Posts tagged “WWII

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Just over a year ago I reviewed The Big Country (1958) writing it in response to having just read Five Came Back by Mark Harris which focused on five directors including William Wyler who documented the WWII from the skies, most memorably – The Memphis Belle (1944). The book has just been turned into a 3-part documentary series now. I left my review wanting to watch his first film coming back home to Hollywood, wanting to consider those veterans who were all starting to come home, not all in the same shape that families last saw them go off in. These were the lucky ones, countless men were lost in action and the line of duty but not in vain. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) was Wyler’s tribute to these men, America’s veterans from the world’s most deadly brutal conflict. It was also a massive eye-opener to the public that their veterans were coming home, whilst some were adapting well to civilian life there were of course many who weren’t.

There aren’t many films from the 1940s that run to almost 3 hours in length, yet those don’t have such an important heart-felt message to deliver. It has to run at a leisurely pace to feel like real life, no stylish editing to take away from the documentary style aesthetic that combined actors and amateurs who really brought home what civilian life meant for these veterans. We follow three ex-servicemen who are trying to get home. Taking one from the three main arms of the forces – Navy, Army and the Air force we see three very different men return home. The first hour is full of emotion as we follow them first meeting to the taxi they share. Each optimistic and uncertain of what lays beyond that door to their past lives.

First we meet Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) as he wants to get a flight home, none are going his way for now. Whilst civilians find it so easy, as one passenger literally is just handed his pre-booked tickets. He has to return to his own kind to get a trip home, in a bomber that no longer carries bombs, just passengers where he meets the other two veterans – Al Stephenson (Fredric March) a sergeant who fought the ground war and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) a navy officer who has lost his arms to below the elbow, leaving him with hooks, a lasting reminder of the warm and its personal cost to him. Having him on-screen is as reminder of the real sacrifices, Russell a non-professional actor who can really bring home what went on at sea, on the land and in the skies of war. He came close to paying the ultimate cost. It’s a shock to see him, yet we quickly accept him and his situation. He can cope with them why can’t we. I was amazed how he could operate these complex hooks which allow him to function. There’s an underlying fear – will he be accepted by his family and ultimately his fiance Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) who he has to reconnect with.

At this point we don’t know how the war has really affected the other two who have come back pretty much intact – on the surface anyway. It’s when as I keep mentioning they get home do we start to understand what they are coming back to. For Al the banker he’s has changed emotionally, more assertive and sure of himself. His family isn’t yet ready to receive this man back into their lives. Taking his wife Milly (Myrna Loy) and daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright)  on a bender. They clearly haven’t seen this side of their father and husband who has really come of what was a very conservative life of a comfortable job in a bank that assured his families future.

Whilst Fred takes a bit longer to work out. After learning his wife (of only 20 days when he last saw her) had moved out and becoming a club singer. Not the life he was expecting to come back to. He represents all those men who fell in love and got married before their leave was up. Understandably so, no one knew if they would return and wanted to make the most of what time they had. He’s one of the average Joe’s (yes Dana Andrews) who we see again at Butch’s (Hoagy Carmichael) drugstore where we also find Al and Homer who have formed a bond that would never have happened at war, three division of the armed forces have come together. Alcohol fueled and very emotional. It’s at Butch’s that they are all able to open up, start to see their futures.

You could see this as just another standard film of the era, yet there’s something very different in the characterisations, we have more realism, sure they are all well acted, with a nod in Harold Russell, one of the few men in the film who saw action validating what this film is about. He has nothing to lose from his role. You could say the film relies on him which would be unfair, the trained actors/actresses.

Turning away from Homer we have Fred who gives us the first glimpse at what P.T.S.D. really is, of course it’s only fleeting, a nightmare of his time on a bombing mission. Not able to properly process what has happened, to grieve for those he has lost and the scenes he has seen whilst at war. He has it probably just as hard as Homer adapting to civilian life, having to find a job, not wanting to return to his past to support him. A wife whose not the person he married, the woman he knew was in the photo he held onto for 3 years, not the woman who wants the uniform, the image of his past. Both are looking for something in each other that no longer or never really existed, an ideal version. Whilst Homer is unsure that he will be accepted by his family and fiance, not the man they saw leave to fight. It’s one that so many others returning home were facing at the time.

The film drives home what had changed at home in America, that it hadn’t stood still. It’s not like going on a holiday only to see the house is still standing and everyone around you is still there. There was a financial boom during the period, massive change at home, a word I am not afraid to repeat over and over now. Home is what the film is all about, what it means to so many when away for so long. The expectations of the veterans, the civilians who welcome them back and adapt to these changed men to a life they had all but forgotten. No longer giving or carrying out orders, running for or fighting the enemy, all that is over. Going back to where they had always wanted to be. Society at the time was going through a state of mass readjustment, making room and accepting these men back into daily life, a whole other battle. The Best Years of Our Lives went a long way to making it easier for veterans to be accepted back home after they had longed for it ever-since they left.

Lastly I want to find a connection between this film and The Big Country which saw a man out-of-place, adapting to an alien world that spoke his own language yet he had to prove himself to those around him. A war of his own you could say. It’s nothing like Years of Our Lives which was a much-needed film for its time. Much as Wyler’s last film before leaving for war himself Mrs. Miniver (1942) encouraged his own country to get behind the war in Europe. Two films that captured the spirit of the war. Looking at the Western it’s so far away from this time it’s something else entirely, a look back at the war, maybe another look is needed, I know I’ll be taking in Mrs. Miniver soon.



Film Talk – George Bailey’s Nightmare

On 16th January I presented my first film talk, the first in a series of community based talks about film, looking into films in more detail than before. The first was looking at It’s a Wonderful Life (1947) sharing my insights of the film with the general public. Below you can read the notes from the night.

Tonight I’d like to explore the darker side of It’s a Wonderful Life, (1946), Frank Capras Christmas classic that at the time of release got a mixed to luke-warm response from both critics and general public. His first film post WWII, it was also the flagship film for his new production company, Liberty films which he formed with fellow directors and comrades during the war George Stevens, and William Wyler. Both very different directors; Stevens known for his comedies, especially for the Tracy and Hepburn film; Woman of the Year (1942); where the famous affair began. Whereas Wyler had been making a range of films, a few with Bette Davis who he had affairs with. It wasn’t until he released Mrs Miniver (1942) about a middle class British family coping with war on the home front did his career begin to change for the better.

Turning back to Capra, he was a Sicilian immigrant who came to America in 1903 aged six with his family. He would later to move to Hollywood where he would direct a string of very successful comedies during the depression. Moving forward to just before It’s a Wonderful life was released in late 1946, he has spent the last the duration of the World War two, posted in Washington, holding the rank of Major, in command of the U.S. Film core, coordinating projects at home and out on the front line. Most notable colleagues under his command included John Ford, John Huston, William Wyler, who made propaganda films for both public and military consumption.

With exception to John Ford, he was the most successful of the fellow directors, having directed a number of successful comedies, earning himself 3 Best Director Oscars during the 1930’s alone. The films speak for themselves

It Happened One Night (1934) was the first film and comedy to winning the “Big 5” Best Actor, Actress, Writing, Director and Film. The film follows a journalist who will stop at nothing to get an exclusive story of a runaway socialite before her big wedding.

Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936) won best director, second in a row, and his third nomination. A musician inherits a vast fortune, spending the rest of the film fighting off city slickers who will do anything for it.

You Can’t Take it With You (1938) won Best director and film for his studio Columbia. A rich Families son falls for a daughter from an eccentric family, who in turn lay in the way of the family business’s plans.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) most notable for the 12-minute filibuster by James Stewart picked up Best Original Screenplay. A naïve boy ranger’s leader is made governor of his state, when in Washington he finds corruption, not the high ideals who believes in.

All of these films came before Pearl Harbor in December 1942 when he would finish his on-going projects before enlisting. On returning to civilian life, his industry had changed beyond recognition, as much as they wanted him. He wrote in the New York Times about

‘Breaking Hollywood’s “Pattern of Sameness”…This war he wrote had caused American filmmakers to see movies that studios had been turning out “through their eyes” and to recoil from the “machine-like treatment” that, he contended, made most pictures look and sound the same. “Many of the men… producers, directors, scriptwriters returned from service with a firm resolve to remedy this,” he said; the production companies there were now forming would give each of them “freedom and liberty” to pursue “his own individual ideas on subject matter and material”

Five Came Back – Mark Harris – Pg. 419-20

What is this “Pattern of Sameness” that he was reacting to in his article? The article was setting out his opening of an independent studio – Liberty Studios that would produce films unhindered by the moguls. Something that more and more directors were beginning to do. Maybe this “Sameness” was a type of film he was not used to, or produced a negative response in him. Were these the films his contemporaries and even partners in his new venture were all making?

“…his fellow filmmakers, including his two new partners, were becoming more outspoken advocates for increased candour and frankness in Hollywood movies and a more adult approach to storytelling, he flinched at anything that smacked of controversy. Over the past several years he had become so enthralled by the use of film as propaganda that in peacetime he was finding it hard to think of movies in any other way. “ There are just two things that are important,” he told the Los Angeles Times in March. “One is to strengthen the individuals belief in himself, and the other, even more important right now, is to combat a modern trend towards atheism.”

Five Came Back – Mark Harris – Pg. 419-20

His fellow filmmakers were striving for more realism in their work, one response for wanting realism, a stylized realism is Film noir.

“The term “film noir” itself was coined by the French, always astute critics and avid fans of American culture from Alexis de Tocqueville through Charles Baudelaire to the young turks at Cahiers du cinema. It began to appear in French film criticism almost immediately after the conclusion of World War Two. Under Nazi Occupation the French had been deprived of American movies for almost five years; and when they finally began to watch them in late 1945, they noticed a darkening not only of mood but of the subject matter.”

Film Noir – Alain Silver & James Ursini – Pg 10

A new kind of American cinema was flooding into French cinemas.

I’d like to show the nightmare, or alternate reality sequence from the film now. However before I do, I’d like to share what I found in the sequence that fits into what makes a film noir a film noir. There a few themes and visual cues that can be attributed to the genre, each applied to different varieties within the genre, showing how flexible it is.

The Haunted Past –

“Noir protagonists are seldom creatures of the light. They are often escaping some past burdens, sometimes a traumatic incident from their past (as in Detour or Touch of Evil) o sometimes a crime committed out of passion (as in Out of the Past, Criss Cross and Double Indemnity). Occasionally they are simply fleeing their own demons created by ambiguous events buried in their past, as in In a Lonely Place.”

Film Noir – Alain Silver & James Ursini – Pg 15

For George he tries for the majority if the film to escape his hometown – Bedford Falls, which has always pulled him back at the last-minute. His father’s death, marriage to Mary, the Depression, His hearing that stopped him fighting during World War II, until finally he might be leaving to serve a jail sentence for bankruptcy.

The Fatalistic Nightmare – “The noir world revolves around causality. Events are linked like an unbreakable chain and lead inevitably to a heavily foreshadowed conclusion. It is a deterministic universe in which psychology…chance…and even structures of society…can ultimately override whatever good intentions and high hopes the main characters have.”

Film Noir – Alain Silver & James Ursini – Pg 15

You could say that George has been living a nightmare, until he enters into a world created by his desire to not exist.

These are only types of Noir narrative that apply to the film. The look of Noir has been applied to the alternate reality where George enters his Noir Nightmare, the look of the town, now named Pottersville, where we find all the business in town have sold out, part of Potters empire, populated with bars and clubs, another town to drown your sorrows, forget who you are and where you have come from, until reality will ultimately come for payment.

The lighting – Chiaroscuro Lighting. Low-key lighting, in the style of Rembrandt or Caravaggio, marks most noirs of the classic period. Shade and light play against each other not only in night exteriors but also in dimmed interiors shielded from daylight by curtains or Venetian blinds. Hard, unfiltered side light and rim outline and reveal only a portion of the face to create a dramatic tension all its own. Cinematographers such as, John F Seitz and John Alton took his style to the highest level in films like Out of the Past, Double Indemnity and T-Men. Their black and white photography with its high contrasts, stark day exteriors and realistic night work became the standard of the noir style.

Film Noir – Alain Silver & James Ursini – Pg 16

If we look at Out of the Past (1947) which follows a private investigator (Robert Mitchum) who has tried to escape his life, living in a small town as a mechanic, before his old life catches up with him in the form of Kirk Douglas. Here you can see the deep shadow that leaves the characters in almost darkness at times.

Whilst in Double Indemnity (1944) another prime example of the genre we can see how the lights are directed against the blinds, which act more like bars of a jail cell rather than an indicator of the time of day, Light and shadow are used to take us into a dark underworld that is lurking around the corner ready to consume you.

I’m going to play the nightmare sequence now (stills below), afterwards I’ll share some of my observations.

Capra essentially redressed and relight of Bedford Falls? I feel that Capra was reluctant to really delve into the genre he was resisting. He does however replicate the lighting, which is heavily stylised through the exterior scenes and those in the old Granville house, where he had previously (in his living life) threw stones at with Mary. However here it seems more stones have been thrown here, as it’s beyond a ghost house.

  Looking at George reaction to the world around him as he begins to realise that this is not his world, the consequences of his not existing has on the world.

I also noticed that it’s the third time that he has jumped/fallen into the water, the first being to save his younger brother Harry’s life, the second as he literally and emotionally falls for Mary, his wife to be.

Whilst the third and final fall, is an accidental heroic act that replicates the first time that was for Harry, this time for a stranger, the angel – second-class, Clarence.




Hell in the Pacific (1968)

Hell in the Pacific (1968)I was going to review another of Lee Marvin film that I watched at the weekend – Point Blank (1967) sadly I couldn’t find anything extra to really bring to a Revisited review so I passed on the opportunity. Moving on from there I had another Marvin film that I wanted to watch more out of interest for whom he’s paired opposite – Toshiro Mifune in Hell in the Pacific (1968) here we have two strong leading actors from countries that during WWII were fighting on opposite sides, brought together in the guise of a war film of that period. It doesn’t take us long to lose the setting of the war to reveal something far deeper than Yank vs. Jap.

Almost immediately I was drawn to the lack of dialogue between these two men, something that you rarely find in a film of this genre or even period, a very brave move by the director. Of course the silence can’t last for long, they have to and will communicate as the first test each other as they fight for their very survival. Our American pilot (Marvin) can plainly see that his enemy Captain Tsuruhiko Kuroda (Mifune) fight over the limited water that the Japanese Captain has captured, its like gold to both of them, protected and fought over more so before it is all washed away.

What follows is a period of mind games between the two men who are both clearly not at their best pushing each other to the brink and personal limits both physically and mentally. There were times that I wished there were subtitles for Mifune who can be lost by the language barrier. I’m surprised that the channel that aired the film didn’t take that into consideration. Until you realise that you don’t really need them as you can easily gauge from how the film develops how he feels. Helped by Marvin who is in just the same boat, a language barrier that could easily have worked against him. Instead we see him work through it as much as the audience forgets that and just engages with the emotions between these two tactical and now survival minded men.

I’m glad the film progresses from one fight to another, first those against each other which prove interesting to watch. The staring from Marvin is both playful and dangerous, he knows the game he is playing. We see the American lose his side to fight this one lone man, he is the only opposition he’s up against so puts all his energy into it. Driving the Captain to breaking point, even the audience starts to question what is happening, surrounded by the noises of the jungle that join in on the act.

It all comes to a head when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of their situation, they are both alone on this Pacific island that holds them both captive. Looking out for a passing ship, then at least they would be safe and alive, even if one becomes a P.O.W. the other would be indebted to them for saving their lives. As I mentioned earlier the language barrier melt away after finding a wooden draw that is out a few metres from the island. The moment when they decide to work together, the idea of being enemies and foreign falls away, it’s about survival at any cost. Constructing a raft from bamboo they soon set sail, we move into a different kind of film that leaves the island behind, hopes of being found alive.

We lose the dialogue once more as they work to navigate  the Pacific ocean where anything could happen, anyone could intercept them now they are in the open. Out there they becomes good friends, words are not needed for their mutual co-operation, sailing together requires not just strength and quick thinking it needs trust to run a tight ship or even raft that combines Japanese and American design.

Landing later on an island that we learn is deserted, looking like it was once occupied by both sides. It’s a time for reflection, to scrub up like you only in a Hollywood film, our once dishevelled men become polished again, ready to carry on their journey, hopefully in better condition. Not long after minutes if suspense as nobody knows which side we are entering into. It’s a confused wilderness of objects from both sides, what can we believe, even the two men are confused before making it their own.

We stay on this once inhabited island for the ending that I was considering for sometime, would it fade to black? would they be picked up by one of their sides, a tearful handshake as the other is lead off to a camp to see out the war? I just couldn’t decided. The director clear could, to conclude this film for both audiences, that have seen a two veterans of WWII on-screen together, opposing sides wanting different outcomes. The best thing to do is to end it all before it goes any further an explosion draws this fiction, this possible truth to an abrupt end, leaving us with our questions that will be forever left unanswered. It stands out as a war film on a number of levels, a minimal cast and dialogue that allow for a film that could go anywhere. Two classic enemies are pitted against each other with only a few pieces to survive on, war becomes survival and in time friendship and respect.

None Shall Escape (1944)

None Shall Escape (1944)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.

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The Big Country (1958) Revisited

The Big Country (1958)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 WylerWho 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.

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The Wind Rises/Kaze tachinu (2013)

The Wind-Rises (2013)Widely seen as Hayao Miyazaki‘s farewell and indeed the last film from Studio Ghibli for the foreseeable future too, which is even more poignant when you look back at the incredible output of the Japanese animation studio. Traditional animation for feature films is indeed a dying art. Even Disney have stopped working in 2D, but that’s more to do with the critical reception, and more financial reward from computer generated animation. I wonder if that could be a possible new direction for the Japanese studio, who have triumphed for so long in the traditional media. I can’t honestly see the awesome wonder they create on the computer.

I remember catching a glimpse of The Wind Rises (2013) when I caught From Up on Poppy Hill (2011) reminding of the earlier Porco Rosso (1992) which also had a strong aviation theme. Unlike the majority of Ghibli’s film are centred around a female protagonist, The Wind Rises focuses on the dreams and aspirations of one male aeronautical designer, a brave leap for a company that for 20 years or more has championed the independence of the female. We have a dreamer in Jirô Horikoshi (Hideaki Anno) as a boy who frequently steps into his dreams of one day bringing to life his glider like plane, with the added dread that some how it would be a disaster. Sharing his dreams with personal hero, the Italian designer Giovanni Battista Caproni (Mansai Nomura) they meet several times throughout the dream in these dream sequences that explore Jiro’s inner mind, he deepest thoughts are set free. If only they two designers actually met in the real world?

Set during the build-up to Japan’s entry into WWII we find Jiro as a young boy who has big dreams which we see slowly come to fruition. Not before an incredibly animated earthquake sequence where he first meets the love of his life. It not all plain sailing for this couple. Focusing more development, drive and passion that sees Jiro and his friend Honjô (Hidetoshi Nishijima) starting out a juniors designers who are working on a winning design for the navy’s aeroplane fleet. I am already thinking forward to Pearl Harbour that pulled America into the war, but there is little talk of the war itself.

Build up begins when they two designers visit Germany in hopes of bringing technology back to fast forward development of their own planes. Tension is in the air, with Ghibli’s own version of the SS who already have a tight grip on the country for Hitler. We’re pulled out before it becomes too serious really, we don’t really receive the traditional history lesson in a pre WWII film, even from Japan’s point of view. Not like the heart wrenching Grave of the Fireflies (1989) that deals with the aftermath of the atom bomb. Focusing on the ambition of a designer who takes every opportunity to bring his sleek glider design to life.

The love interest doesn’t really take off until much later, first meeting her as a young girl who caught his hat, every time they meet is due to the wind bringing them together, it was mean to be. Its feels so natural, to see Jiro and Naoko Satomi (Miori Takimoto) who meet at a hotel by chance alone. All linked with the wind that determines the course of the film, Allowing for mad-cap designs take flight, really playing with classic designs. The fantastical of the mechanical that Ghibli are known for is paired back in this final film. They don’t want to show off in what is easily their swan-song, if that is what we have here. If we do get another Ghibli film it could be a few years yet. We have a graceful film full of wonder in the skies, celebrating a period on Japan’s history before things got messy for them.

This was indeed worth the wait, that little taster wetting the appetite of what is a graceful film that celebrates part of their aeronautical history. The animation is not as impressive as previously films, they didn’t to go over the top, instead emphasising nature, allowing us to see the wonders of the world from the sky. The choice of male protagonist goes against the tradition for the company and their environmental nature loving ethos, becoming more of standard film. We are not being delivered more of the same of what we have to expect in terms of plot elements, our expectations are instead blown away, quite literally at times.

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Sin City (2005)

Sin City (2005)I originally wrote off Sin City (2005) without really looking into what it was about. Partly because I’m not a fan of comic book films and I had yet to discover film noir which I now love, if only I could get more of that American genre. I started to think differently about this film really with its mention by the director Robert Rodriguez who said that without digital technology this film would not be possible. Part of the fascination Side by Side (2012) documentary which really made me aware of this film, the landmark of visual effects and storytelling. You could say it was simply overlooked, I wasn’t going to start with the sequel Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) without a basic understanding of Frank Miller‘s world, one that combine the violence film noir and the action that can be drawn to life by comic books or graphic novels.

Now with all that foundation in place all I had to do was sit down and enjoy, and enjoy I did, entering a dark world of literally sin around every corner of this heavily stylised environment. Taking black and white to a whole new level. It has to be filmed digitally to allow for so many alterations to be made, from a flicker of eye colour to the saturation of white when someone’s blood leaves their body. Combining both the classic noir imagery with some contemporary twists. I wouldn’t know where to begin to bring this pre WWII world up to date, everything just fits so well.

That’s before we even get to the cast, a rare time when there is an equal balance of both male and female actors. Ok not all in lead roles but their inclusion shows a fully fleshed out, all at each others throats exacting revenge, protecting their own backs world for us to explore. Split up into three acts, with an equally sinister pro and epilogue to wet you’re appetites, you never know whose behind the next corner, partly because of the contrast and the fast pace of this depressingly violent tales.  

I recently caught again Death Becomes Her (1992) which reminded me how good Bruce Willis can be without a massive gun in his hand. Granted he plays Hartigan a detective. he has to rely more on his acting chops than his muscles. In part due to the classic voice over that is synonymous with noir, allowing us into the psyches of the characters, usually looking back at what they did, how they could have changed things. Or just to narrate the events. here we have a look back for all our leads as they all sought justice of sorts. Willis away from the action genre and that stereotype he has helped form can actually give a good performance.

I could go into detail about each act which is as violence as the other, to be honest I wouldn’t have it any other way. Updating the genre for the 21st century more effectively that George Clooney‘s The Good German (2006) which felt forced and heavy handed with the language pumped up to another level. I didn’t even notice it here in Sin City it felt natural, part of the fabric, more subtle. Pumping up the action that brought the screen alive, Even in a limited pallet of colours we still have splashes of colour, literally in places.

Today nearly 10 years later the techniques are common place, that’s probably why the sequel recently released didn’t prove to do so well. At the time, when the majority of films are made in colour this is a rare jump back in time with a modern twist of what we find today. Helping to change and develop the visual language we use today. To see todays actors up on the big-screen in black and white is a real treat and not to be missed. It’s not the best film in terms acting, it is in terms of characters, the action and visuals that draw you into this corrupt and delicious world of violence.

Fury (2014)

Fury (2014)I first heard about Fury (2014) from all the on location antics that came courtesy of Shia LaBeouf who was having a bit of a break down. If you watch closely you can see which tooth he pulled out that he believed would help him get more into character. Before Brad Pitt had to step in and tell him to not take things too seriously, which if I’m honest is more in character for Pitt’s character Don “Wardaddy” Collier who finds inner strength to carry on and keep his men alive in a tank that has seen its fair share of WWII, from Africa to most of war-torn Europe. His team are all that’s left of his platoon, you can see how close they are in and out of Fury the tank that has for better or worse kept these brave solider alive.

Noted already for its realism, taking first hand advice from tank veteran Bill Betts acting advisor on the film, who helped ensure a high level of realism, a bar since raised after Saving Private Ryan (1998) which throws the audience into a relentless volley of bullets as soon as the soldiers land at the begin of the Normandy landings, its sheer hell for what feels like forever. Beefed up in Nazi Germany where we find a tired tank crew who are changed men, trigger happy in the face of the enemy who remain for the most part nameless. The best way for the enemy of the War genre, this way their death is more satisfying.

It’s not about sides here, it’s about the humanity of the solider, the human cost of war, whatever the side, being driven to the limit by the enemy to carry on regardless. There is little left of the human soul of a peaceful man on either side, tired, fed up wanting to go home, held back by an enemy who doesn’t know the meaning of the word surrender. Throw into that a fresh-faced typist Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) unaware of what war is beyond the desk he was once sat behind. Now in at the deep end, needing to grow up and fast. We follow him on his journey as he is the new member of a solid team who are ready for action and at the same time sick of the sight of Germans, known only as krauts. With colourful language that really adds to a war numbed team. Gone are the fun days of Telly Savalas roaming around in the tank taking shreds out of the enemy, we have filthy teams who are pretty much past caring, carry out their orders then let rip, release however they can. All this is new to Norman who is forced to kill his first German, seen as a right of passage, essential part of fighting the enemy. Something that is long behind most of the men around him. Norman’s journey continues in the next town where he meets a young German girl who he sleeps with, is this a form of relieve, a right of passage into man-hood? It’s not explained, left open to interpretation, he forms an attachment that will probably haunt him for the rest of his life. The real lesson is that everyone suffers in war, you just need to learn to accept that fact to move on to the next campaign.

What makes this film work is the time in the tank, the confined dirty squalid environment where these men rise to the challenge, somehow getting out by the skin of their teeth to see another day. All these come to a head with the final showdown that last what seems like forever, with he tank taking out of action they have one final battle, it’s all or nothing for these men who invite the German’s into a bloodbath the likes I have never seen before, becoming cows for the slaughter in a wash of bullets and anything that can be fired. Leaning heavily into overkill literally. The excitement is tiring for the audience who see day turn into a fire of blood the likes I have not seen before, not even something that Peckinpah wouldn’t even dare choreograph for The Cross of Iron (1977).  Going off into the deep end from realism into all out theatrics. This is where the realism of war ends blurring into Hollywood fantasy, the heroes are clearly defined here. Before it was a game of survival turning into a trigger happy orgy.

Still at the heart of this is a young man who is just starting out, finding his place in the war and life, understanding what it is to be a man, in a world at war. Surrounded by others who are just as s***-scared as him, having learnt to cope with it or go mad from all the horrors they have encountered. That is what I will take away from a film that doesn’t glorify war, seeing it as necessary evil to rid evil bringing out the worst in both sides of conflict.

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Bugsy (1991)

Bugsy (1991)Don’t mistaken Bugsy (1991) with the all singing all dancing Bugsy Malone (1976) which may have taken the title from the infamous gangster. The is however a rare chance to see the usually not seen Warren Beatty on-screen, known for being very particular in the roles he takes. Working intermittently since making it as part of the American New Wave in the 1960’s. Here we see him take on a role that I first thought would suit a younger actor, yet the more I saw of Ben (Bugsy) Siegel he gets away with it, already in his early fifties this is very much a mature gangster, usually a genre that is the exclusive of the younger man, seeing only the older men who have been playing the right cards in the business.

Taking place during the WWII period of Hollywood, yet never really touches the film industry after the idealistic gangster who is already feared by his enemies visits his friend in the business George Raft (Joe Mantegna) who has made a small success. Not the usual line of work for a member of the mob, wanting to keep a low profile. Still enjoying the lavish lifestyle that goes with being in that part of the world. All this attract Bugsy (don’t call him that or you may end up with more than a bloody nose) who throws money around to get what he wants. Money is no object, practically lined with dollar bills. Even getting the girl, he wants, a film extra Virginia Hill (Annette Bening) whose morals are questionable.

You can see why Beatty chooses his roles carefully, he puts so much effort into his performances, developing little quirks that flesh him out, from the wild temper to the tongue twister he repeats, with n particular reason. He really does his homework to create a flawed individual who as powerful and successful that he was, was also his own down fall. As we follow him from getting his own schemes off the ground. Ideas of killing the Italian leader Mussolini that were just crazy, all his friends knew he was mad, trying to control him the best they could. More so for old friend Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley) who still loves the liability that Bugsy has become.

It’s his final idea that is something I knew very little about, having a last impact on American culture, the transformation of the Nevada desert into a 24/7 land where gambling and entertainment become part of the culture. All built on the dirty money that came from the mob. When you think about it’s not so mad. Part of the American dream to have it all at your finger-tips, to win big whenever. Part of the hedonistic culture we have today, began with the Flamingo Hotel that has come along way since its construction which takes up a good half of the film, an idea that seemed mad back then, but today is unthinkable, fuelled by the then newly completed Hoover dam. The men around him who fund this incredible venture see things spiral out of control, even when Bugsy is arrested briefly. The curtains are slowly closing on Bugsy’s life, a decline he was too blind to see.

Bugsy is a slick film that takes you into the darker side of Hollywood’s history, much like Chinatown (1974) and LA Confidential 1997) spending more time with the crime than the glitz and glamour. We still had the madness that goes with that world, the people who lived among it all. A semi-film noir in colour, heavily stylised, making use of the lighting wherever possible in this dirty underworld populated with powerful and very flawed people.

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Downfall/Der Untergang (2004)

Downfall (2004)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 Ganza 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.

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