Valkyrie (2008) and My Thoughts on Historical Dramas

This past weekend, I rewatched the WWII movie Valkyrie (2008) with my brother.  (He, like me, is a history nerd and was the one who talked me into watching Lawrence of Arabia, for which I’m perpetually grateful.)  I don’t believe I reviewed Valkyrie last time, so it seemed like a good time to talk about it and about history-themed movies in general.

Tom Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a Nazi officer, family man, and Catholic, who is tormented by his conscience and the events of the war.  In 1943, he joins a number of collaborators planning a political-military coup, which ultimately involves a plan to assassinate Hitler.  The genius of the plot is that it uses Hitler’s own backup plan, “Operation Valkyrie,” against him by feigning an emergency.  The movie zooms in on July 20, 1944, when Stauffenberg and his fellow officers attempt to carry out the assassination and coup.

The first thing to get out of the way is the casting.  Now, don’t get me wrong: Cruise is ok, and I love British actors – here we’ve got names like Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, David Bamber.  But why, why, why are American and British actors playing Germans, especially when they don’t even try for a fake accent?  It’s just a bizarre thing to watch and bothered me deeply the first time I saw it.  (At least Christopher Plummer pulled it off!

Now, watching it a second time, I was able to fully enjoy the film.

  • Cinematography – The photography may be stylized, but it is stunning. Check out this trailer and you’ll see what I mean:
  • Acting – Casting aside, the acting is top-notch.  I haven’t seen Mission Impossible or any other Cruise films, but he does a great job here as the conflicted protagonist.  The supporting cast is excellent.  I was especially impressed by Thomas Kretschmann’s portrayal of Major Remer, the officer who displays chilling loyalty to Hitler.  Apparently Kretschmann was first slated to play Stauffenberg – I would’ve liked to see that.
  • Story – From a purely cinematic standpoint, the story extremely compelling.  It goes from the personal to the political and, finally, the philosophical.  Did Stauffenberg do the right thing? Is an assassination of a evil dictator a crime or a moral obligation?  The story is interactive in that sense; it gives you much to think about.

Now, history nerd that I am, I had look all of this up on Wikipedia.  As you read up on it, it seems (as to be expected) Hollywood may have simplified some aspects of the story.  There is even question whether Stauffenberg’s motives were driven more by politics than by conscience.  In real life, people are always more complicated (surprise).

So… are even the best, most accurate historical films worth watching?  Or is there a risk they will mislead viewers?

Personally, I don’t think any movie should be viewed in a vacuum, even fiction.  If a film moves, inspires, or fascinates you, then it’s worth looking into the source material.  In the case of history, it’s downright necessary.

Also, depending on the nature of the historical inaccuracies, some films may be more egregious than others.  In the case of Valkyrie (2008), the artistic liberties seem to have more to do with the angle the filmmakers took, rather than the actual facts.  I would be more bothered if the movie, say, was a completely made-up story using real figures.

As for Lawrence of Arabia, if it hadn’t been for that film, it’s not likely I would have got into reading about T. E. Lawrence and WWI.  Through my reading, I’ve discovered how inaccurate the film is, as well as O’Toole’s portrayal.  But in spite of that, I still love the movie, like I love an illustration in a book. 

Let me know what you think …. do you like and/or watch historical dramas?  And if so, what are some good ones?

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman – Week #4 / Wrap-Up

We made it! 

If you know me from past years, you know I’m terrible at sticking to read-alongs and challenges.  So I have to pat myself on the back for finishing this one.  🙂

Overall?  I give the Read-Along 5 stars – the pacing and discussion questions have been excellent.  The book itself, I give a solid 3 stars.  Wollstonecraft packed a lot of thoughts into the book, and I agreed with her on many points.  At the same time, there was a lot of needless repetition, which, if I hadn’t been on a schedule, might have bogged me down completely. 

On to the discussion questions:

Do you agree or disagree with Wollstonecraft’s arguments about “stupid” romance novels, in which an author presents perfect images of men and women in love and marriage. (We could even apply this to romantic films.)

I couldn’t tell exactly what kind of novels she dislikes, though it seems to be all of them??

Anyways, I would agree that romantic novels/films can be dangerous if they’re your main diet of entertainment.  By “romantic” I mean even as innocuous as Jane Austen or Lucy Maud Montgomery (let’s not even talk about Twilight).  I think a healthy mix of genres is always going to be better than, say, a narrow focus on romance, or action, or detective stories.  (Disclaimer: Former “hopeless romantic,” now barely romantic…I’m a bit jaded, perhaps.)

What do you think of her suggestion that a benefit of mixed schools would encourage early marriage? That is not the case today. If anything, less people are marrying, or more people are putting off marriage. So what happened (since modern schools have been co-educating for generations)?

Yeah… I think what she described was nice, but completely utopian.

Many parents don’t want their kids getting into serious romance in high school.  They want them to finish college first, since high school degrees alone no longer hold the kind of weight they used to.  So there’s going to be opposition to early marriage on that front.

Also, like you say, Ruth, moral standards have completely changed since Wollstonecraft’s time.  Now marriage is viewed as optional.

Finally, while it is completely possible to fall in love in high school, I do think in some cases, “familiarity breeds contempt.”  I can see more appeal in getting out into the world and meeting different kinds of people.

Are there any arguments throughout the book that you definitely disagree? How would you respond?

I would have liked to know more about her complaints on cathedral services in England.  Though I’m not Catholic, in general I didn’t care for her comments on church ritual, but there wasn’t enough context for me to give an answer to it, e.g. I couldn’t quite tell if she was talking about liturgy in general, some specific rituals, and/or the way they’re carried out.

Also, I am curious what she is talking about in these quotes:

Considering the attributes of God, I believe, that whatever punishment may follow, will tend, like the anguish of disease, to show the malignity of vice, for the purpose of reformation. Positive punishment appears so contrary to the nature of God, discoverable in all his works, and in our own reason, that I could sooner believe that the Deity paid no attention to the conduct of men, than that he punished without the benevolent design of reforming.

To suppose only, that an all-wise and powerful Being, as good as he is great, should create a being, foreseeing, that after fifty or sixty years of feverish existence, it would be plunged into never ending woe—is blasphemy.

God gives us this time on earth to reform… I don’t know of any biblical reference which suggests there is reformation in the afterlife.

Did the author change your way of thinking on any issue?

Not exactly.  But like I mentioned before, I feel I have a deeper understanding of the context around Jane Austen’s novels, as well as a desire to re-read them all.  This is not a small thing… only a few months ago, I would’ve been like “no way”!

I’m also reminded of all the benefits I have as a woman in 21st-century America: college education, privilege to vote, a car, the opportunity to be a leader, etc.  I may be pessimistic about the current state of society and the future, but on a personal level, I feel a sense of satisfaction having experienced a level of equality Wollstonecraft could only imagine.

Are there still areas of improvement?  Absolutely.  I have had some negative experiences as a female, from childhood to my college years.  Unfortunately, there are some people who still view a woman as “less than” or someone to be taken advantage of.

I retain my opinion that feminism, as it is today, is problematic.  Interestingly, it seems like the movement was also political in Wollstonecraft’s day, hence her analogies with revolutionary thought.  But today it is political in the extreme, and some of its proponents try to vilify anyone who disagrees with their particular form of feminism and social policies.

That’s why I’m glad to read these books and have these discussions, with women and men alike.  I don’t believe books like Vindication are the special property of one particular group, and we get a more nuanced picture if we evaluate literature and history for ourselves, rather than through someone else’s interpretation.