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.