Archives for posts with tag: history

MV5BYWFlY2E3ODQtZWNiNi00ZGU4LTkzNWEtZTQ2ZTViMWRhYjIzL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTAyODkwOQ@@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_We begin in a boy’s youth, as his grandfather teaches him to shoot wolves. He hesitates, and the wolf disembowels their horse.

We then launch in medias res, as Soviet recruits are ferried across the Volga to fight the Nazis in what you can already say is the ruins of Stalingrad. Vassily Zaitsev (Jude Law) is among them. He is the boy of the earlier incident, but he is not one of the lucky few to be given a rifle before being sent into the hell between the German guns and those that ensure he will not retreat. Vassily starts out with a convincing expression of terrified panic on his face, but somehow Mr. Law manages to escalate as the film goes on.

After that first abortive offensive, Vassily is avoiding the Nazi mopping-up by hiding in a fountain full of corpses. There he is joined by the young political officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), whose car has just blown up, whose glasses are broken, whose competence with a gun is merely nominal, and who is generally having a really bad case of the Mondays. He fumbles with a rifle he finds until Vassily takes it from him and rapidly kills every Nazi he can see. Danilov, in true Soviet style, makes Vassily into a Hero of the Motherland, with a new fancy sniper rifle, fanmail, and slightly exaggerated rustic bona fides. They become fast friends, but Danilov also sells the heroism to a young(ish) Nikita Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins).

Two complications emerge. The first is a beautiful woman, Tania Chernova (Rachel Weisz), who can both read German and shoot, and thus bounces back and forth awkwardly between Danilov’s staff and Vassily’s band of miracle-workers. The second is a Nazi sniper, a Major König (Ed Harris), who has come all the way from Berlin to kill Vassily.

It doesn’t seem as though many saw this film, perhaps because in early 2001 it was still fashionable to imagine that we had solved the problem of war. It was particularly unpalatable at the time to consider a war in which neither side was hunky freedom-loving good guys. To be sure, Enemy at the Gates never for a moment questions that the Nazis must be stopped, but it also pulls no punches about the miseries of Soviet life–the wolf has already taken everything you love, the film tells you, but you must continue to fight.

Overlooking this movie, however, was a collective failure in judgement, because it’s rather good. It is affecting without being emotionally manipulative, unlike the vast majority of WWII movies. Everyone, particularly Hoskins and Harris, is well cast; it is difficult to believe that Ed Harris has only played a Nazi officer in one other film, as far as I can tell. You want to like Fiennes, but political officers are necessarily squirrelly. Weisz and Law are impossibly beautiful, and impossibly young, but they are carefully encrusted in dirt, so it isn’t jarring. They joke adorably about how Vassily’s crisp new uniform will probably be taken back directly after a photo-op.

Heads up, though, an entirely plausible number of people die.

Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Rating: R
Length: 131 minutes
Score: 4/5

This movie is both painfully earnest and technically bad. It’s like somebody tried to make The Young Victoria from the other side of empire but had never heard anyone have a conversation or seen a movie. The pacing is atrocious, the dialogue is heavy on exposition and light on verisimilitude, and the message clocks you in the face.

Now, lack of subtlety would be all right if it weren’t incoherent and a little insulting. Admittedly few people are particularly familiar with the circumstances around the annexation of Hawai’i. Clunky speeches and cartoonishly evil nutcases are not the answer. Historical movies exist, even movies about colonial shenanigans. Take cues from a good one; they don’t have to consist entirely of awkward monologues. And if you want to emphasize Ka’iulani’s political boldness, spend less time on her romantic life.

The storyline, such as it is, is fairly classic. Hawai’i is facing American domination, and the young princess (Q’Orianka Kilcher) finds herself being educated in England with MV5BMTY2NDcwNjM2MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTE4ODE0Mw@@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_a friend of her father’s, Theophilus Davies (Julian Glover, who presumably had poker debts). He has a son, Clive (Shaun Evans), and a daughter, Alice (Tamzin Merchant). Clive serves the excellent purpose of falling in love with Ka’iulani, standing up for her to comically stilted snobs, and then funking it when life gets tricky. Alice is there as a contrast to everyone else in England, who is horrible. Letters come at the most opportune of moments, people find their voices just when they’re about to be shouted down, Ka’iulani is so candid and kindly that people just don’t know how to deal with her… It’s like a storybook written by a moron. A sincere, well-meaning moron.

The cast does its best with the material, but that isn’t a lot. So much is left on the table–Ka’iulani died less than a year after the annexation, presumably of heartbreak. Why not include that, for real emotional weight, rather than the silly teenage soppiness? Why not spend more time with her splendid aunt, the Queen (Leo Anderson Akana)? Why not address how she’s spent most of the film away from Hawai’i, and how that might be complicated?

Director: Marc Forby
Rating: PG
Length: 97 minutes
Score: 1/5

The current trend of biography is lengthy and complicated (see “The Crown,” or “Victoria”), which is possibly admirable. If, however, you are looking for the film biography equivalent of a chocolate soufflé, look no further than The Young Victoria.

As the title suggests, this film deals only with the early, Cinderella-type years of Victoria’s life, when she falls in love and is kind of bad at being the queen, and before she gets jowly and depressing. Helpfully, Victoria’s life was peopled with engagingly cartoonish heroes and villains, and they find excellent avatars here. Victoria (Emily Blunt) is so young, and slightly too pretty, and she is liable to listen to Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) because he is handsome and she is frighteningly sheltered. Her mother (Miranda Richardson) and Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong) would like to control her, and have made a decent go of it for the first 17 years of her life. Sir John is so evil, and so delightful. He wears amazing trousers.

mv5bmtm4mjexmdk3nv5bml5banbnxkftztcwmtu3otmwmw-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_Enter Albert (Rupert Friend), who is also unbelievably young, and unbelievably Romantically German. His hair! His shirtsleeves! His awkward love of Schubert! His hilariously tolerant brother Ernest (Michiel Huisman)! Apparently Ernest was awful in real life, but here he just rolls his eyes when Albert is adorably dumb about Sir Walter Scott.

To be sure, the most interesting thing about Victoria was not her romantic life, but it makes a good feature film. She and Albert are so young, and so silly, and so in love, and so well dressed. They care just enough about the poor and about progress that you aren’t grossed out by their fake problems. You’re sad when they fight and pleased when they make up, and why can’t some dreamy moron come visit me with a pair of giant dogs?

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Rating: PG
Length: 105 minutes
Score: 5/5

So, I’m pretty sure that the impetus behind this film was that Tom Cruise saw a photo of Claus von Stauffenberg and thought, “I am doing humanity a disservice if I do not make a film about this man.” Also maybe felt that his résumé was lacking a movie where he got to thwart Nazis. Of course, he doesn’t actually get to thwart any Nazis. The Valkyrie plot failed, and nobody got to kill Hitler but Hitler, pace Quentin Tarantino.

mv5bmtg3njc2odeyn15bml5banbnxkftztcwntawmzc3na-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_Valkyrie is however a pretty good movie.  While Cruise as Stauffenberg gets to do a lot of jaw-jutting moralizing, the logistical problems–not to mention those of spinelessness–are well handled by everyone else.  Eddie Izzard (Fellgiebel) and Tom Wilkinson (Fromm) in particular waver and falter and smoke nervously in very convincing ways. Tom Hollander (Brandt) is as usual excellent in an as usual ungrateful part.

The film’s main strengths are the small things, though. A switchboard operator has to decide whether to put through the communiqué from the Wolf’s Lair or from the coup leaders, and his face eloquently says how far this is above his pay grade. Thomas Kretschmann, handsome as always and filled with ennui as the commander of a home guard division, likewise is never sure whether it’s a drill or whether the sky is falling and he should arrest Goebbels. Stauffenberg’s a.d.c. (Jamie Parker) is welcomed into the office with an offer of risky involvement in high treason and shrugs a yes. You actually watch the movements of the explosive-laden briefcase with some trepidation.

It’s not subtle. Goebbels (Harvey Friedman) and Goering (Gerhard Haase-Hindenberg) are sneering, evil cartoons. Hitler himself (David Bamber) is insufficiently mad for July of 1944, but still just awful. The ominous mass of greatcoats and jackboots hangs over the film. On the other side, Stauffenberg loves his wife, his children, and Jesus. The Stauffenberg children are relentlessly blond and play soldiers to the accompaniment of a phonograph playing Wagner and Tom Cruise’s agonized eyes. When the members of the plot are all rounded up and shot (spoiler alert!), Terence Stamp as Ludwig Beck gloriously observes, on learning that he is to be spared, that he’d like a pistol. For personal reasons.

And just in case you were wondering if it’s as hell-for-leather awesome as Tom Cruise movies usually are: he is blown up not once but twice within the first six minutes and then has to wear an eyepatch.

Director: Bryan Singer
Rating: PG-13
Length: 121 minutes
Score: 4/5

Tcheky Karyo makes every movie about nine thousand percent better, and this is no exception. Between Karyo and Jason Isaacs chewing scenery, you are almost able to forget about Mel Gibson’s painful earnestness.

Look, you definitely think this movie is stupid and refried Braveheart. You are not wrong. But this movie is also tremendous, because somehow all the emotional beats hit, and also America is awesome.

Which is what it comes down to. The plot is silly, and the romances are unremarkable, and the Brits are ludicrously cartoonish, and Donal Logue recovering from his terminal racism is almost insulting, but…I cry every time Susan speaks to Benjamin, and I love America.

Stray observations:

  • Just…shoot him again, Gabriel. Don’t be dumb.
  • Can someone just make a supercut of all of Jean Villeneuve’s sick burns and mic drops? “I want accuracy and precision!” “If I die, I will die well dressed.”
  • Chris Cooper doesn’t lack for knives in the gut either.

Director: Roland Emmerich
Rating: PG-13
Length: 165 minutes
Score: 1,000,000/5

I really liked the novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and Hilary Mantel (their author) was one of the writers for the show, so it is perhaps unsurprising that I enjoyed the show a great deal. It is told (as the book also) from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, whose meteoric rise from vomiting on a Putney street to the court of Henry is the backdrop against which all this happens. We manage to follow events with which we are familiar (Katherine of Aragon will be divorced, Anne Boleyn will be be beheaded) with a certain amount of suspense.

So I’ve also seen all of “The Tudors,” which was rollicking good fun, if also absurd and superfluous. As I have said a million times: Henry VIII was a man who married six women AND had a world-changing fight with the Pope. It’s not strictly necessary to add ludicrous extraneous shagging.

And maybe “Wolf Hall” errs in the other direction, a little bit. Everything is dark, things are only intermittently explained (usually using Thomas Brodie Sangster as Cromwell’s slightly backward ward Rafe), and nothing is overstated. Still, that was most of the charm of the novels, so it’s unfair to complain about it in the series.

It is beautifully produced. Costumes are gorgeous and careful, artificial light is limited, meals are archaically choreographed. Mark Rylance (Cromwell) is excellent, though perhaps slightly too calm. Damian Lewis (Henry) seems to revel in an uncharacteristically petulant and unattractive part, and Anton Lesser also seems to enjoy playing Thomas More as a snake. Claire Foy (Anne) is slightly weak–just hateful, with no touch of humanity, even just before her execution.

This series is a capable adaptation of a pair of excellent novels. It’ll be a little slow for some, and the pacing is unpredictable, but this is in aid of mimicking the chaotic, uncertain nature of Cromwell’s real life. He himself is implausibly humane, but it’s important to have a rooting interest, and it doesn’t really bother you. I actually kept rooting for him to get laid, and was very cross at Mary Boleyn (Charity Wakefield, apparently condemned to flighty parts forever) for toying with him.

Director: Peter Kosminsky
Rating: R-ish?  Only for the swearing.
Length: 360 minutes
Score: 4/5

Twitter blurb: Tudor moodiness, but with way less sex and violence than usual. Thomas More is your villain, Henry still isn’t fat. Anne Boleyn? The worst.

Well, this is a German film, so people are silent and naked and nothing is explained at all.

Beloved Sisters made me feel like reading The Blue Flower did, to wit: am I the only person in the world not obsessed with German romanticism, or is everyone else just as confused? Where even is Jena?

Friedrich Schiller (Florian Stetter) is poor but brilliant, and incipiently consumptive, because he’s a poet. He has a penchant for unfortunate liaisons. Inevitably, therefore, he manages to fall in love with both daughters in a noble but reduced family–Charlotte (Henriette Confurius) and Caroline (Hannah Herzsprung). The twist? They have sworn an oath to share everything, and also Caroline is married. Eventually he marries Charlotte and insanity ensues, but slowly and for the most part quietly.

It’s not much, plot-wise, and most of it seems to have been made up out of whole cloth. There’s no one to root for–Charlotte is long-suffering, but too weak to be appealing; Caroline is awful; Schiller needs to be kicked. That said, it’s a beautiful movie, and the mood-setting is exceptional.

That’s not a lot to say about a long and fairly well-made film about which I had feelings. But my feelings were very amorphous–I kept hoping for something to happen, and then it sort of did, but it was probably the opposite of what I thought I wanted. It really felt like it was trying desperately hard to place the genius of Schiller on an earthly plane, but could never quite escape the essentially bourgeois character of his actual life. Here’s a hint: if you’re going to make things up, go full fantasy.  Don’t make us watch him eat breakfast, just show us attacks of TB and moody staring.

Stray notes:

  • It’s not clear to me why we only ever saw the back of Goethe’s head (I think).  This is not a Jesus in Ben Hur kind of situation, and surely Goethe is no more distinctive than Schiller (I say this as someone who grew up with a bust of Schiller in her house, though, for some reason).
  • Seriously, Charlotte. Grow a spine.

Director: Dominik Graf
Rating: In America, definitely R.
Length: An almost tedious 138 min.
Score: 3/5.

Well, this certainly represents a swing back in the conventional wisdom about Winston Churchill. I, at least, was taught that he was a dangerous hothead who was responsible for the pointless slaughter of thousands of Dominion soldiers, and, while he did turn out to be right about the Nazi menace and was a splendid wartime PM, skepticism about his opinion of the German re-armament in the 30s was reasonable because of his past track record of war-mongering bloodlust.

In this, we learn that until Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, Churchill was rather hoping they wouldn’t, that he loved his wife very much and she him, that he was an admirable battalion commander when he was sacked and sent to the trenches, and that he was largely responsible for the development and effective use of basically every kind of mechanized weaponry or transport. Even the end-tag observes in an adulatory way that whatever setbacks he encountered in the Great War merely meant that he was able with energy and experience to face the challenges of WWII.

To be sure, this documentary addresses his arrogance and ability to put people off, but only to counteract that with tales of his surprising efficacy as a fairly junior officer, or his stellar efforts in reforming munitions factories, or a tender note to his wife when she writes rather worriedly. Even Gallipoli, the bugbear of his life, passes by in a couple grainy photos of presumably antipodean troops looking slightly nonplussed. The number of Allied dead in that catastrophe is mentioned some minutes later, when the narrative has largely moved on. Of course, this isn’t a film about the Dardanelles campaign, but, when you speak of Churchill’s WWI, it should perhaps loom a little bit larger. You could leave out the bit where your (much too handsome) actor, in his natty Glengarry cap, impresses his Scots fusiliers by standing on the firing step of his trench without a thought for his own safety.

The interviewees are an interesting bunch–a few professors of history, of course, but also some amazing war technology boffins, as well as a former officer in the Grenadiers, who had incisive remarks about Churchill’s time at the front. It was intriguing to see the range of ways of speaking that they had.


  • Churchill’s French shrapnel helmet might be my new favorite thing.
  • Look at photos of David Lloyd-George in 1914 and then in 1918. Oof.
  • Blenheim Palace seems nice. Also, I hope you like looking at paintings of the first Duke of Marlborough.

Director: Adam Kemp
Rating: NR
Length: 94 min.
Score: 3/5.

Again, BBC miniseries, and narrated by Tamsin Greig, so, hooray, Tamsin Greig! This one is a documentary, and as documentaries go it’s fine, although it has one glaring problem.

It purports to tell you about how the childhoods and childhood rivalries of the King, the Kaiser, and the Czar were largely responsible for the Great War. That’s how it opens. How it closes, however, is with a shrug. “This would almost certainly have happened anyway,” it seems to say, “and maybe it wouldn’t have if the Kaiser hadn’t been so unloved and so unlovable. But he was, and a bunch of other things were also going on, so Europe definitely blew up.”

If you’re looking to be enlightened, then, don’t bother. If, on the other hand, you are looking for royal home videos or photos of the Romanov children with the Kaiser on holiday and wearing mutinous expressions, you’re in luck.


  • An extremely sad observation is made: if Czar Nicholas II had been king of England, he might have been all right. He was an admirable family man and disliked politics, and he looked good in naval uniform. His autocratic tendencies would have been irrelevant. Instead, of course, he was Czar of Russia, and ended up murdered in a basement by drunken Bolsheviks.
  • The Kaiser experimented endlessly with mustache curvature. Not one experiment was successful.

Director: Richard Sanders
Rating: NR?
Length: 122 min.
Score: 2/5. Some nice archival work; not much else.

Properly, 37 Days is a mini-series, but it was shown as a film at my local cinema, so I will treat it as such. Made by the BBC to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, it shows the behind-the-scenes action in the days between the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife (28 June 1914) and the declaration of war by Britain (4 August 1914).

It is narrated by two civil servants, one British and one German, both of whom feel themselves outsiders in their spheres, the Briton because he is a scholarship boy and the German because he is a liberal. One might expect, because of this putatively disinterested pose, because it purports to show both sides, and because after all it is a full century since hostilities broke out, that this series would be largely even-handed.

It is not. The Kaiser is deformed, mustachioed, and deranged, an overgrown boy with tin soldiers and mad eyes. His chief of staff is fat, loud, and war-mongering. His chancellor, though not a cartoon, has no qualms about picking on Serbia, and only those of prudence about picking on France. Everyone in government already talks with the pride of the Teutonic race. The Austrians are effete, degenerate, and ridiculous; the poor old emperor practically has cobwebs growing on his muttonchops. I suppose the allies do not fare too much better: the Czar is but briefly seen, being unkind to his unfortunate small son; the French ambassador is actually described as much too Gallic, and lives up to this accusation; the Belgian king, unfairly, looks merely old. The Dominions are not consulted.

All the war-mongering in Britain is of course pushed on to Winston Churchill’s already sloping shoulders. The Cabinet otherwise is absolved of any guilt. Asquith, the Prime Minister, is weary, Sir Edward Grey is well-meaning but both misled (by the unscrupulous Kaiser and his minions) and overwhelmed, Lloyd-George is principled, and various others resign in protest.

To its credit, this series does portray what must have been a critical period as both progressing logically and spinning out of all control, as old men in frock coats struggle to maintain their grasp on their own careers and their world-views. Both sides of the argument for war are articulated well in Cabinet. Lord Morley (played ably if perhaps a bit Scottishly by Bill Paterson) gives his reasons for reluctance, the human cost to the nation chief among them. Sir Edward Grey (in an unusually sympathetic rôle for Ian McDiarmid) replies with a cogent repudiation of isolation and pacifism: no British deaths, perhaps, but is that not cowardice in the face of such a conflagration; moreover, how can Britain deal with Europe after the conflict?

Otherwise, it is an attractive, though characteristically BBC, production. The costumes are fine but unremarkable (except the Austrian ambassador’s absurd neck-something–I hesitate to give it any of the names I know for such garments); the backgrounds are real and carefully shot, to show only sky and the Brandenburg Gate, for instance. Pensive yet suspenseful violins are the order of the day. Every elderly British actor is shoved into a dark coat, every unknown young one is pushed into shirtsleeves and stuck behind stacks of paper. Sinéad Cusack does nobly as Mrs. Asquith, a knowing and perfectly-dressed figure. The Germans are less familiar but you will recognize their faces from various other thankless parts in American and British films about the twentieth century.

Stray observations:

  • “Britain is not protected by the Channel; she is protected by the Navy.”
  • The cricket match in the park, during which Sir Edward has a serious conversation with the staggeringly urbane German ambassador Prince Lichnowsky, was just beautiful. Certainly it was shot to show what was at stake, the soon-to-be-exploded peace, but it was also simply gorgeous.
  • There is much, slightly heavy-handed, dramatic and other irony. The Germans mock the French for retreating 10 kilometers from the border so as not to provoke conflict: just getting in their practice, a joke we have all told a hundred times. There is a crack made that perhaps the Belgians would fire one shot and then line the roads as the Germans marched through. They did not.

Director: Justin Hardy
Rating: NR
Length: something not too far under three hours
Score: 3/5. Competent but not exceptional.