Friday 31 August 2018

Von Ryan's Express (1965)

Off-List: Von Ryan's Express
As usual I have selected three off-list movies for 1965 and the first of them is Von Ryan’s Express. It not a movie I knew to be good and therefore deserving a place on the List. In fact, I have never seen it before. Rather, going through a list of major films from 1965 this one stood out as being interesting and of a genre that is sadly underrepresented on the List, the adventure movie. Also, it features one of my favorite actors, Frank Sinatra.

It is 1943 and Colonel Joseph Ryan (Frank Sinatra), a pilot, has been shot down over Italy. He is brought to a POW camp holding around 400 or so British soldier, who from the look of it have been there for some time. As their own colonel has recently died, Ryan is now the ranking officer.

The British prisoners are having a row with their Italian guards, notably the commandant Battaglia (Adolfo Celi), led by the fiery Major Fincham (Trevor Howard). As a result, Battaglia has shut off the water and medicine supply as well as a number of other necessities. The first thing Ryan does is to put an end to this childish row and get proper care for the men. This does not go down so well with the British, who nickname him Von Ryan.

Then the Italian army surrenders, and the Germans take over. In the limbo the prisoners escape and begin a mad dash towards the Swiss border, mainly on board a train.

This is a war time prison escape movie and as such one of many. It is probably not the best, but it does have a number of qualities. First and foremost, it keeps up a high level of suspense and pace, making it a fun and easy movie to watch. The train ride to Switzerland is never boring and easily the best part of the movie.

Secondly, 20th Century Fox went all out and filmed much of the movie on location in Italy and it paid off. The footage is amazing. The train ride through the beautiful Italian landscape filmed from the train and from the air is a brilliant advertisement for the country.

There are passages where the adventure part of it gets the upper hand, especially the slapstick scenes with the Italian guards and the laughing British soldiers. The movie loses a lot of credibility in those scenes and though the intension is to lighten up the movie, it goes too far.

Then at other times it is surprisingly faithful to the story it is trying to tell. The Germans actually speak German and the Italians speak Italian. The planes really are Messerschmidt aircraft and people do die meaningless deaths. The ending itself is not exactly the typical Hollywood ending that you would expect, but surprisingly dark.

Sinatra is, well, Sinatra and that is always good, thought this is nowhere his finest performance. He does what he needs to do and that is fine enough. His role could easily have been done by Sean Connery. It is Trevor Howard who steals the picture. I cannot recall ever seeing him this fiery. The looks and scowls he sends off are priceless as are his frequent verbal jabs.

I found myself greatly entertained by this movie and in a decade the List editors have stuffed with bleak, weird or arty movies, a film like “Von Ryan’s Express” is a breath of fresh air. I could easily see this one again.

Saturday 25 August 2018

Golden River (Subarnarekha) (1965)

Yet again we are back in India. Given how big and influential Indian movies are today I suppose it is only reasonable that they get some space on the list. Every time however, I am reminded that I am not Indian and that Indian culture is distinctly different from western culture. I sense I am missing entire aspects of these movies and I get confused a lot.

“Subarnarekha” is no different in that respect. It is interesting enough and well made, but I am not in a position to actually understand it nor the themes it refers to and so my review of it will be awkward.

Iswar (Abhi Bhattacharya) is a Hindu refugee in 1947, escaping from Bangladesh during the partition of India. He brings with him a girl, Sita (Indrani Chakrabarty, Madhabi Mukherjee) who is either his sister or daughter. This is fairly important, I think, but I honestly cannot tell. Age-wise she must be his daughter, but they call each other brother and sister. In the refugee camp he picks up a lonely boy, Abhiram (Sriman Tarun, Satindra Bhattacharya) and take him in. Abhiram is also addressed as brother. Iswar gets a job from a rich friend as second in command of a factory.

Years later Iswar is now wealthy and the children have grown up and fallen in love with each other. This is a problem. Especially when it turns out that Abhiram is actually low-caste. Iswar’s boss is a religious man and it is important to him that Iswar does not associate with low-caste. So, Sita must be married off to someone else, which does not turn out so well. In the middle of the ceremony she and Abhiram run away together.

Fast forward another few years and Iswar is going crazy and Sita and Abhiram are poor together in the city with a small child. It is not really getting better from this point.

It is a grim tale, but also a bit strange. A lot hinges on what the actual status of the children are. Are they now legally brother and sister, then of course they cannot marry, and their eloping seems rather reckless. Biologically of course they are not brother and sister, so what is the big deal for Iswar? And this thing with low-caste, how weird and stupid is that? Iswar is giving him an education and has raised him. He is not some simple boy from the gutter.

Iswar’s life is getting massively ruined because of all this and that is both understandable, both his children (?) are gone, and somewhat excessive. The climax of the movie, which I will not reveal here, is of course intensely traumatic, but Iswar was already dissolving up to that point.

In traditional Indian style much of the movie takes place on dismal locations and is peppered with songs. These are very… Indian. Normally not my cup of tea, but I must admit they were haunting and added exactly the right ambience to the movie. The dismal locations, well, it is India. Dismal locations is the standard.

This movie is very much in line with the other Indian movies on the list so far. Bleak and political and quite far from the style normally associated with Bollywood. These were likely the ones that made an impact outside India. In India Subarnarekha apparently tanked. The audience did not care much for its misery.

In the final analysis I was okay with this one. It is really okay, but just difficult for me to fully understand. It seems unnecessarily dismal, but hey, this is India.

Thursday 16 August 2018

Tokyo Olympiad (Tokyo Orimpikku) (1965)

Tokyo Olympiaden
The next Olympic games in 2020 will be in Tokyo, so it is probably fitting to watch a movie from the last (and first) time Tokyo hosted the Olympics.

“Tokyo Olympiad” (“Tōkyō Orinpikku”) is somewhere between a documentary and an ode to the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. Through its 170 minutes it covers the games from the lighting of the Olympic torch in Greece, through the opening ceremony, the many sports events to the closing ceremony. Sometimes as a sports report, sometimes telling stories about the people behind the competitions and sometimes as a style study, trying to capture the essence of a sport.

The obvious reference is Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia from the 1936 games and in many ways Kon Ichikawa has borrowed from Riefenstahl’s template. The games as a mystical event, the celebration of the athletic body and the love of the idea of the games themselves is almost copy-paste. However, where Riefenstahl had to humor her Nazi sponsors Ichikawa merely has to humor a Japanese audience who was proud to host the games and liked to see the Japanese athletes do well. I cannot really blame them, it seems a quite natural point of view. An American, Russian or Danish movie on the subject would have the same bias.

It was a big thing for Japan to host the games. They were scheduled to host it in 40, but the war got in the way and after the war they were blacklisted and not even invited to the games in London in 48. To the Japanese to host the games in 64 meant the official return to the good company, the recovery of Japan in the eyes of the world and of themselves. It is this pride I feel watching this movie.

Each of the many sport events is portrayed a bit differently from the others. The athletics gets special coverage, probably because it is the original Olympic sport, and we see a great many disciplines. Some races we see in their entirety with a focus on the winning of a race and I could feel the thrill of a sports audience. Others were summaries as if listing headlines for the late news (with a similar lac of excitement). Some of the throwing disciplines were not so much covered and as used to exhibit the technique and style of the athletes. There are a lot of medals and a lot of national anthems.

Then the film takes a tour of the various other sports, often ignoring who were winning in preference of trying to capture the essence. Cycling for exampling is a lot of bicycles racing fast with up-tempo music. Fencing is the concentration and frustration of making and taking points and wrestling and weightlifting the sheer exertion of strength and will.

We get the story of the runner from Chad who is far away from home and the unnamed penthalon fighter who takes an unremarkable 37th place, but participated.   

Finally, the climax is the marathon, which gets special coverage. For this race all the styles and techniques used covering the other sports are here combined in the glorious demonstration of athletes pitting themselves against their own strength and endurance. The camera is excited, and it is difficult not to be caught up in it. Uh, I got tired from watching it, but also filled with an urge to run.

“Tokyo Olympiad” is a far more modern movie than “Olympia” and cater to our more modern sensibilities. This movie does not look 53 years old and the presentation is captivating. I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected I would. But it is also very much a remake of “Olympia” and “Tokyo Olympiad” would not exist without the former.

Highly recommended.

… and yes, I did look in vain for coverage of the two gold medals Danish athletes won in Tokyo…

Friday 3 August 2018

The Battle of Algiers (La Battaglia di Algeri) (1965)

The Battle of Algiers

”The Battle of Algiers” is an Italian/Algerian movie about the uprising that ultimately led to the independency of Algeria from France. It is a movie shot in a newsreel style attempting to be a documentary, to give the impression of reality although everything is staged years after events actually too place.

Let me say right from the start that I do have some problems with this movie.

While “The Battle of Algiers” pretends to be objective and depict reality it is after all an ordered job by the Algerians. According to comments the Italian contractors rejected the blatantly one-sided view the Algerians initially wanted and insisted on a more neutral point of view, but “more” is probably they right word. When you watch this movie there can be no doubt that the movie intends to favor the rebels although it avoids outright demonization of the French. So, we as viewers are supposed to take side with the Algerian rebels.

Well, that is a normal premise for propaganda movies, so I guess we have to live with that.
The real problem is that those heroic rebels are simple terrorists. Random murder, bombings, stabbing, ramming with cars, all those are acts we are terribly familiar with today and I think most will agree that such acts cannot be accepted no matter the cause. Maybe I am particularly sensitive to the subject by having been frequently to Israel over the past 18 years including during the second intifada. I know how it feels to be part of a public that can be subjected to random bombings and stabbings and the rage the French-minded public in Algiers feels is very much understandable to me. 

The motives of the Algerian FLN may be noble and they make some fine speeches, even if they do not altogether make sense, but through their choice of means they delegitimize themselves completely. Despicable though it was, the tactic was clever and ultimately successful. The terror attacks generated a huge amount of anger and outrage, which meant that the gloves came off. At the same time it very much created an “us and them” situation between “Europeans” and “Africans”, which threw the regular Algerians into the arms of the FLN, whether they were so inclined or not. Not dissimilar from the situation in Gaza. Because of that it actually did not matter if the FLN survived or not, they had already won the population and thus the war.

The French are through the movie criticized for being cruel and ham-fisted and it certainly does not look good what they are doing. In hindsight there was a lot they could and should have done differently, most of all in the battle of hearts and minds. The colonial disregard for native culture was definitely part and parcel to their ultimate failure. Still, in hindsight, did the Algerians actually win by kicking out the French or would they actually have been in a better place today had they found a peaceful accommodation? I think they would, but in the Middle East people tends to shoot themselves in the foot.

The interesting thing about the movie is that the Italian’s insistence on making it as real as possible inadvertently shows the Algerians in a less favorable light and makes us understand the French. Despite itself it actually undermines the very premise of the movie. One could argue that this is a redeeming feature of the movie, that it proves its neutrality, but I am not certain it is intentional. 

A good example is the portrait of Colonel Mathieu, a character who is not real, but a composite of a number of actual characters. He is a hard nail, a ruthless commander who wants to win at all costs, but then the movie also decides to present him in a far more favorable light, one that respects his enemy, command from the front rather than from behind and who asks very essential questions about the motivation for the fight. Hardly a one-dimensional villain. 

I cannot hide that I had a lot of sympathy for the French in this movie and very little for the FLN. It must have been very frustrating to live in Algiers at the time and hindsight did not help them much. There is a part of me who despise the movie for its sympathies, a part of me who want to kick the French administration for messing it up and a part of me who am impressed with how real this movie looks and therefore despite having to celebrate the FLN actually ends up condemning it. I think it is worth watching, but it is not a pleasant watch.