Category Archives: Pacific Theatre

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MacArthur (1977) 3.43/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 76
Genre: War, Drama
Duration: 130 mins
Director: Joseph Sargent
Stars: Gregory Peck, Dan O’Herlihy, Ed Flanders

Joseph Sargent’s little recognised account of General Douglas MacArthur’s career from the beginning of WWII to his retirement is a rather compelling and fully engaging military drama. Gregory Peck takes on the role of the larger than life figure and imbues him with all the self-certainty and military vision that have come to be associated with him but balanced that with a healthy dose of sadness at the passing of time, and a complicated look at the self-proclaimed pacifist’s contradictory craving for war.

As much as Franklin J. Schaffner did with Patton, Sargent captures the point at which myth and reality meet and seems to paint the entire picture with that theme. At all times, we feel we are witnessing something epochal. Befitting the name and the myth, there’s a majesty to the tone of the film and there’s nobody better to shoulder any accompanying stress points than Gregory Peck. Such stress points take the shape of necessary omissions of key occurrences that would give more accurate shape to the political and military incidents MacArthur is otherwise given full credit for. But through Peck’s ownership of the role, he gives one the impression that such cracks in the story don’t exists – just like the General himself did! In its place, is a very elegant progression of events as Sargent unfolds a rather substantial history of the man and America’s contemporaneous international concerns.

The look of the movie can impress at times but, at others, it has a distinct TV movie feel. The wide staging of some of the battle sequences for example is magnificent but when up close with the soldiers, it all gets a little artificial. But unlike say The Longest Day, this isn’t about the knitting together of the large and small scale realities of war. Instead, it follows the likes of Patton, by using the latter as dramatic filler between the more dramatic scenes. Just not as substantially as was done in Patton.

Unfortunately, MacArthur has been forgotten by everyone but the strictest of war movie buffs. Peck always walked a tightrope between stoic brilliance and wooden delivery but such an affectation seems very befitting of the blood-military “General’s General”. Like the film as a whole, it’s a delicate balance that comes out firmly on the right side and deserves a wider audience.

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The Final Countdown (1980)

 

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Rating: The Good – 69.5
Genre: Science Fiction, War
Duration: 103 mins
Director: Don Taylor
Stars: Kirk Douglas, Martin Sheen, Katharine Ross

Cracking sci-fi thriller starring Kirk Douglas as the captain of a 1980’s aircraft carrier which gets pulled into a vortex during routine manoeuvres off Hawaii and gets sent back to December 6th 1941. The premise is compelling to say the least and it’s tapped for all its worth as the crew of the massively advanced ship weigh the moral and philosophical implications of intervening in the Japanese sneak attack which is about to be launched against Pearl Harbor. The film is set up wonderfully with plenty of time dedicated to substantially introducing the various characters and establishing their various political and moral positions and whatever relationships which will become relevant later on. The scenario is made more interesting with the inclusion of Martin Sheen as a civilian consultant who provides an unpredictable counterpoint to the hardened military personnel.

As two of the most professional actors to ever grace the screen Douglas and Sheen are great either on their own or together and they each bring an abundance of personality to the film. Katherine Ross and the always excellent Charles Durning offer equally interesting points of view as 1941 civilians (Durning playing a wily old senator) rescued by the aircraft carrier after the Japanese attacked their boat. Director Don Taylor is to be commended for his handling of the large scale logistics which include shooting everything from live action fighter jets, helicopters, the carrier itself, to the infamous Japanese “zeros”. The various action sequences are elegantly shot and edited and would rival any dedicated war film from the time. Furthermore, Taylor shows real panache in how he shoots the time-travelling sequence and imbues the moment with a real sense of primordial menace. This is particularly important because if captured in the wrong manner, the tenuousness of the story’s premise could be exposed (for example, just imagine how a “Time Tunnel” like shot of the carrier spinning two-dimensionally into the past could’ve undermined its credibility).

It all builds up to a fitting climax and there’s even time to tie some mind bending logical time-loops into the story in the vein of the best time-travel movies. The Final Countdown is exactly what a war/time travel sci-fi should be. It’s entertaining and reasonably stimulating and it really should’ve been remembered better.

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The Thin Red Line (1998) 4.79/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 76.5
Genre: War
Duration: 170 mins
Director: Terrence Malick
Screenplay: Terrence Malick
Stars: Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, George Clooney

Fascinating introspection at the mental landscape of war and man’s natural or unnatural relationship to it. The Thin Red Line is very much an ensemble piece with an array of Hollywood A-listers all lining up to participate in Malick’s take on the WWII pacific theatre. There are many standout performances but Jim Caviezel’s overshadows all of them. There’s an untidy serenity to it which, though sounding like and oxymoron, is exactly the type of enigmatic quality the film needed at its centre. Malick chose well.

John Toll’s cinematography is intuitively informed by Malick’s perspective but while the visuals are in general deeply arresting, they are no more so than the use of sound in this film. The sounds of nature, man, woman, and child which Malick has always seemed attuned to like nobody else, gently come to the fore here to contextualise the narrative in their own way. Hans Zimmer provides a perfect score (perhaps his best) which lifts the film at crucial junctures and it is intricately involved in the movie’s crowning moment (in fact this score now counts as one of the many wonderful pieces of music which Zack Snyder has “borrowed” to give his trailers at least an overt sense of depth).

The decision to shoot the movie from the individual’s perspective was a brave one because it diverges from the traditional film-making template significantly. However, not only does it provide a platform for a more honest account of what soldiers go through, it also elevates the action to a level of reality beyond that of a typical war movie. The Thin Red Line came out in the same year as Spielberg’s WWII feature Saving Private Ryan, and while the latter received much praise for its realistic opening sequence, it really doesn’t touch the former in honesty or perceptiveness. The Thin Red Line is a triumph in that regard and while that may displease more mainstream movie fans who have set expectations from a war film, it will should excite those who want to see the envelope pushed further back.

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Midway (1976) 3.43/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Ugly – 60. 5
Genre: War
Duration: 132 mins
Director: Jack Smight
Stars: Henry FondaRobert Mitchum, Toshiro Mifune

An interesting but problem ridden account of the decisive WWII battle of the pacific sees Carlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Glenn Ford and others go up against their Japanese counterparts in the form of Toshirô Mifune and James Shigeta. The strength of the this film lies in its honest attempt to capture the ebbs and flows of the battle as tactics, mechanical and human error, courage and above all luck played their respective hands. This goes a long way in recreating some of the anxiety and panic that defined the days events. The cast is littered with big names from the aforementioned to Hal Holbrook, Robert Webber, Robert Wagner, Cliff Robertson, James Coburn, and most exciting of all Robert Mitchum. Though they all bring their presence in different ways most of them are mere cameos and so there’s a tendency to feel rather hard done by as the film continues. But that’s only a minor issue compared to major problems which beset this film.

First off, the Japanese characters either speak English in American accents or in most cases they are dubbed by Americans making no attempt to disguise their accents. While this reduces the authenticity which films like Tora! Tora! Tora! achieved so easily it also makes it difficult to discern which sides the various pilots belong to as they radio back to their ships. Even more unfortunate is the shooting of the battle sequences themselves. Pedestrian at best, laughable at worst, they lack any proper coordination and involve bargain basement visual effects. The director Jack Smight is most culpable here and one suspects his decision to incorporate actual dog fighting footage into those scenes was to compensate for the poorness of those effects but in the end, they only destabilise them further.

All this is a shame because the Battle of Midway is an important and critical moment in WWII and no other film before or since has brought the necessary scale to do it justice. That this is what hardened WWII movie fans are left with is frustrating especially give that it could be avoided. However, for those fans alone, Midway’s successful attempt to give a methodical blow by blow account of the day should prove enough reason to give this one a watch.

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The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) 4.86/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 86.7
Genre: War
Duration: 161 mins
Director: David Lean
Stars: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins

The fog of war has more often been examined in movies in the more frenzied sense. Where perspective and judgment are clouded by fear and adrenaline in the heat of battle. The Bridge on the River Kwai looks at it from a more subtle and broader perspective where training, orders, and duty are distorted by the complexity of war’s logistics and wider strategies as well as the personalities of those individuals involved. Alec Guinness stars as Colonel Nicholson, the commanding officer of British POW’s who must initially cross swords with the stern commander of his Japanese prison camp when the latter refuses to abide by the Geneva conventions concerning treatment of officers. Through the long ordeal in which Nicholson is tortured and punished intensively, the two men’s positions of authority begin to shift but with unexpected consequences. Once past this threshold, the Japanese commander finds Nicholson more than willing to stop his men’s purposeful shoddy work on a strategically important bridge and begin constructing it in earnest and to the impeccable standard of the British army. When his doctor questions Nicholson’s decision to seemingly aid the enemy, he promptly asks the doctor if he would allow a Japanese prisoner to die on his table and follows it up with questions as to the doctor’s sanity.

Guinness brings a unique complexity to his stiff and by the book Colonel Nicholson. In his mind, his clear understanding of the rules and of his duty impel him to build that bridge and so unwavering and articulate is his belief, from time to time, he causes his doctor and audience alike to question the certainty of their position. This is the real achievement of director David Lean and Alec Guinness. To create an atmosphere and context which explains this seemingly outrageous course of action. Based on Pierre Boulle’s semi-autobiographical novel and written by then blacklisted (and so unaccredited) Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman, there’s a rich texture to the characters, dialogue, and plot. In addition to Nicholson, the story also focuses strongly on a US prisoner named Shears (William Holden in a fine performance), who after escaping that same prison camp, is convinced to return with British commandos to blow up the bridge. The scene is set for a powerfully nuanced finale and through Lean’s masterfully paced direction, that is exactly what the audience is treated to. Lean’s direction in general is tempered and supremely balanced. He captures all the oppression of the jungle camp so that the sense of heat and stickiness seems an incidental burden. The sound of the jungle in particular is used to telling effect during both Shears’ escape sequence and the dawn time preparations of the climactic scene.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is the type of picture that is extraordinarily difficult to make correctly. There are multiple strands each rooted in strong complex characters which all need to pull in the same direction. The drama is almost entirely psychological and subtly so. Added to this are the logistics of making the film in the rough jungle terrain of Ceylon. The fact that Lean pulls it off with such apparent ease is testament to his masterful craft but also those working under him. Guinness’ and Holden’s complementary turns should not be underestimated for they add as much depth as the director’s contribution.

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Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)

 

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Rating: The Good – 81.4
Genre: War
Duration: 144 mins
Director: Kanji Fukasaku & Richard Fleischer
Stars: Martin Balsam, Sô Yamamura, Jason Robards

Bay and Bruckheimer should’ve taken a longer look at this before embarking on their pitiful “Pearl Harbour” project or maybe they simply should’ve realised the story didn’t need retelling at all, given how good it had been told here. Tora! Tora! Tora! recounts the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour from both the American and Japanese perspectives with the American side directed by box-office heavy-weight Richard Fleischer and the Japanese side by master auteur Kinji Fukasaku. The result is a unique and flawless blending of two cinematic styles which itself plays on any number of metaphorical levels. The film depicts the lead up to the attack meticulously, culminating in an epic reconstruction of the air raid. The cast is a who’s who of Hollywood and Japanese film with Martin Balsam and Jason Robards leading the former and So Yamamura and Tatsuya Mihahsi leading the latter. What separates this film from the rest of the war films from its era is the way in which it examines the diplomatic, political, and logistical factors which affected the build up to and outcome of the attack. It’s a meticulous deconstruction of the pretext to and motivations behind one of the most momentous incidents in recent world history not to mention a riveting cinematic platform for the action that was to follow.

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The Caine Mutiny (1954) 3.71/5 (4)

 

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Rating: The Good – 75.4
Genre: War
Duration: 124 mins
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, José Ferrer, Van Johnson, Lee Marvin

First class naval drama maturely constructed and boasting a sharply effective third act. Humphrey Bogart stars as a strict and fussy new captain to the USS Caine, whose questionable orders begin to worry his officers that they have either a coward or a madman on their hands. When matters come to a head, the executive officer assumes command and finds himself on trial for mutiny.

The Caine Mutiny is an unusual film in that it begins in an extremely light-hearted fashion, almost like a screwball comedy, only to swiftly move through the gears in the final 20 minutes. Bogart deserves special mention for bravely taking on a role which many stars of his status would’ve balked at. Needless to say, this is a different type of turn to his more iconic performances and more similar to his Key Largo and The African Queen performances. He handles it wonderfully and is both intimidating and vulnerable when he needs to be. Van Johnson is a fine foil as the moral centre to the ship while Fred McMurray adds some personality as the crafty trouble maker of the crew. Given the title of the film, it’s somewhat surprising the court-martial hearing is only 10 minutes long but it’s a gripping 10 minutes thanks largely to José Ferrer’s show stealing turn as the lawyer charged with the defence. It’s compelling stuff and it’s through him that the dramatic turnabout in that final act is largely achieved. The extent to which the story panders to Navy sensitivities at that point can be questioned but there’s no doubt that it offers an interesting twist on the traditional concept of mutiny and together with Ferrer’s delivery, it gives that final sequence a mighty punch.

On the technical front, the sea-based manoeuvres are the usual mix of navy assisted shots and real life footage and even though there’s less of it than in other naval films of that era, they provide a strong context for the drama inside the ship. Director Edward Dmytryk provides a cultured hand behind the camera and ensures that a film of extremely contrasting moods comes across seamlessly and enjoyably at all times.

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