Back when I was a boy, I watched entirely too much television. Of course, who could blame me? Tempted by a luxuriant three, count them, three channels, albeit one of them fuzzy in bad weather, to choose from! However, I do not regret watching the Early Show on Channel 3. Back in those bygone days, many stations would run old movies from the thirties, forties and fifties, between 3:00 PM-5:00 PM. Thus I first experienced some of the classics of cinema, and one of my favorites was Double Indemnity, 1944, the first of the film noire genre. Adultery and murder were perhaps too mature topics for me in my initial pre-teen viewings, but I was fascinated by it because it seemed to be a playing out on screen of what I was learning at the time from The Baltimore Catechism: that sin will lead inevitably to destruction unless contrition and amendment are made. The film was fortunate to have at its center three masters of the craft of acting.
Fred MacMurray, born in Kankakee, Illinois, 37 miles from my abode, in 1907, was a good guy in real life and usually in reel life. A firm Catholic and staunch Republican, he tried to join the military after Pearl Harbor but a punctured ear drum kept him out of service. He adopted a total of four kids with his two wives: his first wife dying from cancer in 1953, and his second wife remaining his wife until his death. (Such fidelity was as rare in Hollywood then as it is now.) On screen MacMurray played to type and was almost always a good guy, but not always, and it is ironic that the two best performances of his career came when he played bad guys: weak, lustful and doomed Walter Neff in Double Indemnity and the scheming, cowardly Lieutenant Thomas Keefer in The Caine Mutiny.
Barbara Stanwyck had a Dickensian childhood from which she was lucky to emerge alive, her mother dying of a miscarriage and her father going off to work on the Panama Canal and never being heard from again. A series of foster homes followed, which Ruby Catherine Stevens, as Stanwyck was then named, constantly ran away from. Dropping out of school at 14 to begin working, she never looked back. Breaking into show business by becoming a dancer in the Ziegfield Follies at age 16, she was a star on broadway in the play Burlesque before she turned 20. Changing her name to Barbara Stanwyck, she broke into films immediately thereafter, displaying a flair for both drama and comedy, specializing in strong independent women. Her personal, as opposed to her professional, life was a mess. Married in 1928 to her Burlesque co-star Frank Fay, they adopted a son, Stanwyck having been rendered sterile by an abortion at 15. The marriage ended in divorce in 1935, Fay during the marriage often slapping Stanwyck around when he was drunk. Stanwyck got custody of their son. Stanwyck was a hovering and authoritarian mother, leading to a life long alienation from her son after he became an adult. Stanwyck married actor Robert Taylor in 1939, and, after numerous acts of infidelity on both sides, divorced in 1950. Ironically Stanwyck and Taylor did stay friends after their divorce, Stanwyck, who never remarried, referring to him as the true love of her life. In her politics Stanwyck was a staunch conservative Republican who supported the investigations of Congress into Communist infiltration into Hollywood. Remaining in demand as an actress almost until her death in 1990, she filled her last years with charitable work. Stanwyck was well equipped by her own tumultuous life to give depth to her portrayal of the murderous, scheming Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity.
Although remembered today chiefly for his gangster roles and his portrayal of the rat-like Dathan in The Ten Commandments, Edward G. Robinson was actually an actor with a very broad range of work: comedies, dramas, historical epics, you name it. By 1944 he was age 51 and realized that his days as a leading man were coming to a close. His half comedic role as the insurance claims adjuster Barton Keyes in Double Indemnity he viewed as a step in his transition to being a character actor. Always a liberal, Robinson was blacklisted in Hollywood due to his affiliation with Communist front groups. Robinson admitted as much by an article he wrote for the American Legion Magazine entitled “How the Reds Made a Sucker Out of Me”. His comeback came when anti-Communist director Cecil B. DeMille, who thought that Robinson had been treated unfairly, cast him in the scene-stealing role of Dathan in The Ten Commandments.
Spoiler alerts in regard to the following: Continue reading
The family and I went out and saw America, the latest film of Dinesh D’Souza. I enjoyed the film and found it an intriguing step in the development of a new form of conveying conservative messages. My review is below and the usual caveat as to spoilers is in effect. Continue reading
For those of you who want some patriotic movies to watch over the long Fourth of July weekend here are some suggestions for viewing. Longtime readers of this blog will see that this differs somewhat from earlier lists of top ten patriotic movies with some additions and deletions. Feel free to suggest additional movies in the comboxes.
10. National Treasure (2004)-Sure it’s cursed with a ridiculous plot involving the masons and a treasure, it is still a lot of fun and calls us back to the foundation document, the Declaration of Independence, that is the cornerstone of our Republic.
9. Hamburger Hill (1987)-Content advisory: very, very strong language in the video clip which may be viewed here. All the Vietnam veterans I’ve mentioned it to have nothing but praise for this film which depicts the assault on Hill 937 by elements of the 101rst Division, May 10-20, 1969. It is a fitting tribute to the valor of the American troops who served their country in an unpopular war a great deal better than their country served them.
8. Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)-James Cagney in perhaps the greatest film bio of them all, a salute to George M. Cohan, the legendary composer, playwright and patriot.
7. Saving Lincoln (2013)- Overshadowed by the Lincoln film of 2012, this rendition of Lincoln’s years as President is first rate.
The human cost of the War is always at the core of the film, as we see in the delivery of the Gettysburg Address where some of the members of the crowd hearing Lincoln are holding pictures of soldier relatives who have died.
Lincoln in the film comes to believe that he will die in office and accepts his fate, hoping that God will spare him until his work is accomplished.
6. Gettysburg (1993)-The movie that I think comes the closest to conveying to us the passions of the Civil War. You really can’t understand America unless you understand the Civil War. As Shelby Foote, one of the greatest historians of the war, said: “Any understanding of this nation has to be based, and I mean really based, on an understanding of the Civil War. I believe that firmly. It defined us. The Revolution did what it did. Our involvement in European wars, beginning with the First World War, did what it did. But the Civil War defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we became, good and bad things. And it is very necessary, if you are going to understand the American character in the twentieth century, to learn about this enormous catastrophe of the mid-nineteenth century. It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads.” Continue reading
Any understanding of this nation has to be based, and I mean really based, on an understanding of the Civil War. I believe that firmly. It defined us. The Revolution did what it did. Our involvement in European wars, beginning with the First World War, did what it did. But the Civil War defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we became, good and bad things. And it is very necessary, if you are going to understand the American character in the twentieth century, to learn about this enormous catastrophe of the mid-nineteenth century. It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads.
I agree with historian Shelby Foote that it is impossible to understand the United States without understanding the Civil War, and it is “therefore fitting and proper” that over the Fourth Civil War movies come to mind. This is a repeat of a post I originally did in 2011, with changes to some of the video clips.
10. Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)-We begin with a non-Civil War movie with the video clip at the beginning of this post. In 1908 English Bulter Charles Ruggles, well played by actor Charles Laughton, comes to work in the American West. It is a hilarious fish out of water comedy, as Ruggles, with his culture and British reserve comes face to face with the Wild West. While living in America, Ruggles becomes interested in American history, and becomes a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln. When he recites the Gettysburg Address, the impact on his listeners is obvious, and reminds us that for Americans the Civil War will never be a matter simply relegated to books or memory, but is something that still has a vast impact on us to this day.
9. Friendly Persuasion (1956)-Starring Gary Cooper as Jess Birdwell, the head of a Quaker family in southern Indiana during the Civil War, the film is a superb mix of drama and comedy as the Quakers have to determine whether to continue to embrace their pacifist beliefs or to take up arms against General John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate cavalry during his Great Raid of the North in June-July of 1863. When the oldest son of the Birdwell family, portrayed by Anthony Perkins in his pre-Psycho days, takes up arms, his mother, played by Dorothy McGuire is aghast, but Cooper, as Jess Birdwell, defends him. Although he remains true to his pacifist convictions, Birdwell understands that his son is acting in obedience to his conscience, and, as he tells his wife, ” A man’s life ain’t worth a hill of beans except he lives up to his own conscience.”
8. Major Dundee (1965)-Sam Pekinpah’s flawed, unfinished masterpiece, the film tells the fictional account of a mixed force of Union soldiers and Confederate prisoners who join forces to hunt and ultimately defeat an Apache raider, Sierra Charriba, in 1864-65. Charlton Heston gives an outstanding performance as Major Amos Dundee, a man battling his own personal demons of a failed military career, as he commands this Union-Confederate force through northern Mexico on the trail of the Apache, with fighting often threatening to break out between the Union and Confederate soldiers. Use of Confederate prisoners as Union soldiers in the West was not uncommon. Six Union infantry regiments of Confederate prisoners, called “Galvanized Yankees”, served in the West. The final section of the film involving a battle between Major Dundee’s force and French Lancers, the French occupying Mexico at the time, has always struck me as one of the best filmed combat sequences in any movie.
7. The Horse Soldiers (1959)-In 1959 John Ford and John Wayne, in the last of their “cavalry collaborations”, made The Horse Soldiers, a film based on Harold Sinclair’s novel of the same name published in 1956, which is a wonderful fictionalized account of Grierson’s Raid. Perhaps the most daring and successful Union cavaly raid of the war, Colonel Benjamin Grierson, a former music teacher and band leader from Jacksonville, Illinois, who, after being bitten by a horse at a young age, hated horses, led from April 17-May 2, 1863 1700 Illinois and Iowa troopers through 600 miles of Confederate territory from southern Tennessee to the Union held Baton Rouge in Louisiana. Grierson and his men ripped up railroads, burned Confederate supplies and tied down many times their number of Confederate troops and succeeded in giving Grant a valuable diversion as he began his movement against Vicksburg. John Wayne gives a fine, if surly, performance as Colonel Marlowe, the leader of the Union cavalry brigade. William Holden as a Union surgeon serves as a foil for Wayne. Constance Towers, as a captured Southern belle, supplies the obligatory Hollywood love interest. Overall the film isn’t a bad treatment of the raid, and the period. I especially appreciated two scenes. John Wayne refers to his pre-war activities as “Before this present insanity” and Constance Towers gives the following impassioned speech: Well, you Yankees and your holy principle about savin’ the Union. You’re plunderin’ pirates that’s what. Well, you think there’s no Confederate army where you’re goin’. You think our boys are asleep down here. Well, they’ll catch up to you and they’ll cut you to pieces you, you nameless, fatherless scum. I wish I could be there to see it. Continue reading
Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present Generation to preserve your Freedom! I hope you will make good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven, that I ever took half the Pains to preserve it.
This is a repeat from a post last year, with some very slight modifications, but I think the logic behind the post still holds true. As we are embroiled now in a struggle to preserve our religious liberty, I think the Fourth of July is a good time to recall the price paid to establish our liberties. It is trite to say that freedom is not free, but it is also true. A people who forget this eternal lesson will not remain free for long.
A number of feature films and miniseries have been made about the events of the American Revolution. Here are my top ten choices for Fourth of July viewing:
10. Ben and Me (1953)- Something for the younger patriots. Disney put to film the novel of Robert Lawson, Ben and Me, which related how many of Ben Franklin’s bright ideas came from his mouse Amos. Quite a bit of fun. Not a classic but certainly an overlooked gem.
9. The Crossing (2000)-A retelling of Washington’s brilliant crossing of the Delaware on Christmas 1776 and the battle of Trenton. This film would rank much higher on my list but for Jeff Daniels’ portrayal of Washington as sullen and out of sorts throughout the movie. Washington had a temper, and he could give vent to it if provoked, although he usually kept it under control, but the peevish Washington portrayed here is simply ahistoric and mars an otherwise good recreation of the turning point of the Revolution.
8. John Paul Jones (1959) Robert Stack, just before he rose to fame in the Untouchables, is grand in the role of the archetypal American sea hero. Bette Davis is absolutely unforgettable as Catherine the Great. The climactic sea battle with the Serapis is well done, especially for those pre-CGI days. The only problem with the film is that many of the details are wrong. This is forgivable to a certain extent since scholarship on Jones was badly skewed by Augustus Buell in a two-volume “scholarly biography” which appeared in 1900. Buell was a charlatan who made up many incidents about Jones and then invented sources to support his fabrications. Buell was not completely exposed until Samuel Eliot Morison, Harvard professor of history, and an Admiral in the Navy, wrote his definitive biography of Jones. Here is a list of the fabrications of Buell compiled by Morison. Morison’s book appeared after the movie, which is to be regretted.
7. The Patriot (2000) Finally, a film which depicts the unsung contribution of Australians to victory in the American Revolution! Actually not too bad of a film overall. Heath Ledger is quite good as Gibson’s oldest son who joins the Continentals at the beginning of the war against his father’s wishes. Jason Isaacs is snarlingly good as the evil Colonel Tavington, very loosely based on Banastre Tarleton, commander of Tarleton’s Raiders during the Southern Campaign. The film of course allows Gibson to carry on his over-the-top vendetta against all things English. No, the British did not lock up American civilians in churches and burn them alive. However, the ferocity of the partisan fighting in the South is well depicted, and Banastre Tarleton at the Waxhaw Massacre earned a reputation for slaughtering men attempting to surrender. The final battle of the film is based on the battle of Cowpens where General Daniel Morgan decisively defeated Tarleton.
6. Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)-A John Ford classic starring Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert. Through the eyes of a young newlywed couple, Fonda and Colbert, the American Revolution on the frontier is depicted in the strategic Mohawk Valley. Full of the usual Ford touches of heroism, humor and ordinary life. Continue reading
Not a bad list, although I would have had Patton at number one and I would not have included The Great Dictator. Shakespeare of course has set the standard for all pre-battle speeches:
WESTMORELAND. O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!
KING. What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day. Continue reading
There have been surprisingly few movies on D-Day, as indicated by the fact that three out of the five videos looked at below are from television miniseries. Here are the five best from a scarce lot:
5. Ike: The War Years (1978)
Robert Duvall as Eisenhower gives his usual riveting performance. The late Lee Remick gives a good performance as Captain Kay Summersby, the British driver/secretary assigned to Eisenhower. Unfortunately the miniseries centers around the relationship of Eisenhower and Summersby, a relationship which is subject to historical dispute.
4. Ike: Countdown to D-Day (1995)
Tom Selleck gives a very good portrayal of Eisenhower in the days leading up to D-Day. The video does a first rate job of portraying the problems that Eisenhower confronted: getting prima donnas like Montgomery and Patton to work as a part of a team, concerns about the weather, the deception campaign to convince the Nazis that Calais would be the invasion site, etc. The video also shines a light on the weight of responsibility which Eisenhower bore, especially when we see him write out a note just before the invasion taking full responsibility on his shoulders if it failed.
3. Band of Brothers (2001)
The epic miniseries covering the exploits of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne, captures well the chaos of the parachute and glider operations behind German lines that were so critical a part of the Allied victory on D-Day. Continue reading
Hard to believe that it is half a century since the film Seven Days in May (1964) was released. Directed by John Frankenheimer with a screenplay by Rod Serling based on a novel published in 1962, the movie posits a failed coup attempt in the United States, with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force General James Mattoon Scott, played by Burt Lancaster, being the would be coup leader. Kirk Douglas plays Scott’s aide Marine Corps Colonel Martin Casey who, while agreeing with Scott that President Jordan Lyman’s nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviets is a disaster, is appalled when he learns of the proposed coup, and discloses it to the President, portrayed by Frederic March.
The film is an example of liberal paranoia in the early sixties and fears on the port side of our politics of a coup by some “right wing” general. The film is unintentionally hilarious if one has served in our military, since the idea of numerous generals agreeing on a coup and keeping it secret, even from their own aides, is simply ludicrous. Our military leaks like a sieve, and general officers almost always view each other as competitors for political favor, rather than as co-conspirators.
Ironies abound when the film is compared to reality: Continue reading
Something for the weekend. One of the most powerful depictions of Christ on film from the movie Ben Hur (1959). A wonderful melding of music and dialogue as Christ goes silently to the aid of Ben Hur and gives him water. The wordless encounter between Christ and the Centurion was amazing, as the Centurion’s face registers bewilderment, shame and curiosity as he has a totally unexpected encounter with the Divine. Whatever the actor who played the Centurion was earning that day, it wasn’t nearly enough.
I mean I’d pray for myself, but I’ve never prayed—nobody ever taught me how.
Dr. Ryan Stone, Gravity
This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.
Sir Isaac Newton
Something for the weekend. The Hank Williams, Jr. tune Angels Are Hide to Find from the movie Gravity (2013). I picked up a copy of the movie Gravity, not expecting much, and assuming that I would probably quickly resell it on e-bay. Somehow I had managed to read nothing about the film. I was astonished at how much I enjoyed the film and how much it had to say about the human condition. My review is below and the usual caveat about spoilers apply. Continue reading
Something for the weekend. A musical medley from the movie Major Dundee (1965). Sam Pekinpah’s flawed, unfinished masterpiece, the film tells the fictional account of a mixed force of Union soldiers and Confederate prisoners who join forces to hunt and ultimately defeat an Apache raider, Sierra Charriba, in 1864-65. Charlton Heston gives an outstanding performance as Major Amos Dundee, a man battling his own personal demons of a failed military career, as he commands this Union-Confederate force through northern Mexico on the trail of the Apache, with fighting often threatening to break out between the Union and Confederate soldiers. Use of Confederate prisoners as Union soldiers in the West was not uncommon. Six Union infantry regiments of Confederate prisoners, called “Galvanized Yankees”, served in the West. The final section of the film involving a battle between Major Dundee’s force and French Lancers, the French occupying Mexico at the time, has always struck me as one of the best filmed combat sequences in any movie.
Here is a fan made trailer for the restored edition that was released in 2005 that included much of the footage that was cut over Pekinpah’s protests:
Something for the weekend. The battle of the Siler River sequence from the movie Spartacus (1960). I have always marveled at the skillful use of music as we see the Romans marching in their checkerboard formations.
The culminating battle of the Third Servile War, Crassus and ten legions, about 32,000 men, confronted the remnants of the slave army under Spartacus, approximately 50,000 men.
Our sources for the battle of the Siler River, like most of the Third Servile War, are poor and contradictory. That the battle was bloody and that the Romans won are two of the three facts that we can be sure of. The remaining fact that we can be certain of is that Crassus took the 6,000 survivors and crucified them from the site of the battlefield, up the Via Appia, to the gates of Rome. Crassus probably viewed this as a publicity stunt to gain the consulship and it worked, Pompey, home victorious from a long war against revolting Roman settlers in Spain, being the other consul. However, perhaps even some members of the Senate viewed Crassus’ cruelty to the survivors as excessive. Crassus was denied a Triumph in Rome and had to settle for an Ovatio, very much a second class military honor.
A prayer’s as good as a bayonet on a day like this.
Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne, Zulu
Tony Rennell at the Daily Mail Online has a grand salute to one of the greatest war flicks: Zulu:
Yet Zulu thankfully avoids taking sides in this moral morass. It doesn’t play on manufactured guilt, or lecture and hector us from some anachronistic ethical high ground. It avoids self-righteous, self-serving politics and pays pure and simple tribute to human endeavour.
The moment that, for me, elevates it into a different dimension is when a young British soldier stares open-mouthed at the huge enemy army encircling Rorke’s Drift. The situation looks hopeless, and death — skewered agonisingly in the dust — a certainty.
His is the authentic voice of soldiering through the centuries — as true today for our troops in Afghanistan as it was for Queen Victoria’s footsoldiers. Men doing their duty, facing death because that’s their job. No hint of glory. No pleasure in killing.
And there is a price to pay for the victors as well as the defeated. As the smoke of guns disperses over the final battle scene, the British soldiers stare in horror at the piled-up bodies of Zulu around their sand-bagged last redoubt.
They are not triumphant but appalled at the ‘butcher’s yard’ — as Lt Chard (Stanley Baker) puts it — which they have inflicted. ‘I feel sick,’ says Lt Bromhead (Caine), ‘and ashamed.’ Continue reading
(Language advisory for the video; apparently the first film made the reviewer extra grumpy.)
The above video shall serve as a review for the entire Hobbit trilogy. I saw part II last week and I was certain, perhaps in what felt like the fiftieth hour, that time had ceased and eternity begun. You know a movie based on The Hobbit is bad, when by the end you are rooting for Smaug to be unleashed on Peter Jackson and his merry band of let’s-see-how-much-money-we-can-flog-out-of-this-dead- Hobbit! Ah, well, we will always have The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Continue reading
Continuing our look at Advent and Christmas movies: The Bishop’s Wife from 1947. David Niven is an Episcopalian Bishop of a struggling diocese; Loretta Young (ironically one of the more devout Catholics in the Hollywood of her time) is his wife; and Cary Grant is Dudley, one of the more unimportant angels in Heaven, sent by God to lend the Bishop a hand. The film is a graceful comedy which effectively and quietly underlines the central importance of faith in God as we see in this little scene: