Thursday, 10 March 2016

A Few Good Movies... about courts-martial

Inspired by A Few Good Men, the film I obviously ripped this A Few Good Movies title from, my first subject involves movies based around courts-martial (note the correct-but-doesn't-look-right pluralisation, it's not court-martials apparently).

Now I like a courtroom drama, even the rubbish ones are usually watchable enough. All the questioning, posturing from the prosecution and defence, elaborate statements, objections, witnesses and contradictory evidence leading up to the verdict... it's a recipe for potentially gripping cinema. A court-martial is essentially a military version of this, and when a member of the armed forces is accused of a crime, they face trial under military law (are court-martialed, in other words). They differ from ordinary court trials in that everyone involved is armed forces personnel, including the judge, jury, prosecutor and defence. The laws are also different, with the likes of cowardice, desertion and refusing to follow orders being trial-worthy crimes that obviously wouldn't apply to us lesser species. They can also decide on the punishment, which ranges from being sent straight to bed without any supper, through to imprisonment or even death by firing squad. Many of the films below are true stories, I'd only seen three of them before, and the good news is that the majority were well worth seeing. As ever, I've tried to outline only the basic plots and avoid major spoilers, so you can read on even if you haven't seen some of these.

"Gentlemen of the court, there are times that I'm ashamed to be a member of the human race, and this is one such occasion." (Kirk Douglas, in Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory)

A Few Good Men (1992) 
This is one of those films with a line so famous that I’d be surprised if anyone didn’t know it, even if they’d never seen the film itself. It’s an
“oh that’s where that line comes from” moment. I won’t spoil the surprise. The story surrounds two Guantanamo Bay Marines accused of murdering a fellow Private, and the trial which aims to uncover whether they acted alone or under the orders of their Commanding Officer (Jack Nicholson, who does his angry man/borderline psychopath routine to great effect). Tom Cruise leads the defence in a role that was tailor-made for him, a cocky yet determined young lawyer who also has doubts about his abilities (just to cover all emotional bases), and he’s joined on counsel by Demi Moore who is primarily there to offer Cruise pep talks and look spiffing in an officer’s uniform. In the role of prosecutor, Kevin Bacon entered the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s flattest ever haircut (not really, but it is exceptionally flat even for the military). It was written by Aaron Sorkin, so if you’ve ever seen The West Wing or Steve Jobs or The Social Network then you’ll know this is a very wordy film, so much to say and so little time. As ever it is the quality of his writing that takes it above many other such films of the 80’s and 90’s, and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Breaker Morant (1980)
In the time of the Boer War, which I'll admit to knowing nothing about, three Australian soldiers go on trial accused of shooting prisoners. They insist they were acting under the orders of their superiors, and mount their defence on the argument that they have been made scapegoats. It sounds an interesting premise, but despite it being Oscar nominated and featuring in the New York Times Best 1000 Films list, this one was a struggle for me. For any courtroom drama to work, you've got to care about the outcome and be minded to root for at least one side; I just couldn't find a way to do either. The court case itself is functional but nothing special, the outdoor scenes are well enough shot and the ending's quite good, beyond that I found myself a smidgen indifferent to the whole thing.

The Bounty (1984)
The first of two mutinous stories to make the list, and the most recent of
the four feature film versions of Mutiny on the Bounty. It was the cast that caught my eye here; Anthony Hopkins, Mel Gibson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Liam Neeson. Hopkins plays Captain Blyth, a ship commander who pushes his crew to breaking point, leading to them overtake the ship and set him adrift in a lifeboat. Told in flashback in-between Blyth's trial scenes, held to decipher whether he was guilty of any crime that could have caused such a revolt, it's a cracking true story and superbly told. The cinematography stands out too, with a number of distant ship-in-silhouette sunset images that allow the film time to breathe a little. I've seen the highly rated 1935 version with Clark Gable, it's good but I preferred this one, modern filmmaking techniques and a more open-ended conclusion made for a better film. Consider my buckles well and truly swashed.

The Caine Mutiny (1954)
Another sodding mutiny. And not as good a one either. Here's why: Humphrey Bogart. Whenever I see his name leading a movie I'm about to watch, a little bit of me dies inside. It's not that I think he was a bad actor, it's just that he's always exactly the same in every single film, and so I can never believe in the character; I'm just watching a man reciting lines in a fairly monotone and expressionless tone. The plot here isn't too bad actually, telling of a Navy ship commander who loses the will of his crew and thereby his command when they start to doubt his sanity. The court-martial element aims to find out whether the men who orchestrated the mutiny acted illegally or with justifiable reason. More crucially, it tackles the big question of whether a man who likes to roll metal balls in his hand can be classified as certifiably insane, and that's about the level of psychological insight the film peaks at. If nothing else, it does feature one of the greatest 'missing strawberries aboard a US naval ship' mysteries that I've ever seen, and after this I've definitely seen them all.

Carrington V.C. (1954)
You've got to admire a courtroom drama that has the judges mulling over whether to call the next witness or stop for luncheon. Yes, actual luncheon, not lunch like us commoners have. Everyone speaks in the right and proper Military English you see, all "oh I say" and "what ho old chap". The story is about a highly decorated British Officer (David Niven) who is accused of stealing £125 from the army base's safe, and the trial in which he acts as his own defence. Remarkably they managed to turn what seems a fairly trivial crime into a full blown trial that takes up the entire film, using the time to go through a lot of court procedure that most films would skip past. There's even time enough for a few dashes of humour, if you can call it that, thrown in to lighten the tone. The sets and cinematography and unremarkable at best, it's a very old fashioned style of filmmaking, and the story is nothing to write home about - so it's a bit of a mystery why I still found it pleasantly watchable.

The Execution of Private Slovik (1974)
Now things start to get interesting. At the start we are warned that some viewers may find the content of this film upsetting, not something you often see in a movie, and it has the effect of immediately raising expectations. It tells the true story of the only US soldier to be executed for desertion since the civil war, his willingness to go to court-martial rather than return to battle, and his misunderstandings of the consequences of such a choice. Even though the title gives away the outcome, I was quite taken aback by the film, and can scarcely think of another American film bold enough to present the scenes that it does in a manner that you typically only see in cinema from Eastern Europe. A young Martin Sheen plays Slovik, and honestly it is a magnificent performance dealing with a character who has to be cowardly yet brave, terrified yet calm. He absolutely gets that, especially in the lead up to his death, and I wondered how any actor could mentally get themselves into a place where they could deliver such a role. Then I came across this quote from Sheen himself: "Slovik was given a batch of letters on the very morning he was shot. The mail had backed up for some months. So there were many letters that he'd never seen. In fact, he didn't read them all. He only read a few that morning. He couldn't get through them. Janet wrote to me a whole batch of letters and asked me not to open them until the scene was shot, and that's exactly what I did. One of them was so powerful that it just overwhelmed me. On camera I read it." Nothing else needs said.

Hart’s War (2002)
Here's an intriguing premise. A court-martial that takes place in a German POW camp, in which an American fighter pilot is accused of murder and tried by his fellow prisoners. Is that even allowed? Or hold any legal validity? I'm not sure but at least it brings something original to the genre. Bruce Willis gets to be the Colonel in charge of the whole affair, Colin Farrell is the inexperienced defence lawyer, and Terrence Howard is used to good effect as the accused who has to deal with appalling racism even from his fellow soldiers. I was surprised to see the issue of racism within the Army play such a large part in a major US picture, the language and behaviour of military personnel may have been this way during WWII but it's not something I've seen much suggestion of in other war movies. The trial itself is quite cleverly constructed, and there's a few distant explosions and convincing fighter pilot scenes that help create the right sense of time and place. The highlight for me though was the performance of Marcel Iures as the Nazi Commandant camp leader, who has fun toying with the Americans who need his permission to hold the trial at all, and in his interfering with proceedings. There is a flawed moment when he has to say something along the lines of "so you want to hold a court-martial like in those American movies?", a case of the film being too clever for it's own good, but I can overlook that. It's not a masterpiece, but it is far better than expected.

King & Country (1964)
I didn't imagine this theme would bring up movies of such a high quality, clearly the military and the subject of courts-martial brings with it a seriousness and therefore a demand from those involved to get it right. This is the pick of them for me. A hard, unforgiving picture about a WWI soldier facing trial for desertion, posing the question of whether he was in his right mind when he simply walked away during battle. Tom Courteney (seen recently in 45 Years) gives everything he has to the lead role, making it easy to believe he's fresh from battle and has witnessed things that no-one should. You believe in his fear, confusion, yet certainty in his mind that he couldn't have taken any more. Fear and confusion - it strikes me that in this one character, the film precisely captures what war boils down to for a soldier. Most war films would need a couple of hours of relentless explosions, death and destruction to make that same point. Joseph Losey directs the trial scenes with such restraint, letting the actors take charge of a claustrophobic makeshift courtroom, and ensures that every line of dialogue and detail of the case is included only if it is essential to the character or in the reaching of the verdict. There are still some more good films to follow, but I'm calling it now: King & Country is the best court-martial movie ever made.

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
Now we move on to a tale that includes not one, but two courts-martial and a normal court trial to boot. Let me try to explain. At the heart of this is a biopic about Emile Zola (played by Paul Muni), a controversial French author who fought to bring attention to the cause of injustice in society. However what it's really about is the Dreyfus Affair, a famous case in which a French Lieutenant was set up by his superior officers and found guilty of treason. Years after the Lieutenant is imprisoned on a remote island, Zola concocts a trial of his own in order to bring out the truth. The courts-martial are only shown in their verdicts, but are so important to the story and trial which follows that I thought it had to qualify. The main trial is fantastically well staged, with farcical proceedings involving a judge who won't allow any questions, Army witnesses who refuse to answer anything anyway, and Zola delivering one of those grand lengthy final statements that I love to see in courtroom dramas. Great stuff.

Paths of Glory (1957)
Stanley Kubrick’s most traditional picture features Kirk Douglas as a Colonel who brings the case for the defence, following charges of cowardice against three of his men. There’s a lot more to it than that, with the accused having been selected at random by a General trying to make an example of an entire unit who retreated to the trenches in the midst of a battle they had no chance of winning. An especially good performance from Douglas gives weight to an already strong script, his fury over the incompetence and calculated self-interest of his superiors, from the trenches all the way through to the court-martial itself, is a sight to behold. The fact that everyone is speaking American despite being French does prove a touch distracting at first, but it's not the only film on the list to do this, and becomes a non-issue once you decide to go along with it. One of the few films in this genre that I had seen previously, and one that stands up well to repeat viewing.

Rules of Engagement (2000)
And repeat viewing is just what I can't imagine will ever be necessary with this one. It's not that it's a bad film by any means, just falls into the category of 'enjoyable but once is enough'. Samuel L Jackson is a Colonel up on charges of ordering his unit to open fire on a gathering of civilians outside a US embassy. There is little peril in the trial itself, seeing as the film lays out exactly what happened before we reach the courtroom. It is therefore left to opposing military lawyers Tommy Lee Jones and Guy Pierce to make something interesting out of what's left, and despite them being terribly cliched characters (one a past-it self-doubter, the other a super-confident young hotshot), they do make a good stab at it.

Town Without Pity (1961)
And finally, something spirit-crushingly poor. Have you ever seen a movie that was entirely broken by the use of a single song? Yes you have, if you’ve been unlucky enough to experience Town Without Pity. It’s a story about three soldiers who go on trial accused of raping an innocent young woman, which you’d think would lead to a potentially dark and powerful drama. So who in their right mind thought that the perfect match for such a story would be a jaunty little theme song by Gene Pitney, one that wouldn’t have been out of place in something like Happy Days? And not only that, the director thought it so good as to play it on repeat through almost the entire film. It seems everyone in the town is constantly listening to the same song, in their cars, on their radios, at home, in cafes, hell there’s even a live band playing an instumental version at one point. Ridiculous. The same song was later used in the movie Hairspray, which says it all. For good measure we also have to put up with a lousy script, and a selection of cast members who appear to have won a prize to appear in movie: no acting experience required. The only thing remotely salvagable from this mess is the performance of the always watchable Kirk Douglas, but I can only hope he promptly fired his agent afterwards.


Currently Unavailable
To prevent myself spending a fortune on dvd imports, I'm restricting my viewing for this series to films that are legally available to stream or rent on disc in the UK. The following potentially interesting titles haven't been released here yet but may be available in the US or elsewhere:

The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955) - Directed by Otto Preminger, starring Gary Cooper
Man in the Middle (1964) - Directed by Guy Hamilton, starring Robert Mitchum
The Rack (1956) - Directed by Arnold Leven, starring Paul Newman
Sergeant Ryker (1968) - Directed by Buzz Kulik, starring Lee Marvin

Coming soon to a theatre near you…
Next up I’m going to have a go at a season of movies about the movies. It’ll include films set in cinemas/movie theatres, documentaries about filmmaking and the movie industry, filmmaking nightmares, an article I have in my head about the future of cinema, and one or two other bits and bobs. Moving to wider genre articles removes the demands of trying to keep up with weekly deadlines and gives me more scope to explore the themes (like I did with the Christmas one), plus allows more time to watch my way through the NY Times 1000 which I’ve been neglecting of late. From now I’ll just be taking my time and posting articles whenever they’re ready.

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