I first saw this film when it came to cable TV. I wasn’t impressed. The penultimate scene, whereby one of the main characters gets blown up by a grenade, looked totally unrealistic. German grenades were about half as powerful as allied ones but in a confined space like the turret of a tank, there would be still be little left of a man to identify, let alone a complete body with only a few stylish blood stains on its face.
But recently, I had to do some research for a book I am writing so I watched it again. Having written off the movie as an authentic document, I took a more relaxed approach and, I must say, I enjoyed it a lot more.
It’s probably a habit of historical writers to watch WWII movies with the intention of nit-picking the details. We forget most movies are made as metaphors; they are not literal and are meant to be taken as a mirror of what is going on inside the soul of the main character.
Once I reminded myself of this I saw that the movie has a lot to recommend it.
The music is unsettling. The uneasy main theme is a just couple of chords, like a fragment from of Beethoven’s late quartets, which does not resolve, but keeps burning a feeling of desolation and loss into your brain.
It’s debatable whether the director considered Pitt or Logal Lerman to be the main players in this ensemble piece. But PItt and Lerman are equally good and their deepening relationship is well portrayed. If you take away the tank, and replace it with a Shakespeare stage, its the simple story of a father figure trying to shield a young man from the worst of life while saving his only sanity in the process. ie Prospero.
As an ensemble piece it relies on the crew of the tank, named ‘Fury,’ to portray a tightly knit crew in the last weeks of the War. All the supporting actors do a fine job and the scene in the house of the mother and daughter, who are terrified of the German civilian concept of Americans as rapists and murderers, is a particularly fine example of their efforts. While Pitt’s character ‘Wardaddy,’ attempts to steer Lerman’s character ‘Norman’ through his first taste of glory, while himself enjoying some civil comforts, the rest of the crew act as obscenely as possible, attempting to remove the meal to an ogre’s party. You can really feel the tension, and when the young girl bursts into tears, you know how fragile the humanity trait is. It may be an unconscious metaphor on the part of the director, but the eggs they are eating reinforce this idea.
There is one moment I particularly like, which underscores Pitt’s growing ease with his own talent. Norman has just seen the death of his first lover and is miserable. Pitt, with a slightly wry smile, simply watches the emotions rippling across Lerman’s face. Wardaddy is indulging a feeling of protectiveness, and at the same time, almost disgust, at his young charge’s naivety.
Penultimate scene aside, this film is worth taking a second look at. I don’t know what it is that really works about this movie but I think its the cyclical, double-act of the hypnotic music and Pitt’s understated performance. When I went to bed after the movie had finished, the music and ambience of the film continued to drill into my subconscious remorselessly, much like the horror of war, I suppose.
The Yakuza (1974)
I have seen this film several times over the years but never really ‘noticed’ or rated it much. Its a quiet film with little pazazz in its presentation.
It’s main attraction has always been it’s star. If you are a fan of Robert Mitchum’s understated acting, you seek out any of his films. Even mediocre westerns are lifted by his acting performances, underrated at the time, but now considered to be some of the finest.
It’s also probably the first Hollywood take on the Yakuza story; man insults honour of a Yakuza and has to pay the price but his friend is going to try and save him… You know the story. It’s been done many times. Later movies like Showdown in Little Tokyo, Year of the Dragon, Rush Hour II and any number of modern martial arts movies made a formula of it but this was one of the first.
The cast includes Richard Jordan, a fine actor who is seriously underused here in a supporting role with few words to say, and Brian Keith, who does a solid job in the kind of supporting role that either George Kennedy or Brian Dennehy would have done equally well. It’s good to see Christina Kokubo popping up too in her first and last major international movie since Battle of Midway as Eiko’s daughter. Curiously, Mitchum was also in that film. I wonder if he suggested her for the part?
I won’t waste time on the main plot, except to say that Mitchum’s Kilmer, an ex WWII military police officer, now retired, has to go to Japan to save the life of his mate, Brian Keith’s character.
But it’s the subplots where the film scores. First of all you have a delicately portrayed love affair between Kilmer and Eiko, a flame lingering long into the shadows of late life. She cannot marry him and he cannot forget her. There is a beautiful scene where he sees her for the first time in 20 or 30 years and asks her again to marry him. She again says no and he says something like:
“Well, at least we got that over for the next 20 years.”
There are some lovely settings in Kyoto and the dialogue is kept minimal, even cryptically so. In a style that I first noticed in Point Blank (1967) and Get Carter (1971) and became accentuated later in films like Blade Runner, very few clues are given as to why certain things happen in the movie. A good example is the scene where Jordan and Mitchum’s characters go to a Yakuza safe-house to rescue some drugged girls. The only clue as to why this happens is a single line of perhaps two words spoken by Eiko’s brother, himself ex-Yakuza in an earlier conversation with Kilmer. But it’s so mumbled that I can’t here what he says, despite rewinding several times. It’s probably something like ‘Your emissary,’ meaning that he will lead Kilmer into the Yakuza territory and create a means to meet with the head of the gang, with whom they have to negotiate. I am convinced the director asked the actors to mumble these lines, because Kilmer replies:
“I couldn’t ask you that.”
But on first listening it sounds like:
“I couldn’t ask her that.”
And that would give a whole different meaning to the film.
It’s a fine performance from Mitchum, as usual. He looks hungover; you would expect nothing less from a hard-drinking actor at his peak. The wide brow, the doleful eyes, the caved-in cheeks, the look of a crestfallen superhero cast in stone. He is truly a man in glorious decay. Still standing rod-straight and tall enough to make suits look good, he doesn’t stride thought the movie, as he once did, but meanders. Mickey Roarke later took up this style quite successfully.
I once saw the director talking of Story of G.I. Joe about Mitchum’s role in the film. The director wanted Mitchum to show shock when somebody lobs a grenade and some men die. It was a long shot and Mitchum stood up and didn’t move. At least that’s what the director saw. He shot the scene again and again, telling Mitchum;
“I want shock! Show me shock!”
To which Mitchum replied:
“I am! I am!”
The director wrote the scene, and Mitchum, off as a lost cause and finished the day’s shooting. But when he saw the rushes, on a 70 foot wide screen, he saw Mitchum’s raise his eyebrows, a subtle expression that looked totally authentic for a battle-hardened solder. The director was stunned. This probably proved the real launch of Mitchum’s career.
Brando could possibly have taken The Yakuza and done a better job than Bob Mitchum. But Brando would have quickly become bored with the lack of dialogue and started toying with it. He would have added complexity, which would have taken away from the ‘zen’ minimalism of the film.
So if you want a brash movie, forget The Yakuza. But if you want to see an underrated Hollywood great in an underrated movie, give it a go.
If you have views on these two movies, add your comments below.