Category: Army drama

Beau Travail (1999)

Beau Travail (1999)

Denis poetic, art-house classic is intense, searing and transformative, crammed with beautiful images

Director: Claire Denis

Cast: Denis Lavant (Adjudant-Chef Galoup), Michel Subor (Commandant Bruno Forestier), Grégoire Colin (Légionnaire Gilles Sentain), Richard Courcet (Légionnaire), Nicolas Duvauchelle (Légionnaire)

I think it’s fair to say Beau Travail will not be to everyone’s taste. For every person (a bit like me) who comes out of the film humming ‘Rhythm of the Night’, they’ll be another who will never have made it far enough into the film to even understand why anyone would. Denis’ poetic film, shot like a combination of art project and choreographic exercise almost wilfully foregoes plot and character in favour of experience. Framed around a voiceover that could be almost anything from a diary, to a letter to a suicide note, Beau Travail is a film that wants you to be as uncertain about its aims and intents, as its lead character is about his own.

Denis’ film is a remix of several literary sources, most notably Melville’s Billy Budd – though you can also make a case that there is more than a trace of Othello in there. Set in a French Foreign Legion unit based in Djibouti under the command of veteran Forestier (Michel Subor), our focus is his Adjudant-Chef Galoup (Denis Lavant). Galoup is a rigid stickler for duty and an obsessive legionnaire, distant from those around him. He takes an almost instant, irrational, dislike for new recruit Sentain (Grégoire Colin) who can form easy rapport with those around him. Galoup schemes to destroy Sentain. In a framing device, Galoup recounts the story having left the Foreign Legion.

It should probably be restated that this brief summary of the plot pretty much covers every detail in this brief but poetically open-ended film. It takes over a third of the film’s runtime for the unexplained conflict at the film’s heart to even begin and Denis scrupulously avoids anything you could categorically call an answer. Which in a way is an answer in itself. Because Beau Travail is, it is easy to forget, a memory piece. It’s framed with Galoup remembering his career in the Foreign Legion, and everything we see in the film is filtered through his recollections. How reliable are these? How much do the strangely intricate, beautifully choreographed desert training sequences reflect reality and how much are they the result of an unreliable narrator?

Perhaps Galoup’s motiveless loathing for Sentain is rooted in his own inability to understand himself and his own longings. Embodied in a performance of immense physical exactitude by Denis Lavant, Galoup is a tightly drawn spring, a mass of careful, well-chosen movements. He’s naturally content with the labours of the French Foreign Legion: scrupulously ironing creases into his clothes, making his bed with careful perfection, striding through the desert wilderness. At the nightclub with his men, he’s a distant observer – he can’t even really take part in their campfire sing-alongs. He only finds physical ease in their ritualised training sequences.

These training sequences are extraordinary, more like Gene Kelly dance sequences than anything you might associate with training. While in the dance clubs the men are awkward movers, on the training field they have sinewy grace. Ritualised fight training sees their bodies move through pre-set positions with a striking, musical beauty. Even back and leg stretches see twenty men moving with perfect co-ordination in the desert sand, leaving matching trails in the dust.

There is a reason why the title translates as Beautiful Work. The film is a continual stream of military tasks in the desert, most of which seem pointless. Camps are built, holes are dug, rocks are smashed. It’s combined with a series of domestic tasks treated with an equal almost fetishistic relish. Men whip water from their laundry as they peg it up to dry. In unison they iron their shirts into a perfect finish. Potatoes are peeled with casual ease. The training they undertake, powering through assault courses, sees them move with a graceful physical ease. There may never seem to be a point to all the things they do but it’s done with a real beauty. You can totally imagine this idealised vision of unison is exactly how Galoup would want to remember his days in his beloved Legion.

Denis’ transformation of Galoup’s memories of the Legion’s work into unspoken dance sequences, also points towards the increasing homoerotic undertone. This feels like more than a clue about Galoup’s undefined hostility to Sentain who is in many ways a spiritual brother-in-arms. But Lavant’s simmeringly intense, buttoned-up (literally) Galoup could never express such feelings. Is that why some of these training sequences that he remembers feel oddly sexualised? A wrestling practise session, bare-chested, feels like nothing less than aggressive competitive hugging. In one training session Galoup and Sentain walk around in an ever-decreasing circle in what feels like the entrée to a tango or a romantic clinch.

It’s not just Galoup. Michel Subor’s professional soldier Forestier watches the topless training sessions with an unspoken (unrealised) fascination. Galoup’s idolisation of his commander – he even carries a dogtag bracelet of Forestier’s in his exile like a totem – is another motivation, jealousy clearly on his mind as his commander takes a shine to the brave new soldier. Galoup it’s suggested is a man who barely understands himself, let alone others, lashing out with violence and aggression at others due to longings he barely feels or understands in himself.

All of this plays in Denis’ slow, observant, film full of carefully composed cross-cuts taking us in and out of the camp and nearby town and throws up a chorus of Djiboutian women who observe the men and interject at crucial points. Beautifully shot by Agnes Godard, it’s a film of striking images often beautifully composed into intriguing montages that go from nightclubs, to deserts, to seemingly abandoned military vehicles. It is I think vital, at every point, to remember that everything we are seeing is being framed through the memories of a man who, Denis implies, is deeply repressed in (possibly) several ways.

Frequently we see scenes Galoup can have no knowledge of. Others– like Sentain finally provoked into striking his senior officer – are played out with a near-dream like unreality. The eventual fate of a character in the desert could be wish-fulfilment for Galoup – after all he could have no idea. Does he imagine his Legionnaires singing to him as he boards his flight to exile? Above all, as he wanders without purpose through the streets of Marseilles, what is he intending to do? Why is he writing his reflections (if you can call such vague narrative interjections that)? Is it an elaborate suicide note?

All of this comes to a head in Denis’ fascinating and beautifully striking final scene. As Galoup lies on his bed – perfectly made – gun in hand, the camera pans across his body to focus on one of his arm muscles twitching rhythmically. Then we cut to Galoup in that Djubati nightclub: but now he looks like a different man, casually dressed, relaxed – and he explodes into a no-holds-barred dance to Rhythm of the Night, full of the frentic, effortless, improvisationary energy he’s denied himself utterly. Is he imagining a fraction of the life he could have had if he was able to embrace feelings and emotions in himself he can barely understand? (A critic observed, Galoup may be so repressed the closest he can get to imagining being gay is relaxed dancing.) Denis told Lavant to dance ‘as if between life and death’. Is this his idea of an afterlife?

Beau Travail won’t be for everyone – and even at its slim 93 minutes, it’s refusal to interject much in the way of pace or characterisation (aside from Galoup, almost every other character is a cipher and Galpoup has crushed almost any trace of personality in himself). But go into it expecting not a throbbing tragedy (as I did at first) but instead something almost akin to a half-remembered dream and it will provide an experience you will be eager to revisit and explore.

Further reading

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Revolutionary in more ways than one, this masterpiece still carries a real punch today

Director: Sergei Eisenstein

Cast: Aleksandr Antonov (Grigory Vakulinchuk), Vladimir Barsky (Commander Golikov), Grigori Aleksandrov (Chief Officer Giliarovsky), I. Bobrov (Young sleeping sailor), Mikhail Gomorov (Militant sailor), Aleksandr Levshin (Petty Officer), N. Poltavseva (Pince-nez woman), Lyrkean Makeon (Masked Man), Konstantin Feldman (Student agitator), Beatrice Vitoldi (Woman with baby)

If you have any doubt whether you have ever seen a film influenced by Battleship Potemkin I’d direct your attention to just one sequence. No, not the Odessa Steps. Instead: we’re on the deck of the Potemkin. The tyrannical captain has reacted to a complaint about the mouldy meat by demanding everyone refusing to eat it is shot. In a series of swift edits, mixing shots of the soon-to-be-victims, the marines who will do the shooting, different angles of the ship, we keep cutting back to Sailor Vakulinchuk’s face. What will he do? Will he protest? If you have ever seen a film build a violent crescendo with repeated cuts to a hero torn on taking action, you’ve seen something inspired by Battleship Potemkin.

It was made to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Russia’s first go-round for revolution, the series of uprisings that nearly overthrew the Tsar in 1905 (and led to him caving and allowing a degree of political representation anathema to him). Sergei Eisenstein, with the highly praised film Strike under his belt, was selected to direct. Eisenstein was offered a script full of events, but just one really spoke to him. That revolt of the sailors of the Potemkin, off the coast of Odessa. This was something he thought he could make a movie about! Eisenstein ditched nearly the whole of the script to focus on the class struggle between the sailors and workers and the faceless Tsarist system.

Battleship Potemkin would be a showcase for Eisenstein to expand the possibilities of editing images, cross-cutting to suggest inferences between events and characters. It’s no accident we cut so swiftly, and so often, from the maggot-filled meat the sailors are given and the stubbly, smug faces of the officers who insist the meat is edible. It’s pretty clear those maggots aren’t the only parasites aboard ship. The guns of the Potemkin are returned to time and again, dominating and dividing the frame or serving constantly as a reminder, first of the oppressive Tsarist regime, then of the heroic defiance of the sailors when faced with the Tsarist fleet sailing towards them.

Eisenstein’s mise-en-scene would become unimaginably influential. Not least because Battleship Potemkin is the most effective propaganda film ever made. It is impossible not to feel complete kindred with the sailors – all humble, honest, stoic Russian types, roused only to action by repeated provocation – and to despise the officer class, puffed up, dripping in elaborate uniforms, sneering at everyone, twirling moustaches over stubbly faces.

The film is shot time and again to present the sailors and the crowds in Odessa as a single, unified force. It’s rare where one of them appears alone – only reaction shots which capture their individual resolve (and, later, horror) – and they are mostly presented as united in purpose. In particular, Eisenstein shoots the citizens of Odessa as a near never-ending flow: they pour down the streets and steps (in a disciplined, respectful, mass) and fill the pier leading to Vakulinchuk’s makeshift grave. They work together and collaborate on tasks. On the other hand, the officers are frequently shot alone, either in close-up to stress their monstrous features or to capture their spittle-filled rants.

The sole exception is that meat-grinder of sabres and bullets that chews through the crowds at the Odessa Steps sequence. Here these soldiers – the brothers who don’t rise up but carry out the cruel, sadistic orders of their superiors – are barely human at all. There is no trace of personality or individuality in them. The features Eisenstein cuts to most are their marching feet, striding inexorably forward over bodies like a machine, and the bayonet tip of the rifles that relentlessly pour bullets into the crowd. If Bolshevism is a mass of individuals working as a coherent whole, then Tsarism is a brutality where the only faces are scornful and cruel officers.

The eventual coup of the sailors is masterfully cut together, fast-paced and overwhelmingly modern. It’s another indicator of the huge influence Battleship Potemkin has had on the grammar of modern filmmaking. As we watch Vakulinchuk and his fellows fight the officers, chasing them across the deck, scrabbling for weapons and the final duel between Vakulinchuk and Commander Golikov, its only the silence and black-and-white imagery that really distinguishes it from a similar end sequence in Avatar: The Way of Water. Battleship Potemkin can lay claim to being the most influential action film ever made, it’s use of fast-cutting to build tension, empathy and the imposing terror of seemingly insurmountable odds in a hostile environment second to none.

Editing and montage was central of Eisenstein’s technique – and you can argue that camerawork, character and (sometimes) narrative were secondary. Battleship Potemkin works as well as it does because it is an experience film. Its characters are ciphers, all of them Marxist tools towards an end effect. Eisenstein’s film is one of cuts designed to bring pace and rhythm, to project and create a visceral emotive reaction. He is very different from other silent directors who used the camera as a viewing tool, mobile and flowing. His movement comes from fast edits and quick cuts. Battleship Potemkin is modern in the sense that its finest sequences are a dizzying array of cuts and quick shots, that continue to influence action films today.

Which brings us, of course, to the Odessa Steps. Does it matter that this never happened in real life? Eisenstein essentially takes the 1905 Bloody Sunday massacre at the gates of the Imperial Palace in St Petersburg and transposes it to Odessa. It captures the mood of the time. Edits build in intensity – and swiftness – to highlight the growing tension and then explosive terror when the guns start firing. People flee in terror – one of the few tracking shots in the film follows the descent first of people, that that famous pram – down the steps. Reaction shots show a horrified mother, an older woman pleading for peace and a furious student radical.

And the furious intensity of the montage helps communicate the rampage. Careful cutting highlights the horror of a boy shot, trampled and then carried up to the soldiers by his distraught mother only to be gunned down. This is montage at its finest, and it even transforms time. People are shot and start to fall, we cut to reactions, soldiers marching, the stairs and then back to that person still falling. Is it reality? No. Is it drama? Yes. It’s a magisterial triumph of Eisenstein’s style, everything servant to the editing machine.

Battleship Potemkin is in the end all about editing. Eisenstein loves the impressions it can build. From maggots to officers. The sadistic priest’s face which constantly cuts back to his crucifix which thuds into his hand like a mace. The three lion statues – one lying down, one sitting, one standing up – cut swiftly together in sequence to give the impression the statue is reacting to events. Where Potemkin avoids camera inventiveness it more than makes up for it with the power of its montage.

And Eisenstein would argue that’s what cinema (ultimately) is and what differs it from theatre. It certainly works to make Battleship Potemkin thrillingly impactful. It’s no wonder that almost every country in the world – including the USSR – seems to have banned it at some point. It carries such visceral impact, it’s practically a weapon in the class war. Eisenstein’s influence continues to felt today, and while other pioneering directors would introduce more effective camerawork and story-telling techniques, none would harness the potential of the editing suite as effectively as Eisenstein.

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An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)

An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)

Classic 80s romance? Or is it, in fact, a searing kitchen-sink drama about class and depression? One of the great mis-remembered films of all time

Director: Taylor Hackford

Cast: Richard Gere (Zach Mayo), Debra Winger (Paula Pokrifki), Louis Gossett Jnr (Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley), David Keith (Sid Worley), Lisa Blount (Lynette Pomeroy), Robert Loggia (Byron Mayo), Lisa Elbacher (Casey Seeger), Tony Plana (Emiliano Santos Della Serra), Harold Sylvester (Lionel Perryman), David Caruso (Topper Daniels)

An Officer and Gentleman is remembered as a sweep-you-off-your-feet romance, with power-ballads underplaying attractive Hollywood stars passionately proclaiming their love. It ain’t anything like that. This proto-Top Gun – a film it has strong similarities to in structure and design – is actually a kitchen-sink drama masquerading as a feelgood movie, with a final romantic image and “Up Where We Belong” leaving a deceptive memory behind. Where Top Gun is loud, brash and fundamentally reassuring and straight-forward, An Officer and a Gentleman is jagged, surprisingly difficult and unsettling. Put it this way: Tom Cruise doesn’t call anyone the c-bomb in Top Gun.

Zach Mayo (one of Richard Gere’s legendary performances, the memory of which guided much of the rest of his career far more than its reality) is a Navy-brat determined to be nothing like his alcoholic, whoring dad (Robert Loggia). He’s going to graduate from Naval Flight Candidate school and become “an officer and a gentleman”. Zach is a damaged soul, defensive, closed-off and selfish, a smarmy, cruel loner interested only in what he can get out of any relationship. The film is about whether Zach will learn to become a sympathetic, caring person, rather than a resentful douche.

There are three influences that might just change him. Firstly, fellow trainee Sid (David Keith), from a Naval officer family, attending because his deceased brother can’t. The second is training officer and uncompromising disciplinarian Sgt Emil Foley (Louis Gossett Jnr). And, finally, factory worker Paula (Debra Winger), one of the local women officer candidates are warned are intent on bagging a husband by fair or foul. Each will play a different role in making Zach a fully rounded person.

Hackford’s film is a tough, hardened one that takes a long hard look at mental health, guilt, suicide, parental resentment and a host of other complex issues. Any romantic moment is matched with one of pain, fury or characters doubled over with guilt and shame. It dives deep into its flawed hero and shows how someone can, almost unwittingly, be reconstructed into something warmer. It does all this in grimy, scruffy settings with characters making desperate choices motivated by poverty and lack of choices.

It opens with a shaggy-haired, scruffy Gere starring into a mirror in a dark motel room while his father is passed out in bed with two prostitutes. We are constantly reminded of Zach’s working-class background, his life growing up trailing behind his (largely indifferent) father after the suicide of his mother, left to fend for himself in the rough and tumble of the Philippine streets. At naval school, the same chippy resentment of how people perceive his roots persists – along with the lessons he has spent his whole life learning: that he should count on no-one but himself.

Zach doesn’t believe he’s worth loving. Facing abandonment issues (of different kinds) from both his parents, he doesn’t give a toss about anyone and expect them feel the same. He sets up a grift selling pre-polished buckles and boots to his fellow candidates, only helping them for a price. He completes exercises alone, cheats in aeronautical class, and gloats as he passes anyone on physical trials. When dating Paula, he frequently retreats into cold rudeness when conversation turns to anything emotional, and repeatedly claims he wants nothing more than a bit of fun. It all stems – as Paula realises – from a defensive hostility, pushing people away before they can leave him.

His lack of team-playing is identified early by Foley as his Achilles heel. Louis Gossett Jnr won an Oscar for his impressively nuanced work here. At first Foley seems an almost unbelievably horrible man, a bully dropping racist and homophobic slurs with casual ease, who makes it his mission to drive his candidates out of the programme (right down to bragging that he chisels a mark on his swivel stick whenever another one drops out).

However, Hackford and Gossett Jnr skilfully show this is, to a degree, a show: Foley is tough because the military is tough, and deep down he does care. Candidates slowly earn his respect (female candidate Seeger may fail to climb a wall, but goddamn he respects her guts) and he quietly goes to great lengths to support them. Foley’s act is intended to get them to excel – and he’ll be proud of them when they do, just as they will be grateful to him. The strength of Gossett Jnr’s performance mean his scenes dominate the narrative (at the cost of the romance), but this is to the film’s benefit.

Interestingly, that romance is often the least effective part of the film. Gere and Winger have fine chemistry (despite, allegedly, not getting on) but the narrative often takes sudden time jumps. From one scene to another they’ll go from together to split up, and the film never quite manages to show us naturally how this is changing Zach. Instead, it frequently stops to tell us this, with on-the-nose conversations. Winger is good, but the relationship feels forced – as if it a film couldn’t exist without a romance, when actually Paula could be removed altogether and it wouldn’t really change the film.

It’s forced perhaps because what really feels like it changes Zach is the friendship with Sid. Played very well by a sensitive David Keith, Sid is everything Zach is not. Confident, happy to help others, a natural leader and team player. Under the surface he isn’t – doubtful and insecure – but the friendship between them is the spark that changes Zach. Sid is, much like Goose in Top Gun, the sacrificial pal, but this sacrifice promotes real growth in Zach. The parallel romance between Sid and gold-digger Lynette (a fine Lisa Blount) is also an effective commentary on Zach and Paula, both characters being mirror images of the leads.

The film culminates in that romantic sweep-you-off-your-feet moment in the factory: but that feels like it belongs in a different film than the hard-boiled one we’ve been watching of a man confronting his fear of failure and lack of self-worth. Gere, by the way, is very good as Zach – his smirk a defensive screen for a host of psychological problems (few actors would have been willing to be as unlikeable as Gere is here). An Officer and a Gentleman is really a character study in working-class resentments, but somehow is mis-remembered as the quintessential 80s romance. It truly isn’t. Instead Hackford’s film – flawed as it is – is smarter and pricklier than that.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Lew Ayres finds war is hell in All Quiet on the Western Front

Director: Lewis Milestone

Cast: Lew Ayres (Paul Baumer), Louis Wolheim (Stanislaud Katczinsky), John Wray (Himmelstoss), Slim Summerville (Tjaden), Arnold Lucy (Professor Kantorek), Ben Alexander (Franz Kemmerich), Scott Kolk (Leer), Owen Davis Jnr (Peter), William Bakewell (Albert Kropp), Russell Gleason (Muller)

Franklin Roosevelt once said “War is young men dying and old men talking”. Perhaps no film shows that more truly than All Quiet on the Western Front. The first truly great film to win Best Picture at the Oscars, it’s a profoundly influential and unflinching look at the horrific cost of war. Specifically, it looks at how a younger generation buys into dreams of glory and destiny, only to arrive at the front lines and discover they’ve been sold a pup. A sense of glorious purpose collapses into death, mud and misery. War, it turns out, is hell.

All Quiet on the Western Front follows a company of German soldiers during the First World War, plucked from their college to lay down life and limb for the Kaiser. Their unofficial leader is Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres), an intelligent and thoughtful young man. They soon find the frontline is a world away from what they expected, and death moves through the boys like a flu. Over time Paul, with the mentorship of experienced soldier Stanislaud Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim), finds his naïve view of the world torn away with each bullet and failed attack.

In many ways it was brave to make such a large-scale Hollywood epic that placed the side America had actually fought against in the sympathetic role (on the other hand, much easier to look at the losing side and say “you’re fighting for a hopeless cause”). But that makes the film’s message even stronger: it doesn’t matter about sides, war claims young men regardless. The deaths come thick and fast on the Western front – and the gains are negligent. While the boys’ Professor (a pompous Arnold Lacy) sings a familiar hymn of glory and success by Christmas, life on the front line is actually continual terror. Mud, rats, debris and the constant chance the next step you take could be your last. Shelling is non-stop and every inch of the rickety, ramshackle trenches shakes with each explosion. Never mind going over the top, just being there shreds the nerves.

When the attacks come, the film is striking in its modernism and visual invention. Milestone frequently uses intriguing angles and long tracking shots to present an uninterrupted vision of hellish conflict. The film is full of crane shots, urgent camera movements and judicious cutting. The horrors are shown clearly – at one point a soldier literally explodes while cutting through barbed wire, his hands left clinging to the wire, the rest of his body gone. Milestone intercut shots of machine guns firing an arc with the camera moving in a smooth tracking shot as men run towards it and collapse in death. The film is literally shredding its soldiers.

The debris filled, fox-hole spotted no-man’s land the film presents is hellish. It’s a literal minefield of death, with bodies charging backwards and forwards depending on the tide of battle, the camera moving alongside them. For hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches, Milestone shoots the action with a tracking crane shot above the trenches, which stretch like a jagged flesh wound in nature, overflowing with people trying desperately to kill each other. During one charge, Paul lands in a fox hole with a French soldier, who he mercilessly wounds with his bayonet – then spends a dreadful night watching him slowly die. There isn’t any glory here and attack and retreat are both equally pointless. All that really happens is the body count ticking slowly up.

Most of the company are dead well before the film hits the half-way point. After the first big attack, the company goes behind the lines for a meal. Their meal is almost denied them as it was made for a company twice the size of the one that actually reports. It’s a sign of the suffering and hardening to death, that the reaction of the survivors is joy at the unexpected double rations. Later Milestone follows the fate of a single pair of boots, in a beautifully edited sequence that constantly visually focuses on a pair of good boots, while their successive owners meet their deaths.

It’s all so different from how we started, with an Eisenstein-inspired series of cuts to cheering faces as the students sign up. The horseplay at the training camp – where they deal with an officious postman turned corporal Himmelstoss (a puffed up and preening John Wray), overly aware of his own rank and determined to rub the boys faces in it – in no way prepares them for what is to come. This is all too clear from their confused faces at the staging post, a chaos of mud, soldiers and shelling. No wonder no one at home understands what’s happening here – as Paul discovers on leave, when he is repeatedly shocked and disgusted by the casual triumphalism of old-armchair-Generals utterly ignorant of the realities at the front.

All Quiet on the Western Front is so beautifully shot and edited – you can see its influence on so many war films to come – that it’s a shame some of its dialogue and ‘acting’ scenes are now either a little too on-the-nose or overstay their welcome. There are some big themes handled in the dialogue: why are we fighting, what is the point of war, how do we live our lives when they could end at any time – but the dialogue is sometimes a little stilted. It’s also where the film reverts to something more stagey and theatrical and less cinematic and visual. It’s also a slightly overlong film – already a sign that Hollywood had a tendency to equate “important” with “long”. Most of the films’ points are well made by the first hour, and the second hour or so often repeats them.

However, those concerns are outweighed by how much there is admire. Lew Ayres is very good as the noble Paul – the film had such a profound effect on him he became a life-long pacifist, a conscientious objector in WW2 who served as a front-line medic. Louis Wolheim is superb as the rough-edged but decent and kind Kat, a senior soldier taking the new company members under his wing and teaching them nothing is more important than the next meal and no unnecessary risks.

All Quiet on the Western Front takes place in a naturalistic quiet, with no hint of music to interrupt the mood. It is an overwhelmingly powerful movie about the pointlessness and cruelty of war – and the lies that young men are told to fight it. When Paul returns to the homefront – and sees another class of boys being inspired to die for their country by his Professor – he denounces the whole thing (and is promptly branded a coward). War is a cycle that eats everyone it comes into contact with and has no logic behind it. Directed with verve and imaginative modernism by Milestone, this is a brilliant picture, one of the first sound masterpieces – and still one of the greatest war films ever made.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Harold Rusell, Dana Andrews and Fredric March find coming home can be as tough as war in The Best Years of Our Lives

Director: William Wyler

Cast: Myrna Loy (Milly Stephenson), Fredric March (Sgt Al Stephenson), Dana Andrews (Captain Fred Derry), Teresa Wright (Peggy Stephenson), Virginia Mayo (Marie Derry), Cathy O’Donnell (Wilma Cameron), Harold Russell (PO Homer Parish), Hoagy Carmichael (Butch Eagle), Gladys George (Hortense Derry), Roman Bohnen (Pat Derry), Ray Collins (Mr Milton)

Three men return from the Second World War. They’ve changed, but everything around them seems the same. How do they even begin to adjust when no one really understands what they’ve been through? The Best Years of Our Lives was a sensation when it was released, speaking to a whole country reeling from the shock of war. Many films focus on the gruelling experience of war, but few take on the struggle to find a place for veterans and help them reintegrate into normal life.

Our three veterans all meet at the airport, trying to home to the same small (fictional) city in the Midwest. Normally they would probably have never met: but war has given them a shared bond they will find hard to replicate back home. Al Stephenson (Fredric March) is a banker, who has developed something of a drinking problem to the surprise of his wife Milly (Myrna). Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) was a café worker who became an Air Force Captain – but finds that doesn’t interest employers back home. He also now has nothing in common with the flighty, flirty wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) he married before shipping out – and far more in common with Al’s thoughtful daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright). Homer Parish (Harold Russell) lost both his hands, replaced with mechanical hooks. Can he overcome the adjustments – and allow himself to be loved by Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell)?

What The Best Years of Our Lives explores brilliantly is how quick we are to praise heroes, but how slow we can be to offer them practical help and support. These problems aren’t just restricted to an unlucky one or two – the film goes out of its way to demonstrate the problem is universal. Our three leads are from different services, and radically different walks of life: an important businessman who served as a sergeant, a wash-out who found a purpose in the air force and an athletic sailor who returns without his hands. Rich or poor, it’s tough to find your place whoever you are.

Wyler shoots all this with a documentary realism, with extensive use of deep focus photography. It helps make this a frequently moving film. It sometimes feels like Wyler just captured real events. Flying home our heroes see “people playing golf like nothing happened”. They are all so nervous going home that both Al and Homer both suggest going for a drink rather than leave the cab they are sharing. Everyday problems about going to the office or looking for a job seem more affecting because we know they’ve come back from the war and don’t deserve knock-backs like this.

The heart of this film is Fred’s struggles to find some sort of purpose on civvie street. War offered more opportunities to him more than anyone else. He is a nobody who became a respected somebody. Now he can’t get a job in a department store. As a potential employer tells him, his CV is stuffed with irrelevant experience and his years out of the job market mean he’s fallen behind the rest. This is how a man with a chest full of medals, winds up serving ice cream and busting a gut trying to flog perfume to housewives who let their children run wild around his stand.

Dana Andrews is the heart of this film, giving a marvellous performance of great depth and sadness. Haunted by nightmares, Fred’s optimism drips away the longer he fails to find proper work. Perhaps most heart-breakingly of all, he increasingly makes himself the target of his dry wit. By the time he has surrounded to the indignity of taking back his old soda jerk job (and reporting to the spotty kid who used to be his assistant), Fred is disparagingly belittling his own wartime accomplishments.

If someone as matinee idol handsome, with a wonderful war record, as Fred can’t get ahead, what chance does anyone have? Fred’s wife (Virginia Mayo, marvellously smackable as this shallow girl) isn’t even interested in him, only the idea of him – begging him to wear his uniform (medals and all) for as long as possible so she can show him off like a new handbag. Fred is knocked back so many times, he comes to believe he deserves it. In a beautiful scene, late in the film, he walks through a field covered in old air force bombers. It’s a striking visual metaphor – one Fred is all too aware of – that he’s as much on the scrap heap as them.

The Best Years of Our Lives shows time and again how quick we are to forget. Al is hauled over the coals for offering a loan to a collateral-free GI who wants to start a farm. But Al feels a loyalty to men like this – and he recognises, unlike his superiors, there are qualities you just won’t find in a bank account. Homer is confronted at Fred’s workplace by an arrogant anti-Commie, who suggests the entire war was a waste of time, spent fighting the wrong foes. Calling Homer “a sucker” for losing his hands in the wrong war leads to a fight – and Fred losing his job for punching the guy out. Where is the sense of debt to these people?

Homer not only has to deal with disability – but also the metallic claws which get him all the wrong attention. The army trained him how to use the claws – but as Al observes, watching Homer’s awkward homecoming “couldn’t train him to put his arms round his girl”. They can solve the practical problem, but there is no support for actually coming to terms with the emotional impact.

Homer is played by real-life veteran paraplegic (and non-actor) Harold Russell, in a poignantly sincere, unstudied performance. It becomes even more heart-breaking, as his torment clearly rooted in Russell’s own experiences. When Homer demonstrates to Wilma how vulnerable he is without his hands –  if a door shuts, he’s trapped in a room, he can’t dress himself– it’s almost unbearably sad (O’Donnell is equally good in this scene). Russell’s simple, matter-of-factness is more moving than any histrionics.

The only plot that doesn’t get fully explored is Al’s implied drinking problem. He gets pissed the first night home (and his wife comments several times on his growing reliance). Everything to Al feels a little different – his kids are older, his bankwork seems stuffier. Today the film would dive more into Al’s probable survivor guilt. But Al makes a stand when others won’t to help his veterans – and March has a superb, low-key speech at a banquet in his honour where he vows to invest small loans into returning GIs. The film also gently probes – and in some ways leaves open – the ongoing problems he and Milly (warmly played by Myrna Loy) have had in their marriage, problems which Al’s absence and drinking have not helped solve.

Wyler pulls these threads together in a restrained style that largely avoids melodrama (though Hugo Freidhofer’s score is frequently overblown – Wyler apparently hated it). Instead, dilemmas are grounded in reality. Al might like Fred, but the last thing he wants is for Fred to get his daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright in a gentle, touching performance) caught up in a divorce. In a perfect example of Wyler’s restrained, documentary style, Al and Fred have a quiet man-to-man discussion, before Fred calls Peggy to see he can’t see her anymore. He does this in the back corner of the frame while the foreground shows Al listening to Homer and his uncle play the piano. It’s a perfect example of the way Wyler uses deep focus to give the film a fly-on-the-wall quality.

There is something extraordinarily modern about The Best Years of Our Lives. It feels calm and un-histrionic – and of course many veterans still struggle today. The camera feels observational and unobtrusive and the characters respond to situations in a very natural way. It’s also helped by the wonderfully natural acting. It all comes together in a film that is important without feeling like it’s trying to be important. An observant, sensitive exploration of the experience of veterans (made by a veteran), that never feels false and looks at our world with affection but realism.

From Here to Eternity (1953)

Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity’s most famous moment

Director: Fred Zinnemann

Cast: Burt Lancaster (First Sergeant Milton Warden), Montgomery Clift (Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt), Deborah Kerr (Karen Holmes), Donna Reed (Alma Burke/Lorene), Frank Sinatra (Private Angelo Maggio), Philip Ober (Captain Dana Holmes), Mickey Shaughnessy (Sergeant Leva), Harry Bellaver (Private Mazzioli), Ernest Borgnine (Staff Sergeant James “Fatso” Judson), Jack Warden (Corporal Buckley)

Dominating the 1953 Oscars, From Here to Eternity is exactly the sort of sweeping, highly-professional studio epic Hollywood at its best produced in its Golden Years. Everything turned out pretty much right, with iconic imagery and characters, and skilled production and acting turning a soapy story into something quite profound. From Here to Eternity is entertainment-as-art, a sharply intelligent film that sails along smoothly. It feels like a generational progression from Casablanca – it may not quite hit those heights, but it deserves to be in the same conversation.

It’s 1941 at Pearl Harbour and three soldiers discover going their own way, rather than conforming to rules and expectations, causes no end of trouble. Private Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) is repeatedly hazed by his comrades (with the support of his CO) for refusing to join the boxing team. A champion boxer, Prewitt retired after accidentally blinding an opponent and nothing will persuade him to go back. His only comfort is with local social club ‘hostess’ Lorene (Donna Reed). First Sergeant Warden (Burt Lancaster) is persuaded to try for officer – because otherwise he risks prison for his love affair with the CO’s unloved wife Karen (Deborah Kerr). Private Maggio (Frank Sinatra), Prewitt’s only friend, is a loyal wild-card who can’t stick to the rules and is targeted by brutal stockade sergeant “Fatso” Judson (Ernest Borgnine).

From Here to Eternity sounds like a great big soap, a sort of 1980s glossy TV mini-series made before its time (it was later remade exactly as that). It’s got that in its DNA, but is made with such luscious, professional, old-school Hollywood excellence it becomes something special. Superb craftsmen work in every position to produce a classic melodrama with touches of romance, thriller, war drama and tragedy. With excellent performances across the board (Sinatra and Reed both won Oscars, while Lancaster, Clift and Kerr were all nominated), FHtE tells emotive, empathetic stories about genuine characters trapped in situations beyond their control.

The film is a masterclass in adaptation. The original novel – a popular tome of its day – tells a story crammed full of sex, STDs, homosexuality, bad language and violence across its 800+ pages. No wonder it was a hit – and no wonder, under the Production Code, it was thought impossible to adapt it into a film. Screenwriter Daniel Taradash carefully reworked and ‘hinted’ at several things that could not be explicitly said (for example, no one calls Lorene a prostitute, but you’d have to be pretty dense not to realise she is doing more than pouring drinks in that bar). Restraint, as it often did, demanded invention and bought out the best (and subtle work) in people. The film’s requirement to focus on dialogue and character rather than controversy hugely works to its benefit.

Zinnemann was the perfect director for the material. Drawing wonderful performances from the actors, he also keep the film intimate, drawing us closer to the characters over scale, despite the temptations of the film’s location shooting in Hawaii (Zinnemann pushed strongly against shooting in technicolour and widescreen). The film also fits perfectly with one of Zinnemann’s key pre-occupations: the struggle of principled men (most strikingly Prewitt) in a society that demands them to say or do something against those principles. Just as the townspeople wanted Marshal to run and the Tudor court wanted More to swear allegiance, so our characters buck against conforming with the roles they are expected to play.

You can see why the military – after supporting the project – were less happy when they saw the film. The individual is championed at the cost of the machine. Prewitt’s principles are praised, while his regiment is hopelessly corrupted by his incompetent and careerist commander. The hazing is endemic, and supported from above – and no one even notices or cares that Fatso is also abusing his position to brutalize Maggio. The CO is so useless – as well as ruining his wife’s life, rendering her infertile and cheating on her all over town – that the company is effectively run by First Sergeant Warden, the only NCO with the courage of his principles. Under pressure from their army sponsors, the film does see the chain of command cashier the CO (a scene Zinnemann hated) – but the sympathy is with the individual rather than the system.

From Here to Eternity is also a highly effective romance. Its most famous image will always be the clinch between Lancaster and Kerr, kissing and embracing while the turf washes up around them. But the film is also realistic – its why it remains so effective. Warden and Karen are made as miserable by their growing love as they are happy (they even comment on this). Relationships are never an easy ride, and demand constant dedication. Lorene and Prewitt’s relationship is far from rose-tinted, with the two of them constantly forced apart by their own mistakes and choices.

It’s melodrama told with emotional intelligence and realism – and Zinnemann gets great performances from great actors. Lancaster brings immense strength and purpose to Warden, but also a concealed vulnerability and decency. Kerr – revitalising her career after a string of “good wives” – brilliantly conveys Karen’s desperation and misery, along with her wary hope her life could change. That moment on the beach, the surf washing around them as they make-out is a rare moment of relaxed happiness. Other than that, its one tough conversation after another – stolen moments in bars or cars, where the two of them confront the difficulty of their situation, but also their need for each other. That’s old school romance for you – unavoidable, but never-endingly difficult and even a little painful.

Sinatra (in the role that changed his career – and the debate around how he got the role inspired that horse’s head in The Godfather) brings charm, cheek and tragedy to Maggio. How did Maggio end up in this man’s army? He’s quietly fun loving, but bucks the rules like almost no other character in the film. Sure he’s an upstanding guy – the only one who sticks by Prewit and defends him – but he can’t follow a simple order. Mostly because he’s not really disciplined enough. Plus he makes enemies – worst of all Borgnine’s bruising sergeant. He’d be so much happier running a bar for soldiers than he ever is being a soldier himself.

This makes him very different from Clift’s Prewit. Clift gives one of his finest performances as this fully-realised tragic hero. Prewit is a man of principle who, for the best reasons, makes choices that have a terrible impact on him. He’ll stand by his decision not to box, even though it opens up a bucket load of unpleasantness for him and Maggio. If that leaves him with one friend and no supporters, so be it. He may not look like a boxer (the studio wanted a more muscular lead), but he is every inch the emotionally conflicted, guilt-plagued and confused GI, stubborn but profoundly sincere, with the strength of character to stand alone, but the vulnerability to need affection from Lorene (and respond like a lovesick kid when he thinks she has spurned him). It’s a complex, mature and excellent performance.

All these events are eventually dwarfed by the outbreak of war. If there is one thing that Zinnemann will accept is bigger than the individual, it’s world war. The film quietly counts down to the attack on Pearl Harbor (without the characters realising it), sneaking us peaks at calendars and reports to let us know how close we are to the fateful day. When it comes, it reveals the characters of the people we’ve been following. Warden takes command in a way his CO never could. Prewit, hiding out with Lorene (Reed by the way is marvellous, her investing Lorene with a real world-weary sadness), decides its his mission to return from AWOL, despite the dangers this will cause him. The attack is grippingly but simply filmed.

From Here to Eternity is a complex film, made with real professional skill, and a rewarding character study. Zinnemann gets the tone right at almost every single point and draws out brilliant performances from a very strong cast. As an example of Hollywood Studio film making, it’s hard to beat.

Seven Days in May (1964)

Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas find themselves on opposite sides of a military coup in Seven Days in May

Director: John Frankenheimer

Cast: Burt Lancaster (General James Mattoon Scott), Kirk Douglas (Colonel Jiggs Casey), Fredric March (President Jordan Lyman), Ava Gardner (Eleanor Holbrook), Edmond O’Brien (Senator Ray Clark), Martin Balsam (Paul Girard), Andrew Duggan (Colonel Mutt Henderson), George Macready (Secretary of the Treasury), Whit Bissell (Senator Fred Prentice), John Houseman (Admiral Barnswell)

President Jordan Lynman (Fredric March) has completed his signature policy: a nuclear disarmament treatment with the USSR. Some are thrilled, others are horrified. In the latter camp are the Joint Chiefs of Staff, none more so than chairman General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster). General Scott has a plan: a coup to be launched in seven days time, during a training op. But word leaks to his assistant Colonel Casey (Kirk Douglas) who, however much he admires Scott, won’t be party to treason. Casey warns the President – and a race against time begins to stop the coup.

Seven Days in May opens with documentary style footage of clashing crowds outside the White House (one pushing for peace, the other for war) and then carefully balances that style with an unsettling sense of paranoia throughout. People suddenly disappear (once from frame to frame), most of the action takes place in confined spaces. When characters do head outside, they constantly seem to be looking over their shoulder, with the camera watching like a distant observer. The lack of music all adds the eerie feeling that this could just happen.

And, of course you, feel it could. Because we’ve not lost a tingling sense of unease at an over-powerful military. It’s a shame therefore that Seven Days in May doesn’t grip quite as much as it should. I think a large part of that is because the plot is exposed very early – and when Casey goes to the authorities with his suspicions, they are instantly acted on. Thrillers like this often work best with a “one man stands alone” vibe – it’s missing here, and instead we get the President and the cabinet laboriously investigating different elements of this conspiracy looking to turn up enough evidence to prevent the coup before it starts.

The drop in tension could have been counter-balanced if the film had more successfully explored the conflicts and contradictions in America. This is after all a country priding itself as being the home of freedom and democracy – but since George Washington, has had a fondness for installing military men in a job role pointedly called “Commander-in-Chief”. This is a film that could have explored how different parts of American society might admire either an Adlai-Stevenson-style intellectual or a blood-and-guts ‘simple’ soldier. But the film dodges this – and works hard to stress both men act within what they define as honour and the needs of the country. The film is to nervous about any suggestion that Scott’s coup could lead to a proto-dictator vetoing the electorate.

There is also a naivety about the film. A long subplot (not particularly interesting) features Casey being side-lined into uncovering evidence of Scott’s long-term affair. Ava Gardner does her best with a largely thankless part as the woman in question, but there is a touching faith that evidence of this will be enough to destroy Scott. It’s a faith in the system: while the public might be shaken slightly in their belief that Scott is like King Arthur reborn, finding out he’s actually Lancelot is hardly going to weaken his hold over many of his followers – or his military machine.  For a conspiracy film, Seven Days believes conspiracies are a relatively simple matter to defeat.

What’s best about the film – not surprisingly since it’s largely a chamber piece – is the strength of the acting. Produced by Douglas (who generously cast himself in the most thankless role as the decent-but-dull Casey), a cast of stars was assembled. Lancaster was perhaps the only choice as the holier-than-thou Scott, arrogant, morally-superior, cold, distant but capable of inspiring immense loyalty – it’s the perfect role for him and he plays it to the hilt.

The film’s finest sequence is a late confrontation between Scott – Lancaster oozing moral superiority and unhidden contempt – and Fredric March’s intellectual President. March is brilliant, a born negotiator and compromiser – all the skills you need to be a successful politician – with just the right edge of irritation, arrogance and pride for you to know that, even if he is right, he’s no saint. March also gives Lyman an old-school sense of honour and moral principle that makes him unable to cross lines Scott can leave behind him, while still be jittery and waspish to colleagues and friends.

Filling out the cast, O’Brien gives a wonderful (Oscar-nominated) turn as a hard-drinking, good-old-boy Senator who turns out to have principles of iron and the guts to match. Martin Balsam delivers one of his patented put-upon functionaries, struggling to keep stress at bay. Macready is great value as a bombastic cabinet member while Houseman glides above it all as an Admiral to smart to say anything certain either way.

Acting is eventually what powers Seven Days in May and if it never becomes the white-knuckle conspiracy thriller or the insightful political commentary it should be, it just about has enough entertaining scenes to keep you watching.

A Soldier's Story (1984)

Howard E Rollins Jnr investigates a racially motivated murder with a difference in A Soldier’s Story

Director: Norman Jewison

Cast: Howard E Rollins Jnr (Captain Davenport), Adolph Caesar (Sergeant Waters), Art Evans (Pvt Wilkie), David Alan Grier (Cpl Cobb), David Harris (Pvt Smalls), Dennis Lipscomb (Captain Taylor), Larry Riley (CJ Memphis), Robert Townsend (Cpl Ellis), Denzel Washington (Pfc Peterson), William Allen Young (Pvt Henson)

A Louisiana military base, 1944. A company of black soldiers prep for Europe to fight for Uncle Sam. All that is put on hold when hard taskmaster Vernon Waters (Adolph Caesar), their sergeant, is shot outside the base. Black JAG officer Captain Richard Davenport (Howard E Rollins Jnr) arrives to investigate the murder – to the hostility of his fellow officers, who are unused to saluting a black man as the common soldiers are. But is Waters murder the result of racism from the town? Or is it due to the tensions within the platoon?

Jewison’s adaptation of a notable stage success by Charles Fuller is a professionally mounted, sharp film – nominated for Best Picture in 1984, but largely forgotten since – that while never quite inspired, does provide plenty of insightful racial commentary on America. It never quite manages to come together as a film – and at times its pace is still better suited to the theatre than the movies –but it counterbalances this with its strength of good acting and an underplayed anger at divisions in America.

Racism is at the heart of the film. Many types of it. Jewison’s opening sequence – depicting Davenport’s arrival on the bus – provides us plenty of sightings of America’s apartheid, segregation being clearly visible in shops, benches and the bus itself. Davenport is addressed as “boy” and instinctive racial unease and disgust is in the eyes of every townsperson we meet. The officers range from paternalistic to patronisingly contemptuous of their men. Every element of the base is designed to remind the soldiers of their second-class status. Davenport is only with great reluctance allowed the trappings of his fellow officers. The film ends with a march of the soldiers towards war – a war they are volunteering to fight in, to protect a country that sees them as less-than-human.

But at its heart this is a film about the real insidious horror of racism. How it can turn someone against themselves. Because the real racial villain, it becomes clear, was actually Sergeant Walters himself. Played with a tightly-wound, self-loathing resentfulness by Adolph Caesar (repeating his stage role and Oscar nominated), Walters loathes the black men under his charge. He sees them as embodying the elements of black culture that (he believes) has led to them being treated so poorly by the whites. He hates their choices in music, in food, the way their talk. Most of all he hates the late Private CJ Memphis (Larry Riley), a good-natured, music-playing, sweet soldier who he believes embodies all the casualness and simplicity that he believes his people need to put them behind them to gain respect.

It’s Fuller’s brilliant insight that the most insidious thing about racism is that it is about creating barriers and hatreds – and it can lead to a black man loathing himself and his own people for not being white. Bad enough that the rest of society is against black people: worse that it is also secretly encouraging them to turn on each other. The tensions in the company all stem from Walters barely concealed unease at his colour, and his fury that his men don’t feel the same way.

Unwrapping in a series of flashbacks as Davenport investigates, the film reveals a fascinating series of tableau that demonstrates the confusion in Walters’ psyche and the impact it has on others. In a society where everything is all against them – as Jewison’s film is at pains to show – these are people who should be sticking together. Instead Walters crusade is to turn them against themselves and each other – to deny who they are in an attempt to become their oppressors. The quest for an acceptance that Walters eventually realises will never happen.

Because, as he bitterly states, no matter how much blood a black man sheds for America, no matter what sacrifices he makes – to many he will still be an “other”. Someone who the people of Louisiana are happy to have fight for them, but wouldn’t share a park bench with. These destructive attitudes are there as well in Davenport’s attempts to investigate, butting up against resentment from junior officers who can’t stomach being spoken to like this by a black man. Howard E Rollins Jnr plays the role with a terrific cool underneath which lies a tightly-controlled fury (he rather effectively channels Poitier in In the Heat of the Night).

A Soldier’s Story is crammed with some wonderful and challenging insights into race. It has a wonderful cast – Art Evans and a young Denzel Washington also stand-out – and a real sense of moral outrage at the evil of racism. What it sometimes lacks is the energy and dynamism the story needs to carry more immediate impact. Too often the film feels a little too safe, a little too conventional to really grip. It wraps up things with a rather conventional feel-good position (with Davenport and Dennis Lipscomb’s Captain Taylor coming to a soapy ‘mutual respect’ position). With the pace slightly off, it can drag at times. However, it’s insight can’t be doubted: it will certainly make you consider that the impact of racism can be even deeper and more damaging than the obvious, initial signs.

The League of Gentlemen (1960)

league of gentlemen
Jack Hawkins plans the perfect crime in The League of Gentlemen

Director: Basil Dearden

Cast: Jack Hawkins (Lt Col Norman Hyde), Nigel Patrick (Major Peter Race), Roger Livesey (Captain “Padre” Mycroft), Richard Attenborough (Lt Edward Lexy), Bryan Forbes (Captain Martin Porthill), Kieron Moore (Captain Stevens), Terence Alexander (Major Rupert Rutland-Smith), Norman Bird (Captain Frank Weaver), Robert Coote (Brigadier “Bunny” Weaver), Nanette Newman (Elizabeth Rutland-Smith)

You throw a gentleman on the scrap heap at your peril. After a lifetime of service, Lt Colonel Norman Hyde (Jack Hawkins) has been made redundant – and, to put it bluntly, he’s pissed off. However, a gentleman doesn’t get mad, he gets even. And what better way to do that than using your army training to mastermind the finest bank heist Britain has ever seen? To pull it off, Hyde recruits a team of similarly disgruntled Army officers (all cashiered from the army for a range of offences, from theft to implied sexual demeanours) all of them highly trained specialists. What could possibly go wrong?

The League of Gentlemen was the first film from a short-lived British production company Allied Films. The company was a partnership between Dearden, Hawkins, Attenborough (who did a lot of the producing) and Forbes (who wrote the film’s witty, playful script). The film is a delight, a wonderfully executed heist movie, told with an archness that turns its criminals into sympathetic rogues. It’s really a sort of dry comedy and gets a lot of fun out of British attitudes at the time.

For starters, who would think that gentlemen like this (war heroes for goodness sake!) would ever be involved in anything so naughty as armed robbery? Especially in a country so deferential that – in a cunning raid to pinch guns from a military base – conman “Padre” (Roger Livesey, riffing delightfully on his Blimpish persona, as a conman with a shady past) simply turns up dressed as a superior officer and is instantly accepted as such. Just to complete the satire of prejudices at the time, the members of the team lifting the guns are ordered to speak with Irish accents as after all “We British never give the Irish the benefit of the doubt”, and even the a whiff of an Irish accent will whack the blame straight onto the IRA.

But this also a film having a bit of fun with demobilised fellows who have never quite found their place in civvie street – and may even miss the glamour and excitement of the war. Most of the team are clearly veterans of WW2, and many of them are struggling with demanding landlords, unfaithful wives or dismally dull jobs. How could they resist saddling up for one more grand adventure? Especially when there is a huge suitcase of money waiting for them at the end of it.

Dearden’s direction is taut, sharp but also gives more than enough room for the character comedy. He stages the heists with a briskness and efficiency that you can imagine Michael Mann being quite pleased with (the gas mask wearing, gun totting soldiers have more than a passing resemblance to the robbers in Heat – enough to make you think Mann may have watched this film somewhere along the line). Dearden’s storytelling is clear, well staged and inventive (the raid on the army base is shown to us without briefing, meaning we work out the plan as it progresses).

He’s helped enormously by Bryan Forbes’ fun and quotable script, that swiftly but skilfully distinguishes the characteristics of each man and their motivations and makes a perfect balance between affectionate comedy and the sharpness of danger (the group make clear they will “do what’s necessary” if pushed, even if they aim is no bloodshed). The film is built around several wonderful set pieces – and has a classic, almost pre-James Bond parody opening as Hawkins emerges from a manhole cover dressed in a dinner suit and climbs into a car.

Hawkins is great here, spoofing the troubled war heroes and authority figures he spent his whole career playing. Here he inverts all this straight-shooting, “Queen and country first” attitude into a man with the outside trappings of decency, but with a bitter heart and cynicism towards the world. He carries most of the film with a deceptive effortlessness, but nails the tone exactly between fun and genuine frustration at the world.

The whole cast follow his lead. Nigel Patrick is very good as a cashiered Major who enjoys mockingly parroting all the eccentric mannerisms of upper-class gentlemen. Livesey enjoys the self-parody almost as much as Hawkins (he spends nearly every seen looking like he’s only a few degrees away from giggling). Attenborough is fun as a chippy junior officer while Terence Alexander is great as a frustrated cuckold lost on civvie street. There isn’t a weak link in the whole cast.

The film is a delight, fun but with more than enough tension. It brilliantly captures a sense of the camaraderie and loyalty between these ex-soldiers, as well as their delight at being used able to use their skills one final time. It’s a film squarely on the side of these criminals thumbing their noses at the system (and who are planning as close as they can get to a victimless crime, albeit at gun point). The film has to give them some sort of comeuppance at the end – but you’ll be sorry to see it, as by then you’ll be invested at pulling off the heist as they are. Well directed, acted and written it’s a perfect entertainment.

The Bounty (1984)

Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins go head-to-head in The Bounty

Director: Roger Donaldson

Cast: Mel Gibson (Fletcher Christian), Anthony Hopkins (Lt William Bligh), Laurence Olivier (Admiral Hood), Edward Fox (Captain Greetham), Daniel Day-Lewis (John Fryer), Bernard Hill (William Cole), Phil Davis (Edward Young), Liam Neeson (Charles Churchill), Wi Kuku Kaa (King Tynah), Tevaite Vernette (Mauatua), Philip Martin Brown (John Adams), Simon Chandler (David Nelson

The story of the mutiny on The Bounty has intrigued for centuries. It’s been made into plays, novels and no fewer than three films. Most versions have been inspired by a 1932 novel that painted Bligh as an ogre and Christian as a matinee idol. That image was cemented by the classic Best Picture winning Laughton/Gable version. The real story is far more intriguing – and operates much more in shades of grey – and this 1984 film tries to find a middle ground, with mixed success.

In real life, Bligh was a prickly, difficult but fundamentally decent man, who had worked his way up the naval ranks through merit. He was a superb sailor – as seen by his feat of navigating a small open boat of loyalists over hundreds of miles back to a British port. Cleared of any guilt for the mutiny, he had a successful career and retired as Vice Admiral. Fletcher Christian, on the other hand, was an entitled young man who owed everything to his rich family, rather than merit. The truth has been lost in fictionalised versions who were devil and saint. The truth was far more complex.

This film was a long-standing dream of David Lean, who planned the film for many years, before pulling out at the last moment. The script was written by long-time collaborator Robert Bolt (although ill health meant it was finished by an uncredited Melvyn Bragg). Producer Dino de Laurentis – not wanting to write off the money invested – bought in Australian Roger Donaldson to direct. The final product is a competent, if uninspired, middle-brow history film with a slight air of stodge, and a haunting – if incredibly 80s – electronic score from Vangelis. Where the film really lucked out is the superb cast of actors assembled, with Gibson on the cusp of mega stardom and the cast stuffed with future Oscar winners and nominees.

Anthony Hopkins had been attached to the film for almost seven years, and his carefully researched performance as Bligh is what really gives makes the film work. He gets closer to the personality of the real Bligh than anyone else ever has. Awkward, shy, uneasy with men under his command, insecure at his poor background and the West Country burr to his accent, Hopkins’ Bligh is a world away from a bad man. But he is a demanding and rigid leader, who inspires fear but not respect. He’s far from cruel, but he’s short-tempered, inflexible and has trouble empathising. All too often, he relies on his position alone to ensure obedience, rather than building respect. You sympathise with him, at the same time becoming deeply frustrated at his intransigence. You can understand why many would find him an extremely difficult man to work with (let alone work for).

Fletcher Christian is young, naïve and impetuous, a man whose experiences in Tahiti lead him to become surly and impatient with the confines of a naval life. Gibson later said he felt the film didn’t go far enough to depict Christian as selfish and motivated by a desire for the ‘good life’, and the film does try to show him standing up for the crew against Bligh’s demands for perfection. But Gibson is willing to embrace Christian’s darkness. He hurls himself into the (historically attested) near mental collapse, consumed with violent and unpredictable emotion, that Christian demonstrated during the mutiny, losing all control of himself in an explosion of self-pity and frustration.

The film’s highpoints revolve invariably around these actors. Hopkins’ demanding Bligh sets the tone on the ship. The roots of the mutiny can be seen in Bligh’s public bawling out (and demotion) of his first officer Mr Fryer (a disdainful Daniel Day-Lewis) in front of the entire ship, setting a precedent for disrespect. Every action he intends to build spirit and health in the crew has the exact opposite effect (from pushing them to excel, to enforced dancing sessions for exercise). Hopkins is perfect as man believing he is acting for the best but constantly getting the tone wrong, either too distant and reserved to inspire affection, or too enraged to inspire loyalty. Similarly Gibson, in the less intriguing part, really sells the growing self-absorption of Christian, especially his feckless weakness, easily manipulated into actions that go a step beyond his desires (Phil Davis is very good as a darkly Iago-ish Ned Young, using Christian’s popularity to his own ends).

However, the film itself is a little too traditional. Using Bligh’s trial (all captains who lost their ship were placed on trial to judge their responsibility) as a framing device brings us slightly too many interjections of the “and then you did this” variety – even if it allows actors as impressive as Olivier and Edward Fox to narrate us through the film. This stodgy structure carries us into a narrative that is professionally handled but lacks inspiration, ticking off events but not giving them a force outside of the performances of the actors. The film is competently but not inspiringly made, and never quite captures the sense of the epic that the location and scale should bring.

Perhaps this is because a true-to-life version of the mutiny is a little less traditionally dramatic. Despite some truly impressive performances from the leads (and the rest of the superbly chosen cast), it never quite shakes off the feeling of being a history lesson.