Archive for the ‘War’ Category

Kajaki: Directed by Paul Katis; Written by Tom Williams; Country – UK; Runtime – 108 mins.

Cast: Mark Stanley (‘Tug’ Hartley), Malachi Kirby (Snoop), David Elliiot (Mark Wright), Paul Luebke (Jay Davis), Ali Cook (‘Spud’ McMellon), Bryan Parry (Jonesy), Grant Kilburn (Alex Craig), Andy Gibbins (Smudge), Scott Kyle (Stu Pearson), Jon-Paul Bell (Luke Mauro), Benjamin O’Mahony (Stu Hale), Connor Mills (voice), John Doughty (Dave Prosser), Liam Ainsworth (Ken Barlow), Robert Mitchell (Faz).

American Sniper: Directed by Clint Eastwood; Screenplay by Jason Hall, from the book by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen, and Jim DeFelice; Country – USA; Runtime – 132 mins.

Cast: Bradley Cooper (Chris Kyle), Cole Konis (young Chris Kyle), Sienna Miller (Taya Kyle), Max Charles (Colton Kyle), Luke Grimes (Marc Lee), Kyle Gallner (Goat-Winston), Sam Jaeger (Captain Martens), Jake McDorman (Biggles), Cory Hardrict (‘D’ / Dandridge).

*** SPOILER ALERT: Each film reviewed here is based on real events, and these are described in my review. ***

War – what is it good for?

British armed forces have been engaged in continuous conflict somewhere on the planet for the past hundred years, and for several decades after World War Two war movies were a regular part of the film industry’s output. Even in the late seventies and early eighties good business was being done by films like The Eagle Has Landed, The Wild Geese, and The Dogs of War. However, ever since the televised images from the Falklands War brought the shocking reality of conflict to a new generation it seems as though British film-makers have lost their enthusiasm for war films. There are of course some exceptions, such as Regeneration (1997) and Enigma (2001), the former set in Word War One and the latter concerned with a mystery among Bletchley Park’s codebreakers in WW2. However, it is hard to think of any British movies that deal with our more recent conflicts. Perhaps film-makers have been cowed by the intense controversy that surrounded the TV Falklands drama Tumbledown (1988). Even representations of earlier conflicts can arouse establishment ire if they are felt to question the authorised version of history, as with The Monocled Mutineer (1986).

By contrast, Hollywood has produced several films that are based upon recent conflicts. The best-known of these are Three Kings (1999), Black Hawk Down (2001), The Hurt Locker (2008), The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009) – based on the book by British writer-journalist Jon Ronson, Jarhead (2005), and Zero Dark Thirty (2012). However, it may be that 2014 represents a turning point in the decline of the British war film. We have had another Bletchley Park drama, The Imitation Game, the thrilling adventure film ’71 set in “the troubles” of Northern Ireland, and – most significantly – Kajaki, a true story concerning the 3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment (“3 Para”), during their 2006 deployment in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.

The film itself is an exercise in realism, focusing on three themes: the bravery of the men in extreme circumstances, their earthy humour (Kajaki is frequently very funny) and the terrible injuries – shown in graphic detail – caused by landmines. The opening scenes are largely concerned with boredom. 3 Para have the task of guarding the Kajaki dam, and do this from their position on top of a nearby hill. In the heat of the Afghan sun all they do is watch. And watch. And when not assigned to the task of watching they read messages from home, talk, joke, drink tea, and exercise.

But these are one of the army’s elite units and the men long to fight. When a small group of Taliban (referred to throughout as “Terry”) are spotted setting up an illegal roadblock down below, a small group is assembled to go and tackle them. However, this is an unauthorised mission: the men are told they need to obtain permission from a senior officer, but never do. Presumably they regard a tiny group of Taliban as no match for their elite skills. But as they reach the bottom of a hillside path disaster strikes. One of the group steps on a mine and is severely injured. From hereon in things go from bad to worse. The men are trapped in a Soviet-era minefield that was not marked on their map. In the attempts to rescue the injured and escape, yet more soldiers are hurt. Communications equipment does not work properly and it is only when a couple of Americans arrive that there is reliable radio. When the RAF are contacted they don’t send a helicopter with a winch, as requested, but instead send a Chinook that tries to land and whose downdraft is so strong that it explodes another mine.

But remarkably, as the situation deteriorates the men continue to joke, even those who are hurt. By contrast, the quips of the fictional James Bond seem quite restrained. At one point, ‘Tug’ Hartley tries to work his way through the minefield towards an injured comrade by tossing his backpack ahead of him and then leaping on top of it. As he does this one of the lads calls from the sidelines “That’s how he mounts his missus!”

The film is a fine tribute to the bravery of these men of 3 Para, and brilliantly conveys the tight-knit bond that spurred them on through this most terrible of situations. Kajaki does not make any overt political statements about the Afghan conflict, but the fact that it was a Soviet minefield that did for 3 Para can’t help but serve as a reminder that Afghanistan has long been known as “the graveyard of empires”.

It should be said that Kajaki will be particularly tough viewing for the squeamish, and the special effects and makeup teams are surely deserving of an award for the realistic depiction of physical wounds.  In this viewer’s opinion, Kajaki stands among the best British war films to have been made, which is all the more extraordinary when you realise that it was put together through crowdfunding. The Ministry of Defence, however, withdrew their support for Kajaki during filming, perhaps because of some of the rather unflattering depictions of British military operations.

RATING: 5/5

Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is a different kettle of fish altogether. It tells the story of Navy SEAL (Sea, Air and Land), Chris Kyle, based upon his own memoir. Kyle served as a sniper during several deployments in the post 9/11 invasion of Iraq and claims to have been the most lethal sniper in US Navy history. With an excellent performance from Bradley Cooper as Kyle, Eastwood depicts this big patriotic Texan as a man driven to save good people from evil. As a child he is told by his father that there are three types of people: sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves. The wolves want to devour the sheep, who are too weak to fight back. Sheepdogs fight to protect the sheep. Kyle senior tells his boy that he expects him to be a sheepdog.

However, at age 30 Chris Kyle appears to be pissing his life away as a womanizing wannabe cowboy. When a girlfriend dumps him with a few harsh truths in the process, he starts to reevaluate his life. Following the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center Kyle sees the opportunity to become the kind of man his father wanted him to be. He joins the Navy and becomes a sniper with the SEALS. When America leads the invasion of Iraq after 9/11, Kyle is sent to Fallujah. Working as a rooftop sniper, he is utterly driven. His kill rate is so high that he becomes known as “the legend”, although he finds the label hard to live with. Whilst home on leave, he takes his new wife, Taya, for a checkup at the hospital. The nurse there quickly spots that this is a man who is bottling emotions up inside. She takes a blood pressure reading from Chris, which turns out to be abnormally high. On each home visit Taya struggles to communicate with Chris, who seems to be lost inside his own thoughts and becomes twitchy around ordinary everyday events. When he eventually quits the service he ends up seeing a psychiatrist at the Veterans Hospital, and with his assistance (although the details are skated over) manages to re-establish his relationship with Taya.

It is possible that hawkish Americans will view American Sniper as a patriotic tale of a soldier who did a great job, at personal cost, in a just war. However, I don’t think that is the real story we are being presented with. This is not the Clint Eastwood of the Dirty Harry movies, but the more considered and questioning Eastwood of Unforgiven. Chris Kyle is essentially presented to us as a metaphor for America itself. In his attempt to be the saviour of good people, Kyle represents the America that sees itself as the world’s policeman. But whilst serving in Iraq Kyle makes promises to local people that he is unable to keep, again like America towards Iraq in general. He tells a frightened Iraqi that he will be able to protect him and his family if he provides important information. Subsequently, the man’s son is tortured in front of him and then the man himself is shot. Those responsible announce to the neighbourhood that this is what happens to people who talk to the Americans.

When one of Kyle’s close comrades is killed by an Iraqi sniper he becomes driven by revenge. During a mission he disobeys an order to “stand down” and kills the sniper from a distance of over a mile. However, in doing so he gives their own position away and his unit find themselves embroiled in a firefight with overwhelming enemy numbers. As the SEALs eventually manage to escape they are literally enveloped in a “desert storm” (the name given to the first invasion of Iraq in January 1991), symbolically representing their inability to impose order on the country. It is after this event, in which Kyle is injured, that he decides to leave the service.

Kyle devotes himself to helping other veterans, whether they are physically disabled or suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). It is in his attempt to assist a soldier with PTSD that the final – metaphorical – irony lies. Whilst on deployment Kyle had stated that one of the reasons for fighting was to prevent terrorism back home. Yet Chris Kyle is shot dead, not by a terrorist, but by a disturbed veteran that he is trying to assist. The message seems to be that America, in trying to police the world, not only deviates from the path of justice to one of revenge, but also ends up damaging herself in the process.

RATING: 4/5

CORRECTIONS: My original review accidentally referred to Clint Eastwood’s earlier film as ‘Forgiven’, when it should of course be ‘Unforgiven’. Also, Chris Kyle joined the Navy after seeing the 1993  bombing of the World Trade Center on television, not the 9/11 attacks (though those are shown too, after which Kyle is sent to Iraq with the SEALs).

The_Imitation_Game_poster

Director: Morten Tyldum

Writer: Graham Moore

Country: UK/USA

Runtime: 114 minutes

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Charles Dance, Mark Strong, Alan Leech, Rory Kinnear

Man or machine? Alan Turing’s story finally gets a big-screen telling in this gripping thriller

Now recognised as one of the key figures in the Allied victory in World War Two because of his role in breaking German codes, as well as being the father of modern computing, Alan Turing was a relatively obscure figure for many years. His profile gradually increased from the mid-1980’s onwards, when a West End play Breaking the Code was staged about his life, culminating in 2013 with a Queen’s pardon for the charge of gross indecency that ultimately led to his suicide. Now Turing’s story has finally hit the big screen in this scintillating thriller directed by Morton Tyldum.

Graham Moore’s beautifully-paced and gripping screenplay for The Imitation Game is based on Andrew Hodges’ book “Alan Turing: The Enigma”. Rather than take us in a a linear fashion from Turing’s wartime work to his tragic demise, Moore cleverly interweaves three periods in his subject’s life in such a way that we are left not just with a sense of tragedy, but also of Turing’s great triumph. The bulk of the story concerns the war years at Bletchley Park, but we also see Turing during his school years and in the 1950s during the period when he was investigated by the police, arrested, and subsequently found dead at home.

The concept of the ‘imitation game’ is explained to a police officer by Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), whilst being interviewed after his arrest. Taken from a 1950 scientific article by Turing (not actually called ‘The Imitation Game’, contrary to what the film states), the game imagines an interrogator trying to distinguish between a thinking machine and a person, both unseen, on the basis of typed responses to questions. In order for the machine to bamboozle the interrogator its best strategy is to try and imitate a person. The central conceit of the film is to portray Turing as a machine. Remarkably intelligent, even as a schoolboy, Turing doesn’t really know how to interact with others. He takes other people’s spoken utterances entirely at face value, failing to appreciate the intended meanings and not comprehending jokes at all.

Although initially a subordinate in MI6’s secret team of codebreakers, Turing is frustrated that he cannot get the others to appreciate his ideas. After appealing directly to Churchill, Turing is put in charge but then is faced with the challenge of leading and motivating others whilst lacking any noticeable social skills. Gradually, Turing learns some of the aspects of normal interaction, especially in his chaste romance with the team’s only female, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). But does Turing really understand and feel any of this, or is he just imitating normal human behaviour? Surprisingly, several scenes are extremely funny. Turing’s portrayal here will surely spark a flash of recognition in readers of the British adult comic Viz, as Turing’s behaviour bears a striking resemblance to that of Mr Logic (it has, in fact, been suggested that Turing may have had Asperger’s Syndrome, though retrospective diagnoses are notoriously difficult and we can’t say for sure that this was the case).

After working for months without success, and with the whole project under threat, a chance remark in a bar leads Turing to realise how the German codes can be broken (this scene is reminiscent of the one in A Beautiful Mind where Russell Crowe’s John Nash explains – wrongly, unfortunately – the concept of the Nash Equilibrium). However, once the team discover they are able to decode German messages Turing reveals a terrible truth: the British military and intelligence services cannot use this knowledge to prevent all the German attacks they know are being planned.

An activity as complex and mathematical as codebreaking is not one that lends itself naturally to drama, but Graham Moore’s first-class script and Morten Tyldum’s direction do a terrific job of ramping up the tension and making the story exciting. Benedict Cumberbatch is perfect as Turing, but the real revelation for me was Keira Knightley. She gives a passionate and stirring performance as Joan Clarke, a proto-feminist figure of blazing intelligence, who herself had to engage in an imitation game – pretending to be something she wasn’t – in order to satisfy her parents’ more traditional expectations for their daughter. Finally, a word must go to Oscar Faura’s cinematography, which I thought was outstanding.

Although principally a biographical drama, I would say that The Imitation Game also deserves to be considered alongside more action-oriented movies as one of the great war films.

Rating: 10/10

Previewed at the British Film Institute, 9th November

Colonel Blimp (2)

UK 1943

Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Screenplay: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Running time: 163 minutes

 

**SPOILERS ARE INCLUDED**

Arguably, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is the greatest of the great films made by the fabulous duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It was restored in 1983 and again in 2011. Among the additional features with the most recent version is an interesting and informative piece by  Martin Scorcese describing the process of restoration.

The film is an original story based on David Low’s cartoon character from the 1930s, depicting a pompous and jingoistic red-faced old buffer, who issues ridiculous and often self-contradictory pronouncements from the Turkish bath at his club. For many years, the term “Blimpish” was often used in Britain to refer to somebody holding such attitudes, though it is less often heard now. Powell and Pressburger’s character, played brilliantly in three different ages by Roger Livesy, is not actually named “Blimp”, nor does he die, and nor is he a colonel (he eventually attains the rank of Major-General). The character of Clive Wynne-Candy is, in fact, a far more human and sympathetic individual than his cartoon counterpart.

The story begins in World War 2. A group of Home Guard soldiers are preparing for a training exercise. Lieutenant “Spud” Wilson (James McKechnie) has learned from a woman nicknamed “Mata Hari”, close to the top brass, that the exercise is to begin at midnight. Reckoning that initiative counts for more than rules in modern warfare, he leads his men in a pre-emptive strike on Wynne-Candy’s club, capturing the Major-General himself and all the other officers. Wynne-Candy is elderly, bald, plump, and sports a large walrus moustache. He is apoplectic at the intrusion, uttering the immortal words: “Yer damn young fool, war begins at midnight!” He knocks Spud into the pool, then jumps in after him and the two disappear beneath the water.

We then see a much younger Wynne-Candy emerge from the pool: it is now 1902, and our young officer is on leave from the Boer War. He and his fellow young officers are brash and loud, to the annoyance of the older patrons of the baths. However, despite his youth Wynne-Candy has distinguished himself in battle, earning the highest award for bravery, the Victoria Cross. He receives a letter from a British woman in Berlin called Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr). She is concerned about a German by the name of Kaunitz (David Ward) who is spreading “lies” about British behaviour in the Boer war, such as the story that they are operating concentration camps. She wants Candy to go to Berlin to counter the propaganda. Candy’s superiors tell him not to go, but he ignores them.

In Berlin, Candy tries to tease Kauntiz, who he knows from an earlier encounter, but it escalates into an argument in which Candy manages to insult the honour of the entire German army. He gets drawn into a duel with the Germans’ champion, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). The depiction of this is one of the great cinematic moments. There is a long lead up to the duel itself, building the tension but also emphasising the absurdity of the whole enterprise. Then, as sabres start to clash, the camera zooms out and upwards, away from the action, and through the roof of the building itself, so that we are looking down on the compound as snow falls beautifully from the sky.

The story picks up in a hospital where both duellists are recovering from their wounds. Wynne-Candy’s face is bandaged: his upper lip has been almost severed and he subsequently grows an ample moustache in order to cover the scar. It is a neat element of the story, building an empathetic bridge with the older Wynne-Candy who we saw at the start of the film. During their stay at the hospital, and over countless games of cards, the two officers become friends. Moreover, Theo and Edith Hunter fall in love, and she stays in Berlin to marry him. Candy is delighted for them both, but only when he returns to London does he realise that he too has fallen for her. He deals with his feelings by going on a hunting tour and we see the walls of his room in London filling up with the animal-head trophies. In one of the DVD/Blu-Ray extras, Stephen Fry notes that this scene is so politically incorrect as to be almost inconceivable in a modern movie. However, this scene is not just about Candy’s loneliness or his enjoyment of hunting; it also reminds us that Britain at this point in history had the largest empire the world has ever seen (the trophies all come from empire countries).  The reminder is a salutary one, as the First World War is just around the corner.

When the Great War breaks out, Candy again serves his country. However, his old-fashioned notions of honour are beginning to look dated. He treats the interrogation of a German prisoner like a chat between gentlemen. The German remains silent and Candy is called on business. Once he has gone, a South African member of the British Army takes over and makes it clear that his methods of questioning will be less refined (these methods are left to the viewers’ imaginations). Candy views Britain’s victory in World War 1 as a demonstration that “right is might” – honourable methods will always defeat dirty tricks such as poisoned gas. He meets a nurse – Barbara – who bears a striking resemblance to Edith (also played by Deborah Kerr), and the two get married. Theo is held as a prisoner of war in Derbyshire, but when hostilities cease Candy takes him to a dinner where various British dignitaries are present. They all represent different parts of the British Empire, and try to assure Theo that Britain holds no grudges and just wants to help rebuild Germany as a trading partner.

When the Second World War breaks out Theo seeks refuge in Britain, as he despises the Nazis. Sadly, his two sons have joined the National Socialist Party. When he recounts how they did not attend Edith’s funeral, he appends this with a quiet “Heil Hitler” that manages to be both pitiful and vitriolic. He is reunited with Candy, whose own wife has also died in the intervening years. Following the fall of Dunkirk Candy is due to give a speech via the BBC, but this is cancelled by the powers-that-be, who have read it in advance. Theo tells Candy some home truths from the perspective of a man who has lived under the Nazis: if Britain clings to old-fashioned notions of honourable warfare, they cannot expect the enemy to do the same. In fact, the enemy will laugh at them and despise them. Only by being prepared to fight dirty will the allies be able defeat the tyranny of Nazism. Candy is dropped by the regular Army but obtains a senior position in the homeguard, at which point the film comes full circle.

The Mata Hari referred to in the opening turns out to be his driver, Angela, who resembles both Edith and Barbara (and is also played by Deborah Kerr). Spud Wilson is her boyfriend, and when she realises the trick he is going to pull she tries to stop him. In the final scene, Candy remembers how he ignored orders as a young officer, as well as the trouble it caused, and his anger dissipates. He vows to follow the actions of his own Commanding Officer by inviting Spud to dinner. As Spud and his men march past in the street, Candy raises his arm in salute.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp works on several levels. The escalating argument between Candy and Kaunitz in 1902 can be seen as a microcosm of the absurdities that can cause conflict between nations. By contrast, the friendship of Candy and Theo shows how the people of different nations are not really all that different, and asks us to consider why, if individuals can get along like this, why can’t their countries? The film also gives a salutary reminder that before and after the First World War Britain held a large portion of the world under its dominion. And, of course, the core message that honourable methods could not defeat the Nazis would not have been lost on the audience in 1943.

But this is not just a film about war and political attitudes. It is a film about ageing and understanding. When we first encounter Clive Wynne-Candy it would be easy to dismiss him as a blinkered old duffer, which is no doubt what Spud Wilson thinks he is. By the end of the film we realise that Major-General Candy is a man who deserves our respect, just as he was respected by his German counterpart Theo.  The increasingly vicious nature of warfare may have rendered his ideas of honour redundant, but perhaps we should simply be appalled by modern warfare rather than by notions of honour. Moreover, for all his faults – which include the hardly unique matter of believing the one-sided propaganda of his own nation – Wynne-Candy was a man who stood up to be counted when it really mattered. He lived, he loved, and was a good friend to Theo, who would undoubtedly have been deported but for his intervention.

On the technical side, the way that Theo and Clive Wynn-Candy age through the three phases of the film is truly masterly. Especially in the case of the latter, despite all the advances in make-up and prosthetics since 1943 I struggle to think of any film that has so convincingly depicted youth, middle age and old age with the same actor. Roger Livesy himself gives the performance of a lifetime as Candy. It was also a stroke of genius to use a young Deborah Kerr to represent a different woman in each time period, thus emphasising the love that Candy had for Edith, Edith who married his friend Theo.

One of the accompanying features to the 2011 DVD/Blu-Ray mentions that Winston Churchill was aghast at some of the film’s content and wanted to block its release. To his great credit, J. Arthur Rank, head of the Rank Organisation, stood up to Churchill and the film was released. Perhaps Churchill’s objection was not so surprising: As Stephen Fry points out, to some degree Churchill himself was Colonel Blimp.

Rating: 10/10