Category Archives: war

Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer (1955)

Director: Thorold Dickinson

Interesting challenge this month at the ICM Forum, “smaller” Asian cinema, i.e. from Asian countries other than China, Japan and India. I’m not really sure how “smaller” is defined here, cos Hong Kong is OK for this challenge but I’d have thought its industry was pretty sizeable… same for South Korea, which is also eligible.Whatever. This means that, this month, I’m going to be looking at some areas of the world I don’t often (or ever) look at, including Israel, which is counted as part of “Asia” along with a few other places I’d consider mor “Middle East” than otherwise, but, again, whatever. It gave me a reason to finally scrub this, the first ever Israeli feature film, off the watchlist. (Tricky bastard to find a decent copy of, by the way; only today I found an actually fairly watchable version rather than the kind of shit one I’d had for a while.)

It almost feels like a cheat, though, calling it “Israeli”. I mean, it is, but the director was English, two of the main performers were Irish and American, and almost the entire film is in English. I somehow suspect it wasn’t aimed primarily at local audiences, though. The film acknowledges the controversial nature of the formation of the state of Israel in 1948, but I can only remember one point where the possibility that the Arabs might have their own opinions about all these survivors of that other war that had recently finished suddenly getting their own country after Britain washed its hands of the lot of them. And that encounters ends with the Arab man pushing the American character (who’s rediscovered his Judaism while touring the area) into a swimming pool. Basically, Hill 24 is propaganda without much subtlety, and I have a feeling it was aimed more at international audiences than Israeli ones, trying to justify Israel’s battles for its own existence against those shifty Arabs who’ll push you into a swimming pool as soon as look at you. Told in the form of three flashbacks by three soldiers for the Israeli forces sent to capture a particular hill before the Arabs can claim it, two of them about how they came to be involved, and the third which, in its way, is the most interesting, cos it describes how the soldier had recently encountered an escaped Nazi now fighting for the Egyptians who begs for his life by asking him not to do what the Nazis did to the Jews. I know some people who are less friendly towards Israel than myself who would find that statement bitterly ironic. On the whole, it’s wartime melodrama whose interest is, I suspect, mainly historical (in 1955 I imagine it must’ve struck foreign audiences as somewhat exotic), and your enjoyment may depend on just how much propaganda you can handle.

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All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Director: Lewis Milestone

So today is the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, which fact is something I think most Australians are probably sick of hearing about by now; there’s been talk of “Gallipoli fatigue” in recent weeks as media outlets have been forced to admit their commemorative programming just hasn’t been drawing the audiences they’ve hoped for. Now that the big day has actually passed, I daresay we can now resume our lives and carry on, but I still felt I should watch something to commemorate it myself. The obvious and logical thing to do would’ve been to watch Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (which I recently saw accused of kind of kickstarting the “Gallipoli industry” as it now exists), but 1) I don’t actually own it and anyway 2) why on Earth would I do the obvious and logical thing? As such, I went for something that, in its way, might be more suitable (and, amusingly enough, it apparently also played its first New York session on this day 85 years ago)…

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Now, I’ve said before that early talkies can be a bit of a grind, especially since so few of them have incidental music, just opening and closing music… and Lewis Milestone didn’t even want that much; he wanted no end music and the film was only restored to his original intention (as much as it could be with something like 15-20 minutes apparently lost for good) long after his death. And AQotWF is surely a grind, but not for the usual early talkie reasons. It’s just really fucking heavy. The length is a bit wilting and the narrative perhaps too episodic to counteract that, and yet it’s still one of the very best films to have emerged from that difficult time when Hollywood was still getting a grip on an industry-changing technology called sound. It was a fairly big production (and must have been a reasonably quick one, too, given the original German novel only appeared in January 1929), and you can see that throughout the film (there’s some great deep focus stuff that lets you see—especially on blu-ray—just how much business Milestone could fit into a frame). It’s also pretty unrelenting in its bitterness; the film’s tendency to heavy-handedness and speechifying is undeniable, but it’s also impressive in its determination to be as brutal as a film made in 1929/30 could be…

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…indeed, every time I see the film I’m amazed yet again by the above shot. I know no one took the Production Code too seriously before 1934, but I still can’t believe those disembodied hands that a German shell just forcibly separated from their former owner actually made it into the film. I’ve seen far more explicitly graphic things than that, obviously, but something about that is still kind of shocking.

Not everyone appreciated the film’s many virtues, of course. It was banned in this country, which is faintly ironic given how one of our supposed defining myths is, lest we forget, a catastrophic and pointless wartime engagement of the sort this film depicts. And it was banned in France until the 1960s, and in Italy and Austria until the 1980s (though Wiki implies it may have been shown before then and no one realised the ban had never actually been lifted). And as for Germany, well, yeah. The book had caused a stink of its own, so the film was going to do the same thing, with the Nazis pestering the few cinemas showing it and eventually banning the thing. So many films that were controversial a long time ago kind of lose their strength with time. Not All Quiet, which is still kind of overpowering in its grimness. On a day which causes so much angst in certain quarters of this country about the glorification of war as part of the national narrative, I was pleased to see again a film that resolutely refuses to do so.

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Director: D.W. Griffith

Yeah. THAT film. Today marks the centenary of its public debut. The Birth is film history’s version of the elephant in the room in many ways. If you consider yourself a serious film student, you have to watch it at some point, it is unavoidable whether you like it or not, but no one would blame you for being reluctant to do so (and not just because of the considerable time investment). It still raises a stink whenever someone tries to show it, and no wonder. Even Roger Ebert hesitated over it when it came to naming it one of his “great films”, so far lesser lights like myself can probably be excused for doing the same thing.

But it is a film that needs to be recognised for its position within American cinema history, even if you feel like you need to apologise for doing so; it was an attempt to commemorate the Civil War—which had ended not quite 50 years earlier when the film was released and so was a thing still reasonably within living memory, at least for older people at the time of the film—and to rather consciously elevate the feature film to some new level of artistic prestige. It would be unfair to deny that Griffith did a more than fair job of that.

Of course, it’s not always easy to appreciate the Birth for its historical importance; it’s one of those films where you need to have some context. And that was pretty much what I got when I last saw it back in 1999, as part of David Stratton’s Continuing Education course in film history… in that class we spent the first four classes looking at the earliest films, one-reelers and even shorter films up to 1914 (if I recall rightly, the third class was given over to a selection of Griffith’s Biograph shorts), and then the fifth one was devoted entirely to the Birth. It was staggering. For probably the first time—and I had seen it a few times before that—I kind of understood what an impact it must’ve had in 1915; imagine being an American filmgoer at that time, used mainly to the shorter films and early features of the period up to 1915, then WHAM here comes three hours of war epic and paranoid racist fantasy. Must’ve felt like a bomb going off in the industry especially.

Of course, that paranoid racist fantasy is the other stumbling block to appreciating the Birth these days. Even more so, I dare say, than the context issue. And even at the time it appalled people—not just the NAACP, too—for being a glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, a long-since dead in the water mob when the film came out but whose fortunes were revived by the Birth. Griffith did himself no favours, either, by not really getting why people were upset by it, and the filmed preview he shot for a 1930 reissue in which he claimed the Klan had been a necessary force post-war didn’t help either. Even Thomas Dixon, the racist moonbat whose novel The Clansman and the play derived therefrom were turned into the film’s second half, had enough sense to repudiate the revived Klan in the 1920s when Griffith was delighted to exhibit the thing in Klan-heavy territories.

The Birth is a big film; apart from its three-hour running time, it’s just so determined to be the ultimate example of the sort of thing it is. Griffith had ambitions for this film and made no bones about them, those ambitions are all there on the screen. Indeed, rewatching it tonight and actually looking at the depth of some of the images, the actual amount of space the battle scenes contain within the frame, made me realise just how much is going on in the film at those times (when you can see it through the often unfortunately strong red tint applied to the Kino DVD print in these scenes); Griffith covers a lot of ground quite literally. The whole film is a grand gesture and monument. I think it’s fair to consider it a great film, and certainly the first half of the film—i.e. the character establishing and the actual Civil War action—offers few issues other than a few outbursts of Griffithian sentiment (“the opal gates of death”, anyone?). It’s so nicely played, and Griffith’s performers are eminently charming, and however heavy-handed some of the emotion is, some of it (like Henry B. Walthall’s homecoming after the war) is really quite powerful.

It’s just… the second half.

Being a southerner himself, and therefore from the losing side in the war, Griffith’s sympathies were obviously going to lie that way, and the film’s heroic presentation of the Klan can obviously be seen as a kind of revenge fantasy (“think y’all Yankees can take our niggers away from us? We’ll show YOU! Git off ma lawn now, I got a cross to burn there…”); the fact that most of the black characters in the film are actually whites in blackface of a kind that occasionally makes Al Jolson look understated is just icing on the cake (topped only by the scene near the end where a couple of blacks actually turn out to be whites in black “disguise”). But even in my much less racially sensitive youth when I first saw the film, I still knew there was something weird and nasty going on there. Given how much of part one is based on the detailed historical research—right down to Joe Henabery recreating the rather particular way Lincoln sat in a chair—that the intertitles sometimes cite outright, this bizarre fantasia of the darkies getting out of hand and forcing the eminently superior white man to put on a hood and robe to bring them back into line is just… I don’t know. It’s like the negrophobe Andrew Johnson wasn’t actually the president or something. And part two is as well made as part one—the climactic Klan ride to the rescue is kind of awe-inspiring—it’s a perfectly good piece of filmmaking… if only the content didn’t overshadow whatever other merits it has. And if only it didn’t overshadow the whole first half of the film.

Ultimately that’s the film’s dilemma. Ever since 1915, it’s been the second half of the film that’s really caused the stink. It makes me wonder, had the film never included the Clansman material, had it just been the war drama of the first part, how would it have been received then? How would we receive it now? I mean, there’s dubious bits in the first part, but nothing like the second half. Would the film have got people so worked up back then without the “KKK ra ra ra” stuff? Would we care about it now? Would the film even exist now? Plenty of big hits of that period have fallen by the nitrate wayside over the decades… The converse question, of course: would we care about the racism were the film not as well made as it is? If it were, say, on the order of a bad anti-communist propaganda film a la Ron Ormond, we could probably just dismiss it as an unpleasant curiosity at best, too shoddy to actually get worked up about.

The fact that we still do suggests something about the film we may not like to admit, i.e. that it actually must be a great film if its perniciousness still rouses fervour in us, and that we can’t just dismiss it as easily as we might like. To quote Ebert, “it is a great film that argues for evil”, which is an awfully hard thing to swallow; on rewatching tonight, I feel about as far away from resolving that contradiction as ever. Still, I’m sure it’ll outlast me, and though people may get worked up about things like American Sniper (which seems to be the stink du jour) now, I doubt anyone will really care about that in a hundred years time in the way people still care a hundred years after the Birth‘s first release. Or the way I suspect they will still care about it in 2115…

Georges Méliès: Encore—New Discoveries (1896-1911)

So I finally got my hands on the supplemental volume to Flicker Alley’s five-disc Méliès set, which I reviewed oh so long ago… this disc brings together no fewer than 25* shorts made between 1896 and 1911 that have been rediscovered since that big box first came out; I wish the DVD came with some information as to how these ones actually turned up and were identified. It’s a mixed bag of stuff, obviously, as was Méliès’ whole career, of course; we get news re-enactments, comedy, melodrama, and the expected assortment of trick films. Print quality is obviously variable as well; Under the Sea is only just watchable (being an umptieth-generation dupe that’s so contrasty and poorly defined the image borders on the abstract at times), while others look like they almost might have just been struck. And the films vary themselves; I didn’t like The Christmas Angel at all, which was like sub-par proto-Griffith (comedy and trickery were his fortes much more than serious melodrama seems to have been, if this and a few of the films on the big box are indicative), but Robert Macaire and Bertrand was great, a lovely little chase film. Some, like Off to Bloomingdale Asylum, with its literally black and white minstrels, are best described as bizarre. There is a lot of joy to be had here, and it’s delightful to see some of them in colour as well.

Interestingly, though the disc is otherwise without supplements, the Encore set includes a couple of Segundo de Chomon films as well, Magic Roses and Excursion to the Moon, that were apparently misattributed to Méliès for a long time. There’s still controversy in some quarters as to whether or not de Chomon was merely a Méliès copyist with better resources; certainly that was pretty much what Pathé wanted from him. I don’t know for sure, and these two shorts don’t clarify the issue; funnily enough, although Excursion is obviously a direct remake/knock-off of a certain Méliès film, neither of them actually felt like “Méliès” somehow. After watching a hundred-odd minutes of actual Méliès, these two felt very much like someone else’s work. Magic Roses in particular struck me as closer to the Pathé stencil colour films I’ve seen by Gaston Velle from the same period. Curious that they should’ve been mistaken for Méliès.

* 26, according to the packaging, but someone on IMDB notes that the film identified here as The Hallucinated Alchemist from 1897 is actually a shortened coloured print of The Mysterious Retort from 1906. Which struck me as odd, cos I’d have thought Lobster/FA would’ve noticed before releasing this set, but no, a quick comparison revealed this fellow is right. Still, maybe it’s the sort of thing that’s inevitable when dealing with a filmmaker who made so many films; imagine how hard it’d be to keep track of and distinguish them if they’d all survived…

Independenta Romaniei (1912)

Why, yes, I do go out of my way to bring you obscure shit, thanks for noticing… and this is about as big a historical oddity as I’m likely to bring you. I know Romania’s kind of become one of the more recent fashionable hotspots of world cinema, but I was intrigued to discover they were making feature films there as early as 1912, this very one in fact. And that, unlikely as it sounded, the thing still existed. Not just that, it was on Youtube, and—least likely of all—someone had created subtitles for it. So I couldn’t resist. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was a pretty difficult watch. The film has no credits and apparently the director (Aristide Demetriade) was not identified until as recently as 1985, and we may safely say that whoever he was, he was no D.W. Griffith. Independenta is filmed almost entirely in immobile long shot and generally long takes (I think some went on for a few minutes), and cutting may be charitably called “minimal”. I recall literally a single medium shot, and that came early on in the film (a scene where one of the villagers and his girl farewell each other); everything else is kind of like The Red and the White five and a half decades avant la lettre. Only Jancso made his film that way as a deliberate matter of style, here it just looks like primitiveness of technique. Still, some of the battle scenes have a certain rough vigour and the number of people Demetriade fits on the screen at times is remarkable, though I suppose the film’s very existence is its most interesting aspect. I kept wondering what films Demetriade and his cohorts would’ve seen at that time, cos this predates most of the films I can think of that might’ve inspired them to make their own. And would those films have even been shown in Romania anyway. “Historical oddity”, all right…

Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1975)

I’m trying to remember the last time I felt quite so… wrong while watching a film. If any genre of film can be called inherently conceptually repulsive, “Nazisploitation” is probably it; though Love Camp 7 probably invented it, Ilsa seems to have really triggered it off. According to Refused Classification, Ilsa has been rejected three times here by the OFLC, the last time in 1983, and I somehow can’t imagine them ever changing their minds in future, so I’ll say thanks (?) to Youtube for making this… thing available to me. It was shot on the sets of Hogan’s Heroes, apparently largely because the producers of same were happy to save money destroying them by letting the film’s makers destroy them in the film, and I daresay some of the German accents in the films were leftovers from the show as well; story is based to some extent on the real Ilse Koch and others like her, but once the introductory “dedication” is out of the way, the film quickly reveals that it is quite literally really about sex and violence in true exploitation style: we see Ilsa getting it on with one of the male prisoners, then castrating him. This is, arguably, not the worst thing that happens in the film; Ilsa is otherwise more interested in torturing her female inmates to prove her theory that women are more resistant to pain than men. Apparently producer David Friedman was so ashamed of the thing he took his name off the film, which is remarkable given some of the stuff he did put his name to (including the aforementioned Love Camp 7); even more remarkable is that only two of the actors involved followed his example if IMDB is right. This is another one of those films where I frankly don’t know what to really make of it—some bits of it I’m not entirely sure I want to admit to myself let alone anyone else how I felt about them—other than to congratulate it on achieving what I presume was its goal to be as tasteless as possible. Like any good comic book villain, death would be no obstacle to Ilsa returning for sequels, although now that I’ve seen this (plus Jess Franco’s knockoff) I think I can live without going that far…

The Nail in the Boot (1931)

This film currently has two IMDB reviews, and their respective titles sum it up brilliantly: “Technical masterpiece imbued with Stalinist hysteria, boggles the mind” and “Weird, angry propaganda”. Story: a Red Army armoured train—apparently mostly crewed by a gang of shoe factory workers—is attacked by White Army forces. Unable to contact their superiors any other way, one of the Red soldiers is sent to report to them and get backup; en route, though, he’s crippled by an errant nail in one of his boots finding its way into his heel and doesn’t actually get that far, whereupon the train is lost. Hauled before a tribunal for dereliction of duty, he turns it around by accusing the shoemakers of making shit footwear. The overall message the film’s supposed to communicate is rather bluntly put: slacking off at work is as bad as fucking up at war. However, the Soviet authorities banned it for formalism, that handy catch-all damnation for anything they didn’t like, so the shoemakers of the Soviet Union were saved from this finger-waving admonition… The authorities were right, of course; director Mikhail Kalatozov was clearly far more interested in the possibilities of filming the battle (which occupies most of this 50-something minute film) than the propagandistic message he was presumably meant to be focusing on. Like the first IMDB comment indicates, the battle business is absolutely amazing and tremendously exciting stuff, and it’s clearly where Kalatozov’s heart really lay. The trial business in the last reel or so unfortunately can’t match it, Kalatozov obviously cared less about making it terribly interesting or even believable; instead it’s riddled with ludicrous melodrama like the battalion of children with the banner proclaiming the soldier’s unfitness to be a father. And then of course there’s the man himself pointing the finger, it’s like he’s decided if he’s going down then he’s taking as many of them as possible with him. Weird and angry all right. Obviously it’s not a fully satisfying experience, but the actual combat material is still fantastic. Watch it on the Tube of You here.

All This and World War II (1976)

I suspect it would’ve been this Film Threat article that introduced me to this… whatever the fuck this thing is. More recently, thanks (if “thanks” is the right word) to this Dangerous Minds piece, I’ve now had the opportunity to actually see it. And to some degree I suppose I’m glad I did, because I might never have believed such a… thing as this could exist. Fuck, I’ve seen it now and I still don’t believe it. There’s much more background on the thing here, with some genuinely startling information.

Anyway, in short, the film appears to have been modelled on Philippe Mora’s Brother Can You Spare a Dime (the credited director here, Susan Winslow, also did research on that), which combined 30s newsreel footage and clips from 1930s films to paint a portrait of the Great Depression. All This would do the same for WW2… but, rather than use period songs like the earlier film, it’d use Beatles songs. Or rather cover versions of them. Mostly horrible, and even more poorly applied (surely even Beatles haters must feel sympathy for them if they saw this, although neither Lennon nor McCartney seems to have thought it was a bad idea to let this happen to their music). What, the Bee Gees doing “Sun King” as Japanese planes set out for Pearl Harbour? Leo Sayer doing “I am the Walrus” during the strike? Recruitment and boot camp scenes soundtracked by FRANKIE LAINE singing “MAXWELL’S SILVER HAMMER”? And the finished film being released by 20TH CENTURY FOX? I mean, HOW THE CHRISTING FUCK DID THIS HAPPEN? Seriously—someone not only had the idea for this film (from a dream, yet), but a major Hollywood studio let them make it. At no point did anyone seem to have thought, “this is in fucking atrocious taste, we really should stop”. I honestly don’t know whether to bow down before its perverted genius or weep for humanity. A critical and commercial bomb resulted—bizarrely, the soundtrack album made more money than the film—albeit one that somehow made it to Cannes in 1977. 20CF have since done their best to bury it (too late once the horse had bolted, though), and it will almost certainly never see any legitimate home release for a number of reasons, many of them doubtless good; I’m happy to let a Youtube rip of a dodgy VHS bootleg do me.

Silent Saturday: Even more D.W. Griffith shorts (1910-11)

Yes, it’s Silent Saturday, to make up for having missed out on Silent Sunday last weekend (circumstances happily beyond my control). Time to finish off those Griffith Biograph shorts, with this little lot coming from the bonus disc to Kino’s edition of the Birth (which we’ll come to in due course); all of these are Civil War-related like the main feature, so a nice thematic collection, and all one-reelers…

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Paths of Glory (1957)

As titles go, few are as bitterly ironic as that of Kubrick’s fourth film, wherein he really entered the big league of cinema. Here’s another one I probably haven’t seen since around 1995 or so, taped off Channel 7 after they showed it overnight at some heinous hour even I couldn’t have stayed up for… It’s powerful, enraging stuff about a gross miscarriage of military justice in WW1 (inspired by true events), as a French general randomly executes three soldiers for alleged cowardice after they fail to take a strategic position; bitter, ferocious, and—as I now realise upon this re-viewing—as manipulative as all get out. The key word is there in James Naremore’s DVD booklet essay: melodrama. That’s what Paths of Glory really is. It’s not a word you often associate with Kubrick, but Naremore’s right to use it. Kirk Douglas starred and produced; and though Kubrick wasn’t the hired hand he would be for Douglas on Spartacus, it’s still tailored as a “Kirk Douglas” film as Naremore says. His heroism is enhanced by everything being stacked against him, from the borderline psychotic nature of General Mireau to the frankly rigged court-martial; that he cannot and does not win underlines his virtue. It’s a film where everyone takes vengeance on someone lower; Mireau executes three men to cover up his own idiocy, Roget dobs in Corporal Paris to cover his own genuine cowardice, Dax makes Roget lead the execution, even the sergeant threatens the firing squad not to fuck up. And this is before we consider General Broulard, who arguably emerges as the most heinous figure in the film. Really,  while watching the film my stomach was churning at the injustice it depicts, and yet I could never entirely escape the feeling that I was being manipulated in fairly blunt fashion; and as unquestionably brilliant as the film is, I can’t help but feel that I perhaps admire it a little less than I used to.