Okay, time to put this puppy to bed. By the way, congrats on reading what is my twentieth post! Wow…doesn’t seem like it should be that many, but there you are. In case you missed the build-up to this post, well…here you go. And here. All caught up? Good. Let’s get it on…
Battle of the Bulge
This is the film my father, brother and I would watch every Sunday morning that it aired on one of our local TV channels, which was every-third-week. Or so it seemed. Yes, this was before we had cable and waaaayyyy before on-demand or what-have-you. They ran the hits over and over, and apparently this was one movie that the local station had the rights to, so we reaped the benefits.
Why It’s Great: There were a lot of great war films out by the time this one hit theaters in 1965…but this film struck a nerve in my family because my grandfather had participated in events in/around the Bastogne area in 1944. History time: Grandpa Oren Watson’s 94th Infantry Division was tasked by General Patton with first holding the Siegfried Switch Line against the Germans south of the “Bulge” and second actually attacking across the goddam line to catch the dirty Krauts by surprise, which they totally did. Oh, by the way, the 94th was primarily a National Guard unit, and many of the men were replacements that had never seen combat. Across from them was a GODDAM S.S. MOUNTAIN DIVISION SUPPORTED BY A TANK REGIMENT. Oh yeah: I should mention that the 94th didn’t have any tanks. They had some bazookas and a few hand grenades, but yeah. I imagine some of Grandpa’s cohorts promptly shat themselves before they sucked it up, jumped off, and drove the Germans back to behind their original front lines, almost closing the Bulge and capturing the entire Nazi strike force in a Patton-led snare. Goddam Montgomery…
Back to what makes this movie great to me. Oh, wait…I just told you! Knowing how close my family history is connected to the story is what really seals it for me. Sure, the movie was great for what it was: an old-school battle movie. Henry Fonda is good as US Lt. General Kiley, and Robert Shaw is menacing as Colonel Hessler, loosely based on actual German Colonel Joachim Peiper. But honestly, “Band of Brothers” did a better job of telling the story of the men on the ground, the daily fatigue and desperation of the men trapped in the German encirclement. But as a kid, there was nothing better than seeing all those tanks, and their bombs, and their bombs, and their guns, ZAAAAHM-BEEE! ZAAAAHM-BEE!! And like “The Longest Day” it did a great job of following the stories of several individual characters to give the viewer the scope of this massive operation on both sides. Sure, there are inaccuracies. Sure, all of the characters are made-up amalgams of real people. But overall, it’s an epic big-time Hollywood shoot-em-up from the days before Michael Bay got his hands on a CG machine. It’s also one of the last big war movies to come out before the US escalated the conflict in Vietnam, which means it’s unapologetic and non-political. It’s just good ol’ American grunts slugging it out with Nazis. And that’s just fine with me.
Fun Fact: Charles Bronson and Telly Savalas were contractually obligated to appear in every color-filmed WWII movie made until 1978. Okay, I made that up. In this one, Bronson has my favorite line, and my sister-in-law’s husband Salim and I love to repeat it every Christmas: “Wait a MINUTE! Those were MP’s, not engineers!” See, there are these Germans posing as American troops and…oh, screw it. Just watch the goddam movie.
Number one. And it isn’t even close. Possibly the best film ever made.
Why It’s Great: I made my wife watch this movie, and she said “It’s not bad!” This is high praise indeed, because one area where my lovely Sweet Baby and I disagree is in my love for old films. She will automatically turn her nose up at anything shot in black and white. True story. But for her to enjoy Casablanca is a testament to the movie’s universal appeal. Her only criticism was that the film contained a lot of cliche’s. Then I pointed out that they’ve only become played-out devices because every filmmaker since has used them over and over again. Seriously, how many times have you heard characters use a variation of these lines?
“We’ll always have Paris.”
“Round up the usual suspects.” (Shit, they even used that as a TITLE for a movie!)
“Play it, Sam.”
“I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
“Here’s looking at you, kid.”
“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine. ”
“I stick my neck out for nobody.”
“If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life. ”
“It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
Good shit, right? Casablanca landed six (SIX!) quotes on AFI’s “100 Years…100 Movie Quotes” list. And that’s not even getting in to the fact that even the way the film was shot influenced directors right up until oh, I don’t know…fucking TODAY! The scene towards the end where Rick shoots Major Strasser and the camera cuts quickly between the reactions of the different characters? Before the release of Casablanca in 1943, it would have been one shot, with all the characters on the screen at once. Basically, it would look like a stage play. That’s how Hollywood directors shot movies back then: many of them were just stage directors who’d decided to get into the movie business. By 1942, you had a crop of filmmakers that had begun experimenting with ways to spice things up and make the scenes “pop” more. The opening scene in “Citizen Kane,” released in 1941, has the camera flying up and through a window into the house. It. Blew. People’s. Minds. To me, this was the beginning of the true Golden Age of Hollywood.
But I haven’t even mentioned the story! Or the characters! I mentioned in Part Two that the “anti-hero” was something new back in the 40’s and 50’s. Sure, you had the film noir hard-boiled gumshoes, but honestly some of those guys were hard to really like. Rick Blaine, however…this guy was someone you rooted for. He’d fought on the losing (but morally right) side before like Mal Reynolds and his Browncoats. He helps out a young couple who are afraid they’ll have to sacrifice the young bride’s virtue by letting them win at his casino. And ultimately he sacrifices not only a chance at a long, happy life with his true love but also a lucrative casino/nightclub in order to do the right thing. And by so doing, he even makes an honest man (and sidekick) out of the corrupt Captain Renault. He inspires, like Jake Brigance did to Harry Rex, and Randle McMurphy did to everyone in Cuckoo’s Nest. Rick Blaine is Han Solo coming back to save Luke so he can blow up the Death Star. He is a hero. He’s just sort of gruff and has a hint of darkness hovering around. And we’ve come to love that sort of thing.
Fun Fact: The crew was meticulous in the way they shot Ingrid Bergman. She was shown primarily from her preferred left side, and lights and filters were employed to make her eyes sparkle. Well, sparkle more than they already did. What a dish.
And here’s your bonus fact and video. The text is from IMDB…
“In the famous scene where the ‘Marseillaise’ is sung over the German song ‘Watch on the Rhine’, many of the extras had real tears in their eyes; a large number of them were actual refugees from Nazi persecution in Germany and elsewhere in Europe and were overcome by the emotions the scene brought out. ”
Notice that the Germans sing “Watch on the Rhine.” That was the German code-name for the invasion of the Ardennes Forest, AKA, the “Battle of the Bulge.” That, children, is how you wrap up a blog. Here’s lookin’ at you.