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Posts tagged ‘War’

Considering Fury is a film that clearly sets out to deglamorize war, and to a certain extent is successful in doing so, David Ayer’s tale of an American tank crew at the end of World War II spends an unfortunate amount of time attempting to attract a mainstream cinema audience by offering flashes of brightness. For every grim, troubling sight here – and there are many – there’s a gratuitous shot of Brad Pitt showing off his muscular torso or contemplating the square-jawness of it all while staring off thoughtfully into the middle distance (framed, of course, to accentuate his good looks). For every scene in which the characters played by Jon Bernthal and Michael Peña do or say something startling or morally questionable, shortly thereafter there’s another that paints them in a more sympathetic, reasonable light. For every captured, unarmed, ordinary German shot brutally in the back there’s an act of unexpected kindness by another SS soldier. And when the chips are down and the odds of survival must surely be in the tens-of-thousands-to-one, there is of course hope for the film’s heroes and a (slightly) happy ending, all scored with the kind of uplifting strings that make you want to punch the air and shout ‘GIT SOME’ (before realising that barely an hour earlier you were contemplating the courage, heroism and death of the masses who actually did fight in these battles … none of whom required an orchestra to make their lives appear more dramatic).

While you can certainly argue that an attempt to balance the dark of truth with the light of entertainment isn’t the worst of all cinematic crimes – and hey, first and foremost, I appreciate that the $68 million outlay has got to be recouped somehow – it unfortunately ends up costing Fury ever so slightly; when Ayer’s film is entirely focused on the harsh realities of combat it really is a powerful and gripping work, bringing to mind the intensity of the dramatisation of the Normandy landings in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, the relentless tension of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down and the claustrophobic, impressive technicalities of Samuel Maoz’s less-well-known Lebanon. When it occasionally succumbs to the temptation of being A Brad Pitt Vehicle the film suffers by comparison, though I wouldn’t for one minute suggest it’s anywhere near as bad as escapist propaganda like, say, The Green Berets.

Not that Brad Pitt is at fault. Now in his sixth decade, he has gradually developed from a good actor with that movie star x-factor into a performer with more than enough gravitas to carry serious films like Fury, and he displays the requisite amount of troubled stoicism to render his character here believable. (He can’t help the fact that he still looks good even when he’s caked in filth and make-up artists have presumably spent hours trying to make him look as normal as they possibly can.) My cinema was packed, and undoubtedly some of the attendees were there because of the leading actor’s name, but at least he justifies the interest on a regular basis.

Pitt plays Staff Sergeant Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier, a tank commander involved in the final push at the end of the war, his regiment running into heavy resistance in Nazi Germany. The crew of his lightly-armoured Sherman M4 – christened ‘Fury’ – are battle-weary and hardened by their time together in the North African campaign. In any other scenario these men probably wouldn’t give each other the time of day, and even here their relationships constantly threaten to buckle under pressure, but time and circumstance has ensured they have developed the strong bond necessary to carry them through the war; despite the relentless gravity of their situation they enjoy the usual soldier-to-soldier camaraderie, their traded jokes and drawled insults spilling out like an impenetrable slang or patois.

The film begins as it finishes, in the aftermath of a skirmish; we first see the crew of Fury, exhausted, catching their breath in a battlefield in which they appear to be the only survivors. Smoke rises from burnt-out vehicles and corpses all around them. They have lost their long-time gunner and friend in the battle, and he is replaced by a wet-behind-the-ears soldier named Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), who acts as our eyes and ears. Norman – a trained typist – does not want to kill and is understandably scared and horrified by what he sees amid the chaos of Hitler’s last stand. He is quickly and cruelly brought up to speed by the experienced Collier, whose extreme teaching methods are deemed necessary due to the dangers associated with hesitation. Collier needs all of his charges to be mentally strong, desensitized to the sights that greet them, and the crew is too small and the stakes too high to carry a passenger in this respect. Thus Norman’s initiation job is to mop up the remains of his predecessor inside the tank, and before long he is forced into other depressing acts, first shooting an unarmed prisoner of war under orders and secondly bedding a young German woman named Emma (Alicia von Rittberg), an act which requires much less duress.

As the tank trundles on from one muddy path and field to the next, permanently short on supplies and low on ammunition, Ayer incorporates an array of surreal, harrowing images that show just how grim and unpleasant a battlefield can be: corpses are piled up high by vehicles; there’s the sight of a bride in full gown among a group of refugees; the tank drives over a dead body in the mud which pops out again after the vehicle moves on. Every now and again the crew of Fury comes up against a platoon of Wehrmacht soldiers or some other force, so there’s little let-up in the action, which is fine as Ayer’s battle sequences are very good indeed. When the Allies roll into one town, the opposing force – mostly children conscripted by ruthless SS officers – quickly surrenders, enabling the Americans to enjoy some much-needed R&R. Yet even here the tension doesn’t magically disappear; the threat of rape hangs over the German women of the town, and one extended and magnificent scene around a kitchen table shows that, really, there’s no true downtime to be had. (Incidentally, I’ve seen this scene come in for criticism in some places for being overlong, but I thought it was very well acted by the principal cast members; the threat of an explosion of violence hangs in the air and I was on the edge of my seat during it. So there.)

The action sequences are intense, the fighting is bloody, and each small victory is met with knackered, mud-caked relief rather than triumphant celebration. A battle with a fearsome German Tiger tank across an open field is one highlight, with Fury and two other Allied tanks desperately trying to scuttle round the back of the more powerful enemy, while an attack on an anti-tank post and trenches is equally suspenseful. Unfortunately all the hard work is undone by a final act in which the soldiers of Fury take on several hundred Waffen-SS soldiers, lifting the concept of ‘defying the odds’ to new and unrealistic heights. Credibility is tested even further when it transpires that the supposedly experienced crew have left all of their spare ammo sitting on the outer rear of the tank, and must courageously pop outside to stock up during the firefight, despite having some time to prepare for the incoming enemy. Hmmm. At least the stupid oversight makes for some exciting on-screen derring-do, and it also enables Ayer to focus on a few pre-battle clichés – a swig of booze for every crew member, a rousing show of loyalty to the man in charge, a general acknowledgement that they’re all doomed, etc. etc.

I don’t wish to be too harsh on Ayer, or his film, as frankly it is one of the better (best) war movies in recent memory. It’s relentless, downbeat (and rightly so), moving, and when it felt realistic to this inexperienced viewer it really did hit the mark. Unfortunately there are a few predictable elements that just linger in the memory afterwards. When Norman reads the palm lines of Emma, for example, and tells her that she’ll have one great love in her life, we can guess what’s in store for the young German. Then there are the war film clichés that seem unavoidable: a young recruit lumped in with the veterans, a noble officer hiding his true feelings of fear and, by the end, the age-old assumption that every American soldier is able to mow down 50-100 Germans before any returned fire troubles him … although, to be fair, they are in a tank for much of the firefight.

In summary, there are good performances by Pitt, Lerman, Bernthal, Peña and Shia LaBoeuf, who plays a religious member of the crew (religion is as prevalent in Fury as the mud) who believes he is doing the work of God; the rest of the support is also impressive, though it is at times difficult to distinguish one grizzled senior officer from another. Despite one or two faults Ayer has made an impressive, action-packed war film that is at its best when it is pulling no punches. It is a nerve-jangling movie with a heavy, trundling, tank-like rhythm.

The Basics:
Directed by: David Ayer
Written by: David Ayer
Starring: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBoeuf, Jon Bernthal, Michael Peña
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 134 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 8.0

8 Comments

[Please note: the following review contains a couple of spoilers, which I’ve had to divulge in order to discuss the movie, but rest assured I’m not giving away major plot twists like the fact that Darth Vader is revealed to be a woman in The Empire Strikes Back, or the revelation that the woman in The Crying Game is actually Luke’s father. In fact I reveal less below than the movie’s trailers did, but thought I’d give a polite warning in case you’ve managed to avoid all info so far.]

In Edge Of Tomorrow Tom Cruise’s character is forced to live the same day over and over again, which is ironic because I often feel a cloying sense of deja vu myself when I’m watching a Tom Cruise movie. The actor usually plays it safe with variations on the same grinning uber-capable hero, and has done so for quite a while now, although with such a long career at the top there are a few very good performances and leftfield roles in the midst of the many tired, predictable ones. Still, most of the time there’s a nagging feeling that you’re watching Tom Cruise play a version of Tom Cruise, rather than a distinct, fresh character.

In this high concept sci-fi action film by Doug Liman he plays Tom Cruise Major William Cage, a man who has achieved his high rank not through heroism in combat but a background in advertising; his value to the military as a spin doctor is considerable, as an allied force drawn from all four corners of the globe is at war with an alien race, and the total number of soldiers is dwindling. The aggressive aliens are called ‘mimics’, an imaginative name bestowed upon them due to their ability to copy and respond to human military strategy, and in a clear reference to the Wehrmacht during World War II they have invaded and occupied most of Europe (landing in Germany via meteor strike first of all before spreading out across the mainland).

The spin here is that Cage is a coward, of sorts, although given the fact he has no military training and is thrown into battle against the vicious mimics as part of an incomprehensibly odd PR stunt by the stubborn General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), it’s hardly surprising that he’s scared and desperate to avoid the scrapping. Most people without military training would be petrified, quite honestly, but at least Liman and his screenwriters make it crystal clear why Brave, Bankable Tom isn’t playing Brave, Bankable Tom at the start of the film, lest your head explode as a result of the confusion.

In case you hadn’t worked out the Second World War allegory it’s rammed home by the allies’ plan to launch an assault on the beaches of Normandy, and despite his protestations that’s where Cage eventually finds himself, desperately trying to find out how to switch off the safety trigger lock as he enters the fray. (There are also references to a previous and important tide-turning battle in Verdun, which is a town more closely associated with the First World War. It is a cynical move to release the film as the 70th anniversary of the landings approaches.) His fellow soldiers couldn’t be more unhelpful or unfriendly if they tried, which made me snort with disgust when the honourable Cage later tries to save some of them, the chump. The mimics they must battle – four legged beasts with many tentacles that can move fast above and below ground, a little bit like the sentinels in The Matrix trilogy – are gruesome, heartless killing machines, but the human soldiers improve the odds of survival by wearing Aliens-style metal exoskeletons, and count in their numbers legendary special forces soldier Rita Vrataski (played by Emily Blunt), nicknamed ‘The Angel Of Verdun’ and ‘Full Metal Bitch’ for her previous mimic-bashing exploits. The aliens have prepared an ambush, though, and amidst all the confusion and slaughter that takes place on the beach, Cage is killed.

Oddly, he wakes up in the same position he was in several hours earlier, back at the military base in England. As stated earlier, like Groundhog Day and Source Code, Liman’s film deals with a main protagonist who is forced to live through the same day – and in this case the same battle – over and over again. Gradually Cage must memorise patterns, improve his own abilities as a solider and make decisions in order to affect the outcome of the day. If he dies, he returns back to the military base before going through the whole harrowing process once more, attempting to figure out the whys and wherefores as he tinkers with the day’s events.

No doubt the pitch went along the lines of ‘it’s Groundhog Day meets Source Code meets Aliens meets Starship Troopers (an attempt to replicate the tone of Paul Verhoeven’s satirical news stings is wisely ditched after the first couple of minutes) meets Saving Private Ryan’, and I suppose if you’re a studio executive that’s the kind of talk that quickly gets the blood flowing down to the nether-regions (right before a certain popular actor’s face pops into your head as if he’s Grin-o, The Magical God Of Predictability, Scientology And Huge Profits). Though it’s adapted from the Japanese young adult novel All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, Edge Of Tomorrow feels like a calculated, unoriginal amalgam of those five films, but the magpie pilfering actually works.

This is in part due to a well-judged script by Christopher McQuarrie and brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, which makes no attempt to disguise the preposterousness of the story, keeps the faux-science simple and contains a considerable amount of humour. (There is an amusing moment where Cage wins a fight simply by stepping to the side a couple of times, as it becomes clear he has had to experience the incident time after time in order to perfect such a response. Additionally, Rita’s repeated killing of Cage in order to restart the day becomes ever-funnier thanks to Cruise’s tired acceptance of its inevitability. This is surely a nod to Groundhog Day, recalling the exasperation of Bill Murray’s Phil Connors, as is the array of confused faces when Cage is able to relay secrets or life stories to other characters despite the fact they have seemingly only just met him.) Cruise rarely works with the same director again; to date he has appeared in films by Steven Spielberg twice, Tony Scott twice and Cameron Crowe twice, but that’s it from more than 30 years in Hollywood. However he is obviously drawn to McQuarrie’s work as they have collaborated three times now in six years (McQuarrie wrote the screenplay for Valkyrie, adapted the screenplay for Jack Reacher, which he also directed, and will direct Cruise in the fifth Mission Impossible film later this year).

Edge Of Tomorrow is a gritty sci-fi action movie but it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and thankfully it doesn’t tie itself up in knots with the exposition either. Granted, the time loop idea isn’t new: it was popularised in La Jetée in 1962 and in recent years it has been used in Twelve Monkeys, Looper, Donnie Darko, two of the movies mentioned above and many, many more besides. Similarly the use of powered exoskeletons in science fiction movies has become so commonplace there’s a Wikipedia page now. Ultimately, though, the suits of armour are pretty damn cool and Liman deals with the repetition of time well, employing similar editing techniques to those used in Groundhog Day and Source Code; as Cage’s day plays out over and over we see fewer and fewer details, to the point where we can safely assume hundreds of days have passed between certain scenes without us seeing a single moment from them. This gives the film momentum, and Liman is wise to avoid showing the same events too often and to vary the locations so that the action doesn’t simply career back and forth between barracks and beach.

The action is the real draw here. The battle on the beach at Normandy is quite gripping, bringing to mind the grandstanding of video games like Halo, which is a good move considering the task-based repetition and the seemingly endless supply of lives at Cage’s disposal. The body count is high, the fighting is frenzied, and the film manages to capture the adrenaline rush of war well, even if it ultimately lacks the nail-biting realism of Saving Private Ryan‘s Omaha Beach re-staging. There are twists to the battle each time you see it, based in part on Cage’s decisions to try and save certain people or leave them to the fate he is aware will befall them; if he leaves certain people to die he has a better chance of saving others further on in time. Unfortunately there’s little sense of Cage wrestling with these life-and-death decisions away from the fray, though to be fair he is constantly racing against the clock, struggling to complete necessary actions before the day resets.

Cruise is…Cruise. There’s an inevitability about his transformation from spineless army politician to fearsome warrior in the film, so it’s hardly surprising that the pretence of him playing a character that differs from the heroic, shit-eating grin norm is abruptly ditched. He still makes a decent action hero at 51, though, which is fortunate because he shares very little chemistry with Blunt or any of the other actors (he is most comfortable when acting with Bill Paxton, who plays a stereotypical ballbreaker of a sergeant, but his scenes with Gleeson will make you wonder why you are watching two actors who are themselves seemingly attempting to figure out why they’re in a room together). Blunt meanwhile really goes for it, apparently training in a variety of martial arts in preparation for her part, and she is convincing despite relative inexperience with this type of film.

The cast overall isn’t terrible, by any means, but Edge Of Tomorrow is hampered by some poor acting from those with smaller parts; there’s an attempt to include a roughneck unit like the merry bands in Aliens and Starship Troopers which isn’t very credible at all, and though the parts of Cage’s fellow soldiers are undeveloped some of the acting is well below par. Noah Taylor is given the thankless task of playing this film’s crazy-scientist-who-might-just-be-onto-something, but just about pulls it off, though his character isn’t particularly memorable. Jeremy Piven was apparently added to the cast late last year with some new scenes filmed and set to be inserted, but they appear to have been left out after all.

For all my jibes above, I actually think Cruise and science fiction are a good fit. I haven’t seen last year’s Oblivion, but he has made two very good sci-fi blockbusters with Spielberg in the past decade or so and this is a half-decent addition to his long CV as well. Liman keeps things simple and the confidently-handled action sequences here lay to rest the ghost of his previous attempt at the genre, 2008’s Jumper. The movie benefits from a smarter-than-average screenplay (though, y’know, my expectations were low to begin with), but it must be said the ending is a damp squib and it brazenly copies from a host of superior films. Still, Edge Of Tomorrow is energetic for the most part, it’s funnier than you may expect, and it delivers plenty of alien-blasting entertainment.

The Basics:
Directed by: Doug Liman
Written by: Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, Hiroshi Sakurazaka
Starring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Brendan Gleeson, Bill Paxton
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 113 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 6.8

11 Comments

Ladies and gentlemen, I have to admit that my gast has been well and truly flabbered. I remember watching films like Escape To Athena in my youth; in fact I have vague recollections of watching Escape To Athena itself as a young ankle-biter, and what’s more I recall that I enjoyed it immensely. So it was with a certain degree of anticipation that I settled down and decided to give this old ’70s war flick another viewing yesterday evening. 24 hours later my jaw is still trailing along the floor.

It’s hard to put a finger on what exactly is so bad about this film, simply because there is just so much that is wrong with it, but perhaps we should begin with the most obvious: the casting. Escape To Athena is a fairly straightforward adventure caper set on an unnamed Greek island, which is occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War. The action takes place mainly in and near to a German prisoner of war camp, which has been set up in order to loot priceless Greek artifacts, and various members of the captured Allied Forces and Greek resistance battle the enemy to escape, liberate the island and hopefully help themselves to a few priceless antiques in the process.

The cast is … well, frankly, it’s incredible. And not in a good way, either. It’s as if someone just plucked eight or nine names at random and threw them all together, paying no attention whatsoever to the requirements of the roles. There must be a story to this, as Irene Lamb, the casting agent in question, had a great deal of experience; she was partly responsible for successfully putting together the largely excellent casts of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Get Carter, The Eagle Has Landed and Force 10 From Navarone, among others. Perhaps her work on the latter two ensured she got the job here. In summary Escape To  Athena contains the following actors, with their roles in brackets:

Roger Moore (Major Otto Hecht, an Austrian officer cleverly disguised as a British man with a plummy accent and a wandering eyebrow);
David Niven (Professor Blake, a British archaeology expert);
Telly Savalas (Zeno, a Greek freedom fighter who magically fires semi-automatic machine guns at the sky yet still manages to hit German targets on the ground);
Stefanie Powers (Dottie Del Mar, an American stripper who is required to do little other than show off her legs every now and again);
Claudia Cardinale (Eleana, a prostitute who is required to do little other than show off her legs every now and again);
Sonny Bono (Bruno Rotelli, an Italian POW / chef on an extended holiday from Cher);
Richard Roundtree (Nat Judson, an American POW who, from what I could gather, is John Shaft Versus The Germans);
Elliott Gould (Charlie Dane, a camp entertainer who is bizarrely listed in the opening credits with a scrawled signature rather than the same font as the rest of the cast); and
Michael Sheard (the jawohling Sergeant Mann; Sheard will be better know to Americans as Darth Vader’s lackey Admiral Ozzell in The Empire Strikes Back, but will forever be cherished by British audiences for his years on TV as draconian teacher – and toupee-sporting scourge of Danny Kendall – Mr Bronson in Grange Hill).

Sometimes you can add a bunch of wildly different ingredients to a pot and you end up with an amazing soup or stew a couple of hours later. Unfortunately, though, that’s cooking, and this is filmmaking. The actors – half of whom seem to be going through the motions – clash wildly with each other, a rudderless bunch that probably suffer collectively from not knowing whether they’ve signed up for a straightly-played adventure film or a camp comedy. Savalas, Roundtree and Sheard seem to think they’re in the former. Gould, Bono, Cardinale and Powers are convinced they’re in the latter. Moore and Niven are caught between the two options, so try gamely to cover both bases.

Apologies for labouring the point, but some of the casting decisions are baffling. Who on earth thought Roger Moore would make a good German officer (albeit one that switches sides to the Allies)? This is a man whose acting range basically covers upper class British spy (James Bond), upper class British spy (The Saint) and … er … well, he was OK in The Cannonball Run, I guess.

While Savalas at least puts in some effort, Niven looks like he has turned up in order to enjoy a short holiday in the sun, and could have phoned in his performance. Powers and Gould, playing a couple of entertainers who turn up on the island after the plane carrying them crashes into the sea (though bizarrely they are bone dry, without as much as a scratch on them, have all their luggage in tow and show zero signs of trauma), may have been told to ham it up at every available opportunity, because that’s exactly what they do. It offers scant light relief – the film is light enough anyway – and at times it is frankly ridiculous. At one point, on a motorbike, Gould’s character chases a German officer through the narrow streets of the island. Every time the camera rests on Gould, he gurns and pulls silly faces, as though he has sat on a wasp. It’s as bad as seeing Frank Spencer appear in The French Connection‘s chase scenes.

What kind of film the writer / director, George Cosmatos (notable films include the risible Rambo: First Blood Part II and the much, much better early 90s wild west movie Tombstone), and the rest of the crew were trying to make is anyone’s guess. It looks like they decided to copy several ideas from successful war films from the previous decade in the hope of striking gold themselves. Escape To Athena rips off The Guns Of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, Inside Out and Kelly’s Heroes, to name a few, stealing elements like the plot, the tone, the cast members and the music from them randomly like a pissed, scattershot magpie.

Lalo Schifrin – who also wrote the soundtrack to Kelly’s Heroes – was enlisted to help here, but his repetition of jaunty, bouncy brass funk is nowhere near as memorable as his score for the earlier film. While Schifrin attempted to match the light tone of the movie here, it merely reminded me (and made me feel glad) that a cultural shift took place with regard to war films made during the next two decades, and the seriousness of war was reflected in works like Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Saving Private Ryan to name but a few, rather than these trite, late ’70s, big cast, boy’s own adventures. In recent years, weirdly, Inglorious Basterds is the film that most closely resembles the tone of Escape To Athena. Not that I’m completely dead against war films that also manage to be fun and entertainingly light; for pure cheese enjoyment the football-related Escape To Victory – made a couple of years later – knocks Escape To Athena out of the proverbial ballpark, despite its own faults (Stallone goalkeeper etc. etc.).

Cosmatos seems to have little or no interest in his female characters, and clearly sees them as having no value other than being for decorative use; the roles for women here are both demeaning and damning, and serve only to remind us of the very worst traits of 70s sexism. As well as the fact the two main female cast members play a prostitute and a stripper, the female extras are all prostitutes too. There are no other women in this particular war or on this particular island. (That all said, if the camera tends to linger on one actor’s backside a little too often, it’s neither that of Powers or Cardinale … but actually Elliott Gould’s jolly wobbler. Roger Moore, given top billing as a genuine screen heartthrob and action hero at the time, may well have raised an intrigued eyebrow at the first screening.)

This attempt at a British blockbuster – is that even a term? – is muddled pap that falls completely flat on all fronts. As a war film the action scenes are both forgettable and woefully unbelievable. (Characters regularly hold machine guns with one hand while spraying bullets in all manner of directions, but seem to hit their targets more often than not. A plot twist regarding a stash of V-2 bombs – presumably included to make the actions of the principal cast members seem more heroic – is a dreary add-on to the final act.) As a comedy, it is even less successful; Gould’s hammy clowning about is clearly meant to offer light relief, but the action / adventure side of things is so light anyway there’s really no need. The film also relies on a few weak sight gags; on one background wall the words “Fuck Germans” are daubed in white paint. As the camera pans by a German officer stands in front of the letter “u”. That’s the level here.

Fittingly, there is an extremely cack-handed ending, which shows the same island town 30 years after the war: it’s a bustling, liberated place where children run through the square and crowds of tourists arrive by bus to visit the local museum. Thank heavens for the Moore / Savalas / Roundtree / Bono / Cardinale / Gould / Powers multinational axis! When the credits do eventually begin to roll, the bizarre song choice playing is “Keep Tomorrow For Me” by the late ’70s disco act Heatwave. Even after the story has ended, Cosmatos still manages to make my jaw drop even lower.

In its defence, Escape To Athena does include some lovely establishing shots of the island (it was filmed on Rhodes), presumably taken onboard a very steady helicopter, and at least a couple of the actors (Moore, Savalas) try, despite their limitations. But that’s about all I can think to say positively. There are few original ideas on show here, and those that are can mostly be filed in a bin marked “terrible”. In a film that is over 2 hours long, albeit one cut by 25 minutes by the time it was released in the US, that’s very unimpressive.

Unfortunately I was watching the original, uncut version.

The Basics:

Directed by: George P. Cosmatos
Written by: George P. Cosmatos, Edward Anhalt, Richard Lochte
Starring: Roger Moore, Telly Savalas, David Niven, Stefanie Powers, Elliott Gould
Certificate: PG
Running Time: 125 Minutes
Year: 1979
Rating: 
1.2

7 Comments

Cross of Iron, the only war film that Sam Peckinpah made, is an examination of the relationships between soldiers under heavy pressure. It explodes periodically with choreographed, bloody violence, and it is a war film with a distinctly anti-war message, painting a negative picture of authority within the German army during the Second World War.

Peckinpah’s stock had fallen considerably in Tinseltown by the late 70s. Prior to Cross of Iron two of his films (Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) bombed, and another (The Killer Elite) performed well at the box office but was critically panned. Pat Garrett… came in $1.6 million over budget, and Peckinpah’s alcoholism and drug abuse had spiralled out of control. During filming of The Killer Elite he overdosed on cocaine and had to be fitted with a second pacemaker. Despite being a notoriously difficult character to work with, he still commanded enough respect to be offered two films that would become huge blockbuster successes in the mid-to-late 1970s: King Kong and Superman. He turned both down to concentrate on Cross of Iron.

James Coburn stars as the heroic, well-respected Corporal (later Sergeant) Steiner, a soldier who commands the respect of his men but shows little of it to his own immediate superiors. Steiner’s loyalty to Hitler and the German army has all but disappeared. His new captain is an aristocratic bully named Stransky (Maximilian Schell) who boasts that he specifically asked to be transferred from France to the Russian front line despite the fact that the Wehrmacht are all but beaten in Russia, retreating westward. Stransky makes no bones about the fact that his intention is to win the coveted Iron Cross medal so that he can return to his family as a hero.

Steiner is suspicious of Stransky from the off. At their first meeting Stransky orders Steiner to shoot a young captured Russian prisoner; when Steiner refuses Stransky is about to kill the boy until another soldier intervenes. Steiner later frees the boy, but the Russian soldier is accidentally shot by his own advancing troops. As the Russians attack, Stransky cowers in his bunker while Steiner helps lead a successful counter-attack with Lieutenant Meyer (Igor Galo). Meyer dies and Steiner is injured in the ensuing fight.

After a period of recuperation Steiner decides to return to the front line, where he discovers that Stransky has taken claim for the counter-attack in a bid to win the Iron Cross. His claim is backed up by Lieutenant Triebig, a passive commander blackmailed by Stransky, who has discovered that he is conducting a homosexual affair with another officer. Steiner, however, refuses to corroborate Stransky’s claim. When Colonel Brandt (James Mason) orders the evacuation of all German troops, Stransky decides not to notify Steiner’s platoon, abandoning them as the Russian army closes in. Steiner is left to fight his way out and back to safety.

A joint Anglo-German production, largely filmed in Yugoslavia, it exceeded its budget of $6,000,000 and Peckinpah had to put in $90,000 of his own money to get it finished. The crew completely ran out of funds before the end of the shoot, and both Coburn and Schell were forced to improvise the ending, which had to be completed in twelve hours. According to actor Vadim Glowna, Peckinpah was drinking four whole bottles of whisky or vodka a day while filming, surviving on less than four hours’ sleep per night. Still, the director managed to finish the film and though it was ignored in a summer completely dominated by the release of Star Wars, it performed well abroad, especially in West Germany.

The film alternates between long, dialogue-heavy scenes inside bunkers and brutal, balletic and fast cut action sequences. While the former are adequate enough, the film really comes alive when the two armies are battling. Blood spurts from bodies, shells explode and soldiers fly through the air in slow motion. It is both disorientating and intoxicating, managing to make the war look horrific but daring us to be entertained by the violence at the same time. The influence of this and other Peckinpah films on John Woo and Quentin Tarantino is clear. Whole sequences of Inglorious Basterds, for example, could be described as Sam Peckinpah crossed with Looney Tunes. In fact I will describe it as that: it’s like Sam Peckinpah crossed with Looney Tunes. The hand-held cameras used in Cross of Iron also influenced Steven Spielberg, who achieved a similar look with Saving Private Ryan, the film many believe to be the most accurate representation of Second World War close quarter fighting ever made.

The director balances these two sides of the film well. Though he was (and still is) celebrated for his action sequences, there is much more to Peckinpah and much more to Cross of Iron; the Second World War provides the perfect context for his slowly-building crescendos of violence, but the sequences inside the bunkers are easily as important as those that depict the fighting outside. The scenes that deliver the film’s anti-war message are not the ones that contain the explosions and the frenetic action of warfare – it is delivered during the moments in-between. It’s a film that shows an army at breaking point, dispensing with the boy’s-own adventure stylings favoured by several hack directors looking for commercial war film success in the 1970s, leaving you in no doubt about the grim conditions soldiers faced. It addresses how relationships and command structures function (or capitulate) under intense pressure. Coburn and Schell handle their roles impressively, the former cold and impassive in one of his best performances, the latter calculating and quietly threatening. Great support comes from Mason and David Warner as two Colonels who have simply had all they can stomach, mentally exhausted from three long years of fighting in Russia, albeit away from the front line. 

Peckinpah includes some extraordinary sequences in the film. When Steiner is injured, a series of fast cuts jump back and forth through time, alternately depicting him on the battlefield as a shell explodes nearby and wandering around a hospital while recuperating. While in the hospital, Steiner’s state of shock is superbly realised during an afternoon tea dance. Peckinpah plays with our notions of what is real and what is not by having the character both mistakenly and accurately identify colleagues from the battlefield. He sees himself from afar in his own wheelchair and, at one point, all the characters that appear in shot suddenly disappear from the scene. There is an implication that Steiner is not mentally altogether when he returns to battle, which is supported by some of his actions as the pressure upon him builds. This helps to make some sense out of the film’s strange ending, an abrupt halt soundtracked by Steiner’s manic laughter. Did Steiner actually recover properly? Has he gone insane? It appears that the war has finally broken him, and as Stransky fumbles inexpertly with his weapon, Steiner cares not if he lives or dies at this point. As the German children’s song ‘Hänschen Klein’ plays, the film ends with a quote from Bertolt Brecht: ‘Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.’ (‘Hänschen Klein’ also opens the film. Translating as ‘Little Hans’, it is a 19th Century folk song that was taught to German children at kindergarten. Originally it told the story of a boy who travelled the world and came back a man. Note how it fits with the experiences of both Steiner and Stransky. According to Wikipedia, in the German dubbed version of 2001: A Space Odyssey the HAL 9000 computer sings ‘Hänschen Klein’ (instead of ‘Daisy Bell’) while being deactivated.)

While at the hospital Steiner also witnesses a General greet a wounded soldier, in a famous scene that sums up the movie’s attitude to the war and authority. The soldier holds up one stump where his left arm used to be when the General attempts to shake his hand. Embarrassed, the General looks for the soldier’s other hand, only for another stump to be revealed. The soldier ends up extending his leg – an undamaged limb – for the General to shake, but the embarrassed senior officer departs hastily, more interested in the food that is available than in conversing any further. Orson Welles telephoned Peckinpah after seeing the film to praise its anti-war sentiment.

Some critics have complained that at times it feels as though the explosions in Cross of Iron will never stop, but surely the truest war films are those that actually put the casual viewer in such an uncomfortable position. In this case Peckinpah unflinchingly forces the viewer to imagine what life on the Crimean front line must have been like for German soldiers.

That said, there is an awful lot of cannon fodder in the film. It’s an unfortunate consequence of Peckinpah’s influence that the masses of slow-mo bodies flying through the air actually brings to mind 1980s Saturday night mainstream TV as much as anything else that has come since; it’s occasionally like watching an old episode of The A-Team (although with the notable exception that in Cross of Iron people do actually die). ‘Heresy!’ scream the Peckinpah fans, but it’s not too much of an exaggeration. For its time, though, Cross of Iron is brutally violent, aeons away from those Roger Moore vehicles that appeared during the same period like Escape to Athena and The Wild Geese. It also seems worlds apart from a clever, post-hippie anti-war film like Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, recalling the disillusionment of Gillo Pontecorvo’s La Battaglia di Algeri. It may look at a different war, but it delivers its clear message confidently, and just as strongly.

The Basics:

Directed by: Sam Peckinpah
Written by: Julius J. Epstein, James Hamilton, Walter Kelley
Starring: James Coburn, Maximilian Schell, James Mason, David Warner
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 127 Minutes
Year: 1977
Rating: 
7.4

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Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon, much of which was filmed inside an Israeli tank, is an autobiographical film that won the Leone d’Oro at Venice’s International Film Festival in 2009. It addresses the director’s time spent as a young gunner fighting in the 1982 Lebanon war. Maoz – known then by the name Shmulik – was only 20 years of age when he first experienced combat in the region.

Understandably for a film that mainly shows events from within such a vehicle, Lebanon is an extremely claustrophobic affair. The dirty, smelly, cramped interior is home to an overtired four-man crew, who are quickly pressed by the conditions and the stress of combat into bickering, insubordination and panic. In addition to Shmulik (Yoav Donat) the tank crew is made up of an anxious, indecisive commander named Assi (Itay Tiran), jittery driver Yigal (Michael Moshonov) and rebellious, argumentative shell loader Hertzel (Oshri Cohen).

The film examines the quartet’s first 24 hours in battle, during which they are visited on occasion by battle-hardened ranking officer Jamil (Zohar Shtrauss) and a Christian Phalangist purporting to help them negotiate their way through the tightly packed and extremely dangerous streets. In the second half of the film the small cast is also joined by a captured Syrian prisoner, creating even more cramped conditions inside the vehicle.

Events happening outside of the tank are only shown via the gun barrel’s sight, which moves around with a mechanical wail throughout, its shudder from left to right and back again reflecting Shmulik’s nervousness and his frantic search for information to tackle the confusion that reigns. Maoz’s use of the gun barrel view is clever, though some might find it a little heavy-handed. However it puts the viewer in Shmulik’s shoes and forces us to think properly about the decisions he had to make, at the age of 20, in this terrible situation. While there is undoubtedly pressure on all four members of the fighting party, there is only one man with his finger on the trigger.

At first Shmulik’s indecision and inability to fire on an approaching hostile vehicle costs one of the company soldiers his life. Forced by Jamil to follow orders soon afterwards, Shmulik’s later actions have disastrous consequences. For the rest of the film he remains indecisive, struggling with the life-or-death burden he has been given and barely able to summon the willpower to pull the trigger.

The trend with war films has been, by and large, to depict events more and more realistically, and much less romantically than the swathe of post-war films of the 1950s and 1960s, or even the ridiculously glossy and macho boneheaded spurts over weaponry and technology that appeared with regularity throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. (I’m not saying here that all the films in the 1980s dealt tritely with killing, or the notion of what it means to kill someone. It’s just that the first films to pop into my head when considering the decade were not Gallipoli, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Das Boot, Good Morning Vietnam, The Killing Fields, Empire of the Sun or Schindler’s List. Y’know, movies that deal with killing but actually give more than a cursory nod to the concept of what it is like for someone to kill, or the effects of mass killing. The first films that popped into my head were Top Gun and First Blood.)

Lebanon is a realistic depiction of war, or at least we are probably safe to assume it is given Maoz’s direct experience (something that few directors can match, even with access to technical advice from the military). It is a story, by and large, about events experienced by young Israeli soldiers, and as such we only see things from the Israeli soldiers’ perspective. There is little political comment in the film, save for one suggestive moment when the tank’s gun sight rests upon the wall of a bombed-out travel agency. First the gun is trained on a poster that shows a typically-touristic view of the EiffelTower; then it moves on to another poster, showing London’s Houses of Parliament, before the crosshairs finally land on New York’s skyline. You can probably guess which buildings, specifically.

The director’s sympathies understandably lie with the four men in the tank, but he does not pull any punches in showing their personalities or their actions on screen (Maoz used the real names of his fellow soldiers in the film). Lebanon is a war film without heroes or heroic acts, but we are not asked to judge these men for their actions or decisions. In that sense the real subject of the film is the experience of war. These soldiers are not cowards and they are not heroes, but simply men struggling to understand and adapt to that experience.

The actors are believable, and though the default character types are established early on, they are thankfully still the same at the end of the film. One review complained about the lack of character development in the film, perhaps forgetting that it takes place during an intense 24 hour period with little pause for reflection on events. The notion that a metaphysical journey should also be taking place while the tank tracks trundle round is frankly bizarre.

The cramped enclosure and the lack of light inside the tank means that the actors were required to convey a lot with their eyes (we rarely see much more than a head or the upper body of the four crew members), and this adds to the sense of panic. Outside the tank the action mainly follows Zohar Shtrauss’ Jamil, who remains calm when dealing with his men but must struggle frenetically with unhelpful authorities over the radio. Shtrauss, who starred in the earlier Israeli war film Beaufort, gives a strong performance, portraying a strong-willed character who is gradually losing his grip on proceedings, tested to the extreme by the sheer chaos that surround him.

Lebanon is not as expansive in its scope as Waltz With Bashir, Ari Folman’s superb film about the same conflict which was released a year earlier), but it effectively delivers on its premise of showing a small part of the Lebanon war from the perspective of a relatively green tank crew. The film’s three main set pieces (two of which involve the presence of innocent civilians) are filled with an urgency for information and decision-making that can also be seen in Kathryn Bigelow’s similarly muscular The Hurt Locker, another film that often refuses to reduce warfare to anything as simple as a straightforward toe-to-toe fight against the enemy.

One newspaper review described Lebanon as an ‘anti-war film’ upon its release, and it’s a phrase I would concur with wholeheartedly. It is a relentlessly tense movie, set in dark, squalid conditions, and it leaves a very clear impression of the circumstances faced by the inexperienced Maoz and his crew.

The Basics:
Directed by: Samuel Maoz
Written by: Samuel Maoz
Starring: Oshri Cohen, Zohar Shtrauss, Michael Moshonov, Itay Tiran, Yoav Donat
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 84 minutes
Year: 2009
Rating: 6.6

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