Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Castle Keep (1969) - Fascinating Period Piece

Original film poster for Castle Keep 1969

I actually saw "Castle Keep" (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.

Burt Lancaster astride his white charger in Castle Keep 1969
Burt Lancaster, old-style hero in an unconventional film.

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?").

Peter Falk in Castle Keep 1969
Career performance by Peter Falk, never topped this despite many fine projects.

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.

Bruce Dern leading a band of misfits in Castle Keep 1969
Bruce Dern at the absolute top of his game.

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."

A cathouse in Castle Keep 1969
If this looks like a circle of Hell....

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.

Bruce Dern leading a band of misfits in Castle Keep 1969
There are some fantastic interludes in "Castle Keep" that keep it real.

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.

A Bazooka ready to fire in Castle Keep 1969
The business end of a bazooka.

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.

Burt Lancaster at his post in Castle Keep 1969
"The war is all that matters...."

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.


No comments:

Post a Comment