The Unbeliever (1918)

 

the unbeliever 1918 film review

My viewing of this film coincided with finishing film historian Charles Musser’s Before the Nickelodeon – Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company. It’s one of the last films released by the Edison company before Edison, who once dominated the American film industry, washed his hands of the movie business. The book details how competitive the business was from the very beginning and the often unscrupulous business tactics employed by Edison and his legal team. It also traces Porter’s life and career with an emphasis on his years with Edison. His 1903 film The Great Train Robbery was one of the most groundbreaking and popular films of its time but by 1908 his films were harshly criticized for being difficult to understand and not adopting the editing techniques employed by D.W. Griffith, who worked for Edison’s chief rival amongst American film producers, the Biograph company. Porter and Edison parted ways in 1909 but that wasn’t the end of Porter’s career. His success with the Rex Motion Picture Manufacturing Company, which he co-founded, restored his reputation. It eventually became the Universal Film Manufacturing Company. While still at Rex, Porter formed the Famous Players Film Company, which became the first studio to regularly release feature length films and Porter even directed Mary Pickford’s first feature length film, A Good Little Devil (1914). The Edison company, on the other hand, was more concerned about cutting costs than box office success. By the time they got around to making feature films, like The Unbeliever, Edison felt it would be too expensive to reorganize the company in order to keep up with the competition.

The Unbeliever was directed by Alan Crosland, who is best known as the director of The Jazz Singer (1927) and its cast includes Erich von Stroheim playing, you guessed it, a sadistic German officer. In the 1910’s there was a backlash against the American film industry led by religious and moral groups. Since that time, Edison, concerned about his legacy, made it a policy that the films he produced should be wholesome and moralizing. Thus this film, though it is a typical WWI American propaganda film with some exciting battle scenes, really uses the war as a backdrop for the story of a wealthy young atheist who finds God, love, and loses his sense of class distinction. In addition to YouTube, this film is available on disc four of the DVD set Edison – The Invention of the Movies: 1891-1918 with a piano score and a few comments from film scholars which precede the film.

★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ (6/10)

The Unbeliever at imdb.com

Halls of Montezuma (1951)

halls of montezuma film review

“The everlasting story of the everlasting glory of the UNITED STATES MARINES!” That tagline might lead one to expect this film to be a gung-ho pro-America, pro-war film. It certainly has enough action and ‘splosions to satisfy your average war film fan but this is essentially an anti-war film. That may come as no surprise if you’ve seen one of the earliest anti-war films, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) by the same director, Lewis Milestone. The story takes place during WWII where a company of Marines have landed on a Japanese held island in the Pacific. As they advance inland the Japanese launch an unrelenting rocket attack and the combined US forces are unable to locate the rocket base. Richard Widmark stars as Lt. Anderson who is tasked with capturing Japanese prisoners in order to get information from them about the rocket base. The quest to solve this mystery, which involves an understanding of the Japanese psyche and a bit of luck, forms the main story arc of the film but along the way we get to know some of the main characters through occasional flashbacks to their lives before the war. Lt. Anderson was formerly a high school chemistry teacher who has developed migraine headaches due to the stress of resisting his urge to flee from combat. He relies on Doc (Karl Malden) to keep him supplied with painkillers so he can continue to function when the headaches start. Anderson knows he could use his condition to get a ticket home but war has made him bitter and he would rather die. What finally gives him hope for the future is the film’s central message which I found a tad too religious. The film was made with extensive cooperation from the United States Marine Corps and even utilized by them as a recruitment film which seems a bit odd considering its anti-war stance. And they needed recruits as the U.S. had entered the Korean War in 1950 while this film was being shot. The Navy and Marine units who appear in the film would go on to fight in Korea.

★★★★★★★☆☆☆ (7/10)

Halls of Montezuma at imdb.com

As of May, 2017, Halls of Montezuma is available to rent on DVD from ClassicFlix.com.

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

bitter tea of general yen film review

“I know it didn’t make money, but it has more real movie in it than any other I did.”

Frank Capra, who in the early 30’s desperately wanted to win an Oscar, realized that the commercial romantic comedies he had been making would never be considered by the Academy and chose to make, in Columbia studio head Harry Cohn’s words, “arty junk” that usually wins awards. Despite his cynicism, Cohn allotted a million dollars to the project, the biggest budget so far for Columbia which was still considered a Poverty Row studio.

The story of unrequited love may also have had an appeal for Capra due to the fact that he had been rejected by Barbara Stanwyck, who is the star of The Bitter Tea of General Yen, and whom he fell in love and began an affair with during the shooting of their first film together, Ladies of Leisure (1930).

This may be Capra’s and frequent collaborator, cinematographer Joseph Walker’s most visually striking film. Its bold lighting and compositions often dominated by darkness seems closer in style to Josef von Sternberg than most of Capra’s other films.

The screenplay is based on a novel by Grace Zaring Stone in which a young American missionary, Megan, confronts her own racial prejudices and notions of white supremacy when she travels to China to wed her childhood sweetheart, also a missionary. As the film opens, a group of missionaries prepare for the marriage oblivious to the pain and suffering all around them. The story is set in Shanghai in the late 20’s during the Chinese Civil War. The missionaries make condescending and derogatory remarks about the Chinese for whom they’ve come to convert to their so-called superior way of life and values. Probably a large percentage of Western film audiences in 1933 were in agreement with the sentiments of the missionary characters and though it may seem at first that the film is reinforcing racial stereotypes its real mission is to shatter those stereotypes and show that the Chinese are human beings just like everyone else.

Before the marriage can take place, Megan and her fiancé rush off the save some orphans that are in danger. In the chaos of the war they’re separated and she’s knocked unconscious. When she awakes she finds she’s been rescued/kidnapped by General Yen, a Chinese warlord. Yen is ruthless when it comes to dealing with his enemies but he behaves with Megan like a perfect gentleman. Though she rebuffs his attempts to seduce her, a dream sequence reveals that she harbors a sexual desire for the General. He manages to reveal Megan’s hypocrisy more than once. On one occasion after she states that “we’re all of one flesh and blood”, he puts his hand on hers but she quickly withdraws it.

This miscegenous aspect of the story was probably the main reason it failed at the box office. It probably couldn’t even have been made after the Hays Code went into effect the following year. In 1950 when Columbia tried to reissue the film the Production Code Administration found that the subject matter was “very questionable” and it wasn’t rereleased.

Besides the interracial love affair they also objected to the characterizations of Americans in the film. Yen’s financial advisor is an American war profiteer who is the personification of American imperialism which has always used the pretext of spreading liberty while pursuing hidden agendas. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise considering that at the time even Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) was thought to be communist propaganda by the FBI and the HUAC due to the fact that it portrayed a banker in an unfavorable light.

Capra managed to win Oscars and help Columbia on its way to becoming a major studio the following year with, ironically enough, the romantic comedy It Happened One Night. He would return to the theme of east meets west in Lost Horizon (1937) where once again the perceived superiority of the Western way of life is called into question.

★★★★★★★☆☆☆ (7/10)

The Bitter Tea of General Yen at imdb.com

As of October, 2016 The Bitter Tea of General Yen  is available to rent on DVD from ClassicFlix.com.

o.k. (1970)

o.k. 1970 film review

o.k. is Michael Verhoeven’s fourth feature film. Unlike his excellent The Nasty Girl (1990), o.k. is an experimental film undoubtedly inspired by other films from the New German Cinema. For this film that translates to a minuscule budget with a deliberate disregard for realism creating a Brechtian distancing effect. The story is based on the Incident on Hill 192, the torture, gang rape, and murder of a young Vietnamese girl by U.S. soldiers which occurred in 1966 during the Vietnam War. However, there is no mention in the film itself that it is based on real events nor any hint in the beginning of its serious subject matter. Before the story gets started the actors, out of character, introduce themselves and sort out their wardrobe. They portray American soldiers but speak German throughout the entire film while a clearing in a Bavarian forest stands in for the Vietnamese jungle. The Vietnamese girl is played by Austrian actress Eva Mattes (who has also appeared in films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog). The first half of the film is actually quite funny as the five men dig trenches, play cards, tell jokes, and tease each other. The rape and torture scenes however are graphic and disturbing. The innovative cinematography is by Igor Luther who also shot The Tin Drum (1979). Despite the unconventional approach this is a well made film including some remarkable editing and naturalistic performances. It created a controversy leading to the cancellation of the 20th Berlin International Film Festival when jury president George Stevens (director of Shane) resigned after failing to get the film removed from the festival, claiming it was anti-American. Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War (1989) is also based on the same event.

★★★★★★★☆☆☆ (7/10)

o.k.  at imdb.com

As of July, 2016 o.k. isn’t available on DVD as far as I can tell but can be streamed at rarefilmm.com.

Escape to Glory (1940)

escape to glory film review

The plot device of Grand Hotel (1932) has been copied so many times that it became known as the Grand Hotel formula or theme in which a disparate group of unrelated characters are brought together by varying circumstances in an enclosed setting. Escape to Glory, a B movie from Columbia, utilizes the formula with good results. On the eve of Britain’s declaration of war on Germany in 1939, a group of American passengers and one German professor board a British freighter bound for New York. Unknown to the passengers, the ship is also carrying a large shipment of gold. Among the group is a criminal intent on killing another passenger, a crooked district attorney who did him wrong. Tension mounts when the freighter is approached by a German U-boat. Much to the concern of the passengers, the crew unveils the ship’s hidden weapons and fire at the U-boat. After inflicting heavy damage to the freighter the U-boat submerges as a heavy fog sets in. Now the crew and passengers of the freighter must repair the damage and figure out a way to elude a torpedo attack from the Germans. It could have been a great film if Columbia had invested more money in the production. The score and the special effects are the major weaknesses. Director John Brahm would go on to direct noir classics like Hangover Square (1945) and several episodes of The Twilight Zone, one of which, Judgment Night (1959), has a plot that shares much in common with Escape to Glory.

★★★★★★★☆☆☆ (7/10)

Escape to Glory at imdb.com

As of June, 2016, Escape to Glory is available to stream at rarefilmm.com.

Michael the Brave (1970)

michael the brave film review

Considered by many to be one of the best if not the best Romanian film ever made, Michael the Brave (Mihai Viteazul) is an epic historical drama depicting the efforts of a late 16th Century Wallachian prince to unite the Romanian principalities of Wallachia, Transylvania, and Moldavia into one nation. He successfully waged war against the Ottoman Empire but his most dangerous enemies turned out to be his so-called Christian allies in Europe. The cast of thousands, courtesy the Romanian Army, makes for some impressive battle scenes. This film is only available on YouTube as far as I know which is unfortunate as I’m sure it would be visually stunning on the big screen or if it was restored for release on DVD or Blu-ray.

★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ (6/10)

Michael the Brave at imdb

 

Journey’s End (1930)

journey's end film review

R.C. Sherriff’s 1928 drama Journey’s End was based on his own experiences as an officer in WWI. It opened in London at the Apollo Theatre with James Whale directing and Laurence Olivier in the lead role. After two nights the production moved to another theatre though Colin Clive replaced Olivier who had taken a role in another play. By the end of 1929 the play was being produced around the world in English and 17 other languages. The film is James Whale’s debut as a film director and Colin Clive’s first screen appearance. Though a British production, it was filmed in Hollywood in order to take advantage of the new sound stages. The film’s theatrical origin is rather apparent as most of it takes place in an officer’s dugout and is mainly dialogue-driven. Colin’s performance as an alcoholic officer on the verge of a breakdown is somewhat overwrought. After this film both Whale and Clive remained in Hollywood and teamed up again the following year for Frankenstein. Like the character he plays in this film, Clive was a chronic alcoholic and died from complications of tuberculosis at age 37.

★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ (5/10)

Journey’s End at imdb

As of January, 2016, Journey’s End is available on YouTube:

Lāčplēsis (1930)

Lāčplēsis film review

Latvia is a European country on the Baltic Sea between Lithuania and Estonia. This film was made to commemorate the Latvian victory over the German-White Russian army on November 11, 1919. To this day Latvians celebrate November 11th as Lāčplēsis Day. The film begins with a dramatization of Lāčplēsis, a Latvian epic poem written in the 19th Century based on local legends depicting the struggle of the hero Lāčplēsis to free heroine Laimdota from the evil Black Knight. In the poem both the hero and villain drown in a river and it is said they would continue to  fight one another until Lāčplēsis defeats the Black Knight at which time Latvia will be a free nation.  The film then jumps to the 20th Century and Latvia’s struggle against occupying Russian and German forces from 1905 to 1919. The same actors who played the characters in opening section also play their character’s reincarnations in the modern story. For instance, the Black Knight becomes an evil German officer. A struggle over the possession of a magical brooch that began in the medieval story also plays a part in the modern story. Interestingly, the brooch is decorated with swastikas though this had nothing to do with Nazism as it is a symbol used by many ancient cultures. The film is silent and utilizes lighting techniques from German Expressionist cinema and editing techniques from Eisenstein. The fluid camera work and artistic compositions make this film much more visually appealing than most early sound films. However, the extreme vilification of Germans and glorification of Latvians lends a somewhat cartoonish aspect.

★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ (6/10)

Lāčplēsis at imdb

As of December, 2015, Lāčplēsis is available on YouTube but there are no English subtitles. However, a good synopsis of the plot is available at LatvianHistory.com. I found the score rather annoying and ended up turning it off and listening to other music.

Aszparuh (1981)

aszparuh film review

Released in 1981 to commemorate the 1,300th anniversary of the founding of Bulgaria, this 4½ hour epic is told from the point of view of Velisarius, a Roman, whose father, a diplomat for the Byzantine Empire, left him with the Bulgars as a kind of insurance for a treaty with the Bulgars. After his return to Constantinople twenty years later, Emperor Constantine IV, who had just suffered a defeat at the hands of the Bulgars,  orders him to write an account of the battle but with a pro-Byzantium slant saying “History is not the past itself, but what we know of the past.  Words! The whole knowledge of mankind is someone’s words!”  The film is divided into three parts, the first of which takes place in Old Great Bulgaria, a region which is now modern day Ukraine. Khan Kubrat managed to unite the semi-nomadic warrior tribes during his lifetime. He treats Velisarius as one of his own sons. Velisarius becomes very close with one of Kubrat’s five sons, Aszparuh, whom he teaches how to read and write Greek but is not allowed to speak of Christianity. Aszparuh teaches Velisarius how to ride a horse and about their religion which includes a sky deity they call Tangra. After the death of Kubrat the Bulgars split into five groups to find new land to settle in due to pressure from the Khazars, another semi-nomadic warrior tribe. Part two follows the westward migration of the faction led by Aszparuh, now Khan, and part three covers their settlement in the land that is now modern day Bulgaria, their union with the Slavs already living in the area, and the battle with Constantine’s army of 60,000. For Constantine this was not only a war to preserve and expand the empire’s territory but also a religious war, for both the Bulgars and Slavs were pagans. Even though Bulgaria eventually became a Christian nation, the film definitely takes a stance against Constantine’s crusades as evidenced by an early scene in which a member of the clergy warns the emperor that “Christ will punish you for the violence in His name!” Production values for the film are uniformly high though the sound design for the big battle scenes is a bit cheesy but perhaps the technology for recording a cast of tens of thousands on location wasn’t all that advanced in 1981. The score is well done and the acting, especially the actors playing Aszparuh and Velisarius, is very good. I felt that the third part could’ve been whittled down a bit, particularly the battle scenes which weren’t all that suspenseful and even repeated some of the same footage. There are scenes of animal cruelty which were hopefully simulated but may be disturbing to some. Overall, I feel the film is worth the time investment and would recommend it especially to those who enjoy epics, war films, and ancient history.

★★★★★★★★☆☆ (8/10)

Aszparuh at imdb

As of MArch, 2018 Aszparuh is available on YouTube overdubbed in English.

https://youtu.be/jdgmUHnaSeQ