All spick and span on the Western Front…

21 07 2009
von Stauffenburg and Cruise - similar faces and similar moral cores, apparently

von Stauffenburg and Cruise - similar faces and similar moral cores, apparently


I learned two things yesterday: firstly, Fate has superlative timekeeping; and secondly, Bryan Singer produces questionable films. No, that last bit is poorly phrased – his film subjects are estimable, he just doesn’t do them as well as he should.

Yesterday – July 20 – I got out ‘Valkyrie’. Y’know, that Tom Cruise film about the July 20 plot to kill Hitler and stage a coup in Berlin.

So, on the 65th anniversary of the coup I watched those events being played out on screen. Superlative timekeeping Fate. Calendar and film schedule haven’t coincided like this since that ‘The Longest Day’ Sunday about four years ago. Ah, what a day that was… war crimes never looked better. Check this out – a bunch of unarmed Krauts run towards a US Leatherneck begging for their lives. So, after hosing them down with gunfire, the Leatherneck scratches his head, turns to his buddy and asks: ‘Say, I wonder what ‘bitte bitte’ means?’ That is just adorable!

The ‘bitte bitte’ scene was a controversial one which the producer Darryl Zanuck insisted on including, and it provoked a severe backlash at the time. To a US audience brought up on Westerns and musicals, reality is an unfamiliar and unwanted interloper. Sketchier but simpler to access, the Western gives you morally black and white worlds (often helpfully rendered in glorious black and white with the bad guy wearing, er, black).

Movie theatres were otherworldly places where the good guys get the dames and the bad guys had it coming. Heck, a nation that prefers Alan Ladd in white boots and with his ten-gallon at a jaunty angle is not going to easily digest the notion that good guys fight dirty. So The Longest Day’s ‘bitte bitte’ scene conflicted with life inside this unreal moral universe, and Zanuck the producer faced his moment of controversy (but stuck to his guns). He also has the additional advantage of accuracy.

Fast forward to 2008, and the producer of ‘Valkyrie’ has produced controversy of his own. Although this controversy is less principled and doesn’t actually appear in the film. Oh no. Check out the DVD’s ‘Special Features’ section where Gilbert Adler proffers his view on the character of Claus von Stauffenburg. Fair enough. He then meanders into segue and discusses the character of his lead actor. The result is the following controversy:

“I think there are similarities between the core of von Stauffenburg and the core of Tom Cruise.”

Okay. Let’s see that again.

“I think there are similarities between the core of von Stauffenburg and the core of Tom Cruise.”

It’s not just that Cruise should be made up to look like von Stauffenberg, or should use von Stauffenburg’s words or mimic his actions. No, the man whose innate sense of justice and individual courage pitched him against the world’s most blood-thirsty dictator atop the world’s most evil totalitarian regime, that man, yes this man, his core is very similar to the core of the movie star Tom Cruise.

It’s not just that Hollywood will glitzy up the reality and render the unpretty, horror of war-time Nazi Germany ripe for entertainment (rated PG), but why must Hollywood attempt to absorb and appropriate the unique qualities and gifts of the historical figures themselves? Why go too far?

Doesn’t it kinda invalidate all the stuff (elsewhere in the ‘Special Features’) where film-makers talk about taking the subject very seriously, appreciating the deeds and respecting the people whose loyalty to humanity outweighed their loyalty to German state? Doesn’t it really demean the subject matter when you draw moral parallels between von Stauffenburg and Tom Cruise? If von Stauffenburg exemplifies moral rectitude, it is Cruise that typifies moral hazard. Pass me a bucket.

So, of these two war movie producers Zanuck was right to fight for his controversial scene, Adler was wrong not to edit out his controversial (stupid) comments.

So to the movie itself. I had thought that this might be ‘Top Gun in Leiderhosen’. But it wasn’t, it was much better.

Still, ‘Valkyrie’ manages to spill blood without actually spilling any blood. From the explosive opening in North Africa to the numerous executions at the end, this is warfare as ‘The A Team’ might recognise it. Spectacular in places, but there’s not a drop of claret in sight. The uniforms are immaculate, the buildings are scrubbed, the hair is perfect, the dead are, er, sleeping… is this the cleanest war story ever told?

Singer tells a story about how he started his infatuation with war movies by playing around in his back garden. If he ever picked up a couple of skinned knees in the backyard it wouldn’t stand too far off Valkyrie’s visceral depiction of real world conflict (sure when you buy into a Tom Cruise movie, you know the rift between real world and movie world is going to be considerable. But still…). So while not a wholly unsatisfactory/unexpected omission, it’s just that the lack of bloody battle is bloody noticeable.

Nevertheless, Tom Cruise is better than I imagined (cool and ruthless if one-dimensional), but Bill Nighy outperforms the lot. His aching indecision so agonisingly watchable. Terence Stamp as General Beck has a paternal quality which draws you in. But Kenneth Branagh is utterly wasted as von Tresckow. The strongest performer barely gets a look in. Ah well.

Valkyrie was filmed on location in Berlin and where possible in locations of the actual events. Which was a brave move and given the no doubt tortuous negotiations to get permissions etc, it demonstrates commitment to their subject matter. But in the end the most controversial element (hi Gilbert!) to this slick and spick and span movie was the bit most people won’t see or care too much about.

All in all, worth watching (excepting Eddie Izzard… how? why?). However, Singer is, like those early Western directors, great at making wholesome movies but bad at getting the actualite right. So despite going the extra mile to pin his film to some authenticity (locations etc), he’s just incapable of delivering it. Valkyrie needs better than a fabulous, fantastic history (cue the ‘A Team’ theme toon), it needed something of the gritty reality. Only Bill Nighy managed to instil something of the fear and tension that would be theirs as plotters.

A clinical if emotionless runthrough of events, this was pretty enjoyable stuff (but it could have been so much more…).




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