Two Women (1961): Sophia Loren in Her Mother Tongue

Two Women (1961): Sophia Loren in Her Mother Tongue

Sophia Loren is an extraordinary treasure of the cinema. We know her from numerous Hollywood pictures but there’s something especially gratifying about hearing her in her mother tongue. It’s not that she is necessarily less herself in a picture like Houseboat, speaking English dialogue, but we can take it in the opposite way.

Seeing her in a film like this, with such a reputable director like Vittorio De Sica, in her native Italy, adeptly pulls us into the searing drama. It feels like we are seeing more of her. Because the beauty of emotions through cinema is the very fact they can speak to anyone from any nation, regardless of time or place. So it is with Two Women.

Though quite young to play a mother, Loren is, nevertheless, more than up to the task, emotionally exuding a fierce maternal strength in the face of everything. She’s not afraid about calling out certain men as pigs for their leering ways and forward behavior.  In fact, it seems highly prevalent behavior, troubling as it is to admit. Along the road, the relationship between mother and daughter is paramount and it evolves as they are burnished together. Eleanora Brown is only 11 years of age and yet she too, like her onscreen mother, is endowed with a maturity, a presence, far beyond her years. They carry the screen together.

However, Vittorio De Sica’s film is simultaneously a portrait of Italy during the war with Cesira (Loren) trying to eke by a living with her daughter Rosetta, away from Rome. They make the trek to the countryside to escape the destructive onslaught of Allied bombs. We begin to see war with a human face where goodness is maintained in the face of evil. For instance, she relents and gives aid to two stranded Englishmen, sharing a meal and a bottle of wine together cordially. They reciprocate some of the hospitality that has been extended to them by local families.

From all I know of Jean-Paul Belmondo as an unorthodox anti-hero for Godard and Melville, he seems somehow miscast for this role, completely disregarding the fact he’s not Italian. His Michelle is an enlightened man of intellect denoted by spectacles. He welcomes the change coming in the waning days of war and rebukes the people for being more dead than Lazarus. Not even Jesus Christ can resuscitate them he says. It seems a harsh indictment.

We can also hear Cesira counting sins and trying to decipher how children fit into the insanity of war. Because there’s little doubt war is exactly that. Planes continually dropping bombs from the skies overhead. Emaciated German soldiers demanding food at gunpoint and a hostage guide to lead them toward freedom. Finally, American forces move in with their liberation party riding in on their tanks and the mood lifts.

Thus, it’s a war film with soldiers of all different stripes and allegiances, but vastly more importantly it regards the lives of the laypeople and folks affected by the outcomes of such a global conflict. It is their homes and their families that are torn asunder. Their bodies are in need of nourishment. They are the ones in constant danger of becoming collateral damage.

It’s a disheartening form of whiplash sending us into so many conflicting fits of emotion. From the highest elation down to the mundane and finally heightened senses of fear and suffering. Humans should not be subjected to such extremes.

Two Women (1961): Sophia Loren in Her Mother Tongue

Then, comes the scene you hear whispers of when anyone mentions Two Women and it’s true there is certainly a “before” and “after” effect from such a life-altering experience. All we can do is look on helplessly as the two travelers are overpowered by soldiers looking on lecherously, almost giddy with delight. The rest we understand implicitly. In the moment, it almost feels comical and ghoulish; it’s bitterly ironic these egregious acts are committed in a deserted church building of all places.

What is most piercing is the immediate aftermath because there is no way to disregard or forget what has just occurred. It is apparent in the eyes, the overwhelming despondency — the broken spirits of both mother and daughter.

They are left behind clinging to their bodies, clothes torn to shreds. There is no classical element like the Rape of the Sabine Women. It is all a facade, a galling lie. Rosetta becomes almost catatonic due to the horrible shock. Again, so much dwells within their eyes, going unspoken, hidden behind their glazed expressions. It is deeply unfeeling to simply label them two more casualties of an unjust war. Instead of putting words to it, the greatest form of agency is to allow us the opportunity to try and sympathize with them as closely as possible.

Sophia Loren is a reverred sex symbol and yet we cannot observe her in this light without also acknowledging the brokenness found widespread across culture. Where women are objectified, ogled, and desired. Where something sacrosanct like romantic love is trampled over for something cheaper, easier, and completely licentious.

Surely it’s within the context of war where these unspeakable things happen but still there is no excuse. The way the women are treated in this film is painfully devastating. Yes, Michele is lost, families are torn apart, and so much more, but this one incident is emblematic of it all. It’s one sign of so many other underlying issues with humanity.

The beauty of De Sica is the fact he never seems to be trying to capitalize on any amount of drama. He was a master of steeping us in very real emotions so we can better understand the plight of others not so different than ourselves.

I spoke earlier of a classical painting and somehow when the camera slowly pulls away from a mother with her child cradled in her arms, this unmoving portrait evoked the Pieta for me.  Fitting for a tradition steeped in religious imagery of the crucifixion. But it goes beyond the love of a mother for her child. Anyone familiar with the story knows that it revolves around a purportedly perfect individual’s undying love for the imperfect.

Michelle chides the townsfolk for being more dead than Lazarus. Perhaps even his own death cannot shock them back to reality but that does not mean there cannot be some semblance of hope left over. Love and resurrection; these things are still possible for those with hope and faith.

4/5 Stars

Review: Stalag 17 (1953)

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I grew up with Hogan’s Heroes reruns on our Magnavox analog television. In fact, at one point it was my favorite show because it had such a colorful cast, it was perennially entertaining and utterly goofy to the extreme. But others have understandably decried the show because they see it finding humor in something that is not very funny. They contend it was making light of the Holocaust and WWII on the whole. Although I do believe this is an oversimplification and I don’t have time to tackle it right now, it’s still an important dialogue to have. I will defer to others for the time being.

The point of discourse I want to take up is Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 because it’s obvious there would be no Hogan’s Heroes without this P.O.W. comedy-drama. The plots, even the characterizations, are eerily similar, close enough to prompt plagiarism lawsuits. But the difference is Hogan functions as pure zaniness carried by the strength of its ensemble where the Germans are utter buffoons. That’s the hallmark of characters like Sergeant Schultz (John Banner) and Kommandant Klink (Werner Klemperer) who are both lovable imbeciles. They will never be allowed victory over Hogan and his allies.

In Wilder’s hands, a P.O.W. camp is silly and light-hearted at times, yes, but it’s also equally dark and cynical. Because what would a Wilder picture be without some pointed comic venom? Two obvious points of reference would have to be the wartime comedy directed by his idol Ernst Lubitsch, To Be or Not to Be (1942), which some would argue employs morbid humor. Then there’s Grande Illusion (1937) starring Erich von Stroheim (featured in Sunset Boulevard) as a prison camp commander who can easily be contrasted with Otto Preminger’s Colonel von Scherberg. In both, you have those evident counterpoints of humor and tragedy exquisitely executed.

Stalag 17′s opening escape attempt of two men is snuffed out by machine gun fire just waiting to mow them down. It’s the definition of unsentimental and it is the first of numerous breakdowns in communication. There is a rat somewhere. There has to be.

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Then, the picture is back to its belly laughs supplied most obviously by Harry Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) and his tubby, scruffy buddy Animal (Robert Strauss). They spearhead all of the shenanigans, including a daring attempt to break into the prison camp of Russian women to sneak a peek. You see, Animal’s deeply broken up by his unrequited love for Betty Grable. They bicker with the resident Sergeant Schultz (Sig Ruman), another Hogan’s Heroes precursor, who good-naturedly chortles at all their ribbing. Surely this isn’t anything like how Stalags actually operated?

Wilder’s trademark biting wit is most fully realized in Sefton. For the part he was initially reluctant to take, William Holden donned a crew cut and scruff generally masking his normally dashing features. But this was hardly the aspect making him uneasy about the role.

Sefton is a textbook undesirable. He openly trades with the enemy in an effort to make himself as comfortable as possible. He bets a boatload of cigarettes the two fugitives won’t make it out of the camp and when it proves morbidly correct, he makes a killing.

Likewise, he’s the local wheeler-dealer, maintaining the Stalag 17 rat race turf complete with betting for all the servicemen. His other enterprises include a distillery — a flamethrower of sumptuous potato peel schnapps — and “The Observatory” where all the boys eagerly line up for a tantalizing look at the Russian delousing shack. Conveniently, he’s also the obvious culprit when a stoolie is suspected within their ranks.

It takes all kinds to liven up the joint and make it into a space with real drama to go along with so many lighter notes. We already mentioned Harry and Animal but the Barracks chief is the always reliable Hoffy (Richard Erdman), head of security is Peter Graves, Duke (Neville Brand) is the rough and tumble one who’s not squeamish about having a fist fight. There’s a blond brainiac, the catatonic one, the amputee who uses his spare space to sneak materials in and out of the barracks, and the nasally mailman with a voice to top all voices.

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When a new prisoner named Dunbar (Don Taylor) gets brought in with his copilot (Jay Lawrence), who has a penchant for spot-on impersonations, they receive a hero’s welcome. After all, they helped to sabotage enemy armaments on their way to being captured. But the information leaks continue with their radio being confiscated and Dunbar being called in for questioning, due to his treacherous activities. The SS is coming to take him to Berlin for questioning. If he’s ever going to come out alive the P.O.W.s must make a last ditch effort to try and get him to safety.

Meanwhile, Sefton gets a going over by the whole barracks, which is quickly overshadowed by Christmas in the camp complete with carols, dancing, and parading full of gaiety. It’s meant to lull us into a false sense of security as Sefton is put in his place and things are good again. It all conveniently diverts from something else. Sefton’s not the culprit. Someone else has been communicating with the Germans and tipping them off.

The final confrontation is when the film really puts it all on the line. We find out who the perpetrator is and Sefton’s vindicated in everything, even going out as a kind of hero. Except to the bitter end, he’s never redeemed as a human being. He’s as hard-edged and acerbic as ever and yet to the folks at homes, he’s who will be cast a hero because he did something brave. Holden was uncomfortable with this as much as we are as an audience but Billy Wilder was unflinching and ultimately right in creating this dissonance.

If anything, Stalag 17 as realized by Billy Wilder and his team is a reminder of the harshness and utter absurdity of war. This is how he conceives it — a man who lost his parents to concentration camps and was sent over to his former land to help rebuild it. He probably knew as much as anyone how horrible the Nazi atrocities were but to memorialize every attribute of the Allies as noble would not document the whole truth.

If Sefton’s the poster boy of the war, then we have to take a deep hard look out our ideals and what we stand for. Because, of course, he was the only one not taken in. Everyone else was so quick to accuse him and to see what they wanted to. It’s almost as if a film documenting an aspect of WWII was in the same breathe suggesting what was afoot with the red scare in the rising fury of the Cold War. Heaven forbid a person we don’t like or don’t agree with is not so easy to demonize as “other.”

It’s far too scary to concede they’re probably just like us. They just didn’t have the decency to hide it. Perhaps they’re better because they were not swayed by the clouded judgment of others.

So if I watch Stalag 17 and become turned off by this incongruity between the historical setting, the lightness in tone, and the shock of a generally unsympathetic lead, maybe it says more about my conception of the world than anything wrong with Billy Wilder’s admittedly incisive picture. It’s a scary admission to make but it just might be true.

4.5/5 Stars

The Americanization of Emily (1964)

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“Don’t show me how profitable it will be to fall in love with you, Charlie. Don’t Americanize me.” – Julie Andrews as Emily

Yes, Kubrick’s film is definitive. Though something inside of me wants to rale against convention and wave the flag for The Americanization of Emily instead, a movie that came out the same year as Dr. Strangelove (1964) and could probably use the acknowledgment. While not technically as renowned — Arthur Hiller is no Stanley Kubrick — this is probably the director’s best work and we do have a script by Paddy Chayefsky, the man famed for penning everything from Marty (1955) to Network (1976).

Our stars are to die for in James Garner and Julie Andrews while in its satirical bleakness, the movie predates the absurdity of Mike Nichol’s Catch-22 (1970) adaptation or Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970). At any rate, it deserves a place in the conversation among the seminal anti-war statements of the 20th century.

Though Chayefsky can get verbose with his quill, it’s all quite eloquent; between the stars and the dilemma they find themselves in, the resonance of The Americanization of Emily cannot be overstated. It starts with of all things a “Dog-Robber,” the pet name and vernacular shorthand used for personal assistants of military big wigs.

Garner always the conman, grifter, or otherwise likable trickster, is seamlessly fit to play Charlie Madison, a rapscallion who is also very good at his line of work. As right-hand man to Rear Admiral Jessup (Melvyn Douglas), Charlie is tasked with laying out the red carpet for his superior, charming and cajoling his way to get the best of the best. That means the finest food and the most charming female company that wartime Britain has to offer.

A couple of the assumed premises of the picture are troubling, starting with the prevalence of what can only be termed “tush slaps” of nearly every female attendant. Nearly everyone seems to enjoy the attention. The second is how the war takes a back seat as does the fact, despite Man being infallible and the reasons for war being muddied, Hitler was seemingly a power that necessitated some counteraction. For that matter, D-Day feels like it’s an open secret among every Tom, Dick, and Harry.

But this is all part of the groundwork which all comes into relief as we begin to visualize the story. Consequently, it doesn’t much feel like a bombed out or rationed Great Britain at any point in time. There’s little need for historical accuracy — the trail of a cynical war comedy with all its biting fury is what’s most importantly on display.

After getting off on the wrong foot, Charlie and his assigned chauffeur Emily (Andrew) joust a bit only to fall into each other’s arms. She brings him over to tea with mother and there he sees the shrine to all the deceased war heroes in their family (a lah Hail the Conquering Hero). Except Charlie sets the record straight on what he thinks of war and how other people go about it. Some might consider him callous but the way he sees it, being brutally honest, in such a case, is the most humane thing to do.

Mrs. Barnham has long been pressing on in life as if her son was still alive. However, Charlie brings the tea conversation to the cold hard facts. In his estimation, it’s the most profane thing in the world to enjoy war. Enjoyment in the same sense that he sees grieving as a sensual thing for a woman — when she can mourn her husband who gave his life so gallantly for his country. He doesn’t see anything noble about needlessly making heroes of our dead, venerating them, instead of allowing them to rest in peace.

When probed about his religious views, he retorts quite blatantly he’s “a practicing coward.” He learned it in Guadalcanal in the midst of buddies dropping all around him. “Wars are the only time a man can be gallant and redeemed. Wars are always fought for goodness, except virtue is so unnatural to us. God save us all from people doing the morally right thing.” These are little nuggets of wisdom he drops.

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The complete absurdity of it all comes into focus when his commanding officer cooks up a cockamamie plan to shoot a movie during the storming of Normandy to capture the first dead man on the beach — who will obviously be a sailor — proving to the world that the Navy is just as important as anyone else. They know he’s really flipped when Admiral Jessup dreams up the Tomb for the Unknown Sailor too.

Still, no one has the gumption to disobey so Charlie’s buddy Bus (James Coburn) looks to stall operations as long as possible and yet, in the end, they find themselves hurtling toward Normandy on an utterly pointless suicide mission. Except Bus gets bitten by the patriotic bug too and goes nutty for his duty with Charlie and his lackluster movie crew hoisted onto the LST like stray cargo. They’re going whether they like it or not.

The comedy is solidified for me in the D-Day sequences as Charlie finds himself dumped out in the ocean, flailing around in the cold, half-heartedly trying to hold onto a camera he doesn’t know how to use, probably already decommissioned by sea water. It’s utterly pointless. Here he is amid the chaos with his former friend goading him on only to wing him with a pistol in the process. Charlie’s left for dead but on the bright side, at least he’s positioned himself as the first casualty on the beaches of Normandy — a navy man, no less.

True to form, the images of him are soon plastered all over every magazine back home. He’s been christened a hero and every type of idolatry he would never care to give anyone else is lofted on him. It’s far from done, rolling over on itself one final time.

There must be continuous punchlines to underscore the sheer looniness of it all. Whereas a picture like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) is bleakly cynical, here James Garner is able to inject his grouchy strain of comedy into the part, aiding the story to its conclusion. But the final zinger goes to Julie Andrews as she is and always will be his equal in the film.

“Honestly, Charlie, your conversion to morality is really quite funny. All this time I’ve been terrified of becoming Americanized, and you, you silly ass, have turned into a bloody Englishman.”

So you see, it might have just as easily been called the Anglification of Charlie. There you have the irony at work again. Somehow it makes sense and it doesn’t at the same time. That’s war in a nutshell.

4/5 Stars

Men in War (1957)

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“Tell me the story of the foot soldier and I’ll tell you the story of all wars.”

The date might seem arbitrary but we are told that this story takes place over the course of one day: Sept 6, 1950. Robert Ryan might as well be the stand-in for a Bill Mauldin G.I. as he leads a battalion cut off and deep in enemy territory. He’s got the 5 o’clock shadow and most other prerequisites. There’s a sense that he’s just trying to live through the day and keep his men alive for as long as possible — hopefully to see their way back home or at least to their brethren on the other side of the next hill.

But in order to get there, they must survive a line of snipers, a hailstorm of enemy artillery, and terrain laced with mines. If I had never seen The Steel Helmet (1951), Men in War would easily become one of the most crucial war movies for me. Because it dares to tell a narrative of war that rings fiercely resonant not simply because of cynicism or even pure authenticity. It has to do with a story stripped down to its bare essentials. Men in War is just that. It comes down to the semantics of what you think that actually means. But for the average soldier, it’s a moment by moment struggle to survive. It’s not about heroics at all. Instead, it entails methodical and level-headed action in the face of constant stressors verging on the absurd.

Though Hollywood might have suggested otherwise on various occasions, war was never about the glut of combat. It’s always lean and mean — proving to be disillusioning even to the victors and far more so to those who must stand defeated or draw a truce.

The best way I can find to describe this particular experience is through the influence of negative space. Because Mann’s film, in showing us less manages to evoke the exact inverse, suggesting what is not shown to be as vitally important as what is left in the frame. Far from lowering the tension, it only succeeds in making it all the more unnerving. There’s an ongoing sense of isolation and the enemy is left all but unseen.

Then, in a single moment, we realize they’re as afraid of us as we are of them. Actually, the adversary is only shown on a couple of brief occasions, most visibly with a surrendering Korean Soldier (played by Bonanza support Victor Sen Yung).

Aldo Ray is a soldier at his most cynical and insubordinate. The only thing more exasperating about him for Ryan is the fact that in most cases he’s right and more important still, he’s too ornery to be knocked off. But it’s almost odd how fiercely loyal he is the catatonic colonel (Robert Keith) who made it away from the lines with him.

James Edwards offers another obvious link to Fuller’s Korean War picture while serving up his usual foray in minor though intelligent portrayals of African-American soldiers. Men in War is devastating in how unsentimental and unsensational it is. The scenes with machine guns, flamethrowers, bazooka, and grenades feel palpably real. These are not infallible killing machines. Just men who are doing their best to stay alive and fight another day. Again, it’s about mere survival.

Here we have Mann’s earlier explorations in noir more fully externalized with a sense of psychological torment made visible in an environment of continuous unease. The action is taken outdoors while maintaining what we might call even an intimate interaction with its characters if it weren’t so harrowing. It’s likewise an extension of the director’s Western landscapes, though the palette is muted, it consequently plays a crucial role in shaping the drama as Mann usually takes particular care with his atmosphere.

Phillip Yordan’s involvement, whether the true author or only a frontman, might be slightly up for debate but what’s not is the fact that the script keeps the action clean and unfettered by strains of patriotism or similar endeavors. Elmer Bernstein, best remembered for his western scores of resplendent glory, nevertheless, delivers a piece with the right amount of understatement to compliment such a picture as this.

Again, Men in War is unassuming, even unspectacular, but that’s what makes it all the more deserving of discovery. By going against the grain with a few similarly formidable titles, it gave us a far more mystifying portrait of The Korean War. Because reconciling with that conflict is far from a straightforward task — as it is with most any war.

3.5/5 Stars

Hail The Conquering Hero (1944)

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I have long sought out this picture and all I can say is all hail the conquering hero! It’s everything that could have been hoped for in a Preston Sturges wartime comedy. But in order for the laughs to come along with a great deal more, there must be a setup — a watering hole for our main players to familiarize themselves.

Sure enough, we are introduced to a fairly somber nightclub scene or maybe it’s simply the face of the one man the camera chooses to focus on, sitting dejectedly at the bar. There slumps Eddie Bracken, slightly pudgy and round-faced. By no means classically handsome but he and Preston Sturges had quite a thing going for a couple years.

He got sent home from the Marines for chronic hayfever. I’m extremely empathetic to his condition as I’m sure innumerable others are as well. Anyway, he’s too embarrassed to go home and it’s been a year now and he’s still not returned. However, he has nothing except the highest regard for the Marines as his father gave his life serving his country. In fact, it was the very day our boy was born.

He pays it forward to a group of Marines on leave with no dough, thanks to the gambling habits of one of their pack. The act of charity isn’t lost on them and they get acquainted. Soon they find out the name of their benefactor. It has the be the most patriotic names ever invented: Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (sans the Truesmith).

Soon they are regaled with his story and stunned by his encyclopedic knowledge of the exploits of the Marines out on the battlefields. Their leader Sergeant (William Demarest) even finds out they have a lot more in common as he knew the elder Truesmith — Winky Dinky for short — before he perished.

The only place for the film to go from here is back to Woodrow’s roots and so without his consent, his mother gets called up and it’s announced that he’s getting sent home. Woodrow’s against it from the beginning but his new pals say there’s nothing to it. He’ll wear a uniform for a day, give his mother a hug, and take off the uniform soon after, completely forgotten. Of course, as they ride the train into town, they have no idea what’s been stirred up in preparation.

A homecoming like you’ve never witnessed has been hurriedly assembled by the local committee chairman (the frantically hilarious Franklin Pangborn) and it’s the true essence of cacophony with unrehearsed dueling brass bands; the mayor and any number of folks milling about in expectant anticipation. The show is just beginning to warm up now.

What many will find astounding is just how perfectly Hail the Conquering Hero has been constructed by Sturges, at least in the way it skirts its topics with simultaneous delicacy and verve. Here is a film striking an impeccable course between that very same comedy and then admiration for the armed forces because no one can forget WWII was still blasting away across the world.

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Likewise, the church service far from belittling the faith is a lingering visual gag as we watch the dueling reactions of the two sides of the pews. First through the hymns and then a very sincere homily from the preacher culminating in yet another rousing display of goodwill. By now Woodrow has little hope to derail any of the fanfare with the erection of a commemorative statue christened “Like Father, Like Son” soon in the works. All his newfound Marine buddies are good for is stoking the fires and applauding the sentiment.

The next great sequence is cued by the music and Mother answers the door and mentions that the Judge (Jimmy Conlin) and some other civic leaders want to see Woodrow. Immediately his mind leaps to the worst possible scenario. The game must be up and all his Marine buddies inconspicuously grab household items in case of a tustle that might take place in the drawing room. Of course, their intentions are nothing of the sort. Far from it. The lead up makes the outcome into yet another outrageous reveal.

Just around this juncture, it becomes increasingly apparent that all the characters appear to move in packs and Sturges crams the frame gladly with bodies and faces and more appendages. Woodrow does his best to avoid the spotlight, flubbing his speech to the masses, and trying to downplay the bid for mayor thrust upon him only to be thwarted at every turn by a cheering crowd of well-wishers. One man even proclaims his was the greatest speech since William Jennings Bryan’s “Crown of Thorns!” Already we have the swellest giggle-fit inducer I’ve encountered in some time.

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I wracked my brain only to realize I’d never seen Ella Raines in a comedy before and for much of this picture she’s in the periphery, her comely smiling features on the screen with a whole host of others. But there are a few moments that, far from playing merely humorously, prove deeply moving as she is split between the man she is betrothed to marry and the one she truly loves.

The family she’s caught up in includes a quibbling father and son. The incumbent mayor (Raymond Walburn), who ponificates incessantly, attempts to dictate his speech in his latest bid for reelection only to get annoyed by his dim-witted boy (Bill Edwards) who nevertheless corrects his grammatical blunders. She’d do well to get out of there. Nevertheless, they are a bounty for humorous dialogue.

The stakes are set for a reversal of fortune with a number of parties having a chance to oust our hero. One man who’s buddy-buddy with the Mayor, the cool and collected Jake (Al Bridge) is mighty curious about Woodrow’s service record and he sends a wire to the Marine Base in San Diego. He gets the incriminating news shortly.

But ultimately it comes down to Woodrow himself and Sturges puts the perfect words in his mouth that Eddie Bracken then utters with an assured conviction. Riffing off the Biblical epithet he notes, “My cup runneth over with gall” and proceeds to pour out with veracious intent all the lies and masquerades he’s been too scared to admit to his own town. His guts are laid out right in front of him. Yes, his mother cries. The townspeople look on somberly and his Marine buddies can do nothing to dispel any of it. Even the words of the Mayor and his pal mean nothing now.

With such a showing you would think it was all over for Woodrow and he tells his mama that he’s going to leave again. He cannot stay. Not like this at least. But his girl comes back to him because she at least loves him unconditionally.

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At the train station the parlor games look like they might commence again but this time the whole town is involved, a lynching all but imminent. The Marines this time wrap up their belts inconspicuously to prepare for combat once more. Of course, the mob is there for a very different reason altogether.

The film has the foresight to see what so many of its contemporary war movies were, only made plainly obvious with the luxury hindsight: Light-hearted and good-intentioned yet still mawkish propaganda pieces. So Sturges took up his pen and tackled such hero worship and smalltime jingoism and yet settles on a resolution proving to be as venerating as it is satisfying.

Hail The Conquering Hero is a miracle assemblage of poignancy and humor; I don’t know how it comes away still intact and with my heartfelt laughter and deepest respect no less. It’s not an easy road to traverse by any means. Only a few have managed it. Chaplain in The Great Dictator (1940) distinctly comes to mind and Preston Sturges here.

4.5/5 Stars

The Burmese Harp (1956)

The_Burmese_Harp_Nikkatsu_1956_poster.jpgPut in juxtaposition with Kon Ichikawa’s later rumination on WWII, The Burmese Harp is a romanticized even simplistic account of the Japanese perspective of the war. However,  this is not to discount the mesmerizing nature of the story that is woven nor the overarching truth that seems to linger over its frames.

If anything, it humanizes the Japanese point of view and, rather remarkably, it does this so soon after the war’s conclusion. They were a nation deeply concerned with honor and the only way to get past such an egregious defeat was to frame it in such a way that empowered them for the future.

Because the men who came out of the war unscathed would be the shoulders on which to build a new democracy. You see that even in Ichikawa’s portrayal of the “enemy,” in this case, the English. There is no obvious ill-will. In fact, you could even consider it surprisingly laudatory. Because The Burmese Harp is not concerned with any types of residual politics or long-harbored injustices.

One could make the case it’s a far more universal and a far more moving portrait of the wartime landscape. The story, adapted from a Japanese children’s tale, plays out rather like a parable.

In the waning days of the Burma campaigns, a Japanese Captain named Inouye (Rentaro Mikuni), with a background in music teaches his group of men chorale arrangements which they sing to maintain their morale while they march and during their idle hours. One of their company, Private Mizushima (Shoji Yasui), quickly picks it up and becomes especially skilled at playing the harp to accompany their songs.

One evening they find their position in a local village surrounded by British soldiers in the night. The tense scene is diffused by music in a mutual connection reminiscent of the Christmas cheer in Joyeux Noel.

They learn that Japan has officially surrendered and so they lay down their arms peaceably. Although fearful and demoralized by months of struggle, they resolve to weather it all together. But one of their members is called upon to try and get some of their comrades to stand down before the British blast them to smithereens.

Mizushima volunteers to be the one to undertake this initial task as a liaison to try and avoid the needless loss of more countrymen. It is not to be. Even as the war is already over, it’s this event that proves to be galvanizing in the private’s new position as a missionary of mercy.  After being rehabilitated by a monk, he takes on their dress and shaves his head compelled to give a decent burial to all his fallen comrades.

Moved by the memorial hymn sung over the dead Japanese soldiers at the British Hospital, he realizes what his final calling must be. It’s easy to wager that the film’s most poignant moments occur in conjunction with song. In many of the best interludes, we hear the voices ringing out amid nature whether it’s the shade of the forest or the cleared terrain of a military encampment you can sense the notes rising up into the heavens with the strains of angelic melodiousness.

The same songs lift the spirits of our characters, comforts their souls,  and gives them the resolve to push onward for the greater good.  It has to do with an unswerving belief that each individual life holds dignity. Despite their many spiritual differences, there’s no doubt that this is a conclusion arrived at by both Buddhism and Christianity. Yes, the ugliness is unavoidable. But just as prevalent are immense reservoirs of beauty.

Mizushima is compelled in the inter most catacombs of his being to rescue the bodies of his brothers-in-arms that their spirits might rest in peace for posterity. It seems like such a small even insignificant act especially in response to such a cataclysmic war. But it’s one man’s calling. It is not for a mere man to know the answers to all the plaguing questions. All we can do is ease the suffering. For him, it is something. For him, it is enough.

What lends urgency to the story is the very fact that Mizushima’s entire company is frantically trying to obtain news of his whereabouts as they are getting ready to be shipped home. One of their most faithful messengers is a kindly old lady who learned some Japanese dialect. She can only give them small morsels but they cling to some hope. First, they think he’s been killed. Then, they think they’ve passed him on a bridge. Finally, they get their closure.

The candor is nearly startling especially put in relief with Ichikawa’s later work Fires on The Plain which paints a starkly different picture (or a very different side of the same picture). Likewise, this movie is aided by a script penned by his wife and close collaborator Natto Wada.

What we are left with are clear resounding strains of pacifism but by no means does it feel belligerent. What is conveyed is the sheer meaninglessness of war. However, it’s done through different avenues than his later work.

The film is bookended by the phrase, “The soil of Burma is red and so are its rocks.” The mind quickly flies to the pints of blood that were spilled across this terrain. It’s a grim reminder and yet The Burmese Harp, despite being a bittersweet tale, does boast hope. In the wake of war, such hopefulness is indispensable. You cannot progress without it.

4/5 Stars

Fires on the Plain (1959)

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The opening images of Fires on the Plain nearly catch you off guard. Not only are we thrown into a dialogue sequence that we have yet to grasp but much like Ozu would have a penchant for doing, director Kon Ichikawa photographs two Japanese soldiers head on so their conversation and reactions face the camera directly. It’s the first of numerous times where the film messes around with visual convention. But that’s not the half of it.

Fires on the Plain proves to be a repeatedly idiosyncratic war film while subsequently becoming one of the most appalling. As an audience, we are privy to one Japanese soldier’s listless pilgrimage across the bleak and generally decimated terrain. There’s no goal in sight. No reason even to stay alive. He is stricken with tuberculosis but the hospital, drowning in casualties already, won’t take him because he’s not fatal enough.

His commanding officer, who berated him in the opening minutes for returning to his starving unit, told him to try the hospital again or else use his grenade to kill himself and uphold his duty.

Ichikawa frames his pointless journey with unconventional camera setups that are considerably jarring if not completely detached. Private Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) lumbers up each hill mechanically. Hacks his way through the underbrush. There’s little meaning to his movements. Any incoming threat seems inconsequential in spite of hikes in dramatic scoring. Still, he wanders through ghost towns and fresh graveyards. Rather haphazardly skewers a stray mutt with his bayonet. Guns down a local inside a hut as part of his constant search for food. Another villager gets away in a boat.

By this point, Tamura hardly cares anymore and proceeds to drop his useless firearm into a river; there are no bullets left. When he’s not alone he joins the most beleaguered band of squatters as they blindly wander toward their evacuation point together but no less pitiful.

It’s not a film to shie away from the stomach-churning, grotesque, forlorn, utterly hopeless realities of what war really is. Fields strewn with dead bodies. Heaps of skeletal remains. Hospitals with abhorrent conditions. Wild tales of men eating human flesh just to stay alive in New Guinea. Wading through mud. Playing dead with incoming enemy fighters. There’s little respite from this onslaught.

It becomes so absurdly hopeless it’s almost funny. What else is there to resort to? In the rain, trampling through the underbrush, first, one soldier sees a pair of discarded boots and switches his worn pair with these. This swapping continues with another man. The first man’s trash is his treasure. By the time our protagonist gets there, the boots left over are completely worn through but his boots have no soles either so he just tosses them on the ground and resigns himself to walking barefoot.

This is insanity. It’s cruddy. Absolutely dreadful imagery again and again and again. There’s a certain point where it simply becomes an act of survival — nearly monotonous in its never-ending, never ceasing plodding toward an ultimatum. We must begin to ask questions. Why do we do this to ourselves? Why must we go through this suffering and inflict pain and injury on our fellow man? We even resort to infighting just to survive.

If you came in with any idealized visions of warfare still intact, Ichikawa’s intent is to rip those preconceptions away limb from limb. There is no good in war. Only vile, putrid, horrible, unthinkable things that extinguish life and crush the human spirit.

Such moments prove to make Fires on the Plain a perfect counterpoint to Hollywood’s Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) going far beyond their choices in palette. Because Ichikawa’s film takes it’s black and white cinematography and carries it into all aspects of the production. It’s the nitty-gritty, the somber, the absolute disgusting side of war dolled out without much hesitation.

It fits nicely into the world developed in pictures such as The Steel Helmet (1951) and Red Badge of Courage (1951), except one can contend that Ichikawa takes it even further into the abyss. In fact, it would also serve as a fine companion piece for the provocative docu-drama The General’s Naked Army Marches On (1987).

However, not for a moment would I bash David Lean’s landmark epic nor the performances of such titans as Alec Guinness and William Holden. The pictures succeed in their portrayals in part because of their contrasting approaches to the same futility of war. That statement is made in both but the mode of expression is radically different.

If my recollections are correct we never hear explicitly where the action takes place though we can make many educated assumptions. Fittingly, in the last frame, we are told. The Philippine Front, 1945. Not that it matters. It could have been any war in any place.

There are anti-war statements and there are absolute anti-war immersions, arguably none more devastating than Kon Ichikawa’s effort here. Because to be trapped knee deep in this hell hole you know there is no way that such a world should exist. And yet we cannot be so naive to believe that such a shocking scenario is only of the imagination. It’s a troubling film to watch because we can’t help but be assaulted with the truth even as we would like nothing better than to bury it.

How can life get to such an intolerable point where death is perceived to be a greater gift than life? In not so flippant terms, maybe war is hell. Man turned against man. There is no harmony. There is no peace,  only chaos and destruction waiting for us around every corner.

The novel on which the film was based purportedly ends with our narrator taking on a Christian perspective and gaining a more optimistic outlook on Man and life after the war. However, I have few qualms with Ichikawa’s interpretation, though more downbeat, it makes the equally frank assertion that Man is prone to evil and violence. If Man was wholly good there would be no war. But something quakes within us that makes us belligerent. The age-old question remains what or who can save us from this world of death?

4/5 Stars

So Proudly We Hail! (1943)

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There were three reasons to watch this film. Their names are Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard, and Veronica Lake. Yes, this picture directed by Mark Sandrich was fairly groundbreaking in its day for telling a story about nurses during WWII but there might be mixed feelings across the board about how the story unfolds.

While I still try and organize my own perceptions, a moment can be allotted to take stock of our stars. Claudette Colbert strays quite far away from her comedic sweet spot in a dramatic role as Lt. “Davy” Davison that she nevertheless conducts with a compelling fortitude.

The studio also all but got rid of the iconic peekaboo bangs of Lake and exchanges any of her many noir gals opposite Alan Ladd for a vengeful nurse Olivia D’Arcy traumatized by Pearl Harbor and the dirty Japs who ruined her life forever. She’s practically a different person.

Although Paulette Goddard hardly ever appears in a sweater, the boys are still enthralled by her like always but even she is given a major reality check about the hardships of war. And that’s part of what this film was meant to reflect — that it wasn’t just the brave soldiers who were putting their lives on the line — but there were legions of women too sacrificing and giving their all.

Paramount also did a very commendable thing in trying to de-glamorize their biggest stars in deference to delivering this stirring patriotic drama as a eulogy to all of those at Bataan and other South Pacific battlegrounds. But while the intentions are admirable, there’s this underlying feeling that Hollywood still creeps into the story far too often, which makes sense, since this is a Hollywood picture.

It all begins with an extended flashback as the film follows the nurses through their deployment. First, there are the tearful send-offs leaving families for the first time or gals leaving their best guys. In the case of Joan (Goddard) she gets away from two of them and by the time she’s onboard, it looks like she’s already landed a new one (Sonny Tufts).

In the wake of the hysteria following Pearl Harbor, the nurses are for the most part caught in a fog of war without any knowledge of what is going on and the Japs have all but jammed their communications. They continue floating around listlessly just waiting for some definitive plan of action.

When it comes and they are brought in as reinforcements to the Bataan peninsula. Here finally it seems we get our first look at the front lines. What reality really looked like. The mayhem that overtakes any war zone. It’s pure insanity. By the film’s midpoint, they are being pushed back and the evacuation becomes a life or death ordeal. We finally begin to see the casualties.

What follows is a single moment that comes like a kick in the gut and it’s a segment in the picture that we cannot criticize for being hammy or over-sentimental, delivering a visceral shock that’s a painful reminder of how abhorrent and horrible war truly is. Lake is allowed to let her hair down for a final instant as she leaves the picture in searing fashion. It burns but there is another inkling that suggests that this might really be emotional manipulation.

My main qualm is that the picture feels fake in a theatrical sense. If it’s true that film puts a mirror to reality, it also seems equally true that we often only care to see what we want to in that reflection. We document that and then do a little touch up afterward. James Agee harshly likened So Proudly We Hail to war through the lens of a housewife’s magazine romance.

My own feelings are perhaps more nuanced. It’s propaganda to be taken with a grain of salt. In one sense it couldn’t be more realistic as a document because it comes out of that time and place as a timely film while the war was still raging abroad. But the narrative is still so wrapped up in romance and melodrama built out of said love stories or personal torment. And yet it indubitably has its affecting moments that are difficult to brush off.

What I really appreciated was that its intentions were honorable. To give a spotlight to women and it also depicted a number of Asian allies in a positive light whether they be Chinese (Hugh Ho Chang) or Filipino children dreaming that Superman will come to save the day.

All this is to say in convoluted terms that So Proudly Hail cannot be condemned as an awful picture outright. It does some things well and others with a level of mediocrity but what do my words matter now nearly 75 years after the film came out?

Hopefully, contemporary audiences were uplifted by its intentions. I’m inclined to recommend another picture taking place during the same time. They Were Expendable (1945) directed by John Ford and starring the trio of Robert Montgomery, John Wayne, and Donna Reed is another title worth considering.

3.5/5 Stars

“I’m a Chinese madame, not an Indian.” Hugh Ho Chang as Ling Chee

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Grave_of_the_Fireflies_Japanese_poster.jpgAnime is very much a Japanese art form denoted by its style, the visuals, and even the depiction of its characters with wide eyes all the better to convey emotions. Oftentimes the images onscreen are a great deal more stagnant than the real-time action that American animators try and replicate with a greater frame rate.

Maybe American animation is more “realistic” but what the Japanese films have is an unrivaled beauty almost like watercolors or as if canvases of actual paintings are making up the backdrop for our characters to reside in. There’s even a line of inspiration that can undoubtedly be drawn from Japan’s own rich tradition of vibrant scroll and woodblock paintings.  Far from being derided as childish fare, cartoons are given a platform as art and they are executed as such.

Thus, it’s fitting that Grave of the Fireflies brought to us by renowned Ghibli Studios and the acclaimed director Isao Takahata would utilize this very Japanese style to tell a native story full of pain, suffering, chaos, and survival. His canvas includes exquisite landscapes that glorify the Japanese countryside but more often than not provide a muted even sobering lens to view the ashes and destitution that war sows. The wounds and the scars. The dead bodies left in the streets and the dirtiness that pervades daily life. It’s offensive to the eyes. All of this because American planes drop fire bombs to break the will of the enemy.

In western minds, it almost seems like an incongruity that a film can be both a stark war-torn drama and an animated picture but Grave of the Fireflies proves emphatically that this simply is not the case.

There are very few films brimming with so much emotion, so powerful and evocative and so fully invested in the human experience. There is an innate understanding of the pure destructiveness in the totality of war. It breeds very little that is good. Ripping families apart, causing children to grow up too fast, and subjecting mankind to excruciating loss and indignity.

But in my estimation, it remains far too simplistic to simply state that Grave of the Fireflies is an indictment of the carnage of war or that it is an anti-war picture because its scope is so much greater than that.

Notice what Takahata doesn’t do. He doesn’t make the Americans into dehumanized monsters or anything else. They are just absent, faceless individuals that we will never know. However, he does give us a front row seat to the events through the eyes of two other people.

I think it’s an especially uncomfortable and maybe an important perspective for Americans because instead of seeing ourselves front and center of this epic story of WWII amid both its victories and tragedies, we are only a distant force. This film causes us to take on the viewpoint of those on the other side of the Pacific. This wasn’t just an emblematic figure like Tojo or some crazed, inhuman killer that we were looking to take down.

It becomes clear from the outset that the people being displaced from their homes by firebombs and struggling with rationing and families getting split apart by conflict are not so unlike us.

Takahata brilliantly gears us up for a story that could not be more universal. It doesn’t take place on a battlefield. It doesn’t involve war rooms or army barracks. It’s about two siblings. An older brother Seita and his little baby sister Setsuko.

Together they provide the core of the film. Because Setsuko is one of those precocious little kids who undoubtedly does not comprehend the gravity of all the chaos that swirls around her. All she knows is that she wants to see her mother or that she’s hungry or that she wants her favorite Sakura fruit drops. And her brother provides for her and sticks to her closely with fortitude and faithfulness that makes their bond one of the most affecting connections between cinematic siblings.

I would be hardpressed to guess how old Seita is but there’s no doubt that he’s forced to act quite a lot older than should be necessary under normal circumstances. His father is gone in the navy. His mother is debilitated. He must be his sister’s keeper and everything else for her. Her friend, her playmate, and her protector from a traumatic world that she cannot begin to understand. Since they only have each other and as they skrimp by, as an audience we realize just how abhorrent their conditions are and how no child should ever have to know a life of malnutrition or obliteration.

It’s easy to marvel at the animation because whereas normally we would probably take care in depicting actions of great consequence, a picture such as this finds time to articulate the little things that feel so human. Fiddling with a piece of clothing, scratching an itchy mosquito bite, or simply frolicking along the shoreline for the sheer relish of the moment.

It’s these smaller interludes and touches that give even greater import to the larger ones. A childhood home burning down with a whole host of others so that an entire town looks drastically different. A brother and sister who are forced to live on their own thanks to the glacial welcome they receive from distant relatives. And ultimately the inevitable comes knocking: death.

But just as the titular fireflies fill young Setsuko with a certain awe and wide-eyed wonderment, even in death there seems to be some distant even elusive sense of hope. In a world that can hardly be fathomed, Seita and Setsuko are reunited; no longer plagued by their suffering, their path illuminated once more by nature’s shining beacons of light. While we might have slightly different views about the afterlife, there’s no doubt that we share a desire for such an outcome after death.

Where graves will be emptied. Death will be no more. Pain will have ended. War will be over. Families will be restored. Wounds will be healed and peace will be the final resounding note. Do not let your flame be extinguished by hate, burdens, or dissatisfaction but know that there is so much more to life. In their enduring innocence in the face of such devastation, Seita and Setsuko are a stirring reminder.

Because life is not simply upended by tragedy. It is also fortified by hope. That’s part of what makes it worth living. As Dylan Thomas once eulogized, “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Do not let your youth be quelled. Do not let your optimism be forfeited. Do not give up your capacity for love. It’s well worth the fight.

5/5 Stars

Hollywood Canteen (1944)

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This propaganda extravaganza showcases Hollywood in all its glory from the Brown Derby to the Hollywoodland sign and of course the pride and joy of wartime morale-boosting, the Hollywood Canteen.  It’s a bit of a faux reality, Hollywood’s rendition of what real life might actually be like since the Hollywood Canteen did in fact exist.

Historically, it began as an effort by John Garfield and Bette Davis of all people to support the troops and give them quality entertainment from the entertainment capital of the world. Though newsreel footage might serve as a better historical marker (albeit still biased), there’s no questioning the patriotic waves flooding through this picture.

True, even in this film there are anecdotes that point to a slightly different reality. Namely the fact that this was meant to be a Hollywood wide endeavor but all other studios balked and so the lineup is filled out by Warner Bros. catalog of stars and them alone.

Furthermore, it’s easy to surmise that far from being overcome by patriotic fervor, Joan Crawford probably took her role because the alphabetical billing conveniently put her above a couple perennial rivals in Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck.

Even with its authenticity in question, there’s no doubt that the film boasts talent. There’s an inexhaustible array of song & dance from the likes of the Andrew Sisters, Roy Rogers (with Trigger) and Jimmy Dorsey.  The stars also come out in full force with cameos from everyone conceivably under contract to Warner Bros from Kitty Carlisle, Jack Carson, Joe E. Brown, Ida Lupino, Jack Benny, and of course Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet staying in character. Each one provides enough star power to fill in the idle moments around our main love story.

Still, there’s no doubt that Joan Leslie was one of America’s sweethearts and it’s no coincidence that our protagonist falls head over heels for her all the way in the South Pacific. The pair of lovebirds represents all that is seemingly good and upright about American ideals even if she is a movie star and he is only a common soldier.

That makes the prospect of actually meeting her beyond his wildest dreams, but Hollywood purportedly is in the dream making business and so Slim gets his wishes granted. A date with his dream girl is soon arranged by those tactful matchmakers Davis and Garfield.

Robert Hutton is almost uncannily reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart who was at the time leading bombing raids over Germany. It seems little coincidence that he would then land the crucial role as the universal soldier Slim — a man who saw his share of action and is home for a short spell — before heading out on his next tour of duty.

He represents all the boys fighting for not just the Red, White, and Blue but every color and creed. In his very starry-eyed and candid way, he mentions each one as the camera picks each out of the crowd. Curious the only group not mentioned were members of the Japanese-American infantry. Yet another incongruity with the world at large. But the red carpet that is rolled out for him at the Hollywood Canteen is meant to be only a small recompense for all his service to his country.

Delmer Daves’s picture much like Stage Door Canteen (1943) fits the realm of saccharine propaganda, even blatantly so, but if you allow yourself to be carried away by the historical moment it has its certain charms.

True, the Home Front or the Allied cause isn’t quite as unified and squeaky clean as it claims to be just as humanity on the whole and the stars behind Hollywood rarely could hold up to scrutiny. However, there’s still something here that can make you smile. Publicity stunt or not. Maybe it’s the romantic in me that likes to believe there’s at least a kernel of truth in here and if nothing else there’s honest to goodness sincerity.

3.5/5 Stars