Friday, October 30, 2009

Big Battle Movies

One of my favorite escapist film genres is what I call the big battle movie, a grand genre popular in the 60s and 70s that satisfies my passion for history and visual epics. The ingredients of the classic big battle movie include a star-studded cast, an emphasis on drama and a concern for visual historical accuracy over factual accuracy, a cast of thousands (as in living, breathing, human soldiers, not CGI-rendered combatants), and the requisite depiction of a big, historical battle.

Recently I was bemoaning the absence from my video collection of a DVD version of Waterloo (1970), one of my favorite big battle movies. Back in the 80s, I was delighted to discover it on VHS, but that version is unfortunately full screen and missing key footage.

Browsing through Amazon’s customer reviews, however, I learned that the Russian edition is playable on all DVD players and, fortunately, comes with an English language option. Not only that, one customer noted that it contains footage missing from the VHS edition. Needless to say, I bought it, and received my copy in its black slipcase, the Cyrillic title above a window revealing Rod Steiger as Napoleon. And, true to customer testimonials, the digital image proved to be dazzling.

From a visual point of view, Waterloo, directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, is my favorite big battle movie. This titanic recreation of the classic 1815 battle involving over 200,000 soldiers employs 17,000 members of the Russian Army, including Cossacks, and a regiment of Scottish Highlanders, to present a broad view of the battle that incorporates a number of extreme long shots that are simply stunning in their beauty and detail.

Christopher Plummer is worth watching as the Duke of Wellington, retorting glibly with the Duke’s famous witticisms. When asked what his battle plan is, he responds, “To beat the French.” “They’ll break every bone in my body," he says when it seems clear that his army can't win.

Meanwhile, Rod Steiger as Napoleon provides solid dramatic presence as the ambitious and egotistical “monster of Europe.” On the battlefield he shows consummate confidence. He never considers defeat a possibility, and when the Old Guard is repulsed and Napoleon’s officers are panicking, Steiger employs his signature emphatic delivery to give resonance to my favorite line: “At Marengo, I lost the battle at five o’clock, but I won it back at SEVEN!”

The rest of the cast is pleasantly functional, and the first half of the film is merely half-hearted build-up, but the battle is what the film is all about. One criticism I have is that it mostly provides a broad, sweeping view of the battle, and rarely a more intimate soldier's view of the combat. Another is that shots of approaching ranks of soldiers build tension but then lead to nothing. (I am aware that even this version of the film is still missing footage from the original release.) But the extreme long-shot widescreen views of the battle are undoubtedly stunning as they capture thousands of soldiers all at one time.

The film achieves grand imagery: an impressive pan across the entire battlefield; the obscuring smoke and bursting bombs (no CGI) of massed artillery; Hougoumont farm engulfed in bright yellow flames; the charge of the Scotts Greys imitating the classic military painting “Scotland Forever;” and the advance of the French Old Guard’s dense single column. But in the film’s most visually striking scene, the wide ranks of the French cuirassiers are followed in an aerial shot as they charge across the battlefield, crest the ridge, and collide with the implacable squares of British redcoats.

From a critical point of view, Zulu (1964), directed by Cy Enfield, is one of the best movies ever made about men in war. With a strong cast headed by Stanley Baker and a young Michael Caine in his first significant screen role, the film is mostly accurate, it incorporates wonderful writing with some nice character development that focuses on the grunt soldier’s point of view of the fight, it includes an impressive army of real Zulu warriors, and it features plenty of gripping, well-staged battle scenes.

Featuring functional performances by Peter O’Toole, Burt Lancaster, Denholm Elliot, and Simon Ward, as well as a more heartfelt performance by Bob Hoskins as a color sergeant, Zulu Dawn (1979), directed by Douglas Hickox, has a rather slow lead-in and the plot is slim, but the whole movie is merely an excuse for a depiction of the 1879 Zulu victory over the British army at the Battle of Isandhlwana that’s a whopping grand battle employing thousands of extras. As epic movie battles go, this one is one of the best staged battle depictions. The location is historically accurate and full-scale; the thousands of Zulu extras convincingly represent the Zulu army of 25,000; the battle movements are accurately depicted and easy to follow; and the view of the battle alternates between long shot sweep and closer, soldier’s eye views of the action.

The British have a talent for the big battle movie. They certainly have a varied military history that provides some colorful contrasts – those bright red uniforms juxtaposed with desert sands or African savanna. And the British present their history straight, with a minimum of macho bravado that detracts from realism. And although they might depict the virtue of incredible tenacity, they are not blind to the absurdity of war, an element that is caustically portrayed in Tony Richardson’s harshly visceral debunking of Victorian glory in his version of The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968).

Though not purely a big battle movie – you don’t get to the Battle of Balaclava until the end – Tony Richardson’s film is one of the best portrayals of life in Victorian times, and one of the most disturbing looks at British military stupidity and blind courage in the 1800s. Blending in a love affair between David Hemmings (playing the non-fictional Captain Nolan) and Vanessa Redgrave, the film presents the clashes between Lord Cardigan (Trevor Howard hamming it up effectively) and his officers, and shows the pathetic waste of British involvement in the Crimean War – as the alley-rats-of-London turned brightly-uniformed-cavalrymen fall to cholera before they can ever be mowed down in assaults that are the pig-headed blunders of pompous idiots.

The Alamo (1960) is very slow to get going, and the film evokes John Wayne’s vision of legendary American heroism more than it adheres to the facts, but the final battle scene is clearly staged and full of striking images, mounting suspense, and dramatic to-the-last-man fighting. The accompaniment of Dimitri Tiomkin’s superbly rousing score alone makes it a battle scene that remains dramatic after multiple viewings.

For sheer non-CGI scope of setting and battle scenes, 55 Days at Peking (1965), directed by Nicholas Ray, is a favorite of mine for its recreation of the foreign compound in Beijing, 1900, and for its interesting variety of battle scenes incorporating a veritable army of Chinese extras who employ some agile, stylistic acrobatic skills to tumble down ramps or plummet fearlessly off walls.

As expansive in sweep as Lawrence of Arabia, Khartoum, directed by Basil Deardon, is a favorite of mine for its desert battles and massive final assault of Khartoum, 1885, as well as for Charlton Heston’s skillful portrayal of the fervently Christian military leader, Charles Chinese Gordon, one of my favorite figures in history. Heston and Laurence Olivier, as the Mahdi, utter some memorable lines as they bicker over whose God will be remembered more.

As for World War II big battle movies, two of the best are The Longest Day (1962), directed by Ken Annakin and Andrew Marton, and Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far (1977), both of them wisely based on Cornelius Ryan’s non-fiction classics that incorporate personal, close-to-the-action accounts by men who landed on the beaches of Normandy or engaged in the disastrous blunder of the Market-Garden campaign.

Both are quintessential big battle movies. The battle is the story, the episodes are historically accurate, and the film clearly shows the grim futility of war – the latter much more so than the former. A Bridge Too Far is also notable for the realism of its violence; the visual artistry of a massive paratrooper drop; the visual variety of its battle scenes; its memorable depiction of the fierce battle for Arnhem Bridge; and the touching portrayals by both Sean Connery and Anthony Hopkins, performances that are not lost in a very lengthy star-studded cast.

Though awkward and disjointed at times, Is Paris Burning? (1966), directed by Rene Clement, (screenplay by Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola), is praiseworthy for its artistic black-and-white shots of intense street fighting; its use of Paris locations for its depiction of the liberation of that city; and its beautiful Maurice Jarre score.

Finally, Battle of Britain (1969), directed by Guy Hamilton, is a treat for aviation enthusiasts and history buffs as it employs hundreds of vintage World War II planes and authentic English locations to tell one of the most amazing underdog victories in British history. As you enjoy thrilling dogfights between Spitfires and Luftwaffe planes, you get strong performances by Christopher Plummer, Susannah York, and Robert Shaw, as well as brief appearances by Laurence Olivier, Trevor Howard, Edward Fox, Michael Caine, and Kenneth Moore.

The general dearth of big battle movies nowadays keeps me browsing the Internet for DVD releases of the classics. 55 Days at Peking sorely needs a digitally re-mastered DVD edition playable on American machines, and my dream is for a fully restored Waterloo.

In the past twenty years, the best that more or less fill the criteria of the big battle movie have been Black Hawk Down (2002) and The Alamo (2004). Though not purely a big battle movie, Glory (1989) stages the Battle of Fort Wagner with gripping, visually striking style, as the blue coats of the Massachusetts 54th “Colored” Regiment appear in bright contrast against the white sands of South Carolina. Ted Turner’s Civil War epics Gettysburg (1993) and God and Generals have depicted famous battles vastly but blandly, while Pearl Harbor (2001) stages a dramatic depiction of the famous attack that is lost in a bloated story.

Meanwhile, I applaud any director who takes on the risk of staging an historical epic, especially one with a big battle. Although historical epics are a risky venture, state of the art CGI technology has the capacity to depict any battle in the whole history of human folly without employing extras.

In a remarkable closing image in Waterloo, we see Wellington after the battle is over, riding exhaustedly amidst windrows of dead bodies. When he stops to survey the carnage, Plummer as Wellington intones the famous line “Next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won.” Yes, it’s undoubtedly sad either way. Nevertheless, the number of books and films that depict battles suggests that we can’t resist a fascination for this tragically destructive side of the human condition.

(A note about the video montage: The first clip from Zulu Dawn includes the excerpt from Elmer Bernstein’s score used in Inglourious Basterds when Marcel approaches the pile of film reels and gets ready to set it on fire. Also, for better results, allow the video to buffer before playing.)


Daniel Getahun said...

Great post! I have to admit, I have not seen hardly any of these films, but your montage is great and you've given me a new appreciation for these sequences. Generally I get turned off if they are too gory, especially for the sake of being gory (i.e., Braveheart), but when well done they can really be engrossing. Gosh, I even have to admit the Pearl Harbor scene is...good, or even excellent on relative terms to the rest of the horrible movie.

Hokahey said...

Daniel, thanks for checking out the post and the video!

I don't like gore for gore's sake - but I do like some realism. Even though I'm mostly interested in these films from the point of view of seeing history - I don't like it if the battles are not realistic; so some blood is necessary.

One the worst aspects of the big Turner Gettysburg is that here you have Pickett's Charge, one of the costliest attacks in American history, and you hardly see any blood and the soldiers' uniforms aren't even dirty.

As for Pearl Harbor, the battle itself is well done, but there's too much plot nonsense that sort of detracts from the big battle.

Jason Bellamy said...

So I was finally able to watch the video in full. I especially enjoyed the clips from Battle of Britain, as I've never seen that. The shot of the lone plane going down goes to show how the simplest filmmaking is often most effective: we are not distracted by the clutter of smoke and other CGI planes and bombs in that scene. All our attention follows the core action.

Then again, watching some of the shots reminded that those old battle epics with all those men on all those horses often lacked intimacy. They are impressive in scope, but at some point it becomes a lot of gunshot noises and horses and smoke. I think the modern battle scene has too many closeups and too many cuts. But the best films combine the two. The charge of Aqaba in Lawrence of Arabia is a great example. It's big, but we never lose sight of Lawrence. Ultimately that entire sequence is about how it impacts him personally.

Anyway, good job putting this stuff together. Sorry for the delayed reply.

Hokahey said...

Glad you liked the montage. It's nice that you appreciated Battle of Britain. It's a pure big battle movie - disjointed throwaway plot - but the focus is the battle - and the flying scenes are impressive. All those planes criss-crossing in air - and they're real!

I agree that some battles lack intimacy. That's a failing of Waterloo, but the charge of the British squares makes up for lack of intimacy by being remarkable in its grandness and visual artistry.

I do prefer a more soldier's eye view of a battle. Both Zulu movies show panoramic scope - but they zero in on dramatic moments with characters in the midst of the battle.

Khartoum is a mixed bag - it includes 5 battle sequences, but two are mostly noise and shooting. The others take time to zero in on closer action.

Thanks for viewing.

Jake said...

Though it is not overall a big battle movie, Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight contains one of the most exhilarating, disorienting, frightening, (at times) comical and always surely led battle sequences ever. It's been studied and outright copied in the decades since, most notably in the big battle movies Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan.

Hokahey said...

Thanks for visiting this post and commenting on it. I'm not familiar with Chimes at Midnight but I will certainly check it out; and I will check out your blog.

Jake said...

Chimes at Midnight is sadly unavailable on DVD (strange, considering that the martyrdom of Welles' career doesn't extend to this film; barring some poorly recorded sound, it is in pristine condition). I watched it on Youtube, which is of course about as far from ideal as one can get, but beggars can't be choosers.

Hokahey said...

Thanks - I'll check it out. I looked it up - and I discovered it's a version of Shakespeare's Henry IV with Welles as Falstaff. Sounds vaguely familiar.