John Frankenheimer dragged himself from live TV in the fifties and sixties to feature films, through alchoholism and bad movies to a kind of commercial comeback with more, slightly better, bad movies — and then went out on something of a high, with two TV pieces (and an extended car commercial written by Andrew Kevin SE7EN Walker which is not at all bad). THE PATH TO WAR is a dynamic study of LBJ’s floundering into Vietnam, a compassionate but critical study of a man sinking deeper into a war he never wanted, propelled on by wishful thinking, snaky advice (Alec Baldwin is a glacial, sinister Robert McNamarra) and a slow accretion of the need to save face. Michael Gambon is BIG, but very good, in the role. Frankenheimer’s full array of KANE-like deep focus groupings make the talking scenes pop and crackle and punch.
ANDERSONVILLE is less showy, perhaps because the subject is more epic and visceral — a Civil War prisoner-of-war camp in the South becomes a prototype for the Nazi death camps, due to overcrowding, lack of supplies, and the indifference of the authorities. The movie tends to follow conventional historical accounts by blaming Colonel Wirz, played by Czech actor Jan Triska with a fairly strong suggestion of raving lunacy. Wirz was undoubtedly guilty of monstrous abuses, but his complaint that lack of resources caused much of the problem could be seen as partially justified. The movie leaves out his Famous Last Words: “I know what orders are, Major. And I am being hanged for obeying them,” which has a pretty strong resonance with Nuremberg, but Frankenheimer and his writer/producer, David W. Rintels, don’t really need to stress the connection since they already have trains, watchtowers, walls, bodies lain out on the grass, and an encampment of starving men.
Andersonville was different from the Holocaust in many ways, of course — the camp’s purpose wasn’t death, that was merely the irrelevant by-product of starvation, brutality, disease and neglect. It was more like the Japanese POW camps of WWII, with the fascinating difference that there was no real direct element of racial difference. There were black prisoners, and in fact its the refusal of the South to exchange black soldiers that led to the breakdown of the exchange system (surely, if you regard black people as subhuman, exchanging one for a white person ought to be considered a good deal? But useless to look for logic when the illusion of race comes into play). But in the main, white Americans were hideously torturing other white Americans based on political difference and a couple of points on the compass.
Of course, all movies fail when it comes to portraying the kind of historic horrors we’re dealing with here — at best they offer a suggestion and a bit of education, but though Frankenheimer has assembled an impressive array of rake-thin background artists, and there’s some striking makeup artistry, there’s nothing with the simple impact of the photographs of survivors. Now, I guess, we have the technology to convincingly portray extreme emaciation onscreen (we also have Christian Bayle, but Fiona is convinced he’s going to die young from what he’s already put himself through). Nobody has had the bad taste to do CGI prison camp inmates or famine victims, YET. All of this kind of thing gets the filmmakers close to obscenity. Praising Meryl Streep for losing a bit of weight for SOPHIE’S CHOICE just seems wrong. Though it’s better than Rod Steiger as the world’s heartiest Auschwitz prisoner in THE PAWNBROKER, a good film whose reconstructions can’t help but let it down. There’s a depressing number of cinematic death trains transporting curvaceous glamour models — and not just in Italian holocaust-porn flicks, either. The terrible problem is, we need films on this subject, but cinema is always inadequate to it.
Frankenheimer, by focussing on a more historically distant atrocity, gets permission to fail at the impossible aspects of the task, and extra credit when he succeeds at the difficult ones. Apart from Frederick Forrest and Cliff DeYoung and William Sanderson, who aren’t big names, his prisoners are basically unknowns. They give terrific performances, committed, agonizing, moving, period-credible, and charismatic. Jarrod Emick, in his screen debut, is terrific in the lead, and should have had a big career. We do get William H. Macey inspecting the camp, but Macey in 1996 wasn’t a star yet. Can’t blame Frankenheimer if one of his actors became a star.The lack of familiar faces helps us experience the piece as a glimpse of the terrible past.