete opposite. Both powerful men in their own ways, men to be feared if crossed. For me if you take away Peck from the film you still have Ives who stole the show, chewing the scenery, owning the landscape as if he was born there. These two men could mirror the studio moguls who kept their stars in check, decided their future and could easily make enemies. Also most of them European and Jewish which is the major. The chosen enemy of the Nazi’s and resented by Americans for their success and power in their own country, making and living the American dream, dictating what audience would ultimately watch and listen to. Of course in a Western everyone is mostly American, even the rival families who are fighting for drinking rights. When you listen to Maj. Henry you can feel the hate that he feels for the Hannasssey’s who live in the mountains, not the fields of rich grass. Who should we as an audience side with? Personally I was drawn to the Hannessey’s more so Rufus who speaks more from the heart, the down-trodden man who wont stay down. I think what got me was the first time we meet him, as he interrupts a party shaming the Maj. into getting him to pick up a gun to kill him. The Maj. doesn’t take the bait, the better man, or out of gentlemanly modesty he refuses.
Of course what stands in both the families ways is the Big Muddy, land owned by school teacher Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) who holds the real power between them. Wanting to be the meadiator, wanting peace. She is the ideal even though her land is not covered with cattle, the house is in a state of dis-repair. Best friend also of Patricia who is like one of the short-sighted, her fathers daughter in short that wont easily have her mind changed. It had been so long that I forgot the romantic outcome of the film. We’re not supposed like her much, compared to the more feminine Maragon who has more Eastern qualities which 20th century America can associate with. As much as Patricia is saying what a man should be, whilst Julie is more accepting of the man in the form he comes.
This has become more of an essay (of sorts) than a review, I want to quickly look at Steve Leech (Charlton Heston) the adoptive son of the Terrill’s who has become the man that is the ideal, the one that even Wyler may have wanted to be, but only ever be Mckay in reality which is all I could ever be out in that world. They do meet head on in a sequence that I mis-took for suspense as they both show their real strengths to each other, a long fistful goodbye, that last a good five minutes, far longer than most on-screen fights which at that length today would fall into parody. They develop a mutual respect for each other. That’s after the knowledge that we have that McKay has proved himself to be a man of the West in certain ways, adapting his knowledge from the East to the West, even if he can’t prove that to those who matter, he has to keep those success’s quite until its too late.
The finale is a long drawn out battle of two warring families finally meeting in Blanco Canyon, the rugged dangerous mountains where so many other Westerns have taken place, usually home to the Native Americans who can hide out and wait for the white man to enter into their world. Here its the home of the Hannassey’s who are the underdogs, even seen as white Native American of the film, but more acceptable because they are white. Its become warfare between two men who have to prove themselves. Not before a few tests of strength between Mckay and Buck Hannassey (Chuck Connors), where we see love losing out to honor at times. Its as dramatic as the film gets before we get down to business.
It’s a long film even for a Western but it does hold your attention for the length of 2hours and 39 minutes, nothing is wasted with time for action, romance, violence, war and hatred. That’s a to pack in to even the standard length film, it spills out on the vast canvas. When you read it in the light of the directors eyes you see something far different than just a Western, something that speaks from an lone outsider who had long been accepted by both his peers and the country he lived in. You could say he lived the American dream, thing very idea that The Big Country is all about.
I’ve been watching a few of Orson Welles‘s later films (with cameo’s) and I thought it was time to take a look at one of his own films, one that on the surface doesn’t appear to have been butchered in the editing room. You could say that The Stranger (1946) has come out practically unscathed after what happened with The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) which is only half as good as it really could be. If only the footage that was cut could be found and pieced back together again. Still that’s another discussion for another review. Looking at this film-noir that on the surface appears more main-stream, has more in common with the genre that accidentally grew around that time and Welles’s breakthrough film Citizen Kane (1941) where he was left to his own devices. OK here we have less of that style which he uses more subtly to get the feelings of fear, shock and innocence across to an audience who at the time had just come out of war with Germany and Japan that finished that year. They were being exposed to newsreels of harrowing images of concentration camps that had been discovered. The full extent of Nazi crimes was being made public. Even for an audience today seeing footage from the camps is unsettling, traumatic, a hard watch to say the least in the face of incredible human suffering and loss. Orson Welles has taken a gamble playing with the images that have been burned into the short-term memory of America.
Taking that context into a film that is today very much forgotten among more memorable films he directed. This is very much a product of its time. You could dare I say remake it today with an Islamic State focus rather than a Nazi that has gone into hiding. Typically played by Welles himself you see less of him and more of the investigating detective Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) who takes a chance by releasing another Nazi onto the streets. Hoping that he will lead him to the bigger prize, that of Professor Charles Rankin otherwise known as the notoriously media shy Franz Kindler who played a major role in the gas chambers, a high-ranking Nazi that got away. Thankfully a fictional Nazi that made this film slightly safer, instead of a true account that never happen thankfully. However it’s the thought that even in the safety of a state of rich, prosperous and middle class Connecticut, it makes you think how this could happen in small town America.
Welles even takes a lower billing, it’s all about the search for the truth, seeking to restore safety and security in America. A brave choice by the director who really has a lot of fun in the role. Robinson’s seen to be settling into roles of a maturer man which really suits him, he’s no longer the gangster of the 1930’s. He brings really weight to the role, you feel he believes the lines he is delivering. He’s Americas conscience still fighting and reeling from the trauma of war. Whilst Loretta Young is more side dressing between these two men. She’s weak and indecisive, trapped in a marriage of convienence to a man hiding. Shes America that is still in denial, needing that jolt of reality to wake up to the horrors of the previous half decade or more.
Stylistically this film is very much Welles, the cinematography never stays still for long. Un-nerving us with heavy and high tracking shots, mixed with cuts that leave you on the edge of your seat. It really is not a film-noir of the standard we are used to in the city, I wouldn’t even call it a noir on these terms Welles simply uses the devices he pioneered and pushes them further. It’s not quite as dark as The Lady from Shanghai (1947) or Touch of Evil (1958), he’s still fine tuning. We are outside in the sunshine of Eastern America where trouble never really happens. We are taken into an unsettled world that is yet to full understand what is happening either at home or in Europe. This isn’t even a war-film, it falls more into straight thriller with over-powering sense of fear that has loosened a little with time. We no longer have this enemy around us, a few are being found into their old age.
I guess to really feel the power of this film you have seen it on first release. You do wonder if the truth will out itself and that is what remains. An enemy that has long been put to bed can still stir up your deepest fears, which shows the power of the film over the course of time. The context maybe more historical, its the fear of the unknown and distant being closer than you think which stays with you. I could watch this film on mute and still it would have a power over me which is all down to the strong visuals that stay with you which is what you want from a film of this age.
It’s hard to imagine that the same director Oliver Hirschbiegel gave us Downfall (2004) and Diana (2013). Both towering figures of the twentieth century yet the outcomes are miles apart. I made a conscious decision to avoid the latter, based partly o the poor reviews and the fact that the film was even made about such a controversial figure who in this country is held so dear to the nation.
Turning to the far superior Downfall I can see from the start I am in for something special and moving. When Adolf Hitler’s former secretary Traudl Junge speaking about her regret of being part of the Nazi party. A stark reminder that this is an account of what really happened. The facts have become blurred over the years due to film recounting them for entertainment. Our understanding is impaired by depiction after depiction of WWII. What happens is of course of the two hours is again a mix of fact and fiction. We see a powerful man fall into madness, as his closest allies talk of the end, an end that he denies until it’s upon him.
Following the final days of the war in Berlin as the Russian front was beginning to surround the German capital the events far below ground are the centre of attention. Of course there are conspiracy theories that say Hitler lived into the 1970’s and other nonsense, here is a clear and direct progression from denial to acceptance by a man who changed the course of history. Portrayed by Bruno Ganz, a role that has become both admired and the material for comical YouTube videos, he provides the definitive performance of Hitler. In his final weeks in Berlin starts to unravel as his plan for conquering the world finally begins to crumble around him. It’s disturbing to watch what he has to say, not just about the enemy and the Jews it’d his own people who he now turns against, the once great master race has let him down so deserves to die. His own army has all be dissipated, surrendering to the allied forces or lost in action. He sees his closest advisors turn against him.
Only they really accept the reality of the situation, doing the best they can to make the best of it to get out alive (not that many do as history and allegiances tell us). Throughout the film we see how them trying to persuade the Fruher to surrender, to talk to Eisenhower, to reach out and save himself from complete humiliation. Sadly it’s already happened. As the audiences waits for the inevitable to take place we are shown other aspects of the capitals downfall. From children taking on the enemy, destroying two Russian tanks with one bazooka. It’s hard to imagine a child being placed in the middle of a war zone on the brink of falling to the enemy. To the women of the men who are more steadfast and loyal than some of the men. Such as Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) cannot see beyond socialism which has given her strength for all these years.
A powerful film that really looks at the final days of the Nazi regime as they realise victory has long gone. It must have been a hard film to make, both in terms of production and acting, to recreate a time in Germany’s past that is now looked on with shame and reflection, to see how far they have come as a country. A very important film for the country to show how far they have come to retell these events themselves. Owning the events and saying, yes this happened and it will never happen again. A very important film that is hard to really surpass in terms of the war genre of film, just looking at the poster, I can’t think of many others that even come close to this piece of work.
- Downfall (2004): inaccuracies (inhistorics.blogspot.co.uk)
- Downfall (2004) – the horror of Hitler (blackholereviews.blogspot.co.uk)
- Movie – Downfall (2004) (tipsfromchip.blogspot.co.uk)
- IMDB Top 250: Downfall (2004) (niels85.wordpress.com)
- Movie #67: Downfall (2004) (501mustseemoviesproject.wordpress.com)
- Downfall (2004) (cinemaisnotdead.blogspot.co.uk)
- Der Utergang (Downfall) 2004
With a very distinctive visual style and portrayal of violence, I knew I was in for something both beautiful and gloriously violent. That’s not to say that Sam Peckinpah enjoyed violence for which he will always be remembered for, in fact it was quite the opposite, hating it with a passion. Increasing the volume greatly from The Wild Bunch (1969) which can seem tame in comparison to the much later Cross of Iron (1977) on the Nazi battlefield in Russia.
It’s very rare that we actually sympathise with a German soldier, something I have only done twice before; All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and Das Boot (1981). Again it doesn’t really matter what side these soldiers are on, seen more as men in the midst of a war they are loosing. Focusing on their dynamics rather than the politics of the conflict as the began their retreat from Russia in 1943. The main conflict is between the decorated and rebellious Rolf Stiener (James Coburn) and the Prussian Captain Hauptmann (Maximilian Schell) who wants the Iron Cross medal, an iconic and sought after piece in the Third Reich. A personal fight for glory is being waged between two men. A clash of class ideals is going on between these influential men on the Russian front.
The opening titles of this film are fascinating, matched to a frantic succession of images that depict the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazi army, as if they are playing a game, just children taking over the playground. Tinged with cynicism of the weary soldier characterised by Coburn who gas grown to hate all that is about the war and probably Germany. Still he carries out his orders and looks out for his men throughout. Even pitying a young prisoner they find, not having the heart to kill a boy in uniform, which would amount to murder not a legal killing in his and the mens eyes.
Theres a battle within the structure of command, between the colonel Oberst (James Mason) and his assistant Captain Hauptmann (David Warner). Both weary of the war, knowing they have all but lost, wondering when they will surrender. Warner plays a depressed captain whose hopes have been all but lost to the ravages of war, whilst the colonel is holding together his command. Handling a glory hungry upper-class Prussian who will stop at nothing in gaining the Iron Cross, unable to return to his family without one.
A lot of subject matter is discussed here, from the ethics of prisoner treatment to the glory of fighting, philosophy of the individual. By no means is this just a find the enemy and shooter dead kind of a film. It’s both intelligent and thought-provoking as we see the injured soldier, how they are treated by the higher ranks, the mental stresses of war, dramatically seen in slow-motion flashbacks. Whichever side of war you are on, it’s never easy for the simple soldier out there fighting. Who can lose that sense of purpose, killing, running and following orders that lose all meaning with all the death and destruction around them.
The violence found within The Wild Bunch was for its time controversial, by the time of Cross of Iron we had grown used to it all. The very setting of the latter film delivers us more studies of death as they slowed down to not enjoy but be horrified by. Cinematically we see a life coming to an end in far more than a flash of an explosion or a round of bullets piercing flesh and blood. Being forced to see such brutality makes death a spectacle to watch in awe. It’s just a trick, whilst in reality it’s anything but. This heightened experience of war makes it more real and at the same time hype real, what is over in a second we now see for 10 seconds.
It’s ultimately about two men at logger heads, at either end of the social spectrum placed into a world that a power struggle. No one really wins as we leave them when the Russians once more advance. I’m cheering for no one at this point, drained by all the violence that has been spewing out of the screen. All the tired men just trying to live another day as best they can. Isn’t that we are all trying to do, get through the day the best we can, making the most of what we have? Ok maybe a bit extreme there, I’m not in a war zone not knowing if I’ll be alive by the end of the day. For me I’ve just discovered a hidden gem of Peckinpah’s that deserves more praise than it receives, understanding his subject matter, always following the underdog at his demise, just what he does best.
- Film Review: Cross of Iron, 1977: Directed by Sam Peckinpah starring James Coburn & Maximilian Schell
- Cross of Iron (misterneil.blogspot.co.uk)
- 0032 Cross of Iron (popcornnights.wordpress.com)
- #64 – CROSS OF IRON (warmoviebuff.blogspot.co.uk)
- Cross of Iron (nothingiswrittenfilm.blogspot.co.uk)
- Cross of Iron: Short of Greatness (swordofelysium.wordpress.com)
- Slow Motion in Sam Pekinpah’s Cross of Iron (ardfilmjournal.wordpress.com)
- World War II Marathon: Cross of Iron (1977) (billsmovieemporium.wordpress.com)
The Pianist (2002) is one of those films that takes a certain type of director to understand the material, much like Steven Spielberg who was cautious in approaching Schindler’s’ List (1993). Here Roman Polanksi who may even have a greater understanding of the material, having grown up in Poland just before the Nazi occupation. Even being inspired by events in his own life whilst adapting the book the film’s based upon (The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939-1945)
Once again the film focuses in Warsaw, which is purely coincidence, and allowing for bigger scope and allowing the audience to engage easier. Based on the biography of Wladyslaw Szpilman who thankfully survived the occupation. I knew the basic plot but not the depth if his experiences, risking his life to stay behind and leave his family who ultimately become casualties of the holocaust, yet leave a strong mark on the film. An average Jewish family who are struggling to survive under the oppressive Nazi regime that saw them moved about, stripping them of their liberties, dignity and sadly their lives. For the first half of the film, we’re surrounded by family before they are taken away.
With the family seemingly sent away to a work-camp we stay with Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) the once famed pianist now fighting for survival, having lost his way of life, wanting to escape the confines of the ghetto where the few remaining Jews are forced to work under fear of death. Once he finally escapes he has to rely on the kindness of strangers from an underground movement that sees him move from apartment to apartment, trapped for months at a time. He becomes an on looker to the awful events that destroy the town around him. For a while we become viewers ourselves of this occupation, taking a nod to Rear Window (1954) that confines your view to one room as the action unfolds on the streets.
Thankfully under a barrage of attack he escapes to ruined streets where he finds shelter and friendship in a sympathizing Nazi Captain Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann) who from seeing his talent for the ivories allows him to hide in safety, knowing that the war is in its twilight, killing another Jew would doing nothing to help the effort. It seems as though however bound he was to duty, the ideals of the Nazi’s were wanning by the end of the war, it was fear that kept them going.
The film is rich in detail, not wanting to drop a line of the original text, it feels so vital to telling this tale with truth and honesty that is hard not to shed a tear or two whilst watching this film. A creative man who wants to play, yet in such a dangerous climate is unable to express himself. It’s this expression that ultimately saves his life. A talent that in a time is expendable, only a few would be kept to entertain the enemy. Wladyslaw Szpilman was a very lucky individuals whose trust in others paid off, without resorting to Hollywood schmaltz that films resort to, instead it was the kindness of humanity and strangers that saw this man to survive.