Archive for Von Ryan's Express

Plane Sailing

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 8, 2022 by dcairns

THE BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI is another Mark Robson war movie made for people who have just had a bath on a Sunday. That really is the mood it’s aimed at.

It’s not a distinguished film, but it has odd things of interest. It has to do with aircraft carriers, planes, the Korean war. William Holden flies a plane and Mickey Rooney flies a helicopter. Fredric March sails a ship. So much for characterisation. Well, in fact, Holden is bitter about being called up, Rooney is a hot-tempered Irishman who wears a leprechaun hat when doing air-sea rescue, March misses his son who was killed in action. OK now? Then so much for characterisation.

Early on, Fredric March is giving a pep talk in his cabin, but there are people moving about overhead, visible through gaps in his ceiling. This is odd. Apparently the DVD’s 1:1.33 aspect ratio is incorrect, the film was shot open-matte and so we are seeing things we shouldn’t be seeing. Still, I don’t know why March’s ceiling was built with gaps, or why somebody’s moving about up there. Possibly a boom operator?

The next thing of interest is William Holden in bed with his wife, who is Grace Kelly and who loves him. Characterisation achieved, moving on. But this is 1954 so I was mildly surprised to see man and wife in the conjugal bed, or at least a Japanese hotel bed, with neither of them keeping one foot on the floor as far as I could see. I guess the Hays Code injunction was breaking down (“the characters may be married by the audience knows very well that the actors are NOT” — didn’t anyone try casting married actors to see if they could then justify shared beds, penetrative sex, graphic childbirth?). Otto Preminger released THE MOON IS BLUE without a certification the previous year, so maybe the Breen Office felt it was adapt or die. It must’ve been a bit like Glasnost — for decades we’ve maintained brutal oppression from the fear that any laxity would lead to chaos — now we’re absolutely forced to loosen up — and the result is chaos. Next stop, LAST TANGO IN PARIS, THE EXORCIST, SWEET MOVIE…

I was excited about seeing 50s Tokyo — the world of Ozu as presented by Hollywood. But this Japan rarely resembles the native film industry’s portrayals, despite the presence of Keiko Awaji from STRAY DOG. There are some sidestreets that do call to mind Ozu’s bar-hopping scenes, but the big night club is something else — this might even be a matte painting for all I know.

The interior of “the Showboat” might be a set, too. But everything is very solid and expensive to build — showgirls circulate on a miniature battleship on rails, and the bandstand rotates. It also seems cramped, like there was no way to get the camera far back enough to see everything properly, so it feels like a real place. And it’s crazy enough to be a real place in Japan.

The big climax is pretty impressive. Apparently the air attack was used as placeholders for the effects shots in STAR WARS. It looks totally real. But I’d just seen VON RYAN’S EXPRESS, which seemed real until I started looking for frame grabs and then suddenly the model shots popped out at me. All cut together expertly — Robson was an assistant editor on CITIZEN KANE I think and cut CAT PEOPLE — so your eye follows a real Messerschmidt across an edit where it becomes a toy plane, and William Holden fires an MG-42 on a sound stage and his stand-in fires it from a real train and a model train gets strafed…

So, basing this solely on what the film DOESN’T show us as we soar down into the valley, explosions all around us in the air, and we fly through clouds of smoke — we don’t see people running about on the ground — so I think they built some really big model bridges in a miniature valley with real mountains in the background. And they really flew the camera through it filming in slomo while they blew everything to blazes. And it looks real, really real. I think it’s a shame nobody gave Robson a scifi movie to make. They kept giving them to Robert Wise, who did pretty well with them for a while.

We also watched the new ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT which made two films in one night that ended with major characters dead in a ditch, covered in mud. Which was probably just the distraction we needed after having to say goodbye to the cat.

THE BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI stars Joe Gillis; Lisa Fremont; Dr Henry Jekyll/Mr Edward Hyde; Mr Yunioshi; Sgt. Stanislaus ‘Animal’ Kuzawa; Sgt. Det. Sgt. Walter Brown; Harumi Namaki, the girl-friend; Mingo; Jason Tully – conductor; Buzz Gunderson; Mr Osato; and Mirador Motel Night Manager.

Frankie and Trevor

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2022 by dcairns

I had vague positive boyhood memories of VON RYAN’S EXPRESS — it turned out I had slightly conflated my memory of Frank Sinatra running for a train with a scene from THE 5-MAN ARMY, the Argento-scripted spaghetti western in which Tetsurô Tanba runs for a train FOR A LONG TIME. You couldn’t possibly get Frank Sinatra to run that long. This meant that the film’s surprising and effective ending was surprising and effective all over again. You wouldn’t get an ending like that now. Already, in 1965, US cinema is groping towards the downer endings of the 70s.

This may be Mark Robson’s best film after his Val Lewton phase. (Or maybe CHAMPION, PHFFT or PEYTON PLACE?) It’s THE GREAT ESCAPE on a train, basically. And I guess TGE made that ending conceivable. It even has John Leyton in it, and he doesn’t go everywhere, you know.

WWII prison camp films seem to capture the spirit of school — the secret activities, the getting away with stuff — it all becomes hi-jinks. Helped along here by Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which apart from a few lamentable comedy noises is inventive, sprightly, distinctive — it has a theme you can whistle (important for a GREAT ESCAPE knock-off) but lots of other fun elements too, plus the snare drums Darryl Zanuck would have insisted upon.

The scourge of war films — and they are a bit of a scourge, however nostalgic we might feel about some of them — all comes from WWII. If you look at First World War films, they made propaganda movies while the war was on, then largely stopped talking about it, and then when they returned to the subject it was to talk about how dreadful war was. THE BIG PARADE, WINGS, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. You could lighten the mood with a romance or a bromance, but that was mostly to contrast with how dreadful the war was. Not too many exceptions.

“You said it, miste – oh, wait”

But with WWII the propaganda continued even after the end of hostilities, as if we had to carry on convincing ourselves that it was a noble venture. Britain became hopelessly locked into war nostalgia, as did 20th Century Fox, the studio that came to embody Zanuck’s mid-life/late life crisis of masculinity writ large.

Does VRE get away with turning the war into a school romp just by slapping on a moment of tragedy? Does THE GREAT ESCAPE? My point is not that we mustn’t enjoy them, but that we should remain aware that they’re slightly poisonous.

Anyway, Sinatra is an American airman, Ryan, who becomes the ranking officer in an Italian prison camp where he’s mostly surrounded by Brits including Trevor Howard. He aquires the “Von” nickname by standing up against murdering camp commandant Adolfo Celli. But then he masterminds a daring takeover of the prison train carrying the men towards Germany, rerouting it to Switzerland. It’s faintly preposterous but done with panache.

There he is, doing his running!

Robson, a former editor, gets most of his effects by intercutting straightforward shots. The first reveal of Sinatra is beautifully staged in a Maurice Tourneur-style blocking reveal, though. The direct cutting of the nouvelle vague had found its way into LAWRENCE OF ARABIA but Robson is having none of it. I like dissolves personally but an elephantine thing like this might benefit from more nimble and surprising transitions. Robson is surprisingly flatfooted about scene endings, even when the script supplies him with zingers. He also says things like “Clue me,” which didn’t strike me as period-accurate, but I could be wrong.

The Italian war was all about male nudity: see also CATCH 22.

VON RYAN’S EXPRESS stars Frankie Machine; Captain Bligh; Princess Salirah; Harry Luck; Teocrito; Willie ‘Tunnel King’; Capt. Daniel Gregg; Dr. Mabuse; Clark Gable; Bertram Garvay; Emilio Largo; Nazorine; Don Jarvis; FBI Director Denton Voyles: and King Minos.