Tag: War film

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.

Downfall (2004)

Bruno Ganz excels as Adolf Hitler in Downfall

Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel

Cast: Bruno Ganz (Adolf Hitler), Alexandra Maria Lara (Traudl Junge), Ulrich Matthes (Joseph Goebbels), Juliane Kohler (Eva Braun), Corinna Harfouch (Magda Goebbels), Heino Ferch (Albert Speer), Christian Berkel (Professor Ernst-Gunther Schenck), Matthias Habich (Professor Werner Haase), Thomas Kretschmann (Hermann Fegelein), Michael Mendl (General Weidling), Andre Hennicke (General Mohnke), Ulrich Noethen (Heinrich Himmler), Birgit Minichmayr (Gerda Christian), Rolf Kanies (General Hans Krebs), Justus von Dohnanyi (General Burgdof)

Few people had such an impact on the 20th century than Adolf Hitler. Countless dictators unleashed genocide and war, but few on Hitler’s scale. His dark presence lingers like a cancer on German history, an existential guilt the country has spent generations trying to exorcise. Chronicling the final days of Hitler in his Berlin bunker, told with cinematic verve and documentary realism, Downfall was the first German film to directly tackle Hitler. Perhaps it needed a German film to present a Hitler who felt real rather than an under-the-bed monster – and was able to look into his darkness, and the horror of his world, in a way few films have ever done.

Downfall was controversial on release for ‘humanising’ Hitler. Certainly, the film shows a man capable of consideration and even moments of warmth. But it’s never in doubt a man can be kind to a secretary or affectionate to a dog and still be a sociopath who greets news of young soldiers dying with the words “that’s what young men are for”. Can still be so wickedly egotistical he decides the entire German population should join him in immolation while manipulating with quiet emotional pressure as many of his followers as possible to join him in suicide. Watching the film, you cannot escape Hitler’s monstrous destructiveness, his complete lack of empathy and his instinctive, brutality.

Much as we might not want to face it, Hitler was human: a ruthless, megalomaniac and genocidal one. Part of the fascination of the film is watching those closest to him – Eva Braun, his secretaries, his immediate staff – try to reconcile the kinder private man they know with the one they hear screaming for his Generals to be shot and ranting about Jews and his desire to annihilate entire populations. At one point Eva Braun tells Junge that when saying those things “he is being the Fuhrer” – as if Hitler and the Fuhrer are some hideous Jekyll/Hyde monster.

Downfall charts the final spiral of Hitler as he goes through the stages of grief at his impending defeat. Self-confidence turns into carpet-chewing anger, when reality becomes unavoidable. Grief mixes with fury as Hitler blames everyone – his Generals, his followers and finally the German people themselves – except himself. Never once does the film offer the slightest shred of sympathy for Hitler, this nightmare being all his own creation, consuming him just as it consumed tens of millions before.

As Hitler, Bruno Ganz is quite simply phenomenal. Studying for months film of Hitler, Ganz captures his physicality perfectly – adding Hitler’s likely (undiagnosed) Parkinson’s, a twitching hand he constantly hides behind his back like a nervous expression of his doubt. In private conversation, Ganz’s Hitler is polite and even a little warm, but never anything less than a monster of self-absorption. His favourite topic is himself, and his quiet expectation that everyone should join him in death is matched only by his cold dismissal of those who fail to live up to his twisted standards.

This is nothing to his furious outbursts at those perceived to have betrayed him. His spittle-fuelled rants perhaps only come close to the true carpet-chewing bawlings Hitler was apparently capable of, but they are tour-de-forces of relentless fury and self-pity. Ganz plays Hitler with empathy, but makes it very clear Hitler was incapable of such an emotion himself. The suffering of others is nothing to him. He sheds tears over the death of his dog and barely bats an eyelid at the deaths of thousands: instead they are a perverse monument to himself.

Nazi Germany is the country he created, and Downfall is exceptional in showing how the last days of the Reich were like the final hours of a cult. Few things display this better than the Goebbels themselves. Ulrich Matthes chilling Goebbels is so consumed with devotion for his leader, weeping when ordered to survive and continue the fight, that he cannot imagine living without him. Like Hitler, his fury is reserved for the German people – to him the German people chose their fate and cannot complain that their throats are now being cut.

This is matched by the devotion of his wife Magda, played with a chilling, twisted sadness by Corinna Harfouch, so devoted to Nazism and Hitler she decides (with the logic of a twisted fanatic) her children should die rather than live in a world without them. In a quietly devastating, almost impossible to watch, scene she feeds them ‘medicine’ (actually a sleeping agent) – her eldest daughter, sensing something is wrong, resists desperately before being force fed – then silently breaks a cyanide capsule in each of their mouths, with a kiss to each forehead. Everyone in the bunker knows this happening, but no one stops her. In this cultish world, where death is normalised and suicide expected, it’s only natural.

The second half of the film is a rash of suicides. A German doctor, his hands filthy with the euthanasia programme, detonates two grenades at a dinner, killing his whole family. The Goebbels shoot themselves and order their bodies cremated in a grim echo of Hitler’s own fate. As survivors plan a breakout, an officer calmly states he’s not leaving and shoots himself in the mouth – no one bats an eyelid. Hitler hands out cyanide capsules like candy, the unspoken expectation constant.

This callous brutality and nihilistic embracing of death is constant during the grim, pointless, desperate battle for the city. Indoctrinated children are press ganged into the front-lines and then choose suicide over surrender. Lynch mobs prowl the streets, executing anyone not seen to be fighting – mostly old men, disabled veterans and anyone not holding a gun. The film never suggests the German people are victims, but suggests the final target of the Nazis was Germany itself.

The film is a long spiral into an anti-chamber of hell. After the opening half hour, the Russian advance means the action retreats almost entirely underground into the bunker. In this subterranean world, the cast slowly thins out as people seize their chance to flee, leaving only the most deluded, hard-boiled and fanatical. Generals may protest Hitler’s denunciations of the ordinary soldiers, but will pull their guns on anyone who even suggests the idea of surrender.

In a country where Hitler has encouraged a denial of reality, the scheming and jockeying for position continues even in this madness. Even those who see the end is here are still deluded: Himmler firmly believes a brief chat with Eisenhower will be enough for the SS to be entrusted with maintaining the peace against Bolshevism. Only Speer (played perhaps with too much sympathy by Heino Ferch, in the film’s one mis-step) is clear eyed about what is happening.

Downfall is relentless and eye-opening in destruction of the final days of the Reich. Its reconstruction and research is faultless and acting breathtaking. Framing the device through the experiences of naïve secretary Traudl Junge (an excellent Alexandra Maria Lara), we get a sense of how the scales slowly and painfully fell from the eyes of the German people. It’s atmosphere of oppressive claustrophobia and bleakness is expertly done, with events swiftly and awfully spiralling down into one where death becomes an unremarkable inevitability. No one could come out of this either admiring Hitler or seeing anything in Nazism other than a twisted cult that consumed its followers with the same blood-curdling carelessness it did its millions of victims. Hitler may have been a human, but Downfall makes clear he was never humane.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Tom Hanks leads a platoon of men through incredible sacrifice in Spielberg’s landmark Saving Private Ryan

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Tom Hanks (Captain John Miller), Edward Burns (Pvt Richard Reiben), Matt Damon (Pvt James Francis Ryan), Tom Sizemore (Sgt Mike Horvath), Jeremy Davies (Cpl Timothy Upham), Vin Diesel (Pvt Adrian Caparzo), Adam Goldberg (Pvt Stanley Mellish), Berry Pepper (Pvt Daniel Jackson), Giovanni Ribisi (Medic Irwin Wade), Dennis Farina (Lt Col Anderson), Ted Danson (Cpt Fred Hamill), Harve Presnell (General George Marshall), Bryan Cranston (Colonel), Paul Giamatti (Sgt William Hill), Nathan Fillion (“Minnesota” Ryan)

There are few films you can categorically point to as changing cinema. Saving Private Ryan is one of those films. Before it, there had never been a war film like it: afterwards there would not be war film uninfluenced by it. Spielberg turned the Second World War from the picturesque setting for an all-star epic, into something immediate, ground-level and utterly, terrifyingly all-consuming. The “boots on the ground” vision of war, that didn’t shirk once from capturing the horrific cost and terror of war and had no suggestion of adventure. Hollywood would look at war differently ever more.

From landing at Omaha beach on D-Day, the film follows a single week in the lives of Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) and a platoon of soldiers, sent on a ‘public relations’ mission. Three brothers have all been killed in action, with their mother receiving notification of their deaths all on the same day. The top brass decide she has suffered enough and that her last remaining son James (Matt Damon) should be bought home. Problem is, he’s a member of the 101st Parachute Airborne – and no one is quite sure where he’s been dropped. Miller and his men are to find Ryan and bring him home – despite the resentment of his men that their lives at being put at risk to save one man.

Any discussion of Saving Private Ryan begins with that Omaha beach sequence.  It’s hard to even begin to understand the impact this sequence had on audiences in 1998. Quite simply, we’d never seen anything like it. Expectations before its release was that Spielberg was producing a crowd-pleasing, Dirty Dozen style men-on-a-mission film. No one expected a savage, brutally realistic vision of what warfare actually meant, with its brutal, swift and random death.

The sequence starts with Spielberg panning across the faces of soldiers in the landing craft Miller and his company are riding to the beach. He lingers on these faces – only for them to be promptly ripped to pieces by machine-gun fire the second the doors open. Omaha beach is a savage nightmare, the closest thing you can image to hell on earth. Machine gun bullets rip down relentlessly on the pinned down soldiers – and the camera throws us right in there with them.

With drained out colours, hand-held camerawork (some of it operated by Spielberg himself), mud, blood and sand spraying up into the lens, it’s all-consuming. The film’s sound design is awe-inspiringly good, every single sound (the splatter of sand, the thud of bullets ripping through flesh, the snap of rifles) builds into a shatteringly immersive crescendo with no respite. Spielberg doesn’t shy away from the horror. Bodies are mutilated by bullets. Heads are caved in. A soldiers walks the beach, carrying his own severed arm. Medics treat soldiers drowning in their own blood, crying for their mothers. Bullets claim the brave and scared alike.

You watch and you can’t believe anyone emerged from this alive. The cost of getting off the beach is seismic. The visceral horror doesn’t let up over the first 25 minutes as Miller’s company – suffering huge losses – struggles from landing craft, to beach, to storming the German defences. Our ear drums are assaulted by bullet sound effects, and every single step shows us some new horror. There are no long-shots, no cut aways and the only peace we get is when we share with Miller his tinnitus from narrow-escape explosions. The brutality is even-handed – after the massacre on the beach, the US soldiers show no mercy to the Germans (two of whom are gunned down surrendering and begging for mercy), officers urging their men to “let ‘em burn” as on-fire Germans fall from incinerated machine gun banks.

It’s extraordinary – and sets the tone. Combat is immediate, visceral, terrifying, brutal and always carries a heavy cost. The human body is infinitely fragile and every death – high or low – is met with fear, loneliness and regret. Veterans had to leave the cinema during screenings to compose themselves, and viewers were stunned into silence. You could watch Saving Private Ryan and feel you never even began to understand what war was until then – and that even with this taste you can still never understand it. It’s a brutal zero-sum game with only losers.

Any film would struggle to follow that: but Saving Private Ryan does a fabulous job of maintaining the dramatic force of its opening sequence before its book-end final battle, as the remains of the platoon join Ryan’s unit in a seemingly-hopeless defence of a vital bridge in a bombed out town (another grim, gripping and stunning slice of war with the added kick to the guts of watching people we have spent the entire film with being blown away and ripped apart by bullets).

Spielberg’s film explores what makes the cost of this worth it. It’s a film about the power of sacrifice: the sacrifices the men make to find Ryan, but on a larger scale the sacrifices this whole generation made for those that were to come. When Miller urges Ryan to “earn this”, he’s speaking to us all. Men like him died to give us the chance to make the world a better place. The sacrifices of this platoon for one man is all part of the same price this entire generation made for the ones that were to come.

And one of the things sacrificed is the rules of humanity. Prisoners are shot, unarmed men are killed – if you play this game, you play to win. Thrown into Omaha, the audience understand this – meaning we feel as little patience with translator Upham (a fine performance of out-of-his-depth-fear from Jeremy Davies), who whines about right-and-wrong, as his colleagues, who understand living-and-dying is the only issue out here anyone cares about.

Understanding this depends on relating to the soldiers – and the cast has been hand-picked for that. None more so than Tom Hanks, channelling his relatability into a home-spun, ordinary man forced into extraordinary and brutal situations that have left a shattering mark on him. With an intermittent tremor in his hand, Hanks embodies the stoic sacrifice of a generation. It’s a landmark performance. There are many fine performances in the film, Tom Sizemore (battling drug addiction and a promise of instant dismissal if he relapsed) perhaps the stand-out as his hardened sergeant.

If Saving Private Ryan has a fault, it’s that it falls into Spielberg’s sentimentality trap. Sometimes the man can’t help himself. The film is bookended by an old man visiting war graves – someone we discover at the film’s end is Ryan himself. As if somehow still not trusting us to get the message about sacrifice and horror the film has so effectively communicated, old-man-Ryan explicitly tell us, tearily asking his wife if he has led a “good life”. It’s a hammer-home the film doesn’t need and dents its final impact. (I’d also say the film has endless empathy for US Joes, but sees all the Germans as a ruthless swarm fighting an evil cause, although many of them were also as scared).

But these are quibbles in a film that does so much right – and which reinvented an entire genre. It’s one of Spielberg’s masterpieces, a stunning display of directorial skill and immersive film-making, and its impact never seems to lessen. It gets as close as any film can to showing us war – and yet it is still a million miles further away than most of us (thankfully) will ever have to get.

Lifeboat (1944)

The survivors face the weather, the sea and their own suspicions in Hitchcock’s Lifeboat

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Tallulah Bankhead (Constance Porter), William Bendix (Gus Smith), Walter Slezak (Willi), Mary Anderson (Alice MacKenzie), John Hodiak (John Kovac), Henry Hull (Charles J Rittenhouse), Heather Angel (Mrs Higley), Hume Cronyn (“Sparks” Garrett), Canada Lee (Joe Spencer)

Spoilers: If you can spoil a film made 76 years ago… but the ending will be discussed

The middle of the Atlantic at wartime. A ship has been sunk by a German U-boat, which was itself sunk in the exchange. A single lifeboat picks up survivors, a mixture of passengers, crewmen – and a German sailor from the U-Boat. Low on food and water, with only a faint idea of where they are, can they survive long enough to find either land or another ship? That’s even before we can overcome questions of trust – or not.

Taken from a scenario written by John Steinbeck, Alfred Hitchcock was originally attracted to Lifeboat because he fancied the idea of directing a film that was set in only one location. And a tiny one at that! Needless to say, such is the imagination and skill the film has been made with that you will soon forgot that it all takes place effectively in one tiny room. Instead, as the camera skilfully cuts and moves through the boat, finding intriguing angles and never once let the pace slip, you’ll be sucked in this intriguing story of survival and morality.

Lifeboat was attacked at the time precisely because of these difficult questions of morality. Unlike many other war films of the time, it wasn’t just interested in propaganda. Instead the German here – later revealed to be the captain of the U-Boat – is not only the films most charming and engaging character, brilliantly played by Walter Slezak, he’s also the only one that has any real idea about how to survive. Need a sailor? He’s best qualified. A navigator? The only man with a clue. Need to lop a gangrenous leg off? Willie can do it with a pen knife. His resourcefulness needs to be weighed in the balance though with his lies, manipulations and hording of supplies.

But the fact the film presents us with a Falstaffianly rogueish German, rather than a monster – and also makes him the most effective of the survivors – was a problem at the time. Combined with the fact that the representatives of the allies are a mixed and divided back. A chippy socialist sailor. A decent but ineffective radio operator. A jobsworth nurse, possibly carrying someone else’s husband’s child. An ambitious gossip columnist. An industrialist who assumes he should call the shots. And a black steward who even needs to take a moment to think about before they decide to treat him as an equal, or even use his real name. A unified and decisive group of allies, this ain’t.

The events of the film then develop in a host of challenging ways. Sure, our heroes eventually come together – but its in a murderous fury that sees them lynch Willie, beat him to death and throw him overboard. Willie saves their lives – but he also hordes water and then persuades the delirious Gus (whose leg he amputated) to throw himself overboard when Gus spies his secret water stash.

This lynching scene is the heart of the film – indeed most of the action is a slow, tension-filled, build towards it. And, for all that Willie is a seemingly unrepentant Nazi (dropping broad hints about having spent some time in Paris) who we are told ordered the shooting of survivors in the water, its hard not to feel some sympathy for him as Hitchcock cuts to a close up of his horrified eyes as he realises what the passengers are about to do. Just as the passengers, waking to find Gus gone and Willie assuring them it was for the best, take a on a monstrous inhumanity as they murder him.

Hitchcock described them later as a pack of dogs. Of the passengers, alarmingly it’s the two most decent (Hume Cronyn’s gentle radio operator and Mary Anderson’s nurse) who turn the most savage in the onslaught. Only Joe – perhaps remembering other lynchings he may have witnessed? – keeps a horrified distance from the slaughter. In a traditional propaganda film, as many critics wanted at the time, this would be a moment of triumph. The allies coming together to vanquish their common foe.

Instead, it intentionally leads a queezy and unsettling taste in the mouth. Hitchcock seems to be challenging us to ask just how we feel about this. Willie has done terrible, greedy, awful things. He’s got a lot of blood on his hands. But do we feel its right for these guys to murder him – and as brutally as they do here? (Hitchcock shoots the lynching at a distance, the passengers descending on Willie like a mob, his bloodied face emerging at one point before being dragged back in). There is nothing really triumphant about this. And, after the deed, no one seems sure how to process it. Rittenhouse even suggests Willie deserved his fate for his ingratitude after they hauled him from the water.

As safety is finally found near the end, it’s not clear what anyone has learned. The whole ghastly cycle looks like it might be repeated when a young German sailor is hauled onboard after another supply ship is sunk. Some passengers are ready to butcher him immediately – the sailor fortunately is armed. Sanity just about prevails, but already the passengers are beginning to revert, right down to starting to address Joe by the common short-hand name for a black steward, George.

But then at the same time, it’s not as simple as that. After all, these German sailors sunk a ship killing hundreds of people. During the first night on the boat a baby dies in his mother’s arms – the mother then throws herself overboard the next night, despite the passengers attempt to restrain her. Those deaths are discussed again at the end when the passengers obliquely wonder if they did the right thing. The film won’t say for sure, but leave it to you to decide. And it’s that rich sense of unease that helps make this a rather overlooked masterpiece for Hitchcock. A lot more than just a technical triumph, it’s a searching and questioning film.

Land and Freedom (1995)

Ian Hart fights for Land and Freedom in Ken Loach’s impassioned Spanish Civil War drama

Director: Ken Loach

Cast: Ian Hart (David Carr), Rosana Pastor (Bianca), Frédéric Pierrot (Bernard Goujon), Tom Gilroy (Lawrence), Icíar Bollaín (Lawrence), Marc Martinez (Juan Vidal), Paul Laverty (Militia Member)

What do we really know about our elders? After David Carr passes away, his granddaughter finds a box full of memories from his time as a young man (Ian Hart) who went to Spain in 1936 to fight against fascism. His granddaughter uncovers a whole side of her radical grandfather she never knew – his passions, his love and the reasons for his disillusionment with the communist party.

If there was someone who was going to make a film about the Spanish Civil War, it would be Ken Loach. The Spanish Civil War is a totemic event for left-wing politics, where the dream of a truly commune-based left-wing government in Europe, by the people for the people, died in a long civil war with right-wing military forces. Loach’s film hums with anger at this missed opportunity and fury at the way these crusaders for justice were left high and dry by both the rest of Europe, and the Russian-controlled forces that should have been on their side.

The Spanish Civil War is a war that it’s easy to slightly forget – a dress rehearsal for World War Two but with a different result. It’s striking that this is one of the very few films – perhaps the only film – to really tackle it. Perhaps that’s because, for many, it’s a hazy and confusing combat with no clear goodies and baddies. On one side the left-wing forces were riddled with internal conflict, with many in thrall to Stalin, while the right-wing forces were anti-Stalin (good) but fascist (very bad). It’s a war that ended with an elected government overthrown in a military coup, tacitly endorsed by the Allied powers – not something that fits well with our narrative of the World War Two era.

It’s clearly a war where Loach has picked a side. His sympathies – and the film’s – are certainly not with the leadership of the communist party, who are portrayed as heartless, two-faced and only concerned with assuring Soviet control over the country. Instead he sides with the common working-class man, fighting in the trenches, full of idealistic passion and righteous anger. Loach’s film is unashamedly political, awash with ideas and idealism.

Not many other films feature at their heart an impassioned, semi-improvised, debate on the merits of forming a commune and economic self-determination. This scene, the key moment in the film, really works by the way, with the actors throwing in their contributions alongside extras, many of them veteran Spanish trade unionists. You can question the naivety of it – and also the way, as often, Loach tends to paint compromise as a vice nearly as bad as betrayal – but it makes for surprisingly compelling viewing. Because, if nothing else, it’s clear everyone, from the director down, really believes in the virtues of the politics being offered and the hope they bring – and that’s infectious.

It’s also because Loach is a highly skilled director who has carefully used the film to build our empathy with these brave campaigners. There are some truly impressive performances. Ian Hart is superb as the young David Carr, young, idealistic, funny, brave and angry. Rosana Pastor is just as good as the woman he loses his heart too, the sort of feminist warrior ideal that is the staple of films like this, but whom she makes feel exceptionally vibrant and alive. Loach throws us into the trenches with these guys, showing us their lives and loves, allowing us to follow them through triumph and loss. It’s a film that demands we respect and admire these people who came from far and wide to fight for what they believed in – and it’s right to do so.

As always with Loach, what I miss is the shades of grey. You cannot doubt the honesty and true feeling behind these people’s views. They believe that what they are saying is the only way. What Loach tends to do – and does here – is show anyone who disagrees with this view, no matter the reason, as either cowardly or self-serving. An American communist who stresses the need for moderation in their politics (to win sympathy from the Western powers) and professionalism in the military campaign is dismissed as a sell-out and a patsy. As often with Loach, the idea of getting results from moderation and organic change is seen as worse than a romantic failure that sticks completely to ideals. Perhaps it’s an interesting insight into why so many left-wing political movements have ended in failure?

But away from the politics this is a fine film, one of Loach’s best. The reconstruction of the Civil War – often confused, rushed trench warfare fighting unclear enemies – is brilliantly done. A storming of a village by David Carr’s militia group is shot with the sort of immediacy that would make Paul Greengrass jealous. And what Loach does better than almost any other filmmaker is bring real, living, passion to the screen. As the militia is finally betrayed for good by the Communists, the spittle-flecked, teary-cheeked anger of the characters at the Soviet-backed forces rounding them up feels almost unwatchably real.

I don’t always agree with Loach’s politics – and I strongly favour compromise and moderation as a better way of achieving long-term goals than blindly sticking to principles – but I have no argument with his qualities as a filmmaker. And Land and Freedom is so clearly one-from-the-heart that you can’t argue with it. No matter your political stance, you must be moved by it. And feel a profound sorrow about how a generation saw their dreams ripped away and betrayed.

Waterloo (1970)

Rod Steiger chews the scenery as Napoleon in this epic restaging of Waterloo

Director: Sergei Bondarchuk

Cast: Rod Steiger (Napoleon Bonaparte), Christopher Plummer (Duke of Wellington), Orson Welles (Louis XVIII), Jack Hawkins (Lt-General Thomas Picton), Virginia McKenna (Duchess of Richmond), Dan O’Herlihy (Marshal Michel Ney), Rupert Davies (Colonel Gordon), Philippe Forquet (Brigadier-General Bédoyère), Ian Ogilvy (Colonel De Lancey)

In 1970 there was no CGI. Want to stage a battle scene? Well you’re going to have to use real people, rather than populating your screen with pixel soldiers. I’ve always had a fondness for epic films of this era, where you look at the screen and know everything is real. And one of the best examples of this battle-heavy genre is this 1970’s chronicle of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Because in 1970 the only way to recapture the battle on camera was effectively to re-fight it with a cast of tens of thousands of extras and horses, across a film set the size of the original battlefield. Can you imagine anyone attempting that today?

An international co-production, the film throws together an eccentric hodgepodge of actors. No more than you would expect of a film co-financed by Italy and the Soviet Union, shot in English, directed by a Ukrainian (with a team of four translators) with a lead actor from New York and the cast stuffed with dubbed actors from across Europe. In fact the slight air of Euro-tackiness about the film is one of the things I sort of love about it.

Rod Steiger as Napoleon delivers the sort of OTT performance he loved to give, capturing the self-aggrandising, larger-than-life nature of the Emperor while frequently chewing the scenery and oscillating between whispers and shouting. It’s perhaps no more than you would expect when playing a man whose entire life was a stage-managed performance of dangerous charisma. It does though make a nice contrast with Christopher Plummer who, perhaps aware of who he was working with, goes for an archly low-key, even wry touch, as the more austere Wellington.

The film covers the time period of Napoleon’s Hundred Days, from his arrival from Elba to the final defeat at Waterloo (with a neat prologue showing an exhausted Napoleon accepting he must abdicate and head into exile in 1814). Much of the first half hour is a showpiece for Steiger’s bombastic Napoleon. Few other characters get a look in (Welles cashes another of his cheques for one-scene cameos, as a bloated Louis XVIII fleeing into exile). To be honest, much of the first half of the film is a slightly stodgy (more-or-less) faithful trot through historical events leading to the battle.

But this is really to set the table for the film’s central appeal, which is that astonishing recreation of the battle itself. Shot in the Ukraine, the Soviet Union (as their part of the deal) effectively recreated the landscape of Waterloo, bulldozing hills, planting thousands of trees, sowing fields and laying over six miles of drainage to help create the muddy fields. On top of which, the USSR threw in 17,000 troops to serve as extras (insanely impressive, even considering it’s only a fraction of the nearly 191,000 troops involved at various stages in the battle).

Marshalling all this was Soviet director Sergei Bondarchuk. Used to commanding film sets like this – he had previously directed a four-part version of War and Peace, where similar number of Soviet troops had recreated Austerlitz and Borodino – Bondarchuk certainly knows how to show the money is all on screen. Aerial shots and long tracking shots take in regiments of soldiers taking up position. Cavalry charges of hundreds of horses are brilliantly shot. The French cavalry charge against the British infantry squares is stunning in its scale and size. Everywhere you look, wide-angled shots demonstrate the depth of extras, the vast scope of the battle and the huge numbers of soldiers marching across screen. If nothing else it’s a superb marshalling of resources.

Bondarchuk brings a number of stylistic flourishes from his War and Peace to the film here. Sadly many of these choices have dated badly – and even at the time, looked a little silly. Interior monologues are demonstrated with close-ups and the sound of actors whispering over the soundtrack (although Bondarchuk also mixes this up with a prowling Napoleon addressing the camera directly). The film loves crash-zooms and fast wipes – one crash zoom generates giggles as it zooms in on Napoleon as he turns fast to face the camera after particularly bad news. Bondarchuk at times drains out the noise of the battle to focus on small details, most notably in the British cavalry charge. It gives moments of the film an odd dreamy film, particularly striking because most of it is so baked in realism.

To be honest the film is workmanlike, rather than inspired, with all the focus on marshalling the thousands of extras. There are moments of character for both Napoleon and Wellington – flashes of doubt, insecurity, fear are mixed in with supreme confidence. The film also hits a neat line in the horrors of war. The camera tracks along the mangled bodies after the battle, while at the peak of the clash a British soldier has a mental collapse, breaking from his square to bemoan “Why are we killing each other?” Not exactly subtle, but it works.

But the film’s main appeal is that scope – and its breath taking. The film itself is more to look at than think about, but with the detail of its recreation of the battle makes it a must for any Napoleonic history buff. Peter Jackson has said his own cavalry charges in Lord of the Rings were inspired by this film – the difference being Jackson’s horses were CGI, while Bondarchuk literally charged hundreds of horses direct at the camera. And you won’t see scope like that anywhere else.

And that’s partly because the film was a bomb, putting an end to such huge scale films as this and also leading to Stanley Kubrick’s plans for a Napoleon biopic being cancelled. Perhaps the worst part of its legacy.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Roger Livesey and Anton Walbrook are friends who war cannot divide in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Cast: Roger Livesey (Clive Candy), Deborah Kerr (Edith Hunter/Barbara Wynne/Angela “Johnny” Cannon), Anton Walbrook (Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff), Ursula Jeans (Frau von Kalteneck), James McKechnie (Lt “Spud” Wilson), David Hutcheson (Hoppy), Frith Banbury (David “Baby Face” Fitzroy), Muriel Aked (Aunt Margaret), John Laurie (Murdoch), Roland Culver (Colonel Betteridge)

Is there a film that has better captured the curious state of being British than The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp? Could any other film makers than Powell and Pressburger take a doltish buffoon from newspaper comic strip, and turn him into a tragi-comic figure worth of Hamlet? Could any other film make a wartime propaganda film that features the most sympathetic depiction of the Germans anyone would see for decades to come? Winston Churchill was so scathing of the film that its US release was delayed for two years – and even then it was cut to ribbons. But then, I guess we knew already the guy wasn’t right about everything.

During the Blitz, Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) is a retired Major-General and now a senior commander in the Home Guard. Ambushed in a Turkish bath on the eve of a training exercise (by young officers keen to follow the German example of effective pre-emptive strikes), Candy rages at their dismissal of him as a relic from yesteryear. In flashback, we see Candy’s entire life over the course of the rest of the film. The film charts his military cross, from the Boer War to World War One and his life-long friendship with German officer Theo Kretschar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), after both men are hospitalised after a 1902 duel over insults to the German military. Both men fall in love with the same woman, Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr) although Clive realises it far too late – and their friendship ebbs and flows over the next forty years.

Powell and Pressburger’s film is, of course, quite beautifully made. The film has that distinctively radiant technicolour look of their most successful works, but it works so well because Powell assembles the whole so wonderfully. Powell knows when to hold a shot and when to look away and his judgement is never wrong. In the duel where Clive and Theo meet (Theo has been randomly selected to fight), the camera at first covers the detail of the prep, then moves to an over-the-head shot as it begins, before pulling out of the gymnasium and away, gliding into a long shot with Berlin sprinkled with snow. Because after all, the actual fight is immaterial to the sense of this being one event in the tapestry of life – and the moment of real importance being the friendship that came from it.

Then, much later, Powell does the exact opposite, holding a shot with powerful, emotional, simplicity. It’s 1939 and Theo is trying to remain in England – his wife having passed away, his sons being lost to Nazism and this adopted country being far closer to his old Prussian ideals of duty and fairplay. In a heartbreakingly low-key, simple speech – just exquisitely delivered by Anton Walbrook – Powell lets the entire speech play out in a single take, giving the moment room to breathe and magnifying its impact enormously – not least by the background extra who switches from shuffling his papers to listening intently to this heartfelt appeal.

It’s this mastery of technique that makes the impact of the film so wonderful – and helps it to masterfully capture the changing of an entire nation. Other the film’s forty years the entire world changes utterly, from one of simple truths where right is right and evils are punished, to the morally complex world of World War Two, where bending the rules and playing dirty might be just what is needed to defeat enemies with no principles. 

Candy is a man of unshakeable morals and ideals, who does not believe ends justify means and is determined that fighting honourably for defeat is far better than victory at all costs. It’s an idea the film affectionately praises, at the same time it sadly shakes its head and admits that such ideals were for the last century not this one. These are ideas Theo has captured far sooner than Candy – and Candy’s tragedy, among his many virtues, is that he always fails until it is almost too late to understand the truth of the world around him (be that politically or romantically).

It doesn’t matter really though, because we always know Candy’s heart is in the right place. In a sublime performance by Roger Livesey, this is a man with an upper-class bombast and a paternalistic regard for his duty and for others. His country and the ideals of that country come first and foremost – but it’s not about pushing those home. He will console honourable foes – as he does with Theo after World War One – and when the battle is over will be the first to say by-gones are by-gones. The film he is in a way a somewhat ridiculously old-fashioned character – but he’s always well-meaning, decent and honourable.

Candy also has the tragedy tinged sadness of not knowing what he wants until it’s too late. He doesn’t realise his affections for Edith Hunter, until she and Theo are telling him of their engagement (although we the audience are already well aware that Edith had feelings for him), and the look of realisation of a deep and lasting love that will last his whole life, is fabulously conveyed by Livesey in a perfect reaction shot. Candy will eventually marry Edith’s near doppelganger, but this unspoken love will last his whole life – and form another bond between him and Theo. Which in itself is what we like to think is a quality the British have at their best.

Along with that British fair-play that is so important to him, it also settles in the friendship between Theo and Clive. A friendship unaffected by tragedy or war (or at least not for long) and which, despite years apart, Clive frequently returns to with all the warmth and openness they first shared. These are bonds of loyalty forged on the playing fields, that operate on unspoken feelings (for a portion of their friendship Theo can’t even speak English). 

These are also the ideas and principles that Clive keeps alive in himself, even while the world becomes ever more bleak around him. He’s a character that never loses his essential positivity and kindness. Deaths or disappointed love are met with regret and then losing yourself in sport (whole years are hilariously shown to pass by montages showing Clive’s hunting trophies appear on walls). But always that British idea of (as Churchill put it) “keep buggering on”, and not letting infinite sadnesses and disappointments undermine or define you.

Powell and Pressburger use all this to make Candy not a joke – as the Lieutenant in the film’s prologue sees him – but as a deeply sympathetic and real man. It’s a film also about our disregard for the old, our failure to ever imagine that they were young. The flashback structure fills in this story beautifully. All this, and it’s not even to mention Deborah Kerr’s superb performance as all three of the women in this story, each subtle commentaries on the other and her return throughout somehow representing the perfect ideals that Clive and Theo are living to. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is about understanding how the “rules” of British behaviour are underpinned by a deeper sadness it’s almost a duty to hide – and it understands that better than almost any other film.

Glory (1989)

Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington are among the first black American soldier in Glory

Director: Edward Zwick

Cast: Matthew Broderick (Colonel Robert Gould Shaw), Denzel Washington (Pvt Silas Trip), Cary Elwes (Major Cabot Forbes), Morgan Freeman (Sgt Major John Rawlins), Andre Braugher (Cpl Thomas Searles), Jihmi Kennedy (Pt Jupiter Sharts), Cliff De Young (Colonel James Montgomery), Alan North (Governor John Albion Andrew), John Finn (Sgt Mulcahy), Bob Gunton (General Charles Garrison Harker), Jay O Sanders (General George Crockett Strong)

The American Civil War started over slavery, but it took a long time for either side to admit it was a fight about slavery. Racism abounded on both sides, and it was a fight in which black Americans may have been the subject, but were rarely invited to join. Glory covers this point of history, and specifically the first all-black regiment and its struggle to be recognised as equal to the other regiments in the army. 

Wounded at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) returns home to Massachusetts and accepts command of the first all-black regiment, which is currently being raised by abolitionists in the state. With his friend Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes) as second-in-command (no one was progressive enough to actually allow black officers for the regiment), he recruits a wide range of black Americans, from free-man and bookish intellectual Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher) – an old friend of Robert and Cabot – to former slaves such as the wise John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) and the resentful Silas Trip (Denzel Washington). Training is a struggle, with the army denying the regiment supplies and support, and it’s an equal struggle when they reach the front line to be recognised for duties other than looting and latrine digging. Will the Massachusetts 54th be given the chance to prove itself in the front line – and establish a black man can fight as hard and bravely as a white man can?

Edward Zwick’s beautifully filmed, carefully re-created historical epic set the tone for much of his future career. It’s an often overly-sentimental film straining for a very self-conscious sense of importance, weighed down by the pride at the “message” it is carrying. It often does hit the mark with presenting scenes that carry emotional force – but then seeing as it treats nearly every scene as being a “moment” that should move us (with James Horner’s choral manipulation working double time to get us experiencing feelings), it’s no wonder that it succeeds sometimes.

Which is not to say the message it presents isn’t an important one. Black Americans have often been pushed into the margins of American Civil War history. Or worst of all presented as the victims, reliant on the courage and bravery of the abolitionists of the North to save them from slavery in the South. Until Glory it was very rare for anything to push their stories front and centre – or to tell a story where former slaves were allowed to fight their own battles and choose their own destinies. 

It’s one of the strongest marks of the film: these are soldiers unlike any other, who enter battles with less concern about their own survival, and more about having the chance to live as freemen and to make a mark on the world. To show that they, and people like them, could do just as a white man could do. And if they had to die to do that, better to live a day on their feet as freemen then a lifetime on their knees. It’s the principle emotional message of the film, and something Zwick translates with some skill, even if he frequently overeggs the pudding while doing so.

However, with such a strong message, it’s a shame so much of the film is filtered through the experience of its white lead character. For many of the films of the 80s and 90s dealing with these issues – Cry Freedom, the Steve Biko biopic, with Biko as a supporting character to his white South African journalist friend, being perhaps the key example – it was essential to have a white man at the centre, as if worried that audiences couldn’t understand the story they were seeing unless they had it filtered through the perception of someone who looks a bit more like them.

Matthew Broderick takes on the lead role here of Shaw – with the film giving a significant slice of its running time to its coming-of-age theme of Shaw learning to become a leader of men – and while the character is meant to be callow and an unlikely Colonel, it doesn’t help that Broderick lacks the charisma for the part. Perhaps he is a little too lightweight an actor for such an enterprise, for a film that demands greater force of character (you can imagine Tom Cruise doing a much finer job in the role).  Similarly, the familiar beats of a young man learning how to lead feel trivial compared to the life-and-death issues facing his soldiers.

But too often Zwick’s film returns us to Shaw’s point-of-view, the narrative filtering so much of the action through his perceptions and decisions that the black soldiers become supporting actors in their own stories. Broderick is not helped by the soldiers being played by some of the finest American actors of the last 30 years. Braugher is fabulous in the thankless role of the bookish man who must grow a spine. Morgan Freeman established a persona – the wise and level headed older man, who will not let hate and fury define his life and his choices – that would last him for the rest of his career, and is superb (his Oscar nomination for Driving Miss Daisy is probably the only thing that led to him not getting a nod for this film).

Denzel Washington took home an Oscar as the bitter, angry Trip – and it’s the sort of role an actor seizes with relish. Washington fills every frame with his rage at the system, his inarticulate, indiscriminate anger lashing out in every direction. It’s the fury of a man who has had all his choices taken from him in life, and would rather destroy things than run the risk of allowing himself to become committed to something, or form a bond. Washington probably won the Oscar alone for the astonishing scene where he silently, defiantly accepts a whipping (on a body covered with scars) for missing a curfew. He’s an elemental force of nature in the film.

There is plenty of strong stuff in Zwick’s work, but the film itself overplays its hand frequently. Moments of emotion are played so heavily to the hilt they sometimes fail to have an impact. It wants you to know at every turn that you are watching a film with an important social message – and the speechifying at points put into the mouths of the characters runs dry. While superbly made – veteran photographer Freddie Francis’ work is beautiful (and Oscar winning) – it’s a heavy-handed, overly pleased with itself film that knows all too well that it is about an important subject. While sometimes it lands – often in quieter moments, particularly those where Freeman and Washington are allowed to simply be human without overindulgent music cues hammering home the emotions – at others it comes across as too much.

Paths of Glory (1957)

Kirk Douglas leads men into pointless battle in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Cast: Kirk Douglas (Colonel Dax), Ralph Meeker (Cpl Philippe Paris), Adolphe Menjou (Major General Georges Broulard), George Macready (Brigadier General Paul Mireau), Wayne Morris (Lt Roget), Richard Anderson (Major Saint-Auban), Joe Turkel (Pvt Pierre Arnaud), Timothy Carey (Pvt  Maurice Ferol), Emile Meyer (Father Duprée), Bert Freed (Sgt Boulanger), Susanne Christian (German singer)

Kubrick’s fourth film is one that often gets overlooked when running over his CV – and it’s had less cultural impact than, say, A Clockwork Orange, 2001 or The Shining – but out of all of his films (except maybe The Shining) it’s the one I’ve come back to the most often, and is certainly his first stone-cold classic. This Word War One tragedy simmers with anti-war sentiment, and it’s so beautifully made and assembled you can see its influence in films right up to 1917.

In 1916 the war is bogged down into trench warfare. Command wants results, an action they can point to, so General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) is sent by the General Staff to instruct General Mireau (George Macready) to launch an attack on a well defended German position called “the Anthill”. Mireau says any attack would be suicide – until the prospect of his promotion being directly linked to it is mentioned, at which point he becomes the attack’s most passionate advocate. Mireau passes the order onto regiment commander Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), who protests that the attack is pointless, but is ordered to lead it or be relieved of his command. The attack is a costly farce, and the humiliated Mireau (with Broulard’s tacit agreement) demands a blood sacrifice – one man from each company will be placed on trial for cowardice and shot as an example for the whole French army. Dax deplores this injustice – but with the administrative meat-grinder as deadly as the one on the front, what hope does he have?

Kubrick believed passionately in the project but also needed a commercial hit in order to bolster his career. So he recruited Kirk Douglas to get the funding – Douglas took a third of the film’s budget as his salary, so it wasn’t all charity – and he rewrote the ending of the book to allow Dax to come up with a last minute solution to get the soldiers off. Douglas, to his credit, was having none of that and demanded a rewrite that restored the book’s original bleak ending. 

So it’s largely thanks to Douglas we get the shape of the film that we end up with – but it’s clear that it’s Kubrick’s genius that makes it the film it is. Actor and director were a perfect combination here, so much so that Douglas got Kubrick on board to direct Spartacus (an unhappy experience for them both). But Paths of Glory was where both actor and director were working in perfect partnership, both pushing the other to give of their very best. Dax is the perfect Douglas role – decent, intelligent, well-spoken, passionate, a natural leader, but the film undermines all this with his ineffectiveness. Each of his crusades goes wrong, and he fails at every goal he sets himself. Douglas brilliantly captures both sides of this in his generously low-key but committed performance.

He has a great framework of a film around him from Kubrick. The director uses several longs shots, extended takes and tracking shots to throw us into the world. The opening sequences at the military HQ, taking in the palatial setting of Mireau’s campaign office, have a stately construction and technical formality which then contrasts superbly with the lower angle, tracking shot-laden, POV sequences set in the trenches. Kubrick’s camera glides through these trenches, low angles seeming to make them tower over the viewer, the mud and filth only worse in the body-strewn no-man’s land that stands between the French and the Germans.

It culminates in the attack sequence, one of the greatest battle sequences ever placed on film. Following the doomed advance at a methodical pace, matching the speed of the soldiers, the camera tracks over no man’s land as explosions rend the ground and bodies are thrown to the mud under a hail of bullets. At the front is Dax, vainly blowing on his whistle and encouraging the men forward, while all around him devastation and slaughter win out. Any thought that this wasn’t a pointless enterprise from start to finish is completely dispelled, and our sympathies are completely with Dax and the soldiers, whose lives are superfluous to the ambitions of the generals.

Both generals cut appalling figures for different reasons. Mireau, played with a trumpeting, vain bombast by Macready, is a “blood and guts” soldier who never places his own blood and guts anywhere near the line. Proudly bragging about the skills of his soldiers, then furiously denouncing their cowardice, one telling shot has him in the trenches staring through binoculars at the German positions, oblivious to the wounded men filing past him. Later he orders the shelling of these very trenches in fury at their failure to advance far enough. Broulard is hardly better, Menjou’s “hail well met” bluster hiding a chilling lack of empathy.

The Germans are never seen, because the real enemies here are war itself (and we are kidding ourselves if the same thing wasn’t happening on the other side) and the authorities who push us into it. The film is almost like some sort of black satire, with the generals confidently telling their soldiers they are right behind them, before retreating several miles to the rear to watch the battle unfold. Dax is middle-management, caught between trying his best to deliver orders he knows are impossible, and protecting men he knows are doomed, and failing at both tasks.

The system demands blood sacrifices from the lowest possible rungs, so the hierarchy can reassure themselves they are not blamed (Dax’s offer to take all the blame is promptly rejected by Broulard – no question of any of the officers being at fault!), so the men are chosen by their company commanders. One is chosen by lottery (he of course is a decorated war hero, but that cuts no ice), one because he’s an “undesirable” and the third because he has witnessed his own commanding officer’s cowardice. None of them deserve it, but their guilt is “proved” in a kangaroo court that lasts less than 15 minutes, and in which Dax is barely allowed to put a defence case.

Kubrick’s film becomes a surprisingly fast (it’s less than 90 minutes) but inexorable march towards those three stakes in the ground and the firing squad. Questions of justice and courage are completely pointless – any brave acts in the film are pointless, two of the victims are cited for their courage and the most cowardly character in the film, Wayne Morris’ snivelling Lt Rouget, ends up commanding the firing squad – and the message we are left with is that the institution of war and man are the real villains here.

War has no heroes, only survivors. Victories are important to the generals only in the sense of being tools to jockey for position, and the common soldier is an expendable puppet who can be killed on a whim to fill any political reason. It’s a harsh and chilling view of the military – and leaves very little hope – but it’s superbly made and controlled by Kubrick, in a film surprisingly with more heart in it than any film he ever made before or since. It’s a film that leaks with sorrow and disgust at the victims of the military machine, a film with emotion as well as a technical marvel. It might be Kubrick’s most complete film.

1917 (2019)

George MacKay is lost in the horrors of war in Sam Mendes’ one-shot 1917

Director: Sam Mendes

Cast: George MacKay (Lance Corporal Will Schofield), Dean-Charles Chapman (Lance Corporal Tom Blake), Benedict Cumberbatch (Colonel Mackenzie), Colin Firth (General Erinmore), Richard Madden (Captain Blake), Andrew Scott (Lt. Leslie), Mark Strong (Captain Smith), Claire Duburcq (Lauri), Daniel Mays (Sgt Saunders), Adrian Scarborough (Major Hepburn), Jamie Parker (Lt Richards), Michael Jibson (Lt Hutton), Richard McCabe (Colonel Collins)

No film can even begin to capture the unspeakable horror of war, and those of us who have never been in the middle of it can only imagine what it must have been like for those who have. Based on the experiences of his grandfather Alfred, Sam Mendes’ World War I story tries to immerse the viewers in the experience by staging a film designed to play out in real time, in two epic takes (actually a series of very long takes seamlessly spliced together). It’s a technical accomplishment, but also a film partly dominated by the precision of its construction rather than the emotion of its telling.

One day in April 1917, two young Lance-Corporals, brave and selfless Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and more war-weary Will Schofield (George MacKay) are tasked with a desperate mission by General Erinmore (Colin Firth). The next morning, a British regiment will walk into a trap set by German forces. Blake and Schofield must take a message through no-man’s land, cancelling the regiment’s planned attack, or 1,600 men will die – including Blake’s brother who is serving with the regiment. 

Mendes’ film is a triumph whenever it is in motion. The time-limited race to travel across miles of hostile land – through no-man’s land, booby-trapped abandoned trenches, hazardous open fields and ruined towns that have become battlegrounds – works a treat whenever our heroes are constantly moving forward. Drawing a strange inspiration from Lord of the Rings, with its quest structure and Schofield as a Samwise to Blake’s Bilbo, the film is compellingly completed with the over-the-shoulder, walking-alongside intimacy of the camera work that follows every step of this journey, that never pulls ahead or shows us something that the soldiers can’t see and keeps us nearly constantly (bar one stunning shot of a ruined town lit only by firelight and early dawn) at the level of the soldiers.

It’s an epic experience film, and Mendes’ camerawork and ingenuity in the shooting create the impression of a one-take film – some shots seem to travel at least a mile, through winding trenches, with our heroes. The effect is justified by the desire of the film to throw us into the experience of the soldiers and to create the impression that we are sharing a journey with them – and hammers home the time pressure these men are operating under as we experience everything first hand, including the only undisguised cut (and time jump) in the film. The horrors of the war are superbly shown – dead bodies, many bloated or deformed by exposure, litter the frame but tellingly bring little comment from the soldiers, demonstrating how accustomed they have become to such sights. Each frame seems covered with muddy surfaces, and sharp freezing chills. Technically it’s a marvel, and you have to admire Mendes’ ambition in even attempting such a thing. 

Perhaps, though, that is one problem with the film. You are so impressed with the showy intelligence and grace of the camera movements, the ingenuity needed to keep the camera rolling through takes lasting ten minutes or more and travelling miles at a time, that move in and around confined rooms and trenches, that you at time spend as much (if not more) time marvelling at the brilliance of the film making as you do feeling the emotion of the story. While the long takes add immeasurably to the many moments of peril, dread and terror that the characters go through (helped also by Thomas Newman’s eerily unsettling score), they also become as much about admiring the technical brilliance as they are investing in the story.

Of course, the story has been boiled down to something very simple and elemental – and it avoids many clichés you half-expect from the start. But the film itself gets slightly less interesting when the relentless march forward stops, when the characters slow down or take moments of reflection. A section in the middle of the film where the action pauses around a young French woman hiding in a bombed out French town doesn’t quite work, and has a slight air of spinning plates – you could have allowed a longer break in the single take effect to take us from one event to another. In fact you wonder if a film that had more of a time jump or had been constructed around 3-4 clear long takes with time jumps might have worked better.

This is not to criticise the two actors who embody the leads. George MacKay is superb as a soldier who experiences immense suffering and torment on a journey he is less than willing to undertake from the first, and finds himself opening up his emotions and feelings more and more as the film progresses. Dean-Charles Chapman is a good match as a slightly more naïve youngster, desperate to do the right thing and selfless in his courage. These two move on a journey that essentially sees them handed over from one big-star cameo to another (something that is sometimes a little distracting, if necessary to allow these brief appearances to have character impact) with Firth, Strong, Cumberbatch, Madden et al all delivering terrific work in a few short minutes on screen.

Mendes’ direction technically is faultless, and the style chosen really adds huge and unrepeatable visual benefits, all superbly caught by Roger Deakins’ sublimely beautiful photography. At one moment a flare is fired – and we see it arch out of shot and then repair behind us in real time as the characters move forward. At another, an aerial dogfight goes from distant to alarmingly close. The countryside recedes hauntingly as a ride is hitched from a motorised regiment. 

The single-take effect does make it far easier to relate in these moments to the soldiers. It works less well at smaller moments – and arguably could have been replaced by a more conventional style here to give even more impact to the rest – but its execution is perfect. Maybe too perfect, as it doesn’t always make room for the heart. Hollywood’s directors seem more and more drawn to the long take for the immersive, big-screen quality they carry – four of the last five Oscars have gone to directors whose films are almost entirely made up with them. But they create – as is sometimes the case with 1917 – something that is a product for the largest screen, immersive experiences that perhaps lack rewarding depth on later revisits.