Category Archives: Book and Film Reviews

Saturday Matinee 2015 046: Stosstrupp 1917 (German, 1931)

stosstrupp 1917First things first: this is a Nazi propaganda film. Writer-Director Hans Zöberlein was unquestionably a Nazi: Party member #869, Beer Hall Putsch participant, and ultimately a Brigadier (Brigadeführer) in the SA storm troops, and leader of the short-lived Werwolf Nazi resistance. In that capacity he was responsible for the summary court-martial and execution of a number of anti-Nazi citizens who had, briefly, supplanted the Nazi mayor of the small town of Penzberg.

After the war he was a perfect illustration of courts’ everywhere (except perhaps, the USSR) willingness to “split the difference” with a convict:

  1. Convicted of War Crimes, he was sentenced to death;
  2. The Munich court of appeals revoked that sentence, and sentenced him to life imprisonment with permanent loss of civil rights;
  3. In 1952, a Denazification Court tagged him additionally with two years at hard labor, ten years’ loss of professional licenses, and forfeiture of assets.
  4. In 1958, the elderly (67-year-old) Nazi was released from prison on humanitarian grounds. He lived quietly in Munich until 1964.

So yeah, Zöberlein is about a certified a Nazi as a Nazi can get, war criminal and all. And of the movie had considerable Nazi  backing; a special firm, “Arya-Film,” was created to sponsor it.

The chaos of the trenches from overhead -- a shot reminiscent of Platoon.

The chaos of the trenches from overhead — a shot reminiscent of Platoon.

But the movie before us is also a rarity that’s unique inasmuch as we are aware: a World War I movie whose writer-director was actually a veteran of the front in the war in question. Hans Zöberlein was a mid-grade NCO, decorated with the German Empire’s Iron Cross of the 1st and 2nd Classes, and the Bavarian state’s Golden Medal for Bravery, the highest Bavarian decoration for the enlisted class. Indeed, the only other war movies made expressly by the participants we can think of are Audie Murphy’s To Hell and Back (which was directed by a professional) and Oliver Stone’s Platoon. 

glaube an DeutschlandZöberlein’s book Der Glaube an Deutschland (Faith in Germany) was intended as a response to Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front1 and its explicitly pacifistic message of war as bleak, inhuman, and dehumanizing. His Nazi ties paid off here, as Hitler wrote a rare forward to the novel. It was a huge success, selling some 800,000 copies.

Zöberlein publicly accused Remarque of overstating his combat record, and publicly asked him to name where, when and with whom he was at the front. The internationally-renowned author ignored his German rival, and never responded, but Zöberlein pointedly published his own war record for anyone to check. (Remarque’s biography suggests that he spent about a month at the front in an engineer unit before receiving shrapnel wounds requiring his evacuation)

Acting and Production

German poster stosstruppThe acting is workmanlike and unobtrusive. The characters are a range of German “types” — the Bavarian country boy, the Prussian city kid, the wise old farmer (also Bavarian, played by co-director Ludwig Schmid-Wildy.

A great deal of money was spent on the movie, particularly on location shots. Zöberlein’s debut as a director was cushioned by teaming with Schmid-Wildy. Likewise, the movie was heavily promoted. Unlike Remarque’s works, which produced many translations and international versions (like the Oscar-winning 1931 US movie), Zöberlein’s oeuvre didn’t travel well outside the Fatherland.

Accuracy and Weapons

Zöberlein took great pains with the accuracy of the film. The weapons and uniforms appear right, the firing is realistic, the explosions are the most accurate you are likely to see. Artillery shells don’t just make a flash and a blast, but they heave up great quantities of earth.


Stosstrupp grenadier

Even such details as the shock troops having MG08/15 and Mauser 98AZ carbines while the regular line dogs have MG08s on sled mounts and 98A long rifles are mostly maintained. The French have French rifles (Lebel and Berthier), the British mostly British Lee-Enfields, but some British extras had 98AZ carbines too (perhaps the studio ran out of Enfields).

Stosstrupp 1917 germans

In the scenes of the Battle of Cambrai, the British use Mark IV tanks. These seem fairly accurate. (Hitler’s surviving watercolors include several of British and captured and reused tanks).

stosstrupp MG08-15A scene of a fragmentary patrol order is concise and accurate enough to be used as a training film. It’s notable that grenade-throwers were designated in the order; they carried their carbines but their main function was to sling Stielhandgranate stick grenades or captured Mills bombs. The importance of ‘nades to trench CQB is made crystal clear here.

Some things are not right. The sights and sounds of close quarters combat — of spade- and bayonet-fighting — are, of necessity perhaps, sanitized.

There is a theme in here that is likely to be seen as accurate by some and inaccurate by others. The feeling of the comradeship of front-fighters that the movie celebrates — a comradeship that explicitly transcends nationality, in which a German Landser has more in common with the poilu facing him than either does with his own nation’s leaders or industrialists — is one truth of war, but so is Remarque’s toxic brew of fear, isolation, and alienation. Which of those is stronger in a combat veteran’s memories depended, then as now, on where you fought and who fought with you. Depended, then, on the luck of the draw.

The bottom line

Stosstrupp 1917 is, as it was intended, the anti-All Quiet. It does not shrink from the terrors of the frontline, but it denies the nihilism of the more famous book and film, and says that, damn it, the frontline soldiers fought for something, and they fought with all their heart. It was not their fault they were beaten.

It is chilling to remember where history took this feeling of having been defeated unfairly. Indeed, Zöberlein took it there explicitly in his follow-on work, which was called Das Befehl des Gewissens (The Dictate of Conscience) as a book and Um das Menschenrecht (Of Human Rights) as a movie2, and dealt with the defeat as back-stab and the postwar socialist revolution and Freikorps movement from an explicitly Nazi and anti-Semitic point of view.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page:

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:


  • Wikipedia  page:


  1. There’s a great deal of noise made about the fact that the customary English title of Remarque’s work and its derivative movies and TV shows, All Quiet on the Western Front, is not the literal translation of the German title, Im Westen Nichts Neues (better rendered, literally, as “Nothing New in the West.”) In fact, Remarque’s title is in the sparse, formulaic wording of a German war diary, and original translator Arthur Wheen’s English title uses the exact same idiom from a period British document. It is, therefore, a perfect translation, and poor Wheen has been beaten up since 1929 for an error that is nothing such. An American log or diary would probably be further abbreviated: “In the West NSTR” — Nothing Significant To Report.
  2. While, from the synopses, these works appear to have the same theme and setting (post-war Germany and the Freikorps movement) and similar characters, the movie seems to have come out well before the 1937 novel.

Saturday Matinee 2015 045: Kilo Two Bravo (British, 2015; was Kajaki, 2014)

K2B posterWe’ve all seen this before: men trapped in a minefield. Indeed, it’s got a TV Tropes page. But this movie, which was launched to great acclaim last year in Britain as Kajaki, is the true story of a patrol of paras who walked into a minefield that was abandoned or forgotten in the last century by Soviet soldiers, and spent 30 years or more lying in wait with the cruel patience of soulless machines.

The initial mine triggered an escalating day of terror and pain, combining with Coalition ineptitude to leave the men in the mines for five full hours until a winch-equipped Black Hawk — a capability that the British Army no longer maintains, organically — arrived to evacuate the casualties.

K2B KajakiWe don’t know why they chose the numb name Kilo Two Bravo for the US release. It was the patrol’s radio callsign; Kajaki refers to the area, village and dam all of which share that name. Neither name is particularly catchy. Kilo Two Bravo, or Kajaki if you will, is a grisly and unsparing look at suffering in war. The heroism on display here is the heroism of the men that face death to help their wounded friends; the actual enemy makes only a cameo appearance in some night-vision and long-distance footage. Instead the fight is against robotic, impersonal machines, and against the very personal mechanisms of injury and death they impose on the wounded Britons.

It does seem to get off to a very slow start. 15 minutes in, not only has nothing happened, it hasn’t even been foreshadowed. But a Yank needs those 15 minutes to start coming to grips with the wide range of British accents anyway: lilting West Indian, growly Scot, lower-class Londoner, the inevitable Irishmen who always turn up to fight for someone else’s Queen. Just about anything, in fact, except the posh “received pronunciation” of 20th Century BBC that Yank ears have no problem with. (The accent problem is exacerbated by the audio recording or mastering problem we’ll mention below).

There is one long distance, completely inconclusive, engagement, that ends on the ironical note that an inept NATO F-16 has the totally unfitting callsign, Hitman.

K2B BaseCamp

When the mines are finally foreshadowed, they’re done by proxy: the soldiers feed a three-legged feral dog. “With the Russians, it was mines,” one of the troopers mutters, darkly. “Millions of them.”

The director does an excellent job of building tension.

Lives hang, in the end, from a thin thread composed of the Fog of war and a winch. And for want of a winch, lives were lost in this case (it is, after all, a true story).

The British removed the winches from their Chinooks due to a technical problem. They never replaced them due to the more usual British Army problem – no money. Thus the insistence of the soldiers that they needed, not a Chinook, but the slower-flying, smaller, but winch-equipped   HH-60s from the AFSOC air rescue detachment at Kandahar. As the request goes up each echelon, there’s one more chance the game of Telephone will lead to the wrong helicopter being dispatched, sure as sunrise.

While the air is up in the air, a horrible series of events plays out.

One man down.

Then two.

Then, disaster. With no Pave Hawk available, the rear echelon sends a Chinook anyway. As it hovers, its rotor wash creating a small local sandstorm, and rocks tumble around the huddled wounded and the men who came to succor them.

It’s amazing how many ways a mine can be set off, that’s all we’re gonna say about that.

Acting and Production

The actors are unknown to us, but none of them seems to be acting. They behave like soldiers; a couple of small-part American contractors behave like Yank contractors (for once, in a British film, the Yanks aren’t all evil or incompetent. They helped the Brits, rather than hindered them).

Mark Stanley (foreground) plays medic Tug Hartley, one of many heroes that day.

Mark Stanley (foreground) plays medic Tug Hartley, one of many heroes that day. Tug wasn’t a hero because he wasn’t scared, but because he was scared half out of his wits, and still went into the minefield to treat his friends.

The locations are uncanny in their replication of the actual terrain, some of which we’ve walked. (There but for the Grace of God….)  Indeed, our first thought was that they somehow got location footage and shot on green screen, but, in fact, the locations they used were in Jordan. The Royal Jordanian Armed Forces supported the movie.


The little details of combat life are realistic, maybe too realistic. You see the chaos of a mine strike, the real reaction of a wounded man, the initial creepy silence while shock delays pain. Yeah, tough guys really scream when you’re putting a tourniquet on ‘em. The field medical procedures are absolutely realistic, as are the skills of the medics. Indeed, a subtext here is the seeming casuality of the paras which can turn instantly to professionalism.

Kilo Two Bravo overwatch

“Corporal Stu Hale” on the Accuracy International L115 sniper rifle in .338 LM. Later, when he’s wounded, Stu’s two concerns were for his rifle… and for the effect on his hopes to attend SAS Selection.

One of the best things is the realistic depiction of humor under fire. Yeah, it really exists, but it’s not Hemingway or James Bond style quips and bons mots. It’s often a wry take on the irony or absurdity of a situation — and that happens frequently here. One scene we watched over and over was a small thing — a trooper comes to gather the name, rank and serial number of the wounded for the hours-delayed medevac.

The explosions are realistic, again, too damned realistic, as is the creepy moment of silence afterward.

iTunes is a bust for movie viewing. We won’t do that again.

We tried something new, or actuially, something we hadn’t done in a long time, watching the movie on iTunes. We had’t done it for a long time because last time we did, it sucked, and we’re here to tell you: it still sucks.

There is one very strong pro: by letting you download the film to your disc, Apple does not deliver the herky-jerky buffering and cubist pixelation that comes with Amazon’s compression scheme. The iTunes video, even the SD version, is vastly superior to the Amazon streaming alternative.

On the other hand, you’re stuck with a file taking up 3GB of your drive. From past experience, we don’t trust Apple not to double-bill us if we nuke the file and then try to watch the movie again later.

And, despite Apple’s advantage in image quality, Apple’s retarded DRM is even more brain-dead than Amazon’s, or anyone else’s, DRM. It won’t even let you take a screen shot! Ergo, all these images are the officially released stuff from the studio, not the pictures we’d have taken.

It may be a problem with the movie, or it may have been just one more turd in the septic tank that is iTunes, but the sound levels were very, very low. Low enough that you’d have to constantly rewind and rewatch scenes.

Accuracy and Weapons

The weapons look and feel right, although the finest sniper rifle is no use to you when you tread on a mine, and there’s very little shooting for a war movie. What there is does look right, as does some firing observed under night vision, and all the explosions.


As mentioned above, the explosion, the dust and smoke, and the moment of silence afterward are all too accurate.

Very near the beginning of the movie, you see the Afghan pastime of grenade fishing, and the sound is perfect.

The bottom line

Kilo Two Bravo (or Kajaki, if you’re in the Old World) is grim and tortuously accurate portrayal of one bad day in a long war. The technical problems with the video mode we tried were not enough to ruin the viewing experience. The movie is compelling, at times horrifying, at times heartbreaking.

Compelling? We were screening the last half hour of the movie for this review when the Blogbrother walked in for one of the usual nightly plane sessions. We made the plane session a brief dose of planning, before returning to our office, at his insistence, to see how the movie ended — and he picked up viewing it after the most intensive scenes were long over.

There may not be any movie, ever, that does so good a job of portraying the on-field chaos that’s so often dismissed with the old Clausewitz line, “fog of war.”

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page:

Kilo Two Bravo is only available in streaming mode:

Its British version, Kajaki, is available on DVD but it’s a Region 2 (Europe only) DVD, useless unless you are European or have a multi-zone DVD player.

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (100% Fresh):

  • Wikipedia  page:

About the Actual Incident

This incident received a lot of media in the UK, but it may be unknown to yanks. Here are some sories explaining it:

The Grauniad: NATO red tape is blamed for para’s death

The Telegraph: Corporal Mark Wright’s death was notorious Afghanistan conflict incident


BRIEF Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week:

abebooks_buyIf you read this site, you probably read books.

We buy most of our books from Amazon. That works for new and used books. Today, however, Amazon presented us with a price we did not want to pay — hundreds of dollars for a used book. The same book was available on Google Play as a DRM’d ebook for $250. And it was a gun control textbook — every dollar of it going right to the enemies of America, freedom, and your gun rights.

Enter ABEBooks. The online used bookseller interface hooked us up with a copy of the previous edition for under six bucks, and several other used and out of print gun books.

It still won’t help you with a  real rarity — Balleisen’s Principles of Firearms is going for $400 here — but it gets you around the greedy professors who make frequent new editions to finance their lifestyles and their anti-gun activism. $6, and not a dime of it to the guy that would destroy us. That’s a win.

Publishers: Unpublished Grenada Book in Our Book Budget

Steve is the Ranger in the picture, with two people who are not Rangers. Can anyone ID them?

Steve is the Ranger in the picture, with two people who are not Rangers. Can anyone ID them?

Estéban Trujillo de Guitiérrez — “Steve” or “Doc T” to most of us — remembers little of the ceremony in Washington, but he remembers where he was when they put the habeas grabbas on him to attend.

I had just gotten off a Huey somewhere in the South Ranier Training Area with a class of Rippies1, when SFC Conrad pulled up in a jeep. He said, “Doc, you got to go to DC.” We were in the woods. I have no idea how long that it took Conrad to drive to the infil point.

I said, “I am walking this patrol.”

He replied, “You are going to DC. Get in.” So I did. No one asked me, “Would you like to go to Washington DC?” I was told to go, given a packing list, and dropped off at Sea-Tac airport.

via Magic Kingdom Dispatch: Rose Garden ceremony..

The event that got Steve sent to the White House Rose Garden, a rarefied place indeed for a Ranger E-5 (how many F-bombs got inadvertently dropped on genteel ears during that visit) was Operation Urgent Fury, the invasion of Grenada. Steve has written a book on his experiences; that that book is unpublished is a crime against nature. He is a writer of skill and power, and well known to all in the Army SOF community from his service in Rangers, SF, and elsewhere. Here’s another example of his Grenada recollections, published at the usually anti-soldier Daily Beast, of all places:

We are over water, the door-gunners firing furiously, and the Lieutenant stands peeking around the frame of the helicopter waiting for the bird to hover over sand. We see that we are mere feet away from the beach, and Andy kicks the Lieutenant out of the chopper as we jump into the surf under fire. The Lieutenant moves too slowly and the air is electric with bullets as the helicopter takes hits with that sledgehammer sound.

I am right behind Andy and I step squarely on the Lieutenant’s back, leaving a jungle boot print on his fatigue jacket as he sprawls in six inches of water. Then we run for our lives, run for the sanctuary of the sea wall, sheltering there shaking from the nearness of death. Scott, Andy and the others drop their rucksacks and look for targets. Slater is laughing again. We see no enemy. I notice in a slow-motion dream-state the beauty of the beach, quaint hotels with curtains over their windows, glass shattering with machine-gun bursts fired by the helicopter door-gunners. I am numb, on automatic pilot, and function despite my fear.

At the risk of riling Steve up, we'll use a DOD file photo of Rangers in Grenada that is C/1/75, not his 2nd Bat guys....

At the risk of riling Steve up, we’ll use a DOD file photo of Rangers in Grenada that is C/1/75, not his 2nd Bat guys… the left-handed RTO looks pretty miserable, huh?

Earlier, a Soviet diplomat stood trembling in our gunsights while we searched him and his car. He drove alone to Point Salines to deliver an official message from his government to the senior American commander. He looked like he expected to be nailed to a wall and shot. We must have seemed like cutthroats to him, bloodied American Rangers with black faces. He was stunned when we finished our search, handed back his watch and credentials, and led him away to deliver his message. He was treated firmly, but with formality. Courtesy did not come easily. Squatting behind the sea wall, Andy and I wonder if he is in the Soviet Embassy hiding beneath his desk while Cubans lie dead in the debris of the burning roof, their broken mortar beside them.


Scott is lecturing an anti-tank gunner, “do not fire unless I tell you.” The gunner wants to kill something, he wants to fire his cannon, but Scott will not permit it unless he has a worthy target. I am proud of Scott, he is a fine Ranger sergeant in combat, and amongst ourselves, there is no higher accolade. Behind us, pandemonium rules on the beach as the students that we came to rescue are herded in groups onto the helicopters.

Our turn to go. We blow the claymores as we pull out, and we cover each other as we return to the shoreline. Andy tells me, “someday we should come back here on vacation.” I look at him in outrage, but he is right. It is a beautiful place, or it was, until we blew the shit out of it. The students are gone and we are nearly left behind, but we wade into the surf and we pull each other into an overloaded helicopter hovering over the water, the door gunners heedlessly firing into beachfront homes. The copilot turns and yells at us to hurry. The chopper shudders beneath our weight and vibrates with the intermittent dings of bullets. In the confusion, another bird is hit and abandoned, and the crew runs to ours. Their helicopter squats in the surf with its rotors drooping. Scott, Big Ed, Andy and I make it out on the last bird to leave Grand Anse Beach. It was not planned that way.

Planning imagery for the drop was based on satellite photos or the Point Salines airstrip, like this one.

Planning imagery for the drop was based on satellite photos or the Point Salines airstrip, like this one.

Until some history publisher gets a dose of smelling salts and contracts Steve’s book, you can read some excerpts at his website, Magic Kingdom2 Dispatch, along with his musings on current events, the surveillance state, etc.. Doc posts Grenada stories most often around the anniversary of the invasion, which fell in late October, 1983 (we were in Phase II, Light Weapons, at SFQC, with some very, very frustrated Rangers).

The post that reminded us to write about Doc T and his book was this one, about fallen Ranger, 60 gunner Mark Yamane. That post recounts Yamane’s fate, as one of the Rangers whose everyday courage got him singled out for death. It also describes in detail the jump’s success, a triumph of improvisation in the face of military chaos.

We didn’t know Yamane. The only Grenada KIA we knew was Phil Grenier, from Ranger School Class 1-83. We didn’t know him well, just had one conversation about a hometown we were born in and left behind in early childhood, but he grew up in. You don’t have a lot of time to talk in Ranger School.

Incidentally, the world is missing a really good (i.e., not lightweight re-popped journalism) overview history on Urgent Fury. That book is sitting on the desk of former Marine GySgt. Joe Muccia. Doc T can put you in touch with Joe, too. Castalia House, are you listening? Presidio? Naval Institute Press?


  1. “Rippies” are Ranger (then Battalion, now Regiment) volunteers experiencing the myriad joys of RIP, the Ranger Indoctrination Program  (which has been replaced by RASP; the acronyms bark but the Rangers patrol on). If you made it through RIP, you could become a real Ranger like Doc, and wear the scroll on your shoulder, as long as you could keep it.
  2. “Magic Kingdom”? Steve lives in the earthly paradise of savory women and beautiful food that is Thailand. We’d call him a lucky bleep, but he seems to have made his own luck. Napoleon would approve.

Saturday Matinee 2015 042: Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)

sands of iwo jima dvdSome years ago, we encountered a young soldier who was anxious to tell us all about his fighting vehicle. The Stryker, he told us, enabled his unit to sneak up on the Taliban, which was not only news to us, it would have been news to the bearded enemy as well.

And the name of the vehicle? Unlike other Army vehicles, the naming rights of which are owned by the WPPA, he Stryker was named for a sergeant — “Sergeant Stryker from Sands of Iwo Jima.” The soldier, of course, was mistaken; the Stryker is indeed named after NCOs, but after two NCOs named Stryker; then Chief of Staff Rick Shinseki couldn’t make up his mind which one merited the honor, so he named the thing for both. But the fact that the soldier thought  it was named after John Wayne’s character in a film that’s a lifetime old says something about the cultural reach of this classic. And that’s in the Army. Imagine the cultural impact of Sands on the force it actually depicts — the United States Marine Corps!

Even period promotion said little about the crew.

Even period promotion said little about the crew — and that in the finest print.

Sands is always remembered as a John Wayne film, and the men behind the camera — director Allen Dwan and screenwriters Harry Brown and James Edward Grant — are all but forgotten (Dwan made dozens of movies in all genres and of all quality; Brown and Grant were steady workers, Grant very often on John Wayne movies). Such is stardom; the script and the direction essentially disappear, and Wayne’s character owns the screen for 1:49.

As Sands of Iwo Jima opens, a Marine unit is training endlessly for an upcoming battle. The squad leader, Wayne’s Sergeant John Stryker, is a merciless taskmaster who is hated by his men.  He gives the impression of having failed at humanity as well; his wife has left him, taking his young son away from him (in 1943’s America, this was rare and scandalous; nowadays a deployed trooper half expects it).

Over a series of carefully introduced revelatory scenes, we learn by the movie’s end the full depth of the Stryker character, and long before that we come to understand — as the more switched-on members of the squad do — the method to the martinet. Stryker is transformed, but so is each of the men who served under him.

Acting and Production


You know you want to blow this up, print it off, and frame it in your office cubicle. Just to freak out the ditzy blonde from HR.

You know you want to blow this up (it does embiggen), print it off, and frame it in your office cubicle. Just to freak out the ditzy blonde from HR.

John Wayne, merely an actor in the 1949-50 film season and not the icon he would become, was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for Sands. He didn’t win, but it’s still a memorable performance. Several of the other actors hold their own, especially John Agar as Pete Conway, the kid rebelling against his own military heritage, and longtime character actor Forrest Tucker as Al Thomas, a man who comes to have a secret to awful to share, and too big to keep.

One of the most interesting details of the production is that a number of actual Iwo Jima vets have roles on screen. Among these are a lieutenant who keeps bringing a flag to invasions, only to be beaten out by other enterprising flag-raisers; Lt. Schreier is a real guy, and plays himself. In the end, of course, Stryker gives his flag to three guys who actually took part in the second (legendary) flag-raising, something contemporary publicity stills noted.

The scene in which Wayne's character gives the flag to the real veteran flag raisers (l-r: Rene Gagnon, John Bradley, Ira Hayes. They were the three survivors of the six flag-raisers).

The scene in which Wayne’s character gives the flag to the real veteran flag raisers (l-r: Rene Gagnon, John Bradley, Ira Hayes. They were the three survivors of the six flag-raisers).

A posed publicity still with the same guys!

A posed publicity still with the same guys! L-r: Hayes, Bradley, Wayne [Stryker], and Gagnon.

It’s surprising to us, but an informal poll of acquaintances found that all knew of the movie, but none knew the actual flag-raising survivors were in the cast.

Accuracy & Weapons

Wayne and company hit the beach in a Landing Vehicle, Tracked.

Wayne and company hit the beach in a Landing Vehicle, Tracked. Sure, this is rear projection, but they needed, and used, lots of Marine gear and Marine assistance.

If you’re going to make a movie about the Marine Corps in World War II, it’s pretty hard to beat the accuracy of (1) doing it within five years of the war, before the Marines could change much; (2) getting as much Marine support as you can; (3) recruiting some real Marines for bit parts; and (4) filming the whole thing at Camp Pendleton.

Pendleton doesn’t have the black sand that sent Clint Eastwood to Iceland for locations for his Iwo films, but otherwise, it stands in well. Having hundreds if not thousands of Marine extras added to the verisimilitude of the film.

The movie ran into a problem that the producers of the miniseries The Pacific would run into — no one Marine unit hit all the big-name beaches. The Pacific, committed to telling a true story, had to use three point of view Marines. Sands just blew that off and had Stryker be a veteran of the Guadalcanal campaign (presumably with the 1st Mar Div), and then with his new squad hit Tarawa (with the 2nd Mar Div?) and then Iwo (with the 3rd, 4th, or 5th?). Hey, the story needed Stryker to be a combat vet, and then the squad to hit two beaches. What is happening at Division level is not of much consequence to a rifle squad.

Sands of Iwo Jima BARThe weapons are all correct, apart from a few small quibbles — for instance, the ill-fated Greek uses an early M1918 BAR without a bipod. But… many Marines and soldiers took the bipods off their BARs during the war; it’s “good enough.” But initially, the Marines train with Springfields, which is absolutely correct. By the Tarawa beach, they have M1 rifles. By Iwo, some of them are carrying M1 carbines. Secondary weapons like mortars and flamethrowers — you can’t have a Pacific War film without depicting the horror of flame weapons — are depicted rightly, also.

Hey, Tojo, say hello to my little FOOM! You can't have a Pacific flick without a flamethrower.

Hey, Tojo, say hello to my little FOOM! You can’t have a Pacific flick without a flamethrower.

The American uniforms all appear correct. This is remarkable for such an early film.

The “Japanese” soldiers have what appear to be 100% correct Japanese rifles and  machine guns, and their uniforms appear mostly correct — they may have modified American helmets, it’s not clear.


The bottom line

Sands of Iwo Jima john wayne

See this film, or John Wayne will rise from the grave and kick your ass.

Sands of Iwo Jima has lasted — it had a limited theatrical re-release in 2014, for crying out loud. It has lasted for the best of reasons — because it’s very, very good. It holds up as cod history of the War in the Pacific, it speaks truly of men in combat, and it holds up, especially, as a character study — of John Wayne’s Sergeant John Stryker, John Agar’s Pete Conway, and secondary characters like Forrest Tucker’s Al Thomas alike.

And were else are you going to see the genuine Bradley, Hayes and Gagnon together on screen?

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page:

(Single disc, $15.99, and no, we don’t know why they credit Richard Jaeckel and not Wayne in the URL.)

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (a rare 100%):

  • Wikipedia  page (contains a laughably incorrect description of the term “lock and load,” which it tells us is a “period term.” Well, what do you expect? It’s Wikipedia, the General Motors of information):

Saturday Matinee 2015 041: The Hot Snow (Russian, 1972)


Protagonist Lieutenant Kuznetsov (Boris Tokarev). Man against tank, with not much chance of living.

the hot snow DVDBased on a book by Yuri Vassilievich Bondarev, himself a combat veteran who became a best-selling author of novels, The Hot Snow (In Russian, Goryachiy Sneg, more like “burning snow”)  is a sweeping story of small-unit fighting at a desperate point in the war on the Eastern Front. It is a classic of Soviet film, made in the depths of the Cold War and celebrating both the hard-won Soviet victory in World War II and the Soviet melting pot of nationalities — Americans will find a strange mirror of the squad with the Farm Boy and the Wop Kid from Brooklyn here, except it’s the Kazakh who speaks lyrically of the beauty of his Republic’s mountains and rivers, and this other officer who grew up in Chekhov’s hometown. These have become a war-film cliché but the war did take a lot of Soviets (and Americans) out of their farms, schools and factories, and set them cheek by jowl with very different people. After the war, society was never the same in either nation.


It is also a rare film depicting the artilleryman’s war, for the protagonist, Lieutenant Kuznetsov, and his battery are part of the arm the Russians have always called The God of War. Barrages and fire direction control would make for a dull story, but that’s not the kind of artilleryman Kuznetsov is: he is second in command of a battery of horse-drawn ZIS-3 76mm anti-tank guns, and fights the enemy direct-fire. A living German is seldom seen: a doomed TC popping out of his killed Tiger’s turret; a prisoner of some unknown significance, that some scouts died to bring in; that sort of thing. Instead, the Germans are a robotic menace, represented by endless fleets of Tiger tanks. In the movie, the soldiers never express frustration or lack of confidence in their weapons, but they don’t seem to actually kill the Tigers until they are very close, or with a flank shot. The Soviet defenders might have right on their side, and weapons that are “good enough;” but the German invaders have the better technology.

Some of the Tiger mockups are better than others, and some angles flatter them. This is about the worst.

Some of the Tiger mockups are better than others, and some angles flatter them. This is about the worst. 

The Soviets were late to the production of war films, despite having already produced masses of quality war literature (to which Bondarev was a major contributor, right out of his postwar graduation from his interrupted schooling). Producing a war film in the Soviet system was fraught with difficulties, because the top men in the country had ultimate control of Mosfilm, and the Great Patriotic War was their war.

The setting is this: it is December 1942. The Red Army has cut off von Paulus’s 6th Army — by Soviet reckoning, an Army Group of some 600,000 troops — in a pocket around Stalingrad (they achieved this on 23 November). Von Paulus has been forbidden to break out. Hitler has ordered him to fight and die in place. Von Manstein, one of the Nazis’ top Panzer leaders, is instead ordered to break through from his position southwest of Stalingrad and relieve the siege (it is not mentioned in the movie, but the Germans called this Operation Wintersturm). Manstein’s tanks hit the flank of the Soviet line hard. There is only one natural obstacle, the Mishkova river, and there they must hold or die. The movie is centered on Kuznetsov and his men… and the battery nurse, Tanya, on whom he has a chaste, hopeless crush. But there is also another plot — one that makes the movie a great study in leadership at several levels. General Bessonov has to throw what he has into the defense, and hold back his only-one-shot reserve tanks until the right moment, regardless of the human cost. Bessonov is a hard man and the audience will initially be unsympathetic to him, but in time you learn more of what makes him this way, and more of the depth of the man (he’s very reminiscent of Gregory Peck’s Frank Savage from 12 O’Clock High, and this movie is a leadership lab almost on that level). Conversely, Colonel Deyev, the recently promoted divisional commander, is a humane man who is tortured by the sufferings of his men, and wants to act on his frustration, with a PPSh in his hands and Germans in his sights. Bessonov needs to remind him, sharply: he isn’t a regimental commander any more.

Kuznetsov and a sergeant, in front of one of the better Tigers (perhaps T-54 based).

Kuznetsov and a sergeant, in front of one of the better Tigers (perhaps T-54 based, from the road wheels, although most of the Tigers are definitely T-34s in German drag).

Kuznetsov probably doesn’t understand in detail that the formation of Tigers bearing down on him is not just threatening Ma Kuznetsov’s baby boy, but also the very survival of the USSR. Deyev sees only the Calvary on which is unit is being crucified. Bessonov, though, understands. And Kuznetsov? Like Everyman, dragooned into a war he didn’t make, he fights for his life, and for his men.

Acting and Production

The story, script and acting are all very good. It must have been interesting on set; Bondarev was (and is) a devoted Stalinist, and the actor who played Bessonov perfectly, Georgi Zhzhonov, had the other traditional Soviet relationship with Stalin: his father was imprisoned, his brother extrajudicially murdered on bogus charges, his family exiled, and himself only spared because of his acting talent… briefly.

His exile sentence was postponed and he joined the cast and crew on a train to the filming location at the city of Komsomolsk-on Amur on the Pacific Far East. On the train he met an American diplomat, who treated Zhzhonov to a taste of American cigarettes and they had a friendly conversation. That was enough for the Soviet secret police to arrest him on false accusations of spying for America.

Remember, this guy was a stage and movie actor. What intelligence officer in his right mind suborns an actor? We had plenty of actors who were Communists but we don’t think they were passing the KGB any secrets.

Zhzhonov was forcefully separated from his wife, young actress Yevgeniya Golynchik, and was taken to the KGB prison in Leningrad. There he was tortured, humiliated, blackmailed and exiled to Kolyma in Siberia from 1938 to 1945. In 1945 he was allowed to work in Magadan Zapolyarny Drama Theatre in Siberia. In 1947 he came to Moscow, but he was banned from living in the Soviet Capital. He was arrested again on false accusations and was exiled to Norilsk in Northern Siberia. There he worked at the Zapolyarny Drama Theatre together with his friend Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy. Zhzhonov lived in exile until the death of Joseph Stalin.

In 1955, after 18 years of imprisonment and exile, Georgi Zhzhonov was allowed to return to his home town of Leningrad.

Later, one of his most beloved performances would be in the role he was falsely accused of, western spy. Indeed, on the occasion of his 90th birthday, President Vladimir Putin told Zhzhonov that his spy films had inspired Putin to take up a career in intelligence.

Zhzhonov replied with dark humor: “Just don’t arrest me again.”

Putin didn’t — he gave him a medal.

That was a long digression, but Zhzhonov’s story is a uniquely Russian one and adds a certain poignancy to his portrayal of the flinty Bessonov.


This image, rooked from IMFDB (most of them will be from IMFDB as we don’t have a free USB port to plug in the DVD drive today) , shows Bessonov in front of a killed “Tiger.”

Zhzhonov’s Bessonov is far from the only great performance in The Hot Snow. Vadim Spiridonov is perfect as Colonel Deyev, the man of action promoted to a level where sometimes he can’t just rush to the action and lead by example. Boris Tokarev is decent as Lieutenant Kuznetsov, the Everyman at the center of the storm. He has some scenery-chewing scenes but whether they are the fault of Tokarev, Bondarev’s original story, director and co-writer Gabriel Yegiazarov, or the third writer with a screenplay credit, Yevgeny Grigoriev,

The movie is well and professionally dubbed into English, with neutral American accents. We were expecting subtitles, so this was a The extras on the DVD, which include a retrospective interview with the actor that plays Kuznetsov, are only subtitled but are worth taking in.

Accuracy & Weapons

This movie has some of the most realistic depictions of combat in the history of film, despite a very conservative sort of censorship in the USSR that ensured that the film would not contain foul language — at one point, the nurse Tanya admonishes Kuznetsov for saying, “Hell” — or gratuitous gore. The explosions resemble real explosions, not Hollywood fireballs.

We’re not sure about the Army politruk as General Bessonov’s most trusted confidant and advisor, but it probably happened in some units. Politruks going out in a blaze of glory? It probably did go around, especially once word of Hitler’s Commissar Order (that they be executed on capture) got back to the east.

We also don’t know about the accuracy of women nurses with a unit as far forward as antitank artillery batteries (for non-vet readers, a battery is the artillery equivalent of a company, with six or fewer guns and roughly 100 men). In a conventional war, even indirect-fire artillery service is extremely hazardous, and direct-fire AT artillery more hazardous yet — the tanks and their accompanying infantry are really motivated to kill you. But the USSR in World War II was so totally mobilized that they used an awful lot of women soldiers. We tend to give Bondarev the benefit of the doubt here; after all, he was really there.

As the battle rages, the guns get more and more beat up.

As the battle rages, the guns get more and more beat up. Later, the shields will be holed by splinters; one gun’s recoil mechanism will dump its fluid, taking it permanently out of battery. All extremely realistic.

We mentioned before that this is a rare movie that centers on an artillery unit, even if it’s AT artillery. (Is there another? We’re not sure). The absolute misery of serving in a 20th Century horse-drawn artillery unit (not least on horses, and soldiers who love horses) is sketched in brief but searing scenes.


One thing that this movie does absolutely well is show some of the mechanics of artillery and of service of the piece. It is irritating to see movie cannons, firing blanks, that don’t recoil. The mechanism of a semi-automatic artillery piece is shown correctly here — the gun recoils, and ejects the fired case; the breechblock automatically closes when a new case is shoved in. The recoil mechanism even fails right.

The tanks are a mixed bag. The Tigers are built from T-34/85s and are fairly convincing; the running gear and slightly “off” proportions, especially off the turrets, give them away. Apparently these tanks were made for an earlier Mosfilm project and then reused for this movie. But the German tanks are all Tigers! It’s what we call “Red triplane syndrome,” from WWI movies that put all the Germans in clones of the Red Baron’s well known mount. You see scores and scores of Tigers, almost certainly more Tigers than existed on the entire Eastern Front in December 1942. Tankers were not only not the most common tank at Stalingrad, they were barely there. Indeed, the Tiger was only introduced that year, and by 31 December 42 only 78 had been produced. Only 1,350 in total were ever produced.

Better angle on a Tiger.

Better (more flattering) angle on a Tiger. This one’s about to throw its track. Tankers hate it when they throw a track, even if it doesn’t get them killed.

One thing that’s lost by using a 30-ton-range tank to play a 60-ton tank is the discrepancy in size between Tigers and everything else. (Fury got this across by using a real Tiger, an option that wasn’t available to Mosfilm — and they really tried to find a running Tiger anywhere in the USSR or world at the time).

Russland, Panzer VI (Tiger I) und T34

At least one Schweres Panzerabteilung was involved in Operation Wintersturm, the attempted relief of Stalingrad. Wikipedia uses this archival photo to illustrate its article on that event. The Bundesarchiv’s caption of this photo is: “Sowjetunion-Mitte.- Zwei deutsche Soldaten stehend auf Panzer VI “Tiger I”, rechts daneben beschädigter russischer Panzer T-34 ohne Ketten auf einer Straße stehend; PK Lfl 1″: “Soviet Union – Central. Two German soldiers standing on a PZkfw VI Tiger; on its right a damaged Soviet T-34 without tracks, standing on a road.” It looks like the Tiger is or was towing the T-34, maybe to clear the road. But the comparative size of the Tiger is evident.

There are dialog references to a “self-propelled gun” of the Germans, but it’s just the worst of the Tiger mockups! You will occasionally see a more modern Soviet vehicle in the background, playing a Soviet or a German role, but they generally keep the stuff in the foreground chronologically sound.

The Russian tanks are, likewise, late-war T-34/85s, mostly. The small-turret T-34s just weren’t kept around by the Soviet Army in any quantity, so they weren’t available for the film, even though that’s mostly what Ivan was fighting with in 1942.

The bottom line

The Hot Snow is one of the best war movies you probably haven’t seen, and it took pains with accuracy that contemporary Hollywood productions couldn’t bother with. It also works on a whole other level as a study of leadership at different levels. We don’t know how Russian audiences took to it in 1972 — it’s not like they had independent film critics or a lot of open discussion.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page:

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:,_The

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:

They never heard of it, but they’re in the pockets of Big Hollywood anyway.

  • Wikipedia  page:

Book Review: UnSafe by Design, Jack Belk (2014)

Jack BelkWe acquired this book with a view to adding it to our design library (see the Page linked above)

The full title is UnSafe by Design: Forensic Gunsmithing and Firearms Accident Investigations, and it was published by what we believe is Belk’s own imprint, “Truth ‘n Shootin’ Books.” The homey publisher’s name is a pointer to the tone of the book, so if affected country homey-ness sets your teeth on edge, this may not be the book for you.

His primary motivation, Belk says, in writing this was to produce:

A tutorial on firearms design and function with an emphasis on safety, using past investigations of failures to better understand why some guns are safer than others, by design.

In fact, his motivation seems to be partly that, and partly a defensive response to criticism of that part of Belk’s career that has been spent as a plaintiff’s expert in lawsuits against firearms manufacturers. That criticism can get vitriolic (example). He has legitimacy as an expert because he was also gunwriter — largely at Guns & Ammo magazine — and a gunsmith who trained at Trinidad and made custom hunting rifles at a shop in Filer, Idaho. In Belk’s world, the cause of the accident often is the gun, and more especially, it’s the way the evil corporate overlords cheaped out on the gun.

Belk believes that weapons should be designed so that they are as safe as possible. (Yes, we know: “Is gun. Is not safe.” But bear with us). He says that one thing that boils down to is this (from p. 423 [Kindle ed] but this is repeated throughout the book):

[A] gun that can fire without the trigger being pulled and can fire with the manual safety ON is a defective gun.

The Remington 700 series trigger, the so-called Walker trigger, is such a gun. Most of them never do this (we can’t recall a single incident with M24s over decades of use), but some will, and if you can make it through Belk’s writing style, which isn’t for everybody, you will learn what Belk thinks the problem is.

Here’s Remington’s counter to one of the TV stories based in part on Belk’s testimony (plaintiffs’ attorneys have been able to place their arguments with at least two TV networks, and both CNBC — countered here — and CBS’s 60 Minutes have run one-sided Remington trigger stories).

Belk, conversely, turns this into a morality play. From random places in the book:

…some English major that wants to write outdoor stories to do a ‘test report’ on the latest cheap piece of miss-designed hardware that would fit right into the toy section by mistake, and suddenly he’s a ‘gun writer’…

…Guns are made for economy. It is rare to find any gun that is made to be as good as it can be, only as good as is price competitive. There have always been cheap guns just like there were iron swords and inferior stone arrow heads…

…looked like a Browning and worked like a Browning but was considerably cheapened to make it more affordable.

Cheap guns are always suspect, even in the most simple of ways.

I think we can trace, by following design changes, the decline of safety in firearms dating back to just after the war with one company and then, like a domino falling in line, the others followed. Everybody had to get cheap or go broke.

Two comments there: by every measure, the incidence of firearms accidents has dropped like a rock since World War II. (Recall our post about the Maine accidents in 1954? It wasn’t a stand-alone post, but included in one of our Mess of Accidents compilations, quoting from Sports Illustrated):

During a Maine gunning season something like 165,000 hunters take to the woods. Of this number, a normal season’s accidents will run to 70 dead and wounded. [Inland Fish & Game Dep’t Special Investigator Maynard] Marsh’s casualty report this Saturday evening could be succinctly stated as: three Mistaken Identities; two Line of Fires; two Accidental Discharges. Score? five dead, two wounded.

As accidents get rarer, it seems that the tendency to blame the gun increases. And the “cheap” argument plays into the messages in constant heavy rotation in the pop culture.

Belk needs to be taken seriously even in his grating quasi-Marxist high-dudgeon mode (“the corporations did it to save money”), because he has carefully analyzed triggers in particular, and most especially the Remington Walker trigger on the Model 700 and its ancestors and derivatives, and the Remington Common Fire Control used on shotguns.

That he has done this at the behest of plaintiff’s attorneys, and for money, is more of an indictment of the American tort system than it is of Belk.

As a “tutorial,” though, the book is weak. While it is rich in design information, that information is so embedded in folksy argument that finding facts resembles going through dog poo for something valuable that Fido ingested. A great deal of the design information in here is also found in other books, as Belk himself admits, recommending Otteson and DeHaas:

Stuart Otteson has written about bolt action rifle design and excellent books on trigger mechanisms. Frank DeHaas Senior and Junior have books that describe trigger mechanisms as well. Information is power and I highly recommend them all.

Here’s an example of what we have called “defensive tone” above, but what Belk would probably say illustrates the passion he brings to firearms safety; it begins on p. 416 [Kindle edition]:

I’ve been accused of being a firearms busybody and critical of just about everything I see. To avoid that, I don’t go to many gun shows anymore. What do you do when you see a guy reaching for wads of bills while lusting for a Vulcan .50? I’m seriously asking that question of everyone. I can’t buy every dangerous gun I see and I can’t carry around a soap box and preach, either.

At a gunshow in Denver many years before I started testifying, I saw a man and a young son looking at .22 rifles. I love to watch people watching guns and they were a study. They were looking for something really cheap. I thought the kid wanted the gun more than his dad, but his dad was going along if it was cheap enough.

They fondled every old Mossberg and Savage and beat up old Coey in the show and then seemed to settle on the one gun there that was likely to blind the kid in both eyes and it could do it on the very first shot. They had seemed to decide on a Stevens Crackshot with a $ 60 price tag on it. It was worn out and the chances of it catching the rim of a modern .22LR between the extractor and barrel was very real. On closing the lever the gun fires out of battery and the brass fragments fan out in a pattern nearly assured of blowing out one or more eyes.

I didn’t know the dealer, but at least I had sixty bucks so I went over and told the dealer I was about to screw up his sale and here’s the money up front, and then explained to the man and his kid how it was dangerous and helped them buy a Winchester Model 69-A for just a few bucks more.

Indeed, Belk’s among basic contentions are that some firearms are unsafe by design, others are unsafe by manufacture, and that many buyers and shooters give altogether too much deference to manufacturers. For that reason, we found it an interesting, if sometimes exasperating, read.

There are gems in there, like his analysis of the Ruger #1 Rifle safety (which he likes and uses an example of a well-designed tang safety), and this (p. 243 in the Kindle ed.]:

A general rule of thumb for safeties is: The closer to the primer the safety operates the more inherent safety it’s likely to have. Firing pins are hard to block, lock or intercept on any gun but bolt action rifles. In other guns, whatever is closest to the firing pin usually gets locked or blocked. In descending order of distance from the firing pin are the hammer or striker, then the sear and then the trigger. When viewed from that direction, any gun that does not block, lock or intercept the hammer or striker must, by definition be less than safe by design.

You will just have to skip a lot of folksy mock-question-answering and stuff to get to things like that. The book has insights in it, but they take some mining to find. For this reason, and because Belk’s theory of the Walker trigger malfunction is completely unproven, we’re not going to place this book in our page of recommended design books.

We do, however, urge everyone carrying a Remington 700 or anything else to be sure of the muzzle direction and backstop at all times. What if Belk is right and it just goes off? What if Remington is right and the ADs were caused by bad maintenance or an unconscious finger on the trigger? Either way, if the rifle is not pointed at anything but the most inanimate and inexpensive thing around, any bang may be followed by a curse, but not by heartbreak or ruin.

We’re now going to do what Belk recommends, and read Otteson and DeHaas!


Belk, Jack. UnSafe by Design: Forensic Gunsmithing and Firearms Accident Investigations. Truth ‘n Shootin’ Books, 2014.

Available from Amazon in Paperback and Kindle formats:

Saturday Matinee 2015 038: The Enemy Below (1957)

enemy_below_mitchumThis one was recommended to us by none other than our banned commenter, Haxo Angmark. (Thanks, Haxo. But you’re still banned. How’s that for gratitude?)

Correction: Haxo informs us (through a comment we disapproved, ’cause he’s still banned) that he didn’t recommend this, but instead, The Bedford Incident, a Cold War nukes-are-bad-especially-in-American-military-hands black-n-whiter. His protest is noted. -Eds.

The Enemy Below was one of those classic stories that comes out when a decent interval since the war has passed, and people have been able to process their wartime emotions. (This always seems to take about fifteen years, we think). Featuring Robert Mitchum as a destroyer escort skipper, and Curt Jurgens as a u-boat commander, it was one of the first films to depict a Nazi officer as a decent human being.

It doesn’t tell a story of a war-changing, world-changing superconflict. It’s retail: a game of wits between the captains and crews of two ships that are known, mostly, by numbers, a US destroyer escort and a U-boat. (US destroyer escorts also had names as well as pennant numbers; German submarines of the era never had names).

The film was based on a British book by an anti-submarine warfare veteran, DA Rayner, and in true Hollywood style, the movies made the heroes Americans — and changed the ending substantially. In the novel, the British and German skippers wind up in the same lifeboat — and the Englishman clobbers his adversary. In the movie, the characters wind up, post-rescue, on the fantail of an American cruiser, sharing a smoke.

Acting and Production

The acting and writing is first class throughout. Mitchum is the new skipper whose men don’t know whether to trust him at first.

Robert Mitchum bonds with a wounded sailor in the ship's sick bay.

Robert Mitchum bonds with a wounded sailor in the ship’s sick bay.

Jurgens, whose German accent is, of course, natively perfect, manages to sell his character, Captain von Stolberg, as a man who loves his country but not his leadership. He does this in many ways; in the contempt he displays for an avid Nazi subordinate; in the way he slings his shirt over a propaganda sign referencing Der Führer, making of the supreme overlord of the Third Reich a clothes-rack. He also tosses off a reference to his history: no Nazi parvenu, he came up as a Fähnrich in U-Boats in the last war. Jurgens, perhaps, can sell this well because he had experienced the Third Reich (and a falling-out with the Third Reich) first-hand. His spaniel-loyal but Irish-setter-thick XO, Heinrich Schwaffer, is played perfectly by Theodore Bikel, whose family got out of Europe before he would have become one more arm tattoo, one more ill-fated extra in the bit of mismanagement theater that was the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem. Naturally, his German accent isn’t fake, either.

Jurgens and Bikel in the control room.

Jurgens and Bikel in the control room.

Bikel is especially good when he’s playing a man struggling to understand. His captain is a man who has considered the moral dimensions of the war and of the Third Reich; the XO has not, he simply follows, loyally, admiringly. When the captain engages him in a discussion with a moral dimension, the director takes a close reaction shot of Bikel, who manages to portray both puzzlement and a desperate struggle to keep up.

The underwater scenes, including torpedo firing and depth-charges, seem clichéd, but that’s because every film since has aped them. In 1957, they earned a special-effects Oscar nomination for The Enemy Below.


The director, legend Dick Powell in his last feature film, uses juxtaposition cunningly, with edits that cut from the action on the surface ship, to the DE’s bridge’s clock, to the sub clock (showing the same time), to action in the control room of the sub. Cuts from some compartment, perhaps the sonar room, in the DE to the torpedo room in the U-Boat, are similarly striking. In 1957, when most movie-goers would have lived through the war, this must have been fairly provocative.

enemy_below_torpedo_roomIn another cunning juxtaposition shot, an enlisted sailor aboard the DE is seen reading a heavy philosophy tome — then the camera pans to the engineering officer, similarly engrossed in his reading — a comic book. While we’ve spoiled the surprise for you, there, there’s a second laugh in that scene for those in the know. The exteriors and some interiors were shot using an actual destroyer escort — USS Whitehurst, DE-634, and many Whitehurst sailors appeared in the film, especially in scenes showing depth charging (which was done with live depth charges) and 3″ gun firing. They saved on stuntmen “abandoning ship” by having real sailors do it. And the skipper of Whitehurst, Lt. Cdr. Walter Smith? He’s that comic-book reader!

Accuracy and Weapons

The accuracy of the movie is somewhat uneven, on the details, which is understandable, given the state of the art in 1957. The moviemakers had a lot of support from the US Navy (which gets a big credit in the titles). But there’s a limit to what even a Navy could do. They could provide a wartime destroyer escort for exterior shots, and did; they could provide a sub or some shots of one, and they did, but a late-1950s American diesel boat was a different thing than a mid-40s U-Boat. The interiors seem to have been done on sound stages. While they give you a little of the claustrophobia-inducing tightness of a submarine, they don’t nail it the way Das Boot would. And the “control room” is quite decluttered. Compare to this shot of a real U-Boat (U-505 on display in Chicago, from this page).


But they do take pains with some of the details. The clocks look exactly like photos of naval clocks of the period — for German examples, this militaria dealer has several (all sold) on his web pages. The torpedo reticle also matches that displayed at the U-505 museum (hopefully not because the museum is using the one from the movie!). The movie one is below.


One thing seldom seen in movies but period-accurate is the decoding of a message onto a paper tape, which is how American code machines like the M-209 and SIGABA did it. (We don’t know anything about the actual machines the Navy used). The “code machine” used seems to be an ordinary teletype terminal, but the paper tape Mitchum reads is a ringer for the real thing.

Decrypted message on paper tape scrolls out of a code machine.

Decrypted message on paper tape scrolls out of a code machine.

Guns play a very small role in the film. In the climactic surface battle the American DE’s 3-inch (76mm) main armament fires a few rounds, and a German gun — that is in some views an Oerlikon and in others some kind of a prop maker’s abortion of an MG-42 — fires back.

The principal special effects that were available in 1957 were models and rear-projection, and The Enemy Below makes extensive use of both. In most scenes, this works; in the climactic surface battle scene, verisimilitude falls off.


In sixty years, the technical side of the moviemaker’s art has advanced, even as it seems that the dramatic side has been in eclipse.

The bottom line

The Enemy Below is another entertaining midcentury film. Despite the lack of a grafted-on car-chase, gratuitous blood and gore, raunchy and empty sex, scenery-chewing overacting, gutter profanity, anachronistic race-lifting of heroes, any Save the Cat moment instructing the dimmer members of the audience who the Good Guy is (as if they can’t figure out it’s the race-lifted hero), an hour of green-screen CGI, and Hollywood fireballs, it’s still worth watching almost 60 years later.

That’s because it’s entertaining, something today’s Hollywood thinks requires all the garbage we just listed in the above paragraph, but doesn’t require character, or plot, or story, beyond the canned and lightened Hero’s Journey of Save the Cat.

Is The Enemy Below perfect? No. The Oscar-caliber special effects and models of 1957 are pretty lame today. But  imagine this movie being remade by, say, the master of schmaltz, Steven Spielberg, or the master of violence, Quentin Tarantino, to name two current Hollywood celebratori. Would it be a better movie?

Is the nihilistic, depressing Das Boot a better film than the elegiac The Enemy Below? In film-school terms, it probably is; also, its accuracy in depicting U-Boat life is unequalled, we think. But which is better entertainment?


This post has been corrected:

  1. Haxo did not recommend it, after all. He recommended another film, The Bedford Incident. We regret the error.
  2. The spelling of DA Rayner’s name has been corrected.
  3. A link to the Wikipedia entry for the film was inadvertently deleted before going live. It has been restored.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page

(There are several DVD options. Beware discs that are not encoded in your DVD Region, a little thing Hollywood does to screw their customers):

(Instant streaming video. Not a free Prime one, this is a pay movie).

  • IMDB page:

(IMDB was down when we drafted the review. This should be the link, not checked, so no guarantees):

In sixty years, the technical side of the moviemaker’s art has advanced, even as it seems that the dramatic side has been in eclipse.

  • IMFDB page (none):
  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (80%):

  • Wikipedia  page:

Saturday Matinee 2015 037: Wings of the Navy (1939)

Wings_of_the_NavyWell, here’s another boy-meets-training tale, but this one a true period piece: instead of tough Brits finding out how tough they really are, we’ve got Americans of the last year or so of peace on our shores (1939) tackling Naval Aviator training. Soon after this movie hit, all of Europe was at war, and the United States was in a desperate rush to modernize its armed forces after two decades of neglect. This movie is often seen, in retrospect, as a propaganda film, but it is more nearly a classic Hollywood tale of sibling rivalry and a love triangle, set in a military setting, with the patriotic themes still seen in other nations’ movies — and often used by Hollywood before is shift to nihilistic anti-Americanism in the 1960s.

The mandatory love triangle has as its vertices submariner turned aviation cadet Cass Harrington (George Brent) , his brother, top aviator Jerry Harrington (John Payne), and Jerry’s girlfriend Irene (Olivia de Havilland).

In those days, Naval Aviators were srill required to master both land and seaplanes, and one of the thrills of this movie for a military and aviation history geek is to see the training aircraft of both types and some examples of the training lectures and aids.

Acting and Production

The Brothers. Jerry (r., John Payne) wants his kid brother to stay safe (?) in submarines; Cass (l., George Brent) wants to trade his dolphins for wings.

The Brothers. Jerry (r., John Payne) wants his kid brother to stay safe (?) in submarines; Cass (l., George Brent) wants to trade his dolphins for wings.

The acting and writing is B-movie, a little bit over the top. The actors are not big names, except Olivia de Havilland — and her greatness was in the future. The director, Lloyd Bacon, was a Warner Brothers journeyman who directed over 100 workmanlike films in all genres.

There are some pretty good flying scenes, shot with the real US Navy, although of course scenes of the stars in the cockpit were shot with the rear-projection technique of the period.

One warning: the DVD we bought at Amazon was a fair transfer from a good print, unencumbered by extras (typically for the “Warner Archive Collection”, which is Hollywood speak for “thrown-together crap monetizing the back catalog”). While it wasn’t as low-quality as the Warner Archive norm, it’s very overpriced at $18.

Accuracy and Weapons

While a little bit of weapons and gunnery training is shown, this is mostly about the aircraft and maneuvers that the pilot trainees must master. These were mostly shot on location at the Naval Air Stations in San Diego and Jacksonville, Florida, giving the viewer a rare look at training types (and operational types) that would be critical to the war — and some that would be gone.

To give you an idea of how pathetic US Naval preparedness was by 1939 (believe it or not, it made great strides before being caught napping in December, 1941), the “futuristic” experimental fighter-plane of the movie is played by a Grumman F3F biplane.

Wings of the Navy! Meanwhile, the Spitfire, Hurricane, Me103 had all been flying for 3-4 years.

Wings of the Navy! Meanwhile, the Spitfire, Hurricane, Me109 had all been flying for 3-4 years.

In the end, the naval cadet system shown here (which has its roots in the British Gosport system of 1916, established in response to terrible losses of ill-trained pilots)  was able to expand and accelerate to meet the demand for aircrews in a global war. The Air Forces had a very similar cadet system, and in fact the cadet system lasted into the 50s and 60s before a bachelors’ degree became a must have for aviators in an increasingly credential-happy armed forces. The Army still trains its aviators using a similar cadet system, but they are all initially trained as helicopter pilots.

One interesting note is the presence of an actor portraying a foreign (Brazilian) student. Then as now, the US projects power in part by hosting the future leaders of friendly foreign forces. (The USSR also did this, in its heyday, and of course we all learned it from the masters of coalition and commonwealth warfare, the British Empire).

The bottom line

wings of the navy olivia

O. de H. in a publicity still. Which brother’s hat is that?

Wings of the Navy is good, plain, black-and-white, G-rated fun; not for juxtaposition-flick addicts or people wanting to empathize with the angst of the auteur (Bonus film school points for two foreign words in one clause!), but it’s as entertaining today as it was meant to be 76 years ago.

Yeah, 76 years.

It’s especially fun for anyone interested in flight training; the similarities and differences are enough to get a room of pilots talking and even thinking, which is pretty rare for pilots.

And the biggest issue they usually face remains, “Who’s gonna get the girl?”

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page:

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page (none):
  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (no reviews):

  • Wikipedia  page:

Saturday Matinee 2015 036: I Am Soldier (British, 2014)

I am soldierEven if you haven’t ever seen this B-movie before, you’ve seen this one before: the man-against-training movie, in this case, SAS Selection in the modern day, starring Tom Hughes .

It starts off very slowly, with Our Hero in the British equivalent of something every US SOF guy knows and loves (well, maybe not loves), the Resistance Training Lab.

About 15 minutes into the show, the show begins, with instructor Staff Sergeant Carter (Noel Clarke in the film’s strongest performance) telling the men what to expect:

“You will decide who passes — not us. We will lay out each phase before you. And then, all you have to do is complete it. If you’re attending for the first time, you have no idea what you are about to experience. You can ask your mates who are attending for their second and last time. You will meet the standards. Or you’ll be binned. Follow me.”

Carter, Chris and Mickey -- the longer the run goes, the faster pace Carter sets.

Carter, Chris and Mickey — the longer the run goes, the faster pace Carter sets.

And as a platoon — a subdivision of the 200-man selection class — follows Carter up into the foothills, his voiceover continues: “You will be smashed. Both physically and mentally.” On the first run, the trailing Land Rover begins to collect dropouts, and a subtitle tells us that then there were 163 of the first 200. This countdown reappears at intervals, always significantly lower than last time, as the unready, unsteady, and unlucky are sorted out of the running to join the SAS Regiment.

In time we come to meet three of the candidates as individuals. Mickey Tomlinson (Tom Hughes), is coming from an unexpected prior service position: he was a chef with the Royal Logistics Corps, although he has a secret that keeps giving him nightmares. His mates are infantrymen: John “JJ” Johnson (George Russo) is a paratrooper whose father is retired SAS, and big, strong Chris (Joshua Myers) — who will learn some lessons about the limits of “big” and “strong” — is from the Rifle Regiment. All three are extremely skilled actors and give life to parts that are sometimes written in such a way that the actor has a salvage job on his hands.

JJ and Mickey work out some personal problems in their billets.

JJ and Mickey work out some personal problems in their billets.

The scene that cements one’s appreciation for the actors’ art is the moment when they’re outside the CO’s office, getting called in one at a time to get the word on whether they passed. (In SF, it’s a board, and in our day it was all NCOs, even for officer candidates), but the emotions are exactly as depicted here. Seriously, it triggered flashbacks).

At about the halfway point we learn about a terrorist plot, and that a character who has several intriguing sides also has a further secret. This sets us up for what is going to happen after graduation.

There is an unrealistic woman officer/enlisted soldier romance that feels less “grafted on” than the usual. Naturally the woman is depicted as an Amazon who can beat cage fighters several times her size on sheer “you go, girl”-osity, and that grates, because people watch these movies and go away believing that nonsense. Apart from the inter-rank romance, though, her duties as a member of the Special Reconnaissance Regiment are plausible, and she has counterparts in other free world SOF elements. We can’t say whether she’d be involved in SAS selection, although we know two ways women were always involved: as interrogators in the RTL phase, and as security evaluators (something that goes back at least as far as wartime SOE and SIS practice).

Acting and Production

The film does an excellent job of portraying the physical and performance strain and exhaustion, and the terror of failure, in elite military selection and qualification courses. It gets that down very well.

The director, Ronnie Thompson, has a really, really annoying habit of using rapid cuts and jerky camera work when he’s out of ideas, and he spends far too much of the movie out of ideas. Also, his cuts are irritating. They cut to black for a long count, as if he had too little faith the viewer’s ability to process a change of scene.

Make-up is something we haven’t ever commented on before, as far as we can recall. But we’ve seldom seen it this bad. (In the interminable Resistance Training Lab scene, particularly. We went back and checked the RTL scene and apart from its appearance in gratuitous flash-backs and flash-forwards, it’s a full ten minutes for something most directors would have disposed of with a well-edited montage).

The austere, terrible scenery of the Brecon Beacons in Wales is, in the first half or so, an uncredited star of the film. Most Britons seem to pass through their lives completely unaware that this remarkable scenic wonder exists an easy drive (or as our SAS candidates arrive, a train ride) away. It is not the most forbidding terrain in the UK — hard to beat the Orkneys for that — but it’s the sort of place an unprepared hiker, or even a prepared one who’s a bit too cocky, can kill himself. That’s what makes it ideal for SAS selection, of course.


We watched this movie on Amazon Prime. The pros for watching it that way: it’s “free” as in beer (considering we already pay for Prime for speedier book delivery. If they ever remove the free shipping benefit, we’ll drop prime, because Prime video is sub-VHS quality).

Accuracy and Weapons

Most of the firearms seem to be replicas, with dubbed sounds. The price of filming in Britain, we suppose. For all that, they’re not that bad, except in the last act where there’s a weird set of mock M4s with a weird set of sights from carrying handles to Chinese knockoff optics.


There is some use of CGI, for example to create Chinook helicopters, and it’s low-budget and dreadful.

One little detail that rang false with us: their survival snare catches a rabbit. Never heard of that actually happening on any course (selection or survival) in any army in the world.

If survival/RTL completion is accurately depicted, it’s a hell of a lot lower-key than its Yank counterpart. No flag raising, none of that stuff. Our pshrinks say the flag-raising ceremony is key to reintegrating the candidate, who otherwise would come out of SERE as a white-hot ball of hate.

We don’t know how accurate it is compared to today’s SAS selection and training. The last SAS guys who shared beers and stories with us went to selection long ago, but as they described it events that are shown as small-team (2-4 guys) events were individual events. The difficulty of the events is not, however, understated. SAS selection and training includes considerable amounts of both gut-check and must-pass knowledge and (mostly) skills gates.

Weapons handling once the guys go operational turns into a soup sandwich. Doing CQB, nobody has or keeps a sector, and, when they need max precision because of a scriptwritten hazard, they drop their M4s and take up 9mm pistols instead. Obviously no one associated with the film knew what he was doing with firearms — if weapons knowledge was Plutonium 239, the entire cast and crew wouldn’t have enough to blow any one of their noses.

The bad guys have a “dirty bomb” that appears to have been left over in a forgotten property shed from the 1960s spy comedy, Get Smart. Yes, it’s that bad.

The bottom line

I Am Soldier is a B movie that makes a plunge to C or lower after completion of SAS selection. Of course, if they cut out the hokey and underbudgeted last act, trimmed the RTL to reasonable size, and eliminated the spastic flash-arounds and portentous minutes of black screen, it would be a 45 minute short. The easiest job in Hollywood would be cutting this to fit in an hour of TV with a million commercials.

For more information

Here’s some British and SAS slang for those of youThese sites relate to this particular film.

Binned — dropped from the course, i.e., in the dustbin (trash can).
Beat the clock — if you don’t know this one, we won’t spoil it for you (the movie explains it).

Tabbing — formerly yomping, in US slang rucking, formerly humping — walking with rucksack.
Gypsy’s warning — a head’s up, an unofficial caution. Longstanding British slang (19th Century? Our grandmother knew it).

These are sites related to this movie

  • DVD page:

Prime streaming video (free with prime):

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:

No page

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (unreviewed):

  • Wikipedia  page:

No page