film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Battle of San Pietro (1945)

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During my junior year of high school, I was stuck in a lackluster U.S. History class along with two of my friends. It was lackluster for us, at least – through a perverse quirk of class scheduling, we all had to take a course that was a bit less academically advanced than suited us (plus the teacher was only a couple years from retirement and didn’t really give a damn any more).

One class the teacher spent the entire period screening an hour-long documentary about World War II – something clearly made at least 20 years prior, with stirring music underscoring footage taken from what looked like newsreels showing battle after battle after battle, soldiers marching hither and yon, scaling mountains and arming guns and rushing after tanks while a narrator breathlessly told the story of victorious battle after victorious battle. It was obviously meant to be inspirational, but my friends and I instead walked out of the classroom shaking our heads over the fact that in the entire 50-minute film, they had only devoted thirty seconds each to the Holocaust and to the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Those two events, we felt, were way more important than a detailed recounting of the exact military strategy behind hour four of the Battle of Kasserine Pass or whatever.

What I’m trying to say is that I think I was predisposed to not like this film.

The Battle of San Pietro is a documentary produced by the U.S. Military during the Second World War, partly as a propaganda move.  There were several such propaganda-mentaries made during the war – most with amazing talent behind them, like San Pietro’s director John Huston.  (Ironically, that high school movie may have been assembled from these films.)  Huston’s focus here was on a battle on the Italian front in 1943 meant to win control of a small but strategically important town on the Axis defensive line south of Rome.

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Huston does get in some interesting moments, I admit. The film is bookended with meditations on the day-to-day life in the town of San Pietro – the farms and fields in the country surrounding it, the vineyards and the orchards. Huston – who narrates as well as directs – also gives us a sarcastic tour of San Pietro’s “main point of interest,” a 15th-Century Cathedral devoted to St. Peter which has been thoroughly destroyed in battle. “Note the interesting treatment,” Huston’s voice dryly commands, as the camera pans over the rubble of the ruined altar.  The ending is more hopeful, giving us a good five minutes’ worth of the residents of San Pietro starting to clean up and rebuild as their kids all stand around smiling shyly at Houston’s camera.

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But most of the film concerns the battle itself, with repeated references to a map of San Pietro and the surrounding mountains, marked up with annotations detailing the exact units involved in the battle and arrows pointing to the exact positions they were going to be taking and someone using a stick to helpfully trace the paths they would take as they stormed Mt. Mungo and oh my god i was so bored, it was like being in Mr. Lynch’s history class all over again.  Even with the re-enactments of key points from the battle that Huston set up.  They were technically well done, I admit – Houston was so good at re-staging the battles and making things look realistic that for a while he claimed he’d filmed the actual battles, and got away with his claim for nearly 50 years.  But all the technical skill can’t help if your audience doesn’t care what you’re trying to say with it, and I didn’t care about the exact path the seconds squadron took to claim Hill 950 or whatever the hell it was.

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One bit of realism got my respect, though – the shots of wounded and dead soldiers mixed in with the battle scenes. That was something that classroom film glossed over, but in San Pietro, Huston includes lots of shots of the dead – soldiers being stuffed into body bags or sprawled on the ground or drooping over the edge of trenches, or civilians felled in fields or half-buried by rubble. One short but poignant sequence comes towards the end, as the San Pietrans are reclaiming the town; a pair of shots show some workmen all helping to dig out the rubble of a ruined house, and they unearth a woman’s body. Houston shows us both the woman being unearthed – and the reaction of a man, presumably her husband, collapsing in grief.  War is cruel – especially to the soldiers, and Huston doesn’t shy away from this.  Even in a scene right after the battle, where a bunch of soldiers are kicking back and grinning at the camera, Houston notes that most of these men would go on to be killed in future battles.

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That honesty almost got Huston in trouble, with the military fretting that his film was “anti-war” and that he was trying to scare the soldiers and cause dissension in the ranks.  Huston’s retort that “If I ever make a pro-war film, I should be shot,” didn’t help. But General George Marshall ultimately came to the film’s defense, arguing that the graphic depiction of wartime casualties might actually scare soldiers straight – if soldiers knew the real risks of battle, they might take their training seriously.  The military grudgingly released the film, but only for within the military for the first couple years.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Lost Weekend (1945)

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Like with The Wolf ManI think my reaction to this film has been colored by seeking some of its tropes copied by lesser films first.  Instead of B-movie horror films, though, this film reminded me of all of those painfully earnest anti-drug or anti-drinking messages I had to sit through in Junior High or on the ABC After School Special.

It’s got that kind of plot, for a start. Don Birnam (Ray Milland) is a would-be writer and heavy alcoholic living with his brother Wick, who has been struggling to keep Don dry. The start of the film sees them both packing for a weekend visit back to their parents in the hopes that a lengthy rest will do Don good (also it will give Wick a bit of a break). But Don slips out from under Wick’s watch, and a frustrated Wick leaves without him – he’s taken all of Don’s money, he figures, and also confiscated all the booze in the house, so Don will just end up being bored.  But Don gets his hands on some cash and buoyantly sets out on a weekend-long binge.

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That binge, and Don’s craze to keep it going, is the bulk of the plot. Don swings perpetually between high-flying drunkenness – stumbling through the streets, spouting off grand pronouncements in a bar, collapsing in a dirty heap in the apartment – and a monomaniacal craving for alcohol, sending him to beg from old girlfriends, destroy Wick’s apartment on a search for one possible last bottle, or steal from strangers.  One lengthy sequence sees Don lugging his beloved typewriter about 20 city blocks in the hunt for an open pawn shop, hoping to sell it for another bottle.

So, typically, when I watch one of these movies, I go into it as blind as possible, waiting until after watching to read any critical opinions or reviews.  I try to form what is as close to my own gut reaction as I can.  So my own take can sometimes differ wildly from the critical response to a film.  With The Lost Weekend that difference was especially big; critics rave about Milland’s performance, and how it is brutally honest, and how the whole film is a hard-hitting depiction of “the truth about the horrors of alcoholism.”  But for me, Milland seemed painfully overwrought; perpetually mopping his brow and glaring at the world with a crazed eye when “sober”, staggering and girning and slurring speech when “drunk”.  But if that’s not bad enough, the script gives him some awfully corny things to say, like in this comment he makes to a bartender:

“It shrinks my liver, doesn’t it, Nat? It pickles my kidneys, yeah. But what it does it do to the mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly I’m above the ordinary. […] I’m one of the great ones. I’m Michaelangelo, molding the beard of Moses. I’m Van Gogh painting pure sunlight. I’m Horowitz, playing the Emperor Concerto. I’m John Barrymore before the movies got him by the throat. I’m Jesse James and his two brothers, all three of them. I’m W. Shakespeare. And out there it’s not Third Avenue any longer, it’s the Nile, Nat! The Nile and down into the barge of Cleopatra!”

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Despite this, there were some shots that caught my eye and reassured me that director Billy Wilder knew what he was doing. There’s one sequence when a hung-over Don is hunting for a bottle of whiskey he knew he’d bought the day before, and hid for “safekeeping”. But now he needs it, and is too fuzzy-headed to remember where he hid it – inside the ceiling light fixture.  As he’s tearing the living room apart, there’s a long shot capturing Don’s face as he hunts for the bottle on the floor – and the light fixture hovering right over him, just over his shoulder. I actually had to fight the impulse to call out “turn around, will you!” at the screen.  There’s also a lengthy flashback sequence with Don at an opera – the onstage scene is set at a party, and as the scene plays out, the camera gradually draws in more and more on the drinks each character holds in their hands, the waiters passing glasses of champagne, the footmen standing by with more bottles, the performers toasting and sipping…

There’s also a creepy sequence after Don ends up in the drunk tank at a hospital, where an orderly tries to scare him straight by warning him of the kind of hallucinations some drunks can see.  Don flees the hospital anyway – only to later see himself being plagued by bats in his living room.

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Taken as a whole, though, the film read as overearnest.  But I’m also coming to this after seeing (or being subjected to) countless lesser films about The Perils Of Drink. When The Lost Weekend originally came out, drunkenness was treated as a joke – W. C. Fields’ characters were just as perpetually in search of a drink as Don, but there it’s something to laugh at. The Lost Weekend was the first film to take alcoholism at all seriously, which must have been galvanizing for audiences.  I’ve just happened to come along at the tail end of the sea change that this film started.

Administratia, You Like Me!

I Am Now A LAMB!

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My next film hasn’t arrived for me to watch yet, but that gives me time to make an announcement: The Movie Crash Course is now a proud member of The Large Association Of Movie Blogs!

The LAMB is a movie bloggers’ network that I first heard about a year ago, when I started listening to a podcast by another 1001 Movies viewer.  It’s a network of movie bloggers of all stripes, and I’m looking forward to checking out who else is out there.  …I’ve already been finding that there’s a small community of 1001 Movies list bloggers, and have been wondering just how many of us there are….

Thanks to the LAMB network for letting me join the party!

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

I Know Where I’m Going! (1945)

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It’s been interesting watching all these movies at a fast clip; it’s like I can chart the mood of the World War II British home front just by watching the movies, seeing things go from the nostalgia for peacetime with How Green Was My Valley to the determination of Mrs. Miniverto the rallying-cries of Fires Were Started and Henry V  And now we’ve come to 1945’s I Know Where I’m Going!, where the attitude seems to be “pfft, the war’s nearly over, let’s have some fun again.”

There is precisely one passing mention of the war, when headstrong Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) is preparing to set out for Scotland at the film’s rise; but it’s buried in the middle of the long list of reasons why Joan is telling her father that she’s going off to marry the head of a chemical factory.  But Scotland’s distance from potential bombardment is clearly secondary to her fiance’s wealth, the novelty of the Highlands, and the grand adventure of it all.  Joan’s always been the kind of person who goes after exactly what she wants, and lets nothing stand in her way.

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Even though her fiance has made all the travel arrangements, Joan is still eager and excited to get herself onto the train up to Glasgow, switched onto a smaller train to the Highlands, and then onto a ferry to the Isle of Mull where she will presumably then wait for one final charter boat to take her across the bay to Kiloran, the tiny private island where her fiance is waiting.  But when she finally gets to Mull, a gale has blown up, and no captains are willing to make the passage in either direction.

Fortunately Joan bumps into Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey), an RAF officer also hoping to reach Kiloran to spend his one weeks’ leave there. MacNeil grew up on both Kiloran and Mull, and invites Joan to crash with him at one of his friend’s houses while they wait out the gale; Joan will be able to get a comfortable night’s sleep and they can try again in the morning.  The weather’s not any better the next day, so Joan and MacNeil are forced to stay in Mull an extra day.  And then another.  And then still another. MacNeil tries showing Joan around some while they wait, and Joan is fascinated by the more rustic way of life – but not as fascinated, she realizes, as she’s becoming with the handsome MacNeil.  She’d better get herself to Kiloran somehow, she realizes, before it’s too late…

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Okay, I’m not even going to comment – much – on the love story part of the plot because I suspect that you all can guess precisely what happens.  I’m a big ol’ cynic, anyway, so I’m going to have little different to say about it so let’s just assume I said my usual “been there seen that” and move on.

The part that really caught my eye, instead, was how the movie handled life in Mull.  It’s presented as foreign to Joan, but not in an exotic, gawking way – it’s refreshingly matter-of-fact about the culture of Mull, introducing us to both longtime locals and the newcomer rich English folk, and it’s the latter group that comes across as the weird ones.  There’s a scene where Joan and MacNeil are hitching a ride on a local bus around Mull, and MacNeil starts chatting with a group of men who recognize him – and they start trash-talking Joan’s fiance unawares, talking about the odd habits of the Englishman who’s moved onto Kiloran.  “He’s building a swimming pool out there and importing salmon!” the men scoff.  “Why not swim in the sea and catch his own salmon?”

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And in an earlier scene by the pier, while trying to snag her initial ride to Kiloran, Joan overhears a couple of men speaking Scottish Gaelic to each other.  “Oh!” she interrupts them in fascination.  “Are you speaking Gaelic?”  The men just look her up and down and ask “….what else?” and go back to their conversation.  In Gaelic again, of course.

That take on Joan’s culture clash is what impressed me more.  The filmmakers could have easily made the Highlander Scots culture a subject of fun – the locals MacNeil meets on the bus could have all been complete rustic yokels, and there could have been one character who spoke with such a heavy burr that he was nigh-incomprehensible.  Instead,  the buffoons in the cast are all English; an upper-crust couple Joan’s fiance knows that invite her to lunch and are impossibly snooty, and there’s a bumbling hunter who’s determined to teach himself falconry but loses control of his flock.

Meanwhile the Scots come across as practical and sensible, from the captains on the pier to the locals on the bus.  The friend with whom Joan and MacNeil lodge is also a formidable character – a local gentlewoman named Catriona who makes her entrance accompanied by three hunting hounds and heartily welcomes Joan to say with her, gushing that “I haven’t heard any decent female nonsense for months!”  (…I’d love to have seen way more of Catriona, to be perfectly honest.)  Even an evening at a local dance avoids the Brigadoon treatment I thought I’d be seeing, and presents it as exactly what it is – a house party to celebrate an elderly couple’s anniversary, and they just happen to be celebrating with pipers and folk singing the way everyone has a party there on Mull.

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By the end of the movie, Joan has fallen in love – of course – but it’s hard to not fall a bit in love yourself with the Isle of Mull and the Hebrides in general, thanks to the refreshingly genuine take the movie has on that community.

 

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Henry V (1944)

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I girded my loins a bit before this one.  I worked in theater for ten years, I had a college friend who became a combat choreographer for several years, and I have actor friends who’ve been in and out various summer free theater productions.  I’ve seen a lot of Shakespeare productions, is what I’m saying, and on occasion, some of it was….not good.

The productions that went pear-shaped usually were ones where the director had a high-concept artistic vision – turning minstrels into blues musicians, making the set out of toilet paper as a subtle statement about impermanence, things like that.  Sometimes that works really well – I saw a version of MacBeth that was a mashup between Shakespeare and the book Fast Food Nation, and as insane as that sounds it also blew me away.  I also stage-managed a gender-bending production of Hamlet – and our princess of Denmark was one of my personal three best Hamlets I’ve seen.  …It’s just that sometimes you also get things like a production of Hamlet I saw in high school where things started with a vaguely 1940s fascist vibe, Hamlet and Gertrude made out on stage, and Laertes was running around in cammo jeggings and carrying an Uzi in the fifth act.  Those are the kind of productions about which my college friend would say, “….The director had An Idea.”

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Olivier’s Henry V adaptation starts out looking like he’s had An Idea of his own.  We open not in Henry’s chambers, but in the Globe Theater itself, watching the groundlings and lords and ladies making their ways to their seats before the camera glides to the stage where the play’s “Chorus” character comes out through the curtain to start things off.  That makes some sense, actually. this very first speech is a lament that the story told by the play – King Henry V’s invasion of France in the 1400s and the English victory at the battle of Agincourt – is too vast in scope for a small stage to recreate faithfully.

But this is a movie, not a play, and the end of that speech would be the perfect time for Laurence Olivier – who directed this adaptation as well as starring – to have smashcut into “real life”.  Instead, Olivier leans into the “stage play” setting even harder, showing us some of the backstage hustle and bustle as actors make their costume changes and prepare for their entrances, and the scene where a pair of clergymen persuade Henry to lead England to war is given a comedic twist by having one of the actors perpetually drop his props.

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This was a calculated choice, though.  Olivier does eventually take the production outside – first onto soundstages with clearly-fake backdrops, with the art design specifically inspired by medieval woodcuts, finally moving into real real life for the climactic Battle of Agincourt.  Right after Agincourt, though, we move back to the soundstage and backdrops before a smashcut back to the Globe for the very final scene. While I felt that the initial business in the Globe went on a little bit long, it underscored the fact that this is A Story instead of a proper history – a specific spin on events, told for a specific purpose.

There’s nothing exactly wrong with that, though. Shakespeare definitely had a specific perspective when he wrote the play, after all – nearly all of Shakespeare’s history plays were meant to celebrate the Great and Storied History of the English Throne, as a way of celebrating and paying homage to its current resident.  And so too do all of those different spins on Shakespeare have their own story to tell.  In Olivier’s case, he was using Shakespeare to inspire his fellow Englishmen during the Second World War, bringing this tale off the stage and into the real world, reminding his fellow Englishmen of a bravely-fought battle and a valiant victory.  We did it before, we happy few; we can do it again.

For the war-weary English of the 1940s, that approach largely worked.  But I’m a 21st-Century woman who’s a little more conversant with Shakespeare than is the norm, and I found myself picking a couple nits. The Globe-theater bits at the beginning felt like they ran on a bit long, even in retrospect when I got where Olivier was going.  I also caught a couple places where Olivier kind of glossed over some moments from the original play which paint Henry V in a bad light; that scene with the actor dropping his props is a scene which implies that Henry is being manipulated into his invasion of France by a couple of busybody bishops hoping to distract him from passing some laws that would impact the church’s tax holdings.

I also spoke with an actor friend who’s way more versed in Shakespeare than I; he pointed out that Olivier’s adaptation cuts out some unflattering bits, like Henry coldly beheading three suspected spies, or Henry threatening the civilians in a French town that his soldiers will rape and pillage their houses, or Henry letting one of his old friends be hanged for looting during Agincourt.  (On a more amusing note, my friend also pointed out that all the tents at Agincourt look like they were freshly washed and even ironed.)  “It’s a beautifully illustrated storybook come to life,” my friend said, “the English national anthem in dramatic form.”

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That didn’t really bother me, even so.  As unrealistic as it was, I knew that it was precisely what Wartime England wanted to see.  The only thing that bugged me even in the slightest was the scene at the very end when Henry is trying to sweet talk the French Princess Katherine into marrying him.  It’s largely a political move, but Shakespeare tries to depict this as a romantic match, something that I have a hard time accepting.  Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 adaptation of this play does a better job of capturing this match, I think – Henry is trying to be romantic, but he’s clumsy at it, and it’s a damn awkward situation all around anyway.  But with Olivier’s adaptation, Henry is suddenly a silver-tongued charmer and Katherine is wooed into a starry-eyed acceptance of his hand.  I must say I prefer the Branagh take on this scene (it’s also the one with Emma Thompson in it, to boot).

This was a film very much Of Its Time; these aren’t those times.  But I can forgive it that.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Detour (1945)

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It’s only about an hour long, so Detour felt a little more like an episode of a show like The Twilight Zone or some other anthology series.  It wasn’t supernatural; but it was a shade improbable.

Al Robert (Tom Neal) narrates the story via flashback as he muses to himself in a cheap diner in Nevada.  He’s a pianist originally from New York, and his cabaret-singer girlfriend had made the leap to Hollywood to make it big, promising that someday they’d reunite when her ship came in.  Eventually Al decided to join her in Los Angeles, thumbing his way there.  Somewhere in Arizona Al got picked up by a bookie, Charlie Haskell (Edmund McDonald), who was going all the way to Los Angeles himself, and had a wad of easy cash to blow on treating Al to dinners.

Al thought he had it made, he says, and even offered to take on some of the driving so Charlie could nap.  But then it started raining and Al pulled over to put up the hood of Charlie’s convertible.  He tried rousing Charlie a few times to help him, and finally opened the passenger door to rouse Charlie – but when he did so, Charlie tumbled out of the car and hit his head on a rock, killing him instantly.  A panicked Al decided to hide the body and pose as Charlie long enough to drive to L.A. and then sell the car, then resume his own identity and live happily ever after.  He was confident enough in his plan to give a lift to another hitchhiker, a woman named Vera (Ann Savage) who’s also headed for Los Angeles.  But along the way, Vera suddenly realized – she’d been in that car before.  She’d hitched with Charlie from Florida to New Orleans, and he’d tried to hit on her and she’d had to fight him off.  So she knew this was Charlie’s car, but Charlie wasn’t the one driving it.

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Vera quickly figured out what happened and blackmailed Al into going halves on the sale of the car.  Then the news went out that the police were on a search for Charlie – because he was the heir to a millionaire on his deathbed. Vera upped her stakes, trying to persuade Al into waiting until Charlie’s father died and then posing as Charlie so they can claim the inheritance.  Al had several problems with this plan, and their argument lead to a dramatic and tragic outcome, sending Al out on the road again…

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So, the whole plot hinges on a handful of fairly specific coincidences, including a couple of accidents-that-look-intentional.  And about midway through I started thinking of a Monty Python sketch where someone lands in the middle of some similarly suspicious-looking accidents.  Associating this piece with Graham Chapman and Carol Cleveland unfortunately punctured a lot of the tension for me – but I also admit that my seeing “The Accident Sketch” before this is itself  a pretty unusual coincidence.  Unfortunately, the other elements of the film weren’t able to overcome that; the staging of the “flashback” intros and outros were a little hokey, and Neal and Savage’s performances are a little one-note, particularly during the scenes when they’re doing little but arguing in hotel rooms.

So I say watch “The Accident Sketch” in black-and-white and call it a day.