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:
Brother Superior: When the heart speaks, Brother Orchid, other hearts must listen.
Brother Orchid (1940)
Interested in seeing a screwball comedy-film noir gangster-western-religious flick? I am always on the lookout for oddball films for Advent and they don’t come odder, or more heart warming, than Brother Orchid (1940). Starring Edward G. Robinson with a fantastic supporting cast including Humphrey Bogart, Ann Southern, Ralph Bellamy and Donald Crisp, it is a trip back to the Golden Age of Hollywood when literate, thoughtful films were considered mass entertainment. It also is a fine exponent of a facet of the human condition that is not much commented upon today: the seductive power of goodness. A review of the film is below with the usual caveat as to spoilers. Continue reading
As faithful readers of this blog know, I am a film buff. I therefore was pleased when Dr. Peter Dans, a friend of mine and commenter on the blog, brought to my attention his book Christians in the Movies: A Century of Saints and Sinners. Peter is a medical doctor and a former professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins. Go here to learn about his professional activities. He is also a faithful Catholic, a skilled writer and an all around good guy. However, I am here to review the book and not to review the author!
Published in 2011 by Sheed & Ward, the book is a fairly comprehensive look at how film has portrayed Christians and Christianity from 1905-2008. The book proceeds chronologically with chapters devoted to films of the silent era, films of the forties, etc. The chapters open with a general overview of the film period being discussed and then a look at selected films. The films are not limited to those self-consciously religious, but also those in which religion is a major plot element. Thus the Oscar winning film Sergeant York (1941) is included because of its examination of the religious conflict that World War I hero Alvin C. York had to resolve before he could in good conscious fight for his country. Dr. Dans also looks at the impact of the films examined, for example in regard to Sergeant York he mentions that the film was denounced by the isolationist Senator Nye as propaganda to get America into World War II. Some of the facts that the author discusses were news to me. For example I have watched the film Song of Bernadette (1943) about Bernadette Soubirous and Lourdes but I was unaware that it was based on a book written by Franz Werfel, a Jew, who made a vow to write a book about Bernadette when he and wife were hidden from the Gestapo by nuns and families at Lourdes. In regard to Going My Way, 1944, Dr. Dans reveals that Pope Pius XII was so taken by the film that he granted a private audience to Bing Cosby and credited the film with helping to spur priestly vocations. I like it when a book gives me information that I was unaware of, and this book accomplished that task.
The book is not limited to films that have become well known. For example there is a section devoted to one of my favorite westerns, Stars in My Crown, 1950, in which Joel McCrea portrays a Union veteran who becomes a Protestant minister and his travails as he brings religion to a town and fights the Ku Klux Klan.
Something for the weekend. The score from the movie Twelve O’clock High (1949). A film shorn of any Hollywood glamor or heroics, it tells the story of the fictional 918th bomb group as it pioneers daylight precision bombing in the early days of the Eighth Air Force in England and suffers harrowing losses as a result. Veterans of the Eighth Air Force applauded the film for its stark realism and its demonstration of the impact of war on the men called upon to fight it. Anyone who has not seen this masterpiece should do so as quickly as possible.
Here is the opening of the film:
Something for the weekend. Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott by the Statler Brothers. A 1974 lament of how tawdry the movies had become, it fastened on Randolph Scott, king of B-movie westerns, as an icon for a better day when kids could be taken to the movies without parents being concerned about what they would be exposed to. I heard this song endlessly when it came out, my parents’ radio blaring it most mornings in the kitchen in 74 in the hour before I and my brother got up to prepare for yet another day in high school.
Scott was born as far from the West as it was possible to be in Virginia and raised in North Carolina. His family had money so he was educated in private schools. During World War I he served as an artillery observer in France, a highly dangerous post. (After Pearl Harbor, the 43 year old Scott attempted to enlist as a Marine, but was rejected due to his bad back.)
After his service in World War I, he worked for a time with his father in the textile industry in North Carolina. In 1927 he moved to California to embark on an acting career with a letter of introduction from his father to Howard Hughes. The next few years saw him develop his acting skills with bit parts and small roles. In 1931 he had his first leading role in the film Women Men Marry. In the film Heritage of the Desert (1932) Scott played his first leading role in a Western, the first of ten films he would make based on Zane Grey novels.
Until the conclusion of World War II, Scott starred in a variety of film genres, but after the War he concentrated solely on Westerns. Scott was a modest man and always underestimated his considerable skill as an actor. He was comfortable in Westerns and decided to stick with them. It was an inspired choice. As he aged his handsome features took on a weathered, stoic look, and helped make him a Western icon.
Scott did not financially need to make films after the War. Shrewd land purchases in California helped make him a multi-millionaire, and he increasingly looked upon his acting as a hobby. By 1962 he was ready to retire, but he was convinced to make one last Western with his friend Joel McCrea. McCrea and Scott had much in common: both had become very wealthy through land purchases and neither needed to work in film, post World War II McCrea had gravitated to B Westerns, and both he and Scott were staunch Republicans.
The film that they made in 1962 is now regarded as a classic. Ride the High Country was the second film to be directed by Sam Pekinpah. It tells the tale of two former Old West lawmen who have fallen on hard times. Steve Judd, Joel McCrea, has been hired by a bank in the early years of the last century to bring back 20,000 in gold from a mining camp. Judd is elated because this is the first lawman like job that he has had in a very long time. He runs into his old friend Gil Westrum, Randolph Scott, who is making a meager living running a shooting gallery in a circus. Judd invites Westrum and his young friend Heck Longtree, Ron Starr, to join him in the job. They agree, Westrum and Longtree planning to steal the gold. As the film proceeds it becomes obvious that Judd still holds to the same code of honor and honesty that he upheld as a law man. Westrum does not, having grown bitter with age and viewing the gold as his reward for his courage as a law man, a courage that was not rewarded monetarily and has left him facing a hard scrabble old age. Ultimately Judd realizes what Westrum is up to and disarms both him and Longtree, planning to put them on trial for attempted robbery. The plot is complicated by Elsa Knudsen, Mariette Hartley in her screen debut, who the trio rescue from a miner she has just married who plans to have her serve not only as his bride but also as the “bride” of his four brothers. Longtree grows to admire Judd for his courage and stubborn honesty while Westrum escapes, only to ride to the rescue at the end of the film to help Judd. Continue reading
(I originally posted this in 2009 when the blog readership was much smaller. The Caine Mutiny has always been one of my favorite films and I am taking the excuse of my vacation from the blog to repost this review.)
For my sins, perhaps, I have spent my career as an attorney. Over the past 31 years I’ve done a fair number of trials, both bench and jury, and I am always on the lookout for good depictions of trials in films, and one of the best is The Caine Mutiny. Based on the novel of the same name by Herman Wouk, who served in the Navy as an officer in the Pacific during World War II, the movie addresses the question of what should, and should not, be done in a military organization when the man at the top of the chain of command is no longer in his right mind.
The cast is top notch. Humphrey Bogart, an enlisted man in the Navy during WWI and a member of the Naval Reserve, he tried to enlist again in the Navy after Pearl Harbor but was turned down because of his age, gives the performance of his career as Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg, the captain of the Caine. In the hands of a lesser actor Queeg could easily have become merely a two-dimensional madman. Bogart instead infuses Queeg with pathos and demonstrates to the audience that this is a good man who sadly is no longer responsible mentally for his actions. Van Johnson delivers his usual workmanlike job as Lieutenant Stephen Maryk, the “exec” of the Caine, a career officer who does his best to remain loyal to an obviously disturbed CO, while also attempting to protect the crew of the Caine from Queeg’s increasingly erratic behavior. Robert Francis, as Ensign Willis Seward Keith, is the viewpoint character, too young and inexperienced to make his own judgment he relies on Maryk and Lieutenant Keefer. Fred MacMurray is slime incarnate as Lieutenant Thomas Keefer, a reservist who hates the Navy, spends all his time writing a novel, and eggs Maryk on to take command away from Queeg. Finally, in a typhoon, reluctantly and only, as he perceives it, to save the ship, Maryk, with the support of Keith, relieves Queeg from command.
In the ensuing court-martial of Maryk and Keith, lawyer Lieutenant Barney Greenwald, portrayed with panache by Jose Ferrer, reluctantly agrees to defend them.
What I admire most about the film is the realistic way that the defense is depicted. A legal case consists of the facts, the law and people. Continue reading
In the past year three films on President Lincoln have been released: the truly odious Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, the superb Lincoln and now the low budget, funded by Kickstarter, Saving Lincoln. I am pleased to report that I think Saving Lincoln is much closer in quality to Lincoln than Vampire Hunter. The film has an intriguing take on Mr. Lincoln and I was both amused and moved by it. My full review is below. The usual caveat regarding spoilers ahead is given. Continue reading
(This post originally ran in 2010. The movies listed would make excellent viewing tomorrow and any day.)
Last year I listed here my top ten picks for movies about the America Revolution for the Fourth. This year here is my list of patriotic movies for the Fourth.
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. The Alamo (1960)-“The Republic” scene from The Alamo, a film which was basically John Wayne’s love note to America.
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.”
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.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have proclaimed a second Fortnight for Freedom from June 21-July 4th, and, as last year, The American Catholic will participate with special blog posts each day.
This is a repeat from a post last year, with some 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
If there is a forgotten theater where American troops fought in World War II, it is most definitely the Aleutians. The Japanese took Attu and Kiska, islands in the Aleutian chain, in June of 1942, to forestall the Aleutians being used as a base for a move on the Japanese Home Islands from the Aleutians. Due to the rugged weather conditions, the US had never seriously entertained using the Aleutians as a staging area for future offensives. However, Attu and Kiska were American territory, and national pride, as well as alarm from the Alaskan territorial government, made inevitable an American campaign to take back the strategically worthless islands. Continue reading