We spend a lot of time inveighing against low-budget films that depend on CGI. See for example, our review of Age of Heroes (2011): “Guys, if the only CGI you can afford is sucky CGI, skip it and spend the money on a week-long bender instead. At least the bartenders will love you.” Or 1939:Battle of Westerplatte: “CGI is used extensively, and it’s generally bad to dreadful.” Or Tae Guk Gi. You get the idea. Can you do a good film on a low budget? Fortress is the answer to that question. It has believable and distinct characters, great acting from previous unknowns, a credible plot, an excellent script both in story and dialog, and is set in an underserved, as it were, campaign, at an understudied time of the war.
We liked it. We liked it a lot. We actually used it to clear Kid’s brain of the trauma from watching the Worst Movie We Have Ever Seen, Hypothermia, a horror flick set on a Maine lake that had one thing too few — a Steven King story without Steven King is the very definition of hubris – and two too many — a “monster” that was a guy in a latex suit, à la 1952 Japanese horror films, and a climax in which the Last Surviving Humans negotiate with and appease the voracious thing. (Imagine Jaws, without the M1 and air tank and plus a soliloquy about the Chief’s respect for the fish’s place in the wondrous panoply of nature).
That would have put Kid off movies forever (and he already spends too much time on video games and homework, the other two corners of his triangular existence). So instead, we watched Fortress together, and he learned a little bit about World War II in the air, and cinema appreciation.
Fortress opens slowly — for a minute or two, with a glimpse of a North African setting. You get a single expository graphic that tells you why American heavy bombers — B-17E and -F models — and their ten-man crews are flying from just-seized North Africa against Italy, where they meet stiff resistance from flak and Luftwaffe fighters. Then you’re suddenly pulled up through the floor of a B-17F Lucky Lass in an incredible effects shot, and thrown in amongst its crew as they fight for their country, and their lives, but mostly for each other, in a raid on Gerbini, Italy.
The fight is dramatic and graphic without the fetishistic, disturbed violence of a Tarantino film: it’s more realistic. And the end, the ship is barely intact and the crew is, well, not… and you, the viewer, feel their losses just as you felt their fear as flak riddled the plane and fighters screamed in for the kill. The tactics are realistic: fighters did indeed single out any straggler, just as lions on the Serengeti mercilessly prowl the edge of the herds of wildebeest or zebra, culling the weak, the halt and the lame.
On the ground, we meet new characters: three replacements for the crewmen lost in the first raid. But the Lass herself is on the bubble, and the crew must draw a max effort out of a maintenance chief and crew who are already beyond max effort.
Several seeming subplots and side effects drive the script along. When the pilot alone likes the native Berber roast goat, it will have effect later on; when a sandstorm sweeps through the aviators’ camp, it brings consequences in its wake. Reputations are lost, or made; friendships are formed and snuffed out.
The normal (and war-weary) trope of the Hollywood Slice of America Squad is turned on its head; the original crew are bonded, in part, because they all happen to be Irish, and the Lucky Lass’s nose art, which is just “there” and never dwelt on, is a pinup overlaid on a green four-leaf clover. The replacements are not Irish — copilot Michael Schmidt, who has difficulty fitting in, is an abstemious, serious Lutheran farm boy — and this is one more obstacle to them bonding with the crew. The skipper, Wally, tells Mike not to worry: when the flak is heavy, everyone will forget any differences. “So, I need to pray for flak?” Mike asks with an eyebrow raised. Wally comments on the irony and shrugs — perhaps it doesn’t make any sense, perhaps it does, but there it is, either way. Moments like this make Fortress soar above the usual low-budget independent film. It’s gripping, but not an ordeal; sentimental, but not mawkish.
Acting and Production
You’re not going to see marquee names here, unless your marquee has Bug Hall (who plays new copilot Mike Schmidt) or Donnie Jeffcoat (Wally). You are going to see professional actors who have been working steadily (Hall, for instance, since childhood) and give a life to their characters that a big name probably couldn’t.
Most of the actors are young, and that makes them far more effective in this kind of film than forty-something Hollywood stars would have been. (Indeed, the original crews were in their teens and twenties, younger than the Fortress actors).
The film punches far above its budgetary weight, thanks primarily to a lively and accurate script and a lot of attention to detail by all concerned.
Accuracy and Weapons
The film is generally historically accurate. Where there are deviations, they are less in the key facts, or even in the minute details of the aircraft, weapons and equipment, but more in small anachronisms in the script. For example, there’s a reference to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which was some 20 years in the future (the World War II reference would have been to the Manual for Courts-Martial). On the other hand, the movie had a pitch-perfect ear for the strange dichotomy between the Air Corps’ official policy of officer/enlisted nonfraternization and the reality of tight bonds between all ranks of an aircrew, which continued on the ground as in the air.
To make this model, the Paul K. Guillow company scaled a B-17 down 28 times and designed a wooden structure for it. For the Lucky Lass set, the producers scanned the model plans and scaled the upper fuselage of the model back up.
The principal weapon in the movie, and one of the stars, is none other than the Lucky Lass, which is either a CGI rendition in exterior shots or an ingenious, full-scale mockup for interiors. How ingenious? The producers acquired a 1:28 scale B-17 model and scaled it back up, producing in effect a 1:1 B-17 fuselage kit. They only built the upper fuselage, above what Guillow’s, the company whose model was used, calls the “side keels.” This rested on a stout wooden ladder frame, which rested in turn on … scrap tires.
The tires, which are of course off camera (the fullsize set was used primarily for interiors) act as springs, and when the “aircraft” was “in flight,” assistants jostled the frame to simulate turbulence and make the actors react… they jostled harder when the plane was “over the target, taking flak.” It sounds corny, and it’s delightfully low-tech, but it worked.
Not all the interior details of the plane are accurate, because there has to be enough space to film what’s going on, and it’s hard to frame shots if you’re shooting through a mass of mechanical items and hydraulic tubing.
The firing is realistic, in most cases, although sometimes the CGI flak and light AA is a bit thick. This was Rome, as bad as an air raid on Rome was, not Berlin.
A few of the maneuvers are a bit over the top, but we’re not willing to say no B-17 crew ever did them.
The CGI is among the best we’ve ever seen. The aerial combat scenes have a resemblance to those in the History Channel TV show Dogfights, apparently because the same technology was used. (Director Mike Phillips was a producer of that show, and scriptwriter Adam Klein has worked with Phillips before). But the aviation scenes where the CGI is a little “off” are not the combat scenes, but the takeoffs.
We did wonder if their CGI Fortress was a little narrow in the cockpit area, as we thought the Guillow’s model was, but we’re not certain. Places where the CGI doesn’t quite work include some of the aerial shots of the camp, the sandstorm, which will be very unimpressive to any vet of a real haboob, and that sort of thing. But it’s nothing like the lame CGI that has kneecapped so many excellent Chinese and Korean movies — even at its worst, it’s better than that.
The bottom line
Fortress is a history lesson, a drama, and a hell of a lot of fun. Supposedly these guys had to go direct-to-DVD because they couldn’t get distribution after a very long period of trying, which is a crying shame. Due to salty GI language, they probably couldn’t have gotten it on TV which would seem to us like its natural home. We’d urge each of you to go out and buy a copy for the following reasons:
- It’s pretty damn good.
- It’s inexpensive entertainment.
- Mike Phillips’s direction was good, and he deserves to be rewarded.
- We don’t know Adam Klein from, well, Adam, but if this is the quality of script he writes, we damned well ought to.
- The (mostly young) actors are good.
If you’re penurious or just plain cheap, perhaps Netflix or Amazon streaming has it — or soon will. If you make it to the end — and we can’t really see why you might not — it’s worth hanging in there for the credits, which with Pythonesque humor inform you, among other things, that “No B-17s were harmed during the making of this film.”