Category Archives: Book and Film Reviews

Saturday Matinee 2015 050: The Mountain Road (1960)

Mountain_Road_PosterThe good in this film includes Jimmy Stewart in his only actual war film; the bad includes the script he has to work with. It’s based fairly closely on a novel by journalist Theodore White, which in turn was based loosely on stories told White by OSS demolition team leader Frank Gleason Jr., who stalled a Japanese advance in 1944 by blowing up 150 bridges and an ammo dump. (In the movie, we don’t get that much demo: a couple of bridges, a couple of mountain cuts, an airfield, and the ammo dump).

As OSS was still a bit of a touchy subject in 1960, Stewart’s character becomes Major Baldwin, a civilian civil engineer whose talents are now forced by the vicissitudes of war to serve deconstruction, not construction. Baldwin is a bit embittered by this, although it isn’t explored in depth. His relationships with his NCO, “Mike” Michaelson, played by a pre-Dragnet (let alone M*A*S*H) Harry Morgan, and his mouthy, insubordinate enlisted men, are complex and troubled, and he himself worries about the burden of command.

What begins as one simple task — blow up all installations and supplies at an abandoned airfield — gets modified by frag order. Now Baldwin’s small team, with only one Mandarin speaker, must withdraw across miles of China — which looks uncannily like a thousand Southwestern locations and sound stages from a thousand Westerns, because it is — blowing the bridges and mountain roads behind them — all while dealing with a human press of Chinese refugees, who have little enough to carry with them, but want no part of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Acting and Production

The actors are all pros (except for some of the Chinese) and all of them, including the Chinese one-timers, do the best they can with a stiff, stilted and occasionally preachy script. Morgan is especially good, as at least he doesn’t get the implausible doomed-romance subplot that Stewart has to struggle with. Glen Corbett, then just starting out, is good in a role as a happy, positive young troop who’s just too optimistic for his own good.

A key Chinese officer is played by a white guy, which might have worked in 1960 — wait, who are we kidding? It didn’t work then, either.

No expense was spared incurred in the making of this film, which is why it’s in black & white. (Well, that, and it would be much more obvious that the locations were in Arizona or Southern California rather than China).

Accuracy and Weapons

The weapons aren’t hard to get right, for the Americans. They’re mostly armed with M1 Rifles and M1 Carbines, with the occasional 1911 for backup. The Chinese seem to be armed mostly with Mauser rifles.

The demo shots are fairly realistic. One thing done well is the long pause after the blow for the dust to settle. This is played well for suspense. They blew at least one actual bridge during the making of the movie; the original Major Gleason acted as an uncredited tech advisor.

The vehicles are almost right. Balwdin’s Jeep has the big lights of a postwar vehicle, and the 2½ ton trucks look more like 1950s vintage ones than wartime GM CCKWs.

You never see a Japanese in the movie. They are a malevolent presence offstage, but instead the antagonists are Chinese bandits, who must be fought; and Chinese allies, understanding whom may be an even tougher battle.

One of the rare things about this movie is that the Chinese actors actually speak Mandarin Chinese to one another. Several of them were instructors at the Army Language School (later, the Defense Language Institute). You do get a good sense of what it’s like to work through interpreters.

The bottom line

In the end, it’s remarkably like the war stories Gleason must have told White, with some interesting characters, a few standout events, and in the end, more questions than conclusive answers. It will never be more than a B movie or a curiosity for Stewart completists, but it’s two hours of okay entertainment (or, in our case, exercise-room screen distraction).

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page:

This film has never been released on DVD. It occasionally comes up on TV, and may show up on Netflix or Prime. It can be viewed on YouTube, however:

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page (n/a)
  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:

  • Wikipedia  page:


Patton’s Lessons Learned for Tank Warfare, WWI

"Treat'em_Rough^_Join_The_Tanks._United_States_Tank_Corps.",_ca._1917_-_ca._1919_-_NARA_-_512447We’ve been reading Treat ’em Rough: The Birth of American Armor 1917-20 by Dale Wilson. It is the single book-length treatment of the US Army Tank Corps in World War I, and it filled its void so well — there was no such book before it — that it seems to have derailed future scholorship — there has been no such book since, although there has been an overview by Robert Cameron for the US Army Center for Military History: Mobility, Shock, and Firepower: The emergence of The U.S. Army’s Armor BrAnch, 1917– 1945. Cameron’s book is rather dependent on Wilson for its WWI details, and is available for free in .pdf format from the Army CMH web. If you’re interested in WWI armor, though, the Wilson book is the gold standard,

We’ve been surprised to learn how quickly the US established an effective tank arm, as we’ve been familiar with the terrible teething problems of US Army and Navy aviation in the Great War.

The term, “Treat ’em Rough,” was the recruiting slogan of the tank corps, which was characterized also by a mascot — a furious black tomcat, hair up and claws out. Wilson’s Treat ’em Rough uses the most colorful of these posters as its cover.

Join the Black Toms - They Treat 'em Rough Recruiting Poster by W.F. HoffmanThe tankers were plagued by many of the same problems as the aviators — American manufacturers who over-promised and under-delivered, and the resulting need to use foreign equipment — but they resolved them with grit and imagination. Many of the WWI tank officers would be important men in WWII, including Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton Jr.

By war’s end, Patton had developed a series of lessons learned. Many of these still apply today; others resulted from the novelty and relative unreliability of Great War Tanks.

Here are Patton’s perceptions (from Wilson, pp.208-09).

  • Senior officers, in their demands on the tanks, did not seem to realize their limitations and especially the fact the tanks must have infantry operating with them, if they are to be successfully employed.
  • A lack of liaison between tanks and the infantry severely handicapped the tanks during operations.
  • The infantry used the tanks as a crutch, expecting them to overcome enemy resistance and consolidate objectives after successful attacks.
  • Tanks, because of their mechanical weaknesses, should not be squandered in a reconnaissance role.
  • The distance between attack positions and lines of departure should be reduced in order to cut losses due to mechanical failure.
  • There is no substitute for physical ground reconnaissance by key leaders.
  • Measures such as smoke screens and dedicated artillery units for counterbattery fire should be employed to reduce the effectiveness of enemy artillery against tanks.
  • Tanks clearly demonstrated their value as an offensive weapon and as a separate combat arm.
  • Changes in tactics, especially with regard to better use of tanks in mass and depth, or needed.1

See what we mean about reliability? Patton clearly had been badly burned, and after action reports show that most tanks broke down in most operations.

Here's the Black Tom (in campaign hat!) perched on a Mk. V. These lozenge-shaped tanks are also visible in the other posters.

Here’s the Black Tom (in campaign hat!) perched on a Mk. V. These lozenge-shaped tanks are also visible in the other posters.

The Army got the best and most reliable tanks their allies made (the Renault FT light tank and the British Mk V and Mk V* (“Mark Five Star”) heavy tanks). It’s just that, in 1918, the best wasn’t all that good.

We’ll have more to say about these tanks in a future post, we hope, but the FT had a swiveling turret with a short 37mm gun or a Hotchkiss machine gun.It had a crew of two. The lozenge-shaped Mk V, the classic WWI tank, had a crew of eight or nine and was armed with machine guns and, in some versions, cannons, in hull-side sponsons. Both had a top speed of about 5 mph, a good match for a walking doughboy.

British and French tank concepts were entirely different, with the
French using light tanks to accompany and support infantry, and the British heavy tanks to force breakthroughs for exploitation by infantry. American doctrine hastily synthesized both nations’ approaches and then went into stasis for most of the period in between the wars, while British, French and Soviet tankers shook down new operational concepts.

The Germans countered the Allied tanks with anti-tank rifles, armor-piercing ammunition for their thousands of machine guns, and, most effectively, with direct-fire and indirect-fire artillery under the control of forward observers with their eyes on the tanks. But for every tank destroyed by enemy action, several fell to overheating, clutch failure, thrown tracks, or other breakdowns. One major weakness of the Mark V and Mark V Star was the fan belt, failure of which would quickly down the tank. The Americans carried spare fan belts in a designated maintenance tank, an idea that simply hadn’t occurred to their British mentors (but which the British wasted no time adopting).

Still, a hit from an artillery shell usually meant curtains for a tank, like this FT. WWI tanks had thin face-hardened armor, which shattered under artillery assault, as seen here.

renault_ft_killed_1918A number of the tank crewmen were recognized for acts of desperate valor, including two NCOs who received the Medal of Honor (one posthumously), and many officers and NCOs decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross.

Some tankers also received British decorations, especially after American tank battalions (and other American units) were attached to Sir John Monash’s Australians for a late-September 1918 offensive.

After the war, aviation managed to survive as a separate branch or corps, but tanks didn’t. They were subsumed under the authority of the Infantry branch, and neglected until the clouds of World War II made the Army start to improve its tanks, finally, in both mechanical and doctrinal ays. (They had used long-obsolete Ford Six Ton Tanks, a “copy” of the FT that managed to have zero interchangeable parts, well into the 1930s). Talented officers such as Patton and Eisenhower saw the writing on the wall, and rebranched to the branch of service that the Army brass of 1920 considered to have a future.

The horse cavalry.

That’s the Army for you.


Several typos in the initial post have been corrected. regrets the errors. Thanks to the reader who brought them to our attention.


  1. Wilson extracted this information from pages 9-10 of Patton’s Operations of the 304th Brigade, Tank Corps, from September 26th to October 15, 1918, from the Patton chronological files, to which he had access.

Saturday Matinee 2015 049: Creed (2015)

Creed posterBefore men fought with jets and missiles, before they fought with flintlocks and pikes, even before they fought with sticks and stones, they fought with their hands. (And teeth, but let’s leave Mike Tyson out of this boxing story).

Numerous sports evolved from combat, into, one hopes, non-violent if full-contact contests. But boxing has evolved little from that fundamental male human competition: the fist fight. Sure, there are rules; sure, boxers wear protective gear, gloves and headpieces and mouthpieces. But a boxing match is essentially a lightly-stylized version of two evenly matched human beings beating the living daylights out of each other, until victory conditions are set. That is: one knocks the other down for more than a ten-count; referees intervene to prevent serious injury; or, a time period elapses, upon which judges who are expert in this art determine who beat whom.

The classic boxing movie, of course, is Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 wrote-starred-directed-produced ego trip, Rocky. A number of sequels of varying quality have put butts in theater seats since then, but Creed is a sequel with depth and authority. It is the best since the original, and may be the best, period.

Acting and Production

Sylvester Stallone, who’s a bright guy, is bright enough to make a very convincing elderly and health-challenged Rocky Balboa, who was never a bright guy to begin with. Stallone plays Twilight Years Rocky to perfection, a product of the rare conjunction of a great script and an actor with underrated chops.

Michael B. Jordan, on the other hand, is not a twilight-years guy. Like his character, he’s an up-and-coming star with the skills to play lead roles and the physicality to be the action hero that Hollywood geriatrics like Liam Neeson can’t do any more, at least, not convincingly. We’re going to see a lot more of Jordan in the years ahead.

Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Johnson aka Adonis Creed.

Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Johnson aka Adonis Creed.

There are numerous excellent small-parts players; Phylicia Rashad (yes, Bill Cosby’s screen wife and about the only woman in America not accusing Cos of something) stands out as Apollo Creed’s stately, humane widow. Anthony Bellew gets high billing as the crude English fighter, “Pretty” Ricky Conlon. (If Ricky’s pretty, we’d hate like hell to see what passes for ugly in Liverpool these days). Unless Bellew is a completely thuggish, belligerent jerk in real life, it’s a great job of acting. (If Bellew is unfamiliar to film fans, he is, like Adonis’s other opponents,  a real-life boxer). Numerous other acting pros fill out small parts with verisimilitude, including Graham McTavish in a great turn as the hot-headed Conlon’s cold-blooded manager.

Pretty Ricky finds out that his temper has cost him a fight and a fortune, and he needs to take a fight he doesn't want "to keep a roof over your kid's heads".

World Light-Heavyweight Champion Pretty Ricky finds out that his temper has cost him a fight and a fortune, and he needs to take a fight he doesn’t want “to keep a roof over your kid’s heads”.

There are a few places where the director’s fondness for montage and splashing color on the screen slow the movie down, but that’s a minor quibble. Likewise, the love scenes serve the dual purpose of providing a little humorous relief, and keeping your date in the seat even though she’s creeped out by the fight-scene violence. Tessa Thompson as Adonis’s love interest has an interesting role; she’s a singer who has had to face some very bad news, and who continues to live with aplomb. Her character and Rashad’s show just a little of what it costs a woman to love a man in a high-risk profession.

The fight scenes naturally use the Rocky-initiated trope of snipping a long fight down to the by-round (and not every round) highlights. But the film of the fistfighting and contact is really, really well done. It kept us on seat’s edge (and we saw this in a premium Cine-whatsis with recliners).

The movie was made remarkably quickly — they were still announcing major casting decisions in early 2015, and it was in theaters in late November.

The music is, uh… contemporary. Indeed, when Rocky Balboa plays his warm-up music, Adonis (and, it seems, the director) make fun of it. The rest of the time the music is, well, what kids listen too these days.

Rocky lives in an apartment. He doesn’t have a lawn, but if he did, we know what he would say.

Accuracy and Weapons

We can make no judgment of the accuracy of the film, knowing just about nothing about boxing.  The only weapons involved are human fists (mostly, in boxing gloves, although there are some bare-knuckles fights).

The injuries the fighters receive seem creepily real, except that these screen guys take a beating that would usually put a man in his best suit on a bier in church, in the real world. There is one scene where Jordan’s character, Adonis Johnson (an illegitimate son of an affair enjoyed by Rocky series character Apollo Creed) takes a bone-crushing blow to the head, and bounces hard on the mat. We have no idea how that shot that without giving their star a traumatic brain injury; it’s so realistic it hurts to watch. 

Some Philadelphia and other locations were clearly shot on site, which is good; you have a couple of shots on the famous steps (where a statue of Rocky stands today). We were waiting for the Liver Birds (two statue birds that top a city landmark) when the action moves to Liverpool and sure enough, the director rewarded us. Other exteriors seem suspiciously like they were shot in Random And Cheap Gritty City as stand-ins for Philadelphia.

The office of a financial-services company, which figures in an early plot point, cracked us up as it’s a ringer for our own money guy’s office, down to a clearly “inspired by” big financial firm’s logo. We’d have liked to have seen the financial office mentor guy watching the big fight on TV and wonder if that was a point that got axed in the script at some time.

The bottom line

Creed may be the best movie out right now; there is some Oscar buzz about it, but you should not see it because the Academy likes it, but because you will. Not for the ladies if they’re queasy about blood and violence, but all the violence is sport violence, or, in the case of two bareknuckles brawls, provoked.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page:

online video pre-order:

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page (n/a)
  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:
  • Wikipedia  page:

Saturday Matinee 2015 048: A Hill in Korea (British, 1956)

A Hill in KoreaThis is another of those classic 1950s British war movies. (In the US it had the title “Hell in Korea.”) One rather charming thing about it is, after the very dated main titles run, you see the cast — first the National Servicemen (draftees), including the patrol’s lieutenant; then the professional soldiers, including some NCOs and a few incorrible career privates, a fine British martial tradition. Only the characters are introduced, not the actors: you’ll see them in the end; or pull up the IMDB cast page if you’re curious.

In Korea, the United Nations command had not only American forces at its disposal but a number of voluntary Free World forces including Greeks, Turks, Belgians, and, not least, Britons.

This is the story of a small reconnaissance patrol, “one officer and 15 other ranks.” They had a simple mission: “Establish the village at Map Reference 638742 is occupied by the enemy.”


Acting and Production

The actors are all British pros who disappear into their parts. There’s a brief appearance by the Korea vet who was a technical advisor on the movie — and who would be a star in his own right, Michael Caine. The two best performances, though, are George Baker as Lt. Butler (below) and Harry Andrews as Sgt. Payne.


The movie is shot in a straightforward and clear narrative style. The tension is quite natural. In the short term, will the patrol get out of the jam they’re in at the moment, whether it’s human-wave attacks, being surrounded or the Chinese bringing up a tank? And in the long term, who will live and who will die? Will anyone make it back to friendly lines?

One of the great episodes happens 20 minutes in, where a four-man element — the lieutenant, plus three privates, all with Brens — entice a Chinese company into attacking.  A Chinese platoon of about two dozen extras makes a long Pickett’s Charge against this position, blowing bugles and firing on the run… meanwhile, the British wait… wait… wait… and let ’em have it.

They're actually digging in. Don't usually see that in a movie.

They’re actually digging in. Don’t usually see that in a movie.

And then another wave comes. And another.

In between scenes of action, there are realistically rendered slice-of-army-life scenes and the sort of drama you get in a draft Army, where some are resigned to their fate, and some bitter. There’s also a lot of tension built on old English class consciousness, with the aspires-to-middle-class sergeant telling the officer that the men’s chatter is “silly.”

We watched this on Amazon Prime, which is now mandating a download of the insecure, buggy, and no longer being developed Microsoft Silverlight plug-in. This is apparently part of Amazon’s war with Apple and doesn’t affect people on Microsoft operating systems — they, ironically, can use HTML 5. On the plus side, it was less blocky and ugly than the old Amazon technology, which is probably why they changed.

Halfway through, we switched to watching it on YouTube just because we were in the exercise room, and the computer there has an old OS that Amazon won’t deliver video to. It was stuttery and over-compressed, reminding us of the unloved old version of Prime Video.

Accuracy and Weapons

On the plus side of the ledger, the terrain doesn’t look like Southern California, unlike seemingly every American movie about Korea (or World War II for that matter). On the minus side, it doesn’t look a lot like Korea, either.

One remarkable facet of the movie is that it not only shows details of patrolling accurately — “Send up the sergeant!” — but it shows real, not Hollywood, engagement ranges.


Realistic, long shot of Chinese getting mowed down.

Realistic, long shot of Chinese getting mowed down.

This is a great film for a fan of British World War II weapons, because in Korea the British, like the Americans, were still using their World War II arms. The sergeant and lieutenant carry Mk. 5 Stens;  the riflemen, Mark 4 Enfields; the gunners, Bren guns. It’s a real delight for a Bren fan.


The Chinese are less accurately armed. When they bring up a tank, it’s a Cromwell (well, or a Centaur. The difference eludes us).

The bottom line

A Hill in Korea was never Oscar bait; it’s a simple, entertaining war story. It’s a great bit of midcentury stiff-upper-lip British Heritage, it has some great actors (if not, to be sure, their greatest performances), and if none of that appeals to you, think: close combat with Bren guns.

What’s not to like?

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page:

Instant video page:



  • IMDB page:

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

  • Wikipedia  page:

Matt Bracken’s Enemies Trilogy on Sale… for Free.

enemies_foreign_and_domestic_miniThis is an extra post, because you don’t get a deal like this every day, and it only lasts as long as it lasts. Matt Bracken (former SEAL officer) wrote a dystopian novel of a very plausible future about 15-20 years ago, Enemies Foreign and Domestic, and then extended it to a trilogy:

  • Enemies Foreign & Domestic;
  • Domestic Enemies: The Reconquista; and,
  • Foreign Enemies (and Traitors). 

We were privileged to read some of each work while it was in progress, and have enjoyed watching Matt’s success since then. His novels are always a good buy at prices from $2.99 to $6.99, but his current promotion offers each volume in the Enemies trilogy, in Kindle format, for the irresistible price of … $0.

His current series is set in a world that’s a step closer to ours today than the grim totalitarian nightmare of Enemies, but continues to make the best of Matt’s knowledge of special operations, insurgency, and he usually works in several aspects of diving and small craft handling that are the mark of Naval special operators.

Matt’s books are aimed at adults, but they’re also a good choice for young adults who can handle mature themes, including violence and betrayal. Matt doesn’t believe he has to write foul language into his characters’ discourse or insert a jarring sex scene into every male-female encounter, so the books have a certain old-fashioned appeal despite their trendy subject matter.

This page will lead you to his books, including the trilogy on free “sale” through Thursday. You can add audio narration on checkout for another $2.

Saturday Matinee 2015 047: Bridge of Spies (2015)

Bridge of Spies posterTom Hanks is Jim Donovan, a lawyer who handles insurance disputes. Donovan is good at it: personal injury lawyers and tort lawyers know that most of these cases will never see a trial, and they start with a good idea of how the settlement will look, but Donovan is good at negotiations. It is a skill that will soon have national importance.

While Donovan is handling insurance cases, three other groups of people are converging on the storyline in different places:

  • In New York, FBI agents are closing in on a Soviet spy who used the name Rudolf Abel;
  • In Berlin, the East German quisling government is preparing to wall off its border, and an American student is at risk of being separated from his German professor, and more to the point, the professor’s daughter;
  • In a series of remote airfields, a cadre of carefully selected pilots is introduced to a top-secret spyplane.

Soon enough, the US has a Communist agent in custody; the Communists hold a shot-down spyplane pilot and a student; and everybody, it seems, wants to make a deal. What the US needs is a master negotiator who’s not connected to the government.

Abel (Mark Rylance) in the dock, with Donovan (Tom Hanks) as his attorney.

Abel (Mark Rylance) in the dock, with Donovan (Tom Hanks) as his attorney.

Enter James B. Donovan.

Acting and Production

Look, it’s a Spielberg film with Tom Hanks. You’ve seen this team before. The remainder of the cast deliver noteworthy performances across the board. The standout is Mark Rylance as Soviet spy Colonel “Rudolf Abel.” Rylance delivers Abel’s often deadpan-humorous lines with just the tiniest eye crinkle of the born joker.

Abel handles an encrypted message.

Abel handles an encrypted message.

“Aren’t you afraid?” Donovan asks Abel at a tense point.

“Would it help?” Abel shoots back.

The younger actors, like Austin Stowell as Lt. Francis Gary Powers, disappear into their parts. But some small parts are played to eleven by old pros Alan Alda and Sebastian Koch (who played the playwright in the German sensation The Lives of Others 10 years ago).

A great deal of money was spent on the production; sometimes, it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Accuracy and Weapons

The tension in this movie does not depend on guns at center stage; when they’re present, they’re peripheral, and their menace is implied. They are, however, generally accurately displayed; American, Russian, and East German armed personnel have the right weapons, mostly, for the period.

Bridge of Spies Ossis

One slip is the use of American half-tracks as East German vehicles. While Russia received thousands of the tracks under lend-lease, by the early 1960s they were long retired in favor of native Russian and Soviet vehicles.

Where the movie excels is the evocation of the period of the late 1950s and early sixties. A thousand small details of costumes and sets make it happen:  the vehicles are quite accurate. Unlike the average movie that’s supposed to be set in 1961, where every car on screen is a 1961 model, these “1961” roads show a mixed bag of 1961 and earlier cars. Abel goes off to jail in a Plymouth with fins.

Bridge of Spies Abel

The bottom line

Bridge of Spies is something some of us know well: a slice of the Cold War. As usual for a Spielberg film, it has an uplifting message, laid on thickly enough to suggest the director has a low opinion of the wits of his audiences. It’s a fun flick and well worth a couple hours of your time while it’s still on big screens.

For more information

This is the book the film is based on:

This is Donovan’s own (co-written) book; this is a paperback reprint edition, but the Kindle edition is only $1.99:

This is a biography of Donovan:

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page:

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:

  • Wikipedia  page:

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.