Archive for Joris Ivens

Heaven at Either End

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2018 by dcairns

Fiona declares these to be cinema’s best sunglasses.

Thursday’s other screenings:

The one film in the John Stahl series we didn’t see was WHEN TOMORROW COMES, which has a cast of our favourite people… we’ll see it post-Bologna and report back.

The Marcello Pagliero season passed me by, except that I wasn’t about to miss LES AMANTS DE BRASMORTS since it was billed as a misty, melancholic drama about the lives of barge workers. It’s my view that you can’t make a bad film on a barge. You may not do it. This one was very fine, apart from a slightly confused happy ending. Barge movies, like films noir, are generally stronger when they turn out bleakly, though even when they don’t, they sort of do, because your lovers’ reconciliation is, after all, being staged on a fucking barge.

Friday started at the more civilized hour of 9.30 am with the stone-cold masterpiece that is LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, screened in a vintage (sixties) Technicolor print. In sert the words lustrous, lambent and amber into the following paragraph at random. Leon Shamroy’s cinematography didn’t look as intensely-coloured here as it has on home viewings, but the size, the audience response and the atmosphere added to the movie’s power.

That movie filled our whole morning, meaning, for example, that we couldn’t see Boorman’s LEO THE LAST, which also a very beautiful show, with the richest assortment of browns I’ve ever seen. I bet the big-screen experience would have been wonderful, even if the movie itself has problems. It shows why Marcello Mastroianni was never a big star in English-language films.

Then we bumped into Angela Allen, John Huston’s favourite continuity girl, and had lunch with her, where she was fabulously indiscreet. I’d first inveigled my way into her confidence last year, and was thrilled to meet her again. But I won’t dish the dirt. Angela was planning on seeing LIGHTS OUT OF EUROPE, newly restored by MOMA, a 1940 documentary by Herbert Klein, partially shot by a young photographer named Douglas Slocombe. Alas, Slocombe passed away at 104 before he could see this magnificent restoration of his first movie.

We’d been thinking of seeing Rene Clair’s LES DEUX TIMIDES, which has been very well received, but we switched to the Klein film to hang out with Angela, and couldn’t regret it. Extraordinary footage, gather by Slocombe in hazardous conditions — he’d gone to Danzig in 1939 to film conditions, and was there when the Nazis invaded, getting out by the skin of his teeth. Had he not done so, somebody else would have had to shoot IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY, KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, THE SERVANT, THE MUSIC LOVERS and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.

The movie screened with Joris Ivens’ LA SEINE A RECONTRE PARIS, scripted by Prevert. I now have to see everything Ivens ever made. I was impressed, let’s say.

Then we saw Bette Davis’ assistant giving an interview and plugging her new book, which we’re told Bette commanded her to write. Well, better write it then. What took you so long? One wouldn’t want Bette’s shade performing a vengeful haunting, would one? Well, maybe just a little.

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via GIPHY

Fiona ran out of juice at this point and hit the hay, or what passes for hay at our modest pensione. I went on to Buster Keaton’s THE SCARECROW and GO WEST, with music from Neil Brand (piano) and Frank Bockius (percussion, slide whistle et al). While the day’s final show was highly emotional and had a magnificent score, it was this screening that brought a tear to my eye. There’s a lot of discussion about whether GO WEST is chaplinesque sentiment or a parody thereof. I think it’s something different from either — Keaton invites you to laugh sympathetically at his character’s misfortunes, and the whole first act is misfortunes. It’s closer to what Harold Lloyd does with THE FRESHMAN. He doesn’t stop the comedy in order to aim for tears, as Chaplin will (with lightning-fast transitions of tone). When Keaton, bilked of everything he owns, sits down next to a dog, and tentatively pats its head, and the dog turns tail and walks off, we’re meant to laugh, not cry.

The emotional whammy, which had never happened to me on previous screenings, came when Keaton finally makes a friend, Brown Eyes the cow. By playing this moment TRIUMPHANTLY, Brand and Bockius unleashed all the sorrow of the previous scenes which Keaton had suppressed. It took me by surprise, which is always a good way to disarm. I blinked away a manly tear, stinging with sun-block.

Then I was off to the Teatro Communale — pictured — Bologna’s epic opera house — for SEVENTH HEAVEN, likely to remain the highlight of this fest. A great silent movie in a new, Foxphorescent restoration and an orchestra playing Timothy Brock’s new score and a spectacular setting and the company of Meredith Brody and Gary Meyer are a hard combination to beat. I hope to say more about this experience, but right now words fail me, as they must always do when the subject is a Frank Borzage masterpiece.

 

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V is for Vertigo

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2014 by dcairns

David Melville returns with another installment in his alphabet of Mexican melodrama. The title this time may be familiar, but the film perhaps is not…

 CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

V is for Vértigo

What happens in life is what has to happen. Each must follow his own destiny.

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No, in case you were wondering, this is not a Mexican version of the 1958 Hitchcock classic. (Interestingly, a 1956 Argentine film called Más allá del olvido/Beyond Oblivion is said to be a near blueprint.) Vértigo, shot in 1945, is a literary costume drama by the Spanish exile Antonio Momplet – who, on the basis of this film alone, could lay claim to being Latin America’s answer to William Wyler. Like such Wyler films as Jezebel (1938), The Little Foxes (1941) or The Heiress (1949), this is a tale of high-octane suffering in exquisite (if claustrophobic) period settings. Its dazzling use of decor and deep focus reveals, rather than hides, the depths of human depravity on show.

Its star is María Félix in one of her subtlest and most sympathetic roles. Cast for a change as a more-or-less normal woman and not a tempestuous, man-eating virago. Of course, in any film that involves María, ‘normal’ is strictly a relative term. Her character Mercedes is a pious and eminently respectable widow, owner of a small hacienda in the depths of rural Mexico, sometime in the late 19th century. For the first 15 minutes or so, Maria goes to the amazing lengths of looking plain – wearing dull, dowdy gowns, next to no makeup and (ay, caramba!) glasses. Before too many scenes elapse, her whiny daughter (Lilia Michel) comes home from five years at school in the big city. Thoughtfully, she brings her mamá a full Parisian wardrobe in the back of her small wagon.

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If only that were all she brought…Vértigo would be a very dull film indeed. The girl also brings her fiancé (Emilio Tuero) a sexy rotter who’s closer in age to her mother. When the lovebirds arrive at the hacienda, Michel steals up behind Félix and puts her hands over her mother’s eyes as a ‘surprise’. The first thing mother sees, as the hands slip away, is Tuero’s face. Moustachioed and rapier-thin, like a sort of latino Basil Rathbone. Felix – who, remember, has spent all of 15 minutes trying to look dowdy and repressed – is fired instantly with a fatal passion. Tuero feels the same and the stage is soon set for a deadly love triangle. One of those where nothing, not even murder, will keep the guilty lovers apart.

As always in a Mexican film of this era, the Hollywood parallels are clear yet confusing. Vértigo looks like a Wyler movie and is based on a ‘classic’ literary source. (The story is by Pierre Benoît, a French author best known for the oft-filmed L’Atlantide.) Yet its plot might have been purloined from Hollywood’s hottest property of the 40s, the pulp novelist James M Cain. The rivalry of mother and daughter for a sexy but disreputable man is straight out of Mildred Pierce (1945), which won Joan Crawford an Oscar that same year. The man’s opportunistic killing of the daughter – the axis on which the plot turns – is in the Cain tradition of criminal lovers, from Double Indemnity (1944) to The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). One might best describe Vértigo as a ‘costume noir’.

Death, of course, comes later on in the story. Before that, we have to witness María’s grand entrance at the party she throws to welcome her daughter back home. The festivities are in full swing when, suddenly, the mariachi band stops in mid-note and the guests rise, in a body, to their feet (like the obedient and well-trained extras that they are). Félix enters slowly in a clinging white silk gown, garlanded with swirls of silk roses. That unconvincing grey streak has been washed (mercifully) out of her hair; a choker of pearls gleams and dazzles at her throat. The guests gape in awe (mirroring the audience) and the local priest asks in hushed reverence: “Is that you? Or has a star come down to earth?”

It is not simply that María Félix is one of a very few stars who can live up to dialogue like this. What’s astonishing here is the way Félix – who was nothing if not a clothes-horse – walks in this gown as if she were ill at ease and unaccustomed to such finery. Sniping at María’s limitations as an actress is a favourite game among critics – yet María Félix tells us more with a gown, and the way she wears it, than Meryl Streep can with any of her dozen foreign accents. Once the party is over and she has retired to bed, she gazes out through fluttering white curtains at the silent moonlit courtyard. There she sees her daughter and her fiancé locked in an embrace. Here, her vast dark liquid eyes tell us all we need to know.

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For years (so the script tells us) this woman has been “living without life and crying without tears”. A few weeks pass and her soon-to-be son-in-law seduces her as she reads by a stream. (Momplet cuts to a cascading waterfall, as a stand-in for the carnal act.) In the next scene, her gown has altered from the pale virginal lace of her early outfits, to a tightly voluptuous black bodice and a skirt with lurid zebra stripes. She wears it, this time, like a full-on femme fatale. Tuero urges her to forget her daughter and run away with him, but Félix – remembering her duties as a mother – tells him he must marry the girl as planned, go abroad and never see her (Félix) again. She cannot suspect, of course, that the man she loves might stoop to murder.

Not so much murder, perhaps, as ‘deliberate accidental death’. The night before the wedding, it starts to rain heavily – a series of exquisite random shots that evoke the Joris Ivens ‘film poem’ Regen/Rain (1929). Just in case we miss the point, daughter sits down at the piano and strums out Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude. The water rises menacingly, under a rickety bridge that we know is about to collapse. (We know because minor characters have been telling us, every five minutes or so, since the film began.) The villainous Tuero feigns illness and does not protest too loudly when his adoring bride-to-be insists on riding in her horse-drawn buggy, across the bridge, to fetch the doctor. Cue a bravura montage of Félix looking worried, Tuero looking anguished and the hapless but frankly irritating young girl hurtling to her doom.

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In the next scene, the girl is sprawled Ophelia-like, surrounded with flowers, at her funeral in the family chapel. Félix, who is still unaware of her lover’s role in the death, does not understand why the other mourners avoid her. Tuero flees after a wholly unconvincing attack of guilt but…‘it ain’t over till it’s over’ as the song goes, and nothing in a María Félix movie is ever over until the star says so. These lovers are doomed to meet again and let’s just say it won’t be pretty. Love, as we know, is a fleeting and unreliable emotion. Revenge is a passion that lasts for life.

David Melville

A tracking shot is a moral act

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 28, 2014 by dcairns

Or, how did we get from this ~

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(Lewis Milestone’s own hand giving an Oscar-worthy performance at the end of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT)

To this ~

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Dana Andrews observe’s a dead German’s hand in A WALK IN THE SUN. “Nice ruby. Wonder where he stole it.”

But to begin, here’s a quote from Richard T. Jameson’s fascinating piece on Lewis Milestone from Richard Roud’s Cinema: A Critical Dictionary. The subject is Milestone’s Exhibit A claim to greatness, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT ~

One army defends its trenches as another charges across the empty waste of no-man’s-land. The defenders spray the advancing enemy with machine-gun fire, and Milestone’s camera tracks relentlessly across the attackers’ path. As each enemy solider is brought into camera range, he falls: it is as though the camera eye were synchronized with the mechanized pattern of gunfire, meting out death with an awful inevitability. And when, somehow, the attackers succeed in overrunning the trenches, drive out the defenders, and then become defenders themselves, with the first army counter-attacking to regain its own ground, Milestone repeats the visual device: another ‘machine-gunning’ camera chops down the soldiers on that side. The machinery of war devastates both armies with chilling impartiality, and Milestone’s structure eloquently defines the tragic absurdity.

Or would have, if it hadn’t been violated at midpoint. For as the enemy’s second wave reaches the defenders’ trenches, Milestone’s camera performs yet another tracking manoeuvre, this time aiming down into the trenches as it moves along. And as the camera arrives at any given point on its course, so to does another attacker, leaping into the ditch and engaging in hand-to-hand combat with his opposite number. Technically, the device is impressive; conceptually, it is loathsome. Unlike the camera-as-machine-gun, there is no inherent logic in it. The co-ordination of the camera’s arrival with that of an enemy trooper bespeaks no necessity beyond the director’s design. A scene about the impersonal horror of war becomes a balletic speciality number.

I like that Jameson is so passionate about the ethics of technique, and I get what he’s saying. I also think he’s slightly crazy, here. But he has a point, though I might phrase it differently and identify the problem elsewhere. I think I could defend Milestone’s middle shot on the grounds that it shows the men fighting as if they were parts in a machine, their movements stylized and synchronized to dehumanize them. It’s also obvious that part of the sequence’s immense power is its momentum, created by a series of fast-moving shots which often do not follow the moving men but move perpendicular to them, creating an imminent sense of violent convergence. For the battle sequence’s sheer impact, this plan is essential — and impact is something else than merely technique.

The more valid objection might be the wider one that by turning war into a giant choreographed spectacle, by making the audience excited at the action and noise and evoking the surge of adrenalin, Milestone is repackaging armed conflict as entertainment. A Hollywood film, even one as grim and unrelenting as ALL QUIET, is an entertainment of a sort. But can’t he be defended on the grounds that no evocation of warfare, if its goal is to educate those who haven’t had the experience (who are sometimes apt to be over-enthusiastic about something they know nothing about), can ignore the rush, the thrill, the camaraderie or the other aspects that make soldiers enjoy war, which they often do.

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If ALL QUIET was Milestone’s only war movie, his reputation would probably be higher. But it isn’t, and perhaps as a result his 1930 film enjoys more respect than he does.

As America entered the war, Milestone put together this documentary with Joris Ivens, using material shot by Russian cameramen at the Eastern front. All part of Milestone’s “premature anti-fascism” which would cause him some trouble later.

Then he embarked on a series of war pictures. THE NORTH STAR and EDGE OF DARKNESS have already been discussed here — they deal with the conflict in Russia (more trouble later) and Norway and are very impressive. It’s immediately troubling that they use many of the same techniques — the lateral tracking shot in particular — as ALL QUIET, and use them to create excitement, celebrating battle and triumph, in scenarios where our reaction to the fighting is an uncomplicated one of cheering on the goodies. Even the deaths of sympathetic characters are swept aside by the overwhelming charge to victory.

As problematic as these films are in some respects (only in some, be fair: they’re very good films), they’re easy to take compared to THE PURPLE HEART (1944).

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Why is he dressed as a wizard?

I told a friend on Skype I was watching a WWII propaganda movie full of Chinese actors playing Japanese roles (since all the Japanese actors were interned).

“Is Richard Loo in it?”

“He is!”

“[Talk show host] Dick Cavett used to do an impression of him. It wasn’t very good, but he would do it at any opportunity. ‘A chain is only as strong… as its weakest link.'”

“He says that in this movie! This is the movie that’s from!”

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Zanuck may be writing the dialogue and the cheques, but Milestone is calling action. On the plus side, the film is at times sincerely emotive, the cause was at least a better one than WWI (can’t accuse a man of hypocrisy for decrying one war and supporting another), and the technique is often impressive. But those Sino-Chinese baddies are nasty pieces of caricature. Since neither the writers nor the directors nor the actors know very much about Japanese culture, and since the intent is melodrama, it’s not surprising that the effect is crude. What’s always disturbing about these films is that the propaganda is delivered on racial rather than strictly political lines. I don’t actually mind the racist terminology of the heroes (“nips,” “monkeys”) since I think it’s realistic. It’s the film’s attitude that counts.

The flick deals with two US air crews shot down and captured by the Japanese and put on trial in a kangaroo court. In this way it combines war film (a little action in flashback) with courtroom thriller. A little extra violence is supplied by the Japanese tendency to commit hara-kiri when things don’t go their way.

As a flagwaver, the film is often a touch embarrassing. But do we like Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, or are we happy they were defeated? If so, we presumably recognize the value of propaganda to the Allied cause. But that doesn’t make it good art. Then there’s the film’s racism, exaggerated by Chinese actors playing Japanese characters, and by Darryl Zanuck’s storyline. Ironically, the film’s attempt to portray the Japanese as culturally psychotic is derailed when the American characters choose “a noble death” in a way that seems little different from the honour suicides derided in their enemy captors.

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As usual with Milestone the film is extremely well-crafted: the paddy field set at night is striking, and the hexagonal reinforced concrete prison block makes for striking compositions. Milestone has some good actors, and Farley Granger.

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A WALK IN THE SUN came after the European conflict was over and it’s a far more nuanced and interesting film. Two of the stars, Dana Andrews (sad iguana stare) and Richard Conte (crocodilian grin) return, along with Norman Lloyd (hooded cobra eyes) and, surprisingly, Sterling Holloway, who would later play an animated snake for Disney but really looks like Tenniel’s Mock Turtle. It’s the most reptilian bunch of grunts you ever saw, and the “plot” has them land in Italy and attempt to walk to a farmhouse to blow up a bridge. Along the way they grouse, bum cigarettes, philosophise and die. Robert Rossen’s poetry-of-the-streets dialogue is really amazing — contrived as heck yet evocative of some kind of life. The underrated Conte is particularly good at snapping it out.

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Milestone’s war films suffer when the location material is interrupted by studio stuff or rear projection or stock footage, but that problem is minimized here (and in PURPLE HEART which is all studio save some time-lapse clouds). Russell Harlan’s photography is outstanding (he was making the transition from B pictures to major films for Hawks and Blake Edwards), and Milestone’s knack for filming group shots is fully exploited (he storyboarded everything so he could concentrate on performances on set). There are some interesting narrative devices — a recurring ballad, most effective when it unexpectedly segues into a blues tune for a scene of the men simply waiting for the next life-or-death situation — and a VO read by Burgess Meredith (star of OF MICE AND MEN) which isn’t associated with any one character and sometimes made me think of Malick’s THE THIN RED LINE. I liked the VO better than the ballad but both are useful.

The whole thing is semi-real and semi-mythic. It doesn’t go as far into abstraction and existential angst as Mann’s MEN IN WAR, but it hints in that direction twelve years early. The ending is triumphal again, but in 1945 it was probably always going to be.

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Milestone could have left it at that, honour somewhat salvaged, but in 1950 Zanuck had him celebrate the marines with HALLS OF MONTEZUMA. The lateral tracking shots are back, and by now we’re wondering why this inventive filmmaker, who came up with new and inspired stuff on almost every film, insisted on repeating himself so much in his battle scenes.

Milestone has an excellent bunch of actors and Robert Wagner. Richard Widmark is at his most attractive as a sergeant who doesn’t plan on surviving. He’s suffering terrible migraines, and has his doc chum (Karl Malden) supplying him with powerful painkillers.

“These aren’t a cure. They’re temporary.”

“So am I.”

We’re in colour this time, bright Pacific colour. The mission is to take an island, capturing Japanese prisoners for information. Korean-American Philip Ahn, a Milestone regular since THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN, is one of these. The dialogue isn’t as good as Rossen’s but the patriotism is more muted than Zanuck’s. Characters are maimed, killed, driven crazy (somebody always goes crazy in Milestone’s war films, which is something I give him credit for). Jack Webb delivers a rousing, religiose speech at the end and makes everything alright. But there’s some sharp observation of war’s absurdity and despair. Is that cannon fire or the sound of cake being simultaneously eaten and had?

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THEY WHO DARE (1954), a British production made during Milestone’s blacklist trouble, is worthless. It doesn’t have the lateral tracking shots, but it doesn’t have any other visual interest either, save for the attractive colour in Wilkie Cooper’s lensing of Greek landscapes. Akim Tamiroff is back — an actor who spans Milestone’s career from ’30s to ’60s. Dirk Bogarde and Denholm Eliot in the same unit, in Greece, seems like an invitation to innuendo, but let’s resist.

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The most intriguing bit is a superimposed boulder wobbling in the foreground of a shot, (above, on the left) apparently inserted in post to cover a mistake. It’s enormously distracting, since the shot isn’t quite stable, causing the vast rocky overhang to bobble about as if full of helium and jounced by a breeze. Whatever it’s concealing must have been insanely inappropriate to merit such an extreme and unsuccessful cover-up.

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Directorially, the only familiar moment is the director’s fondness for including caricatures of his cast. Here’s a swashbuckling Dirk, as one of his comrades-in-arms pictures him.

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PORK CHOP HILL (1959) deals with Korea. In A WALK IN THE SUN, Norman Lloyd is always going on about “the Battle of Tibet” which he predicts will be fought in 1956. He was almost right. The lateral tracking shots are trotted out one more time. The futility of war — symbolized by the taking of one insignificant hill — is undercut by producer Gregory Peck adding a VO at the end to explain the strategic import of the victory. The ching-chong-chinese soundtrack (by Leonard Rosenman! What was he thinking?) is a disastrous miscalculation too, but there are some very good actors, and Gregory Peck.

Under the credits, we see what appear to be negotiations breaking down between the Americans and the Koreans — one has to assume this started life as an actual scene, depicting the causes of war, and that Gregory Peckory decided nobody cared about that stuff and so chose to slaister music all over it, drowning out the dialogue. He could have cut the whole sequence, but waste not want not — better to have it here, serving no coherent purpose, apparently. The whole re-edit job is so clunking and inefficient — a title comes up to identify the location AFTER a whole establishing scene — that it’s easy to see where the interference has happened. Things improve once the action starts, and it never lets up. An American unit has to conquer a completely worthless hill, with none of the promised support, and they’re decimated doing it. The peace talks footage becomes part of a rear-guard action by Peck the producer to prove it was worthwhile.

Some of the stock characters might as well come with targets on their backs, but there are also welcome bursts of interest from a juvenile Harry Dean Stanton, a baby Robert Blake no bigger than a man’s hand, and a daringly cast Woody Strode as a malingering coward (for which read a guy who mainly wants to survive: I was on his side). And he gets whole scenes with the intense Roscoe Lee Browne. That’s right: two black guys talk to each other, and both roles could have gone to white actors. And it’s 1959.

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The campaign is a catalogue of blunders by command, and the propaganda broadcast by an oleaginous Chinese Lord Haw Haw (I call him Lord Run Run Haw Haw)  figure is notable for the fact that everything said against the war is demonstrated to be true by the action of the film itself. So it’s arguable that Peck’s interference merely imposed inefficient Hollywood bookends on the film, the way so many subversive films from the golden age come packaged in conservative platitudes. The real meat is inside.

Oh, and the photography is rather wonderful at times, with a misty pre-dawn advance and some intense spotlit stuff and a world of dust and death. Sam Leavitt was responsible and his credits are IMPRESSIVE.

This was Milestone’s last statement on war, and it ends with Peck’s stuffy VO: “Because of their sacrifice, millions now live in freedom.” And yet, the true last word is probably still contained in ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, Milestone’s millstone. Let it serve as coda:

“We used to think you knew. The first bombardment taught us better. It’s dirty and painful to die for your country. When it comes to dying for your country it’s better not to die at all! There are millions out there dying for their countries, and what good is it?”

All Quiet on the Western Front (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy)
Halls of Montezuma
Purple Heart
The North Star
TCM Spotlight: Errol Flynn Adventures (Desperate Journey / Edge of Darkness 1943 / Northern Pursuit / Uncertain Glory / Objective Burma)
A Walk in the Sun (Restored and Uncut)
Pork Chop Hill