1969) on its first theater run in 1969 (yes, I'm that old). To a young boy, the movie poster was exciting. I have remembered scenes for these past thirty years, and recently saw it again, so I'm here to give a few impressions. The plot, in short, is that a group of replacement US soldiers led by Burt Lancaster's character is sent to hold an ancient castle during the Battle of the Bulge, which opens up all sorts of moral dilemmas.
This unquestionably is a period piece from Filmways Pictures, but the period I am thinking of is not 1944 Europe, but rather 1969 California. As an anachronistic WWII film of
that period it is hardly alone, as it is joined by "Kelly's Heroes,"
"Catch 22" and a few other gems. The sensibility has nothing to do with
World War II and everything to do with the late 1960s. The focus is on
destruction, death, and sardonic one-liners (one soldier to another
after capturing a vehicle: "If we get caught, can they shoot us for
wearing a German tank?").
We get druggie mid-1960s arcade-style music
at times, a scene in a cathouse looks like a go-go bar, there is a
magical VW Beetle (as in 1968's "Herbie the Love Bug" magical, though
more subtle than that), and everybody walks around brooding or talking
to themselves as they ponder how horrible the world is. At one point, the Peter Falk character goes native and starts acting like a baker while the world is crumbling around him. It's a little taste of normalcy in a crazy world.
The key to enjoying this film is to appreciate its humor and
philosophy, which director Sydney Pollack sprinkles in liberally. After taking out one tank and seeing another pursue some of their fellow GI's into a house of worship, one soldier asks another,
"Should we get the other tank?" The reply, "No, it's in church." At
another point, the owner of the castle (Jean-Pierre Aumont), after suggesting a rather
immoral liaison by the American leader with his young wife (the lovely Astrid Heeren), says, "I
realize you may think me degenerate, or worse, French."
The defining characteristic of the film is its heavy-handed symbolism.
A tank crushes delicate statuary under its treads. Another tank breaks
into a church in pursuit of two GI's who crouch at the altar. An unseen
but obviously cultured German (a vivid turning of the tables on who is
morally superior here) fixes a GI's flute and plays it beautifully,
only to be shot by the GI's companion, who, when asked why he did that,
replies, "In case you hadn't noticed, that's how we make our living." I
doubt any 1944 GI's would have said anything like that, but perhaps a
1969 one would. The Burt Lancaster character enlists a raving and
battle-fatigued Bruce Dern, in surely the strangest role of a career
full of eccentric parts, to lead other crazed troops to safety, but
catastrophe ensues which tellingly leaves the heroic Lancaster
untouched like the God of War in his element.
Burt Lancaster plays it straight as an arrow until showing some hints
of philosophy himself toward the end, an unreconstructed image of a
classic Hollywood leader versus the more free-wheeling types
surrounding him. This was standard in revisionist films, Clint Eastwood
did the same thing in "Kelly's Heroes." What underlies Lancaster's character is that he understands the horror and what everyone else is feeling, but he realizes none of that matters - only the war and its
outcome matters. That at times he almost seems like an alien dropped in
from the mother ship as compared to his live-and-let-live troops is, I
feel confident, a key point that director Pollack is trying to make.
Now, with all the mysticism and preaching and symbolism and sardonic
commentary on the futility of war and all that, you might not expect
some absolutely first-class battle scenes. You would be wrong. There
are scenes that are as good as any other battle sequences I can recall.
They too are marred by undue symbolism - prostitutes greet a German
tank, distracting its soldiers, who are then killed when the
prostitutes throw Molotov cocktails on them - but somebody knew their
business when crafting the actual fighting scenes. The tanks, tactics
and other weaponry look about as real as you are ever going to get.
Either you like dark, moody war pictures like "On A Midnight Clear" of
twenty years later, which is practically a re-make of this film, or you
don't. I do. Try it if you want a very different kind of war film.
|Burt Lancaster, old-style hero|
|Career performance by Peter Falk, never topped this|
|Bruce Dern at the absolute top of his game|
|If this looks like a circle of Hell....|
|"Shoot down the GD plane!"|
|The business end of a bazooka|
|"The war is all that matters...."|