The Battle at Lake Changjin II / Water Gate Bridge (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

A raw visceral cinematic experience. After defeating superior American forces at Lake Changjin at the start of the Korean War, Chinese soldiers must prevent their retreat – and the arrival of reinforcements – by blowing up the Watergate Bridge in a blizzard. The bitter winter conditions, making it impossible to see more than a few yards ahead as the troops cross a mountain, freeze their weapons, compass and radio batteries. The assault is uphill over exposed ground.

This is non-stop battle told from the perspective of the grunts. Exposition regarding characters is minimal. That first hour or so in most Hollywood war movies where little happens except to build tension between participants and explore romantic elements is eliminated here. It’s all battle, beginning, middle and end, with no respite, brutal, bloody, horrific. The Americans have tanks, flamethrowers  and airpower, the Chinese don’t, so they are strafed, burned and blown up.

Setting aside politics and propaganda, and the questions of historical accuracy that haunt all war pictures, this is the most extraordinary on-the-ground combat as the Chinese seek to employ various strategies against another superior force, knowing U.S. reinforcements are on their way, and the defending Americans seek to suck them into a trap.  The fighting is intense, sacrifice the order of the day.

Best performances are delivered by brothers Wu Qiangli (Wu Jing), commander of the seventh company, and the undisciplined Wu Wanli (Jackson Lee) who grows up during battle. While emotions are necessarily reined in, no time for showboating here, intensity of feelings are still revealed, several wordless scenes between disparate characters show everything with just the eyes. As with all war pictures, comradeship under fire is all that matters, the connections between the band of brothers no less applicable here than when  William Shakespeare invented the phrase.

Like the best war films, strategy is vital. Here, the Chinese employ a variety of diversionary tactics while attempting to destroy key American positions, the HQ, the pump room. There are some brilliant battlefield observations. The Chinese work out the Americans have positioned their forces twenty meters apart because in between are their military supplies, so these are also targeted via mortar rounds. But basically it is scrapping for position inch by inch.

And this is not a film devoid of irony. Using captured American weapons, the Chinese, unable to read English, fire an ineffective piece of artillery against a tank. Seizing the HQ, the Chinese, unable to speak English, ask for the commanding office while the Americans, unable to speak Chinese and intent on surrender, respond they are unarmed, the matter resolved by an explosion. A flamethrower burning to death a wounded soldier melts the ice sufficiently for his companion to slide downhill to safety. And there are rare bursts of humour, one soldier preferring to chew “plastic” – captured chewing gum – in preference to beans so frozen they could chip your teeth.

This is as much a picture about the effect of war, and special effects show the impact of not just the destructive power but the energy imparted by exploding bombs, the part played in dismembering soldiers by the metal and stone of the defences, the flamethrowers that turn men from walking one minute to charred skeletons the next.

There are occasional cuts to the American high command, General Douglas Macarthur (James Filbird) attempts to persuade President Truman (Ben Z. Orenstein) to use the atom bomb. The Americans are not shown as idiots and there’s no upbraiding of their society and there is, among the carnage, at least one American hero in Bradley Bixler (Rudy van Gelderen). And there’s none of the bombastic or poetic influence of Apocalypse Now (1979) or The Thin Red Line (1998), no attempt to glamorize war, except of course that for the victors victory is always unforgettable. But the cost here is easily measured, the mortality rate enormous, at least two-thirds of the attackers died in the assault and in one company, out of 137 men involved, only one man was left standing.

I never saw the first film so I’ve no idea how this compares, but generally that movie got poor reviews, I guess as much to do with political stances as anything else. I suspect this picture will get as derisory a stack of reviews and, without taking sides, that would be unfair from a cinematic perspective because this is a wholly immersive encounter, with some brilliant action direction and stunning visuals in the main by Tsui Hark (The Taking of Tiger Mountain, 2104) with some assistance from the uncredited Kaige Chen (Farewell My Concubine, 1993) and Dante Lam (The Stool Pigeon, 2010).   

This is what comes of being an inveterate moviegoer and on those weeks when you have seen virtually everything else worthwhile on offer and still want to go to a movie, you end up seeing anything. Usually, this turns out to be some bedraggled horror picture or a lame rom-com like Marry Me (2022) but occasionally it means that you stumble across something exceptional.

The 355 (2022) *** – Seen at the Cinema

Serviceable actioner but proof that if you don’t have a star big enough to front  a shoot-‘em-up then sticking in another three – or four – actresses of equal, middling, or up-and-coming, status won’t do the trick, not if the characters lack the originality of a Bourne or Bryan Mills (Taken, 2008). There’s plenty of bang for your buck, but the story hangs on the old trope of an electronic device that can blackout the world.

I am not sure why Jessica Chastain has never become a bigger box office star. She certainly has the kudos – two Oscar nominationss – and is not shy of taking on difficult subjects (Miss Sloane, 2016) and she’s certainly enjoyed the occasionally leg-up from a series (The Huntsman: Winter’s War, 2015; It Chapter Two, 2019) to boost her box office credentials. But her last venture into the action arena (Ava, 2020) was a box office flop, though possibly you could put the blame on the pandemic. By my count she has been the top-billed star (excluding her X-Men appearance) in her last eight pictures and none have been a hit.

Her presence in the credits would encourage me to stump up my money at the box office but apparently I am in the minority. I could say the same about Penelope Cruz (Parallel Mothers, 2021), the second biggest star here, and while she certainly retains top-billed status in her native Spain, otherwise she is occasionally a female lead but more likely a supporting player.

If I had been putting my money on anyone to take the action box office by storm it would be Diane Kruger who has the meanest stare this side of Lee Van Cleef. But she’s gone down this route to no commercial response before in The Operative (2019) and The Infiltrator (2016), neither fulfilling the promise she showed in Liam Neeson crackerjack Unknown (2011). Bingbing Fan, (Cell Phone 2, 2019) another X-Men alumni, has only recently achieved box office success, but in limited markets. Mexican Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o – here billed fourth and sporting a British accent – may well have the biggest fan base of the lot having clocked up appearances in three Star Wars pictures, taken top billing in Us (209) and third billing in Black Panther (2018).

But back to our story. On the run from the C.I.A. Mace (Jessica Chastain) teams up with Marie (Diane Kruger), a loner working for the German secret service, and Khadjiah (Lupito Nyong-o), a digital wizard formerly of the British secret service. Bing, who turns up later, represents the Chinese good guys. Graciela (Penelope Cruz) is the rank outsider, a therapist just caught up in the shenanigans. The action rattles through Paris en route to Marrakesh before a final stop in Shanghai. As you might expect, traitors lurk in various corners.

There are plenty shootouts and opportunities for the team to show off their hand-to-hand skills, but the action is slowed down by soap opera, having to spell out all the backstories of the principals, only one of whom, Marie, has anything worth listening to. Far be it for me to complain about too much emotion, but it took us over a dozen movies to learn anything significant about James Bond’s past, Bourne had no idea who he was, and at the other end of the scale Bryan Mills was so emotionally driven from the outset it formed the film’s core. Here, emotional quandary pops up when convenient. A bit of mystery would have helped more and cut a good 15 minutes off an overlong playing time.

As to the title, that is the only thing that is kept hidden to the end and when the revelation is made you realize it won’t mean a damn thing to the vast majority of the audience. As an origin story, I doubt the current box office receipts are sufficient to spawn future episodes. Which is a shame because having dumped all the emotional baggage in this picture, the characters could have focused more straightforwardly on action and story in the next.

The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968) ****

Thought-provoking drama with a surprisingly contemporary slant set against the grandeur of the Vatican amid geo-political turmoil. At a time of global crisis, dissident Russian archbishop Lakotov (Anthony Quinn) is unexpectedly freed from a labour camp by the Russian premier (Laurence Olivier). Arriving at the Vatican, he is promoted to cardinal by the dying Pope (John Gielgud) before becoming an unexpected contender for Papal office.

The spectacular wealth of the Catholic Church is contrasted with the spectacular poverty of China, on the brink of starvation due to trade sanctions by the United States, nuclear war a potential outcome. The political ideology of Marxism is compared to the equally strict Christian doctrine, of which Lakotov’s friend Father Telemond (Oskar Werner) has fallen foul. There is a sub-plot so mild it scarcely justifies the term concerning television reporter George Faber (David Janssen) torn between wife Ruth (Barbara Jefford) and younger lover Chiara (Rosemary Dexter).

Lakotov is drawn into the Russian-Chinese-American conflict and the battle for the philosophical heart of the Christian faith while bringing personal succour to the lovelorn and performing the only modern miracle easily within his power, which could place the Church in jeopardy, while condemned to the solitariness of his position.

The political and philosophical problems addressed by the picture, which was set 20 years in the future, are just as relevant now. The film’s premise, of course, while intriguing, defies logic and although the climax has a touch of the Hollywood about it nonetheless it follows an argument which has split the Church from time immemorial.

You would not have considered this an obvious candidate for the big-budget 70mm widescreen roadshow treatment, but MGM, after the Church not surprisingly refused access to the Vatican, spent millions of dollars on fabulous sets, including the Sistine Chapel. The roadshow version of the picture, complete with introductory musical overture and an entr’acte at the intermission, is leisurely and absorbing, held together by a stunning – and vastly under-rated – performance by Anthony Quinn (The Lost Command, 1966) who has abandoned his usual bombastic screen persona in pursuit of genuine humility and yet faces his moments when he questions his own faith.

Ruth has a pivotal role in bringing Lakotov down to earth but George has the thankless task, setting aside the quandaries of his love life, of talking the audience through the sacred ceremonies unfolding sumptuously on screen as the cardinals bury one Pope and elect another.

You wouldn’t think, either, that Hollywood could find room in such a big-budget picture for philosophical discussion but questions not only of the existence of God but whether he has abandoned Earth are given considerable scope, as are discussions about Marxism and practical solutions to eternal problems. None of these arguments are particularly new but are given a fair hearing. There is a hint of the Inquisition about the “trial” Telemond faces. Oskar Werner (Interlude, 1968) carries off a difficult role.

David Janssen (Warning Shot, 1967) is mere window dressing and Rosemary Dexter (House of Cards, 1968) mostly decorative but Barbara Jefford (Ulysses, 1967) is good as the wounded wife. Laurence Olivier (Khartoum, 1966) is the pick of the sterling supporting cast which included John Gielgud (Becket, 1964), Burt Kwouk (The Brides of Fu Manchu, 1966), Vittorio de Sica (It Happened in Naples, 1960), Leo McKern (Assignment K, 1968), Frank Finlay (A Study in Terror, 1965), Niall McGinnis (The Viking Queen, 1967) and Clive Revill (Fathom, 1967). In a small role was Isa Miranda, the “Italian Marlene Dietrich,” who had made her name in Max Ophuls Everybody’s Woman (1934) and enjoyed Hollywood success in films like Hotel Imperial (1939) opposite Ray Milland.

Michael Anderson (Operation Crossbow, 1965) directed with some panache from a script by veteran John Patrick (The World of Suzie Wong, 1960) and Scottish novelist James Kennaway (Tunes of Glory, 1960) based on the Morris West bestseller.

I found the whole enterprise totally engrossing, partly because I did not know what to expect, partly through Anderson’s faultless direction, partly it has to be said by the glorious backdrop of the Vatican and the intricacy of the various rites, but mostly from the revelatory Quinn performance. And even if the plot is hardly taut, not in the James Bond clock-ticking class, it still all holds together very well. From the fact that it was a big flop at the time both with the public and the critics, I had expected a stinker and was very pleasantly surprised.

55 Days at Peking (1963) ***

Imperialism is hard to stomach these days but at the start of the twentieth century it was rampant and as shown in this picture not just restricted to the main culprit, the British. China was Imperialism Central, round about a dozen nations including the USA and Russia claiming control of sections of the country or its produce. So they had all set up diplomatic shop in Peking. And the film begins with an early morning roll call of national anthems before this domination by outside interests in shattered by rebellion.

Just as hard to stomach, of course, was the movie mainstream notion in those days that all rebellions must perforce be put down regardless of how put-upon the peasant classes were. Audiences had to rally round people in other circumstances they would naturally hate. So one of the problems of 55 Days at Peking is to cast the rebels (known as Boxers) and the complicit Chinese government in a bad light while ensuring that those under siege are not seen as cast-iron saints. There’s no getting round the fact that the rebels are shown as prone to butchery and slaughter while the Chinese rulers are considered ineffective and traitorous.

Producer Samuel Bronston built his Peking set on a 250-acre site at a ranch 16 miles from Madrid, Spain, near the foot of the Sierra Guadarrama mountains. To ensure authenticity, a canal was enlarged to supply 15,000 gallons of water a day from a specially-prepared reservoir holding half a million gallons. Over 1.3 million feet of tubular steel – all the scaffolding available in Madrid, Barcelona, Seville and Valencia – was used in the set construction.

So it’s left to the likes of Charlton Heston as the leader of U.S. Marines stationed in the city to bring some balance to proceedings. “Don’t get the idea you’re better than these people because they can’t speak English,” he expounds. David Niven plays the British Consul trying to keep this particular league of nations onside while negotiating with one hand tied behind his back – “we must play this game by Chinese rules” – with the Chinese Dowager Empress (Flora Robson) while knowingly endangering his wife (Scottish actress Elizabeth Sellars, a one-time big British star) and two children. Ava Gardner is an unscrupulous Russian baroness with little loyalty to her home country.

To ensure journalists provided authentic coverage of the siege, press materials included a copy of the detailed map printed in the Saturday October 13, 1900, edition of British daily newspaper “The Times” and its account of the action. Producer Samuel Bronston claimed that some of the costumes worn by Flora Robson in her role as the Dowager Empress were actual ones worn by the empress and purchased from an Italian family who had connections in the Italian embassy during the siege.

The picture is one-part action, one-part politics and one-part domesticity, if you include in the last section Heston’s romance with Gardner, Niven’s guilt when his son is wounded in an attack and Heston’s conflict over a young native girl (Lynne Sue Moon) fathered by one of his own men who is then killed. Two of the best scenes are these men coping with parental obligation, Niven coping with a wounded son, Heston finding it impossible to offer succour to the child.

The action is extremely well-handled. The siege goes on longer than expected when the expected troops fail to arrive, tension rising as casualties mount and supplies fall low. As with the best battle pictures, clever maneuvers save the day. Two sections are outstanding. The first has Heston marshalling artillery to prevent the Chinese gaining the high ground. The second is a daring raid – Niven’s idea, actually – through the city’s sewers on the enemy’s ammunition dump. Personal heroism is limited – Heston volunteers to go 70 miles through enemy territory to get help but has to turn back when his men are wounded or killed.

The film was not released in 70mm roadshow in the United States as originally planned but like “El Cid” went straight into general release in a 35mm version. but it was seen in 70mm in Europe. Among suggested promotional activities were a “guess-the-flag” competition since 11 nations were involved. The tie-ins included a Corgi paperback, the original soundtrack by Dmitri Tiomkin and four singles – Andy Williams singing the theme song “So Little Time,” The Brothers Four with “55 Days at Peking” (also recorded by Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen) and Tommy Riley with “Peking Theme.”

There’s a fair bit of stiff upper lip but while Heston, in familiar chest-baring mode, has Gardner to distract him, Niven is both clever, constantly having to outwit the opposition and hold the other diplomats together, and humane, drawn into desperation at the prospect of his comatose son dying without ever having visited England.  Gardner moves from seducer to sly traitorous devil to angel of mercy, shifting out of her beautiful outfits and glamorous hats to don a nurse’s uniform, at the same time as shifting her outlook from selfish to unselfish. All three stars acquit themselves well as does Flora Robson in a thankless role.

This was the third of maverick producer Samuel Bronston’s big-budget epics after King of Kings (1961) and El Cid (1961) with a script as usual from Philip Yordan and directed by Nicholas Ray.

All in all it is a decent film and does not get bogged down in politics and the characters do come alive but at the back of your mind you can’t help thinking this is the wrong mindset, in retrospect, for the basis of a picture.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. This one I noticed is available on YouTube at the point where I was reviewing it. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

Genghis Khan (1965) ****

Hollywood was never reined in by the strictures of history, much preferring fiction to fact for dramatic effect, and that’s largely the case here, although the titular hero’s real life remains shrouded in myth.

If you do catch this surprisingly good feature, make sure it’s not one of the many pan-and-scan atrocities on the market. I watched this in the proper Panavision ratio which meant it occupied only one-third of my television screen, but in that format it’s terrific. It’s a bit of an anomaly for a decade that churned out high-class historical epics like El Cid (1961) because this clocks in about a hour short of other films in the genre and there’s no star actor or director to speak of and no Yakima Canutt to handle the second unit action scenes.

Omar Sharif’s marquee value at this point was so low that if you check out any of the original posters you’ll note that his name hardly rates a mention and he also comes at the very end of the opening screen credits. Although this is post-Lawrence of Arabia (1962), it’s pre-Doctor Zhivago (1965), suggesting nobody had a clue how to market his talents.

Director Henry Levin was a journeyman, fifty films under his belt, best known for not a great deal except for, following this, the second and third in the Matt Helm spy series. Given this film was critically ignored on release and since, and a flop to boot, it definitely falls into the “Worth a Look” category. Although there are few stand-out scenes of the artistic variety such as pepper Lawrence of Arabia or El Cid, this is still well put together and Levin shows an aptitude for the widescreen.

The narrative breaks down into three parts – the first section describing Sharif’s enslavement by nemesis Stephen Boyd (the picture’s star according to poster and screen credits) before banding together rival tribes in revolt, the second part a long trek to China, and the third encompassing a final battle and hand-to-hand combat with Boyd. For a two-hour picture it has tremendous sweep, not just the scenery and the battle scenes, but political intrigue, romance, a rape scene and even clever comedy. Sharif is excellent as a leader who believes his glory is predestined, but who has very modern ideas about the role of women.

The best section, oddly enough, is set in China where Sharif engages in a duel of wits with Robert Morley’s distinctively contradictory emperor, but that’s not to detract from the film’s other qualities, the action brilliantly handled, especially the chaos of battle, the romance touching, and the dialogue intelligent and often epigrammatic. Unlike James Mason who makes a calamitous attempt at a Chinese accent, Morley, costume apart, looks as if he has just walked out of an English country house, but his plummy tones belie a very believable character. Telly Savalas and Woody Strode have decent parts as Sharif’s sidekicks, the former unexpectedly bearing the brunt of the film’s comedy. French actress Francoise Dorleac is effective as Sharif’s wife.

Hitchcock stole one of his most famous ideas from Genghis Khan. About the only scene in Torn Curtain (1966) to receive universal praise was a killing carried out to a soundtrack of nothing more than the grunts of assailant and victim. But, here, where the score by Yugoslavian composer Dusan Radic was extensively employed, the rape scene is silent and just as stunning. If the only prints widely available are of the pan-and-scan variety I’m not surprised the film has been for so long overlooked, but if you can get hold of one in the preferred format you will be in for a surprise.      

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