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Muddled message about vengeance and justice
I'm really becoming hooked on the reruns of ROUTE 66 on ME TV. This episode, unfortunately, suffers from a rather muddled script, or one that was severely edited, as though producer/writer Stirling Silliphant had intended this story to be presented as two one-hour episodes. Instead, it was squeezed into one.
The opening sequences, in which two gunmen murder two other men, are rather cryptic about some of the characters, notably the General (John Anderson) and one of the murder victims, and there is a pointed exchange between Tod and a character called "Jeannie" (Barbara Shelley) which lacks a preface. They talk about Tod's real reasons for going with the posse in pursuit of the murderers, but what's not shown is Tod's previous conversation with Hank Saxon (Steve Cochran) about the need to find and kill the murders. It's only briefly mentioned, and then Jeannie disappears.
I suspect that the central message seems muddled because Silliphant, or whoever edited his teleplay, started out to make a statement about vengeance, then wound up downplaying the vengeful eagerness of Saxon to kill the murderers himself rather than bring them back for trial. The Sheriff (James Brown) alludes to that bloodlust, but, as Tod discovers, Cochran has other motives for wanting to kill the criminals. His desire for revenge is only a sham, but one that's accepted by the rest of the posse. The General also appears eager to shoot the criminals first and question them later, but he at least displays a bit of reserve and a brief willingness to take them alive. His violent intentions are more rational and public-spirited than Saxon's, but still vengeful.
Tod's big revelation at episode's end is, as presented, overwrought and out of proportion. He's appalled by the chaotic violence the murderers inflict in the opening sequence but even more appalled that "law and order" can only respond with vengeance and, thus, more violence. He sees that "an eye for an eye" can only lead to blindness, as they say. Unfortunately, it's an anti-vengeance (not so much anti-violence) message that's not very well conveyed in this episode.
And what's with the dog? They greyhound tie-in isn't very effective either.
Main Street (2010)
MAIN STREET'S "Durham, N.C." ain't Durham, N.C.
I gather that Horton Foote chose Durham, N.C., as the setting for his MAIN STREET screenplay because of its symbolic value as a city that has undergone substantial changes in its economy in the past half-century, and he wanted to write about people trying to deal with change being imposed on them. I am not going to comment on the overall quality of the film here, except to say that, given the anemic screenplay, the reputable cast seems flat and largely listless, as if they realized once the shooting started just how bad the script was.
No, what I want to address is the portrayal of my hometown, to which I chose to move and in which I have lived for the past twenty-five years. At the risk of sounding like Joe the Civic Booster, the city of Durham portrayed in MAIN STREET bears only faint, surface resemblance to the actual place. Anyone who manages to sit through this movie should NOT think they've learned much about the actual Durham. For one thing, Durham is not a small town but a city of more than 200,000 residents, part of a larger metropolitan area (Wake, Durham, and Orange counties) exceeding 2 million.
Yes, downtown Durham is struggling. It was struggling before the Great Recession and it continues to struggle with reinvigorating itself as a vital city center. It needs more retail businesses, more reasons for the suburban middle-class to come downtown and enjoy the urban ambiance. In that respect, it's hardly alone among U.S. cities, small and large. Other parts of Durham notably, the older working class neighborhoods within a mile or so of downtown also are hurting.
The downtown area is only part of the city. Moreover, downtown Durham has snapped back in the past few years. At least as far back as the early 1980s, old tobacco industry structures in the inner city were being rehabbed. Durham held its last tobacco market (where farmers would auction off their crop) in 1986, and the huge American Tobacco complex closed the following year. By 2001, the last cigarette plant in the city (Liggett Group) had gone. In the past decade, despite a slow start and the general downturn of the U.S. economy, many downtown buildings have been renovated and repurposed as residential, office, and retail spaces, or are in the process. The old tobacco warehouse district has become the Durham Central Park, and there is a growing bar and restaurant scene downtown.
Downtown Durham also is the site of much new construction over the past two decades, including the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, the Durham Performing Arts Center, the new urban transit center and a new Durham County legal complex. There's a big, modern Marriott hotel and convention center there, too, rather than the seedy little hotel in which Gus LeRoy stayed in the film. New, privately funded construction has complemented the new public structures, as well as refurbished buildings that originated in the early 20th century and before (such as the Carolina Theater, where MAIN STREET was shown here).
As I said, downtown is only part of Durham. MAIN STREET makes no mention of Durham's two thriving universities. Duke, with its world-class medical center, is the city's largest employer. N.C. Central University is regarded as a leader among the nation's historically black state universities. (Harris Parker, the cop in MAIN STREET, could have been attending NCCU's School of Law, one of six university law schools in North Carolina and the only one where a student can earn a law degree at night while working his or her day job.) The film also makes no mention of Research Triangle Park, which since the 1960s has been providing jobs for thousands of residents of Durham and other nearby counties at such employers as GlaxoSmithKline, Cisco, Merck, BASF, Intel, and the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, as well as at IBM's largest U.S. operation. The city has numerous suburban residential developments and shopping areas as well as several well-preserved old neighborhoods and commercial districts closer to downtown.
Durham is well-integrated into the metropolitan area known as the Research Triangle. Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Cary, Carrboro, UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State University are indeed nice places for Durham residents to visit -- as well as places where many of them work --and relatively easy to get to. I missed MAIN STREET when it opened in Durham, but I caught it at a theater in Cary, an easy thirty-minute drive from my Durham home.
Please I know I sound like a Chamber of Commerce flack (which I am not), but Durham is NOT some isolated urban hellhole full of desperate, blue-collar types and faded aristocrats lamenting the passing of the city's tobacco heyday and wondering where their next job is coming from. Unfortunately, there are several other small cities and towns in North Carolina that resemble the Durham of MAIN STREET, places whose former textile and furniture mills have gone overseas and left downtowns devastated, hungry for industry and development. Durham is always after new companies and more jobs as well especially in the current economy but, again, it only vaguely resembles the city depicted in MAIN STREET. And, believe me, if Gus LeRoy came to town proposing to truck "hazardous waste" from Louisiana to Texas via Durham (?), the public outcry would be deafening.
Brownlow and Gill Do It Again!
This IS a good documentary, about an elementary figure in the history of cinema. Any student of the motion picture, or of American culture, would do well to view it.
However, the main reason I'm posting is to comment on an observation by one of the reviewers here regarding the reputation of Abraham Lincoln in the American South. In THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) and in his later ABRAHAM LINCOLN (1930), Griffith echoed the prevailing view among white Southerners in 1865 (the year the Civil War ended) that Lincoln would exact no vengeance on the former Confederacy and would administer a gentle peace. Lincoln's assassination was viewed by many Southerners, certainly in hindsight, as a tragedy for the South, because Lincoln's successor lacked the political clout and popular support to hold vindictive "Radical Republicans" in check. Had Lincoln lived, many Southerners believed, the years of Reconstruction would have been a lot more productive (for whites, at least). Lincoln was certainly no "hero" to most white Southerners during the Civil War itself -- his election in November 1860 was the event that sparked secession and the Civil War -- but after 1865, white Southerners adopted the "martyred" Lincoln as the Hero Who Would Have Saved the White South, and that's the way Griffith portrayed him in his films.
This Is Not a Robbery (2008)
Amusing and sad
At the age of 86, J.L.H. "Red" Rountree decided to embark on a post-retirement career. He started robbing banks, in 1998. After his first robbery, in Biloxi, Mississippi, Rountree was arrested, found guilty, and -- largely due to his age -- was sentenced to probation and told to leave Mississippi. He moved to the Alabama coastal area, and the following year he robbed another bank, in Pensacola, Florida. This time the sentence was tougher. He spent part of a three-year sentence in a Florida correctional institution before being released again. Returning to his native Texas, Rountree began roaming the state and was arrested again after a bank holdup in Abilene in 2002. This time, he pleaded guilty and received a sentence of twelve years in a federal lockup in Springfield, Missouri. Rountree was just a couple of months short of his 92nd birthday, making him the oldest known bank robber in the country. He died in federal custody on Oct.12, 2004, at age 93.
The story of Red Rountree's unusual life is related in great detail in THIS IS NOT A ROBBERY, a documentary that draws on some cartoonishly recreated footage, as well as news archival video, photos, and the expected talking heads. The directors -- Lucas Jansen, Adam Kurland, and Spencer Vrooman -- also make good use of of audio and video interviews done with Rountree in prison. It's a bit surprising that so many people who knew Rountree (including his second wife)-- and who seem to have loved and respected the man -- were willing to talk about him in front of the camera.
The portrait they paint of Rountree is of a largely self-made man who came out of rural Texas to make for himself and his family a very comfortable life in Houston. But, as one person puts it, "he lived too long." After selling one thriving business, Rountree lost most of HIS money in another enterprise. Personal tragedies also darkened his life, and by the time he was in his 80s, he was in desperate straits. And then he discovered, as he said, that "robbin' banks is fun!" The makers of this is not a robbery walk a fine line between "ain't them old geezers cute" comedy and a real human tragedy. They aren't always successful in remaining balanced, but rarely are they very offensive in telling Red's story. In his defense, one can admire the man's refusal to make excuses for himself, as well as the fact that he never armed himself or threatened harm to anyone during his robberies. THIS IS NOT A ROBBERY is also a reminder that every person, no matter how mundane their life might seem, has a story to tell.
First of all, Xaviera Hollander is NOT in this film. She was a hot commodity in popular culture in the early 1970s, having recently published THE HAPPY HOOKER, and her image and pronouncements about sexual freedom were feeding the media's newly liberated interest in libidinous matters. The producers of this film apparently thought they could safely use Ms. Hollander's name without fear of libel or other legal action, and so far as I know they got away with it. A character named "Xaviera Hollander" is played by Samantha McLaren ("McClearn" in the on-screen credits).
I recently got to watch the hardcore version of THE LIFE AND TIMES OF XAVIERA HOLLANDER about thirty-five years after seeing it in a theater in north Florida. In 1975, the legal authorities there considered hardcore porn as out of step with "community standards" and didn't allow it to be exhibited, so the version that I (and several hundred other community degenerates -- the downtown theater was packed!) got to see then was optically censored -- i.e., in the long shots, close-ups of Samantha were inserted over the offending portion of the larger image, and I assume that certain hardcore closeups were eliminated altogether. So there were no images of penises or contact involving the male organ. (The hardcore DVD version I saw, from Video-X-Pix, has a couple of these "censored" shots in the early limousine sequence.) That's also why the narration by Xaviera laps over into the sex scenes -- while you're watching the sexual performers doin' the nasty, she's pontificating offscreen about why married men cheat on their wives and the joys of oral sex. In the censored version, she was saying these things on camera as her image obscured the really graphic moments.
By the standards of contemporary adult films, the sex scenes in THE LIFE AND TIMES OF XAVIERA HOLLANDER, while frequent, are rather tame and poorly directed. The film's single "girl-girl" scene seems to have been lit entirely by a fireplace, and the lighting in some other scenes is about as murky and "artistic." I don't doubt that porn can be artful, but as the late critic Jim Holliday used to say, porn films are first and foremost about people having sex. There is also a paucity of close-ups; most of the scenes are filmed in long shots. The filmmakers (who seem to have adopted the film's X-rating on their own, without consulting the MPAA) apparently wanted to make a hardcore film that wasn't too graphic and could easily be re-edited to qualify for an R-rating and wider theatrical release. That wasn't unusual during the 1970s -- the first decade of legal hardcore porn in the United States -- but it certainly lessens the erotic impact.
The film's "Xaviera Hollander" character makes no references to the real Happy Hooker's life. (For one thing, she's an all-American gal, not Dutch.) She simply goes through a series of sex scenes and, supposedly, a transition from schoolgirl to successful madam. McLaren was a reasonably attractive woman by the standards of '70s porn, and she seems to perform exuberantly. Most of the other women in the film appear only a single scene, and while pleasant looking, they don't appear especially interested. The leading men are mostly stalwarts of early '70s California porn, including Rick Cassidy, Ric Lutze, and a young John Holmes, who is almost unrecognizable save for his extraordinary male appendage. (I firmly believe that special lenses and tiny women made it look larger than life!) So whatever happened to Ms. McLaren? She made only one other film that I know of, and then seems to have disappeared from both adult movies and the mainstream.
Interestingly, the producer/director of this film, Larry G. Spangler, apparently had never made a sex film before and never would again. He came out of the ranks of low-budget exploitation movies -- notably, THE LEGEND OF NEGRO CHARLEY(1972) (the IMDb site won't accept this review if I write down the accurate title that IMDb itself has listed) and two more Fred Williamson westerns -- and would go on to produce some more mainstream stuff, like CHANEL SOLITAIRE (1981). One wonders if the legal hassles over this kind of movie led him to avoid future porn film enterprises.
So -- don't go looking for THE LIFE AND TIMES OF XAVIERA HOLLANDER thinking you're going to get to see the Happy Hooker doin' it on-screen. And unless you are just really into retroporn, you're not going to find this film either very arousing or entertaining. It's a relic of its time, when Hollywood was still wondering if porn films were going to go mainstream. Thanks to the conservative legal atmosphere of the Nixon era (the Sexual Counter-Revolution spawned by the Republican Party and the Religious Right was well underway), that didn't happen. And, thanks to the technological revolution in the entertainment industry brought about by the VCR, porn films wound up finding their own comfortable niche in American pop culture. But there are better ones this this, even vintage c.1974.
Conventional Wartime Film, with little war
First, I'll confess that I didn't see the first few minutes of THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT A SOLDIER, because of a timing error with my DVR. (I hope TCM will run it again sometime.) What I did see was a fairly conventional Hollywood wartime confection, though more reminiscent of the "preparedness" films made in 1941 or 1942 than most other Hollywood war movies released in 1943.
There's little if any combat in this film. It's set in a stateside training camp and focuses on a group of non-commissioned officers who are training to become second lieutenants in the Army's antiaircraft units, then part of what was called the Coast Artillery Corps. There is an unusual amount of technical information in the film about the Army's principal antiaircraft guns, for military buffs, as well as scenes of classroom and field training.
The personal story focuses on two of the soldiers: Wally Williams (Tom Neal) -- young, cocky, relatively new to the Army -- and Frank Molloy (Bruce Bennett), an older soldier and a combat veteran of the 1942-43 North Africa campaign. Molloy carries the memory of losing a close friend, Capt. Harkness, in combat, and it just so happens that Carol Harkness (Evelyn Keyes), the dead friend's sister, has gone to work for the Army at Frank's training camp. Carol also catches Wally's eye, and a rivalry over her develops quickly. In the classroom, Wally is a math whiz, but he refuses to help Frank and other officer candidates who are struggling with the numbers. Eventually, Wally comes to appreciate the relationship between Frank and Carol, but goes too far in trying to help Frank pass the course and get his commission. It's a conventional triangle story that had been used many times before and would be employed many times afterward by various filmmakers.
This was a low-budget quickie by Columbia, with a sizable cast but just a few minimal sets. Much of the film was shot, apparently, at Camp Davis, N.C., the Army's principal antiaircraft school at that time; but it's evident that the second-unit location photography was used to provide rear-projection backgrounds for the main actors on a Columbia soundstage. It's not an awful film, but it contains nothing that military movie buffs haven't seen before, save for the focus on antiaircraft guns. Neal is appropriately annoying in his self-centered behavior, and Bennett is suitably stoic (actually, kind of wooden -- he was much better in later films like MILDRED PIERCE and THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE). Evelyn Keyes -- probably best-known as Suellen O'Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND -- was a lovely actress and quite credible here. If you look quickly, you also can see the youthful Shelley Winters in her first film, and LEAVE IT TO BEAVER fans will enjoy seeing Hugh Beaumont as a hard-nosed training officer.
All in all, THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT A SOLDIER is a conventional wartime programmer. Military buffs and completists, as well as fans of the principals, may enjoy it, but all in all, it's not a memorable movie.
The Strawberry Statement (1970)
Two-faced artifact of the times
The review by "kellyadmirer" is pretty spot-on regarding THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT. It is not hard to perceive -- or ridicule -- both the naiveté and the shallow thinking of many '60s radicals from the perspective of 40 years later, but naive and shallow they were. For the first 90 minutes or so of THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT, screenwriter Israel Horovitz and director Stuart Hagmann were able to perceive that naiveté and shallowness at roughly the time it was happening -- and gently satirized it. In the last 20 minutes or so, however, they change course about 150 degrees and, suddenly, the student "revolutionaries" become martyrs, victims of The Establishment and its brutal police lackeys.
I've never read James Kunen's book, on which the film is based, but I recall having little sympathy for the Colombia University students whose attempted takeover of that institution in the spring of 1968 is the basis for THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT. I entered college the following year, but I thought of myself as an educational consumer rather than an owner or investor in the institution I attended. If I didn't like the fact that the university was doing military/defense research or offering ROTC classes, I could always go to school elsewhere. The students were transients; the trustees, faculty and staff (and in the case of the state university I attended, all of the citizens who supported it) were the ones with the long-term interests of the school at heart. Students who called for "strikes" to protest policies they didn't like were playing at being proletarians. Hell, I was in school to get out of the working class.
I guess my antipathy to most student protests of this ilk (as opposed to anti-war statements and demonstrations that respected the rights of the non-political or apolitical members of the university community) may have blinded me to the satirical edge of THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT when I first saw it at the end of my freshman year. The national traumas of the 1968 Chicago convention riots (in which Mayor Daley's police definitely over-reacted to largely peaceful protesters) and the Kent State shootings of May 1970 were still fresh when this film arrived in theaters. That may have led Horovitz and Hagmann to add the climactic scene of the film (which changes the tone drastically) for the sake of timeliness. Of course, the contrast between the preceding 90 minutes of idealism and pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric with the stark reality of the last 20 minutes may have been the filmmakers' point -- but if so, they do a lousy job in setting up the ending. The sudden radicalization of Simon is pretty hard to believe, and the film ends ambiguously, as though Horovitz and Hagmann are afraid to come down on one side or the other.
Up until that transitory moment of radicalization, however, THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT contains some shrewdly observed scenes. The obsessive horniness in the midst of "revolution," the verbal masturbation of the student politicos, the "non-violent" radicals' fascination with violence, and the resentment of the working class cops toward the "privileged" college students are well-portrayed. But the need for a big, dramatic and yes, violent climax really undercuts the subtlety of most of the film. Too bad, because it reduces THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT almost to the level of cliché.
For Hollywood filmmakers -- concerned mainly with attracting the college-age population that most obsessively went to the movies -- portraying "the Sixties" meant depicting the "counterculture" and ignoring the fact that most Americans weren't a part of it. THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT is a movie about a rather small, if heavily publicized, slice of The Sixties -- and a rather wishy-washy film for all the sly humor that promises so much for the first 90 minutes, and then falters.
He Was Her Man (1934)
Mainly for Cagney/Blondell fans, but not bad
This was Cagney's and Blondell's last film together, as well as the last film for each released prior to the onset of the Production Code Administration (the "Hays Office"). It's mainly of interest to admirers of these two justly celebrated screen stars, mainly because of the downbeat story and characterizations.
Warner Brothers apparently didn't think much of HE WAS HER MAN (lousy title) and wasn't interested in spending much money on developing it. Despite the presence of two of their biggest stars, this film has the look and feel of a "B" picture, as evidenced by its 70 minute running time. Cagney apparently didn't like the film either. The awful haircut he wore in his previous film, JIMMY THE GENT, and the mustache sported by Flicker Hayes in this film, were symbols of Cagney's increasing dissatisfaction with the roles he was getting, though it would be another year or so before he would try to break his Warner Brothers contract.
The film's premise is promising. Career safecracker Flicker Hayes (Cagney) double-crosses a couple of fellow criminals after they frame him for another job. In the double-cross, one of the hoods kills a New York cop and is sentenced to die in the electric chair. Flicker flees to San Francisco, seeking a hide-out. A small-time Frisco hood, Pop Sims (Frank Craven), fingers Flicker for the New York mob. Two gunmen, J.C. (Harold Huber) and Monk (Russell Hopton), head for California to take care of Flicker.
Meanwhile, Flicker (now calling himself "Jerry Allen") meets Rose (Blondell), a survivor who apparently has been selling her sexual favors to various men -- one of whom, surprisingly, has now offered to marry her. (The screenwriters make much of the written marriage proposal -- this was the era when "breach of promise" was still an actionable tort in most states.) Rose, despite her immediate attraction to Jerry, is on her way to join her fiancé in his little fishing village near Frisco. Jerry is attracted to Rose, too (and it's strongly implied they have a sexual encounter just hours after meeting), but he also smells a good place to hide out, and he offers to stake her and take her by bus to her new home.
The fiancé', Nick Gardella (Victor Jory), is a salt-of-the-earth fisherman who tells Rose that her past life will be forgotten once they are wed. (There's more to Nick and Rose than the screenplay tells us, or could tell us under the censorship standards of that era. Nick met Rose "professionally." Here's a guy in his thirties, living with Mom in little, out-of-the-way Santa Avila -- and he seems pleased to marry a woman about whom he knows little save she's a prostitute?) Rose and Jerry arrive in Santa Avila and the wedding plans get underway. Jerry wants to stay and hide, but Rose is increasingly torn between Nick and her attraction to Jerry. Pop Sims follows Jerry to Santa Avila, posing as sports fisherman, to set up Jerry for the arrival of J.C. and Monk.
That's a lot of plot for such a slight film, and it gets better, but the "B" picture limitations get in the way. It would have been nice if the studio would have allowed a little more air into the story, fleshing out the characterizations -- especially the relationships among Rose, Jerry and Nick -- and expanding the film to 90 or 95 minutes. (The quick attraction between Rose and Jerry is especially sketchy and needs more time.) This could have been the much better movie that the story hints at.
Flicker/Jerry does the right thing by Rose and Nick, though apparently he pays for it with his life. (Another interesting point: Under the Production Code Authority, a movie killer had to pay for taking a life -- unless the killer is a lawman or soldier -- either by being arrested or by dying himself. We don't actually see Flicker/Jerry getting killed, and his likely assassins aren't punished. One wonders how this outcome would have been altered by the Hays Office just a short time later.) The film ends with a subdued wedding between Rose and Nick -- a happy occasion tempered by our knowledge of Flicker's apparent fate.
Fans of Cagney/Blondell will find both actors dialing back their usual exuberance/perkiness in this film and playing characters who are more like real people than in many of their other early Warners' films. Jory tries to be a little too ethnic, but he effectively portrays Nick's essential kindness and decency. Huber and Hopton, as the gunmen, are surprisingly human, as is James Eagle(s) in a small role as their driver. Sarah Padden, as Nick's mother, is a bit over the top but charming, and it's interesting to hear John Qualen in a small role sans his trademark Scandinavian accent. Frank Craven's Sims is an interesting character too -- sinister but folksy. The dependable Lloyd Bacon directs with his usual understated style but should have made more of the exotic isolation of "Santa Avila."
To summarize: HE WAS HER MAN is an unusual Warner Brothers film of the period, made as Hollywood was feeling the heat from the Legion of Decency and other pressure groups that would lead to the institution of the Production Code Administration in mid-1934. It's of interest mainly for Cagney and Blondell fans who want to see them in quieter roles that sharply contrast with their usual energy. Outside those contexts, though, I doubt you'll be favorably impressed.
(Does anyone know if this film, or plot, was ever remade? Seems like something that Warners would use again, though I can imagine if they did so before 1945 they would have brightened it up considerably. One can imagine RKO doing something nicely noirish with the same story c.1948.)
P.S. -- A "C" from the Legion of Decency? Not according to the listing of such "C" films in Wikipedia. What was its rating?
Marine Raiders (1944)
Undistinguished wartime combat film
MARINE RAIDERS is a rather ordinary example of the type of war film that Hollywood turned out in the period 1943-44, as movie makers had more opportunities to see actual combat film footage and to avail themselves of the experiences of combat veterans. RKO apparently developed the opportunity to film scenes of U.S. Marines training at newly established bases in southern California and built a story around the "glamour" of the new Marine Raider and Marine Parachute battalions that fought on Guadalcanal. There are only two major combat sequences -- a facsimile of the Battle of Bloody Ridge on Guadalcanal in September, 1942, that opens the movie, and the concluding sequence based on the Bougainville landing in November, 1943. The combat scenes (except for a brief air attack sequence) were filmed in the studio, skillfully mixing staged shots with miniatures and actual combat footage. If they remind you of film noir, remember that RKO pioneered in the style because the shadowy lighting could hide, somewhat, the cheapness of the sets and special effects.
The script is conventional and not well-focused. We're supposed to believe that Lockhart (Pat O'Brien) and Craig (Robert Ryan) are old friends, but there's no indication of that early in the film, at least until Craig starts to lose his command composure after one of his officers is tortured and mutilated by the Japanese. Later in the film, the higher-ranking Lockhart officially intervenes to prevent Craig from marrying an Australian woman (Ruth Hussey) he's only just met. That act, of course, creates the tension between Lockhart and Craig that the film tries to sustain until the concluding combat sequence. Craig's "hatred" for the Japanese, which is supposed to make him a liability for a command, is never really explored. Given the general high level of anti-Japanese feeling engendered in most Hollywood movies of this era (as opposed to strong anti-Nazi -- rather than anti-German -- feeling displayed in the same years), Ryan's "hatred" doesn't seem especially unusual. It's more a MacGuffin than an engaging character development.
Likewise, the relationship between Craig and Ellen is a little difficult to believe. Certainly there were many whirlwind courtships and short engagements among World War II servicemen, but here are two fairly mature adults who decide to marry within 24 hours of first meeting. I didn't buy it, nor did I buy the rapid reunion later in the film.
There are some out-of-the-ordinary moments in MARINE RAIDERS. In the middle of the film is an air-raid sequence that features some very complex shots -- Craig and Ellen sheltering in a shallow trench, as an antiaircraft gun blazes away behind them, and fighter planes take off over the gun, zooming toward the camera as bombs burst around them. These must have been difficult to pull off, and they are striking compared to the rather pedestrian combat sequences in the rest of the film.
It's also interesting to see at least a little attention paid to wartime women as more than just attractive movie props. At one point, Craig counsels another Marine -- reluctant to marry while the war is still going on -- to remember that "the girls are in this war too" and that he should consider his fiancée's needs. There is a brief comic sequence involving Women Marines. And Ellen's closing speech, which could have been echoed by millions of Allied women of that time, is genuinely moving.
In sum: Essential if you're a war movie buff, but even for such fans like me, its a mediocre film of the genre.
P.S.: Ironically, for all the ink and celluloid they generated early in the war, the newly formed U.S. Marine Raider and Parachute battalions were not popular with Marine brass, who wanted to build large, division-sized formations to crush the big Pacific targets instead of pricking them with hit-and-run raids. The "Paramarines" never made a combat jump during the war (despite what one sees in this movie) and were disbanded in December 1943. The four Marine Raider battalions were disbanded in January 1944, about six months before this film was released. Their officers and men would continue to fight in other Marine units, however, and the Raider's enviable combat legacy -- Tulagi and Guadalcanal, Makin, New Georgia, Choiseul, Bougainville -- remains a proud chapter of USMC lore.
Good concept but disappointing in execution
I had looked forward to seeing this film, and I wanted to like it more than I eventually did (after three viewings on DVD, two with commentaries.). "C.S.A." is a great idea for a movie, and some of it is well-executed, but the lack of production funds and thorough thoughtfulness do show after repeated viewings. The film also suffers from trying to cover too much territory in too little time, and from a stifling sense of political correctness. The basic idea of "C.S.A." is to put black slavery and white supremacy into a modern context. It's a worthy idea, and some of the movie e.g., the TV commercials and the hilarious D.W. Griffith parody do that very well. But it's the getting to the 21st century that poses problems for writer/director David Willmott and company.
One can argue that no author is bound to all actual facts in any piece of "alternative history" literature, and obviously Willmott tried to portray a plausible series of developments that (1) lead to a Confederate victory in the "War of Northern Aggression," and a complete takeover of the United States by the Confederate government, followed by (2) the continued development of slavery and institutionalized racism to the present day. Willmott no doubt would argue that his portrayal of an American nation that is imperially minded, militarily aggressive, and celebrates above all a white, Christian, male-dominated culture is quite valid, since much of the actual history of the United States since 1865 has chronicled those very developments. But a counterargument is equally valid that is, that other factors have led to development of strong American movements that effectively countered imperialism, military adventurism, and racism/sexism/religious preference. One also wonders whether a deliberately decentralized national government would have been capable of the imperialistic and military expeditions portrayed in the film, or the quasi-fascist policies implied. (The Confederacy lost the Civil War, in large part, because the centralized Union government was better organized than the "states' rights" government of the South.) There are numerous other historical holes in the overall premise of "C.S.A." that undercut the principal theme of the primacy of racism in American culture.
(Being from North Carolina, I'll admit I was a little put off by Willmott's DVD commentary references to "Charlotte, South Carolina," when the photos he was referring to were of the ruins of Columbia, S.C. Sherman didn't make it to Charlotte, N.C. In fact, the DVD commentaries wound up making me more critical of the film than I would have been without them.)
Willmott's is not only a dark view of an alternative America but a rather skewed view of America as it is. "C.S.A." is obviously concocted to portray a country in which today's so-called "conservatives" especially the "religious right" would feel very comfortable, though there are some anomalies portrayed (e.g., the apparently ready availability of internet pornography in a society in which the conservative Christian-dominated government seems to exercise significant -- if not outright -- control over the media). It is a view of the United States in which everything is formed and measured by race. Willmot, like some other "progressive" historians, makes the mistake of emphasizing all the contemporary evidence of America's past racial wrongheadedness while seldom acknowledging that the country has indeed changed since 1865. This mindset, while understandably intended to discredit the presentation of American history as patriotic indoctrination, overly downplays the culture's capacities for self-criticism (like Willmott's) and correction.
I know it isn't fair to insist that Willmott should have made another film, but I do wish he'd downplayed the "history" and made a "contemporary" mockumentary --say, about the proposed "Emancipation Act of 2010" or some such other fictional development in American race relations, or even some relatively innocuous aspect of American society that made only subtle allusions to how the current racial situation developed. Such a film might have had more impact. (Take a look at "White Man's Burden" -- not a great film, but an effective presentation of the kind of alternate universe I'm talking about.)
As it is, "C.S.A." has some powerful and evocative moments. The Confederate States of America, for all the claims of its apologists, was a nation conceived in racism and slavery. Its defeat in the Civil War changed the United States of America for the better, though "the better" has been slow in coming and has yet to completely arrive. Willmott, commendably, wanted to show just how inhumane a slavery-based society like the C.S.A. could be, but his "alternative" take on history just doesn't ring true, as presented.