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?

No-No Boy and What It Means to Be American

Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered? 
Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any other foreign government, power or organization?  

No-No Boy follows the post-war lives of two young Seattleites: Ichiro Yamada and Kenji Kanno.  Published in 1957, John Okada’s only novel takes a raw cross section of Japanese-American society and examines it through the eyes of these characters who made very different choices.

When called to the draft, Ichiro followed his mother’s guidance and answered “no” to both “loyalty questions,” resulting in imprisonment.  After two years, he is released from prison to a community which abhors him for his decision, almost as much as he hates himself.  Kenji, on the other hand, volunteered for combat, with the hesitant support of his father.  He returns to Seattle as a hero, yet carrying an infected wound that is eating away at his life.

This was a tough book to get through because it is dark, ugly, and depressing.  There are endless descriptions of hatred and bitterness among family members, friends, and strangers.  Nearly every character is conscious of a hideous silence in their lives and attempts to fill it with noise like alcohol, foul language, and random hookups.  Bleak is an understatement; I was almost compelled not to finish it.

Still, you’re haunted by the impression it rings true.  Okada lived through the events he described; he was a student at the UW when his family was sent to an internment camp in Idaho and, like Kenji, he went on to serve in the U.S. military, translating commands to surrender (p. 256).  Each character is so vividly painted, they must have some origin in real life – even, maybe, Ichiro’s mother, whose belief in Japanese victory drives her insane.

The best parts of the book are Ichiro’s internal monologues, where he wonders whether society will ever forgive him for being a “no-no boy” and allow him to live a normal life; whether the Japanese-American community will recover from its divisions; whether one day all he will see is “people” and not different races mistreating each other.  He alternates between despair and hope.

. . . in time there will again be a place for me. I will buy a home and love my family and I will walk down the street holding my son’s hand . . . it will not matter about the past, for time will have erased it from our memories and there will be only joy and sorrow and sickness, which is the way things should be. (p. 52)

It is hard to give No-No Boy a rating.  It’s truly a unique novel, being (as far as I know) the first of its kind and maybe the only novel on this particular aspect of the Japenese-American experience in WWII.  There’s some moments of true brilliance, leading me to think Okada could have become a famous 20th-century author.  However, apart from the overwhelmingly grim atmosphere, I found the ending to be disappointing.  There were one or two potential plot twists that never came to fruition, so Ichiro’s character arc made little progress in the end.  I’ll settle on a middle-of-the-road rating: 3 stars.

When We Were Orphans – A Study in "Meh"

It’s London in the 1930s, and Christopher Banks has what most people want: his dream job.  After a childhood of playing detective with his best friend Akira, Christopher grew up to be one of England’s leading private investigators, highly sought after both professionally and socially.  In spite of his success, he can’t forget the life he left behind him in Shanghai, nor the fact that his parents remain missing there and unaccounted for.  Christopher’s greatest hope is to go back to Shanghai to find them, even if it means returning to a war zone.  It turns out, however, that new relationships – including his love for a lonely socialite – make committing to his past the hardest case to solve.

This book could not have had a more promising premise.  I’ve raved about the nuances of Empire of the Sun (another story about an English boy in Shanghai), and I know Ishiguro can be incredibly subtle.  I also love a good mystery with a Sherlock Holmesian character.  Put all three together and what could possibly go wrong?  After hoping I’d be able to disagree with Ishiguro’s own comment, that it’s “not his best book,” ultimately I had to go with the consensus on When We Were Orphans (2000). 

While Ishiguro does not dwell on my #2 historical fiction pet peeve – in-your-face exposition – I’m afraid my #1 pet peeve is here, and that is anachronisms.

For example: Christopher’s voice.  There is something very post-war about Christopher’s voice, and I don’t mean word choice.  (The word choice is stereotypical but tolerable.)  Rather, the problem is his whole outlook and attitude.  Christopher is a strangely placid character, from his first run-ins with the irritating Sarah Hemmings to his later handling of his personal investigation.  This serenity does not translate to cool-headedness, however; he behaves irrationally when push comes to shove, even in the middle of a battlefield.  Additionally, his sense of morality has a modern tone to it, which seems unlikely coming from someone who was close to his strongly religious mother.  None of this makes sense, and I feel like I’m watching some 21st-century time traveler going through the motions of being Christopher, as opposed to an actual person with character integrity.

As for Sarah – well, she epitomizes the cringe-worthy female protagonist.  I’ll say no more.

The plot starts out extremely well.  We get flashbacks of Christopher’s youth, most importantly of his friendship with Akira – a boy torn between his Japanese culture and his life in International Shanghai.  We also get a glimpse of Christopher’s mother, a fierce yet kind Victorian woman with strong Christian values.  (It’s easy to trace the parallel between Christopher’s altruistic career choices and his mother’s campaign against the opium trade.  He’s simply carrying on the work she started, but in a different sphere.)  Furthermore, we find half of his clues are just memories – foggy, unreliable memories.  This is a fantastic conflict because it’s one we all encounter at some point.

This solid beginning is gradually replaced with a let-down, first by Christopher becoming aggravating, then finally by the resolution to the core mystery.  I won’t divulge spoilers, but the “solution” is horribly sensational and not particularly believable.  It reads like the first draft, or the first idea out of a brainstorming session…  I felt like Ishiguro could have done much better if he’d given it more time, and I’m puzzled that his editor approved it.

Is there anyone I would recommend this to?  Unfortunately, no.  There’s some morally questionable elements which I’ve alluded to, and if that didn’t bother you, the characterization and plot twists are so unlikely, you won’t be able to suspend enough disbelief.  1.5 stars is generous.  If you’re new to Ishiguro’s work, start with The Remains of the Day, An Artist of the Floating World, or A Pale View of Hills instead.

Doctors, Murderers: Shūsaku Endō’s The Sea and Poison – Episode 24

In The Sea and Poison, we find one Japanese author’s perspective on the horrific human experimentation carried out by Unit 731 “doctors” in World War II.

A small addendum to my comment in this episode, that there were “no Nuremberg trials, to speak of.”  The Soviets actually staged their own show trials for some of the Unit 731 personnel.  However, sources indicate that the sentences were light and may also have been exchanged for data.  To me, this is hardly the equivalent of the Nuremberg trials, where several nations (not only the USSR) took part in the trial and the sentences included 12 executions and seven imprisonments.

Sources / Further Reading:
“Unmasking Horror — A special report.; Japan Confronting Gruesome War Atrocity” – NYT article, 1995
“Unit 731: Japan’s biological force” – BBC article, 2002
“Japanese veteran admits vivisection tests on PoWs” – Guardian article, (2006)
“Department of Justice Official Releases Letter Admitting U.S. Amnesty of Japan’s Unit 731 War Criminals” – Jeffrey Kaye blog post, 2017
Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932-45 and the American Cover-Up – Sheldon H. Harris, 2002

A King, a Boy, and a Sailor’s Wife – Three Films of WWII

The past couple of weeks, I’ve enjoyed three very interesting, yet vastly different, films which take place during or leading up to World War II.  I haven’t shared a movie review in a while, so I thought I’d just mention these before I forgot about them.

First up is The King’s Choice, a Norwegian film released in 2016.  This historical drama begins with the disturbing attack on Norway by the Nazis, who justify the invasion by claiming to offer “protection” against the British.  From there, the movie centers on the response of its government and, more especially, the role of the aging King Haakon VII in what became the resistance movement.

I can’t speak for historical accuracy, since I came into this knowing nearly nothing about Norway during WWII.  As a drama, it kept my family and me glued to the screen for its whole 2+ hours, and that’s with (somewhat poorly formatted) subtitles.  The acting (including the extras’) is some of the very best I have seen in recent historical dramas.  The score is also incredible, and the emotive script takes you through the events with a sort of “real-time” effect.  This film cost a mere fraction of Spielberg’s Lincoln, yet I felt the production values were stronger here.

The King’s Choice is a well-made movie, but more than that, it’s a good story.  Haakon’s choice is easier for the viewer to “make” in hindsight; in spite of that, the movie avoids too much glorification of the king and instead focuses on his dilemma, which is far from straightforward.  We see the suffering of the Norwegians through the soldier Fredrik Seeberg, barely a man when the war begins.  On the other side, there is the diplomat Curt Bräuer, whose good intentions succumb to his Nazi loyalties as he pressures the king to work with Germany.  Should Haakon surrender Norway to the Germans, or should he refuse, knowing the alternative is the death of boys like Frederik?  There is really no good choice, and even by the end of the film, the viewer is left debating what s/he would do in the situation.

For history buffs, this is an enthralling epic, with a mature screenplay that avoids gratuitous violence or other unnecessary scenes.  I highly recommend The King’s Choice to anyone looking for this kind of movie, and it is free right now on Amazon Prime.

Speaking of Steven Spielberg, I just watched his Empire of the Sun (1987) for the second time the other day.  At 2.5 hours, this is one of those meaty films you’ll want to re-watch in order to digest it.

This film is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by James G. Ballard, who spent his early childhood as a British foreigner in Shanghai.  Young Christian Bale stars as the protagonist Jamie Graham, a privileged and somewhat spoiled child whose life is turned inside-out when the Japanese invade the city.  Separated from his parents, Jamie begins his new struggle for survival, from the miserable hazards of the Shanghai streets to the hunger and brutality of the internment camp.  Through it all, he never loses the one thing which he still keeps from his past: his fascination with flight.

This is the ultimate historical drama, simply because you can analyze it from many different angles.  On the surface, there is the coming-of-age story, where Jamie finds a more powerful version of himself through an endless string of heartaches and hardships.  Upon re-watch, however, I felt there were many nuances in the film which made it more ambiguous and disturbing the second time.

To be clear, there is little or nothing graphic in Empire of the Sun, beyond some brief violence.  But the script does not really force a conclusion upon you, and instead it leaves psychological layers in the plot which lend more grim reality to the circumstances, even when they seem surrealistic.  There are glimpses of Peter Pan and even Lord of the Flies here, among an assortment of cultural and social contrasts.  I found it, even the second time, to be really fascinating.

Lastly, if you are looking for an interesting documentary, PBS’s recent American Experience episode, “The Island Murder,” is worth checking out.  (It’s actually a re-release of an older episode called “The Massie Affair,” retitled for obvious reasons.)  This documentary covers events that happened in 1931–32, the interwar period where political and social conflicts were fraught with hints of the impending conflict.

“The Island Murder” is about a young Navy wife, Thalia Massie, who claimed she had been gang raped by some Honoluluan men.  It’s not a spoiler to say this is basically “To Kill a Mockingbird with a bad ending,” as that’s only the beginning – things get worse from there. Massie’s mother, Grace Fortescue, plots to take revenge on her daughter’s behalf, and from that point on, the lives of the five accused men are at the mercy of Mrs. Fortescue and the due process which is supposed to bring them justice.

Despite having visited Honolulu and read pieces of its history in the museums, I had never heard of this case.  It offers a concrete glimpse at some of the injustices Hawaiians have suffered, in ways both direct and unintended.  As far as pertains to WWII, the film seemed to imply that some of the figures of the day might have tolerated such injustices for the sake of reducing Japanese influence.  It is sickening to think what crimes have been supposedly “justified” by wartime (or interwartime) decisions.

It is not an easy film to watch, but watch “The Island Murder” for some perspective and thought-provoking material.  There is also a book by one of the interviewees – Honor Killing: Race, Rape, and Clarence Darrow’s Spectacular Last Case – which appears may provide the sources for much of the information.