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The End of 1917.
The title is from Siegfried Sassoon's poem, "Suicide in the Trenches." I guess it's okay to quote the poem because it's pretty short and in its own quietly lurid way sums up the war situation in 1917.
I knew a simple soldier boy Who grinned at life in empty joy, Slept soundly through the lonesome dark, And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum, With crumps and lice and lack of rum, He put a bullet through his brain. No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye Who cheer when soldier lads march by, Sneak home and pray you'll never know The hell where youth and laughter go.
And, well, as Michael Redgrave's narration tells us, "Only the artist's eye could fathom what madness man had inflicted upon himself." There follow a frieze and some sketches by Wyndham Lewis, a lieutenant in charge of a six-inch gun battery. Lewis was a painter and novelist. Left to his own devices he produced paintings of odd-ball geometric abstraction but here the drawings are realistic and awful. We get glimpses of the works of other artist/soldiers too, such as Paul Nash.
Lewis was the official war artist for both Canada and Britain but the officer corps didn't hesitate to post him or anyone else at the front. The series doesn't mention it but Henry Mosely, a physicist who put the atom properly together and was a forerunner of Niels Bohr, and who would probably have won the Nobel Prize, left Oxford to join the army and was shot through the temple at the age of twenty-seven. Siegfried Sassoon, whose work opens the episode, was awarded the Military Cross and nominated for the Victoria Cross before being driven mad. The tribulations of Joyce Kilmer and Hemingway would come later.
Redgrave informs us that, despite the noxious conditions, the rotting horses, the constant noises, the salient enmity on all sides was directed towards the "eyewash" produced by the war profiteers and patriots back home. "The enemy" became a faceless concept, but prisoners were treated well. The soldiers claimed that what held them together -- virtually the only positive thing about their experience -- was the feeling of solidarity, of being with others who had survived the same stressors. The narration doesn't say so but this is identical to the feeling of American soldiers interviewed by the sociologist Samuel Stouffer in an extensive post-war study. (His work led to the Combat Infantryman's Badge.)
An interesting paradox on the Western front is pointed out. There was a "deadlock", with each side in solid defensive positions protected by barbed wire. In some places the heavy wire was seven feet high and two hundred feet deep. There was no way of attacking. The only damage could be done by artillery. But the artillery plowed up the ground of No Man's Land into such a heap of mountains and craters that neither infantry nor tanks could make quick progress across it. This led to the "deadlock."
The episode, like these comments, deals mostly with life in the trenches and the sentiments of the troops, with some additional artistic renderings of the milieu. Only one battle is described -- Cambrai, where British tanks forced a breakthrough for the infantry. The ground gained was quickly recovered by a German counter attack and 1917 ended pretty much as it had begun.
To The Finland Station.
Winter 1917. Surprisingly dramatic footage sometimes, as here, when an Orthodox priest walks along the rim of the trenches blessing Russian soldiers cowering in the snow. I don't know where they unearth this kind of stuff but it must have been a job.
Nowadays at the US Army War College in Pennsylvania, they teach that "victory = means times will." The "times" (rather than, say, "plus") is critical because as the term "will" approaches zero, the "means" becomes increasingly irrelevant. You can command a military colossus but if "will" reaches zero, you lose.
That's more or less what happens to Russia in this episode. Unlike their German enemy, Russian troops were massive but ill fed and restive. In the Carpathian Mountains they were able to inflict casualties on the enemy, but the enemy bore its suffering. Russia had suffered too, losing as many men as Britain and France put together.
Russia had a new Tsar, a younger one who was a family man and loved pomp, a nice enough guy but a lousy administrator. He left much of the running of the country to his wife, a German-born but English educated niece of Queen Victoria. How's that for a marriage of convenience, and a complicating one? She, in turn, was under the spell of Rasputin, the mad monk, and there may have been some hanky panky going on. In any case the public resented it. Rasputin was as difficult to get rid of as Superman. He was poisoned, stabbed, and drowned before finally dying.
Finally the Tsar abdicated, his ministers arrested. Now, Redgrave's narration points out a recurring problem in Russian society and in today's America. The revolution was impelled by hatred of something. It had succeeded. Now the country had to decide what it was FOR.
It wasn't an easy choice. A provisional government was set up combining two competing factions -- the liberal democratic Kerensky, who wanted to continue the war, and the communist Lenin, who wanted peace except for a worldwide revolution against capitalism. The Bolsheviks won and Russia surrendered to Germany.
Sorry is this all sounds political, but so does the episode. There are few battles discussed and, in the more general sociopolitical context, they're less important than what went on in the capitals anyway.
The Moth (1934)
Clumsy, With Saucy Girl.
Frankly, I didn't find it that much worse than most other movies of the period -- the ones that came from studios with names like PRC, Eagle Lion, Monogram, Gower Gulch, Poverty Row. It goes without saying that some of these were artistic treasures. I proffer the excellent Hungarian studio, Az Éhezéstől, as a European producer of aesthetic achievements on tiny budgets.
Consider that the equipment of the time was cumbersome. With sound, the noisy cameras had to be hidden in a blimp-shaped container known to the industry cognoscenti as a "blimp." The microphones could be found in buttonholes and vases. Ladies in long dresses might be trailing wires.
Speech being new, coaches and actors were brought in from the theater and ordinary pronunciation turned into elocution for many actors. Example here: Wilfred Lucas as the attorney in charge of Sally O'Neil's trust fund. Every phoneme is as precise as the constituents of an expensive Swiss watch.
As the flapper, on the other hand, Sally O'Neil cannot shake the damp the echoes of Bayonne, New Jersey, in her lines. Bayonne, once known as the garden spot of the industrial North, has two well-known features: a multitude of ruddy great oil storage tanks and a magnificent view of the skyline of New York City across the Hudson. Frank Langella is from Bayonne. So were Sandra Dee and Brian Keith. So let's have no more aspersions cast on Bayonne.
Anyway, Sally O'Neil, whose star dimmed with the coming of sound, plays a reckless society girl whose money disappears. Fortunately, her legs don't disappear. They are featured in the film's first shot, and they're long and shapely. Later, at a drunken party, she waltzes around in her underwear, in a very artistic scene of the sort that was permitted in the pre-code period. She really is cute.
Humiliated, O'Neil skips town for New Orleans, followed by the man who's been asked to keep an eye on her, Paul Page. Page overacts outrageously but that's okay because everyone else does too. It's Mardi Gras in New Orleans. It's always Mardi Gras in New Orleans in the movies. Two clearly gay guys flirt with Page on the street. There is some genuinely interesting footage of a real Mardi Gras parade, circa 1930, inserted at this point.
Summing it all up, O'Neil gets mixed up with a thief and his moll. Page becomes her boy friend. It all ends in such a way that the viewer will emit a satisfied sigh.
The East (2013)
Earnest and Somber.
It's the Northeast in the Fall and it looks pretty crummy. The entire movie is glum. It seems as if the sun never shines. Brit Marling works for a private intelligence agency and is hired to infiltrate a group of environmental activists, often incorrectly called "anarchists." I say "incorrectly" because "anarchism" means "no government", whereas these half dozen people, known collectively as The East, oppose tricky corporations. For instance, they insinuate themselves into a party being given by the CEO of a pharmaceutical company and slip a drug into everyone's drink. The drug has been trumpeted as perfectly safe by its manufacturer, although many users have suffered ill effects. Now, unwittingly, they get a taste of their own medicine. The members of The East apparently have middle-class backgrounds and one of them is a young doctor. A real anarchist, like Mikhail Bakunin, would have scorned these anarchists manqué.
The story, as much as we can see it through the dour photography, is simple enough. Marling does her job and is initiated into the group. She learns that the members have personal reasons for giving up material goods, as well as altruistic ones. And gradually she succumbs to their values, defiantly picking a half-eaten apple out of a trash can and chomping on it in front of her appalled boss, who fires her.
It's hard to know what she sees in The East. Activism is one thing, but these people look exactly like those who can be found sleeping in Wino Alley in Juneau, Alaska. We see them bathing ritually in a river but they're still filthy, hairy, scrofulous, and generally unkempt. Each has a poignant story, of course, and Marling gets it on with one of the guys.
It's intense and slow but it's not a stupid film. The East isn't made up of saints. They break the law right and left but they're not the Symbionese Liberation Army or anything like it. Only one gun appears and it's fired only once, at a tire. They don't protest in public and enjoy their celebrity on television because they're all anonymous. But if the group is well defined, the targets aren't -- at least not those we see. The corporations (or "corporatists") aren't EVIL. They're just the kind of people who might not recall the Ford Pinto because it's cheaper to pay off a few law suits when people happen to die in them. No, the corporations come in for some heavy calumny. And, in fact, the story is a little preachy for me, a little condescending.
Still, I admire the guts it took to put this movie out. It's a big subject and if the producers' and writers' reach exceeded their grasp, well, at least they tried something original.
Brit Marling is one of the elements of the movie that I admire. She's an attractive young woman, of course, but Hollywood is full of pretty faces. And her beauty is marred and invested with more character by her generous nose and the fact that she's slightly wall eyed. And she co-wrote the script. Her boss, Pamela Roylance, has a much lesser role but she's perfect as the icy administrator. Towards the end, when Marling is munching that rotten apple in front of Roylance, throwing away her career and perhaps her freedom, Roylance simply stares deadpan at the performance.
I said it wasn't a stupid movie and here's an example of what I meant. At the very end, the remaining member of The East, Marling's amour, sends her to get a list of all undercover agents that are hectoring him. She returns to him just as he's about to cross into Canada and she tells him she wasn't able to get the list, but if she had, "I wouldn't give it to you." "Why not?" "Because I think you and I would do two different things with it." End of conversation and he runs off to his waiting van, without a good-bye kiss or even a hug. "You and I would do two different things with it." It's so much neater, so much more trusting in the audience, than a speech.
The Stoker (1932)
South of the Border, the Mexican Border.
Monte Blue, a very tall actor but otherwise uninteresting, loses his business in New York when his wife refuses to let him use the apartment as collateral. Moreover, she informs him that she is suing for divorce. This sours Monte Blue on women in general. Broke, he finds himself working as a stoker on a ship to Nicaragua. There, he gets into a fist fight with the renowned bandit, Santini (Beery).
I suppose every one of these picaresque stories about down-and-outers who work as stokers or cow hands must sooner or later be involved in a saloon brawl, but I doubt they happened that often historically. I've visited saloons and only witnessed on such brawl. It was a gay bar in San Francisco and two lesbians were duking it out near my table. Both the combatants were hefty. The tables and chairs flew. I wound up on the sawdust floor next to a stranger who taught me how to realistically imitate Franklin Delano Roosevelt by doing the impression into an empty beer glass. It was very effective too.
Back to the story. As a result of the fight, Monte Blue and his pal, "Eclipse," an African-American whom I can't find listed in the credits, wind up in the calaboose. They are paroled to the service of the owner of a coffee plantation threatened by bandit raids, led by the head honcho, Beery himself. The US Marines are in Managua but they refuse to help the plantation unless it is American property.
So Blue marries the owner's niece (Burgess) and when Santini and his bandidos attack, the Marines arrive just in time to drive them off. Blue has mistaken Burgess' motives in marrying him and this leads to a misunderstanding which is cleared up on their wedding night. A word about Dorothy Burgess. Monte Blue was a fool for avoiding her after she had inexplicably fallen in love with him. She's quite pretty and has a very sassy figure. Her Spanish accent is reduced to calling the hero "Deek" instead of "Dick" but so what? It's what inside a person that counts, and what's inside Burgess' character is money, sex, and a physique to die for.
This is a fast movie, only about an hour long, but it's entertaining and it demonstrates some surprisingly high production values. The sets are convincing, and so are the Nicaraguans, who speak proper Spanish. The ending, of course, with the cavalry coming to the rescue at the last minute, is a cliché, and poor Blue in the lead has the expressiveness of a tree stump. That aside, it's not bad.
White House Down (2013)
A cabal within the Secret Service, aided by a squad of mercenaries, blow up the capitol, capture the White House, and pursue the president (Foxx) and a casual visitor (Tatum) who happens to be an ex soldier (bronze star) taking the White House tour. All hell breaks loose.
Now, judging from this précis, you may think this is an imitation of an Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone action movie from the 80s. But it's not. It's an imitation of a Bruce Willis action movie from the 90s, specifically "Die Hard," with a touch of Steven Seagal.
Instead of the Nakatomi Tower, we have the White House. And we have the jokey computer wizard with glasses who takes over control of all communications. That figure is common to "Die Hard", "Under Siege," and "Under Siege Two: Dark Territory," all of which I enjoyed for their utter mindlessness. Like taking a vacation in Cancun and getting lit on piña coladas.
The adventitious hero, Tatum, has a vulnerable but tough little girl, his daughter, as his companion(King.) He's separated from her during the initial uproar and she becomes a hostage. ("Die Hard" plus "Dark Territory.") The press make fools of themselves by betraying her identity. ("Die Hard.") Helicopter attacks on the captured White House result in helicopters being colorfully shot down. ("Dark Territory" and "Die Hard.") Like Willis, the hero ends up wearing a sweaty, dirty undershirt of the kind called a singlet. I'm getting tired of noting all these isomorphisms.
The chief villain (Woods) is neatly dressed. The mercenaries are dressed precisely as all brutal thugs are dressed in these dumb movies -- black leather, sleeveless armored vests, greasy hair, weird mustaches, plenty of masculine tats, and they're all determined and beef-brained. They shoot one another for the slightest hint of betrayal, as in the Nazi movies of the war years. The script abounds with wise cracks during moments of stress.
James Woods has a few seconds in which he convinces us that he's putting something into the role -- as he reaches for the nuclear "football" that will obliterate Iran. Nobody else can act. Tatum has a neck the girth of a utility pole and not much more. Foxx acts about as well as you or I could. Well -- you, anyway. I've committed some magnificent performances to celluloid. Everyone else, regardless of race, color, or creed, acts and speaks like a Hollywood actor. They bleed like Hollywood actors too. After a prolonged tussle with a mercenary Man Mountain Dean, in which Tatum gets much the worst of it, he emerges with only a few trickles of blood from one nostril. He crashes through at least two windows without visible cuts.
It's hard to make a movie about the president and his staff without politics entering into it. So what are the politics here? One of the thugs shouts, "Get along, Sheeple." There is a Rush Limbaugh figure who sacrifices himself heroically but without purpose. The president is a black man who has sent troops to Iran. Once he's powerless and the Vice President has been eliminated, the presidency passes to the Speaker of the House, who secretly intends to conquer the world or something. The correspondences between the film's characters and today's political situation are too clear. I understand that some of this is unavoidable but it was a turn off, at least for me, because I dislike propaganda that treats me as if I'm still learning my ABCs.
Yet I found this monstrous mess entertaining. After the set up, hardly a moment passes without a car being driven through a wall or somebody being ripped to smithereens by a two- or three-second blast from one of those Gatling guns that spits out a million rounds a minute. Oh, how the arms and legs fly.
I wonder. I suppose I shouldn't reveal the ending because it will come as a big surprise. But, ah, well -- Woods and his gangbangers take the president hostage, launch all the nuclear missiles, obliterate much of the world and then conquer the rest, forcing everyone on earth to vote with his fingertip, drink iced cinnamon dolce latte at Starbuck's, and become ovo-lacto vegetarians. Of course it all involves a massive effort on Wood's part, but the results are salubrious. And that's how everyone on the planet came to speak Esperanto.
Summer, 1917. The Germans are holding on in the trenches, but Russia has been swept up in a revolution and the Czar has abdicated. The French are all fagged out. Little is heard from the Italian Army. The only troops that were fit and available for an attack were the British Army and colonials like the Australians. Since there was, after all, at least one Allied army left in the field, an attack against the German lines near Ypres, including Passchendaele, was launched. The intention was to reach Zeebrugge on the Belgian coast, the chief harbor for the U-boats that were slowly strangling Britain.
The episode opens with a quote from a letter written by a British soldier in 1914 upon first visiting the city of Ypres. A magnificent place with a fine old cathedral, ancient walls, tiled roofs. He goes on and on. And then it was all reduced to rubble by bombardment. Ypres, by the way, was pronounced "Wipers" by the upper class, according to Michael Redgrave's narration. In French, it's "Eeep", with the merest suggestion of an "r" at the end.
At this point I might mention that there are times when the narration rather seems to soft pedal any possible mistakes made by British generals. Ypres was a controversial move. Lloyd George, the British PM, did not endorse the attack. Neither did the French chief of staff, Foch. And the British commander, Douglas Haig, began the attack before receiving permission to do so. In any case, some ground was gained but then the rain began -- a real torrent -- and everything bogged down everywhere. There are still photos of soldiers up to their knees in mud, and participants tell of mud that was waist high and covered the decomposing bodies of men and horses.
Every episode of this series is available free on YouTube, by the way. In the last two, the sound sometimes is reduced to a murmur or cuts out altogether.
It was pretty cold in the winter of 1917. The weather seemed to freeze everything. Ships were trapped in ice. Men had to saw through frozen loaves of bread. Supply trucks bogged down. The guns continued firing, although aerial observation was almost impossible.
The episode gives the viewer a glimpse of a pervading sense of futility in all the armies. The French had lost more than a million men -- one life for each MINUTE of the war so far. The French had begun the war with many of its troops wearing the kepis and bright red trousers of the Zouaves. By 1917 they had learned to wear the same dark blue uniform, more suited to combat. The US Army during the Civil War had imitated the colorful Zouave uniforms but had had to learn the same lesson. A British liaison officer described the French army as "tired to death." Nevertheless, in the Spring, their new commander, Robert Nivelle, envisaged a slashing attack to achieve victory of the sort that had been tried (and failed) in 1914. "He was like a man under a spell," the liaison officer wrote. "The enemy positions had been obliterated in his imagination." The German army had left the front line, which seemed to the French generals a retreat. But it wasn't. It was a strategic withdrawal to the heavily defended Hindenburg Line.
The attack cost an appalling number of lives and failed to gain more than a few miles. After that, the French Army had "had it." Soldiers in fifty-four divisions refused openly to advance or even to occupy the trenches, a mutiny without violence. Nivelle was replaced by General Petain, who gave the men a rest and improved conditions. He also executed more than fifty of the ring leaders.
The armies of Europe and Russia were about worn out, but in April, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany.
The chief impression left by this episode is the indifference of the officer corps, particularly the French, felt towards the welfare of the ordinary soldier. It's as if too many generals were moving pins on a map or sliding around pieces on a chess board. They seemed out of touch with life at the front, and they were. Class differences impeded much in the way of intimacy.
The Seventh Cross (1944)
He Crashed Out.
"The Seventh Cross." It sounds like one of those sword and sandal epics made at Cinecittá in the 1950s. "The Seventh Cross", starring Steve Reeves, Saltimbocca Galupo, and Bicchiera da Vino as the Queen of Sheba.
Instead it's one of Fred Zinneman's understandably oppressive movies about seven escapees from a concentration camp in 1936. The narration tells us the fate of the fugitives. The Gestapo are hot on their heels. One by one they're caught and, it's hinted, crucified. Six crosses receive their victims. The seventh is reserved for Spencer Tracy, who slouches grimly through the movie, visiting places and people who might help, trying to get a place to sleep, enough money and forged papers to leave Germany, and -- above all -- those prison clothes he's wearing.
It's not one of Tracy's better performances. The role rather restricts him. It's hard to put your tongue in your cheek and make wisecracks when your head is constantly at risk.
Nice performances by supporting players. Hume Cronyn is fine as the cheerful factory worker who wants to help his friend, Tracy, but has his family to think about. The script gives him a pretty good job. Nineteen thirty-six was the Great Depression but Germany was rapidly pulling out of it, thanks to Hitler, who put everyone to work building weapons. Cronyn's wife, Jessica Tandy, is radiantly youthful, pretty in a way that's difficult to describe -- attractive, yes, but anaclitic too. She's more than what Hume Cronyn deserves. She's what I myself deserve. At any rate, she became Mrs. Cronyn in real life. Signe Hasso, as a femme de chambre, hits her marks as well, and she's sexy too.
It's gloomy and in many ways depressing but the story is gripping too. The screenplay by Helen Deutsch doesn't give us many tag lines but generates a generous amount of suspense as the Gestapo close in on the errant Tracy and two independent forces try to help him but keep missing each other. It's a little odd for 1944. Not all the Germans go around goose stepping and giving the Hitler salute. Some of them resemble us normal people.
I remember seeing it as a kid but recall only two images -- a Luger sliding into the mud and a man doing a swan dive from a high roof top. That was a long time ago, but the film is hard to forget.
This episode begins in November, 1916, entering the third winter of the war. The battles for Verdun and the Somme, where the British introduce the tank, are about finished. Nobody has won and everyone has lost.
If there's a single sociopolitical lesson to be gotten from this series, it's made clear by this time. It's much easier to get into a war than it is to stop one. They tend to begin in a spirit of fervent, and even joyous jingoism, rather like fans cheering the entrance of their high school football team. It take a year or two and a few million deaths, of material and spiritual sacrifice, for the fans and players to realize there is no ball.
The combatants were becoming exhausted and were wondering about "peace." Britain, an island, after all, depended in shipping for many of its goods. But by 1916 the number of German U-boats had doubled, while the tonnage imports had fallen by a third. Ship building couldn't keep pace with the losses at sea. There was, as yet, no effective protection from submarine attacks.
The surface fleets of British and German battleships fought an engagement off Jutland. The Royal Navy got the worst of it, which was no help to morale. Nor was the Irish rebellion, quickly put down but a drain on the Army and an added source of tension.
The draft was introduced in Britain but it was of minimal use. Most of the fit men who were available had already joined. There were still about three million men between the ages of eighteen and forty three, but 2.6 million of them were in protected industries, building ships, tanks, weapons, ammunition. Other nations were hardly better off.
In this episode, with the weakening of emperors and hereditary monarchies, we can glimpse for the first time the shape of a new geopolitical pattern, an altering of the map of Europe, but not yet the adumbration of the war that was to follow twenty years later.