Thursday, June 28, 2012

Woman in the Window (1944) -- Fritz Lang

 A chance meeting soon puts professor Wanley in hot water.
This tight film noir with a twist provides Edward G. Robinson one of his best roles as an assistant psychology professor who unwittingly finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. With his family out of town and too much time on his hands, Richard Wanley (Robinson) begins what he assumes is an innocent flirtation with a beautiful woman, Alice Reed (Joan Bennett), whom he meets on the street. He had been admiring her portrait in a gallery window next to his club when she happens by. Smitten, he accepts her invitation for a drink, but things turn sour later at her apartment when another man shows up. Irate that his girl is with another man, the character attacks Robinson, beginning a tangled mess that only gets more complicated when the man's unsavory bodyguard (Dan Duryea) turns up with blackmail on his mind. 

What follows next has been much debated, and divides classic film fans into two camps: those that love the film and those that find the ending disappointing, if not anathema to noir. I'm with the former group, love Robinson's performance, and consider Lang's work here one of his best American efforts. In any case, The Woman in the Window makes a great contrast to Lang's next film, the much darker Scarlett Street, which also starred Robinson, Bennett, and Duryea.

If you haven't seen Woman in the Window, you might want to stop reading here because a giant spoiler follows.

Wanley kills his attacker with scissors. It is clearly self-defense, but afraid that his reputation will be ruined, he and Bennett try to cover it up, stashing the body in some woods. The police soon find it, and Wanley grows increasingly nervous as they appear to close in. At the same time, the blackmailer threatens to reveal the whole thing. He'd tailed his boss to Alice's apartment in the past and assumes that she knows something about his death. Wanley and the girl botch an attempt to poison the scoundrel, and Wanley, seeing no other way out and unable to cope with the consequences of his actions, drinks the poison himself. The twist, of course, is that it's all been a dream, as Wanley awakes safe and sound at his club. 

There are those that say that detractors of the film should not have been upset by the surprise ending, arguing that Lang scattered plenty of clues throughout about what was in store for the viewer. I'm not so sure. For me, any clues only became apparent upon repeated viewings, and even then, it's a stretch to claim some of these "clues" were intentional.  The surprise was a true surprise for me, but that did not lower my enjoyment in any way. In any case, this post is about the clues Lang did or didn't leave.

1.  The most solid clue comes near the start, when the professor's two friends, the DA (Raymond Massey) and doctor Barkstane ( Edmund Breon) catch him looking at the portrait. Wanley is a stiff shirt of a man, some might say boring, and they kid him, knowing his wife is out of town. They tell him they saw her first and that she is their "Dream Girl."
The lovely Joan Bennett as the Woman in the Window. 

2. The fact that Alice first appears on the street when she does is too remarkable a coincidence. Wanley, still feeling a slight buzz from several drinks at the club, stands looking wistfully at her portrait. Suddenly, a woman's face is reflected in the glass. He turns and a few brief bars of dream-like music overscores the scene as he first makes eye contact with the woman. 

3. Throughout the film, the DA is way too free with information as to how the investigation is going. Almost immediately he miraculously knows precisely how the murder was committed, and shares his theory with his friends as they dine at the club. This serves to ratchet up Wanley's nervousness, but it's not typical police procedure to talk about a crime so openly.

4. Following this, Wanley inexplicably continues to put himself under suspicion. A guilty man might trip up occasionally, but in general would be more discrete. When he visits the place where he disposed of the body with the DA (something a guilty man would not have done), he begins to take the lead through the woods, though presumably he had never been there before. The DA teases him about being a suspect. There are other such inexplicable items: in a conversation with his friends earlier he wondered why the missing man was murdered before the DA said he was.

5. Wanley acts out of character for much of the film. He's presented as a mild-manner man, a solid citizen, hardly one to turn to attempted murder to deal with a blackmailer. As the action unfolds, the viewer can't help but wonder a little why he is so nonchalant about this decision.

Professor Wanley gets some bad news 

Whichever side of the fence one comes down on as far the ending, the film has a lot going for it. Robinson is wonderful as the poor man who finds himself over his head. It's completely believable that he'd be attracted to Bennett. She looks great here, especially in the gown she wears when trying to entice Duryea to down the poisoned cocktail. Few actors played a better slime ball than Duryea, and he's terrifically threatening to the innocent Bennett.

Lang was an accomplished director of noir. In addition to this and  Scarlett Street (1945), his Clash by Night (1952) and The Big Heat (1953) are fine American films of the genre. M (1931) and Metropolis (1927) are the best of his German output.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

James Bond with Sean Connery

Sean Connery as secret agent 007, James Bond
First things first: there are only 5 James Bond films, the ones released in the 1960s starring Sean Connery. Everything that came after in the series are pale imitations, featuring the same character, but without the style and excitement of the originals. Although author Ian Fleming's first seven novels were set in the 1950's, the Bond films perfectly captured the feel of the next decade as the Cold War reached its height with spies afoot in the dangerous and covert battle between East and West; Hugh Hefner's Playboy depicted a swinging lifestyle to tap into men's fantasies; and the Space program proved that technology could stretch our imaginations and literally have greater reach than ever before.

Much of the attraction of the Bond films, of course, was due to Connery. His performance as the confident, suave, dangerously athletic, and sexy protagonist 007 served to hold the action together, no matter how outlandish the plot sometimes got. No actor since has come close to duplicating his swagger and credibility in the role. Fleming supposedly wasn't thrilled when the largely unknown Connery was cast, thinking him too rugged; but he came to appreciate the selection. Just 32 at the time the first film, Dr. No, was released in 1962, Connery was dashingly handsome and impressively fit. Today, he seems perfect for the role that made him rich and an international star of the first order. Still, he was lucky that two established stars turned down the role. It's hard to imagine Cary Grant, then 58, or James Mason, then 53, as Bond, but both had the opportunity to sign on before Connery.

You didn't come to a Bond film expecting great dialog or any acting challenge. Plenty of sexual innuendo and lame puns filled the screenplay. And Bond wasn't above slapping a pretty girl on her rear. In fact, he like it. It was a different time because, apparently, so did they. It was the action, the intriguing villains, and most of all the beautiful women and debonair Connery that pulled in the audiences. With a license to kill, how many bodies would lie in his wake? A Bond film was perfect drive-in fare. The Bond films established a new exciting and interesting genre, one that led to many imitators, spoofs, and twists. Here are my thoughts on the Connery Bonds:

1. Dr. No (1962) -- directed by Terence Young

James Bond, Britain's top agent, is introduced with one of the decade's most memorial catch phrases: "Bond. James Bond." It's easy to see that Director Young spent more than a few minutes thinking about what Fleming's Bond should look like on film. He dresses impeccably, and outside of Cary Grant, I think of any actor who looks better in a suit than Sean Connery.

In a story with Space Race implications it could not have been more timely. Bond journeys to Jamaica to solve the mysterious death of a fellow agent and uncover what's behind some odd radio interference being picked up at Cape Canaveral. He first meets long-time associate, Felix Leiter, an American CIA operative, and Honey Rider, curvy Ursula Andress, who sets the bar high for future Bond Girls. Her sultry emergence from the surf in a white bikini that looks bursting at the seams is a signature moment, and let male audiences know what they could expect in the way of one of the franchise's main attractions.

Other memorable moments include a threatening tarantula and Bond's execution of an unarmed bad guy.

Dr. No, Bond's first SPECTRE opponent. 

Bond mainstays Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) and M (Bernard Lee) appear. Maxwell would play the loyal secretary who pines for James in 14 Bond films, Lee the cool head of the Foreign Intelligence department of Her Majesty's Secret Service in 11. Other firsts include the now famous and ubiquitous Bond theme with base, and the gun barrel opening sequence.

SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion) is the opponent, and the villain, Dr. No, played with delightful menace by Joseph Wiseman. A mad scientist, he literally wields an iron fist, having lost both to radiation. He is fitted with two metal prosthesis. Though powerful, they lack dexterity. It's too bad he gets so little screen time.

Best Bondism:

Bond: Don't worry. I'm not supposed to be here either.
Honey Rider: Are you looking for shells too?
Bond: No, I'm just looking.

Favorite Moment: The fight between Bond and Dr. No in his operations center. I love the primitive contamination suits and instrumentation on the control panels. Bond overloads the nuclear reactor when he turns up the heat to the danger level all hell breaks loose, the aooga horn blaring and the radiated cooling water below percolating. Dr. No and Bond wrestle at the controls, and No, unable to grip the piling with his steel hands, slides into the bubbling mess.

Most Absurd Moment: The appearance of the "dragon," a flame-throwing tractor of sorts, as silly a monster as ever frightened a native population.

2. From Russia with Love (1963) -- directed by Terence Young

Bond is up against SPECTRE again, hoping to secure an important Russian decoder device. Looking to avenge the death of Dr. No, the terrorist organization sets a trap for Bond, using the beautiful Tatiana Romanova as bait. She poses as a Russian defector. While the action of the first film was isolated to one location, for the first time another staple of Bond films emerges: multiple exotic locations. Here, Venice, Istanbul, and a trip on the Orient Express are featured.

A pair of nasty villains confront Bond: "Red" Grant (Robert Shaw), a blond brute who's a near match for 007; and Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), a former KGB agent with poison-tipped shoes. Grant is introduced in a fine pre-title sequence. The audience thinks it sees Bond sneaking through a garden. Suddenly he is attacked by Grant and killed. When Grant unmasks the corpse we understand that it is merely a training exercise for the assassin.

The always devious Rosa Klebb.

The franchise also introduces for the first time a signature title song, here sung by British crooner Matt Monroe. It's still one of the best. Only the melody played under the opening credits with the vocal left for the closing credits. Later films put the vocal up front. The irascible Q makes his first appearance, though he won't hit his stride until the next feature. Here he merely issues Bond a briefcase with a few handy gadgets inside.

All in all this is a better film than the first one. Connery looks terrific.

Best Bondism:

Bond: You're one of the most beautiful girls I've ever seen.
Tatiana: Thank you, but I think my mouth is too big.
Bond: No, it's the right size... for me, that is.

Favorite Moment: The terrific fight on the train between Bond and Grant. Grant makes a typically stupid move for a villain, inexplicably not killing Bond when he has the chance. Instead, he first tries to make him grovel. That and Q's exploding gas canister proves his undoing, as Bond takes the opportunity to throttle the assassin with his own wire.

Most Absurd Moment: None to speak of. It's probably the most serious, straight forward plot of the series.

3. Goldfinger (1964) -- directed by Guy Hamilton

The Bank of England believes someone may be trying to corner the world gold market. Bond is sent to shadow Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe, a known smuggler who may be stockpiling the precious metal. But Goldfinger's plans are much more diabolical and audacious--he wants to contaminate the gold depository at Fort Knox to throw Western finances into chaos.

Maybe the most popular film in the Connery canon, it features my favorite henchman, Oddjob, a Korean fire hydrant and mute manservant. A powerful expert at unarmed combat with far superior skills than Bond, he also throws a lethal steel-ringed bowler that can decapitate his victims. The British agent first drives his flashy Aston Martin, with its array of special accessories and gadgets you can't find at your neighborhood car dealership: a passenger ejector seat, oil-dispensers on the back end, a bullet-proof windshield, and a hood machine gun, all thanks to the best in-house engineer any spy agency could hope for, Q (Desmond Llewellyn). He finds Bond exasperating and his exchanges with the spy provide the  franchise's best humor.

Shirley Bassey shows her mettle and belts out the catchy theme, which peaked at No. 8 on Billboard's Top 100 and started the tradition that Bond songs were pop hits. It's easily the most famous of the bunch. Here's the You Tube link:    

The only artist with more than one Bond theme to her credit, Bassey sang this and the themes to Diamonds are Forever (1971) and Moonraker (1979)

The film includes several memorable set pieces, including the harrowing car chase through Goldfinger's warehouse district, the mass execution of mobsters by poison gas at Goldfinger's lair, and Bond's out-witting of his nemeses on the golf links. It's enduring image is of actress Shirley Eaton as a gold-plated Jill Masterson, dead and naked on a bed. Like the Fleming novels, many of the women characters have racy names. Here's one of the most outrageous: Pussy Galore. She serves as Goldfinger's air pilot leader, and like so many others, can't resist being seduced by the handsome spy and she turns on her evil boss, becoming Bond's accomplice. Action locales include Switzerland; Miami, Florida; Kentucky; and London. In fine Bond tradition, the bad guys meet ugly ends. Oddjob gets electrocuted trying to retrieve his hat, and Goldfinger gets sucked out a window of a plane.  

The mortal battle between Bond and Oddjob in the Fort Knox vault.

Despite its popularity, Goldfinger has the most ridiculous plot. Connery has little to do for long sections, and it's more fun when Bond's adventures take place overseas. Still, you can tell the production values have improved over the first two entries, thanks to a bigger budget.

Best Bondism:

Pussy Galore: My name is Pussy Galore.
Bond: I must be dreaming.

Favorite Moment: Bond strapped to a table, his legs spread wide with a laser getting uncomfortably close to his "equipment." Desperate to escape, he asks Goldfinger what if he expects him to talk. Goldfinger responds   "No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die."

Most Absurd Moment: The entire Fort Knox attack is silly. First, the audience is to believe that a few planes armed with sleeping gas can knock out thousands of troops. Secondly and more incredibly, we see the Army allow Goldfinger to actually enter the stronghold with a nuclear weapon.

4. Thunderball (1965) -- directed by Terence Young

Bond takes to the water when M sends his top agent back to the West Indies to find out who high-jacked a British bomber with a nuclear payload. SPECTRE is at it again, with agent Emili Largo behind the caper. He has hidden the jet underwater beneath camouflage netting. Ruthless and one-eyed, Largo demands from NATO a huge ransom in uncut diamonds. If unpaid, he threatens to obliterate an American city in a nuclear disaster.

The signature opening pre-title sequence includes one of Bond's best getaways, using a jet pack. Remembered most for its long underwater action sequences, the film takes a while to get started. It also finds Bond trapped at various moments on a spinal traction machine at a health spa and in a swimming pool with sharks. Suffice to say there are lots of harpoons flying through the water and severed air hoses. The best gadget is a small rebreather apparatus he uses underwater.

French actress Claudine Auger plays Domino, Largo's mistress. Like Pussy Galore, Bond's sexual magnitism is too much and she's converted to his side. Just twenty-four, she is among the prettiest of all Bond girls. Here's her picture:

The gorgeous Domino, one of Bond's conquests.
Demonstrating that no woman is safe in the company of the secret agent, Bond uses the body of an enemy agent as a shield at the Kiss Kiss nightclub to receive a bullet meant for him. The film's climax includes a nicely executed chase and fight on a hydrofoil, with Bond being saved by Domino. Tom Jones does great work with the rousing theme, and you can almost imagine him on stage with a female audience tossing up their room keys and underwear as he holds the last note.

Bond with his jetpack.

Best Bondism:

[Bond is standing in the doorway between their apartments as Fiona takes a bath]
Fiona: Aren't you in the wrong room, Mr. Bond?
Bond: Not from where I'm standing.

She asks him to pass her something to put on, expecting a towel. Instead, he hands her a pair of slippers.

Favorite Moment: Bond casually leaning over and harpooning a would-be assassin to a tree. "I think he got the point."

Most Absurd Moment: The director speeds up the film revolutions on at least two occasions to make the action seem more frenetic. It looks ridiculous.

5. You Only Live Twice (1967) -- directed by Lewis Gilbert

The exotic location is Japan. In the opening sequence Bond appears to have finally been snuffed out by SPECTRE agents, gunned down in bed as he makes love to a beautiful woman. Of course, it's a clever rouse set up by M to enable Bond to operate more freely. The terrorist group has pulled off its most audacious stunt, staging an out-of-this-world theft from orbit of an American spacecraft. By using a craft disguised as a Russian rocket, SPECTRE hopes to pit the two Super Powers against one another in World War III. If the special effect of the theft sequence seems hokey today, it was state of the art in 1967. Production designer Ken Adams also created a magnificently elaborate hollow volcano for Blofeld's hideout. Including a cool monorail, it's easily the most impressive set in the first five films.

We finally see Blofeld's (Donald Pleasant)  face. As head of SPECTRE, he was only seen from from behind or the neck down in some of the earlier entries. With some great make-up, an ugly scar runs from one eye down a cheek, suggesting danger, and a white cat purrs in his lap. He's a worthy opponent for Bond and a raving megalomaniac. Bond enjoys two Japanese beauties, Kissy and Aki.

Nancy Sinatra sings the lovely title song, one of Bond's best melodies. Popular children's novelist Roald Dahl wrote the screenplay, making extensive changes to the source novel.

One of the most unintentional silly moments in the entire series occurs when a helicopter with a giant magnet picks up a car driven by Japanese mobsters. As it rises high in the sky the driver continues to frantically turn the steering wheel, apparently thinking he's still controlling the vehicle.

In some respects this is my favorite Connery Bond. He may look a little disinterested, and certainly is not the svelte figure he cast just five years earlier, but the assault on the volcano lair, a disguised rocket base, looks magnificent with over fifty stunt men (ninjas) rapidly sliding down ropes from a great height. It's full of loud explosions and flying bodies, just what one wants in an action film. The girls and outdoor scenery are luscious. For the first time, Freddie Young was behind the camera for a Bond film. He'd already won two Academy Awards on David Lean films (Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago) and does a great job here. The prior films were also shot by an Oscar winner: Ted Moore. Sinatra's song is perfect for the setting and theme, and 007 makes use of one of Bond's best gadgets, a heavily armed autogyro to engage enemy helicopters in a fierce air battle.

The autogyro used in the film with designer Ken Wallis.

Best Bondism:

Tanaka: Rule number one: never do anything yourself when someone else can do it for you.
Bond: And rule number two?
Tanaka: Rule number two: in Japan, men come first, women come second.
Bond: I just might retire to here.

Favorite Moment: The exciting pursuit of Bond by twenty-five or so armed security agents across the roof of a large chemical plant. He karate chops his way through several before being subdued. Shot high overhead, likely from a helicopter, it's a terrific action sequence.

Honorable mention goes to the way Blofeld sends a minion to her death. As the woman crosses a bridge, Blofeld flips a switch that sends her into a pool of hungry piranha.

Most Absurd Moment: Sean Connery posing as a Japanese. Way too tall and those phony slanted eyes just don't look right.

Bond's Support Team:

M (Bernard Lee)

Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell)

Q (Desmond Llewellyn)
A wonderfully enduring aspect of most Bond films is the title sequence, usually the silhouette of women against the backdrop of something reflective of the film, such as an erupting volcano for You Only Live Twice, or being pursued underwater by a spear gun-wielding bad guy for Thunderball. Other times the women are used as a screen, with scenes from the actual film projected on their body, such as a gold figure with Oddjob's face in Goldfinger.  Here are the men responsible: Maurice Binder and Robert Brownjob.

The music score for each of the five films is courtesy of the great John Barry.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Hollywood Got it Wrong

Nearly all war films based on true events contain errors, either because the director, hoping to increase the excitement factor to appeal to a wider audience, exercised too much artistic license; or because he conducted inadequate research or lacked funding to achieve historical accuracy. Examples of the latter circumstance abound and are largely unintended. Mostly harmless, such faults don’t diminish the film viewing experience. After all, not many viewers will recognize or care if an officer’s uniform bears the wrong colored insignia, that American tanks are disguised as German ones, that sound effects don’t match a specific weapon’s discharge, or that a battle’s geography or weather is slightly off kilter. Just so long as any discrepancy isn’t too obvious and distracting. Most film-goers focus on the action and the performance of the players. So long as they grasp the central gist of what the film is trying to portray as history, no foul.

More disturbing is when a director intentionally makes changes for dramatic purposes that veer too far from real events. Here, he misinforms the viewing audience, and over time, can alter the public’s perception of history. You can call this the “Liberty Valance Syndrome,” where the director morphs legend into fact.

Here are some of the most egregious instances in the genre of directors tinkering to improve ticket sales.

The Great Escape – 1963 by John Sturges

This is the film that solidified Steve McQueen as an international star and made him the King of Cool. In the film he joins James Garner, another American pilot shot down in the war, and other Allied airmen imprisoned at German Stalag Luft III as they plan and execute the biggest mass escape made during World War II. Sturges generally stuck to the facts, though deviated in three key elements.

No Americans participated in the actual tunnel escape—the German Luftaffe had transferred them to an adjacent facility a few months earlier. A story centered on British fliers, however, would hardly excite American audiences, so Sturges gave his two headliners prominent roles. No great sin itself, but in emphasizing McQueen and Garner—indeed giving their characters the most dramatic and fabricated escape episodes—Sturges downplayed the sacrifice made by British, Australian, and other European Allied officers
And, contrary to the film, the March 1944 breakout of the 76 POWs took place while the countryside was still blanketed in snow, making it an even greater risk than depicted. Finally, the subsequent murder by the Gestapo of fifty of the escapees actually happened, but much more sporadically and in several locations than the mass murder scene depicted.

The Alamo – 1960 by John Wayne

The Duke’s ode to America badly confuses the role of key participants in one of our quintessential battles. He attributes the decision to defend the Alamo to Sam Houston and William Barrett Travis instead of to Jim Bowie, and has Houston ordering Travis to San Antonio to delay the march of Santa Anna and his 6,000-man Mexican army. Houston’s motive is purportedly to buy time to build his own army.

However, the real Houston was more strategically minded. He sent Jim Bowie, not Travis (Travis was sent by the provisional government, not Houston), expecting Bowie to destroy the mission fortifications and bring its troops to Goliad, some eighty miles southeast, where he hoped to consolidate forces to better contest Santa Anna. But upon his arrival, Bowie decided to defend the Alamo, essentially disobeying Houston’s wishes. The film exacerbates the mistake to Bowie’s detriment by incorrectly depicting him as initially wanting to abandon the Alamo. Several scenes show Travis and him butting heads over the issue.

Wayne also embraced the American myth surrounding the battle hook, line, and sinker, and portrayed Davy Crockett and company as heroic defenders of liberty and democracy. This only tells half the story. Heroic they were; but at the same time, they were revolutionaries. Texas legally belonged to Mexico at the time. Its inhabitants, including the Alamo officers, Bowie and Travis, and most of its defenders, were Mexican citizens. Santa Anna was no foreign invader, but a president—albeit a brutal dictator—looking to fend off a rebellion. Wayne downplays this aspect.

There are other mistakes as Wayne mixes up his timing in two critical episodes. He has Bowie receive news of the death of his wife while stationed at the Alamo, ostensibly to help explain why Bowie changed his mind and chose to remain and fight, rather than retreat. Presumably, he had nothing to live for. In fact, Bowie’s wife died three years earlier. Bowie’s primary reason for fighting was to protect his substantial land holdings in the area.

And the film is wrong about James Fannin, an off-screen character and another Texas leader in the revolution. Travis sent messengers to Fannin calling for reinforcements. The film attributes Fannin’s failure to send any to his being ambushed in route. The news casts a brief pall over the desperate defenders, who now face certain annihilation. In reality, Fannin did not reinforce the mission because he chose not to abandon his position at Goliad. He and his troops indeed met an awful death—executed by Santa Anna after surrendering at the Battle of Coleto—but that event happened two weeks after the Alamo fell.

Glory – 1989 by Edward Zwick

Perhaps the best Civil War film, Glory depicts the career of Robert Gould Shaw, an aristocratic white Bostonian and son of an influential abolitionist. Shaw led the nearly all-black regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, in its failed assault of Fort Wagner near Charleston Harbor in 1863.

The film shows the black unit as mainly comprised of run-away slaves. Most have little education and are dirt poor. Not true. In reality, the 600-man unit was primarily composed of middle-class free blacks from across the North. Massachusetts Governor John Albion Andrew had called for recruits—some came from as far away as Ohio, Michigan and Illinois.

Director Zwick lionizes Shaw in the film and over-dramatizes his actual role in several scenes. Such embellishment is unnecessary. For example, Shaw initially declined the offer to lead the regiment, going so far as to ask his father to hand-deliver a letter saying as much to Governor Andrew. Shaw later changed his mind. The film depicts him accepting the commission immediately to emphasize his personal courage.

Captain Luis Emilio, a 54th veteran, published the definitive history of the regiment in the 1890’s. His account debunks Shaw’s role in other scenes, including the unit’s refusal to accept less pay than being given white soldiers. The government did initially intend to deduct $3 as a uniform allowance for the 54th, and the soldiers did refuse pay, but much of that crisis occurred after the Fort Wagner fight. Shaw wrote one letter to argue for equal pay, but it was Governor Andrew who forced the issue, which did not get resolved until eighteen months later, well after Shaw’s death. Emilio’s detailed history makes no mention of Shaw or any white officer joining the protest. And, nowhere does the former captain describe Shaw having threatened a quartermaster to obtain boots.
Finally, the most dramatic scene in the film has Shaw ordering the whipping of a troublesome black recruit. This is not credible given the officer’s character. Besides, the Union Army outlawed flogging in 1861, two years before the film’s events took place. While some unscrupulous officers may have occasionally resorted to the whip for disciplinary reasons, they did so at their peril. A famous real life incident occurred in 1863 at Fort Jackson, Louisiana. Lieutenant Colonel Augustus Benedict’s flogging of two black drummer boys resulted in a near uprising of his troops. A court martial later drummed Benedict out of the service for “inflicting cruel and unusual punishment, to the prejudice of good order and military discipline.”
The film ends with a postscript that says Fort Wagner never fell to Union forces, presumably to demonstrate that the 54th was up against insurmountable odds, making their sacrifice that much greater and noble. This is incorrect as federal troops successfully lay siege to the post following the failed assault by Shaw. Confederate forces abandoned the site two months later.

They Died with Their Boots On – 1941 by Raoul Walsh

Walsh played fast and loose with the facts, leaving his portrait of the life of George Armstrong Custer far from the truth. History has not been kind to the cavalry officer. Since the 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn his popular image has deteriorated badly. Once a lionized authentic American hero, Custer is now more commonly considered a reviled murderous scoundrel, killer of Native American women and children, and an inept commander whose tactical blunders caused the Last Stand debacle. While the truth is somewhere in the middle, director Walsh stood firmly in the camp of the idolaters. He paints Custer (in the guise of handsome Errol Flynn) as a noble figure, bent on defending Indians against encroaching Whites and unscrupulous businessmen. It is a giant farce with several preposterous scenes, large and small.

By most accounts, Custer subscribed to General Phil Sheridan’s belief that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” In truth, Custer may have identified, or at least admired the Plainsmen’s simple way of life; but he showed little mercy on the battlefield, particularly in the 1868 confrontation on the Washita River. Historical records suggest that other films, such as 1970’s Little Big Man, disingenuously exaggerate the nature of that fight to denigrate Custer, but certainly the Seventh Cavalry slaughtered some defenseless non-combatants that bloody morning. Walsh skips over the atrocity.

Walsh also ignores Custer’s own attempt to exploit the Native Americans by leading a foray into the Dakota Territory to find gold in 1874. And Walsh romanticizes Custer’s actual court martial in 1867 for abandoning his post to visit his wife to the East. Walsh barely refers to the incident; when he does, he has charges brought forth by an unscrupulous Indian agent. In fact, were it not for Sheridan’s intervention with President Grant, who despised the ambitious officer, Custer would have run out of the army. Walsh resolves the crisis with a fictional confrontation between Custer and Grant in the Oval Office. Had such a meeting took place, it likely would have ended with the President’s boot firmly affixed to Custer’s rear end.

Most jarring is how the director deals with Chief Crazy Horse. In reality the two leaders never met one another face to face. Walsh manages to bring them together in three separate scenes, each a figment of the director’s imagination. In the first, Custer captures the warrior in route to Fort Lincoln—he later escapes. In the second scene, Custer personally promises Crazy Horse that the Seventh Cavalry will defend their rights against White settlers; and in the third, Crazy Horse fires the bullet that kills the last man standing at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Custer of course. Finally, Walsh credits Custer with knowingly sacrificing his small forces to prevent the warring Indians from swooping down upon General Terry’s unsuspecting regiment.

Despite over sixty-five years of trying, as American history, They Died with Their Boots On reached a level of historical inaccuracy in film not yet equaled.

The Bridge on the River Kwai – 1957 by David Lean

Lean’s masterpiece tells the story of the construction by British prisoners of a bridge over the Kwai River to support the Japanese occupation of Burma during World War II. An escaped prisoner joins a squad of commandos sent to blow up the structure. It’s got great acting, a great script, and a dramatic, explosive ending, which all worked to secure the film seven Academy Awards, including ones for Best Film and Best Director.

The bridge was indeed destroyed, but not as depicted in the film. The commando raid through the stifling jungle—an all but impossible mission—never happened. Instead, Allied planes took out the bridge and in much less dramatic fashion than Lean foisted on the public. No train tumbled head-first into the river.

If one can excuse Lean for creating the film’s two main protagonists out of whole cloth—Japanese Colonel Saito and British Colonel Nicholson—to symbolize the courage and determination of the real men involved, the climax was hardly necessary to convey the message uttered by another character in the film: war is “madness.”

Friday, June 1, 2012

7 X 7 Award

Recently I was pleasantly surprised to find that Watch Classics received a 7 X 7 Link Award, thanks to one of my favorite bloggers, Caftan Woman. I encourage anyone to add her site to your blog list if you enjoy commentary on classic film and television. Anyway, I understand that the award comes with a few responsibilities. In addition to thanking the giver, which I gladly do here, I am to share seven random thoughts about myself. Here goes:

  • The oatmeal raisin cookie is the king of cookie deliciousness.
  • Plant perennials. Their beauty exceeds temporary annuals as you get to watch them grow and bloom every year, and you get great pride in saying to yourself: "I planted that."
  • Westies are the most sociable dog. Maybe the cutest too.
  • If stranded on a desert island with just one movie, I'd take The Third Man.
  • Into my sixth decade, my patience gets longer each year and my hair shorter. It's all there though!
  • I miss John Wayne, William Holden, and Steve McQueen.
  • Deborah Kerr and Rita Hayworth looked great as blonds.

  • And one more for good measure:

  • A book that is surprisingly excellent: Bram Stoker's Dracula.

The 3rd responsibility requires me to suggest seven of my posts in various categories. I'm not wild about the categories and not sure my reviews really fit the format, but I'll do my best:

  • Most Beautiful Piece:  My thoughts on Deborah Kerr, whose beauty and grace always reminds me of why I love classic films.  
  • Most Helpful: I love film noir. Here's a piece I did about this great American art form. 
  • Most Popular: Based on the number page views, it's apparently my review of The Planet of the Apes series. The first and fourth are my favorites. Skip the last one. It's an abomination.
  • Most Controversial: Hmmm. I'll go with one featuring the great Setsuko Hara. A lot of folks know about the Noriko Trilogy, but few have likely seen No Regrets for Our Youth. As usual, she's terrific in an very interesting film.  
  • Most Surprisingly Successful:  Johnny Guitar.
  • Most Underrated: I take this to mean the film, not my review. Moby Dick. It's a great film and reminds me of my dad, a career Navy man who loved the book. 
  • Most Pride Worthy: Hitchcock needs to be on here somewhere. Vertigo.

The 4th responsibility is to nominate seven other bloggers and notify them.  My Blog List includes several blogs that I routinely follow. Like Caftan Woman, they are interesting and terrifically written by other fans who love old films. Today I happily will pass along the 7 X 7 Link Award to these folks. I trust they'll accept in the spirit intended, and follow-up as they choose.

Happy reading, all. Thanks again, Wyatt.