We explore Come and See, a 1985 Soviet film whose reputation precedes it – it’s regarded as one of the greatest war films of all time. In 1943 Belarus, a young teenager, Flyora, joins the resistance, but as he travels from village to village across Nazi-occupied Belarus, experiencing worsening horrors and atrocities brought upon the locals, the extent to which he is out of his depth gradually becomes clearer and clearer.
Part of Come and See‘s reputation is of being hard to watch, something we both take issue with – it goes to some deeply unpleasant places, but it’s a gradual descent rather than an onslaught. That the film is regarded as such a trial has likely caused some filmgoers to unnecessarily avoid an experience that they would value. While it depicts shocking imagery and events, it’s shot with an ethical eye – everything that’s shown has a purpose, and that which would be excessively prurient is often avoided.
We also consider the use of supernatural and fairytale aesthetics to place us in the mind of an innocent teenager, and the repeated portrait photography that shows the deepening scars the film’s events leave upon him. We also discuss the film’s view of Hitler and how it espouses a kind of great man theory in placing him as an icon at the centre of the Nazis’ crimes, and the explosion of audiovisual imagination that is the final scene.
Come and See is a beautifully made expression of the hideous costs of war on the innocent, and on our humanity. It’s imaginative, intelligent, moving and shocking, and, we might add, beautifully restored. If you’ve avoided it on the basis of its notoriety, we urge you to reconsider. It’s truly great.
Spike Lee’s latest joint sees four US Army veterans, the Bloods, return to their former battlefields in Vietnam in search of two things: the body of their fallen comrade and leader, Stormin’ Norman, and a cache of gold bars, intended during the war to pay the Lahu people for their help fighting the Viet Cong, but taken and buried by the Bloods for themselves. Set in the modern day, exploring the history of black oppression and racism in the USA, and released on Netflix among a backdrop of Black Lives Matter protests around the world, Da 5 Bloods could hardly be more relevant. But is it successful?
No, argues José. Spike Lee is in full-on propagandist, pamphleteer mode here, delivering lessons about racism and class, warfare and imperialism, black martyrs and heroes, but inartfully and clunkily. Although his direct address is striking and powerful, the Rambo-esque action adventure story to which it’s married lacks imagination and intelligence, and really functions only as a frame from which to hang the film’s essays. Its representation of the Vietnamese is at best crude and even arrogant, a scene with a man selling oranges and chickens particularly egregious, and its characters are thinly drawn, their relationships and development unsatisfying. Mike argues for one or two things he likes, particularly the way in which Stormin’ Norman is integrated into the story and the flashbacks to the war are put together, but ultimately cannot but agree with José’s disappointment.
Da 5 Bloods is an overpraised film that promises more than it delivers. But someone has finally managed to make a Vietnam film without using “Fortunate Son”, so there’s that.
An event movie sold as much on its behind-the-scenes technical challenges as its story and genre, 1917 uses invisibly stitched long takes to convey the experiential fluidity of an overnight mission in World War I France, wherein two soldiers must hand deliver a message to the British front line to call off an offensive that will play into a German ambush. Mike is suspicious of films that market their filmmaking; José dislikes the work of director Sam Mendes.
So it’s with some relief that 1917 really rather impresses us. It’s a beautiful film, evocative of both the human cost of war and pastoral serenity of the landscape in which it takes place. Its symbolism, something José derides as overly simple and obvious in Mendes’ work, here functions quite well (if similarly unsubtly); its supporting cast of British and Irish stars is used well, Mark Strong and Richard Madden in particular shining during their brief scenes. And we consider the film’s similarities to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, a similarly expensive war epic about avoiding disaster, rather than boasting of success.
Comparisons to Apocalypse Now and Lord of the Flies are inescapable in Alejandro Landes’ captivating Monos, about a group of teenage soldiers, stationed on a Colombian mountaintop, whose relationships and leadership break down during a descent into the jungle.
We think about its central imagery, Mike arguing that one image above all speaks for the film as a whole, and its allegorical qualities, José considering the character of the American hostage and the impact of American foreign policy and cultural influence on these kids’ mentalities and environment. Mike suggests that the engrossing experience of watching the film may outshine its thematic substance, but nonetheless we highly recommend it and urge you to see it at a cinema if you can.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
Francis Ford Coppola’s classic 1979 war epic, once renovated already in 2001’s Redux, now sees a second altered version, restored in 4K from the original negative, 40 years since it first came out – Apocalypse Now: Final Cut. And what an extraordinary film it remains. José has endless praise for the genius work of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro – this film defines painting with light – and in the cinema it visually dazzles, iconic, bold imagery in every frame. The scale of Coppola’s production still amazes, particularly in those early scenes with Robert Duvall’s manaical Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore orchestrating helicopters, napalm, infantry, smoke, music and surfers to insane, theatrical effect. And in its long fades between images, superimposing almost abstract compositions over one another, José feels the influence of the avant garde and marvels at what was possible in that era.
Marlon Brando’s famous role as Kurtz at the end is shorter than José recalls, in part because the French plantation segment, not present in the theatrical cut, shortens it proportionally; in part because the film focuses on him as the target of Willard’s mission from the start, giving him ample time to settle in our minds; but mostly because Kurtz is so iconic, Brando investing him with such gravity and Coppola shooting and editing him with such care and confidence, that he defines our lasting impression of the film. Even when we finally reach him, far along the Nùng river, he still takes as long as he wishes to emerge from the shadows.
Mike finds issue with the film’s depiction of Vietnam, suggesting that in the film’s determination to adhere to Heart of Darkness, the 1899 Joseph Conrad novella on which it is based, it presents an inaccurate and problematic view of Vietnam as uncivilised, its people savages – but is quick to accept that such inaccuracies are far from unique to Apocalypse Now, and José argues that the USA found it impossible to deal with its loss in Vietnam. Mike also queries Willard’s motivations, asking what drives him and what his aim is, suggesting that alongside the psychological damage it wreaks, the film depicts an attractive aspect to war, a desire for it.
There’s no question that Apocalypse Now is a masterpiece of cinema. On the small screen one can appreciate its beauty and madness – on the cinema screen, one feels it. If and when it comes around, you cannot miss it.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
See below for about a billion screenshots Mike took this morning in his own manic episode. Some relate to things we discuss in the podcast, others are chosen for.. any other reason you’d care to mention. They’re just incredible images.
Commemorating the centenary of the First World War, Peter Jackson was approached by 14-18 NOW and the Imperial War Museum to make use of their extensive archive of wartime footage. He responded to the call by performing significant alterations to it, including colourisation and conversion to 3D, hoping to present it afresh and help modern audiences feel closer to the war it documents. It’s been a controversial project, surrounded by much commentary on its ethics, but after all the hype and chin-stroking, They Shall Not Grow Old – even the title of which has been edited to suit modern syntax – is finally here.
Those ethical questions occupy a good deal of our attention, justifiably so, but we find there’s a good deal more to consider about the film too. Perhaps unusually for a First World War film, it eschews entirely any discussion of the political background to the war or criticism – even mention – of the top brass, instead focusing entirely on the experience, in quite general terms, of the British soldiers. Narrated entirely by some 114 different servicemen, their commentary drawn from BBC and IWM interviews, Jackson builds a portrait of a mindset of the salt-of-the-earth Tommy, keen to go to war at a tender age, open to new experience, happy to do as he’s told and get on with his job under terrible, and terrifying, circumstances. It’s a portrait that leaves out at least as much as it includes, and the question of how choices were made as to what footage and audio was included from the archives made available to Jackson is arguably more pressing, and certainly less clear, than that of why the footage was altered in the ways it was.
We grapple with all sort of these issues and touch on several more, particularly the traditional, unfair, untruthful, and insidious permission the film gives English audiences to believe we won the war without help – an issue that angers José, a Canadian, and rightly so. Mike also picks up on a couple of moments that struck him as of particular relevance in the age of Brexit, though that’s also because it’s a topic he can be relied upon to bring up at a moment’s notice.
As to those pesky ethics, we come away, despite some fair criticisms, a little milquetoast on the subject. Mike has a bigger issue with the quality of the alterations than the justification, finding them genuinely unpleasant to look at for the most part, but suggests that the modifications have been so extensive that the footage has been transformed into something qualitatively different, that to take the film seriously as a document would be an act of madness. José, rather more simply, sees value in the work, pointing out how it allows us to pick out aspects of scenes, and particularly faces, more easily, and allowing a more visceral closeness to the environments depicted than we might otherwise have.
All in all, as long as the original black and white film remains extant and publicly available, and provided that, when used as teaching material, the conceptualisation and production of They Shall Not Grow Old is included as a matter for classroom discussion, we’re not convinced that the film is a bad idea.
Below are links to a few blog entries and reviews we mentioned in the podcast, from Lawrence Napper and Pamela Hutchinson.