Monday, 21 April 2014

Kelly's Heroes - movie review

When I was young, and less wise, I developed some strange ideas about what constituted a great film. After seeing "Kelly's Heroes", for instance, I was convinced that I had just experienced the greatest war movie ever made. Little did I know that it was really intended as a "comedy", blending subtle satire, frivolity and action. Whatever my youthful misconceptions, it remains an entertaining, and occasionally thought-provoking picture.
The film centres on the exploits of a group of American soldiers in France in 1944, and their successful efforts to "steal" a haul of gold from a bank located behind enemy lines. The driving force behind the operation is Kelly, played by Clint Eastwood, who summons up his best "mean, moody and magnificent" persona for the role..
"Kelly Heroes" has much in common in many respects with the Vietnam-era war films which appeared later in the 1970s and 1980s. The fact that this picture was made in 1969/70 doubtless helped to shape its aesthetic and some of the undercurrents in the script. The music is vaguely "Age of Aquarius" in nature, and bits of the dialogue are not what one would normally associate with a World War Two film.
This juxtaposition between the Second World War and later counter-cultural values is of course epitomised by the character "Oddball", played by Donald Sutherland.  Oddball's tank unit resembles a proto-hippie commune, and the "modifications" to his armoured vehicles are perhaps an insinuation that evil can be tackled without recourse to excessive violence...
I have read it suggested that "Kelly's Heroes" contains an anti-war message. I would concur with this assertion, but at the same time this is an undercurrent, not rammed down the viewer's throat, and it may not be immediately clear to those only watching casually. There is mixture of satire and "black comedy" which helps to soften any abrasiveness or preachiness which might have crept in.

I am not entirely sure whether the producers of this movie were seeking to pose deeper and more complex moral questions.  The relative "merits" or stealing gold and waging war spring to mind, although of course in reaching the bank the troops had to engage the German forces anyway.  Men died in the process. Which was the more noble "cause"?
Some of the action sequences leave a little to be desired in terms of authenticity, but then again I doubt that "Kelly's Heroes" was aimed at the "purist" audience, militarily or historically speaking. One needs to accept some of the occasional absurdity, and disregard technical minutiae, to appreciate the basic thrust of the movie.
There are, however, one or two memorable scenes. The sequence where the unit becomes trapped in a minefield is especially gripping. More levity is provided by the comical misinterpretations by the American general, who thinks that news of the appearance of Kelly's men behind enemy lines is evidence of some heroic and selfless act of initiative and aggression. Telly Savalas' performance is also worthy of praise, as the irascible sergeant "Big Joe".
It might not be a good idea to watch "Kelly's Heroes" back-to-back with a "serious" war movie, but it is still an intriguing watch.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Lawrence of Arabia - movie review

As far as classic movies are concerned, David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia" was until recently one that had largely slipped through my net, and never truly "clicked" with me. Why this should have been I am not entirely sure, as it theoretically ticks most of the boxes for me, both thematically and artistically, and another of Lean's works, "The Bridge On The River Kwai", is probably my favourite movie of all time. Anyway, I have dusted off the DVD, and thought that I would offer my thoughts and observations.

The first thing to say about this film is that the visuals are sumptuous, and the cinematography top notch. The panoramic shots of desert valleys and camel trains are breathtaking, and endow "Lawrence of Arabia" with an epic, sweeping quality. Even the crowd scenes, which few directors can make look authentic, are nicely executed.

Of course, the other central element of the film is Peter O'Toole's highly impressive portrayal of the main character. It seems that the film-makers stuck pretty much to historical record, and how much the performances are consistent with the real personalities of the people will be a matter of debate. O'Toole's performance makes Lawrence seem like an ambiguous, even nebulous figure. A mass of ambiguities and contradictions, but also endearing in an eccentric, truculent kind of way.

As with "The Bridge On The River Kwai", one of the threads running through the story is the clash of cultures, and the interface of British values and imperialism with other peoples. Even though his superiors exuded a certain arrogance, Lawrence's approach is more equivocal, perhaps even manipulative, exploiting the lack of trust which the Arabs held for the British hierarchy. He is his own man, independent-minded, but with his own agenda, and the adulation shown towards him suits his own agenda. He seems to have driven all concerned to distraction at one time or another...

The scene from this film which customarily receives most acclaim is that of Omar Sharif approaching on the horizon on a camel. However, the one which sent a tingle down my spine was the one where Lawrence returns after rescuing a comrade who had become lost in the desert. This was a turning point, after which the Englishman was revered by those under his command. At times, it is easy to forget that Lawrence was employed by the British army, and that this campaign was essentially a theatre of the First World War.

The real "meat" of this movie is the effort of Lawrence to make sense of the factional and tribal rivalries and politics which appear to be impeding unity against the Turks and progress towards freedom and independence. His exasperation is made clear, as he tries to arbitrate as an outsider, or make them see reason.

I liked the way in which the touchy and vexed question of British imperialism was addressed, when the army commanders were asked whether Britain had any designs on Arabia. The awkward and non-committal answers given reflected both the unspoken reality, and their reluctance, as mere soldiers, to become embroiled in political matters.
The introduction of the American journalist Bentley adds a different dimension, but even his romantic illusions are soon confronted by the gruesome realities of war.
The supporting performances are part of the fabric which make this film special. Anthony Quayle is especially impressive as Colonel Brighton, seeking to rationalize Lawrence's unconventional methods. A word too for the atmospheric and evocative music of Maurice Jarre.
The fact that "Lawrence of Arabia" concludes on a somewhat downbeat and inconclusive note only adds to its appeal. War, and its outcome, are rarely straightforward, ideal or edifying.
A magnificent film.

Friday, 18 April 2014

1812 - Napoleon's Fatal March On Moscow - Adam Zamoyski

A while ago, I read Adam Zamoyski's superb study of the Vienna Peace Conference, "Rites Of Peace", and this encouraged me to seek out another work of his concerning the Napoleonic period, "1812 - Napoleon's Fatal March On Moscow".
Zamoyski starts by setting the scene, particularly the respective paths to 1812 followed by Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I, following the peace of Tilsit. Disaffection with Napoleon was growing among his "allies", much goodwill having been forfeited by heavy-handedness and a misunderstanding of the feelings of others. The pretensions of Alexander are illustrated, in so many ways a man of his time, espousing progressive sentiments, but hamstrung by the perilous nature of his own position, and the constant need to take heed of opinions at home.
The author also provides a handy guide to how the Continental System began to unravel, and also makes clear how important the whole Polish question was in the equation, something which is often overlooked. Also included in these preliminary chapters is an analysis of the Grande Armee, its strengths and shortcomings, how it had been diluted by attrition and campaigning, and also afflicted by corruption and decadence. 
The logistics of the invasion, when set out in their constituent parts, are staggering to contemplate in their intricacy and scale, when we consider that this was a pre-mechanization, pre-motorisation era. It would also seem that the stories about Napoleon's personal involvement in minute details are not exaggerated. It is also sobering to think that these daunting logistics to a large degree envisaged a short war.....
The great thing about books like this is that they tell the real story, without resorting to the generalisations and clich├ęs prevalent in other media formats.  Here, for example, we learn that the much-vaunted Russian strategy was conditioned by a multiplicity of factors, and that it was not as calculating and pre-ordained as is sometimes made out, but evolved due to the pressure of events.
The elements of this book which I found most enlightening were those which addressed the infighting and tensions within Russian society and its "establishment", and how they affected the course of the campaign. Of the generals, Barclay de Tolly appeared to be largely vindicated in his approach, despite the vitriol aimed at him by many. Even after being "sacrificed", he continued to make astute observations.
The portrayal of Kutuzov here is also intriguing. For all his "inspirational" and galvanizing qualities, and his symbolic value, he seems to have been an equivocal influence on matters. The course of the conflict appeared to unfold despite rather than because of his conscious decisions. Indeed, some of the most favourable developments, from a Russian standpoint, occurred because they suppressed the urge to do what their instincts told them to.
Also, we get a look at the truth behind the level of patriotic and peasant engagement in the struggle, and the ambiguity which existed in the relationship of the masses with their leader. Even well into the long French retreat, opinion at all levels of Russian society was very volatile, and could have come down in opposition to Tsar Alexander.
What emerged to me was the fragility of the French enterprise, with a lack of central purpose and clear objectives, betrayed by Napoleon's stress on diplomacy and symbolic shows of power and unity.
It is probably simplistic to say that the Emperor's powers were on the wane, and some of his misfortunes he brought on himself by his flawed behaviour in the aftermath of Tilsit. The fall-out from this was reflected in the agonizing which afflicted him once on Russian soil. Political anxieties assailed him, and ironically the erratic and contradictory signals emanating from St. Petersburg may have harmed France more than they did the Russians, by thoroughly confusing and misleading Napoleon.
It is notable that most of the soldiers in his army still retained implicit faith in Napoleon, even during the most terrible travails. This was most likely due to a combination of blind faith, Bonaparte's remarkable track-record and his hypnotic allure. He was still capable of rising to the heights on occasion, as with the crossing of bridges on the return journey from Moscow, and his political antennae still functioned, if more fitfully than before. Another facet of the tale which stood out for me was how some of Napoleon's generals, Ney for example, retained their professionalism and focus amidst the chaos and misery.

The full horror and relentlessness of the Battle of Borodino is amply conveyed too. Reading those passages, one can fully appreciate why historians regard it as one of the most intensely brutal and horrific days of fighting ever seen. The full desperate ebb and flow of the battle comes across, as does the heart-chilling aftermath.
Needless to say, a sizeable portion of this book concentrates on the horrors and hardships suffered by both soldiers and civilians. Indeed, conditions during the initial invasion in the summer of 1812 sound terrible enough, as is testified by the figures of attrition. The retreat from Moscow is captured in all its shades, with stories of brutality and compassion, desperation and resilience, endurance and resignation. We are also shown how various "subcultures" developed, to cope with the cold, the lack of food and shelter, and the over-riding need to survive.

To conclude the book, the author summarizes the events which followed the French retreat from Russia, as the events and policies of 1807 onwards bore bitter fruit for Napoleon. There is a note of pessimism, with persuasive arguments about the more conservative path which European politics took after 1815, perhaps in reaction to the rise of nationalism and the newly aroused aspirations of the "lower orders".

This is an engrossing, diligently researched and beautifully written account of this momentous episode. One thing which occurred me increasingly as I worked my way through it was how little Europe in particular learned from the cruelties, callousness and sheer futility of what happened, as was made clear just over a century later.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

National Football Museum

During a recent trip to Manchester, I took the opportunity to visit the National Football Museum, situated in the centre of the city.
I did not honestly know what to expect, but overall I would give the experience a qualified thumbs up. I had no real idea what to expect, and I am traditionally wary of museums of this nature, as they tend to be predictable and/or perfunctory. In all honesty, my first few minutes in the museum were a touch underwhelming, as it all seemed a little low-key. It is only when one climbs the stairs to the upper levels that things really come alive.
The challenge for museums like this one is to strike a balance, and to cater for all ages and levels of interest, without becoming either superficial or excessively high-brow. In this respect, I think that the people in Manchester have pitched things just about correctly. There is interactive stuff aplenty to keeps the kids interested, but also enough to draw in the footballing "anorak".
I was impressed and surprised by the variety and quality of the memorabilia and other material on display, from trophies and old footballs to programmes and shirts, and even football-orientated artworks. Football at all levels, and in all its shades, is covered, and there is commendable emphasis on the grassroots. the lower leagues and the formative years of the professional game. There is much stress, consciously or otherwise, on how much the game has changed over the decades, but one is also reminded that essentially many things about football have hardly changed at all, particularly the passion of the spectators and the enduring tactical fascination.

As someone who has lately become rather jaded with the game, this visit re-ignited my interest in the vibrancy of football culture. If one moderates one's expectations, a visit to the National Football Museum is very worthwhile for anyone passing through Manchester, with a little time to spare.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

The Trojan War - Barry Strauss

In my youth, the Trojan War was something of a staple in primary education, although the allure of Helen of Troy remained with me longer than the military or cultural niceties. The degree of historical truth seemed to matter little back then.
In more recent times, my increased interest in history of all periods has brought the story back into my orbit. I am currently working my way through Homer's Iliad, and was very pleased to come across Barry Strauss's book on the subject. My inclination, based on the available evidence, has generally been to be reasonably confident that some form of battle took place at the place cited, in the approximate time normally put forward, however much the tale might have been embellished and distorted later.

Importantly this book draws on more recent discoveries and evidence. The author's knowledge and enthusiasm for the whole ancient and Bronze Age world is palpable. I was impressed with the reasoned arguments which he employs, citing innumerable examples of events, traditions and tangible evidence found in the wider region, rather than just the narrow Aegean world.

Strauss rationalizes some of the more "fanciful" aspects of the "legend" in more believable and plausible terms, decoding some of the myths, superstition and symbolism for modern consumption. Things are thereby related in digestible and comprehensible form. Each stage of the battle is analysed in turn, helping to make it lean, compact and manageable.
This version includes the famous characters from the Iliad, whilst allowing that some of them might not have existed in the precise form cited in Homer, if at all. It doesn't adhere slavishly to the Homer line, pointing to instances where he may have exaggerated or demonstrated bias. Other sources, and the author's own conclusions and theories, are used to give the story shape and cohesion.
"The Trojan War" cuts through much of the dusty scholarship that can shroud topics such as this, to provide a breezy and concise telling. Strauss thankfully refrains from spending excessive time agonizing over the minutiae of "authenticity" and veracity, being decisive when he needs to be, imbuing the telling of the story with real clarity and energy. 

Interesting theories are ventured on the vexed question of the Trojan House. Whilst not totally ruling out the possibility that a wooden horse might have played some part, the author puts forward a plausible scenario whereby the "horse" of legend acts as a metaphor for some Greek trick,sleight of hand or deception, which provoked the opening of the gates of Troy.  Espionage perhaps?

Above all, I found this work informative, entertaining and quite absorbing.