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The Pacific: Basilone (2010)
Impressive sequences amidst a slightly unsatisfying whole
Guadalcanal, October 1942. Having been abandoned by the Navy in August after its disastrous engagement with the Japanese soon after the landings, the 1st Marine Division have been defending the area around Henderson Field for two months. The tropical conditions are taking their toll in the form of malaria and dysentery, a situation compounded by near starvation due to the Navy's inability to re-supply them.
Meanwhile, the Japanese have been pouring troops onto the island in preparation for a counter attack to recapture their airfield, while their Navy and Air Force bombard the Marines' positions by night and day.
This episode focuses mainly on John Basilone's unit where the previous one largely followed Robert Leckie. Once again there are both positives and negatives here.
The good stuff - the naval artillery barrage and its aftermath, the raiding of the army reinforcements supplies and especially the battle of 24/25 October, where Basilone almost single handedly holds off the fierce onslaught by overwhelming Japanese forces are all expertly handled. The battle scene in particular is ferocious, chaotic and terrifying. The acting all round is very solid, even though some of the secondary characters are given too little to do. Most noteworthy is probably William Sadler, who as Col.Chesty Puller radiates real charisma.
However, all this is to some degree undermined by the rest of the episode. Once again, the running time is the major factor that adversely affects everything else. It's simply too short (43 minutes of actual drama this time) to satisfactorily convey everything that the creators are trying to cover. This results in minimal character development (something that the series' detractors have levelled at it continuously), narrow focus, no real sense of the sustained nature of the barrages and air raids, or any true feeling of how protracted and miserable the campaign for Guadalcanal was for the Marines.
I really don't want to compare this series to 'Band Of Brothers' as they're two very different beasts. However, to illustrate my point above consider the following :- The Bastogne episodes of that series covered approximately one month of combat, and were afforded over two hours of actual drama. The viewer got a real sense of the passage of time and the Paratroopers' suffering.
In 'The Pacific', Guadalcanal gets around 70 minutes over two episodes, covering a campaign which lasted four months for the Marines. It almost feels like 'bite size chunks' of Guadalcanal, so much so that when Lt. Corrigan announces to Leckie's group that they're leaving, my reaction was "Oh, is that it?". Imagine what they could have done with another hour of footage over the two episodes...
I'm left scratching my head as to why the creators didn't round out their portrayal of Guadalcanal far more, especially as it comes at the start of the series where you'd think they would really want to impress and grab their audience. As it stands, I'm sure the casual viewer would be quite confused and ambivalent by this point. Surely with a budget for the series of $200 million it couldn't be financial considerations? Also, HBO have always seemed to operate a policy of letting each instalment of these type of projects take as long as they require, unconstrained as they are by the strict time limitations of US network television. Whatever the reasons, it's very frustrating for, as with Episode One, the best of the footage that has made it to the screen is visceral, brutal and uncompromising.
The Pacific: Guadalcanal/Leckie (2010)
A promising, if somewhat flawed start.
From Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Dreamworks and HBO comes 'The Pacific', a ten part $200 million mini series which follows the loosely intertwined stories of three US 1st Division Marines through each campaign that the division was engaged in during the Pacific War.
Episode one opens with archive newsreel footage of Pearl Harbor narrated over by Tom Hanks, giving a basic outline of the advance of Japan across the Pacific through 1942, interspersed with present day interviews with surviving veterans.
This leads into the opening credits, and from there to Dec. 1941, introducing us briefly to Robert Leckie, John Basilone and Eugene Sledge. We then jump abruptly to August 1942 off the coast of Guadalcanal, where the 1st Marine Division are preparing to engage the Japanese for the first time.
Coming as it does from the same creative team that brought us 'Band Of Brothers', and billed as a companion piece to that series, 'The Pacific' has an almost impossible act to follow. Having now watched the series twice in its entirety, my impressions of the opening episode remain largely unchanged. The historical background is quite useful, especially so for the casual viewer. The credits and music are suitably stylish and reverential. Everything production wise - cinematography, production design, special effects, sound design etc. - is beyond reproach, looking every bit like the big budget Hollywood war film that it basically is. The night time battle scenes are realistically chaotic and well orchestrated.
However, beyond this the episode has its problems. Many people, myself included, feel that for an opening to a series such as this it's far too short. The actual filmed drama accounts for only 45 minutes of the 55 minute running time. This leaves everything feeling rushed and rather choppy. No sooner are we introduced to the main characters than suddenly we're thrown straight into Guadalcanal, having had no time to become familiar with them or the supporting cast. The acting that we do witness is absolutely fine, as is the writing and direction. Some scenes have a real emotional punch, such as the discovery of the mutilated bodies of the Marine scouts in the jungle and the aftermath of the Battle of the Tenaru at Alligator creek. It's just that everything feels somewhat disjointed and unfocused due to the editing.
By the end of the episode we have no proper context or sense of scale to the events we have witnessed, and very little in the way of character development thus far.
Admittedly this all sounds rather negative, which is unfortunate. However, I must stress that the footage which has actually made it to the episode is very good. It would have been even better with an additional 20-30 minutes of material, which would have afforded some decent character development, perhaps more context, and generally a better flow and sense of the passage of time on Guadalcanal. By the end of the episode, when the 7th Marines arrive, Leckie's company have been on the island for over a month, but we get no sense of this. Even some title cards or narration would have helped in this respect (devices that were used to good effect in BoB), but we get nothing.
If you're reading this without yet having seen the series, don't let my criticisms put you off. There is still much here to admire and recommend. Despite its shortcomings in some aspects, what remains is fairly compelling viewing, and on balance is a promising start which whets the appetite for the rest of the series.
The Night of the Generals (1967)
Worth a look, but ultimately disappointing.
Warsaw, December 1942. When a prostitute is savagely murdered, German Intelligence Officer Major Grau is called to investigate. An eyewitness who caught a glimpse of the perpetrator through a crack in a door, reveals that the killer wore grey trousers with a red stripe down the side - the uniform of a Wehrmact General. Grau quickly narrows the suspects down to three men whose whereabouts on the night in question cannot be accounted for.
Having been aware of this film for many years, I finally managed to catch a rare screening of it last night on British TV. Part of my curiosity to see it was due to the sheer weight of the cast:- Omar Sharif as Major Grau, Peter O'Toole, Donald Pleasence and Charles Gray as the Generals, plus Christopher Plummer, Tom Courtenay, Philip Noiret, Gordon Jackson, John Gregson, Harry Andrews, Nigel Stock and Patrick Allen - phew! The film itself starts quite promisingly as a murder mystery and maintains the interest while based in Warsaw. It features an impressive sequence involving the flushing out of Polish Resistance fighters in the city. An interesting side-note at this point is that the armour used here appeared to be either real Tiger tanks, or pretty good replicas. This attention to detail was quite unusual for a film made in 1966. Usually, contemporary armour was used in war films of this vintage - I'm thinking particularly of 'Battle Of The Bulge', 'The Bridge At Remagen' and even 'Patton'.
However, once the scene shifts to Paris in the summer of 1944, the film starts to lose focus, meandering off on sub-plots about the Hitler assassination conspiracy and Tom Courtenay's character's love life. For long stretches Omar Sharif disappears altogether and the momentum is lost. Another distraction is the way the film jumps forward at intervals to the '60's, where we find Philip Noiret's Policeman interviewing some of the secondary characters in an attempt to solve the mystery. But by this point the killer's identity has become all too clear.
The film is by no means a total waste. It is in part an interesting study of German senior officers. The acting is good throughout, and to see stalwarts of British war films like Harry Andrews and John Gregson playing Germans is both curious and original. The script is literate, production design handsome, and the 1.78:1 presentation on ITV3 gave a tantalising glimpse of how good Henri Decae's photography would look in it's full 2.35:1 Panavision frame. But overall I was left feeling that with tighter handling regarding the killer's identity, and more emphasis on the central plot, the film could have been a far more satisfying whole.
The Crimson Pirate (1952)
Swashbuckling at its best!
In the late 18th century Caribbean a group of pirates led by Capt.Vallo become embroiled in the revolutionary activities of some islanders against the King.
That's about all the plot that you need to know, for this film doesn't concern itself with historical accuracy or the like. What it does is to place it's tongue firmly in it's cheek and take the audience on a thrilling romp in the best swashbuckling style.
Burt Lancaster plays Vallo with real gusto and exuberance, ideally suited to the all action role. He did all his own stunts, being paired on screen with his one time trapeze partner Nick Cravat as his mute sidekick. In these days of CGI overkill it's refreshing to see smartly choreographed action set pieces with real people performing breathtaking feats of agility. The support cast is filled with familiar faces from the period all giving good value in their respective roles.
The whole enterprise is lavishly mounted and shot in glorious vivid Technicolor. This was possibly one of the last of this type before Cinemascope and widescreen in general became the norm. As mentioned previously, accuracy isn't an issue here. In the finale we encounter prototypes of Gatlin guns, tanks and flamethrowers among other things!
I hadn't seen this since childhood, so I took the opportunity of catching it on the BBC at the weekend. With 'Pirates Of The Caribbean' still relatively fresh in my mind, it seemed appropriate to revisit this old classic. I'm happy to say that it's lost none of its appeal, quite the opposite in fact. Rollicking good fun - recommended.
This refers to the extended DVD version.
When young nobleman Robin of Locksley returns home from the crusades, he finds that his father has been killed and his land stolen by the Sheriff of Nottingham. He takes refuge in Sherwood forest, where he joins up with a group of bandits. Gradually he melds them into a cohesive unit and together they attempt to overthrow the Sheriff, who plans to marry Maid Marion (King Richard the Lionheart's cousin), and thereby claim the throne of England for himself during the King's absence.
I watched this for the first time over the Easter weekend. I never had any great desire to see it on its theatrical release, and the only time that I attempted to watch it on television I gave up about half an hour in as it was so dark and murky. That was about 10 years ago, so when a friend at work offered to lend me the new DVD I gratefully accepted. To see it in digitally remastered form on 32" of flatscreen, and hooked up to a meaty amp/surround system was like watching a different film. While still dark by design and slightly gloomy in tone, overall I found it most enjoyable. Kevin Costner is fine as Robin, if a little bland, and Alan Rickman does his best pantomime villain as the Sheriff. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is a fiesty Marion and best of all is Morgan Freeman as Robin's Moorish friend Azeem, proving once again that he's one of the finest screen actors of recent years. The production is lavish, and the set pieces are thrilling and well executed. The pace and script is rather leisurely (although this version contains 12 minutes of extra footage mainly dealing with the Sheriff), but that serves to highlight the action. Finally, Michael Kamen provides a rousing score as a backdrop.
As a side note, I found the sense of geography rather amusing. Robin lands at the White Cliffs of Dover, declares that they will celebrate with his father that night (nearly 200 miles away), then sets off via Hadrian's wall in Northumbria! However, this film isn't intended as a serious historical document and such inaccuracies are easy to forgive. It's an old fashioned romp with some '90's trimmings, and viewed as such is very entertaining.
Death on the Nile (1978)
An heiress is murdered while honeymooning on a Nile cruise. Fortunately, the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is holidaying on the same paddle steamer, and begins an investigation. However, it would seem that all of the other passengers on board have clear motives for committing the murder.
This was the second of Agatha Christie's novels featuring Hercule Poirot to be filmed, after the success of 'Murder On The Orient Express' a few years earlier. The great Peter Ustinov, who so recently passed away, took on the role this time, and injected it with his own droll humour. Indeed the whole film seems rather tongue in cheek, with the all star cast having fun with their roles. Bette Davis, Maggie Smith and Jack Warden all enjoyably ham it up, but Angela Lansbury manages to outdo them all with a delightfully over the top performance as the perpetually drunk author of erotic novels. David Niven, ever the archetypal British gent, proves a good foil as Poirot's partner in the investigation.
Where the film really scores is in the locations and photography. Egypt proves a stately backdrop to proceedings and veteran Cinematographer Jack Cardiff makes the most of it. The 1930's setting also gives an air of genteel opulence to the surroundings. While the film couldn't claim to be a classic tension filled mystery, it is a pleasant, laid back and enjoyable entertainment, that's clever enough to keep you guessing until the end.
The Great Escape (1963)
A genuine timeless classic.
During World War Two the Germans build a new prison camp, Stalag Luft III, for the express purpose of housing many of their most troublesome captured Allied airmen. However, all this serves to do is to pool the resources of some of the most ingenious escape artists in captivity and fill them with a resolve to engineer a mass breakout from the camp.
Based largely on real events, this film has assumed classic status over the years and its easy to understand why. Quite simply, it excells in many departments. Director John Sturges was at the height of his creative powers and he keeps a firm grip on the proceedings. Although the film runs close to three hours it never feels sluggish, while at the same time winding up the tension gradually and developing the characters. The production design is first rate, to the point where Donald Pleasance (who had been a P.O.W.) felt quite intimidated by the vast set on his arrival. Daniel Fapp's beautiful photography shows this and the picturesque German locations off to full effect. Put these virtues together with a good script, inspired casting and a classic score by Elmer Bernstein, and you have an object lesson in how to create an intelligent and exciting big budget adventure film.
On the subject of the cast; Much is made of Steve McQueen's role. While I am a huge McQueen fan, I feel that some of the other performances are equal to, if not better than his. Richard Attenborough, James Garner, Donald Pleasance, Charles Bronson and Gordon Jackson are all excellent. Good too are James Coburn, James Donald, David McCallum and Hannes Messemer as the sympathetic Commandant.
This is one of those films that I can happily watch time and time again. In September of this year a new print was screened at the NFT in London as part of an 'Attenborough at 80' season. It was a pleasure to see this on the big screen at last. For the most part the print was in very good condition. The DVD was one of the first that I ever bought some three and a half years ago, and I watched its inevitable Christmas screening on BBC2 last night. I just never tire of it. In these days of brainless, poorly executed action fodder, its a joy to behold something that hits its targets so precisely.
Billion Dollar Brain (1967)
Not great, but with some points of interest.
When ex-agent Harry Palmer recieves a mysterious request to deliver a flask to Finland in return for a fee, Col. Ross forcibly re-employs him with British Intelligence. Palmer is ordered to proceed to Finland with the flask (which contains deadly nerve gas), in an attempt to infiltrate the organisation of Texan oil billionaire Gen. Midwinter, who is believed to be behind an anti-Soviet plot of some kind.
The third and final of the Harry Palmer films (if you don't count the two woeful straight to cable efforts of the mid-nineties) is generally considered to be the weakest. The strength of both 'The Ipcress File' and 'Funeral In Berlin' was that they were the complete antithesis of the Bond films, portraying the spying game as mundane, shadowy and unglamorous. However, with 'Billion Dollar Brain' maverick director Ken Russell presents the audience with an outlandish plot and large futuristic sets, which seem at odds with the style of its predecessors. The result is that the film appears to be aping Bond, and as such the character of Palmer is less effective.
Despite these shortcomings there are pleasures to be had. Michael Caine once again displays wit and charm as Palmer, Guy Doleman is his usual droll self as Ross and Oskar Homolka makes a very welcome return as Col. Stok. Ed Begley gives his all as the lunatic Midwinter, Karl Malden provides reliable support as an old aquaintence of Palmer, and the tragic Francois Dorleac lends an exotic mystery to her character. The snowbound Finnish locations are beautifully filmed and the production design by Bond man Syd Cain is very stylish.
Ultimately the film is let down by rather wild and undisciplined direction and a cartoonish finale. It's a shame that 'Billion Dollar Brain' strayed so far from the template of the previous films, but its by no means all bad, and can be reasonably entertaining if you're in the right mood.
633 Squadron (1964)
Rather cliched, but with definite high points.
In the spring of 1944 an RAF Mosquito Squadron are ordered to attack a German rocket fuel plant in Norway. The mission involves flying up a heavily defended fjord and bombing a cliff overhang in an attempt to bury the factory, which is built into the rock.
I bought this on DVD in a '3 for £20' offer, as I had fond memories of it from childhood, and it had been around 20 years since I last remember seeing it. I have to say that it's not nearly as good as I remembered it to be. The plot is full of cliches and there's the inevitable love interest for the lead. That said, there are points to recommend it. Cliff Robertson gives another reliable performance as the Wing Commander in charge of the squadron, and there are equally dependable turns from Harry Andrews and Donald Houston. The numerous flying sequences with the Mosquito Bombers are expertly filmed, and it's a real bonus to finally see the film in its correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The special effects aren't bad for 1964, and Ron Goodwin's famous score underpins the whole venture.
The main problem that I have with the film is that it borrows heavily from 'The Dam Busters' in terms of plot, without ever scaling the heights (no pun intended) of that classic. It may have lush Panavision photography, better effects etc., but lacks the nail biting tension and expertly constructed drama of its predecessor. However, it's perfectly acceptable entertainment, if somewhat abrupt at the end.
The Eagle Has Landed (1976)
Enjoyable adaptation of Jack Higgins' novel.
After the successful rescue of Mussolini by German Paratroopers, Col.Max Radl is asked to prepare a feasibility study on an attempt to kidnap Winston Churchill. At first this seems a preposterous idea, until a message arrives from an agent in Britain which reports that Churchill will spend a weekend in the picturesque Norfolk village of Studley Constable, which is only a few miles from a deserted stretch of coastline. A plan is formulated to drop Col.Kurt Steiner and his highly experienced unit into Norfolk to carry out the mission, aided by IRA man Liam Devlin and respected local figure Joanna Grey, who is a German agent and the source of the original message.
This film has been a personal favourite of mine since I first saw it on its TV premiere around 1979, aged 12. It is of course the screen adaptation of Jack Higgins bestseller. I must admit to never having read the book, so I can't testify how closely the film follows it. Produced by ITC in 1976, it boasts an impressive cast in Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland, Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasance and a pre-JR Larry Hagman. Veteran Hollywood Director John Sturges was at the helm - the man responsible for 'Bad Day At Black Rock', 'The Magnificent Seven' and 'The Great Escape' to name just three. The production values and technical credits are uniformally good.
As to the film itself, it remains an entertaining romp. Your interest is held throughout, and you find yourself half wanting the Germans to get away with it, as Michael Caine and his men are such decent chaps. Donald Sutherland is full of Irish charm as Devlin, Larry Hagman is intentionally funny as the incompetent Col.Clarence T.Pitts, Robert Duvall is convincing and sympathetic as Radl, and Donald Pleasance quite chilling as Himmler. Good though the film is, it might have been better. In his autobiography, Michael Caine talks about the fact that after shooting had wrapped, Sturges headed back to California and never returned for any of the editing or post production. Caine felt let down by this, for as he correctly states, a Director can do some of his most important work at this stage. However, he also remembers the shooting of the film as a very pleasurable experience. At that time he lived at Windsor, and much of the filming was done nearby on the beautiful Mapledurham Estate, during the longest, hottest summer that most of us remember.
I paid a visit to Mapledurham recently, during the fine summer that we've just enjoyed. It's instantly recognisible - the watermill, the church, the manor house, Joanna Grey's cottage - all as they appear in the film and well worth a visit. It always amuses me that the events are supposed to take place in November - a truly miserable month here - and yet its clearly mid-summer on screen.
I have one major gripe. Not with the film itself, but its availability on DVD. The UK version is to be avoided like the plague. Cursed with being distributed here by Carlton, its in 1.33:1 and worse is missing some 12 minutes of footage. The US version is at least in 2.35:1, but is still missing 3 to 4 minutes of the film. Thank heavens that I still have my complete version recorded from the BBC some 12 years ago, before they decided to cut some brief moments of violence. Its really annoying when a good film that did reasonable business at the box office gets such shoddy treatment on DVD. There really is no excuse for it.
When all is said and done, this is a good entertaining yarn and an intriguing idea (even if it does have echoes of 'Went The Day Well'). Maybe not a classic, but always good fun, professionally mounted and with some lovely locations. Give it a try if you haven't already seen it, just avoid that Region 2 DVD!