A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that


Sunday, 22 January 2017

Wails of Torpor - non-review


Within the last year or two I've started picking up cheap DVDs of old war movies - I've thoroughly enjoyed Sink the Bismarck, Bridge over the River Kwai, The Desert Fox and a pile of others - some I'd seen before, back in the day, some are new to me - just the thing on odd rainy afternoons, or on the 3am insomnia shift when the depression bites. I can accept them and enjoy them for what they are, with all their dated values and outmoded politics.

I still have a few that I keep an eye open for - Battle of the Bulge (the one with Robert Shaw) is on my list, but I also get occasional recommendations from friends, or people whose taste I know to be about on a par (good or bad) with my own. Someone very kindly sent me an Amazon voucher for Christmas, so I took the opportunity to buy a few things I would not otherwise have treated myself to. I bought the new, 4-disc set of Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927?) - digitally restored, includes a pile of additional material which had become detached from the original movie, and a new musical soundtrack (derivative, but very good) by Carl Davis. At 8½ hours (or whatever it is) it still requires a major commitment in coffee and devotion, but I have started on the first disc, and have given up and determined that I shall start it again very soon when I am more relaxed.

To make up the package (and benefit from shipping savings) I got a few other things - notably Cross of Iron (which was recommended by a mate and which stars James Coburn as the famous blogger, Sgt Steiner - the film is OK - I'll watch that again, too, but mostly for Coburn) and Wheels of Terror, aka The Misfit Brigade, which was also recommended, and which might just be the worst film I've ever seen.


Wheels of Terror was made in 1987, I think (certainly the haircuts would confirm it was around that time), and it is based on one of the many works of Sven Hassel, a Dane who served in the German army in WW2. Now there may be a great many Hassel fans out there - all due respect to you all, I was never one. I recall WH Smith and station bookshops everywhere stocking best-selling pulp paperbooks by Hassel, all very popular, all with lurid covers, and all, reportedly, crammed with extreme violence and sweary words. I never bought or read any - not a matter of snobbery or prejudice - I seem to have been very busy in those days, and books of sweary words were not a high priority.

Anyway, I read the description of the DVD version of Wheels of Terror, shrugged, and decided it was probably worth £2.45 or whatever it was, if only to fill the gap in my education and see what all the fuss had been about.

Wow. The whole thing is buried under a lot of anachronistic American slang and mannerisms, the German soldiers behave like a comedy version of the US Marines (lots of "Yes - SUH!" in unison). The story line is silly, and pretty much irrelevant anyway, the bangs are bigger and brighter than you would credit, and the dialogue is something else. I kept finding myself shaking my head, and reminding myself, not only that someone had actually written this crap, but also had thought fit to include it in the movie. The acting is unbelievable in more than one sense, but in the end it is not so much bad as unnecessary - presentable actors such as David Carradine and Oliver Reed (not sure if Reed actually speaks, come to think of it) offer up their lines in very obvious disbelief - perhaps hoping it will all be over soon.


Maybe the style has dated - maybe they were trying to cash in on Hassel's success, or on the takings of some other film they wished this could have been. I was, you will have gathered, disappointed. I'm relieved that I did not read any of the books when they were around, but it's always a shame when you revisit some faintly naughty indulgence and find it was not worth the bus fare.

Why am I writing this up? Not sure, really - maybe it fits into a recurrent theme of nostalgia not being what it used to be - maybe it is just a public-service warning for non-Hassel-fans to avoid this film at all costs. It is without a single redeeming feature (though the unit markings on the tanks may be accurate - I wouldn't know) - you would be far better spending an hour and a half sweeping up leaves, or washing the car.

26 comments:

  1. I saw that (Wheels of Terror) on Movies for Men (something like channel 48 on Freeview). I tend to agree with you on the dialogue. It has the feel of one of those 'made for TV' movies - i.e. too crap to expect people to pay for at the cinema. Not a patch on Cross of Iron which, if nothing else, has that highly evocative credit sequence with Hänschen Klein interspersed with martial music as the background to Barbarossa and barbarism.

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    1. Thank you for the classy alliterative touch - very nice! - James Mason always welcome in these films too, and I've always been rather a fan of Max Schell (who I understand was also a pro-standard concert pianist - trivia fact alert). Yes - Cross of Iron much the better of the two.

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  2. A mate of mine once borrowed a video of an Italian film about Dunkirk - I wish I could remember the name of it. All I remember really is that it was dubbed almost into English and was filmed on a beautiful sun-drenched sandy beach with rocky islands offshore - features that were sadly missing from the John Mills, Bernard Lee version of Dunkirk.
    I read a Sven Hassell book once (it's a failing of mine - reading books other people leave lying about.) Congratulations on having avoided doing the same - an hour of my life I won't get back.

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    1. Sven Hassel is now officially off my "back catalogue" list.

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  3. Tony - don't forget to add "The Sands of Iwo Jima" to your discount list. You just can't beat John (Stryker) Wayne!

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    1. Right, I've noted that one - also the one about the Fighting SeaBees - I'm also reminded that I'd like to see The Red Beret and the 1958 Dunkirk again - I saw these with my mum and dad at the Gaumont cinema at the Dingle, in Liverpool! I have Reach for the Sky and all that - some of them are a bit creaky now (could be the tin legs?). By Jove, Kenneth More was a jolly good chap, wasn't he?

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  4. I've been doing something similar, which is to say watching old war-themed movies but on Netflix. It's rare to find something less than 50 years old for free though there are a few but the bonus is that apart from the cinematic quality, they often have better storylines and better uniforms than to 60 to 90's versions, and often being full of vets and closer in time, a better feel for military life and period culture. (not always but...) who knew there had been so many post WWI foreign Legion movies?

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    1. I have friends who are gradually giving up all their spare time (and some which is not spare) to Netflix - I'm too mean and our streaming capability is too slow and too expensive to make it attractive. To me, I mean...

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    2. Oddly, I tried several times to type Utube. Netfix doesn't seem to go for old movies and I reallly like "free".

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  5. Unless you've already bought a copy of Battle of the Bulge, you might want to see if it's free on TV somewhere, although it might be good to own as a comedy feature. When a movie starts with the narrator saying something like "In 1944, the Allies, with Patton's 3rd Army on the right, and Monty's 8th Army on the left...", you know you have a real piece of crap on your hands. The German tanks were repainted Spanish Army M47's, which wasn't too bad (the movie was made in the '60s after all); but the Spanish must have gotten antsy about getting the tanks back, as the last part of the movie was clearly filmed in Spain: rocky ground and not a flake of snow anywhere. The acting is terrible, and the human interest vignettes are awful. But where else will you see Telly Savalas survive having the turret blown off his tank and having the wherewithal to carry a 50-calibre MG?! As I said, it's a hoot and a half, but not one to own unless you have a lot of friends with the right mind-set.

    Best regards and lots of luck,
    Chris

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    1. Thanks for this - fortunately, I'm a moron, so a lot of the finer detail escapes me - just an excuse to eat popcorn.

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  6. Great stuff Tony! I try to avoid watching too much TV, but I do like my YouTube and have seen my fair quota of 'War Films'. Cross of Iron I enjoyed, for Coburn and the T34's, complete with British accents etc. Have you seen the Russian film 'White Tiger'? Great entertainment value with a rogue German panzer shooting up vast numbers of T34's and a Soviet tanker who survives being toasted to a crisp yet recovers and is set on a mission to hunt down the very dodgy looking King Tiger on the Eastern Front. can't take it too seriously of course, but the soundtrack is good, I'm told the sound of the tanks firing is spot on. Entertaining at best, Russian with subtitles, you can find it here:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qiGDJ5-dXaI

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    1. Hi Lee - must check out White Tiger. One feature of a lot of these films is that the guys shred a complete battalion without batting an eyelid, but there is a heavily emotional scene when they lose one of their own. Also, why do they always have some idiot that chews a big cigar all the time? Is it possible that there is a checklist for equipment, special effects and characters? Social misfit chewing cigar - check...

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  7. No mention of the BEST war film ever - The Way Ahead (1943-ish) with David Niven, Peter Ustinov, Stanley Holloway and a cast of other stars who were blatantly far too old to be conscripted, and including some bit-part actors like Leo Genn and Trevor Howard. This is how to do propaganda films - forget political doctrines and saving the world for democracy, bring on the really strong cups of tea!

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    1. The Way Ahead is on its way to me, with luck. Thanks for that. The best WW2 film I've seen for a while (that I can remember) was Das Boot, I think - a number of my favourites are naval, now I think about it - maybe the format lends itself to film better? - I also liked The Enemy Below. Oh - yes - and I recently watched the whole series of Band of Brothers, which i enjoyed hugely, though I watched a lot of it through my fingers (I had read the book, though, so I knew who wins in the end).

      I do have a problem when I am watching some tense b&w British war epic and - blow me - the commander of the destroyer is bloody Geoffrey Keen - AGAIN - or Richard Todd, and the gunners are Sam Kydd and John Mills - AGAIN - and I find that a bit distracting.

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    2. I just watched an old B&W film about RN submariners, ca 1950, At Dawn They Sailed? or some such, and as you noted, the skipper was Richard Attenborough and the nervous young sailor who becomes a hero is John Mills.
      The Way Ahead is a marvellous film.

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    3. There's 'We dive at dawn' - also 1943-ish, I think. (Clearly a good year for films.) John Mills is (I think) the skipper in that one though, don't remember Attenborough being in it. Dickie Attenborough is the nervous young sailor in 'In which we serve' under Noel Coward's command - another classic.
      There's another good submarine one where there is an accident, the boat sinks and there isn't enough equipment for the whole crew to escape, so three have to stay behind - I think that might be John Mills too.
      Did they ever make any war films in colour, by the way?

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    4. I'll check these titles out - thanks. I'm particularly keen to get hold of the Noel Coward one.

      Colour films - I don't know, but I think this is to do with availability of newsreel and official film footage to fill in the action. The Americans famously had some colour newsreels, so I guess they had more scope.

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    5. Morning departure - that was the sunken submarine one. Came to me on the drive home from work. And Attenborough was in it - sorry I got that wrong.

      Hope you enjoy The Way Ahead anyway, and it wasn't a bad recommendation.

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    6. John Mills really seems to have had a monopoly on British submarine films - I see We Dive at Dawn, Morning Departure and Above Us the Waves listed (all right, the last one is a bit different). Just been having a poke around Amazon - John Gregson - he's another inescapable decent chap. And Robert Beattie always plays the token Canadian. The subplot about the stuffed gorilla and the banjo orchestra is overplayed, too.

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    7. And the bit with the trained llama.

      Then there's 'tough but fair' Harry Andrews. Not to mention Gordon Jackson as the token young scot. Fine chaps all.
      Must disagree on one score though - Kenneth More always strikes me as an irritating little so-and-so. I think the true horror of 'A night to remember' (not a war film I know, so a bit off topic) is the thought of being stuck in a lifeboat with Kenneth More.
      I can see why they cut his legs off.

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  8. I read a few Sven Hassel books, but they are a hard read, and not what you would call entertainment. I gather they are only semi-autobiographical, the incidents are from his own memories and the recollections of others, as I understand it. The characters, including the Sven Hassel telling the stories, are composites of several real people.

    That, at least, is what I read somewhere back in the day.

    But I've never been quite sure about Guy Sajer's 'Forgotten Soldier'. It reads very like Sven Hassel, except that Sajer is half French, half German. He joined the Gross Deutschland Division in mid-1942, where I think throughout the war he was a machine-gun loader. Whether the thing is a novel or a genuine autobiography I have never been able to determine. It, too, is a harrowing read.

    Generally I have found war movies disappointing, bu and large. But I quite liked 'Saving Private Ryan'. I also recall seeing a black and white one back in the 1960s (obviously dating from much earlier) that was the story of the Dieppe raid. That was excellent, as I recall. But I have no memory of what it was called or when it was made or anything. Only thing that was clear: it was obviously a Brit production.

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    1. Saving Private Ryan - I saw that some years ago and thought it was good, but it is very like most of the Vietnam movies I've seen - well done but very stressful... Your word "harrowing" is appropriate here, I think.

      I have never doubted my own cowardice, but it is uncomfortable to be bothered by it while watching a movie!

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    2. I also received a comment on this reply from a gentleman in Connecticut, which I choose not to publish since I take exception to his wording, but it does make me realise that my reply could be interpreted as implying that i thought that Saving Private Ryan was about Vietnam - you would have to be pretty bloody dim to make that interpretation, admittedly, but it is possible. With all due thanks to my correspondent, I hasten to assure readers that I did realise that Omaha Beach was not in Vietnam - all I said was that I found the film to be rather harrowing, a property which, for me, it shares with most of the Vietnam movies I have seen. I guess it reflects a graphic style of presentation which became possible, fashionable and - I suppose - appropriate around the time these films were made. Good films, most of them, just a bit upsetting. As Chris said, bring on the strong tea.

      Back to my nameless correspondent - anyone who keeps a blog as rambling and generally flatulent as mine is obviously fair game to be deflated, and i don't really mind too much, but I have a strong dislike of a certain breed of tosser who sits up all night reading the internet, watching for opportunities to demonstrate his expertise, his contempt, and his lack of understanding of accepted social values. Not really my problem, but there seems to be a fair amount of it about.

      To my new friend in Connecticut, I can only thank him for reading this stuff, for his efforts to put me right, and offer my sincere hopes that he gets himself some sort of life in the near future. Over and out.

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  9. There were some Sven Hassel books floating around my high school. It was a kind of pornography of violence for young men. At the time, I recall my young self thinking that it was over the top. I recall a scene where the heroes are tired of being harassed by the Wehrmacht MPs and just obliterate a bunch of them with their tank. I remember thinking, "Whhatttt? That doesn't sound right." I recall reading somewhere that Sven Hassell was a novelist, but at the time he had a reputation as writing autobiographies of a sort, which were part of the cachet.

    I have a theory that there will be far fewer war films in the future, because of globalization. You couldn't make a film about the US in Fallujah in the next twenty years because the destruction of a Muslim city (including mosques) would be an unacceptable price for studios to pay. Plus most studios are crap now, and plus, if young men want to see war films, they can just look up actual combat footage on YouTube. There are hours and hours of that from the latest battlefields, such as Syria. Young soldiers I know obsess on it.

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