Category Archives: North Africa

Patton (1970) 4.71/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 85.8
Genre: War
Duration: 172 mins
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Stars: George C. Scott, Karl Malden, Stephen Young

Franklin J. Schaffner’s account of Patton’s effect on the African and European Theatres of operations during World War II is a gripping watch replete with iconic imagery. The great general is played by George C. Scott whose extraordinary performance exudes all the charisma and boundless confidence which has come to define the enigmatic US general. From the opening scene as Patton stands in front of a gigantic stars and stripes dictating his philosophy on the American soldier to his denouement, Scott draws the audience towards him with gravitas and ease. It’s a multi-sided performance too as we get to see the humour, the courage, the intellect, the ambition, as well as the viciousness that defined the man’s reputation since he rose to the media’s attention.

How much of it is true, we’ll probably never know but you couldn’t ask for a better character to build a war movie around. Furthermore, Scott and director Franklin Schaffner seemed the perfect duo to get the most out of it. Schaffner continuously found all sorts of new settings, shots, and scenarios to convey the regal poise of Patton. The scene in which Patton is driven from Morocco to take command of the U.S. II Corps is a particularly impressive example of such and screams to us that, if anything, the director and star are aiming somewhere between the man and the myth.

The battle sequences themselves are hugely impressive and because the audience are rarely brought down into the nitty-gritty of each battle, they play out on a uniquely broad cinematic dimension. This makes them all the more fascinating as the tactics which Patton used can be glimpsed with enough satisfaction to deepen our interest in the man as much as the battles. In a film such as this, support players can become less relevant but Karl Malden’s General Omar Bradley offers a nice counter-point to the eccentric general. Patton has all the epic hallmarks of the great WWII movies but by building the action around such a powerful personality it goes beyond those movies and gives the audience something or someone they can tie in with with no trouble at all.

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The Big Red One (1980) 4.57/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 81.5
Genre: War
Duration: 113 mins
Director: Samuel Fuller
Stars: Lee Marvin, Mark Hamill, Robert Carradine

Samuel Fuller’s quasi-autobiographical story follows the European exploits of the first Infantry division, The Big Red One, throughout the course of World War II. It’s a truly extraordinary example of the genre reflecting as it does more a subjective recounting of disconnected episodes than traditional narratives driven by discernible plot. In fact, in this painfully honest film, plot is replaced by theme and it is in this respect that The Big Red One stands above the vast majority of all other war films. Fuller treads dangerous territory as he asks the questions that would plague the personal thoughts of any soldier during combat service, questions that society and media has always actively ignored. On top of that, the manner in which he asks them is so cinematically impressive that the quieter, more pensive moments of the film will stay with you for a long time.

Lee Marvin top-lines as the Sergeant of 1st Squad, 1st Platoon and the looser story is anchored to his performance. His granite-like features and stoic demeanour have rarely been better utilised as they are here and he enriches the drama/action whenever the camera is on him. The script is lean but a genuine sense of friendship between the squad emerges as the Sergeant plays both the badass and one of the gang. There are times when the words come across a little clunky but even that is in line with the minimalist leanings of the script. Shot from such a personal perspective, the battle sequences are as unique as the story’s structure but no less impressive than those typical to more traditional films (and there’s plenty of them). There’s a strain of dark humour running right through the film which is at its sharpest during the action. The fighting isn’t particularly bloody as Fuller chooses to make his point more symbolically but that only seems to make it more effective. The Big Red One is one of a kind and perhaps has more in common with Catch 22 than an outright action movie. Its unorthodox style is not for everyone but it’s required viewing for film buffs and history students alike. Note: Richard Schickle’s 2004 ‘reconstruction’ adds to the scope of the project and more aptly frames much of what Fuller was trying to say, so if you can, look up the 156 minute version.

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Big Wednesday (1978) 3.71/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74.4
Genre: Drama
Duration: 120 mins
Director: John Milius
Stars: Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt, Gary Busey

One of the better coming of age dramas that follows a group of three men through the defining years of their young lives. Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt, and Gary Busey are equally excellent (Vincent and Katt were accomplished surfers in real life – and it shows) as the friends who were bound by their love of surfing in their teenage years but who grew apart as those years passed. It’s a touching tale in many ways as personality, ambition, and era defining events such as the Vietnam War intersect to shift the dynamics and relationships. There’s a playfulness to the earlier scenes that echos that of American Graffiti but there’s also a somberness to the film centering on the notion of of times past and expressed poetically and quite beautifully in the interludes as the film jumps forward to another period in the mens’ lives. Bruce Surtees’ (son of the great Robert) beautifully captures the sea and surfing in a number of memorable sequences but John Milius is clever enough not to allow the film to be dominated by the action and instead he uses it as an emotional backdrop to the drama. This gives Big Wednesday a real sense of authenticity even in the more schmaltzy moments which serves to heighten the level of nostalgia that this film operates so successfully on.

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The Silent Enemy (1958) 3.76/5 (7)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74
Genre: War
Duration: 112 mins
Director: William Fairchild
Stars: Laurence Harvey, Dawn Addams, Michael Craig

Lawrence Harvey stars as the real life eccentric and enigmatic explosives expert Lieutenant Lionel Crabb, who after learning the Italians are mining allied ships docked at Gibraltar using underwater chariots, trains himself in underwater demolition and then begins shaping a unit of frogmen into an elite demolition crew. The Silent Enemy is one of those unique WWII features that stands out from the pack for its originality and tension. Few enough films deal with the considerable efforts of the Italians in stopping the allied ships from supplying their African forces and fewer still (if any) have looked at the unique art of the frogman bomb disposal expert.

The characters in this film are well rounded and full of personality with the “Carry On’s” Sid James doing especially well in the supporting stakes. Not surprisingly, therefore, there is some wonderful humour sprinkled amongst the drama and it gives the film a real charm. However, this is Lawrence Harvey’s film and what a pleasure it is seeing him playing a good guy with the same class and playfulness he brought to the many more famous bad guy personas he took on. In a style Roger Moore was to later adopt in North Sea Hijack, Harvey portrays Crabb as an irascible, caring, but most of all obsessive officer. This gives The Silent Enemy a psychologically slanted intensity the likes of which The Hurt Locker was to build itself around as Crabb repeatedly breaks procedure and endangers himself in the acts of his bomb disarmament.

The action in The Silent Enemy is hugely impressive thanks to Otto Heller’s splendid underwater photography and director William Fairchild’s courageous direction. These peak towards the end of the second act when Crabb’s frogmen are accosted by their Italian counterparts as both teams attempt to salvage classified allied documents of a recently sunken plane. It’s a thrilling piece of action and there’s not many underwater sequences which can match it. The big finale maintains the momentum of these earlier sequences as Crabb himself takes the battle to the enemy in a clockwork constructed hair-raiser.

As with all low-key WWII films which are based on fact, it’s hard to know how much of this is accurate. But that’s not really the point. The characters represent the courage that all who fought in that war demonstrated while the story shines a cinematically rousing light on one of the more fascinating yet ignored fronts of that conflict. The Silent Enemy is now public domain so you can find a link to the full movie above.

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The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel (1951)

 

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Rating: The Good – 75.4
Genre: War
Duration: 88 mins
Director: Henry Hathaway
Stars: James Mason, Cedric Hardwicke, Jessica Tandy

James Mason gives one of his best performances as the legendary general working under the constraints of the militarily defunct self-appointed commander in chief, Adolf Hitler. One might assume that a film about Erwin Rommel might focus on his famous battles and military ingenuity despite a probable lack of desire on the part of the audience to see a film about Nazi military victories. However, director Henry Hathaway and his writer Brigadier Desmond Young (a British officer who researched the man after a brief personal encounter with him ignited a life long fascination) decided to focus on the latter stages to his career beginning with his defeat to Montgomery, moving onto the ensuing disillusionment with his Führer, and ending with the failed assassination attempt on the mad leader and the repercussions which followed.

The result is a tempered but always engaging character study which is steeped in intelligence all the way through. The dialogue is rich in subtext, nuanced as it is with political intrigue, tactical maneuvering, and even warm sentiment. Hathaway gives it all the time it needs to breathe and so fortifies that richness and through some exceptional structuring harnesses the innate tension of the script for all it’s worth. Mason is in rare form and even though it was always enjoyable watching him over-egg the pudding in some of his more famous American roles, it’s still refreshing to see such an inwardly centred performance from the renowned thespian. A few other familiar faces such as George Macready and the great Jessica Tandy (as Rommel’s wife) score very well on the periphery but it’s really Mason’s show. The Desert Rat is not your typical WWII film. It has a maturity and more respectful focus which many such films from that era are missing and the distinct lack of action places it more in the territory of war drama like I was Monte’s War Double. Either way, it counts as a terrific little film which tells an engaging and, in its own way, gripping story.

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I Was Monty’s Double (1958) 3.14/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74
Genre: War
Duration: 101 mins
Director: John Guillermin
Stars: M.E. Clifton James, John Mills, Cecil Parker

I Was Monty’s Double or “Hell, Heaven or Hoboken” is a-one-of-a-kind WWII movie based on an amazing real life operation and starring the man who was at the very centre it. It’s based on M.E. Clifton James’ own account of how he, as an enlisted stage actor with a remarkable likeness for General Montgomery, was co-opted by intelligence to impersonate the general in North Africa in order to fool the Germans into thinking the 1944 invasion might launch from there. It’s a riveting premise for a movie made more so by the convenient fact that it was James’ acting background that made him fit for the part in real life and so doubly (excuse the pun) fit for the movie role. Moreover, James and Montgomery were outright doppelgängers and when the former is introduced on screen for the first time, everybody should look up a picture of old Monty to get a first hand appreciation. The story gets even more bizarre in that the officer responsible for recruiting James in real life was David Niven (then serving as a Lieutenant Colonel in the army’s film unit). However, writer Bryan Forbes rightly replaced him with an intelligence operative played by John Mills presumably to give the whole operation a more contained and dramatic tone.

Mills and James establish a splendid chemistry from early on as Mills’ Major Harvey sets about transforming the timid actor into the battle hardened taskmaster. This part of the film is full of humour with James being put through the paces as he keeps up with the actual Monty’s (played also by himself!) rigorous schedule and scrutinises the man and his habits up close. When they put the show on the road so to speak, the film takes a turn for the thrilling as James’ impersonation faces several tricky tests some expected and some not. James is outstanding in the role of both himself, Monty’s double, and Monty himself and captures the transition brilliantly when needed and disguises it completely when not (i.e., when he’s supposed to be the actual Monty). The insecurity of the man in his moments of doubt (even prior to his recruitment while working in the pay corpse) is endearing and his ability to turn that insecurity on its head when in character is most satisfying. Mills offers much personality to the movie whether he’s sharing the screen with James or his own on-screen superior played well by Cecil Parker.

Forbes takes some liberties with actual events towards the end of his screenplay but it plays wonderfully with the rest of the film and gives director John Guillermin a chance to present us with an excellently constructed action sequence shot with all the tension and exquisite pacing of the best war movie sequences. Some might find John Addison’s jaunty score a little twee and it perhaps could’ve been replaced by something with a more serious tone but for the most part, it’s unnoticeable or at least ignorable. The sound production hasn’t really stood the test of time either and it can often be difficult to pick up on what’s been said. A restoration would be most welcome for this reason alone. Despite some issues, I Was Monty’s Double counts as a refreshing and thoroughly enjoyable film built around an intriguing turn from James. In fact, in all of cinema, there’s arguably never been a more reflexive nor historically relevant performance and if that’s not a reason to see a film, what is?

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Lawrence of Arabia (1962) 5/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 94.5
Genre: Adventure
Duration: 216 mins
Director: David Lean
Stars: Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn

Perhaps the greatest epic of them all, David Lean’s biopic of T.E. Lawrence is definitely a gargantuan landmark in the history of cinema. Charting Lawrence’s journey into the desert in an attempt to unite the Arab people under one fearsome banner, Lawrence of Arabia is a magnificent portrait of a personality whose dimensions are reflected only in the expanses of the desert. It’s a figurative journey into the heart and soul of an enigmatic soldier who is driven by pure ideal and the weight of self-imposed responsibility.

More than any director ever did before or since, Lean transforms the screen into a living canvas sweeping his camera across it always from left to right to accentuate the journey at the centre of the story. It’s a seamless collaboration with cinematographer Freddie Young as their complementary use of wide and close angles capture the awesome qualities of both the desert and the drama alike while their audacious framing, lighting, and composition give the near incredible vistas a life of their own and, with it, make the desert a central character in the film. Maurice Jarre’s unforgettable score provides an energy to that journey punctuating the nearly four hour long film with perfectly timed moments of invigoration. Robert Bolt’s adaptation of Lawrence’s own writings is immensely perceptive and balances the inner passions of the characters with the broad scale of the various battles’ tactics and logistics. The story of the British Empire’s role in uniting the Arabs (for the former’s better or worse) is itself told in impressive detail considering this is in fact a biopic but, so crucial was Lawrence to that uprising that to tell his story is to tell the other. Thus, we have a tale that bears all the intrigue of a political thriller, all the action of a classic war movie, and all the fascinating character construction of a drama. The result is an edge of your seat saga which immerses the audience in the time and place.

Of course, this film is all about what Lean and Peter O’Toole were doing on their respective sides of the camera. O’Toole, for his part, is irrepressible as the eccentric British lieutenant and it’s fair to say we’ve never seen an acting performance like it. Brave and subjective, O’Toole inhabits Lawrence from his bold adventuring spirit to his deep lying insecurities. Moreover, his blond hair and piercing blue eyes provide Lean with a glowing reference point that at all times works flawlessly with the golden sand of the desert. In support, Anthony Quayle is every bit the British officer as Lawrence’s beleaguered commander. Omar Sharif, as the only actual North African to play an Arab of consequence, adds a welcome air of authenticity to some of the more stilted yet enjoyable Arab-approximations offered by Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn. Jose Ferrer does his usual bit of show stealing when he pops up as a sadistic (and perhaps even worse) Turkish General who unwittingly lets Lawrence slip through his fingers but not before he emotionally scars the latter (this latter incident being a brave inclusion in the film).

At nearly four fours in length, Lawrence of Arabia is epic in length too but it doesn’t feel as long to watch due to the compelling story at the centre of it, the magnificence of the way it was shot, and the fact that, in every way, Lawrence of Arabia is a monument to the cinematic spirit.

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