Archive for the ‘War’ Category
Really awesome, and the dynamic between Richard Burton and Curd Jürgens (even if Jürgens totally fails as an actor…) is like a non-shitty version of the Berenger/Dafoe dynamic in Platoon, only this time the murderous tendencies arise because one doesn’t want to be labeled a coward, and such a seemingly trivial label makes the dynamic that much more disturbing. Even though the film’s last image made me roll my eyes a little, and overall the film can’t compare to far-superior Men-trapped-in-the-desert movies like Yellow Sky and The Lost Patrol, it’s still a solid, exciting effort from Ray, more of a straight genre film than I’ve been used to from him, but still instilled with those themes of the importance placed on being manly/dominant in the eyes of others, and all that good stuff.
It might be the most repetitive story structure I’ve ever seen. Bomb squad does its thing, then tries to pass the time and wax mournful about the war, then goes out and does its thing again. And again, and again. And yet, if nearly any other movie tried to have as many attention-grabbing setpieces as this film had, it’d fall apart in a sea of starts and stops. But the setpieces in this film are so masterful, so suspenseful, filmed and depicted so perfectly, and are each so much more riveting than the one before that the most repetitive story structure I’ve ever seen becomes one of the most gripping I’ve ever seen. That, and the performances of both Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie are so fantastic (if the two of them are not among what should be The Hurt Locker’s slew of Oscar nominations, something’s really, really rotten in the state of AAMPAS), especially in the heat of the job when they’re dead-set on doing what’s gotta get done despite Renner’s sometimes-tiring bravado, that even their obligatory war movie who-do-you-got-waiting-for-you-back-home talky moments are great and feel real for once (Mackie talking about how he wants a son, in particular, really, really got to me). Moments like that show you that the film is critical of the dehumanizing effects of war, but it never hits you over the head with neither anti-war nor pro-military sentiments (after risking life and limb to diffuse bombs in the most dangerous situations conceivable, Renner’s Sergeant James is finally defeated by…**spoiler** the cereal aisle. Whether you want to look at that as an argument for the importance of the military life, or a sad and poignant commentary on the tragedy that is veterans’ inability to readjust to civilian life, is entirely up to you, and a testament to the film’s ability to be appropriately vague in that regard **end spoiler**). It’s just is what it is: Bravo Company putting themselves smack-dab in the middle of hostile territory while one of ’em wears a bear suit and is one wire-snip away from blowing up an entire town square. Same shit, different day.
It’s about a group of French convicts who escape from Devil’s Island to make their way to the motherland to fight the good fight against the Nazis, and the Captain whose ship picks them up and becomes sympathetic to their goal.
But oh, if only it were that easy. Instead of a relatively straightforward premise like that, we’re treated to perhaps the only instance I can ever remember of a film employing the dreaded flashback within a flashback within a flashback. It still isn’t that hard to follow despite that insanely unusual story structure, but the way the story just goes backwards, and backwards again, and backwards again, it stops being revelatory of characters’ motivations and what-not and becomes a “Memento”-esque gimmick, and even more egregiously, like four separate movies in four separate time periods, some noticeably less interesting than others. On the bright side, no pun intended, some of the lighting, especially in what I’ll call the boat chapter and the prison chapter, is simply spectacular. As Claude Rains’ Captain Freycinet interviews the escapees in a cabin on his small vessel following their rescue, the lighting of the cabin and each of the men is very hard and evocative, and the shadows distinct, so that the cigarette smoke is very, very visible and these men, whose motives and reason for being stranded at sea is still unknown at this point in the film, are shrouded in shadow and mystery, particularly Humphrey Bogart’s Jean Matrac, as Bogart’s mannerisms of a mysterious sadness and despair makes his character the one who really stands out, and not only because it’s Humphrey Bogart. In a similar vein, the prison chapter (the second of three consecutive flashbacks and third of four periods in the film’s backwards-traveling timeline, if you’re keeping score…), by far the most interesting and attention-grabbing portion of the entire film, is genuinely thrilling and suspenseful, most notably because the dank, Turkish-like prison is lit so evocatively, that at one point during a rather astonishing near-birds-eye tracking shot as we move from cell to cell in the isolation ward, when we come to Matrac’s cell and Bogart struggles to stand and look into the light, it was like that insanely amazing moment in “Frankenstein” where the creature looks up into the light. Yeah, it’s that impressive.
Following that, we’re treated to a rather suspenseful, step-by-step escape, but that’s right around the end of where I was tuning all-in to this movie. Surrounding the 15 or so minutes of gorgeously-lit prisons and boat cabins and Great Escapes and a very, very cool naval battle is 135 minutes of poorly-written, archetypical characters looking out into the great blue yonder with a gleam in their eye extolling the virtues of patriotism and fighting for freedom while saying Vive la France a lot. At least Curtiz, et al seem to make an attempt to disguise their propaganda as a well-made action/adventure/thriller picture, which this is, but despite anti-Nazi propaganda maybe being the most worthwhile of all propaganda, this was still pretty eye-rollingly lame when everyone outside of Sydney Greenstreet’s cowardly and mutinous Major Duval is preprogrammed to sacrifice everything for country and to tell everyone else why it’s so important to sacrifice everything for country. “Casablanca” had a similar message but managed to conceal it rather well, but Curtiz just misses the mark in trying to repeat that success in his big follow-up. And that leads to what might be my biggest problem with “Passage to Marseille,” and that’s that Bogart is just all wrong for the main role, at least for a good chunk of it. In so many films, from “The Maltese Falcon” to “The Big Sleep” and even “Casablanca,” he’s a rugged, hardened cynic, and yes, he sticks his neck out for no one. That’s why the flashback-within a flashback-within a flashback, when we see him as an anti-war, revolutionary journalist on the lam with his girl, just seems so false and out of character for him. He’s Bogart for god’s sake, the ultimate cynic…it just felt completely wrong to see him so nationalistic and devoted to a higher cause. Later, when we move forward in time (a couple of times…) and Matrac’s been hardened and sapped of his willpower from his experiences in prison, that’s more like the Bogart we all know and love…hell, the wrinkles on his face actually seem more accentuated than usual with how bitter and toughened his character’s become. But that was too little, too late, when everyone else around him by that point is thoroughly established to be as shallow as they are. Above all, though, this film as a whole just felt wrong somehow. It felt wrong to see Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains and Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, four great, great actors, all sitting in the same shtunky cabin with other character actors reciting lame lines when each of them has the acting chops to carry a scene all by himself, it felt wrong to be force-fed the notion that country is the most worthwhile and virtuous thing to live for, it felt wrong that just when I’d start to really get interested in the story, there’d be another flashback to a point in the story whose tone was completely different than what came before (the transition from the gritty brutality of Devil’s Island to Matrac’s backstory, which feels an awful lot like the lovey-dovey flashback from “Casablanca,” couldn’t possibly be any more awkward), and it felt wrong for a Bogart character to actually care about something besides his own well-being. This was exciting for a moment or two, but eh, I guess I’m just not the patriot that Matrac is .
What could I possibly write?
…other than that the final Hitler montage was almost as self-indulgent and ill-advised as Chaplin’s big anti-fascism speech at the end of The Great Dictator. But even then, while Chaplin’s speech was totally inappropriate in terms of that film’s comedic tone and the sheer impossibility of a meek Jewish barber being able to deliver a speech like that completely off the cuff, this Hitler montage somehow, at least somewhat fit in its own strange way, just because of how visceral and angry both it and the film as a whole are. Still, it just doesn’t belong, especially given that it’s seemingly from the point of view of our hero, a young Belarussian boy experiencing the atrocities of the war in his own backyard and who’s thousands of miles away from Hitler himself.
That, and the absolute orgy of Jonathan Demme-esque facial closeups that dominates the first half of the film are essentially the only reasons why I’m not giving this a perfect 10/10. This was a painful, disturbing, intense, and draining experience like few others, and through its use of sound and imagery and often first-person perspective puts other so-called ‘realistic’ anti-war films a la “Saving Private Ryan” to shame. And the key is that it’s pretty much divided into two parts, the first of which is almost like a surrealist fairy tale, with the abundance of people looking wide-eyed into the camera (which I still take exception to) and talking a little flower-and-poetic-like, and our young hero Florya and his new friend Glasha wading through the depths of hell, complete with bodies, mud, and the sounds of bombs and deafness (tip: do not watch this film on a laptop, wearing earbuds). There’s brutal realism here, sure, but that realism takes on an eerie, nightmarish tone when it’s almost exclusively from Florya’s point of view. This first half of the film is almost exclusively about the after-effects of armed conflict, as we see bodies and people in shock, and the closest we come to actually facing the Nazi menace is through bombardments, the Nazis themselves thousands of feet in the air.
Initially, I did not like the abundance of earsplitting sound effects or surreal dialogue or long tracking shots of, say, Florya and Glasha, hysterical, wading their way through a swamp, and dismissed these as stylistic excesses. That is, until the second half of the film, which I found to be different in style from the first half, yet exactly the same in despair-ridden tone. While the first half was surreal and dreamlike, despite that realism, the second half is pure, bitter realism all the way, as Florya journeys to find food and supplies for the starving survivors of his home town and encounters one terrible situation after another, eventually finding himself in a small town being ravaged by the Nazis. Suddenly, the up-‘til-now faceless Nazi menace gains a face, many parts of this segment in the town, almost a quarter of the film, are not from Florya’s point of view, allowing for more of that cruel realism, and what transpires has to be some of the most disturbing and painful stuff I’ve ever seen in a film, and whose raw power would only be spoiled if I tried to describe it here, so I won’t. And suddenly, when it was all over, I gained a new appreciation for those stiff characters and their even stiffer dialogue, and that over-reliance on unsettling sound effects and odd images and fast-motion effects, in the first half that I had had a problem with. Suddenly, the quasi-realism infused with the subjective fears and mindset of a young boy, and later the near-opposite, the objective realism of what the Nazis would do to a small town (just one of 628 Belarussian towns that received such treatment during the war, we’re told in an intertitle at the close of the film), combine into a singular whole, as both are equally proficient in presenting man’s inhumanity towards man (yes, the Belarussian freedom fighters don’t completely come off as the good to the Nazis’ evil here) and tying a knot of both anger and sadness in the viewer’s stomach.
Actually, I probably shouldn’t say ‘objective’ in describing the second half, as other than a late moment involving both the Nazis and the Belarussian fighters that’s as stomach-churning as any other, the Nazis really are portrayed as nothing more than inhuman monsters (hey, I don’t deny it…) and Belarussians the virtuous victims and freedom fighters (I don’t exactly deny that either…), which, along with that Hitler montage, is all about Klimov’s hatred of Hitler and, you could argue, is anything but objective (there’s a very good chance that after this movie is over, you’ll hate Germans more than you ever thought possible 😆 ). Yeah, Klimov overplays his hand in transferring his own sentiments toward both Florya and the depiction of the world and people around him (tone it down, Klimov, no need to overdo it THAT much to convince the world that Hitler was bad. It’s OK to hate Hitler, dude, the last thing we’ll ever do is hold it against you 😆 ), but it’s done with such power and conviction that you can’t not be affected. Hell, Klimov’s use of Mozart’s Requiem to close the movie is probably heavy-handed and manipulative, but fuck it, it got to me, and I was practically in tears by the time the screen went black. That ending, complete with the Mozart, is arguably just as bleak as what came before it, and yet somehow, that image is also hopeful, or at least as hopeful as you can get in a film like this. Or maybe it was just me trying desperately to grasp for some kind of hope after hope had proven completely evasive for two and a half hours. So turns out I was able to write a lot. This movie gave me severe dry mouth.
A more or less unexceptional war/love story that nonetheless got me involved and drew me in. It’s the remarkably, and maybe unfortunately, simple story of a young Russian soldier who singlehandedly takes out two enemy tanks and is rewarded with a six-day leave to go home and fix the roof of his mother’s house, and the various adventures and misadventures he encounters as he makes his way home. It’s so simple that it allows the love story that follows to take center stage, at least for a (sadly) little while, but also so simple that the attempts by Chukhrai to build Alyosha up to some kind of mythic level is simply ludicrous. The opening narration that basically makes our little Alyosha out to be a metaphor for the plight of all armed servicemen and the emotional pain that they cause their loved ones was really, really cringe-worthy, the set-up of the premise is really nothing more than a scene where Alyosha asks his superior if he can go home and his superior says OK – no dramatic or even practical build-up whatsoever, really just plain lazy storytelling – and Alyosha himself practically defines youthful, aww-shucks innocence (or whatever the Russian equivalent for ‘aww-shucks’ is), to the point that that unrealistic playing up of youthful vigor and innocence compromises both the realism AND the mythic qualities that the film is trying to depict.
But fuck it, I was moved by this story regardless. Are there unfortunate clichés? Sure there are (“Where will you go now?”, Alyosha asks a despondent fellow soldier who feels ashamed to reunite with his wife after he’s lost his leg. The soldier shrugs, looks off towards the heavens and thoughtfully says “Russia is a big country.” Good god…). And some moments of humor, like a collection of scenes involving canned beef, and “Mamaaaa!!!!” (you’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it) are just plain awkward. But otherwise, I thought it was all handled with class and dignity and even with a kind of graceful poetry. There are some genuinely beautiful shots, like the ones above that combine vast, open spaces with the mournful image of a person standing by his or her self, practically swallowed up by the open space and in their own loneliness, and on the flipside, some incredibly intimate shots, mostly low-angle, that demonstrate both the close quarters of men in combat and, say, an awkward discomfort felt between Alyosha and Shura as they stow away together in that train car (a scene on a crowded train car in which a group of soldiers lovingly tease Alyosha in disbelief that he actually took out two tanks, is wonderful. These men are hot and sweaty and have no room to move their arms, but are still able to joke around with each other and revel in each other’s company.). And for the most part, that sometimes-poetic, sometimes-intimate, always eye-grabbing cinematography works (except for that upside-down shot as Alyosha is being chased by the tank. What the fuck was that…).
The real selling point of this film, though, is the relationship between Alyosha and the just as innocent and naïve Shura, as they meet as fellow stowaways in that train car and develop a relationship from there. Both characters are almost cartoonishly innocent, but apparently two wrongs make a right, because two embodiments of cartoonish innocence and a predictable progression where they get off to the wrong foot with a misunderstanding and develop a deep bond from there apparently combines into incredible chemistry, because that’s exactly what they have. There’re never any clichéd proclamations of love (except in an ill-advised late-film montage in which Alyosha has quick glimpses of Shura’s past exploits, complete with the sappy music, that DEFINES cliché), only awkward but sensual moments of holding one another as they hide from a soldier, or harmless small talk, or jokes and genuine smiles. It’s a very convincing and sweet and touching relationship between the two, and I hoped and prayed their collective story would end well (which is a long shot given the bleak premise, which probably contributes to why I responded to this film as strongly as I did, the whole hope in vain trick…). If Chukhrai wanted to make “Ballad of a Soldier” into some grand meditation on the human condition and the ability of love to develop and grow despite the harshest of times, then for god’s sake, focus more on that positive part. This was one of the more believable and tender relationships (I hesitate to use the word ‘romance’ because the story doesn’t feel the need to automatically go down that road a la a more predictable romantic drama, and the two even discuss whether platonic friendship is possible between a man and a woman) I’ve seen in a film in quite some time, and despite the images of blown-up buildings and trenches and limbless soldiers, it was a relationship that really put a smile on my face.
Obviously we have to be presented with the contrast between hopeful romance and the bleak world around it, but in this film, what that translates to is a bad imitation of Italian Neorealism, in scenes like the one where Alyosha and Shura present the father of a fellow soldier with a gift of a couple of bars of rare and treasured soap. This scene, in a makeshift refugee shelter where everyone crowds around our heroes with dirt on their faces and looks of wonderment at the wide-eyed boy in the impressive-looking uniform, and the previous scene in the war-ruined street, screams ultra-realism that just isn’t there. The relationship between Alyosha and Shura that develops from a rocky start to friendship to partnership to love easily could’ve been more of a primary focus in this film, and instead it pretty much comes off a step or two above just another subplot among the many misadventures of Alyosha as he makes his way home. That so-called subplot deserved better, and as a result this movie would’ve been much, much better. As it stands, though, it’s an uneven, but ultimately a good-hearted and heartfelt film, with a genuinely emotional, albeit somewhat histrionic and melodramatic, climax and resolution. And if you’re not moved by those looks of absolute longing between Alyosha and Shura, you’re a communist.
Yeah, obviously I hate Nazis, almost as much as Indiana Jones hates Nazis, and hell, I’m sure I’d hate Nazis even more if I was living in Europe during the war when I’d actually have a reason to fear Nazis. But propaganda’s still propaganda, and even when Fritz Lang’s piece of based-on-a-true-story propaganda “Hangmen Also Die!” is championing a worthy cause (and they don’t come much worthier than blasting the Nazi Party), it’s still contrived and artificial. And I’ll even admit that it’s heartfelt and that Lang is clearly passionate about the subject (he fled Germany when the Nazis rose to power, after all), but even then, in true propaganda form, the heavily-slanted story and stilted acting make it seem like anything but heartfelt, instead feeling like a shallow and simple state-produced PSA – a really well-made and visually impressive state-produced PSA, but a state-produced PSA nonetheless.
Admittedly, there’re some really promising thriller elements in “Hangmen Also Die!”, which tries to dramatize the aftermath of the real-life assassination of a brutal Nazi bigwig in Czechoslovakia, and most of those elements spring from Lang’s gift for creating dynamic images. There are some stuff this film that scream Lang, namely little things like shadows and silhouettes, and cigarette smoke, and hard lighting and moments of dead quiet and nervous-looking, slow-moving people leading to a sudden moment of violence: overall, some dynamic images and interestingly ominous-looking people framed in subtly odd ways, like…
So it looks great, but really, it’s all pretty much just window dressing, ‘cuz well-produced propaganda is still propaganda with all its shallow and biased bells and whistles where screenplay and performances are just along for the ride while the film’s anti-Nazi message is clearly meant to take center stage. And shallow those things are, which is a shame considering that Bertolt Brecht co-wrote the screenplay with Lang. I mean, obviously Nazis were evil in real life, but to make the difference between good Czechs and evil Nazis this exaggerated was silly, to the point that all Nazis had overly-exaggerated German accents and the Czechs had some of the Americanest accents you can imagine, with maybe the tiniest English twang (took me about half the movie’s length to figure out this was taking place in Czechoslovakia, even though it tells you so right in the opening scroll…) – “Star Wars” did the same thing in giving all the villainous Imperials British accents and the heroic Rebels American accents. All that results is Nazis who are cartoon characters and Czechs who have no emotions or souls. And I’m sorry, Walter Brennan’s a fine character actor, but for god’s sake, keep him in his element as the old grizzled sidekick in Westerns – the man just has no business playing a dignified, bourgeois Czech professor who moonlights as a resistance leader and recites eloquent, uplifting speeches.
The bottom-line is, I had zero emotional involvement in the story or the conspiracies or the connivings or the doctor who was the assassin or the girl he falls for or her jealous fiancé or the commandant who becomes obsessed with killing Czechs and finding the assassin – because frankly things became so convoluted that I couldn’t follow, and I’m not even sure these people are actually who I just described them to be. They were that wooden and non-engaging that my attention span just bounced right off of them and could hardly stick for more than a moment or two. Nazis and anti-semitism are awful, awful things, but when a film fills itself with shallow, monotone characters who sneak around for some reason ( ) and then stop everything to give rousing speeches and tell the audience about the injustices of Naziism the way Hawks’s “Scarface” stopped everything PSA-style to lecture the audience about gangsters, clearly this is more of a pulpit than a narrative, and I became more bored and apathetic than anything. And even when we weren’t being directly lectured, the brutality of the Nazis and innocence/heroism of the Czechs was overdone and exaggerated to nearly impossible levels. I mean for god’s sake, before I watched this film last night, I watched “Borat,” and that movie was a MILLION times more effective in criticizing anti-Semitism and intolerance in general, through parody rather than one-dimensional propaganda. Ehhh, I guess the ending of “Hangmen” was suspenseful and thrilling and unsettling in its quiet act of violence (and even subtle humor), but by then, all I was thinking was, who are these people and why is one of ‘em being shot at? Meh, maybe I’ll watch “Triumph of the Will” next. Who knows, maybe “Hangmen” has the really worthwhile message but presents it as least-engaging as possible, while “Triumph”’s message is utterly reprehensible but presents it compellingly, or so I’ve heard. Boring good message, interesting terrible message – I need the middle ground in propaganda, and “Hangmen” wasn’t that. Looked Lang-ian, though, so it wasn’t a total washout.
And speaking of Borat, I’m glad I watched “Hangmen” right afterwards, ‘cuz I started giggling like a schoolgirl at the very end when before ‘The End,’ there was…
An unremarkable, but still very solid early effort from Powell & Pressburger, that lays on the pro-democracy wartime propaganda and morals a little too much, so that at times it’s more of a sermon than a narrative, but overall it’s still a tense and suspenseful and involving tale of a stranded group of Nazis on the run in Canada after their U-Boat gets blown out of the water. It’s a series of vignettes as our not-so-merry band of Krauts encounter various people and places, from the isolated trappers at the trading post to the commune of German Hutterites to the colorful academic camping in the woods, as they make their way west. Some of these episodes are flawed (Lawrence Olivier is miscast in hamming it up as the prototypically goofy Canuck, and a late encounter in a train car with a corny Raymond Massey ties things up far too conveniently), some are excellent (i.e. the Hutterite farm, where the Nazis come closest to something resembling reform, and an excellent Leslie Howard as the flamboyant but ultimately brave and noble academic who takes in the desperate remnants of the band of Nazis), and the same is true about the preaching. I usually don’t like characters preaching the moral of the story to you a la Howard Hawks’s “Scarface,”, and there’s a lot of that here, as Lieutenant Hirth espouses his Nazi doctrines and his men fall in line, and those they encounter tell them why they’re wrong. Obviously America needed to enter the war, and who knows, maybe this film was an important factor in contributing to public opinion in that regard, but this is what it is: propaganda, and Pressburger’s screenplay makes no bones about the message it’s trying to send. Sometimes that goes over the top…except in a long monologue by the magnificent Anton Walbrook as the leader of the Hutterite commune, who listens to Hirth’s big speech about Nazi supremacy during a gathering and then refutes it with the utmost calm and dignity. It’s a contrived speech, but it’s incredibly heartfelt – Walbrook sells it completely.
Hell, even I was buying into the artificial cast of characters these Nazis were running into – basically parrots reciting yay democracy/boo fascism propaganda – and not just because of guys like Anton Walbrook. Powell and Pressburger construct this film’s narrative in a fascinating – and incredibly bold – way. Sure, the ‘good guys’ like the Hutterite farmers and the goofy trappers get their screentime, but they still seem like outsiders to us, and not just because they seem so stiff and fake. From start to finish, just keep this in mind: we’re following around a group of Nazis. Yes, full-on master race/kill all Jews/Heil Hitler Nazis. And what’s more, other than one of them, a former baker who rediscovers the pleasures of a humble life at the Hutterite farm, they don’t really learn, or want to learn, the error of their ways as would happen in a lesser, more clichéd film. From start to finish, Lieutenant Hirth is a stone-faced, stoic, and vile man, all too willing to share his hatred of blacks and Jews and his belief that all Germans are brothers under the banner of the swastika, who’s practically memorized Mein Kampf, and who’s men fall in line behind him through fear, devotion, or both. And yet, they’re the ones who’s journey we follow, from that trading post to the ill-fated hijacking of a biplane to disguising themselves as workers amongst the Hutterites to an arduous on-foot trek from Winnipeg to Vancouver, as the group of six gradually become more exhausted and desperate, and become five, four, three, and two, until finally one sole fugitive remains, still confident that he as a member of the master race can overcome a continent’s worth of inferior Canadians. They can’t even be classified as anti-heroes, as the film clearly portrays them as a menace, and yet we follow them, and not some good, democracy-loving Canadian or two, unless the Nazis encounter them on their journey. Perhaps Powell and Pressburger do this to demonstrate as clearly as possible that this is the danger that Americans face if they don’t intervene in Hitler’s atrocities, but even still, at times these vile, desperate Nazis on the run drew me in, and I felt for them and their plight, never more so than when Hirth punishes one of his men at the Hutterite farm in the name of the Third Reich – a painful scene. They’re Nazis, but they’re still human beings, and seeing any humans get as desperate as these guys, wandering through the wilderness and facing death at every turn, will make you care at least a little. It’s a bold move to force the viewer to sympathize most with a group of Nazis and follow them from beginning to end, which is ultimately what slightly elevates “49th Parallel” above other similarly unremarkable thriller/adventure/journey films, but Powell and Pressburger pull it off, and even more remarkably, when it’s over you still think of the well-developed and sympathized-with Nazis as the menace, and the crude caricatures that are the Canadians the Nazis come across on their journey, as the heroes. Talk about a love/hate relationship.
Devil or saint, tyrant or revolutionary, murderer or freedom fighter, desire for reform or power-hungry – it’s not easy classifying Che Guevara as this kind of person or that, or heaven forbid, placing him on one side of the moral spectrum or the other. His accomplishments as a revolutionary, a soldier, and a Commandante are well-known, as are his alleged atrocities and extreme political views. His and Fidel Castro’s impressive overthrow of Fulgencio Batista’s regime in Cuba is well-renowned and was done in the name of equality for all, but then again, look at the state of Castro’s Cuba all these years later. Guevara’s extreme leftist politics are admired by many, and that famous image of him in his heroic pose has practically become a banner and a symbol of solidarity, and yet his alleged human rights violations and executions and murders are just as well-known as his ideologies. You love him or hate him, but I myself can do neither, because I know so little about the man – he’s an enigma, and there’s no easy way to classify him as either well-intentioned or pure evil, or any number of categories in-between. Steven Soderbergh, in his enormously ambitious 4-hour epic about Guevara, doesn’t attempt to make that classification, and rightly so. “Che” is not an all-encompassing biography of Che Guevara from childhood to execution – cliché and banalities that way lie. Soderbergh splits his massive film into two parts, each focusing on one episode in Guevara’s life – his staggering success in the Cuban Revolution, and his just as staggering failure to repeat that success in Bolivia years later. Sure there’s little snippets of flashback to his more humble family life or the planning stages of the Cuban Revolution in Mexico, and Part One’s Cuban campaign is intercut with his address to the United Nations years later, but other than that “Che” deals only with these two campaigns, pretty much chronologically and with an agonizing attention to detail of the day-to-day operations and goings-on of Guevara’s men. That pretty much makes it impossible for the film, even at four hours, to paint a full portrait of Che Guevara’s actions and motivations – we see him in his element, wading through jungle brush or being the charismatic politician-type before the U.N., nothing more. No stock explanations or excuses for who he is, why he did things both great and terrible, just his actions, unfettered and without bias.
The closest we get to backstory is a small scene at the beginning where we find Che Guevara, a mild-mannered and well-dressed Argentine doctor in Mexico, planning to overthrow the Cuban government with Fidel Castro and others. No reason for this, we don’t know what drove Guevara to join up with these people or how he came to adopt the political views that lead to a desire to violently overthrow an entire military regime (his famous journey by motorcycle through South America as a young medical student is never even mentioned). Why does this Argentine doctor want to risk life and limb to become a revolutionary soldier, and why does he believe so strongly in these leftist ideals? Or does he really believe in it at all? He certainly doesn’t seem that into it in these early scenes (and in fact seems quite tentative during that dinner and on the boat heading towards Cuba), and his spouting of political ideologies with that golden tongue of his in an interview and before the U.N. later on do seem a bit staged, so why is he the way he is? Why is it so alarming to see this soft-spoken doctor in one scene, only to see that same man in the very next scene in full military garb and larger than life, wading his way through protestors in New York who want to see him dead? We never find out – we dive headlong from these planning stages right into the long and arduous trek through the Cuban jungle. We get a sense of what kind of a leader Guevara is – a strict disciplinarian who never leaves an injured man behind, who demands that his young soldiers study their math and language textbooks while the group rests, who has no problem executing two soldiers who deserted the unit and raped a young peasant. His devotion to even the lowest men in his unit’s hierarchy and his willingness to provide medical care for farmers is admirable, and the small glimpses of his infamous atrocities are terrible, and Benicio del Toro is magnificently understated in making the audience neither admire nor hate his Che Guevara, but simply observe him – he’s just a man doing his thing. In fact, in both halves of “Che,” I was surprised at how Guevara was rarely the sole focus – really, the focus was on every man under his command, the camaraderie between them and how they work together as a cohesive unit to accomplish their goals – or in the case of Bolivia, how they fail to accomplish those goals.
With that, what we have is, at least in Cuba, a point-A-to-point-B action/adventure/war/journey film, where del Toro’s Che Guevara is obviously the most recognizable of the men, but far from the chief focus. It’s a step-by-step, meticulously-detailed chronicle of a grass roots guerilla campaign, right down to the Battle of Santa Clara that’s as thrilling and realistic as any on-screen battle you’ll see. Black and white footage of Guevara being interviewed and giving his speech before the U.N. is intercut with his and his men’s daily struggle to survive in the Cuban jungle, perhaps giving some ideological perspective on why they’re risking their lives, but really, that’s not necessary. I found the intercutting of those two time periods more ironic than anything, with Guevara in New York seeming incredibly facetious and disingenuous in laying out his political dogmas inserted right into the chronicle of the revolution, where Guevara seems intent as all hell in succeeding, for reasons only he knows and we can only speculate on. Is he really overthrowing a government to give economic equality to farmers and peasants, as Castro claims to be doing, or is there some kind of ulterior motive? Either way, what’s for certain is that from the get-go in the Cuban half of the film, the overriding feeling is that Guevara and his men will succeed, that they’re a flawless machine that can march straight into Havana and pluck Batista right out of his office if they really wanted to, and Soderbergh’s cinematography is as responsible for that as anything (yes, Soderbergh directed “Che” and did his own cinematography. This was a true labor of love.). In Part One, the widescreen compositions are awe-inspiring, the greens of the Cuban jungle are lush and beautiful, and the open fields where Guevara’s men assist and recruit farmers to their cause – the key component to the Revolution’s success – are expansive. You just feel like they’re making a beeline first for Santa Clara and then Havana, that everything is going right, that the land itself is welcoming these revolutionaries with open arms and giving them the keys to the kingdom, and even victory in the Battle of Santa Clara, while still extremely thrilling to watch, seems all but inevitable for this well-oiled machine being commandeered by Che Guevara before our eyes, and by Fidel Castro more behind the scenes.
But, as optimistic as things seem in Cuba for Guevara, things seem just as utterly hopeless in Bolivia. The bright lighting in Part One gives way to the dreary fog of the Bolivian mountains and a much grayer color tone, the open spaces and widescreen compositions give way to more confined spaces, and the stationary camera regarding the characters from a relative distance now give way to uncomfortable low-angle close-ups. In Cuba, the sun was bright and the jungle, while dense, sill formed a clear path to victory. In Bolivia, it’s claustrophobic, and the elements and the U.S.-backed Bolivian army close in around Guevara’s suddenly ragtag group of fighters – Guevara’s downfall is as inevitable as his success was in Cuba. There are intermittent scenes in Part Two here and there in which the Bolivian President coordinates the campaign against Guevara’s rebels, and the army itself marching right on Guevara’s heels, but unlike the somewhat disjointed time structure of Part One, Part Two is a straight chronological path from Day One to Day 341 – a straight chronological path to oblivion for Che Guevara, capable Commandante in Cuba hopelessly out of his element in Bolivia. Even as his men die around him, and he knows all hope is pretty much lost, he never really loses his cool – say what you want about the extreme ideologies and harsh methods of Che Guevara that’re mostly not touched upon in this film, but from start to finish he’s the consummate soldier, and that’s a testament to the understated Benicio del Toro, who despite being intimidating by his mere presence never overplays Guevara and gives this impossible to read historical figure an incredible air of dignity. And Guevara’s rise to prominence and precipitous fall as portrayed by the film is testament to Soderbergh’s mastery of the camera to materialize Guevara’s mindset in the world around him. Sure, for a moment or two Soderbergh’s stylistic eccentricities of the past rear their head unexpectedly, like a key first-person perspective shot late in the film that’s probably Soderbergh reaching too far for style points but is nonetheless an extremely haunting and unsettling moment. But for the most part, the action and the psychology dictate the production value, and it’s understated, but incredibly effective. “Che” is very long, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it an epic – its timeframe is pretty much confined to two short episodes in the man’s life, and our questions about Che Guevara’s motivations or true nature go unanswered for the most part. All we’re given is a glimpse of the man living his extraordinary life without bias or outside commentary, an endurance test for him and a 4-hour endurance test for us (though it does move at a rather brisk pace for a 4-hour film – the ultimate compliment for a long movie), and for my money that’s a hell of a lot more compelling and eye-opening, and truthful, than any speculative answer-searching.
Yeah, the story and the characters aren’t the deepest and most complex you’ll ever find (the movie’s only an hour and 10 minutes, so there ain’t exactly much room to flesh these guys out as they find themselves stranded in a desert oasis…), and the acting’s pretty damn hammy (Boris Karloff, as the humorless worrywart of the group, takes the cake…he’s like a bad, extremely hammy Shakespearean actor who has no business doing Shakespeare in the first place). But all that be damned, because this movie was fucking awesome, man. Proof’s in the pudding…
A W E S O M E
Truth is, who fucking cares that there’s not enough character development, because this…nothing but a lost patrol in World War I Mesopotamia trapped in an isolated oasis, surrounded on all sides by an unseen Arab enemy, is tension defined. Yeah, the oft-jolly music as this man or another does something goofy can be grating, but when that music suddenly comes to a sudden halt and a goofy man suddenly becomes a dead man, struck by an unexpected bullet, that’s incredibly disturbing and unsettling if you ask me. Much, if not most, of the dialogue isn’t plot-driven, but rather indirectly goes into the men’s backstories – not completely, but just enough to give us a taste of who these guys are and what their motivations might be. It’s all very off-handed, in the moment, and genuine – even charming. I couldn’t identify a single character by name if you held a gun to my head, but boy did I like ‘em, even as the tension, mistrust, and desperation grew, and the bodies started piling up. And tension there is. The patrol’s Arab enemies are unseen and can kill from practically any range from practically any invisible vantage point. It defies all logic, but that just makes this unseen menace all the more terrifying and nerve-wracking for the patrol. The sound of a bullet (the bullets that almost never miss) is short, with no echo or reverberation – quick, to the point, remorseless, just like whoever’s firing the gun. The cinematography’s pretty much remarkable, the small men in a vast desert under a vast cloud-covered sky underscoring the feeling that the enemy really can be anywhere. The paranoia and anxiety amongst the men hits you like a ton of bricks, especially considering how relatively carefree the feel of the film is early on, even as they’re being hunted – the desperation is real, and you really feel like these guys are going bat-shit crazy (which is where Karloff’s performance actually starts to work), exactly as men in a situation as intense as this one should. The Arab villains are portrayed as anything but realistic, and indeed pretty much super-human, but hell, that pretty much makes our heroes even more vulnerable, and worthy of our worry, and human.
fucking Karloff, man 😆 No wonder his claim to fame was a flat-top head, bolts on his neck, grunting, and a mix of fearsomeness and child-like innocence 😛
John Wayne playing a Swede 😆
But, when Wayne’s “yahs” weren’t making me cringe, I was admiring just the sheer atmosphere of “The Long Voyage Home”, where even the great John Ford and the great Gregg Toland damn near outdid themselves with the production value. That first scene is as great as everyone says it is – the seductive native girls hanging out on the shore practically grinding the trees, Wayne and his merry band of seamen surveying the view from their cozy little boat, saying nothing as the fog and darkness and exotic music gives us all the atmosphere we need – the mood is set without a single word needing to be spoken. And the moodiness and atmosphere really doesn’t let up from there. I wasn’t much a fan of some story and dialogue choices – a few too many clichéd what’re-you-gonna-do-when-you-get-out or who’s-waiting-for-you-back-home or bedside you’re-gonna-be-just-fine moments – nor did I really like some rather over-the-top performances all-around, with stereotypes like the wise, stoic seaman dishing out cryptic advice to the hero or the jovial fat guy everyone looks up to or the shrimpy little guy who gets his panties in a twist about EVERYTHING, so nobody takes him seriously. There really wasn’t a character, from Wayne’s impossibly shy Ollie on down, that stuck out for me, or that I could particularly like – or hate, for that matter. It was like one big collective of overacting, though the reserved loner Smitty, who attracts the suspicion of the others, is the exception in a very nice and subtle performance by Ian Hunter. Thankfully, all that nothing special-ness is helped along by that great atmosphere, and by those great Fordian staging and images that I’ve been busting a nut over for the past month, although Toland obviously deserves just as much credit for that for his cinematography – he did only do “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Citizen Kane,” two of the greatest-photographed films ever made, in the same 2-year span as this 😉 . When you hear nothing but the wind, the occasional foghorn, and the anchor scraping against the hull, and the faces of these severe-looking men are lit only from the bottom, and on the deck at night they’re not even men, but silhouettes, and they’re cramped together in those dark, seedy living quarters like they’re in a football huddle, yeah, I’d say every feeling from camaraderie to boredom to desperation to outright suspicion of the very men they call friends is pretty fucking palpable. The men’s treatment of Smitty and a mysterious box he keeps under his bed one fateful night is particularly disgusting and tough to watch (I mean that as a compliment), and their drunken escapades, while over the top and drawn out too long, has a kind of warm intimacy to it. A character who you’d think will be a major one, or maybe even the chief protagonist, by movie’s end, is out of the picture far sooner than you’d likely anticipate, and the story takes on a far different tone late in a port town, so to its credit, the movie’s not that predictable. The production value and ambience, especially aboard the boat in the middle of the war-torn Atlantic, is impeccable, but there were still a few too many of those acting and dialogue 1940s-isms that never fail to irritate me. But then again, late in the movie during a particularly bizarre situation involving a rival ship, I was really worried about what was gonna happen to Ollie, so if that isn’t an indication that I have no clue what I’m talking about, I don’t know what is.