Thursday, April 25, 2013

Flick of the Day: Cross of Iron

There is no doubt that certain film-makers and their work are so adored by their fans that even the biggest turkey in their filmography will find its defenders. There are still people who will vigorously claim that Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut is a masterpiece. Who knows, perhaps they’re right and it’s the rest of the world that’s wrong. We all have our blind spots but the point is that the overall quality of the work of such auteurs is such that it engenders deep support from viewers. Sam Peckinpah was such a film-maker and when on form and when his work was allowed to speak for itself (something that was rarely the case during his career), he was a prodigious talent. Perhaps his most well-known and celebrated film is the slice of revisionist western that is The Wild Bunch and it is an enjoyable, if violent, epic. However in my humble opinion, his best and indeed one of the greatest war movies ever made, is 1977’s Cross of Iron.

Cross of Iron is one of those rare things in a Hollywood film, a WW2 story from the side of the German army.  There are many historical reasons why this is the case, not least the crimes of national socialism and the holocaust, however Peckinpah manages to side step this by focusing on the lives of the average German soldier on the Eastern front. These enlisted men have nothing but scorn for Hitler, the party and their officers.
It is 1943 and the German campaign in Russia is rapidly beginning to reach its nadir. We are introduced to the hard bitten Sergeant Steiner, played with grim determination by an excellent James Coburn. Steiner is a decorated hero and winner of the Iron Cross who is beloved by his men. While he is difficult and often insubordinate, he is tolerated by his superiors Colonel Brandt, a weary James Mason and the resigned (to defeat if not death) Captain Kiesel, played with a rakish charm by David Warner. Into this steps the patrician form of Captain Stransky, a wonderfully malicious Maximilian Schell. Stransky is an officer of the Prussian aristocracy and has arranged his transfer to the front in order to obtain an Iron Cross. His brusque and often brutal leadership immediately puts him into conflict with Steiner. After Steiner and his men lead a bloody and victorious counterattack against the oncoming Russian forces, the cowardly Stransky who had hidden from battle, attempts to claim credit for the assault. He requires two men to corroborate, one he obtains by blackmailing a closeted homosexual and for the other he enlists Steiner. Steiner refuses to corroborate his tale even when urged by Colonel Brandt with the knowledge that it will rid them of Stransky. An enraged Stransky enacts a brutal revenge however. As the Russian army threatens to overrun their position he fails to pass on the order to retreat to Steiner and his men, leaving them trapped behind enemy lines with the only option of fighting their way out.
Filmed in Yugoslavia behind the then iron curtain, Peckinpah’s film has a real veneer of authenticity to it. War is brutal and the stark conditions of the front lines are continuously exposed to the viewer. In James Coburn’s Steiner, we are presented with an almost legendary example of soldiery. He is abrasive yet fair and not open to the kind of corruption which Stransky wallows in. Throughout the film Steiner defies death to lead his men to safety. It is a bravura performance form Coburn. Yet Schell deserves equal plaudits for his portrayal of the slimy but driven Stransky. He is the kind of patrician who looks down on all other men yet has a grudging respect for the abilities of Steiner who has achieved the one thing he could not, the iron cross. This leads him to dishonour himself in an attempt to enact revenge on Steiner, something he would not need to stoop to for other lesser men.

Like much of Peckinpah’s work, this contains sexual politics which can seem out of touch with modern times. At one point Steiner and his men come across a farmhouse full of female Soviet soldiers with consequences that can be expected. Now I’m aware the Russian had a lot of female participation, certainly far more than the other Allies, and a lot of it was concentrated at the front lines but the scene as it plays out feels bizarre at such a remove.
Even upon release the ending of the film stood out for its abrupt nature and over the years a legend has grown up that the production ran out of money and was forced to throw together an ending on the last day of shooting that wasn't to Peckinpah’s liking. While the ending was not as outlined in the original script, it was something that Peckinpah had Coburn improvise on the day. Regardless, it doesn't detract from the film and contains one of the best lines in the film:

“Then I will show you where the Iron Crosses grow”

The film’s production is almost as legendary as its story. It was financed by a West-German pornography producer and filmed in Yugoslavia using mainly extras from the local army. Peckinpah was at this stage of his career a full blown alcoholic with reports that he drank four bottles of whiskey or vodka during every day of filming, sleeping only 2 to 4 hours a night as he struggled to complete his only WW2 film.
Overall, this is a film which just has to be seen. It is brutal and epic in a way that few films are these days. It showcases a director at his best and a fine cast of actors giving career best performances. Is it of its time? Absolutely but it doesn't detract from what is a great story.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Flick of the Day: Good Vibrations

 It can often be the case that history on screen can feel somewhat remote and detached from modern life, sometimes the frame of reference can be so different that it is difficult to take in the historical events playing out on screen. This is not always the case; the events depicted in Schindler’s List are as harrowing today as they no doubt were at the time.  For me, the events and happenings in Belfast during the Troubles of the 1970’s and 80’s can feel somewhat remote when played out on screen  given the long period of peace the people of Northern Ireland have enjoyed since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Today’s flick of the day however, Good Vibrations, manages to bring to life the difficult and often harrowing events of those times while also immersing us in the Belfast punk music scene through this fine tale of the life and times of Terri Hooley.

At the opening of the film we are introduced to a young Terri playing in his front garden where all is right with the world until after an exchange of words with some local children he gets a toy arrow to the face and requires a glass eye. At this point, I was slightly worried that the film might turn out to be a tad too grim to be enjoyable but it isn't the case. We fast forward in a bravura sequence of carefully edited news footage to Belfast in the 1970’s. Terri is a music fan and he saw all the greats come to Belfast in the 1960’s : Dylan, the Stones, Jimi Hendrix, the list goes on until of course they stopped coming because nobody went out at night anymore.

We find Terri, played by the excellent Richard Dormer, scratching out a living in Dylan Moran’s dive bar where he acts a DJ to an empty room.  There he meets Ruth played by an equally excellent Jodie Whittaker; he explains that once upon a time he had lots of friends, both Protestant and Catholic and that once the troubles started, they fell into opposing groups with Terri alone in the middle. We see how his former friends now despise him for not siding with either side. After marrying Ruth, they try and form a life together despite the maelstrom which is erupting around them.  However after Terri is the subject of an attempted kidnapping at gunpoint while walking home one night, he decides that he had to do something to foster peace and hits on the idea of a record shop. With the help of Ruth’s idealistic group of friends and a mortgage on his house, Terri sets up Good Vibrations. The story would have ended there but for the fact that Terri becomes drawn into, almost by accident, the emerging punk scene in Belfast. Despite being older than the young people that are the focus of this movement, Terri finds himself drawn to the energy of the music and a scene which is truly cross-cultural and without the infection of sectarianism. He sets out to try and bring as much press and airplay to the burgeoning scene and its various bands including most famously The Undertones and their anthem “Teenage Kicks”.
The real strength of this film is how it perfectly captures the raw energy and emotion of the punk movement and how influential it would prove despite its short initial lifespan.  Yet the film does not ignore the fact that punk was not the only game in town. In a poignant scene, Terri notes how talented musicians from the oft-maligned show band circuit kept the Belfast music scene alive.

The film displays a light touch with a period of Northern Ireland’s history which was grim to say the least and is to be commended for this. The casting of some of the young bands feels spot on, in particular Fergal Sharky of The Undertones. Ultimately the rise and fall of punk in Belfast did not bring about a sea change in relations between the two factions and it can’t be ignored that the Troubles thundered on for another 15 years with perhaps the darkest days in the 1980’s. Yet this film feels like a celebration of a time and place when change felt possible and one can’t help but be caught up in Terri Hooley’s story. As the man himself puts in the end: “When it comes to punk, New York may have the haircuts, London may have the trousers but Belfast has the reason”.

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