Greetings, all and sundry!
After a brief, enjoyable respite between guest posts. I’ve been asked by our hostess, Ruth to add my unique perspective to the collected works and Mythos of one of the more memorable directors of the last half of the 20th century. One of the great triad of distinctly American cinema that includes John Frankenheimer and William Friedkin. Who first displayed their skill in live television and with the aid of solid reputations, moved seamlessly into film.
A director who gave equal credence and importance to words, comedic and otherwise. As to costumes, sets, locations and action. And more importantly, reaction.
With that said. Allow me a few moments of your time to wax poetic and lyric about the director and one of his early efforts.
Sydney Pollack: Castle Keep (1969) – “Something Memorable out of Nothing”
A film that was received with mixed reviews when first released. Also one the later dearth of WWII films shot in Yugoslavia. Kelly’s Heroes among them. Pollack’s film centers around the chaotic effect of The Battle of the Bulge had on American troops involved. And a ragtag, polyglot assembly of soldiers recovering from and staying ahead of its icy chilled and ill wind.
Led by a stoic and eye patched Burt Lancaster as Infantry Major Abraham Falconer. In charge of officers who run the gamut of by the book, art historian, Patrick O’Neal as Captain Lionel Beckman. To extremely flaky Lt. Billy Byron Bix. Offset by religious, wide eyed dreamer, Tony Bill’s Lt. Amberjack. And a mix of veteran NCOs From old time tough Sgt. DeVaca (Michael Conrad) to Peter Falk‘s survivor and perpetual baker, Sgt. Rossi and Scott Wilson’s laid back, good old boy, Corporal Clearboy riding herd over a clutch of enlisted men from across the Army’s spectrum of specialties. Chief among them, Private Alistair Piersall Benjamin (Al Freeman Jr.). An engineer and narrator of the tale.
Some had retreated from the initial German assault and regrouped under Falconer. Other are fresh from far off “Repple Depples” or Replacement Depots. With orders to find, occupy, defend and keep a secluded 10th century castle and village of Maldorais. Which sits on the cross point of several roads leading to Bastogne.
Prime real estate for Allies and Germans alike. Though the Germans have tanks and infantry to help stake their claim. And the American G.I.s have whatever they carry or can get their hands on. The land is pristine, layered in snow. Forested and hilly before becoming mountainous miles away. Possessing a foggy, fairy tale look and feel. Untouched by the ravages of war as Falconer leads his ragtag brigade. While the castle itself is sturdy, shrouded in mist. With tall battlements, thick stone walls, a deep moat and ancient drawbridge. A huge courtyard, stables, well and accoutrements of a bygone age.
The interior of the castle is resplendent in every degree. Full of art treasures and antiquities. And an infertile Count of Maldorais (Jean-Pierre Aumont) who wants nothing more than a son from his wife, Therese, the Countess (voluptuous Astrid Heeren) to continue the family lineage. And for the Americans leave as soon (kind of) as possible.
Falconer sends his underlings to scout out possible defensive positions. And in the process discover the village’s brothel run by the Red Queen (Catarina Borrato) and her clowder of fetishy women. Sgt. Rossi finds a bakery run by an attractive widow and begins to fall in love with both. Lt. Bixby and Lt. Amberjack begin to gather a following of pacifists. Corporal Clearboy discovers the wonders of Greman Volkswagen engineering, And the Major comes under the attentions of the Countess.
In other words. Unit cohesion and integrity are going to Hell. While Captain Beckman wants to gather up as many art treasures a possible and beat feet elsewhere as the German get ever closer. Sending out white caped and snow camouflaged patrols and an occasional spotter aircraft.
It is then that Major Falconer devises a strategy of hit and run. With the village being the battle field in winnowing down German troops and tanks, Fighting a strategic withdrawal with Castle Maladorais being its last stand. The troops aren’t thrilled to hear this, but know there’s no other choice.
The Red Queen’s girls are brought into the action as tanks roll down the village’s curved, narrow cobbled streets. The girls occupy various balconies in varying stages of undress. Smiling, waving and flaunting their wares to the Germans below. Before tossing flaming wicked cognac bottles of gasoline downward upon the would be occupiers and their armored machines…
I’ll leave the tale right here for Spoilers sake.
Now. What Makes This Movie Good?
Sydney Pollack at the reins of an often visually beautiful, sometimes dream like and cohesive piece of film. Clocking in at 105 minutes with very few to waste. Especially when stacked against other bigger named and budgeted, (Catch-22 leaps to mind!) yet smaller, more garbled messaged films of that time.
Working within a very rarified and refined winter world created by William Westlake in his novel of the same name. And tweaked just a bit here and there with a screenplay by Daniel Taradash and David Rayfiel. Mr. Pollack and company tread a fine line between one of the better late 1960s War Films while weaving an attractively seductive, yet surreal Anti-War Film. Mr. Pollack proves that he can stage, arrange and choreograph action sequences with the best of them. And his cast of stage, television and film stars from both sides of the ocean deliver.
What Makes This Film Great?
Mr. Pollack’s deft touch at allowing plenty of time and exposition to let the castle and village work its fairy tale magic on his cast through off beat and kind of quirky dialogue that would later become one of his trademarks. There hasn’t been a G.I. born who hasn’t thought of the possibility of “sitting out’ a war”. And the enclosed world of Maladorais offers those opportunities and distractions in abundance. Whether it is sex, a simple task like baking, which can easily become a life’s work. Or tinkering with the wonders of a first production VW. Each character is slowly seduced while Major Falconer watches from a safe distance with his diversions. Until it’s time to put childish things aside and get serious when the need arises.
Cinematography from Henri Decae is more than one could ask for. Sharp and defined inside Castle Maladorais. Then offering extremely wide span and often misted exterior shots in the village and surrounding woods. Tailor made for Major Falconer sit astride a white stallion which becomes his personal form of conveyance.
Original music by Michel Legrand shows early signs of greatness. As it buttresses the visual and enhances emotion from lighthearted to treacherous. Art Direction by Jacque Douy and Mort Rabinowitz is lush and plush in the extreme inside the castle. And spartan and rustic inside and around the village. While Malcolm Cooke’s masterful editing saves momets and increases intensity when the Germans finally arrive.
Thoughts on this film and/or Sidney Pollack? Let it be known in the comments.