It is sorely tempting to recommend Battleground as a Holiday movie because so much of the action takes place around Christmastime. But since it’s an archetypal World War II film I figured I better just include it along with the other classic movies we talk about around here. Still, there is something about watching it during the Holiday Season that makes you thankful that such brave soldiers stepped up to the grueling challenge of defeating the monstrosity that was Nazi Germany those many years ago. And while this 1949 movie is a long way from the justifiably gung ho, sentimental propaganda that was a Hollywood mainstay during the actual war years, I’d still be willing to bet that you might find yourself tearing up at points thinking about what these young men had to go through in order to prevail against such steep odds. Such is the excellence and impact of the terrifically well made Battleground even to this day.
The film recounts the famous predicament of a very banged up and replacement-heavy Army VIII Corps, including the 101st Airborne division, when they were cut off and encircled deep in the Ardennes Forest by the Third Reich’s last desperate offensive push, which became known as the Battle of the Bulge. Familiar to anyone who has watched the excellent HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, this was actually a cock up by the Allied Forces by somewhat letting down their guard after the initial hard-fought success of D-Day and the semi-setback of Market Garden. The massive and perfectly orchestrated German attack on overly stretched lines took the Americans and the Allies completely by surprise and it was only after very hurried reinforcement, enduring heavy casualties and the clearing of some of the worst winter weather in years that the combination of Patton’s 3rd Army coming up from the south and US air power could be successfully deployed to bring relief to the soldiers trapped in the Ardennes. In all, the Battle of the Bulge lasted from December 14, 1944 to January 25, 1945 but the key breakthrough by Patton’s forward relief force arrived the day after Christmas, the true beginning of the end of the battle. A largely German-American affair, each side suffered massive casualties but ultimately it was the outnumbered Americans who thwarted the surprise German advance, eventually breaking the back of the enemy incursion and essentially dooming the potential for the Third Reich to sue for peace on any terms other than complete surrender.
The excellent ensemble cast features the great character actor James Whitmore as the rock-like Platoon Sargent Kinnie, Van Johnson (usually a song & dance man) as the very funny and reluctantly heroic scrounger PFC Holley and a young and very good Ricardo Montalban as Los Angelino “Johnny” Roderigues, among other quality performances. Continue reading →
In a case of supremely ironic timing, Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen was released in 1967 at the height of the “Summer of Love.” As one of the toughest, nastiest and most fatalistic classic war movies, there is not a lot of love in the Dirty Dozen. But there is a killer plot, action galore and a very cool, badass ensemble cast of male stars who make the whole thing tick over like clockwork. Sharing the hard bitten cynicism and mordant humor that came to dominate the best 1960s WWII films like The Bridge At Remagen, Kelly’s Heroes and Where Eagles Dare, Dirty Dozen reflects both the experiences of the actual combat veterans who contributed to the making of the film, as well as the creeping disillusionment with the nation’s quickly souring military involvement in Vietnam. After the recent Spielbergian gloss given to World War II in the violent but heroic Saving Private Ryan and the excellent and idealistic Band of Brothers, where the action is doubtless brutal but the characters themselves are invariably heroic, one wonders whether today’s moviegoing public would be ready to accept a deranged group of criminal misfits like “The Dozen” as their heroes. But the audiences of the late 1960s made the film a colossal hit, so maybe that says something about the differing need for hero worship between that generation versus ours.
Loosely based on actual events, the plot of The Dirty Dozen unfolds in classic three-act action-adventure epic style: Picking the Men, Training the Men and the Mission. Only in this case the “elite force” being assembled is drawn from a group of convicts in military lockup facing either death sentences or decades-long prison time. And the mission is a suicidal attack on a German staff officer “rest & relaxation” chateau behind enemy lines in pre-D-Day Normandy. Drawing the unenviable task of assembling these misfits into a cohesive commando unit is maverick Major John Reisman, played by the inimitable Lee Marvin. If The Big Heat is Marvin’s apotheosis as the ultra-heavy villain, The Dirty Dozen reflects the archetype of Marvin’s remarkable second act as a lead actor in big films: still the hard man capable of extreme violence but in the end possessed of an individual code of honor that turns him from bad guy into ambiguous hero. As it would again later in Sam Fuller’s excellent The Big Red One, Marvin’s real life combat service as a Marine in the Pacific Theater, were he saw fierce action and was badly wounded, informs his performance as the sardonic and relentless Major Reisman as he badgers, threatens and cajoles his convict team into a cohesive fighting unit. Like many great coaches and military leaders, Reisman’s genius is to realize that if he can get the group of men to hate him they will in turn bond with each other.
And what a group! Featuring some of the most macho and physically imposing 1960’s actors, as well as some bona fide rising stars, the convicts include Charles Bronson as an honorable German-speaking Polish American convicted of shooting his unit’s cowardly medic; football great Jim Brown as another decent guy wrongly convicted of murder in a case of self defense against a racist attack (this is actually the film that prompted Brown’s premature retirement from the NFL); the towering Clint Walker as a gentle giant with a fierce temper; Telly Savalas as a despicable and crazy Bible-spouting southern racist and woman hater; a young Donald Sutherland as a dim but mischievous private; and a sterling John Cassavetes as a Chicago gangster with a serious problem with authority. Cassavetes really shines among this esteemed company, seeming to channel the ghost of Humphrey Bogart as he proves the biggest obstacle to Reisman’s grand plan, resisting him at every turn through sarcasm and tooth-baring indolence. Continue reading →
Among the greatest of war movies, 1970’s Patton features a mind-blowingly good performance by George C. Scott as the famously colorful WWII general that serves to catapult this epic far above the standard military biopic. The film is not only remarkable for the vivid on-screen portrait of a gifted but notoriously impolitic and ambitious American general helping to turn the tide of war in the United States’ favor but also for the off-screen context of being made at the height of rampant anti-war sentiment in the US and abroad due to the Vietnam War. You would have expected the film to be a hatchet job on an unrepentant warrior from the gung ho past and to reflect the anti-authoritarian zeitgeist of the time. You would also have expected a war-weary public to reject yet another nostalgic World War II movie released at the end of the 60s. Instead, it’s a straightforward yet nuanced portrayal of a seriously flawed but undoubtedly great military leader that earned popular and critical success from the get go with an unapologetically pro-US message. And through the movie we come to see that a man like Patton, a true lover of war who believed himself reincarnated from Roman Legionnaires and Napoleon’s soldiers, should probably be kept in a glass case that says “Break Open in Time of War”. But we also see that it’s surely good to have old soldiers like George S. Patton handy when the stuff hits the fan.
The famous opening sequence, a stylized and also sanitized version of Patton’s famously profane speech to the Third Army, remains one of the movies’ best “grabbers”, as well as one of the most iconic 6 minutes in the history of cinema. And despite Scott’s misgivings that starting with the speech would overwhelm subsequent scenes, that acts as a preamble and the movie gets better from there. It really starts with Patton’s arrival in North Africa to take command of a green and badly demoralized US II Corps after their mauling by Rommel’s Afrika Korps at Kasserine Pass, quickly whipping them into a cohesive fighting unit ready to take on the seasoned and highly accomplished German troops. By utilizing Rommel’s own tank tactics against him, we see the revitalized Americans fight back via impressive large scale armored tank battles thundering from the oversized 65mm widescreen print.
Above: Photographer Eliot Elisofon in the Congo, 1951 (Joan Elisofon/National Museum of African Art)
Time’s passage can elevate and it can also erase. Once great men can see their fame grow as the years pass while others who were prominent in their day are practically forgotten. The latter circumstance is the unfortunate case with Eliot Elisofon, arguably a lost titan of 20th century photography. If the name does not ring a bell, you’re not alone. While Elisofon was a staff photographer for LIFE magazine during WWII and after, part of a team of luminaries like Alfred Eisenstadt and Margaret Bourke-White among others, his name is not very well known today. And that is a pity because Elisofon had an important and multifaceted career from the 1930s until his death in 1973.
American soldiers in North Africa during the Allied Tunisia Campaign, 1943 (Eliot Elisofon—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Jessica Tandy & Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, 1947 (Eliot Elisofon—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Born on the Lower East Side of New York City in 1911, Elisofon graduated from Fordham University and promptly became a member of the socially conscious Photo League in 1936. Continue reading →
It’s no coincidence that on the last day of August we’ve only just finished our summer reading of From Here to Eternity by James Jones. The text of this seminal 1951 military novel clocks in at a whopping 896 pages. And yet it rarely fails to captivate.
Set in and around the Schofield Barracks near Diamond Head in Honolulu, Hawaii in the months leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, From Here to Eternity tracks the lives of several soldiers and their women in this last peaceful period before WWII. Principal among them are Private Robert E. Lee Pruitt and First (“Top”) Sargent Milton Warden. Pruitt is a poor Kentucky boy who enlisted in the Army after escaping the mining town that consumed his parents and bumming around during the Depression. His aim is to be a “30-year-man”, a career soldier, because he loves the ideal of the Army, the camaraderie of the men and the art of soldiering. It is really the only true home he’s ever known. Continue reading →