Strategic Air Command (1955)

When watching Strategic Air Command, you almost expect to hear Reed Hadley saying, “These are the men of the Strategic Air Command, who stand ready to defend our nation against nuclear attack…,” and so forth, accompanied by triumphal music, determined to inspire us with patriotic admiration.

I am tempted to say that this is a dated movie, one that might have had some resonance in the 1950s, when the threat of nuclear attack seemed very real, except for one thing:  I was around in those days, and contrary to what you may have heard, children were not terrified by the threat of the hydrogen bomb.  We use to love getting out of class to go see those films demonstrating the destructiveness of this weapon.  It was better than doing long division.  The teachers would tell us that if we saw a flash of light, we should immediately “duck and cover,” but we joked about the futility in that.  One wise guy posted a note on the wall, saying, “In case of nuclear attack:  (1) Bend over.  (2) Put your head between your legs. (3) Kiss your ass goodbye.”  So, what I am trying to say in all this is that even in 1955, this movie would have been boring.  It’s just that it is even more so today.

As a check on how people of the day may have reacted to this movie, I consulted Bosley Crowther’s review for the New York Times.  He devotes the first six paragraphs to talking about the visuals.  In the seventh paragraph, he finally gets around to talking about the plot and the acting.  But then, given the plot and the acting, he might just as well have devoted a couple more paragraphs to the splendors of Vista Vision.

James Stewart plays Dutch Holland, a professional baseball player.  He was a pilot during World War II, and now, being in the reserves, he is called back to active duty to fly the long range bombers that carry a nuclear payload in case World War III should break out.  His wife Sally, June Allyson, really shouldn’t worry her pretty little head about the important work men have to do, but being a woman, she is all sentiment and feeling, and she just doesn’t understand her husband, who has to make all the big decisions in their marriage without consulting her, because a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

Unfortunately, World War III does not break out.  That means the movie must manufacture moments of dramatic tension:  a seemingly hostile situation just turns out to be a drill; an engine catches on fire, causing a crash; a bomber almost runs out of fuel, and Dutch has to land in the fog.  It makes you sympathetic to the device in Top Gun (1986), in which a dogfight occurs between American fighter planes and those of an unnamed enemy, even though the country is not at war.  Let’s face it.  Military movies set during peacetime can be pretty dull.

During the crash that occurred because the engine caught on fire, Dutch injured his shoulder.  This eventually leads to his being discharged, giving us the typical Hollywood ending:  Dutch got the satisfaction of doing the right thing by deciding to make a career out of being in the Air Force in spite of Sally’s objections, and Sally gets her way when he is forced to return to civilian life.  Of course, with an injured shoulder, it is unlikely that he will ever play third base again, which is in keeping with the sense of sacrifice that the men of SAC must make to keep this nation safe, as Reed Hadley might have said, just before the credits start to roll.


7th Heaven (1927)

The movie 7th Heaven begins with a prologue:  “For those who will climb it, there is a ladder leading from the depths to the heights—from the sewer to the stars—the ladder of courage.”  Presumably, this was intended to be inspirational, but there is a hint of blaming the victim in that message.  In other words, if someone is in the depths, the sewer, as it were, then it’s because he is a coward.  Nor is this cowardice on his part something he cannot help, but rather, he could choose to be brave and rise to the heights, if he wanted to.

Anyway, Chico (Charles Farrell) works in the sewer in Paris shortly before the outbreak of the Great War.  He aspires to rise, literally and figuratively, to the position of street cleaner, but with seemingly little hope of doing so.

Diane (Janet Gaynor) is mistreated by her older sister Nana.  Well, I suppose “mistreated” is a bit of an understatement.  When we first see them together, Nana is lashing Diane with a bullwhip, apparently because Diane is not happy about the way they steal stuff to support themselves.  That is what you might call melodramatic.  Then Nana sends Diane out to fence the watch they just stole and then to get some absinthe.

While Diane is gone, a priest shows up at their apartment.  Nana tells him she is not interested in hearing him spout religion, but he has a different mission.  It seems that Nana and Diane have an uncle and aunt who have returned from the South Seas.  They are rich and they want to take their two nieces into their home.  The next day the aunt and uncle show up with a Colonel Brissac.  The aunt takes Diane in her arms, but the stern uncle first wants to know if they have been good girls.  Diane admits they have not been good girls.  Well, that’s too bad.  Now the uncle wants nothing to do with them.  Did I mention that this movie was melodramatic?

After the uncle, aunt, and Colonel Brissac leave, Nana becomes furious with Diane.  I must admit, she does have point.  I mean, it was one thing if Diane felt bad about stealing.  But when all she had to do was tell a little lie, saying that she and Nana had been good girls, and they then would have escaped the squalid conditions in which they lived, I had to wonder if maybe Diane didn’t deserve a whipping.

Apparently, Nana certainly thought so, because the next thing you know, she is chasing Diane through the street, whipping her.  When Diane falls down, Nana starts choking her.  She is saved by Chico, who threatens to kill Nana, if ever she whips Diane again.  Nana leaves.  Chico walks away from Diane, who is still lying in the gutter.  A friend of Chico’s praises him for saving her life, but he says that a creature like that would be better off dead.  Harsh, but if Diane were to have to live that way for the rest of her life, she would be better off dead.

However, he starts to feel sorry for her.  He picks her up and brings her over to where his companions are.  Then he offers to share some of the bread they have, but she shakes her head no.  He tells her that her problem is that she is afraid to fight, which recalls the message of the prologue.  He, on the other hand, says he is not afraid of anything, regarding himself as a remarkable fellow.  He then turns to one of his friends, asking him if he believes in “Bon Dieu” (the good God).  When his friend indicates he does, Chico asks if this Bon Dieu made the woman he just saved, born to be beaten and strangled in the gutter.

He is, of course, advancing the argument from evil:  If there really is an all-powerful, loving God, then why is the world full of so much evil, so much sin and suffering?  But just as we are thinking that his atheism has some depth to it, he reveals a rather naive attitude on the subject.  He tells his friend that he gave God a chance twice.  First, he went to the finest church in Paris, paid five francs for candles, and then prayed to be taken out of the sewer and made a street cleaner.  But God didn’t do it.  Second, he spent another five francs, asking God for a good wife with yellow hair, “The only thing Bon Dieu threw my way,” he says, “is that!” indicating Diane (who is a brunette).  “That’s why I’m an atheist,” he says.  “God owes me ten francs.”  In this way, the movie seems to be saying that the objections that atheists have about religion are childish.

The priest that brought the supposedly good news to Nana about a rich uncle and aunt overhears Chico’s lament.  It just so happens, the priest tells Chico, that he has been made a street cleaner.  So, it looks as though God paid off on the first deal.

Meanwhile, Diane finds the knife Chico was using to cut bread and tries to use it to kill herself.  Chico stops her and asks why she tried to do that.  She gives an answer similar to the remark he made earlier, that her life is not worth living.  But now he talks her out of it.  In other words, his tough talk is just talk.

Then, it turns out that Nana has been arrested.  Out of spite, she points the finger at Diane, saying her sister is no better than she is.  The policeman starts to arrest her.  But Chico stops him, saying she is his wife.  The policeman says he will let her go, but he takes down Chico’s address so that a detective can check on him later to see if they really are married.

At this point, we figure that stealing must not be all that Nana was doing.  Presumably, the policeman caught Nana engaged in prostitution, for the only reason Diane’s being married would stop the policeman from arresting her would be if he suspected her of the same thing.

In any event, Chico agrees to let Diane stay with him until the police are satisfied.  Of course, he is a perfect gentleman and sleeps on the floor, letting Diane sleep alone in his bed unmolested.   Eventually, the two fall in love and decide to marry.  She says there must be a God, because he brought Chico to her.  He tells her not to worry her pretty little head about that.  He will be the one who has all the big thoughts.  Later, however, he says he will give God another chance, depending on whether their marriage remains true.

But then war breaks out, and Chico is compelled to enlist.  Nana shows up and starts trying to whip Diane again, but now Diane has the courage to fight, thanks to Chico’s encouragement, and she gets the bullwhip and starts going after Nana, who runs away for good.

After several years, Diane gets word that Chico is dead.  Colonel Brissac, who has been trying to get Diane to have sex with him, says he will take care of her.  The priest tells her she must not question the will of God, but she does question it.  Essentially, faith in God in this movie correlates with one’s fortunes:  when good things happen, there must be a God; when bad things hand, there is no God.

Brissac takes her in his arms to comfort her. Suddenly, Chico shows up.  He is not dead.  At first, we fear that he will be angry seeing Diane in Brissac’s arms, but it turns out he is blind.  Diane goes to him.  He says that all the big thoughts he had were really the Bon Dieu, saying, “He was within me.  Now that I am blind, I see that.”  Well, I’m not blind, so maybe that’s why I don’t understand that at all.  Anyway, she says she will be his eyes.  But Chico says he believes his blindness is only temporary, because he is a remarkable fellow.  Inasmuch as a heavenly beam of light then shines upon them, we can suppose that Chico is right.

The overall thrust of this movie is that we should have faith in God, because things will all work out in the end.  It is an optimistic theology, to say the least.

Fury (2014)

Because we are Americans, it is second nature for us to pull for American soldiers in a war movie, especially a World War II movie where we know that the Nazis are the most evil enemy we have ever fought.  But by the time this movie was over, I was pretty much past those preconceptions.

Had I not known anything about WWII, I would have been pulling for the Germans to kill all the evil Americans, who murder surrendering prisoners, rape innocent women, act like brutes, and bully the new recruit because he is a little guy who can’t defend himself.  The only suggestion that the Germans were evil in this movie was the way they hanged the draft dodgers and forced young teenagers to fight, but that seems almost benign compared to what we see the Americans do.

The movie centers around a tank crew led by Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt).  A replacement, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), is added to the crew, and he is immediately badgered and bullied by the rest of them, all of whom are bigger than he is in addition to outnumbering him, so there is no chance that he could defend himself.  You see, there they are in the middle of Germany toward the end of the war, but this tank crew isn’t satisfied to have the Germans for enemies, so they figure they will try to make an enemy out of this new guy as well.

Now, Don’s motive for treating Norman roughly is to toughen him up, so that he will be able to commit war crimes just like the rest of them.  But Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) and Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña) are mean to him for a much more basic reason, which is that cruelty is fun.  Had I been assigned to that tank crew, I would have waited for the chance to be alone with any one of them and then put a bullet in his back.

The ultimate absurdity in this movie comes when Don and Norman go into an apartment where there are two German women.  Don says to Norman regarding the younger of the two, “If you don’t take her into that bedroom, I will.”  Reluctantly, Norman takes the girl into the bedroom.  When they close the door behind them, Don says to the other woman, “They’re young, and they’re alive.”  Aw!  Isn’t that sweet?  Rape can be so lovely and romantic when it occurs during wartime.

I really was glad that, except for Norman, the Americans in the tank all died in the end.  They deserved it.

Martyrs of the Alamo (1915)

As we know, The Birth of a Nation (1915), directed by D.W. Griffith, justifies the institution of slavery and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction as the need to protect white women from Negro lust.  Later that year, Griffith also produced Martyrs of the Alamo, which reveals that the war in which Texas declared and won its independence from Mexico was brought about by Mexican lust for white women.  So many white women were being accosted by the Mexican soldiers, it seems, that the white men finally had to take up arms to protect them.  When Santa Anna and his troops come in to put down the rebellion, the Texians took refuge in the Alamo, and we all know what happened next.

As an example of how cruel and ruthless the Mexican soldiers are, we see a scene in which a little boy is bayonetted, his body picked up and flung out of the way.  And when the battle is over, Santa Anna has anyone that survived the massacre executed, except for good-looking white women, of course.  We see an old woman being taken away for execution, while a young, pretty blonde is spared.  The intertitle notes that Santa Anna is an inveterate drug fiend known for his shameless orgies.  Right after that, we see him grabbing the pretty blonde, but she slaps him and gets away from him.  By the way, Santa Anna is played by Walter Long, the same man that played Gus in The Birth of a Nation, the black man that tried to rape Flora.

We have all heard how the Mexican soldiers were caught off guard when Sam Houston attacked at San Jacinto because they were taking their siesta.  But in addition to that, according to this movie, Santa Anna, appearing somewhat stoned, is busy having women dance for him, while a Mexican guard watches the show himself instead of watching for such things as an advancing army of Texians.  So, Mexican lust not only was the cause of the Texas revolution, it was also the cause of Mexico’s defeat as well.

Wings (1927)

Except for Clara Bow, I did not recognize the main actors in Wings, but that is not unusual for a silent film. So when I saw Gary Cooper, I was stunned, especially when it turned out that he only had a bit part. It is hard to believe that the producer of this movie did not immediately see his star quality and make more of it.

In any event, the story is about a couple of fighter pilots during World War I, plus a complicated side story of unrequited love involving a couple of women, one of which is played by the above-mentioned Clara Bow. The pilot named Dave (Richard Arlen) is obviously doomed. The sad farewell to his parents is the first clue. Then he tells his friend Jack (Charles Rogers) that he thinks the next flying mission will be his last, and asks him to see that his parents get his medal. Finally, he forgets the teddy bear that is his good luck charm. I’d call them clichés, but for all I know, this may be the first movie in which they occurred.

The only serious flaw is a scene in Paris where Jack starts seeing bubbles. It goes on way too long, almost as if the director, William Wellman, was so excited by this gimmick that he just could not get enough. There are plenty of action sequences to make up for this, however, much of it quite graphic, including a pilot spitting up blood, and another with blood spurting from his chest, something normally not seen in movies until the 1960s.

And, of course, no World War I movie would be complete without men climbing out of their trenches, charging the German lines, and being slaughtered by machine-gun fire. In one scene, a soldier who has been blinded carries another soldier who cannot walk. Together, they continue to move toward the Germans along with the others. I don’t know what they thought they would do when they got there, except die, which is what they did. I guess we are supposed to admire their dedication.

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001)

Regarding the Axis powers of the Second World War, we have always been willing to cut the Italians a big old break. The Japanese pulled a sneak attack on us at Pearl Harbor, and the Germans were responsible for the holocaust, but we like to think that the Italians were basically good people who just got carried away by Mussolini’s speeches. And so, an actual incident during the war, when the Italians teamed up with the Greeks to fight against their former allies, the Germans, fits right in with our inclination to grant the Italians favorable treatment.

In the movie Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, the Italian soldiers that occupy a Greek island have not seen any real action, but that is not surprising, because I have never seen an Italian soldier kill an American in a World War II movie. Moreover, they don’t seem to care about the war. They just want to sing opera. Isn’t that nice? The Greeks also seem to like the Italians better. Despite the fact that the Italians are still part of the Axis forces at this point in the movie, nobody seems to have a problem with the fact that Palagia (Penélope Cruz) is obviously in love with an Italian officer, Captain Corelli (Nicolas Cage), and even has sex with him; but another girl, who just gives a German officer a friendly kiss on the cheek, is lynched by the Greeks for being a traitor.

Reality or no reality, the decision by the Italians to fight with the Greeks against the Germans rather than simply handing over their arms when Mussolini surrenders to the Allies turns out to be a big mistake, because except for Corelli, they are all slaughtered by the Germans for being traitors. But then, that only makes us like the Italians even more.

Bitter Victory (1957)

Ideally, a movie should make sense on its own terms. It is a bad movie when scenes can only be explained by external logic, by what was going on in the mind of the director or screenwriter. John Ford was once asked, regarding the movie Stagecoach (1939), why the Indians chasing the stagecoach didn’t just shoot the horses, and his answer was, “Then there wouldn’t have been any movie,” which was an example of external logic. Actually, he was just being a smart aleck, because he could have said that the Indians wanted to capture the horses alive, which would have made sense, and more importantly, would have made the scene explicable in terms of internal logic alone.

A big problem with Bitter Victory, a movie about British commandos ordered to make a raid on Benghazi to steal documents from the German headquarters, is that too much of what happens in the movie is explicable only in terms of external logic. Nicholas Ray, the director, had some idea in his head about how things should turn out, which leads to one forced scene after another. The first one occurs in England before the commandos set out on their mission.  Captain Leith (Richard Burton) sees Jane (Ruth Roman) sitting at a table in a military night club. No sooner does he recognize her than Major Brand (Curd Jürgens) walks up beside him and asks Leith if he would like to meet his wife. What follows is a scene reminiscent of Casablanca, in which it becomes clear that Leith and Jane were once lovers, and cryptic remarks pass back and forth between them while Brand takes it all in, not understanding the particulars of the remarks but gleaning their general significance nevertheless. Because we have seen this sort of thing before, we question it more than we might have when seeing it for the first time.

In other words, the most natural thing for Leith to do when Brand asks him if he wants to meet his wife would be to say, “You mean Jane? I knew Jane before the war. I was just going over to say ‘Hi.’” Now, of course they would not admit they had been lovers, but there is no reason for Leith and Jane to deny they even knew each other, especially since their innuendoes make their previous relationship so obvious. By concealing that they knew each other and then making the concealment obvious, they only made things worse. So, why did they do this? Internal logic fails us here, and we are forced to reach for external logic. Ray wanted Brand to find out that Leith and Jane were once secretly lovers so that he would become jealous, and so Ray concocted this hurried, unrealistic scene to that end.

After the mission is complete, the commandos have to escape by walking through the desert.  However, two men are too injured to walk. Brand tells Leith he will have to stay behind with the wounded men until they die and then catch up with the rest of the men. That makes no sense. If they are going to die anyway, just leave them behind. Furthermore, in a much later scene, Brand reveals his orders, written down on a piece of paper, that their mission is so important that if men are wounded, they are to be left behind. Now it really makes no sense.

It gets worse. When Brand tells Leith to stay behind with the wounded, a soldier suggests making stretchers to carry them. Leith dismisses the idea, saying that the men would bleed to death in an hour. Sounds good to me. If they have scruples about leaving the men behind, carry them in stretchers for an hour, and then when they die, leave them in the desert. Instead, Leith stays behind with the wounded, and then, after everyone is gone, kills them. Actually, he only kills one of them, because he runs out of bullets. So then he decides to carry the other wounded man all by himself. You see, carrying a wounded man on a stretcher is a bad idea, but tossing him over your shoulder and staggering through the desert is a good idea. Conveniently, the man dies, and Leith is able to catch up with the rest of the men.

External logic to the rescue. The purpose of all this absurdity is to establish that Brand wanted Leith to kill the wounded for him, and then hold him responsible for doing so. That would be fine, if that could have been established coherently. But since internal logic fails us here, we have to reach for the director’s motivations instead.

After a while, the men run out of water. They come across a well, but before anyone takes a drink, someone suggests that the Germans may have poisoned it. The men put pressure on Brand to sample the water to see if it is safe to drink.  Rather than show fear, he takes a swig. It tastes all right, but Leith says it is too soon to tell. So, they leave the well without drinking any of the water. But if they were not going to drink the water regardless of what happened when Brand swallowed some, what was the point of Brand’s risking his life by drinking some of it in the first place? This contrivance can only be explained by Ray’s desire to show how Brand can be intimidated by his fear that others may think him a coward.

When Brand sees a scorpion crawling near Leith’s leg during a rest period, he does not warn Leith, hoping that Leith will be bitten. Mekrane (Raymond Pellegrin) sees the scorpion too, but does nothing. After Leith is bitten, Mekrane tries to kill Brand for letting the scorpion bite Leith. But if Mekrane cares so much about Leith, why didn’t he just walk over to the scorpion and step on it?

Finally, before Leith dies, he asks Brand to tell Jane that she was right and he was wrong. Instead, when Brand gets back to England, he tells Jane he did not hear what Leith said, but he probably said that he loved her. We know Brand is the sort who would lie about such a thing, but why this particular lie? As with the scorpion scene, I don’t think even external logic can make sense of this one.

If the movie is so illogical that not even external logic can make sense of some of it, we have to ask ourselves why film critics waste any time on it at all.  Now it is metalogic to the rescue.  Nicholas Ray is one of those directors that a lot of critics regard as an auteur, which means that all his movies will receive attention no matter how bad they are.