The Final Journey: a formulaic road movie about hope and reconciliation in the Ukrainian civil war

Nick Baker-Monteys, “The Final Journey / Leanders Letzte Reise” (2017)

The plot may be a familiar one – aged pensioner Eduard Leander (Jurgen Prochnow), recently widowed, resolves to return to a distant land he fought a war in over 70 years ago, to find a woman he once knew, and his estranged slacker grand-daughter Adele (Petra Schmidt-Schaller) is forced to follow him to keep an eye on him – but the historical and political context in which their odyssey takes place is a contemporary and highly controversial one, one that takes them to uncomfortable and dark places, psychologically as well as physically, that test their character, their beliefs and ultimately their relationship and feelings for and about each other.

In early 2014, after the death of his wife, whom he has never really loved, Leander suddenly decides to go on a train trip to Kiev in Ukraine. Adele’s mother Uli (Susanne von Borsody) persuades her to try to talk to him to stay home – the older woman has never got on well with her dad – but Leander resolutely stays on the train and Adele is compelled to stay with him. On the train they meet Lew (Tambet Tuisk), a Russian-Ukrainian man who helps them evade train guards because Adele does not have her passport with her. Once in Kiev, Lew takes the two under his wing as they are unable to get hotel accommodation without Adele’s passport and they stay with his family. During the midday meal, Lew’s relatives come to blows over the troubled situation in eastern Ukraine: Lew has a grandmother and a brother living in Lugansk, and the brother (to the approval of the older relatives but not Lew’s) is fighting with the Donbass side against the new (and illegal) Kiev government.

Through contact with a historian specialising in World War II history, Leander determines that the woman he wants to meet, Svetlana Agafonova, lives in Lugansk so he, Adele and Lew travel by car there. There, they come in contact with the Donbass fighters and Lew’s brother and babushka. On further enquiry, the three discover they must cross the river border under cover of night to Russia to the village where Svetlana was resettled after the war. Bit by bit, Adele learns of the history of her father’s participation in the war as the leader of a Cossack regiment fighting under Nazi command against Soviet forces and Russian partisans, and realises that he may have committed atrocities grave enough to make him a war criminal.

In the meantime, Adele tries to stay in contact with her mother and relays some of what Leander and she get up to. As the pair go farther into eastern Ukraine and Russia, and war breaks out in Lugansk province, Uli decides to travel to Kiev and then to eastern Ukraine to find the two.

Schmidt-Schaller and Tuisk give very good performances as the two young party-goers who develop a genuine friendship and romance under unusual and trying circumstances. Prochnow maintains a surly old git outlook, at least until he arrives in the Russian village and discovers a few surprises. Through their journey together, Leander and his grand-daughter discover things about one another they had not known or suspected before: somewhat to her surprise, Adele develops a real warmth and affection for old Opa as she sees that he is truly capable of love and care for others, that he would risk his health and life to reconnect with a woman he knew 70+ years ago and whose current whereabouts he has no idea of; and Leander, to his regret, realises that his true family had always cared about him and for him. The tragedy is that he is unable to last long enough to truly reconcile with the people who care for him.

The cinematography is quite good (in a minimal way) at portraying the countryside in eastern Europe and the poverty of rural areas in Ukraine and Russia.

The script gingerly tiptoes around the current politics of Ukraine and the civil war in eastern Ukraine, and attempts to treat the two sides evenly as though the civil war were just like any other civil war with one brother disagreeing with another brother and families being split over the conflict. The nationalists marching through the streets of Kiev are shorn of their Nazi regalia and Western audiences are likely to be lulled into thinking these people are no more harmful than nationalist thug gangs in other countries and have no place in the Ukrainian government. (Perhaps the Leanders and Lew should have detoured a while in Lvov in western Ukraine, to watch torchlight parades carrying swastika banners and portraits of notorious Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera, and chanting anti-Jewish slogans through the city streets.) A scene in which the Leanders and Lew are being driven through the Russian countryside at night and pass by a strange convoy of tanks and army trucks going towards the Ukrainian border, at which Lew exclaims, “This is not normal!”, gives a clue as to whose propaganda the film-makers prefer to follow.

In exploring how two characters find redemption and connection through learning about their place in history (and at last finding some direction instead of drifting aimlessly through memory or pleasure), the film brings a message of hope and reconciliation with the past. Unfortunately (and ironically) its attempt to make sense of the civil war in Ukraine is shallow, because the film-makers are ignorant of the West’s involvement in overthrowing the legitimate if ineffective and corrupt Yanukovych government and that government’s replacement with a more criminal and vicious regime.

 

The Jimmy Dore Show: Interview with Carla Ortiz (23 April 2018) – exposing the reality behind the Syrian White Helmets

The Jimmy Dore Show: Interview with Carla Ortiz (23 April, 2018)

A most unexpected surprise from what I would have considered the least likely medium surfaced recently: US stand-up comedian (and political commentator) Jimmy Dore featured Bolivian actress Carla Ortiz on his weekly one-hour radio / online show. Ortiz recently returned from a trip to Syria – her second trip I think, although I’m not really sure – during which she visited Aleppo and among other things saw for herself the headquarters of the fake humanitarian first-response group the Syrian White Helmets … which happened to be located a couple of metres away from the headquarters of Al Nusra (the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda). The actress also spoke to several people who had done volunteer work for the White Helmets – which mostly involved acting in the group’s propaganda films – and filmed scenes in sections of Aleppo that had just been liberated from terrorists by the Syrian Arab Army.

I missed seeing the first 20 minutes of the interview but what I did see and hear was in turns astounding, horrifying, depressing and uplifting. One astounding fact was that while volunteers working for the Syrian Arab Army would be paid the Syrian equivalent of US$50 a month for 16 to 18 hours of work, volunteers for the White Helmets could expect to receive a hefty US$1,500 a month. The temptation for Syrian civilians in areas captured by terrorists to work for the White Helmets – especially as the terrorists deliberately withheld food from civilian hostages unless they were prepared to pay hugely inflated prices – must have been immense. Ortiz and Dore do not discuss where the money would have come from to pay White Helmets volunteers but one suspects the most likely sources of funding are donations from Western governments and money from Sunni-dominated oil kingdoms on the Arabian Peninsula.

In her film, in which she enters the White Helmets headquarters, Ortiz points out two Al Nusra flags and states that they could not have been placed there accidentally, as very few Syrian citizens support Al Nusra and most such citizens hate the group. Ortiz notes that nearly all terrorists operating in Syria are from overseas. She reels off a list of actions of the terrorists that demonstrate their callous brutality: they keep civilians in cages and use them as human shields, and commandeer schools and hospitals, thus stunting children’s education and preventing families from obtaining medical help and medicines. People are deliberately starved as well and children die from malnutrition and diseases that could have been treated.

At least twice in the interview, Jimmy Dore mentions the CIA as paymaster for the terrorists to overthrow Assad but the reality may be more complicated than that: several Western governments want Assad gone and each would be using several agencies, including intel agencies, charities and news media outlets, to channel money and weapons to the terrorists, train them and promote them in the guise of humanitarian aid groups and organisations such as the White Helmets and Violet Organisation Syria.

However horrifying the war has been in Syria and especially in Aleppo, Ortiz speaks highly of the Syrian people: she notes that Syrian society has made great advances in giving women leadership roles in politics (the current Syrian vice-president is female and 30% of the country’s ministries are headed by women) and society generally. Since Aleppo’s liberation in 2016, 800,000 refugees have returned to the city and people are busy in rebuilding the city and making it function normally again. Ortiz draws inspiration from Syrians’ upbeat and positive attitudes, their love for their country (which, interestingly, they regard as a “living motherland”) and their pride in their 7,000-year history in which they themselves find inspiration and hope. Ortiz also speaks about the kind of world we are bequeathing to future generations, and what should be our legacy to them.

The interview flowed freely and quickly – Ortiz speaks quite rapidly and animatedly, and becomes emotional a couple of times – and the conversation bounces smoothly from one topic to another. Ortiz and Dore get on very well together and I am sure Ortiz will be returning to Dore’s show as guest interviewee in the not too distant future. The show is highly informative though viewers and listeners need to have some background knowledge of contemporary Syrian politics, how the current war began in the country and the various groups involved in fighting the Syrian government.

One thing that emerges from their talk, though Ortiz and Dore may not have been aware at the time, is the way in which Western news media portrays Syrians and Arab peoples generally: as backward people obsessed with religious sectarianism and literal interpretations of Islam and Shari’a law in particular. In the mindset of Western MSM news, Arab countries are always unstable and have long histories of tribal and religious conflict; this particular stereotype is not only racist but is part and parcel of a worldview in which Arabs cannot be trusted as stewards of energy resources needed by the West and cannot (and by implication should not) control their own lands. In this view also, Israel is the only country that is stable and democratic, and therefore should be treated favourably – in spite of its genocidal policies towards Palestinians and racist attitudes towards guest workers, refugees, immigrants and even Jewish people with non-Western backgrounds.

Imperialism on Trial – Eva Bartlett: an impassioned and informative talk on the Syrian war and Western news media distortions of that war

“Imperialism on Trial – Eva Bartlett” (London, 31 January 2018)

Canadian journalist Eva Bartlett was invited to speak at an anti-war protest meeting in London about her experiences in Syria in investigating and documenting events of the Syrian war, interviewing people there about their experiences and what they had witnessed, and demonstrating through her own first-hand experiences and the experiences of Syrians the extent of the disinformation and propaganda propagated by Western news media outlets. This meeting was part of a tour she undertook across Britain and Ireland focusing on media propaganda and lies about the war, and the deliberate falsification of reports on the war’s duration according to a framework and agenda portraying the war as a civil war between the Syrian government and domestic rebel opposition. The ultimate aim of such media propaganda and falsehoods is to foment public support across the globe for Western invasion and intervention in Syria including the overthrow of the Syrian government and its replacement by a government or foreign occupation. In turn, Western occupation of Syria aims to steal the country’s natural resources, in particular its energy resources, and to use Syrian territory as a base for terrorists to penetrate and destabilise other countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.

A large part of Bartlett’s talk consisted of first-hand anecdotes of her experiences in Syria and the stories of the people she met in various cities and towns in Syria, including Aleppo and Homs: cities and towns that had been held or partly held by jihadists and bombed by them as well. She described her experiences of applying for and obtaining a visa to visit Syria and how freely she was able to move around the country (though usually with an escort for her safety) and interview individuals and groups of people. Contrary to Western news media perceptions, Bartlett has never been funded by the Russian government but is entirely self-supporting. Bartlett did not say a great deal about the type of society that exists in Syria or existed in the country before 2011 when the war broke out, apart from mentioning that people of different Islamic denominations did marry and that there was much less religious sectarianism in Syria than the Western mainstream news media made out. Free healthcare and education existed, as in Libya before 2011, and there was enthusiasm for political change. However the thirst for political revolution was absent across the country.

Bartlett described how the war initially began with small protests in Dar’aa in the south of the country that escalated into violence with the arrival of jihadists in groups such as Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS.

A theme constantly running through Bartlett’s talk is Western news media distortion of events in Syria and of the stories Syrian people themselves tell of their experiences. Massacres committed by jihadis were attributed to the Syrian government. Where the Syrian Arab Army was driving out jihadis from Aleppo or other parts of Syria, the SAA’s actions were described as brutal war crimes against civilians. Where jihadis were deliberately withholding food aid from civilians in eastern Aleppo, causing them to become malnourished and starving, Western news media instead claimed that the Syrian government was starving the people. In addition, Western news media concentrated on the fate of people in areas held by jihadis and portrayed them as being harassed and bombed constantly by Syrian and Russian fighter jets, to the exclusion of people in government-held areas harassed by jihadi actions. The fictional humanitarian aid group the White Helmets – whose members are drawn from various jihadi groups – is portrayed by Western media as heroes risking their lives to pull children out of bombed buildings. Bartlett concluded this part of her talk by praising the Syrian people’s resilience and steadfast determination in resisting the jihadis.

The last 15 minutes of Bartlett’s talk focused on Bartlett’s week-long visit to North Korea and that country’s quest for security to the extent of being secretive and paranoid, particularly during the periods (which occur twice every year) when the US and South Korea conduct war exercises in which they practise invading North Korea.

Bartlett’s talk was not very structured though she stuck to the topics, on which she had plenty of anecdotes and facts at hand. Over fifty minutes her monologue was interesting and riveting, and at no time during her talk did I ever get bored. While she was happy to take questions during her talk, only one or two people actually interrupted her, and only to confirm what she was saying or to get more clarification.

While Bartlett is highly informative, her talk included very few visual aids and viewers who want a timeline of events in Syria’s war against Western-aided jihadis and extremists need to go elsewhere in alternative news media to get the information that puts Bartlett’s talk into a proper global historical and geopolitical context, in which Syria is one of a number of countries targeted by the West for regime change and exploitation.

The Pianist: a potentially great film let down by shallow characterisation and a bland and thin plot

Roman Polanski, “The Pianist” (2002)

Polanski has been a very significant director capable of making very moving and epic films with a strong message about the survival of vulnerable individuals in situations that threaten to overwhelm them psychologically and spiritually as well as physically. In “The Pianist” though, the objective of translating the memoirs of Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (1911 – 2000), who survived Nazi German occupation of his homeland in spite of the dangers that faced him as a Jew, seems to have defeated the Polish director. While the film appears on the surface to be faithful in recounting the events that Szpilman observed and sometimes participated in, and is restrained in the way it portrays violence and brutality, it makes little attempt to study its protagonist’s psychology and his reactions to the brutality that robs him of his family and everything he has ever known, in addition to chronicling what happened in Warsaw from the time Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany in September 1939 to its liberation by the Soviet Army in 1945. The result is a film that can feel very arduous and bland with a thin story stretched even thinner by the film’s 140-minute length.

The film follows Szpilman (Adrien Brody) from the time he and his family are rounded up in Warsaw and forced into a crowded ghetto with other Jewish families where they all try to keep up the appearance of a normal society – Szpilman finds work playing piano in a cafe for upper class Jews – while food supplies gradually dwindle and the overcrowding that occurs as more Jews are pushed into the ghetto leads to unsanitary conditions resulting in poor health and disease. Eventually everyone is forced to walk to the train station where they will be transported in cattle trucks to the Treblinka concentration camp. Szpilman is pulled away in time by a Jewish Sonderkommando police officer while the rest of his family is sent to the camp; Szpilman will never see his parents or his siblings again.

From then on, Szpilman struggles to survive inside and outside the Warsaw Ghetto with the help of others, including former fellow Polish Radio employees Andrej Bogucki (Ronan Vibert) and his wife Janina (Ruth Platt). Szpilman helps supply ammunition to ghetto inmates planning a revolt against the Nazi oppressors (this is the famous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 1943) and later witnesses the Warsaw Uprising, undertaken by the Polish underground resistance movement, in mid-1944. Like the Jewish revolt, this uprising fails, and in their anger the Germans systematically destroy the whole of Warsaw. Szpilman flees the apartment where he is hiding and find shelter in an attic of a house which turns out to be the headquarters of a Nazi German army unit. A German officer, Wilm Hosenfeld, discovers Szpilman in hiding and learns that he is a pianist. Hosenfeld allows Szpilman to stay in the attic, if Szpilman will play the piano for him when he visits with food and clothing.

Watching Brody as Szpilman, good as he is and thoroughly deserving of the Academy Award for Best Actor won in 2003, I could not but feel that the character is essentially passive and helpless, and survives mainly through luck and the beneficence of others including the Wehrmacht officer. There are not enough moments in the film where Szpilman is inspired by thoughts of once again performing for Polish Radio or in concerts to continue living. His scenes with significant others such as Hosenfeld, the Boguckis and a radical activist in the Warsaw Ghetto are rather perfunctory and the audience has no real sense of these people making a deep impression on Szpilman. (For that matter, the characters of these people are also woefully under-developed.) At the end of the film, Szpilman seems little different from his youthful self back in September 1939. His effort to find Hosenfeld after the war is treated too sparingly and seems like an afterthought tacked inserted into the film’s coda. What might have helped the film develop some psychological depth is occasional moments where Brody’s voice narrates from the English translation of Szpilman’s memoirs passages of conversations he has with the people who save his life, what they talk about, what he thinks of them and they of him. The unlikely friendship between a starving, sickly Jew and the Nazi officer could have been invested with curiosity on the part of both about each other, what each thinks the other will do after the war and if he will have any regrets about the war and his participation in it.

With a flat matter-of-fact story culled from the memoirs, lacking in much insight, combined with a minimal style of direction and cinematography, the film seems much too long, especially in its middle part where Szpilman scurries from one hiding-place to another and major events happen around him as a helpless observer, and viewers not familiar with the history of Warsaw and Poland during the Second World War will become bored very quickly.

The film does work very well as a fictional chronicle of the tragedies that befell the Jewish community in Warsaw and of the failed revolts against the Nazis that resulted in the petulant actions the German occupiers took against the city itself by razing the majority of its buildings to the ground and destroying its culture. In its own minimalist way, “The Pianist” can be very moving and quite emotional as Szpilman manages – but only just – to survive the war and rejoin Polish Radio. Unfortunately though the plot is too paper-thin and the characters not defined enough for the movie to be more than just good.

The Quiet American: a slow and unassuming film with parallel plots of a love triangle mirroring post-colonial Cold War struggle

Phillip Noyce, “The Quiet American” (2002)

A beautifully made film with much atmosphere, even if it is slow and unassuming in style, and its acting uneven, “The Quiet American” nevertheless makes quite an impression with its parallel plots that reflect and comment on each other. The people in the love triangle can be taken as metaphors for the geopolitical context in which they find themselves. Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) is a jaded and world-weary British journalist working for The Times newspaper in 1950s-era Saigon (Vietnam) who submits little work on the French war on Vietnamese resistance to French rule while enjoying a hedonistic life-style with his young mistress Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen). Phuong’s older sister disapproves of the liaison because Fowler is already married – his estranged wife back in London refuses to give him a divorce because of her Catholic faith – and on top of that, Fowler does not have the money or connections that could get Phuong, her sister and the rest of their family out of Vietnam and into a Western country, preferably a rich one.

One day Fowler gets a message from his newspaper recalling him back to London over the little work he has done. Unwilling to return to a loveless marriage and at the prospect of losing Phuong, Fowler is in something of a quandary until he meets Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), an idealistic young American doctor working with a humanitarian US mission. Pyle is an enthusiastic follower of a scholar who expounds that colonial Vietnam cannot be saved by either the French or the Communists under Ho Chi Minh, but rather by a Third Force which Pyle earnestly hopes to be part of. By his words and deeds, Pyle challenges Fowler to re-examine his detached relationship to his job as a reporter, stop sitting on the fence with regard to his attitude on Vietnam’s war against France and start seeing Vietnam less as an exotic escapist playground and more as a real country of real people struggling and fighting for self-determination and independence between an old colonial force (France) and a new one (the United States).

Eventually Pyle meets Phuong and quickly falls head over heels in love with her. Unlike Fowler, Pyle comes from a wealthy East Coast background, has good career prospects and a clean marital slate, and Phuong’s mercenary sister starts pressuring the younger sibling to leave Fowler and hitch herself with Pyle. The love triangle that forms with Fowler, Pyle and Phuong becomes a metaphor for Vietnam’s struggle to break away from its old European past and determine its own future. What further complicates the love triangle – apart from Fowler’s anguish at losing Phuong and his rage at Pyle for taking her away – is Fowler’s discovery that Pyle is actually a CIA agent working secretly with Vietnamese army officer General Thé, backed by rich businessman Muoi, to wrest power away from France and Vietnamese Communists using violence and mass murder that can conveniently be blamed on the Vietminh.

Caine may be too old to play Fowler but his performance is subtle and suggests a character troubled by many past demons that force him and Phuong to live their lives in limbo amid an opium haze. At the same time this character is forced by changing circumstances to re-evaluate his life and his life’s purpose, and he is challenged to give something back to the country and the people who have been generous enough to host him. Caine portrays Fowler with all his troubles and the dilemma facing him brilliantly even if he is not fully absorbed into the character but plays Fowler as an extension of himself. The real surprise of the film is the casting of Brendan Fraser – who is usually better known for his comedy films and “The Mummy” franchise of low-brow films – as Pyle: Fraser smoothly pulls off playing a character who initially seems idealistic and missionary-like, innocent and bumbling at the same time, yet who turns out to be devious and sinister. Pyle is no less complex than Fowler in his motivations and cynicism, and Fraser expresses the more brutal aspects of the character fairly well. The weak point in the love triangle turns out to be Hai Yen’s Phuong who has very little to do except look very pretty in stunning clothes and obey others’ orders. She does not come across as someone whom two mature men would fight over just for her sake.

The supporting cast help pad out the complex plot against a background of picturesque city scenes and beautiful serene tropical landscapes where scenes of violence, mayhem and bloodshed unexpectedly erupt. Vietnam is suddenly no longer a playground where people like Fowler, fleeing complicated past lives, can escape to in order to play out fantasies of hedonistic freedom. Fowler discovers that to survive, and to stay in Vietnam, he must commit himself to a definite path and purpose in life. He will have to trample over someone and disappoint someone else – and he will have to live with the consequences and his conscience for the rest of his life – but the choice is one he is forced to make.

At the time of release, the film was subjected to censorship in the US by its own main producer Miramax and would have languished in a vault were it not for efforts by director Phillip Noyce and Michael Caine, with support from film critics in the US, to get it released. Fifteen years later, one of the film’s messages – that the US will resort to supporting warlords and favour terrorism and violence resulting in mass deaths if such actions are in its interests – is more relevant than ever as US foreign policy in widely separated countries such as Syria, Iraq, North Korea, the Philippines and Venezuela, in which the forces of thuggish violence and chaos are aided and abetted by Washington, becomes more widely known and criticised.

The King’s Choice: best seen as a character study of people having to make unenviable choices and decisions

Erik Poppe, “Kongens Nei / The King’s Choice” (2016)

As a straight history lesson or even as a conventional war-time drama, this film doesn’t succeed: audiences outside Norway will find the narrative very fragmented and be mystified as to what actually happens between the main body of the plot and its closing scene. One also senses that director Poppe couldn’t resist in indulging in some cheap propaganda pot-shots at Denmark, the former colonial master, in shoring up Norwegian insecurities about having sold out to the Germans through the fascist Vidkun Quisling government during World War II. The action scenes are superfluous to the main body of the film and the two people at the centre of them are no more than heroic feel-good stereotypes. “Kongens Nei” works best as a fictional character study centred on the figure of King Haakon VII who through circumstances not of his making is forced to make an unenviable choice as head of state: willingly agree to surrender to Germany and avoid continuing bloodshed, or refuse and share (however indirectly) the blame for war. If we take this narrow focus, then the film becomes a lesson about moral responsibility and how it shapes one’s legacy to one’s family (and nation), but perhaps at the cost of accepting the film’s initial portrayal of the king as somewhat spineless, giving in to compromise and following the herd when he should have done otherwise. The real king may have been no such figure.

In spite of the fragmented narrative, the film does a decent job detailing the immense pressure Norway and its government are under from the attacking Nazi German forces who are hell-bent on seizing the country’s iron ore resources to feed their eventual war against the Soviet union. Holding the story together are the central characters of the King himself (Jesper Christensen), the Crown Prince Olav (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) who acts as the King’s conscience and the ill-fated German diplomat Curt Bräuer (Karl Markovics) who arranges to meet with the King to persuade him to sign an act of surrender even as Berlin manoeuvres and pushes the envoy aside. The three actors are excellent in their roles: Christensen all but absorbs the viewer’s attention as a morally and physically frail and ageing monarch who might not have been a great father or even a very good leader in the past. How he rises – or maybe does not rise – to his nation’s greatest crisis is the crux of the film. Bräuer’s own personal journey to this point in the film parallels the King’s moral dilemma. Both men try to do the right thing by their own standards even as dark forces surround and encroach on them and their families: Bräuer insists on carrying out his duty as an envoy and the King tries to do what he believes is the right thing by the Norwegian people, to the extent of walking into what might be a potential trap. The irony is that what he and Bräuer end up doing actually makes very little difference to Norway’s eventual fate.

I feel that where the film really falls down is its failure to show how Norway’s resistance to German invasion and aggression was ultimately hopeless, and how the Norwegian royal family was forced to leave the country altogether in spite of the decisions the King and Crown Prince had made, however heroic or not these were.

Paths of Glory: leading viewers on a path about the place of honour, duty, truth and justice in war

Stanley Kubrick, “Paths of Glory” (1957)

A simply and tightly made film with a powerful message about honour, duty and how war degrades men and masculinity, “Paths of Glory” is a fine example of how Kubrick was hitting his stride as a director. The film was the start of a fruitful relationship with lead actor Kirk Douglas who would go on to appear in another Kubrick film (“Spartacus”). Based on a novel which itself was based on a mutiny by the French army during World War I, the film revolves around a scheme cooked up by two senior French generals Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) and the professionally ambitious Mireau (George Macready) to throw a division of soldiers at a German-defended position known as the Ant Hill. Initially Mireau protests at the hare-brained idea but when Broulard mentions that success in taking the Ant Hill would lead to a promotion for Mireau, the other man quickly changes his mind.

Mireau informs Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) of the attack that Dax’s men will have to carry out and despite Dax’s protests at the sheer lunacy of the idea, Mireau dumps the responsibility for planning the details of the attack onto his subordinate. In the meantime, a night-time scouting mission to ascertain the chances of success in attacking the Ant Hill results in tragedy when the scout is killed by a grenade lobbed by his superior: the corporal (Ray Meeker) accompanying the scout finds his body and confronts the superior who denies any wrongdoing.

Next day the attack on Ant Hill takes place and as expected by Dax, ends disastrously with huge numbers of casualties. Meanwhile Mireau orders his artillery to fire on B Company when those soldiers refuse to participate in the suicide mission. After the attack, Mireau orders a court martial of 100 soldiers for cowardice but Broulard convinces him to reduce the number to three men selected at random. Of the men selected for court martial, one of them is the second scout. While Colonel Dax – a criminal lawyer in civilian life – acts as defence lawyer in the kangaroo court, the three men are swiftly judged guilty and sentenced to face a firing squad.

The action is brisk, the plot uncompromising and the acting is crisp and meets the challenge of the plot and the issues it poses about how corrupt generals play with the lives of soldiers and about the place of honour and integrity during war. There is some over-acting from actors playing minor characters but the context in which this occurs can be justified: knowing that you’re about to meet your maker much sooner than you realise does concentrate the mind and the emotions too well. In this world of ongoing grinding trench warfare there is no place for compassion, truth or justice. Mireau does get his comeuppance but only because of Broulard’s further manipulations, not because he gets caught out for having ordered his artillery to kill his own men. The hellishness and brutality of war are highlighted by Kubrick’s masterful use of tracking shots which when used in the trenches also convey a strong sense of paranoia and fear. Dax and his men are treated as no more than machines; at the end of the film, they are all called back to the front, presumably to carry out yet another foolhardy mission as directed by remote generals.

The film’s conclusion highlights the common humanity of both the French and their German enemy but at the same time underlines the role of the foot soldier as cannon fodder.

 

What the Media Won’t Tell You about Syria: concentrating on one part of Syria and its geopolitical and economic importance gives way to an oil blowout

ReallyGraceful, “What the Media Won’t Tell You about Syria” (2017)

Among other news and facts that the Western mainstream news media ignores about Syria and its war against terrorists and their foreign backers that has raged since 2011, is one juicy piece about the Golan Heights which have been contested territory between Syria and Israel since 1967 when the Israelis seized a large part of that region from Damascus: in 2013, a subsidiary of Genie Energy, an energy company based in Newark, New Jersey, secretly acquired a licence from an Israeli court to drill for oil and natural gas in an area covering half the Golan Heights. Now that fact alone might not seem important in the context of the Syrian War, were it not for who sits on the Board of Directors of Genie Energy: gosh, the directors include US media mogul Rupert Murdoch, former US vice-president Richard Cheney and former CIA head James Woolsey. Could the fact that those luminaries happen to be Genie Energy directors partly explain the slanted Western media reporting on the Syrian War which repeatedly paints the Syrian government as a brutal, repressive dictatorship that attacks its own people with chemical weapons or arrests them by the hundreds if not by the thousands and throws them into the supposedly notorious Saydnaya Prison to be tortured, killed and cremated?

Narrator Grace at ReallyGraceful can’t cover every lie and propaganda smear about Syria and its government so she sensibly concentrates on the Golan Heights and the hydrocarbon wealth there that attracted the attention of Israel and Genie Energy initially. She notes that Israel’s action in awarding a drilling licence to Genie Energy is clearly illegal under international law. She points out also that the war in Syria and the chaos there benefit Israeli interests and Western corporate energy interests: the war drives out refugees from their lands which can be seized by companies of the countries waging war in Syria. Grace also fingers Rex Tillerson, US State Secretary under US President Donald Trump, as having an interest in shutting out Syria and its allies Russia and Iran out of global collective actions against ISIS in Syria: Tillerson’s background is as a former executive of energy giant Exxon Mobil and might greatly influence the kinds of decisions he makes, especially in a context where Qatar and Iran are rivals to build natural gas pipelines across land from the Persian Gulf to the eastern Mediterranean – land that also includes a sizeable chunk of Syria.

In just seven minutes, Grace elegantly and languidly provides more information about Western energy and geopolitical interests in Syria than the Western news media has so far done. The collage of newsreel stills and photographs of Murdoch and others is put together well and visually arresting but the voice-over narration actually stands on its own very well. Grace’s conversational style may be very rambling and it hardly pauses for breath but at the same time it feels very intimate. The film can be seen at this link.

Dunkirk – unresolved tensions

There’s a climactic scene in Dunkirk (Warner Bros, 2017) where some of the exhausted British soldiers are pulling in to station on a train. Suddenly one of them worries: will they be reviled as cowards? The retreat from Dunkirk feels like a massive failure. They fear they have let their country down. There are knocks on the window. The fists of an angry mob? No, a grateful crowd of cheering men and women, handing bottles of beers to the soldiers. They are welcomed as heroes.

There’s emotional content here, and a sense of relief, for sure. But whatever feeling Nolan is trying to wring from this scene, I don’t really feel he’s done much to earn it. For the length of the preceding film, we’ve seen and heard virtually nothing of the English homeland; if any of the characters had families, we weren’t told about it (heck, none of them are even given names); and the abstract ideas of heroism or cowardice, which could have made a nice structural opposition for the film’s framework, have never even been alluded to. Why should we care if they are heroes or cowards? What is at stake?

It would have been easy enough to set up an opening scene or two, to give a little context to the lives of the soldiers; establish a home, a family, a loved one. Once planted, these dramatic elements could have been revisited in the final scenes, and given far more resonance, far more emotional truth, than the perfunctory scene described above. Further, the director could have begun early on with a clue that he intended to address a real human conflict (are we cowards, or are we heroes?), and give us some resolution at the end.

But there! That’s just me being stuffy and old-fashioned, hoping for conventional structure, narrative closure, emotional honesty in a film. Nolan has largely dispensed with all of these conventional elements in Dunkirk (and indeed his other movies, where he frequently plays with temporal structure), because he clearly regards them as corny, trite, clichéd. How can he make a truly modern war movie instead? By studiously avoiding the narrative traps, as he would see them, that get in the way of the statement he wishes to make. No tedious set-ups for him; we’re plunged into the action immediately. Instead of resolution, Nolan gives us perpetual unresolved tensions.

There’s a lot to be said for his confrontational, “you-are-there” styled approach to his take on the Dunkirk story. But in following his chosen path, I feel he sacrifices the context that might give the struggle some meaning that the viewer can identify with. And he doesn’t leave himself time to explore the themes that his station scene is trying to capitalise on; which is why the scene is such an empty payoff. This is what I’m trying to get at when I say it’s “unearned” emotion.

Guest blog post by Ed Pinsent

The Promise: a slurpy romantic melodrama overshadows significant historic events

Terry George, “The Promise” (2016)

A film about the Ottoman Turkish genocide of Armenians and other Christian minorities (1915 – 1918) is probably never going to succeed with a wider audience than the communities involved – and especially as the genocide is still denied by the Republic of Turkey – so one resigns oneself to a retelling of that horrific period in 20th-century history through a melodramatic plot revolving around a complicated love triangle. In 1914, young Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac) aspires to become a doctor in his backwater community of Sirun in southeast Turkey but needs money to travel to Constantinople and pay his way through medical studies there. He is betrothed to local girl Marta and her dowry money helps get him to Constantinople and enrol at university. He boards with Uncle Mesrob and his family and almost immediately falls for his young cousins’ dance tutor Ana (Charlotte le Bon). If you think young Mikael will have problems juggling his affections for Marta and Ana, there’s more to come: Ana herself has been in a long-term relationship with American news reporter Chris (Christian Bale) so, er , the two young people have their hands and heads preoccupied with conflicting emotions and guilt. Unfortunately for them – and maybe fortunately for us having to sit through 133 minutes of film – events in southeast Europe drag Germany and Ottoman Turkey into war against Britain, France and Russia, and almost straight away (as if on cue) the dastardly Turks start rounding up Armenians and throw them into prison camps (to be forced into hard labour, dying of malnutrition and maltreatment), forced marches into the mountains and deserts, and cattle trains going into the wilderness. As the war drags on – and the Ottomans are failing badly, though the film makes no references to how the Turks are faring in the war – the government resorts to mass slaughter of the Armenian people.

Through the tumultuous events, Mikael, Ana and Chris endure personal and shared hardships and sufferings: after escaping a prison camp, Mikael is briefly reunited with his family and marries his betrothed in Sirun while Ana and Chris manage to rescue a group of orphans and take them to safety with an American Protestant missionary. The three main characters reunite again and try to save Mikael’s parents, wife and nieces. They are too late and only manage to rescue his badly injured mother and young cousin Yeva. Chris is captured by Turkish soldiers and incarcerated in a prison where he is sentenced to death as a spy. He is rescued by the US ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau and a mutual playboy friend (Marwan Kenzari) of his and Mikael’s (whose life was also saved by the friend) but the friend pays for his generosity by being executed by a firing squad.

Mikael and Ana take the orphans to a refugee camp and the camp moves to Musa Dagh mountain where the men vow to fight the Turkish army following them. Chris boards a French war cruiser which arrives at the bay beneath Musa Dagh. While the refugees try to fight off Turkish bombardment and board the life-boats that will take them to the cruiser, the tension that naturally arises from the scenario gets an artificial lift from the tension surrounding the love triangle: out of the three – Ana, Chris, Mikael – someone will meet his/her kismet in a most tragic way.

The slurpy melodrama just manages to stay mildly annoying thanks to good acting performances from the leads, though there’s hardly any chemistry between le Bon and Isaac. The plot piles cliché upon cliché with stock characters like the token good Turk who starts out dissolute spoilt playboy son but redeems himself by saving Chris and Mikael’s lives, and with often unnecessary action thriller scenes that add nothing to the plot save one miraculous escape after another. The Musa Dagh stand-off and subsequent rescue of refugees by the French cruiser are worth a film in themselves and should not have been overshadowed by the love triangle’s resolution.

The film’s concentration on the romance leaves no room for a wider investigation into why and how the Ottoman Turkish genocide against Christian minorities in the empire started: no context is provided as to why all of a sudden ordinary Turkish people who had previously been friendly with Armenians should turn on them. Nothing is said of European powers’ intentions to dismember the failing Ottoman empire which would have been enough to give any tottering, unstable empire paranoid thoughts as to whether its minorities were being encouraged from outside to revolt against it. The Turks and their German allies are tarred with a black villain’s brush while the Americans and the French at least are treated as saviours. Audiences are basically brow-beaten to accept the genocide as given, and not to question why it should have happened late in the history of the Ottoman empire, decades after it embarked on Westernisation / modernisation, and not earlier in its 460+ years of existence.