W-films, Part Five

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The War Lover

Michael Crawford, Shirley Anne Field, Bernard Braben, Bert Kwouk, and André Maranne (from the Gourmet Night episode of Fawlty Towers) – but also Steve McQueen and Robert Wagner: which W-film? This was the quiz question I posed last time, and as I turn my attention to war-films (or at least a sub-set of them, with titles beginning with W) I can reveal that the answer is The War Lover.  At the start McQueen and Wagner are roused out of their World War Two huts – but they are pilots, not prisoners of war (as the former was in The Great Escape and the latter in the TV series Colditz).  McQueen’s steel-blue eyes are grey in black and white, but they are clear enough as orgasmically they betray the film’s initial quasi-documentary feel and reveal the psychopath within – his character Buzz Rickson loves the war rather too much.  It all builds nicely to a climax in which he tries to steal his friend’s girl (this is Shirley Anne Field, curiously ineffective): but our ignorance over whether she actually did give in to him doesn’t sustain the drama of the final, doomed flight, during which McQueen’s eyes aren’t quite up to the task of portraying his demise (rather than soul-searching or accepting his fate or defiantly asserting his psychosis, he seems half-asleep – as if in fact he had spent the night with her, despite his denial).  An intriguing film none the less: it’s a very young Michael Crawford, pretending to be American; and there’s lovely footage of King’s College, Cambridge (though heretically the actors are walking on the grass as the credits roll).

Went the Day Well?

Another Second World War film is the classic Went the Day Well?  It was made in 1942 but is narrated (by Mervyn Johns) from a future perspective, after the war is won, and is upfront about the plot – German soldiers infiltrating a sleepy English village.  The intruders are first given away by writing down sevens and crossing them, in a manner which is European rather than English; just as an Englishman is betrayed in Inglourious Basterds by using the three middle fingers rather than using his thumb in gesturing ‘three’.  Once the Germans drop their disguises and take over, there’s a touch of United 93 about the villagers’ resistance.  The surrounding action is a little stilted, but the violence is still shocking and the eventual revolt is nicely atmospheric.  It features not only Thora Hird but also her uncredited daughter, Janette Scott (arguably nowadays most famous from the line in the opening to The Rocky Horror Picture Show – ‘And I really got hot/When I saw Janette Scott/Fight a triffid which spits poison and kills’); Muriel George plays the post-mistress who axes a German and is bayoneted; Patricia Hayes is in there too, and Harry Fowler is the heroic child, limbering up for Hue and Cry.  From a Graham Greene story; with music by William Walton; future veteran cinematographer Douglas Slocombe is the reporter cameraman for director Cavalcanti; the US title of the film on release was 48 Hours.

The Way Ahead

Another morale-boosting film from the same era is The Way Ahead.  David Niven (the officer), ‘Billy’ Hartnell (the sergeant), and conscripts Stanley Holloway, John Laurie, Leslie Dwyer, Jimmy Hanley and others feature in Carol Reed’s patriotic yet realistic and unsentimental 1944 tale of men called up to the army, ending up in rather desultory action in French North Africa (the closing title is ‘The Beginning’, echoing Churchill’s reference to El Alamein as the end of the beginning; the film itself was released on D-Day).  It attempts to do for the army what In Which We Serve had done for the navy, and nicely captures the mixed feelings of those caught up in the military effort and the unspectacular yet essential nature of their contribution.  Tessie O’Shea plays herself and Trevor Howard is uncredited in his first role – as is Tracy Reed, who played one of the few female parts (Miss Scott) in Dr Strangelove 20 years later.  Peter Ustinov, who is co-scriptwriter with Eric Ambler, plays a moody French landlord.  And if the ending seems uncannily like the end of every Dad’s Army episode, it’s because that was allegedly based on this.

The War Lord

A later film but about a much earlier era, The War Lord is a handsome, lavish medieval epic featuring Charlton Heston as an upright Norman, driving off the Frisians and finding himself overlord of a pagan village and navigating between two cultures; but then he’s bewitched and undone by the gorgeous Rosemary Forsyth (familiar from Shenandoah, which was also made in 1965), thus causing the villagers to side with the returning Frisians.  There’s a decent, zippy first fight scene and good battles towards the end, but the action is a bit few and far between; it aspires to a quasi-Shakespearean feel and scope, but despite a decent script and good direction from Franklin J. Schaffner (who was soon to go on to direct Heston again in Planet Of The Apes and to win an Oscar for Patton), it tends to founder on Heston’s lack of range, the stolid Richard Boone, and the over-wrought Guy Stockwell.

Waltz with Bashir

Coming more up-to-date, it’s well worth bearing with the animated film Waltz with Bashir despite the almost childishly stylised side to some of the images, for it builds into a haunting evocation of modern war and particularly of the Israeli incursion into Lebanon to root out the PLO in 1982.  Dogs in a friend’s dream trigger a film-maker’s interest in his own past, which leads him to visit a friend in Holland and then to what becomes a series of increasingly formal and seemingly verbatim interviews.  The process of recuperating submerged memories of the time throws up young soldiers, shooting indiscriminately; a leisurely invasion to the tune of Good Morning Lebanon – if not Good Morning Vietnam (but Apocalypse Now is referenced with surfing, bombs falling on lines of trees, and so on); and the blind panic of inexperienced men under fire.

From the generalised themes of dream, memory, and truth (and masculinity) emerges an idea of film as a distancing device to deal with traumatic reality – imagining war as a film, through a camera; but none the less the film we are watching does become a memorable set of impressions of war in general, and this 1980s war in particular: but it builds inexorably into a sharp focus on the Shatila and Sabra massacres of Palestinians, portrayed here as Phalangist revenge for the assassination of Lebanese leader and Israeli ally Bashir Gemayel, following Israel’s invasion.  Though the political background to the invasion itself isn’t really explained here – the war seems just to happen to the soldiers – the sombre climax to the film makes a hugely powerful identification between this genocide and the atrocities of the Second World War, equating the Israelis who stood by with not only the Phalangists but also the Nazis.  As the film-maker fully recaptures his own memories, allowing the truth back in, the animation gives way to real, shocking contemporary footage of the bodies in the refugee camps – a salutary reminder at a time when it is becoming problematic in the West to even consider criticising Israel for land-grabbing and war crimes.  The repeated scenes of soldiers emerging from sea, and Enola Gay playing on the love boat used in the invasion, are among the striking sequences from a film which abounds in them, while proceeding imaginatively to its hard-hitting goal.

A War

Even more contemporary is A War, another film drawing on the recent Western experience with conflict in Afghanistan like Armadillo and Kajaki (and with a similar feel to Gulf-based ones like The Hurt Locker and Jarhead).  Although A War shares moments with things like Doug Liman’s The Wall, Tobias Lindholm’s Oscar-nominated film doesn’t generally have that distinctive unreal bright light – indeed, at the start it’s a bit closer to the Wales used to mimic the same location in Carry On Up the Khyber.  There’s also no bright light on the conclusions that you’re supposed to draw from what is presented, either, making it a good vehicle for reflecting your own values, or prejudices as they are sometimes called.

So I started off, even before a 21-year-old is killed by an IED, wondering what on earth Danish troops are doing in Afghanistan – as if the involvement of Britain’s forces there was any more explicable.  Then, when one of the dead man’s comrades tearfully asks to go home in the aftermath, I asked myself why people join the army if they hadn’t thought through that it might involve action with the risk of casualties on your side; and, as the life of commander Claus’s family back home is featured, why you’d choose a career that involves leaving the country and leaving your wife (nicely played by Tula Novotny) to look after three young children on her own.  Although there is some superficial explanation of their mission, and even if they can manage to dispatch the odd bad guy, the story shows that the Danish soldiers can’t even dress the burnt arm of a small girl without that leading to her whole family being killed by the Taliban; and to the troops being lured into murderous fire from invisible assailants; and when they try to fight back, the commander ends up being charged with causing 11 more civilian deaths.

At this point the action switches to a domestic court case (rather civilised, with the familiar Søren Malling from The Killing, Borgen, and Men & Chicken defending), with Claus (Pilou Asbaek) realising that telling the truth is likely to lead to his spending four years in prison, with his family again left to cope.  In 2019 this seems quite topical, with domestic pressure in the UK for any crime committed by serving soldiers, even in other parts of the UK, to be effectively condoned; but the trial reveals that even when you seem to be doing the only thing that’ll save your comrade, you don’t actually know what you’re doing, or who you’re targeting – and the result is that your own young daughter will ask you whether it is true that you killed children.  Things look bad for Claus until his colleague ‘the Butcher’ gives the evidence that acquits him – making you rewind to see whether what he says might have been true after all, only to find that it’s still arguably unclear, as things presumably often are in wartime.  So Claus gets to tuck his child into bed, his little feet not blown off like those of his victims.  Perhaps the key thing that the film is trying to say is that the experience of the Danish army in Afghanistan is generalisable.  What we see is what happens in A War; in a war; but not just this war, any war; war – the meaning of the original Danish title, Krigen.

WarGames

From the present day to the future – or at least an old film imagining futuristic events.  John Badham’s WarGames is still pretty entertaining, and has a sense of humour (the enormous super-computer is called WOPR) that compensates for the usual way in which all the state-of-the-art technology now seems hopelessly outdated.  Password security and, in particular, the video games seem completely antediluvian, giving the whole thing the sense of a museum piece.  For example, David (Matthew Broderick) gets only about six hits in his automated telephonic trawling to locate any computers at all in Sunnyville, California.

Broderick changes his grades here on-line, as he does his absence record in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, together with those of Ally Sheedy – with whom he is out of his depth sexually, although the film turns its back decisively on that as the caper unfolds.  The twist is that having hacked into the NORAD computer he has set off a game in which the computer, as in D.F. Jones’s classic novel Colossus, then tries to win a thermonuclear war.  The reactions of the military are ham-fisted and grist to the computer’s mill, and only Broderick can save the situation by tracking down the programmer Falken (risibly played by John Wood) so that the computer learns that the only winning move is not to play at all – this after a tense climax in which the Americans have to ignore the specious evidence that they are being attacked, and choose not to launch the counter-attack that will destroy the world.  As they listen to the phone lines to the bases putatively under attack and learn that they are not, we recall that classic Cold War thriller Fail-Safe, where the sound on the phone only confirms the missiles landing; Fail-Safe is explicitly referenced (albeit as a condition, not a film).  The scramble to get into the defence complex to save the day is similar to the scramble to get out in Avengers Assemble; future stars Michael Madsen and William H. Macy appear here in minor roles.

The Warriors

Walter Hill’s early gangs of New York film The Warriors is also allegedly set in the future, but doesn’t look like it; watching it in 2019 its grimy hymn to the city’s underbelly looks a little outdated in terms of the urban scenery, some of which at least has been tarted up even if the subway stations still have a familiar aspect.  (The synthesiser soundtrack is the most dated thing, though.)  The charismatic Cyrus (who has more than a touch of Martin Luther King to him) is seeking to unify the gangs (one of which seems drawn from John Terry’s famous film A Chocolate Orange, from the novel by Anthony Burgess) so that together they can own the turf of the whole city, but he is assassinated and the Warriors framed; prompting the gang’s perilous odyssey (it has the feel of a Greek tragedy, and is indebted to Xenophon’s Anabasis) back to Coney Island, almost station by station, running the gauntlet of other gangs (and cops), suffering Platoon-like one-by-one attrition, until the resolution on the beach (the Riffs the deus ex machina, fingering the real guilty party).

There’s homophobia, as you’d expect (‘faggots‘), and you’d not look here for any sensible portrayal of women – the ‘slut’ Mercy (though she holds her end up and bullishly defends her lifestyle (‘this is the rest of my life’)), the disembodied DJ (Lynne Thigpen, the judge in Anger Management), the honey-trap cop, the lesbian siren gang.  But then again it’s not really a serious depiction of men, either, as befits the comic-book style and links (prefiguring Sin City), and the Comic Sans captions.  The theme song is by Joe Walsh.

More up-to-date and also futuristic, while also looking back to (and reimagining the pre-history to) that Charlton Heston classic, War for the Planet of the Apes is the third instalment in the modern reboot and probably the weakest, in part because the astonishing motion-capture animation is becoming a little familiar; to cope with that, repeat director Matt Reeves (he also did the previous episode, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) has a flashier, spectacular climax and emotional stories designed to tug at the heart-strings, but these ultimately don’t have the power to lift the film and instead it sometimes falls into hackneyed tropes and unsubtle symbolism.

Initially some apes appear as traditional Native Americans in a Western, collaborating with the humans, attacking on their horses; soon the troop led by ape-hero Caesar (Andy Serkis) are launching waves of arrows.  The beleaguered troop, who yearn for a safe haven beyond the desert like the earlier pioneers, are up against the implacable Colonel (Woody Harrelson), who kills most of Caesar’s family; Caesar and friends track him back to his camp, picking up on the way a mute girl and an odd ape played by Steve Zahn in the style of Elisha Cook Jr, but not avoiding longueurs.  Captured at the base, Caesar is interned with the other apes.

The Colonel is portrayed as a classic Fascist leader of all-white troops whose guttural cries mark them as degenerate just as the apes are rising; they have enslaved the (black) apes, who are kept in line by the whips of the collaborating ape-overseers.  The Colonel knows that the original virus that killed off most of humanity is mutating, causing the survivors to lose the speech and higher powers the apes have now gained, and is employing uncompromising, Battle of Algiers-style methods in a holy war, lest his kind be overrun by Muslims, I mean apes.

There’s a half-hearted strand about whether Caesar is motivated by revenge, and whether he, like his rival Koba, cannot escape his hate; but it all turns essentially into a prisoner of war escape thing with animals, bordering on Chicken Run; the final conflagration and avalanche give the sense of a screenplay with nowhere to go, and the special effects take centre-stage to a mere crash-bang purpose rather than in the service of the delicate animation of the apes themselves, which has been the USP of the franchise.  Against this background, the scrawling of ‘Ape-ocalypse Now’ on the escape tunnel is a slightly tiresome joke, ushering in the helicopter gunships; and Caesar leading the apes to the promised land before dying, like Moses, on the mountain before actually getting there again indicates the exhaustion of the idea.  Not that there won’t, presumably, be further sequels, but the playing of that last card seems to accept that the spark is gone.  If you’ve not seen the first reboot, though (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), you certainly should, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is very good as well.

The Way of the Gun

The Way of the Gun sounds like it’s about war, but isn’t.  I’ll include it here, though, because any film that starts with the Rolling Stones’s Rip this Joint deserves respect, and it moves on to a nice street-fight, with colourful insults, involving two no-goods (given the names Parker and Longbaugh, the real names of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) played by Ryan Phillippe and Benicio del Toro, who then kidnap surrogate mother Juliette Lewis (who actually turns out to be carrying her own baby).  James Caan, the bagman, is sent to resolve the situation on behalf of big cheese and putative father Scott Wilson.  It’s would-be stylish and witty, ironic, quirky and funny – and indeed the final shoot-out in particular has its moments; the intricate intrigue is pretty well plotted, too, including the various effects that the unborn child has on the characters, but overall it doesn’t quite come off.  Del Toro is fine, but Phillippe is a weakness, and the admirable Lewis isn’t really given much to play with (her recognisable father Geoffrey plays another heavy, plucked for one last job from the verge of suicide).  Caan is fine, too, if coasting.  Sarah Silverman plays a ‘Raging Bitch’ in that opening scene.  This is the debut feature of Christopher McQuarrie, who’d written The Usual Suspects and went on to write and direct Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and Mission Impossible: Fallout, and it’s worth a watch.

Back to war, or perhaps not, for your next quiz question: What War-film, starring Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn, and Richard Widmark, is actually a Western?

By Film Buff