Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Johnny Got His Gun

Directed by Dalton Trumbo
The United States of America

Editor’s Note: About two months ago I came to the realization that the vast majority of films that I have featured on this site were American. I swore to myself that for the next three months, or 12 reviews, I would review only non-English speaking films. I kept this promise to myself for six weeks. However, I feel obligated to break this agreement with myself, as I have recently found an American film that I am nearly desperate to share with you all.

There are certain images that stick with you as a film-goer. Whether it’s King Kong swatting at airplanes from the top of the Empire State building or Antonius Block’s game of chess with Death, movies have provided some of the most endearing and memorable scenes and images over the past century. And from these, the war genre is one of the chief providers of moments and scenes that penetrate our subconsciouses. The scenes are almost too numerous to count: Paul Bäumer reaching for the butterfly, Elias reaching his arms to the sky as he is gunned down, Charlie Company, 2nd Ranger Battalion storming the beaches at Normandy, Sir William Wallace leading the charge at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. They are visceral, exciting, and graphic. They push the boundaries of both cinematic technique and what audiences are willing to tolerate. And yet, there is another war film that never gets mentioned anymore. It also creates one of the most haunting images in the war genre…but it doesn’t have any gore. There isn’t any swearing or graphic violence. The image is of a broken man, lying on a hospital mattress that he will never leave. He is not so much a man as a shell, trapped in a destroyed body that will be his prison for the rest of his days. This is the true face of war. This is the reality of Johnny Got His Gun.

His name was Joe Bonham…or at least it used to be. Before the war he had a family, a young sweetheart, and a full life ahead of him. Now, he is a nameless patient in an Army hospital. Ordered on one of the last days of World War One on pointless and suicidal mission (to bury the body of a dead soldier who was stinking up the trenches in the middle of No Man’s Land), Bonham was hit point-blank with an artillery shell. That lifeless hunk of metal robbed Joe of his arms, his legs, his eyes, his ears, his nose, and cruelest of all, his mouth. Unable to communicate his name and with all possible means of identification eliminated, Joe has become a nobody; a hunk of red meat perpetually trapped to drift between consciousness and his imagination.

It isn’t long before Joe can sense when people are near him. He can feel the vibrations of footsteps, the touch of nurses changing his bandages, and the cold touch of the doctors. Because of his inability to communicate, he is unable to beg for mercy when they stitch up his arms and legs, permanently transforming him into a caricature of humanity. When he twitches about to get the attention of the orderlies, he is diagnosed as suffering from a seizure and is promptly drugged back into a state of hallucinogenic stupor.

In his dreams he finds refuge and sadistic reminders of the life that he once had and the life that has been stolen. He dreams of his last night with Kareen, his girl, where they peel off their clothes and nervously crawl into bed together, both terrified and exhilarated of their first and last physical communion. He dreams of his childhood when his father tells him that it is the young man’s job to die during war. Why can’t it be the older men who start them, he asks. The father has no answer. He dreams of Jesus, shepherding a fresh batch of dead soldiers onto a train bound for God knows where. The soldiers ask why Joe is allowed on, as he is still alive. Jesus puts his hand on Joe’s shoulder, bears a grim smile, and answers that he’s okay. And in one of the film’s most devastating scenes, he dreams that Jesus is the conductor of the train, hanging out the engine window and bellowing in a cry of frustration, pain, and anguish at his task that melts into the sound of the train whistle.

After a period of sustained sensory deprivation, the brain will start to fire wildly and desperately create images and sensations to occupy itself with. So for poor Joe, who has been stripped of his senses, soon there is little to no difference between what is real and what is a figment of his imagination. The only beacon of sanity that he finds is the touch of a kindly nurse who eventually figures out that he is conscious. She removes the bandages from his chest and slowly starts to write letters with her fingers on his broken body. First an “M.” Then an “E,” followed by an “R.” Then another “R.” He slowly spells out the message: Y-C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S. That’s it! It’s Christmas Day! His soul swells with refrains from abandoned carols and hymns as he desperately nods what remains of his head. Merry Christmas, nurse! God bless you! God bless you!

And what’s this? Other doctors have begun to notice his movements are not random spasms! Joe starts to spell out “S-O-S” in Morse code on his pillow. Miraculously, they start to respond. One wonders what a man who has been trapped within his own body would want to say first after such an ordeal. Joe has one request: to be taken around the country in a glass case so that people will learn about the horrors of war. But no…the officer in charge can’t allow that. It would be bad for morale. People might actually think that the army isn’t as glorious as it is said to be. Joe’s request is denied. And so, Joe is left with one final option. He starts to furiously spell out “Kill me. Kill me. Kill me.”

The army’s response to Joe’s desperate appeal is shocking in its cruelty. The ending is one of the most heartbreaking and enraging conclusions possible. It is a testament to the blind-headedness that plunged the world into the two worst wars in human history where false pretenses of honor and good sportsmanship by the armed elite spelled death for countless young men and women.

Johnny Got His Gun
was directed by Dalton Trumbo, a two-time Academy Award winning screenwriter and member of the Hollywood Ten, a group of film industry professionals who were blacklisted due to their refusal to testify before the House Un-American Activites Committeee (HUAC) in 1947 for supposed Communist influences. Working largely from exile, Trumbo accrued a massive body of published screenplays. His films included Gun Crazy (1950), Roman Holiday (1953), The Brave One (1956), and Spartacus (1960). Johnny Got His Gun was based off his own novel of the same name published in 1939. Based off the ordeal of a real life Canadian soldier, the book was a massive success, gaining the attention of left wing and anti-war circles.

Dalton Trumbo

But for all of its brilliance, Johnny Got His Gun is not without its flaws. The film has some serious pacing issues, particularly in the second act, where the plot comes to a grinding halt in order to explore the depths of Joe’s hallucinations. Also, every now and again the audience is beset by a poor line reading that could have benefited from additional takes. Most of this can probably be explained to Trumbo’s directorial inexperience. He never quite seems to understand that in the cinema, it is more important to show, rather than merely tell. All of these criticisms can best be summarized by explaining that the film feels like Trumbo was more concerned with putting a literal translation of his book on the silver screen instead of interpreting the story in a manner that best suits the cinematic, and therefore visual, idiom.

But for its roughness, Johnny Got His Gun is one of the most powerful anti-war films ever made. More and more these days, I find myself willingly shying away from using such absolutes as “the best ever” or “the finest example of.” Such claims seem dishonest and can suggest a lack of film-going experience. But I don’t hesitate to use such language here. Johnny Got His Gun is a gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, and soul-shattering film. It has almost no gore or combat footage, and yet it stands tall with other anti war films like Paths of Glory (1957) and The Deer Hunter (1978). It forces the audience to confront the true face of war: a bandaged, bloody mess of wasted dreams, potential, and lives.

And in case you are wondering, no, they never do show what Joe looks like under his bandages. Some would ask why? I would respond, would it matter?

The following is  Metallica's One, a song directly inspired by the film and its book.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

La Prise de Pouvoir par Louis XIV (The Taking of Power by Louis XIV)

Directed by Roberto Rossellini

In the lavish dining room at Versailles, a royal assembly of nobles and servants gather in chilled anticipation. Clothed with the most extravagant formal wear of the latest styles, they attend one of the day’s most important ceremonies: King Louis XIV’s dinner. Upon entering the room, the nobles evaporate into a hushed crowd. They bow and curtsy with the greatest pomp and circumstance, all in the hopes of garnering recognition by the Sun King. To the assembled aristocracy, a single glance or nod was enough to cement their status as a favored servant to the king. Silently, they watch the king sit alone at a massive table where he begins to eat, picking individual morsels with his right hand, having expressed disdain at the use of forks. With great pomp, individual foods and courses are presented to the king. At last, the main course, a magnificent suckling pig, is brought before the king. But the king’s doctor cuts in, expressing reservations with the presented pork. With a word, the culinary masterpiece is spirited away from the table. Not a word is spoken at the great waste. Such is the privilege and divine right of the king. After the meal, the king retires to his chamber. Servants progress through the palace to announce that the king has begun his “setting.” The day has ended, the Sun King has settled into night.

Such are the scenes that populate Roberto Rossellini’s late masterpiece The Taking of Power by Louis XIV. A slow, pensive, and strangely hypnotizing drama, Rossellini captures the rise of one of Europe’s greatest monarchs and the power that he wielded over his court. It follows Louis as a young man who is thrust into greatness when his adviser, Cardinal Mazarin, dies, leaving him as the successor to the French throne. Rossellini watches with a detached, yet absorbed camera as Louis outwits his power-hungry other and court nobles by centralizing power at his palace at Versailles. Before our very eyes, the meek and timid young man transforms into one of the most powerful rulers in Europe.

Rossellini, who rose to prominence in the 1940s and 1950s as the man who singlehandedly invented the Italian Neo-Realist film movement with such films as Rome, Open City (1945) and Germany, Year Zero (1948), demonstrates his passion for history in this magnificent recreation of court life and culture. The shift in his style and agenda concerning filmmaking may take most by surprise. The entire concept of shooting a film about French royalty seems to be the polar opposite of what Rossellini tried to accomplish with his early career. But the truth is that by the 1960s, Rossellini had grown tired, and even contemptuous, of modern cinema. In 1962, he held a press conference in a Rome bookstore where he announced that the cinema was dead. He declared that, “I intend to retire from film and dedicate myself to television, in order to be able to reexamine everything from the beginning in full liberty, in order to rerun mankind’s path in search of truth.”

And so Rossellini started a second career of historical dramas for television. Between 1962 and 1977, he made a massive 42 historical films. These films focused frequently on major historical figures, such as the Apostles, philosophers, and great leaders. Perhaps due to the disorienting disconnect with his earlier, more popular career as a Neorealist, this body of work has been largely neglected and forgotten. But indeed, it represents one of the most fruitful eras in one of the cinema’s greatest minds. In addition to being superior films in their own right, they reflected Rossellini’s new mission statement of educating the masses through cinema. Therefore, they were painstakingly created to be as historically accurate as possible. Many of these films seem to transcend their origin as costumed dramas and become literal windows into the past. Of these films, The Taking of Power by Louis XIV is one of the greatest and most fascinating.

True to Rossellini’s Neorealist roots, the star of his film was not played by a professional actor, but instead an office clerk named Jean-Marie Patte. Having never acted in front of a camera before, Patte was terrified throughout filming, so much so that he was never able to learn his lines and had to have them held up on boards for him to read. The result was a strange effect where Patte never actually looks at his fellow actors during conversations since he was too busy looking at his lines. As such, Louis maintains an air of perpetual detachment from the reality of court life and the political machinations that secured his throne. Rossellini seizes upon this by portraying Louis as a man so certain in his pursuit of power that he does not even have to try, feeling confident in his divine right to rule.

Many might question Rossellini’s decision to focus solely on Louis’s life at Versailles. After all, is this not the man responsible for France’s position as the leading European power throughout his reign? What of his leadership through three major European wars? What of his financial reforms that turned the nearly bankrupt nation into one of the world’s wealthiest? They are either briefly touched upon or never mentioned. What is of more importance to Rossellini is how Louis maintained an iron fist over the French aristocracy by forcing them to live at Versailles and clamor for his attention and approval. For a noble living at Versailles, the only way to maintain their pensions and privileges was to wait on Louis. As such, men who had previously lorded over massive domains of the French countryside found themselves cleaning the king’s chamber pot and helping him dress in the morning. The true genius to this system of aristocratic servitude was that they were so absorbed with court life, the latest styles, and waiting on the king that they had no time to wage war with each other and possibly plot resistance to royal authority. The result was that Louis centralized power on himself, allowing his reforms to take greater effect since they were not questioned by every local member of the aristocracy. Such is the source of Louis’ famous maxim, “L'État, c'est moi.” In English, it literally translates to, “I am the state.”

And so, Rossellini recreates French court life and its traditions in great detail because they helped define Louis’ rule. And what a life it was! Rossellini shot his film on location at Versailles. So when we witness a recreation of French court life, we get a glimpse into real history. And really, what else is more befitting of the monarch who redefined Europe? The Taking of Power by Louis XIV is more than just a costumed drama; it is history come to life. Just as Rossellini captured Europe at its lowest in the wake of World War Two, he captured Europe at its height with a film that revels in ceremonies and rituals. As a lover of history, I sometimes dream of attending great historical events. For me, it isn’t enough to merely read about them, I have an aching desire to witness them. Thankfully I have Rossellini. His films are quite possibly the best doors into history that the cinema has ever provided us. What a waste it would be to not cherish them as the masterpieces that they truly are.


Saturday, February 12, 2011

鬼子來了 (Devils on the Doorstep)

Directed by Jiang Wen

The immortal Buster Keaton once said that tragedy is a close-up; comedy, a long shot. Horace Walpole put it in another perspective when he wrote that, “Life is a comedy for those who think…and a tragedy for those who feel.” Both of these great men were correct. Perspective is everything in life. If someone slips on a banana-peel and pratfalls, it might be funny to those nearby. But I guarantee you that the person who fell will have a very different opinion on the matter. Humor and tragedy are polarizing issues in that they represent opposite sides of the same coin. Most films try to pick one interpretation of their events and run with it, resulting in traditional comedies and dramas. But there are the rare occasions when filmmakers embrace both perspectives, reveling in both the intrinsic drama and absurdity of their plots. These are the black comedies.

The terms black humor is thrown around a lot these days. Originally, the term was invented by Surrealist André Breton to describe comedies where the humor was derived from cynism and skepticism. But the term has many derivatives, including black comedy. Black comedy focuses on taboo topics, in particular death, and takes a satirical look on them while maintaining a sense of seriousness. Therefore, the goal of black comedy is to cause the audience to experience laughter and discomfort at the same time. One of the most famous examples of black comedy is Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), a film that found humor in such topics as nuclear warfare and the complete extinction of life on earth.

Thirty-six years later, Chinese actor/director Jiang Wen would release a film that can only be described as Dr. Strangelove’s natural successor. The film, Devils on the Doorstep, takes place during World War Two in an occupied Chinese village named Rack-Armor Terrace. It focuses on a local peasant named Ma Dasan (played by Wen) who is confronted with a strange and dangerous dilemma. One night, someone breaks into Ma’s house and leaves two men tied in gunnysacks. Ma opens them to find a Japanese soldier and a Chinese interpreter. To his horror, the strange man, identified only as “Me,” tells him at gunpoint to keep them alive for the next few days until the eve of the Chinese New Year. During this time, Ma is additionally instructed to interrogate the two. Of course, “Me” never returns, and Ma is left with two prisoners in a town patrolled every day by the Japanese Imperial Army.

The two prisoners, Japanese sergeant Kosaburo Hanaya and the Chinese interpreter Dong Hanchen, are a source of great strife for the villagers. Hanaya is a jingoistic Japanese imperialist who yells that he will rape the village’s women and kill their men. He begs his captors for an honorable death and tries to convince Dong to teach him how to insult their captors’ ancestors. Dong, terrified and fearful for his life, instead teaches Hanaya a series of cheerful greetings. When Hanaya screams “Happy New Year” over and over again to Ma and his lover Yu’er, the confused couple asks Dong why he is so polite yet yelling. “Oh, that’s how the Japanese always are. They scream when they say thank you.” When Ma and Yu’er leave, Hanaya bewilderedly asks Dong why they acted so happily. Dong replies, “Oh, they’re Chinese. Even if they get offended, they act polite.”

And therein lays one of the central dynamics of the film. Not only can both sides be duped by imaginary cultural stereotypes made up by Dong, they are readily willing to accept them. While humorous, it betrays deep-seated racist stereotypes, i.e. that the Chinese literally believe the Japanese to be perpetually angry demons and that the Japanese believe the Chinese to be weak-willed, overly polite inferiors. Therein lays the black humor. We laugh at their misunderstandings. But if we take a step back and look at the big picture, it becomes frightening how revealing these reactions are.

Days turn to weeks and weeks to months as still there is no sign of “Me.” Soon, the villagers grow tired of taking care of the two and conspire to kill them. They draw lots and Ma is chosen to kill them. But instead of killing them, he hides them in a watchtower of the Great Wall which borders the village. Eventually, the villagers discover Ma’s duplicity and force him to return them to a nearby Japanese encampment. They figure that as a reward for their protection of the two soldiers, they should be given two cartfuls of grain. And so a delegation from the village escorts them to the camp. Hanaya tearfully reports for duty but is immediately beaten savagely by his superior officers. It turns out that the two were thought to be dead. As a result, Hanaya was revered as a hero by both his unit and his village back home. By returning alive, he has disgraced and dishonored his unit. Oh, the sweet, merciless irony…

Warning: The following paragraph contains spoilers.

From here, the plot twists through a series of unfortunate events and tragic misunderstandings that lead ultimately to the destruction of the village, the murder of the villagers by the Japanese army, and the death of Ma. Time and again Hanaya is saved from achieving his honorable death. First, he is disgraced by his officers. Then, he is stopped from committing hara-kiri when they discover that Japan has officially surrendered. He ends the film another bewildered P.O.W. In the film’s last scene, he is tasked with executing Ma as punishment for his murder of two Japanese soldiers. That is the final irony: he must execute the man responsible for his survival.

And so we are confronted with a film that not only exploits sensitive topics and subjects; it revels in them. And Jiang Wen paid the price for his genius. Although the film opened at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival and ultimately won the Grand Prix (the second place prize behind the illustrious Golden Palm), it was banned in its native China by the Chinese Film Bureau. Both the Chinese censors and the Japanese producers balked at such ideas as showing Japanese soldiers killing Chinese civilians and Chinese people as backwards and gullible. Reportedly, the Chinese Film Bureau dispatched men to Cannes in an attempt to block its premiere and seize the film’s negative.

And yet, despite all of the controversy surrounding its depiction of the Japanese occupation of China and the reaction of the local peasants, Jiang insists that he film isn’t anti-Japanese or anti-Chinese. Jiang claims that the film was meant to highlight the human instinct to blame and punish others for disasters and misfortunes. And certainly, the film achieves that end. And it accomplishes so much more. Viewed from afar, the events reach such absurd and ironic depths that it is impossible to laugh. And yet, that inner voice in the back of our minds reminds us that these things may have happened to real people. The story is fictional, but the actions of the Japanese against Chinese civilians and vice versa are based in reality. If anything, the film is a plea for understanding. But you know what? I don’t think most people will appreciate that. I think that they will have too much trouble deciding whether or not to laugh or cry at the last scene.


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Europa Europa

Directed by Agnieszka Holland

The more and more that I watch films with an eye for critical analysis, the more and more I become convinced that there is one primary factor that makes or breaks a movie. It isn’t the director, although a good one helps. There have been legions of one-hit wonders who have made one or two films that were well received (and in some cases considered classics) only to lounge in painful mediocrity for the remainder of their careers. And, even more tragic, there are countless examples of great filmmakers making terrible films. It isn’t the actors. After all, how many times have we scratched our heads and wondered why talentless hacks make $20 million a movie. It isn’t the special effects, the writing, the editing, or even the post-production. No, I am convinced that above all the most crucial element in a great movie is the story.

I have seen countless art films that were artistically bold, experimental, and daring that completely bored me and left me dispassionate. On the other hand, I have seen films with literally hundreds of millions worth of special effects that have left me bored. If a film has a great story with characters that we care about, the audience is more than willing to excuse minor technical problems like a stumbled line or a messy transition.

Every now and then, moviegoers are treated to a film with a story so incredible and fantastic that it does more than just entertain them, it stays with them forever. But these stories are rare and hard to come by. The truly great stranger than fiction stories are fleeting specters that filmmakers dream about. Solomon Perel’s story is one of these. Born in Lower Saxony in Germany, he was a survivor of the Holocaust. That alone is enough to guarantee a special story. But Perel’s is unique even among the annals of Holocaust stories. For while Jewish, he survived the Holocaust by masquerading as an ethnic German, going so far as to join the Hitler Youth and serve as a German soldier. His is a story of survival. His is a story that defies logic, chance, and even credibility. And yet, it is true. Depicted in the film Europa Europa, Perel’s story towers as one of the greatest tales to ever grace the war genre.

The very first sequence of the film is Perel’s circumcision. As the rabbis circle around the baby boy, the viewer is struck by the poignancy of the event. In one swift moment, Perel is forever marked as a member of the Tribe of Israel, a mark that will always set him apart from the ethnic Germans that he hides among. Time and again throughout the film, Perel’s circumcision proves a devastating hindrance, forcing him to avoid doctor’s exams, to shower by himself, and try painful (and ultimately futile) attempts to stretch his foreskin back. But this is more than just a physical dilemma, as it speaks to the very heart of the film: the conflict between Perel’s identity.

Director Agnieszka Holland could have made Perel a stock sympathetic victim. But instead he transforms him into a deep, conflicted character. Throughout the film, his identity is in a constant state of flux. At first, he is a German Jew living with his family. After the events of the Kristallnacht where his sister is killed, he is separated from his family when they flee to Poland. He is placed in a Soviet orphanage in Grodno where he swiftly learns Russian and joins the Komsomol. For a time, he is a model youthful Communist. But after the orphanage is attacked during Operation Barbarossa, he is arrested by German soldiers. He manages to convince them that he is a member of a German-speaking minority living outside Germany and can serve as a Russian-German translator.

Thanks to his efforts, the Germans are able to identify and arrest Yakov Dzhugashvili, Stalin’s son. Lauded as a hero, he makes new friends among the very people who attacked his family. But after several of them are killed in an attack, he tries to desert to the Soviet side. But his actions are mistaken as bravery as they lead to the surrender of a German platoon. At this point in the film, it’s difficult to say who Perel is. A Jew? A Communist? A Nazi? The simplest answer is simply a survivor, willing to join whoever will help him survive and maybe see his family again one day. Morality doesn’t even come into play.

He is then shipped off to an elite school for the Hitler Youth where he becomes one of the star pupils. He falls in love with Leni, a young German teenager who is a fierce supporter of Hitler. Several times she tries to seduce him, but Perel is forced to reject her advances, lest his circumcision reveal him. But he doesn’t officially leave her until they have a tense standoff when they discover a desecrated Jewish graveyard.

Around this time, Perel starts to have hallucinations of his family. He starts to long for the ability to express himself as a Jew. Slowly, the urge to belong overrides the urge to survive. And herein we see the total transformation of Perel. In the beginning, he was more than happy to abandon his faith and culture for the Atheistic teachings of Communism and the Anti-Semitism of the Hitler Youth. But as his conscious weighs down on him, the guilt surrounding his survival overpowers him.

As a survivor, the end of Perel’s tale is appropriately heartwarming and victorious. But the last shot of the film may be the most important. It shows the real Solomon Perel, now wizened with age, singing a Jewish folk song while overlooking a lake. Finally, he has come to understand who he truly is: Solomon Perel.

It may be difficult to believe in the validity of Solomon Perel’s story. It is filled with too many coincidences for it to seem believable. And yet, Perel’s survival proves otherwise. Some may call it a miracle; evidence of the existence of a higher power. Others will say that he was lucky and it was by pure luck and chance that he survived. I don’t think either explanation gives Perel enough credit. He truly was a survivor. Thankfully, he survived long enough to discover who he truly was. We the audience should feel glad. Firstly, we should be thankful for every survivor of that horrific tragedy. But second, we should feel thankful that such stories can forever be preserved by the power of cinema.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Out sick

Sorry guys...but I'm out sick.

For those of you lucky enough to be living outside the US right now...you should know that we are currently experiencing one of our worst winters in recent history.


And I've gotten sick...YET AGAIN.

I'll post the review as soon as possible...maybe even tomorrow...

But no promises....