War Stars

Then There Were Giants is a thing I picked up back when the charity shops were open. I was attracted to it because the director is Joseph Sargent and I like his THE FORBIN PROJECT and THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 a lot. It’s also shot by John A. Alonso (CHINATOWN) and I was certainly intrigued by the casting of John Lithgow, Bob Hoskins and Michael Caine as Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin.

The disc presents itself as a film, but is really a miniseries originally called World War II: When Lions Roared, an equally bad title.

It’s a product I guess of the reckless early days of HD video. It’s extremely cheap-looking. The impulse is to give a history lesson disguised as drama, with famous actors playing famous leaders, with a lot of stock footage to fill in the blanks. Splitscreen is used wildly to link the action occurring in Washington, London and Moscow. I don’t hate splitscreen but it combines with that cheap video look to create something you really can’t watch — like THE HOBBIT in Higher Frame Rate. Well, you can watch it, but only in the same way that you can gnaw your own leg off.

Lithgow is delightful as always but the show’s hagiographic approach, broadly winked at in both titles, robs Franklin D. of some useful humanity. Bob Hoskins tries hard at being Churchillian and does better than you might expect, but not well enough to make you stop seeing and hearing Bob Hoskins, and Michael Caine has never been exactly a man of a thousand voices…

He proves to be a ludicrous Stalin, I regret to say. Since Uncle Joe would have been speaking Russian, doing him in English with a Russian accent is a silly approach, but doing him Cockney would have been, I guess, unacceptable. So he tries his hand at something vaguely Russian, which blends with his undisguisable and familiar tones to summon up the shade of an East End immigrant from Sir Michael’s dim youth, and suggests that it would be lovely to see Caine play such a character, but not Stalin, whose spirit remains stubbornly unchanneled.

Sargent and Caine also did JAWS: THE REVENGE together so maybe their collaboration was jinxed. Maybe if Caine had played “Hoagie” in the JAWS sequel as Stalin, and vice versa, it would have worked better. I assure you it couldn’t be any worse.

The worst of it is, everybody’s THOUGHT about this thing. Stalin is introduced silently, to allow you to get used to the idea. Caine has noted the impassive affect Stalin presents in film footage, and mimics it accurately, his face becoming a mask, as inexpressive as his moustache. Alonso has attempted to subtly differentiate the different continents with lighting. All the good choices look bad and make the bad choices look worse. Blame it on HD, miscasting, and Rio.

The solution for this show would be at the same time easy and impossible — claw back some of the budget by hiring cheaper, less famous actors (maybe Ed Begley Jr and Jan Triska could be promoted). Spend it on celluloid and better sets: don’t waste it on stock footage, unless you have a plan as weird as HOW I WON THE WAR’s to integrate it. Go for stylisation rather than unsuccessfully attempts at authenticity (the House of Commons is basically some tables in this one). I guess they ARE attempting to achieve stylisation with the splitscreen and stock footage, but what they’re achieving is just cheapness.

Play it on empty, black sets.

Stay in closeup as much as possible. Embrace the televisual!

But the makers of this piece probably had to cast big, inappropriate actors in order to get the thing made. After all, I picked up the disc because I recognised the star names.

13 Responses to “War Stars”

  1. Simon Kane Says:

    FDR seems un-miscastable. Has anyone ever been bad as him?

  2. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Whe it comes to playing World Leaders Here’s Lithgow at his best.

  3. Sudden curiosity: Considering how often Hitler was impersonated in Allied entertainment, comedically and otherwise, did Goebbels ever counter with mock versions of any or all of the Big Three?

    High Concept: Three German comedians, who amuse Nazi elites with an act impersonating FDR, Churchill and Stalin, are pressed into service to persuade a captured eccentric scientist to turn over his Secret Weapon. The scientist conceives a lunatic scheme to “rescue” them, and their Nazi handler orders them to play along in hopes the scientist will lead them to his lab. They end up in Allied territory in time for a meeting of the REAL Big Three, fleeing Nazi assassins who think they’re the genuine article while their handler has surreal arguments with the actual leaders. Oh, and the scientist’s Secret Weapon involves a formula to transform faces …

  4. David Ehrenstein Says:

    I can easily see Emil Jannings in a Goebbels-produced parody of Churchill

  5. Has anyone ever seen Truman at Potsdam, with Ed Flanders, Jose Ferrer and John Houseman as TRuman, Staln and Churchill…
    Halliwell used to go on about how terrible Houseman’s Winston was.

  6. Houseman doesn’t seem ideal casting, no…

    There definitely were anti-British films made in Nazi Germany, but I can’t recall who was parodied. Jannings appeared in Ohm Kruger, which attacked British colonialism in South Africa.

  7. Ohm Krueger features a very mean spirited caricature of Queen Victoria, if I remember David Stewart Hull’s FILM IN THE THIRD REICH correctly.

    German films seemed to shy away from contemporary politics in any depth, probably because it would be too easy to accidentally make the wrong point. Plus the newsreels and radio were probably better at responding to whatever the current party line was, with less risk of things changing before they were released (like Kohlberg falling to the Allies before a film of the same name could be released)

  8. Plus Goebbels, who might have made a successful studio head under other circumstances, felt that movies should be primarily entertaining, lightweight, and propaganda content was better applied subtly in that form, with Triumph of the Will, Jew Suss and The Eternal Jew notable and loathsome exceptions to this policy.

  9. David Ehrenstein Says:

    The Nazi-era “Titanic” starring Sybelle Schmidtz was chiefly devoted to anti-British propaganda. it is also noteworthy for the fact that mid-production its director was discovered to be working against Hitler and was taken off the shooting stage and executed. Talk about “creative differences.”

  10. Jeff Gee Says:

    The three German actors playing FDR, Churchill, and Stalin originally worked together in the silent two reeler proposed by Donald Benson in the comments to “Park Life.” Stalin is played by the erstwhile real-life cop, who switched careers following the debacle.

  11. They all relocated back to the Fatherland after the talkies spoiled their Hollywood careers: like Jannings. Their ability to do pratfalls suited them perfectly to playing prominent political figures.

  12. Anybody who hasn’t seen the documentary “Nazi Titanic” should. It’s a tale beyond exaggeration.

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