Action, Classics, English Movies

The Dirty Dozen directed by Robert Aldrich

dirty-dozen-titles1 Now, this is a movie that is usually first heard of before being seen, such is the iconic fame of this movie…

I approached this movie with some trepidation since with such famous movies, the expectations built up can spoil the experience of enjoying the small things in the story. Another problem with the classics is that many of the assumptions of the era (racial, ethnic etc) can be galling to the modern viewer.

My fears were unfounded however. Other than the fact that the Germans were cardboard in characterization (a common flaw in movies that is being corrected only now), the movie had the feel of a good action thriller with a quirky humour of its own. And it nothing galling about it, thankfully.

The story of  group of criminals given a chance of freedom in return for a mission has been repeated in its various avatars over the years. But the premise still retains its charm. A dozen of hard, gruff men (including an impossibly young Donald Sutherland) forced to get together by a maverick army captain; bonding together to form a band of brothers going out on a mission that was considered suicidal – this is a story that retains its freshness and excitement no matter how manyDirtyDozen2 times you portray it.

The story progresses quickly – right from the offer made to the condemned men, the training, the baptism by fire and the final mission. The bonding that happens between the wildly different men is shown naturally without any artificial constructs. The mission itself was pretty thrilling even though you argue on some of the obvious flaws in the assumptions in the execution of the final plan.

Another good thing about the movie was that there was no holier than thou attitude that western movies tended to take of the World War with respect to Germans. The movie never went preachy. Instead, it was obvious that for the condemned men, it was the US army that was the enemy. The Germans were remote and just a mission. This is refreshing especially from a movie from that era. There is a tacit understanding that every army is pretty much the same. It just depends which side you happen to be born in.

the_dirty_dozen However, for all that its worth, there is a problem with the depth of characterization. Many of the characters seemed only slightly better than two-dimensional with the result that you fail to connect with them properly. You don’t get to know them well enough to become a complete part of the proceedings. And this surely had nothing to do with the era. I got the feeling that more effort was made to manage the huge cast and to develop the storyline and the action than to develop the characters. The result is that movie is intensely enjoyable in most part but you just get the feeling that you got cheated on the emotional front. You just could not feel enough for the characters. Maybe that is a bit too much to ask for. But then for movies this famous, you do want it all, don’t you?!


Drama, English Movies, Satire

Jarhead directed by Sam Mendes

jarhead A movie that is more in the spirit of ‘Apocalypse Now’ than say ‘Saving Private Ryan’ –in fact, a sequence of the former movie is shown within the movie itself. The best scenes, the most savage scenes of this movie are the ones in which there is no fighting going on…the hell that war is, is brought out by the silent memorials to violence, the intense boredom punctuated by self-destructive behaviour, the fact that soldiers are obvious pawns in larger geo-politic games, the burning oil wells that gets us close to a vision of hell on earth. Perhaps the most emblematic scene in the whole movie is when at the end, when war is declared over, Jake Gyllenhaal says with in a rueful voice “And I didn’t get to fire my gun once”.

There are many ways in which you can watch this movie. At many levels, this is an anti-war movie. the pointlessness of the war and its violence is brought out powerfully. The effect that a gung-ho, macho culture inculcated in the marines, has on their perspective (especially their blood-lust) is another indication of the anti-war theme. The scenes of the civilian massacre and the scene of the corpse and the horse amidst the burning oil wells are terrifying in their power to kill the sense of that anyone can have regarding the ‘glory’ of war.

At another level, however, this is a movie about the psychological effect that the war has on men fighting it. Operating in a Kafkaesque world, they undergo behaviour changes, show signs of nascent insanity and constantly fight depression against their helplessjarhead-20051104113257330-000ness exacerbated by the breakdown of their personal relationships (and some of the breakdowns can be pretty brutal). You get a sense of their world as you  absorb the environment in the movie.

The good thing about the movie is that you don’t get bored. The movie intelligently provides the other view of the war – a war that is fought more by politicians than by soldiers, where a marine is a mere pawn to be moved across a vast desert chessboard…

A powerful movie with no over the top dialogues or scenes. The dialogues in fact are minimal which tends to increase the effect of the environment.

The feeling that you are left with in the end is captured perfectly by the voice over of Jake Gyllenhaal at the end – “all wars are different, all wars are the same”

Book Review, Classics, Fiction, Historical

Johnny got his Gun written by Dalton Trumbo


Very few books can make everything around you irrelevant except the words that you read. This for me, is one of them.

I sincerely believe that this is one of the most important books of our times and the surprising thing is that so few people seem to have heard of it, let alone read it. I believe that this book tells us more about the tragedies of the last century in particular and of the way we live in general. I also believe that this book is a terrifying reminder of all that we keep conveniently forgetting.

The general perception among the lay reader is that the best and most important anti-war novel to come out of world war I is “All quiet on the western front” by Erich Maria Remarque. I believed that until I read this. It has a terrifying and a savage power that almost gets you by the throat at times, when its words probe deep into the reader’s mind and psychology. Its words tear at you and embed themselves deep and wakes you up completely from whatever sort of slumber you have been in.

This book is about Joe Bonham, who is the narrator of this novel. A foot soldier in World War I, he wakes up in a hospital bed and realizes that he is deaf. He is miserable but then realizes that he could have been worse. Slowly however, he begins to realize, to his terror, that he has become a living dead (which becomes for him an unique platform to have his ‘say’). He has not only lost his hearing ability, he has lost his arms, his legs, and his face has become a hole without a nose, mouth, eyes – just a forehead. An impossible case, as he himself admits but which has become true nevertheless…

And therein begins the story. Completely helpless and unable to communicate at all to the outside world, Joe begins to try and resurrect himself, try and find ways to cope. For example, he is unable to do something that we are take as an implicit – keep track of time, which he realizes is the backbone of keeping one’s sanity. After multiple failed attempts, he finally dawns upon an ingenious solution to keep time – with the only sense he has left, through his skin.

As he begins to create his own universe, we also begin to discover Joe, as we go along with him as he remembers the events of his short life – his father, mother, siblings, friends and some of the women in his life especially Kareen – the woman he loved and whom he left behind when he went to fight the great war. Each part and member of his life is remembered in different episodes and across time – from his childhood to late adolescent. We go through his ups and downs as he grapples with his world just like anyone else – with heartbreaks, joys, sorrows and finding love. Which brings into contrast the cruelty with which his life was brought to a crashing halt – all the more cruel since due to his condition, he could not be identified and so it was unlikely that his family, friends or Kareen ever knew he was alive.

While he thinks about his life, he also begins to think (which by his own admission is all that he can do really) and slowly develops a philosophy (which he wants, at the end, unsuccessfully, to share with the world) about what is most important to an individual (the part which more than anything makes it an important anti-war book). He also becomes aware of his unique position – he is one who has, in many ways, come back from the dead and he realizes that he can tell the world a thing or two of truth that no-one can tell.

The book ends with him making a superhuman effort in coming up with a way in which he can communicate to the outside world only to be thwarted in his attempt to get his message across to the world (and what he wants to say to the world makes for some chilling reading and for me, was the best part of the book). He is thwarted, he realizes, by a world that is afraid of what he can say and the truth of what he wants to say. Its a world that needs to lie for things to go on….

The book is extraordinary in that it combines the personal and political beautifully. The passages about his life are poignant, especially his parting with Kareen and when he remembers the rituals at home at Christmas. The passages about his developing philosophy is one of the most stirring cries for sanity that I have read in a long long time.

The whole book hammers through you as you read it. And when you have read it through, the book’s words simmer long after you have closed the covers. For me, it is one of the rare category of books that change a part of your life’s philosophy and something that becomes a part of you; one of those books whose words come back to you when you are doing something completely different…


Drama, English Movies, Thriller

And starring Pancho Villa as himself directed by Bruce Beresford

And-Starring-Pancho-Villa-As-Himself.jpg This is a fascinating movie that is steeped in history. But history buffs and non-buffs alike will find this movie engrossing and engaging because it not only portrays an exciting time in early 20th century history but is also a commentary on the role of media in changing the course of history. The fact that ‘Lens is mightier than the sword’ is proved by the movie set at a time when the power of the lens was just being felt on the world.

The story is all the more interesting because its true – Pancho Villa allowed an American movie company (Mutual Film Company) to film battles in real time (because he needed money to finance the revolution) so that it could be made into a movie, which it was – called “Life of General Villa”, a movie that changed the public opinion of Villa and prevented an invasion of Mexico by US army. The story is about the shooting of the movie in the midst of a revolution and the relationships between the people caught up in it, in relation to each other and especially in relation to Villa.

The movie’s another attraction is that it features some fascinating characters from history – other than Pancho Villa himself, there is John Reed, D W Griffith and lots of silent movie actors.

But the main attraction by far is Pancho Villa himself. He was known to486px-Pancho_villa_horseback be a multidimensional man – a military genius whose methods were studies by the US army, a charming man who held whole populations in thrall, an uncle giving candy to children, a ladies man, a Robin Hood who robbed lands to distribute it to the poor, a selfless patriot who wanted to liberate Mexico but not usurp power for himself and a man who can be a ruthless executioner when the time comes. All in all, an engrossingly complex character which the tide of history throws up at times like those…

And Antonio Banderas, I felt, played the role very well. The complexities of the man was brought out well. Both his emotional side and his cold calculating mind were both portrayed perfectly.

Another good thing I liked was that the movie did not take liberties with historical facts except in simplifying it (The revolution was infinitely more complex of course). That is a refreshing change…

I saw a part of the movie when I was working with Cognizant in Kolkata, missing a part of the morning hours due to this!!! And I have been searching for this since then…The full movie did not disappoint me, in fact I would count it among one of my favourite movies…

Viva Villa!!!