Tag Archives: Movies

Paths of Glory – The Insanity of World War I

Paths Of Glory 1

Kirk Douglas as Col. Dax

Libraries of books have been written about World War I. Historians still debate why the murder of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie resulted in a global war between countries that didn’t have any interests in the Balkans. They argue over why the generals of Great Britain, France, and Germany made the same mistakes over and over again between 1914 and 1918. Others argues that, actually, the generals didn’t perform that badly at all given the circumstances of the time.

There is no way to answer these questions in a simple blog post. Rather, I want to briefly describe how Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) portrays The Great War, and to answer the question asked of every movie that portrays historical events, is it accurate? I’ll be honest. I’ve loved this movie since I first saw it in graduate school (while my main focus was medieval Europe, my secondary area of study was 20th-Century Europe). It is a great film full of excellent performances, beautiful cinematography, and gripping drama. But for me, Paths of Glory is also the movie that most accurately capture the horrors of World War I.*

No movie is perfect. As with many historical movies, writers and directors take an event from here and an event from there, and put them together for dramatic effect. The result is something that is not literally true. However, it can be true to the spirit of the time. Indeed, it is not uncommon for historians to use pieces of historical evidence separated by small distances and small amounts of time to create an overall picture of a historical period. They just don’t present it as a cohesive narrative as filmmakers do. So, in Paths of Glory, we see a French commander ordering his own artillery to fire on his own troops, and we see privates randomly (and not so randomly) chosen for execution as punishment for an entire unit. Events like these did occur. They were rare (or perhaps even unique), but they are definitely within the realm of historical fact. That is, while the events portrayed in the movie are not “exactly what actually happened”, they are not affronts to the truth either.

This brings me to what Paths of Glory does very well from the perspective of portraying historical events. Kubrick and the cinematographer Georg Krause, accurately captured the visual look of the trenches, of no man’s land, and of the palaces where the generals lived. And most importantly, the movie accurately captures the behavior of the officers. We see an officer berate a soldier suffering from shell-shock. The officer claims that no such thing exists and that the soldier is merely a coward. We see suicidal attacks ordered by officers who dispassionately spout statistics and time-tables to show how logical the attack is and how certain it is to succeed. And we see officers oblivious to the realities of front lines. They have no real idea what is going on. Whether this ignorance is willful or a sign of their lack of competence depends on the individual officer. However, to the soldiers who lived in the trenches and were ordered to attack, it didn’t matter – in the movie or in real life. By 1917 (about the time the events of the movie take place), one million French men had been killed. At the time, the entire male population of France was only 20 million. It is no wonder the novel the film is based on was unpopular in some quarters when it came out in 1935.

Paths of Glory is not a happy movie. It does not have a happy ending. But in addition to being a well-crafted tragedy, I think it accurately and powerfully captures the insanity of World War I. A lesson we should always remember.

*Please note, I didn’t footnote anything. Indeed, I wrote this mostly from memory. I take full responsibility for any factual errors. However, even if I’ve gotten a detail or two wrong, I’m very confident in my overall conclusions. For those who’d like to know more, or to see my sources as it were, here are two books that were very influential in shaping my view of WWI. I highly recommend them.

Barnett, Correlli. The Swordbearers: Supreme Command in the First World War

Keegan, John. The Face of Battle

2 Comments

Filed under Ramblings

The Great Gatsby – A Near-perfect Adaptation

To begin with, I love Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I taught the novel for many years but I never grew tired of reading it. So, as I sat down to watch Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, I expected to like the movie – his Romeo + Juliet is one of my favorite movies – but I wasn’t sure how anyone could capture the novel on film. It’s too poetic, too tragic, and too challenging (Is Jay Gatsby really a hero? Is the American Dream really an illusion, a carrot to make us good little worker bees?). I was happily mistaken. I think Luhrmann has created what might be the most faithful adaptation that could ever be made. I’m not sure how it could be closer.

In retrospect, I should not have been surprised as Luhrmann is known for his stylized movies and Gatsby is a very stylized novel. It’s full of long descriptive passages that perch on the line between prose and poetry. For example, here’s the description of one of Gatsby’s parties:

The bar is in full swing, and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside, until the air is alive with chatter and laughter, and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot, and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names.

The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word. The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath

Let me geek-out for a moment. This description is in the present tense while the novel is generally in the past tense. The party is happening right now (even though it is long since over). It is fresh and vibrant in the narrator’s mind unlike other memories which are fading. It is like a painting. The events captured on the canvas are always happening for the first time whenever someone looks at it. Let’s just pause a minute and marvel at Fitzgerald’s genius…

20130512-201049.jpg

Besides the use of figurative language, Fitzgerald wrote Gatsby in the first person and thus the novel is a record of the jumbled, dream-like memories of the narrator Nick Carroway. The events of chapter two actually take place after the events described in chapter three, and the novel continues to jump back and forth in time chapter by chapter. Even within chapters time can be an unstable thing. Here Nick describes leaving a drunken party:

Then Mr. McKee turned and continued on out the door. Taking my hat from the chandelier, I followed.

“Come to lunch some day,” he suggested, as we groaned down in the elevator.

“Where?”

“Anywhere.”

“Keep your hands off the lever,” snapped the elevator boy.

“I beg your pardon,” said Mr. McKee with dignity, “I didn’t know I was touching it.”

“All right,” I agreed, “I’ll be glad to.”

. . . I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands.

“Beauty and the Beast . . . Loneliness . . . Old Grocery Horse . . . Brook’n Bridge . . . .”

Then I was lying half asleep in the cold lower level of the Pennsylvania Station, staring at the morning Tribune, and waiting for the four o’clock train.

Just to be clear, those ellipses are not mine. They’re Fitzgerald’s. Then what just happened? How did Nick get from the party to Mr. McKee’s bedroom, and then to the station? Fitzgerald simple used the literary version of the jump cut or montage to represent what it’s like to be very, very drunk.

Ok, Fitzgerald’s novel is lyrical and dreamy. What does that have to do with the movie? Simply this: Many reviews have criticized the film for being all flash, over-whelming visuals, and little substance. Well, yes that might be true, but that’s actually how it should be. Indeed, that’s one of the points of the novel. Underneath its flash and spectacle, the Jazz Age was hollow. And thus Luhrmann’s jumpy, music-video style actually mirrors the prose and theme of the novel.

I will admit, Luhrmann’s Gatsby won’t be to everyone’s taste. It does not have a clear narrative, there are many showy set pieces that don’t seem to move the movie forward in any way, the characters are at best shallow or flawed, and it lacks a Hollywood ending. While I might criticize other movies for having these qualities, for Gatsby they are perfect. Luhrmann has given us a beautiful and faithful cinematic version of the novel.

5 Comments

Filed under Ramblings

And the Oscar goes to…William Shakespeare

To celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday I wrote this little piece on how the Bard can save Hollywood. You can find more Shakespeare birthday posts at Happy Birthday Shakespeare.

* * *

I’m not the first person to suggest that if he lived today William Shakespeare would be one of the biggest names in Hollywood. Shakespeare acted, he wrote scripts, and the company he co-founded owned two theaters and had a royal patent – in other words, he was a studio head/producer. He was also adept at politics. His company went from being the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to the King’s Men as the Tutor dynasty ended and the Stewart dynasty began. Shakespeare was The Man. And by that I mean, he was at the center of both the cultural and political establishment of his day.

Shakespeare didn’t just do these things. He did them very well. His dialogue is beautifully crafted. His characters are a mess of emotions and contradictions. I vacillate from feeling sorry for Hamlet to wanting to tell him to “man up” and kill Claudius already. His plays are filled with – I can’t help but use the phrase – cinematic action. It’s really not surprising that I like Shakespeare and action movies.

Moreover, he wasn’t above pandering to the crowd with crude and sophomoric humor, or portraying Queen Elizabeth’s father and grandfather in a complementary light. He played to his audience and endeavored to bring them along with him. He did not expect his audience to come to him high atop the mountain of pure art – wherever that is.

This raises the question, does the fact that Richard III ends with Henry Tutor saving the day and bringing peace and prosperity to England reduce the art of the play? Let me put it another way. If Shakespeare was that Hollywood heavy weight I described above, would his plays be popcorn movies, released as potential summer blockbusters? Or would they be given a limited art house released? This is a trick question, of course, because Shakespeare was both popular and high brow. Today we divide movies into Hollywood/mainstream/commercial on the one hand and art on the other.

But why do we divide movies in this way? This is actually a big question that deserves its own post. For the moment, let me merely say this division is a shame because it is possible for a movie to be both. One of the best recent examples is Gladiator which was an art movie disguised as an action movie. Or an action movie disguised as art movie depending on your perspective.

In the past few years there has been a lot of hand wringing in the film industry about declining and/or stagnant movie ticket sales. But today, on his birthday, William Shakespeare can provide the solution. All filmmakers have to do is this: Go watch some of Shakespeare’s plays, learn from them, and start making action movies that are also art movies, or art movies that are also action movies. Then the multi-plexes would be as full today as the Globe was in its day.

2 Comments

Filed under Ramblings

Movies: John Carter

I saw John Carter yesterday, and in short, I really enjoyed the movie. The movie, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars (1912), balances action and world building better than most sci-fi/fantasy movies. With its sweeping vistas of Mars, this is one of those movies that must be seen on the big screen. It will lose a lot if viewed on even a large TV.

The best part of the movie, however, was the characters. John Carter is one of the rare movies in which the heroes are more interesting than the villains (this is a topic that deserves its own post). The title character is a haunted veteran of the Civil War who goes West seeking gold, and who has little use for other people or their causes. He fought for a cause, and in doing so, he lost everything. As the movie opens, it is clear he does not want to make that mistake again. Dejah Thoris, the Princess of the book’s title, is a scholar and warrior who flees her besieged city to escape a political marriage with an enemy ruler. Very quickly their paths cross, and it is their crossed purposes – his desire to get back to his gold in the Arizona Hills, and hers to find a way to save her city – that provides most the conflict and drama of the story.

As for the film’s villains, they could be best described as personifications of greed, violence, and entropy. In a way, they are the perfect 21st-Century villains. They are shadowy, faceless parasites, slowly sucking the life out of Mars, not unlike the evils Earth faces today: Climate change, terrorism, and the financial meltdown (with its arcane credit-default swaps and “securitization” of sub-prime mortgages). John Carter smartly, I think, leaves the villains as forces of nature (like the shark in Jaws), and focuses on the heroes, and how they face challenges that are bigger than any one person. This is a refreshing change from the revenge-motivated, I-can-kill-everything hero and the all-too-interesting villain so often found in recent action movies.

See John Carter in the theater. It is well worth the time and money.

* * *

The studio released several trailers and clips for the movie. Below is my favorite. It was the first trailer released, and, ironically, I think it captures the film best. Especially nice is the use of Peter Gabriel’s cover of “My Body is a Cage.” If you are unfamiliar with the story, I won’t say any more – I don’t want to spoil anything. Just, watch (or watch again) this trailer after you’ve seen the movie. I think you’ll see what I mean.

4 Comments

Filed under Ramblings

Happy Birthday Edgar!

Edar Allan Poe is one of my favorite writers. His use of first-person narration and lurid Gothic imagery gives him a unique voice. There’s nothing like reading “The Raven” on a cold, gray afternoon. Whenever I read Poe, the images in my mind’s eye possess almost no color. To use an analogy, I don’t see Poe’s stories as black and white films. Rather, I see them as color movies shot using a blue film stock. I’m not sure why – it’s just the picture that formed in my head when I first started reading Poe.

Detroit-born Roger Corman clearly visualized Poe’s work differently. Between 1959 and 1964, Corman made eight adaptations of Poe’s work (actually “The Haunted Palace” only takes its name from Poe – it’s actually based on H. P. Lovecraft’s The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward, but I’m willing it count it). These eight movies, sometimes called Corman’s Poe Cycle, were filmed in vivid color and often had few dark shadows.

While Corman’s bright palette is jarring for me, there’s something fun about his adaptations. Perhaps it’s Vincent Price chewing the scenery or perhaps it’s how he incorporated Poe’s “Hop-Frog” into “The Masque of the Red Death.”  Perhaps it’s that Corman hewed closely to Poe’s themes, if not his imagery.

Regardless, Poe’s birthday is a good excuse to watch one of Corman’s cult classics. And to whet your appetite here’s a trailer: From 1960, starring Vincent Price…”House of Usher”

2 Comments

Filed under Ramblings

One of my Favorites: Casablanca

Casablanca (1943) is one of my favorite movies. It’s almost a cliché now, but it’s a brilliant film that to me never gets old. I could go on and on, but I will restrain myself to just two minutes of the film – the scene where Laszlo has Rick’s band play La Marseillaise to drown out the Germans singing. First, the direction is amazing. The camera focuses on all the major characters in a series of shot-countershots. Characters walk in and out of frame is a naturalistic way. This choreography is simply amazing.

While there are only three words of dialogue in this two-minute scene, it contains a lot of acting. As the camera focuses in on the characters, their expressions alone reveal so much. One person who was probably not acting is Madeleine LeBeau who played Yvonne, Rick’s jilted lover. LeBeau and her real-life husband, Marcel Dalio (Emil the croupier), escaped France in 1940, just ahead of the invading Germans. They traveled to Lisbon and eventually made it to America. I can’t help but think that the tear running down her face as she sang La Marseillaise and the passion in her cry of “Vive la France” were real.

Enjoy the scene!

Leave a comment

Filed under Ramblings

Future Classic Movies: Jane Eyre (2011)

Paula’s Cinema Club asked the excellent question, if Turner Classic Movies is still around in 30 years, what movies will they be showing, and who will be the host? Here’s my answer…

The year is 2042. The scene is the TCM set. The host is Drew Barrymore, actor, director, producer, and member of the one of the greatest acting families in American history…

Barrymore: Hello everyone, and welcome to another installment of The Essentials. Tonight we’ve got an amazing picture for you Jane Eyre – the 2011 version that is. And here to talked about it is this month’s guest host, bestselling author William Chandler. Welcome.

Chandler: Thank you for having me.

Barrymore: I’m sure some people are asking what’s a novelist doing guest-hosting TCM’s The Essentials?

Chandler: [Laughs] That’s a good question.

Barrymore: Your novels have been described as cinematic.

Chandler: Yes, that’s true. And I take that as a compliment. I love movies and the language of film almost as much as the I love the written word. When I was growing up, TCM was always on. I think that’s all my parents ever watched.

Barrymore: Not coincidentally, all your picks this month are film adaptations of classic novels.

Chandler: True.

Barrymore: It’s a cliche that the book is always better than the movie. So that begs the question, why is Jane Eyre an essential film?

Chandler: I admit it. I just love a good Gothic story.

Barrymore: And you are known for your Gothic novels.

Chandler: True, and the novel Jane Eyre has been influential on my writing. Charlotte Bronte took a genre that was pretty tired and worn out, some might say dead, and used its DNA to write  – what was at the time – a contemporary story. Which is what I try and do.

Barrymore: DNA? Bringing something back to life? Sounds like your pick for next week, Frankenstein.

Chandler: Indeed.

Barrymore. But you haven’t answered my other question. Why is Jane Eyre, and this particular version of Jane Eyre an Essential. Are you telling me it’s better than the book?

Chandler: [Laughs] Um, actually, this might be one of the rare examples where the film version is better than the book. And by that I mean a better, or more compellingly told story. Frankly, I think the 2011 version of Jane Eyre is a mini-film school.

Barrymore: That’s a bold statement.

Chandler: Let’s start with the sheer visual beauty of it. It’s one of those movies everyone should see on the big screen.

Barrymore: I totally agree, and I think it’s crazy that the cinematographer Adriano Goldman didn’t at least get an nomination for an Oscar.

Chandler: Absolutely. And it’s not just beautiful static shots. The film incorporates many different techniques: Subjective camera angles, wide shots, close ups. The camera use conveys alienation, imprisonment, a metaphorical sense of lurking danger, and perhaps most importantly, they all contribute to this dream-like quality – and that dream-like quality is present in many of the best Gothic novels.

Barrymore: Even the screenplay adds to the dream-like quality by chopping up the narrative of the novel. Most of the film literally takes place in Jane’s head.

Chandler: Yes, it’s a brilliant use of flashbacks. A brilliant tutorial if you will. And the whole dream motif is capped–

Barrymore: Wait! I know what you’re going to say, and there might be some watching tonight who’ve never seen the movie. We’ll let them discover that part for themselves. But you’re right it is amazing. Now let’s talk about the actors. I thought there was an amazing chemistry between Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska.

Chandler: Absolutely. And going along with the film-school theme, the two really put on quite a clinic. What I mean is– It makes me think of this time when I was teaching English. I had this bright student, a gifted writer, who loved horror stories and movies. The bloodier the better. After the umpteenth zombie and dismembered body, I challenged him to write a horror story without one drop of blood. I wanted to show him that less is often more. This film is a beautiful example of this. The passion these characters have for each other is palpable, and one scene in particular I find highly charged.

Barrymore: The scene after Jane saves Rochester from the fire.

Chandler: Exactly. You don’t see a lot of skin, but the way Fassbender and Wasikowska look at each other, the way they hold each other’s hands, how they move closer together ever so slightly, it creates this beautiful and potent intimacy.

Barrymore: Those two did so much with a glance or a raised eyebrow.

Chandler: I know. Fassbender’s one of my favorite actors. He can convey such passion in such a naturalistic way. Unlike say – ah I know this might cause an angry mob to form outside the studio – unlike say Lawrence Olivier’s acting which I find a little stiff, or affected.

Barrymore: You’re thinking of his Heathcliff in the 1939 version of Wuthering Heights?

Chandler: Um yes, but I guess I feel that way about his acting generally.

Barrymore: [Laughs] Well ok then. I think I hear the mob forming already. So let’s start the film. From 2011, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, with cinematography by Adriano Goldman, and staring Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska…Jane Eyre.

10 Comments

Filed under Ramblings