For Whom the Bell Tolls, 1943

A good movie, but it doesn’t measure up to the novel by Ernest Hemingway. The portrayal of Pablo and the dynamics of his group of partisans is insightful. Less so is Robert Jordan’s character and motivation, and his relationship with the girl. The stars, Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman, do well enough. The actors playing Pablo, Pilar, and the others are impressive.

For Whom the Bell Tolls came out in 1943, and maybe because we were at war with the fascists the ending leaves an impression markedly different from the novel’s. Still, there’s only one short why-we-fight speech promoting the anti-fascist cause. The movie evenhandedly and explicitly presents acts of barbarous cruelty being committed by both sides.

The color looks crude and not very well done on the 1998 Universal Home Video DVD. The spectacular mountain scenery would go better in black and white. For Whom the Bell Tolls is nearly three hours long. It held my interest and never dragged, but I’m unlikely to watch it again – I’ll read the book instead.

The Dawn Patrol, 1938

In the first world war, chronically outnumbered British pilots go up against Germans, suffer appalling losses, and order out their comrades to near-certain death. They confront a German ace like the Red Barron, socialize amiably with a downed German pilot, and face death with gallows humor and brandy. Erroll Flynn is the star, and does better than average work. Notably good is David Niven’s portrayal of Erroll Flynn’s often-drunk comrade in arms. The Dawn Patrol is a reasonably good and entertaining war movie, and something different to watch.

Quo Vadis, 1951

The story begins around 64 A.D., as a Roman officer falls in love with a Christian girl, the ward of an aging aristocrat, and a student of Saint Paul. Petronius squanders his talents flattering Nero. Nero’s mistress Poppea is cruel and vindictive. Nero is childish and vicious. The movie largely follows the plot of the 1896 novel Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz, but abridges some elements. The title comes from Quo Vadis, Domine? – “Where are you going Lord?” – in legend spoken by Saint Peter who, leaving Rome, meets the Lord. Jesus’s answer, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again,” causes Peter to return to the city. In the movie, Peter comforts the martyrs in the Coliseum before being executed himself.

Quo Vadis is a classic Big Movie – a Technicolor Biblical epic about Nero’s persecution of Christians. At just under three hours, watching it is time well spent. Peter Ustinov, just thirty years old at the time, gives a memorable performance as the increasingly demented Emperor Nero, composing bad music, playing it while Rome burns, then trying to blame it on the Christians. The resulting scenes in the Coliseum aren’t for children. Though not graphic as in The Passion of the Christ, they do communicate some part of the reality of Christian martyrdom in first century Rome.

Gentleman Jim, 1942

Errol Flynn engagingly portrays James J. Corbett, a champion boxer from the 1890s. Gentleman Jim is fun and entertaining, but a bit too long. The jokes become repetitive. There’s plenty of historical atmosphere about the beginnings of modern boxing. Gentleman Jim is worth watching once, probably not twice.

The Longest Day, 1962

At nearly three hours, it’s a long movie too, but it’s time well spent. The Longest Day is a canonical classic about the second World War. Cornelius Ryan, a journalist who covered the war as a correspondent, wrote both the book and the screenplay. The subject of The Longest Day is the allied invasion of France on D-day – June 6, 1944. It’s presented as interleaved scenes about particular units and people – French Resistance Fighters, American and British infantry divisions, Field Marshal von Rundstedt, a hapless German sergeant, allied paratroopers and commandos, General Eisenhower.

Much of the dialogue is German and French with English subtitles, so the movie does require focused attention. The cast includes John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, Peter Lawford, and many others. They all do good work, without being more prominent than their parts. The Longest Day is an engaging and satisfying movie. It’s not quite a documentary, but not really a vehicle for narrative or character development either. It’s not a military procedural, but it is about the events of the day more than the people.

Happy New Year!

If persistence is failing ten times, trying again, and succeeding, then failing ten times, trying again, and failing must be pigheadedness. This year I hope to be persistent but not pigheaded.

I look forward to reading through the Divine Comedy again; I’ve barely scratched the surface there. Other books on the list are Orality and Literacy by Walter Ong, Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age by Ann M. Blair, The Book of Psalms by Robert Alter, and Christianity And Culture by T.S. Eliot. As ever, much of my reading time will be taken up with random novels.

The Big Movie Project will continue. Maybe at some point I’ll assemble the posts into a single file, and get a distinguished writer to do a preface, and then make a pile of money selling the e-book. Or maybe not.

This year I want to make wine, have it cost less than wine at the store, and have it not be undrinkable. Home distilling sounds interesting, but it’s illegal here, and probably beyond my skill to do safely. I was never able to titrate reliably, so worries about wood alcohol in the product would temper my enjoyment. Fortunately, there’s white whiskey, which I find entirely drinkable on its own or with a chaser, and very good in an Old Fashioned.

The next step on the cheese project is to set up a cheese press and at least make some simple farmer’s cheese.

Since they say goals should be incremental and achievable, I also hope to eat more soup in 2012. I have good book of recipes, Twelve Months of Monastery Soups, and a one-pint thermos with a built-in spoon. Here’s a recipe for tortilla soup that sounds good.

The Razor’s Edge, 1946

This is based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, which I haven’t read.

Tyrone Power plays a young veteran of the first world war who searches for meaning in his life. He reads in the library, travels to Paris, goes to India to talk to a holy man, goes up into the Himalayas on a retreat. He’s largely successful at finding meaning. There’s not much of a plot, but surprisingly it isn’t boring. The story is driven by the protagonist’s interactions with his friends, and told as personal reminiscence of Maugham himself, who has a prominent role in the story. Herbert Marshall’s performance as Maugham is notably good. The other characters are engaging and mostly sympathetic. The acting is solid, and the photography carefully thought-out. Maybe proto-hippies in 1946 found it life-changing. It think it’s a bit long and a bit talky, but a pretty good movie on the whole. I don’t plan to watch it again, but might read the novel.

The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1936 and 1968

Both of these are disappointing. The 1936 movie stars Erroll Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. It’s not a bad adventure movie of the time, but it’s mostly about India. Probably eighty percent of the story involves a colonial war on the northwest frontier, and two brothers in love with the same woman. This back-story provides an entirely fictional motivation for the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava. David Niven and Nigel Bruce do well in supporting roles.

The 1968 movie is about the charge and the events leading up to it, and it seems reasonably accurate, though following it requires some familiarity with the basic history. It does paint a rich picture of barracks life in Victorian England. The acting is mostly solid, though Trevor Howard’s portrayal of Lord Cardigan is over done. Unfortunately, this movie is too much a product of its time, and that time is 1968. The story is episodic and disconnected, punctuated by Pythonesque animations. The filming is self-consciously “artistic.” It’s gratuitously grisly, tries hard to be “hilariously irreverent,” and manages to seem preachy without having a clear idea what to preach about. It’s Flashman without Flashman.

Lloyd’s of London, 1936

Lloyd’s of London is a satisfying historical drama. In 1770, two best friends part. Jonathan Blake (Tyrone Power) goes to Lloyd’s Coffee house; Horatio Nelson goes to sea. The movie tells of Jonathan Blake’s rise from urchin to wealthy and successful leader of an insurance syndicate. Along with Blake’s love for Lady Elizabeth and Nelson’s love of England, the enduring friendship of Blake and Nelson is the central theme. Guy Standing is enjoyable as Mister Angerstein, Blake’s mentor at Lloyd’s. It’s not without elements of melodrama, but Lloyd’s of London is a good movie I’ll watch again.

Stalag 17, 1953

Stalag 17, about US Airmen in a German POW camp, is a good-enough story ruined by tedious repetitive jokes, mostly about Betty Grable. William Holden does a good job as the camp’s black-market-operating cynic. Otto Preminger is the iconic German camp commandant. It’s not the actors’ fault, the humor is just moronic. And I say that as someone who likes The Three Stooges.

Some sources online say Hogan’s Heroes was so similar to Stalag 17 that there was a lawsuit about it. If so, the TV series did it right. Skip Stalag 17 and watch a few episodes of Hogan’s Heroes instead.