Brad Pitt as Achilles in Troy


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



24 April


The fall of Troy, 1184BC

On this day in 1184BC, the city of Troy fell after the most famous battle of antiquity. The Trojan War had started after a Trojan, Paris, absconded with Helen, wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. Helen was reputed to be the most beautiful woman in history and her love had been gifted to Paris by the goddess Aphrodite, as a reward for choosing her (Aphrodite) as the fairest of all the female gods – the so-called Judgement of Paris. Aphrodite had not mentioned to Paris that Helen was already married. Paris, it had been prophesied, would bring about the destruction of Troy. And so it came to pass that the Spartans set sail for Troy in Anatolia (present-day Turkey), where they laid siege to the city for ten years, during which time Paris was killed, as was his friend Hector. The war came to an end after the Greeks (aka Spartans) infiltrated the Trojan stronghold using a gigantic horse to gain entry, the being horse full of troops who sprang out under cover of the night, after the horse had been dragged inside. Who does that? Drags a gigantic horse into their besieged city after a war lasting ten years? However, legend says that that’s just what the Trojans did. This act of utter stupidity has given us the phrase “beware of Greeks bearing gifts” and also the techie notion of a trojan as a nasty thing hiding inside something seemingly harmless.




Troy (2004, dir: Wolfgang Petersen)

Troy gets a bad rap because it is a war movie that ends far from heroically. It ends with defeat, in fact. The fact that it was made by a German, Wolfgang Petersen, who had already made Das Boot, another war film in which defeat was a vital part of the offer, is what makes it an interesting film though, heroics being the prelude not to greatness, but to calamity. Petersen was born in 1941 in the German port town of Emden, which was almost totally obliterated in one night of bombing when he was three. But never mind the amateur shrink’s attempt to wed Troy to childhood trauma. Instead let’s look at the film, which pretty much removes the gods from the equation; this is human cock-up not divine conspiracy. On the Trojan side we have Orlando Bloom as Paris, and Eric Bana as Paris’s brother Hector. For the Greeks it’s a superbuff Brad Pitt (six months of training, apparently) as Achilles and Garrett Hedlund as his number two, Patroclus. Ultimately, though, the film is built around the Pitt v Bana showdown, before it goes on to divulge that the actual decisive event in the war was the construction, delivery and implementation of the Trojan horse. It was a Greek horse, of course, but this is not the place to argue. Instead let’s turn to the film’s weaknesses – the CG is just terrible, Orlando Bloom is completely unconvincing as Paris (the idea that he might have sat in judgement on goddesses is laughable) and Diane Kruger is no better as Helen, pretty though she is. There is no suggestion of what must have been a colossal passion to have caused a conflict so bloody and so long. On the other side of the scales the aged thespians show the young ones how it’s done, with Peter O’Toole in particular, and too briefly, seizing the screen as Priam of Troy, though Brian Cox and Brendan Gleeson acquit themselves well too. The fact that they’re all seasoned stage hands and are used to commanding a space tells us everything we need to know about what’s wrong with this film – Troy is an epic done with all the sound and fury ripped out. That is Petersen’s intention. And as the Greeks escape from the horse as the film enters its mournful last few minutes, and lay waste to everyone inside the fortified city of Troy, there is no gloating, no bugles, no glory. Unsurprisingly, this disappointed a lot of people.



Why Watch?


  • Epic film, human frailty
  • A great cast
  • A beautifully dressed movie
  • A beautifully dressed (and undressed) cast


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Troy – at Amazon





Inglourious Basterds

Brad Pitt in Inglourious Basterds


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



16 April


Colditz liberated, 1945

On this day in 1945, the infamous Colditz Castle PoW camp was relieved by the US Army.

Dating back nearly a thousand years, though extensively rebuilt in the 19th century, the castle had been a workhouse, a mental asylum and a sanitarium for the well-to-do before being pressed into service as a prison for high security captives during the Second World War – often people who had broken out of other prisons.

Known as Oflag IV-C, it is the source of many myths and stirring stories about escape attempts during the Second World War. It was a camp for officers (the Of of Oflag stands for Offizier) but also became the home to what might be called celebrity prisoners – two nephews of the King of England, the son of WW1 notable Field Marshal Haig, the son of the viceroy of India etc etc.

Undoubtedly their presence helped protect the other inmates, who were treated strictly according to the Geneva Convention – attempts at escape (of which there were many) were punished with spells in solitary rather than summary execution.

Prisoners also received Red Cross parcels, which often meant they were eating better than their guards. Other notable inmates included David Stirling (founder of the SAS) and Desmond Llewellyn, who would later get James Bond out of awkward situations as Q.




Inglourious Basterds (2009, dir: Quentin Tarantino)

The opening sequence of Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s war movie, tells us a lot about what is to follow. Having led into it with some jokey Hogan’s Heroes-style intro credits – including “guest star” nods – Tarantino opens with a shot that immediately evokes The Sound of Music, all sun and alpine meadows, before moving into a long sequence in which Christoph Waltz’s extremely cultured, smart Nazi officer Hans Landa (aka “the Jew Hunter”) has an affable chat with a farmer.

Some time early on in the chat the language the two men are using switches from German to English, as often happens during these sort of films – who wants to watch acres of subtitling, after all? All appears to be normal in the Tarantino universe – pastiche is being delivered by a master of this sort of thing. But by the end of this sequence something else has happened. We’re not in the gentle knockabout of Hogan’s Heroes, the guitar-strumming nun is nowhere to be seen and the shift from German to English has been for a reason entirely to do with plot, not audience-pleasing.

The tension-ometer has gone from a gentle green to a steaming red, Waltz’s horrible true nature has been fully revealed. The farmer has been duped. And so has the audience.

It is a masterstroke, partly because Waltz is so good at delivering Tarantino’s beautifully modulated script (it’s so good, in fact, that QT essentially delivered the same opening, by the same actor, in Django Unchained), but mostly because Tarantino has reinforced our expectations of what he is about to deliver, and then confounded them.

The scene is set for a war movie that tries to have its cake and eat it throughout, giving us what you might call classic Tarantino, and then pulling back to suggest something more.

That something more is seriousness. And though Tarantino can’t help himself here and there with his playful cutaways (we learn how flammable nitrate film is, by god), there’s something about the Second World War that seems to bring out the earnest in the man.

Revenge is the theme, whether delivered by Mélanie Laurent (one of the Jews the dairy farmer was harbouring) or by Brad Pitt (with Clark Gable moustache and swagger as one of the vigilante Basterds) and Tarantino serves it over five clearly delineated, often spaghetti western-flavoured chapters, each one almost a movie in its own right, building towards two assassination attempts on the German high command. In a cinema, Tarantino’s theatre of operations.



Why Watch?


  • The cast includes Michael Fassbender and a revelatory Diane Kruger
  • A-list cinematographer Robert Richardson
  • Subtitles – lots of them
  • The soundtrack – Ennio Morricone to Lalo Schifrin and Ray Charles to David Bowie


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Inglourious Basterds – at Amazon





The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Casey Affleck and Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



3 April


Jesse James dies 1882

On this day in 1882, the outlaw Jesse Woodson James died. Born in Missouri, he had come to prominence as the leader of the James-Younger gang having served as a Confederate guerrilla in the American Civil with his brother Frank. Continuing in peacetime the activities that had been sanctioned during the war, he robbed banks, trains, stagecoaches. His gang was most prolific from the years immediately after the War, which had ended in 1865, and it continued successfully until 1876 when its raid on a bank in Northfield, Minnesota, failed, resulting in the death or capture of several gang members. Harried by the law and the Pinkerton men (whose founder, Allan Pinkerton saw the James-Younger gang as a personal affront), James continued recruiting new members. The gang lived almost beyond the law in Missouri, where former Confederates in the government refused to vote in favour of increased rewards for the gang’s capture, in spite of public opinion gradually turning against the gang when it was realised it wasn’t a Robin Hood organisation. In spite of reluctance of the legislature the governor managed to get the bounty on the James brothers’ heads increased to $5,000 each, by appealing to the railroad and postal services. Robert Ford, newest recruit to the gang, took the bait and fatally shot Jesse James in the back while he was dusting a picture. James was 34.




The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, dir: Andrew Dominik)

The title comes from Ron Hansen’s original book, and that comes from the epitaph that James’s mother wrote for him: In Loving Memory of my Beloved Son, Murdered by a Traitor and Coward Whose Name is not Worthy to Appear Here. This fictionalised retelling of the last months of the outlaw’s life makes claims for authenticity and does stay close to the known facts – it was Robert Ford who shot him, aged 19, largely, it seems, because he was a young man in a hurry. Here a 44-year-old Brad Pitt plays a 34-year-old James, and Casey Affleck is also around ten years older than the real Ford. It doesn’t matter much – we get the drift. Pitt plays James as a little mad, a little bad, a legend already in his own eyes, a paranoid man growing increasingly keen on staying alive rather than risking all for glory and cash. We’re following him through the last stretch of his life, when, much like a film star, he is hemmed in all sides, his reputation preceding him, his options limited though he still lives a life many would envy. Pitt plays James in the way Burt Reynolds might have done a generation back, all smiles, white shirt and bluff masculinity, a touch smug. It’s a good performance, possibly one of his best, but Casey Affleck’s is better: he’s urgent, alive, as Ford, the “coward” who did him in.
Andrew Dominik’s film is as long as the title suggests, similarly flowery and its goal of accuracy was initially resisted by the studio, who eventually relented (because Pitt backed Dominik). Maybe they had originally expected something more like Dominik’s aggressive madhouse Chopper. Well they didn’t get it.
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend” is the banner statement that ends The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Dominik has that movie in mind with his frequent cutaways to remind us that American pulp fiction was immortalising James even before he was dead. It’s a framing device that isn’t necessary and it slows the film down. But its existence does add a bit of weight to the idea that the entire film at a meta level is about stardom, the onerous responsibility of it all, the noblesse oblige – watch again the scene in which Ford kills James and how James, Christ-like, approaches it in a “they will be done” manner. Oh, the humanity. And again notice how meaningless and routine Ford’s life becomes once James is gone. At this level the film is either much more interesting, or as big a laugh as it’s possible to have, depending on your point of view. Brad, we don’t deserve you. Either way, Roger Deakins’s cinematography – surely this is one of the best-looking westerns ever made – would have you incline to the former.



Why Watch?


  • Deakins’s cinematography
  • Brilliant performances – Pitt great; Affleck better
  • The period detail
  • Pompous? The argument starts here


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – at Amazon






Jason Statham and Brad Pitt in Snatch



Two years after Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Guy Ritchie returned with a film that looked, felt and almost smelt the same. Except this time around the story is about bare-knuckle fighting and diamond heists, and Brad Pitt (for the ladies) is playing an Irish tinker, just one of a number of silly ethnic stereotypes, which include Russian gangsters, Jewish jewellers and  a Turkish boxing promoter called Turkish (played by Jason Statham, one minute before he launched his action hero career). Lock Stock traded in the same currency, you’ll remember. As well as Pitt, Snatch is studded with other non-British actors, such as Benicio Del Toro and Dennis Farina. Nevertheless it often feels closer to British comedies of the 1970s – The Confessions of… series or the On the Buses films – though you suspect that Ritchie thinks he’s walking in Tarantino’s shadow. Suck down the flash-harry camerawork and cheeky-chappie humour because the storytelling isn’t much to shout about and Ritchie’s politics are working hard at playing to the lads’ gallery – not very progressive. In spite of those shortcomings, most of which Ritchie would probably shrug off as deliberate or minor, Snatch has managed to pull off something far more outrageous than Madonna’s bra (you have to think your way back to the 1990s to find that line in any way amusing). It takes the most famous twisted British archetype – Dick Van Dyke’s Cockney in Mary Poppins –  feeds him on steroids and foul language and then stuffs him right back down the nation’s insatiable gannet-like throats. And how they – the lads, anyway – loved it. Most of the women were too busy reflecting on Pitt’s physique in the boxing sequence to notice.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


 Snatch – at Amazon