Friday, May 30, 2014

War Games

Saving Private Ryan has a lot to answer for - don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the film when it was first released, appreciating its attempts at authenticity with regard to things like tanks compared to earlier war movies, where post-war US built M47s and M48s pretended, unconvincingly, to be Tiger tanks.  No, my problem with Spielberg's film is that seems to have encouraged a whole wave of low-budget war movies focusing on small unit actions, which seem to have been made primarily by World War Two re-enactment societies.  In many ways this was an inevitable development: digital technology was bringing high quality video within the reach of amateur and semi-professional film makers, commercial computer video editing and graphics packages were making postproduction, including special effects, affordable and possible to achieve in your living room on a laptop, whilst re-enactment groups were getting bigger and acquiring lots of more authentic equipment.  Indeed, I have little doubt that the popularity of Saving Private Ryan boosted the re-enactment movement, (it also showed them it was possible to build relatively realistic looking German tanks on the chassis of obsolete ex-Soviet tanks which were now available cheaply from the former Soviet bloc).  So, if you were a budding film maker with an interest in World War Two, it was only logical that you hooked up with one of these groups - they could provide not just the right vehicles and weapons, but also lots of extras with authentic-looking uniforms.

Unfortunately, most of the films produced this way are pretty dire.  They also all seem to end up on Movies4Men.  So, over the past few weeks, I've seen quite a few.  Some are incredibly ambitious.  Red Rose of Normandy, for instance, attempts to recreate the D-Day landings, (from the German perspective), in what looks like California.  The problem is that it has no budget: the invasion fleet seems to consist of two ships and two landing craft, for instance. Moreover, no mater how big the re-enactment groups involved are, there are never going to be enough of them to make it look like either the US or German armies are clashing.  A lack of budget also means a lack of professional actors.  (I may be doing those involved in these films a disservice, they could be professional actors, but I can only judge them by their performances here, which are, at best, wooden).   It also didn't help that the Normandy landings were simply used as the background for a hackneyed romance plot.  Steel Tempest, most of which I saw today, was somewhat more modest in its scope, focusing on the doomed attempts of an SS unit to hold a bridge in late 1944.  It suffered from the same problems of dreadful dialogue, clich├ęd characters and indifferent acting.  Unlike Red Rose of Normandy, it was shot in the UK, so its setting at least looked European.  That said, the Belgian 'town' being fought over looked more like a contemporary half-finished housing estate in Basingstoke.  Funnily enough, when I checked, parts of the film had been shot in Hampshire.

But, like many of these films, the problem with Steel Tempest was that the combat sequences looked like a re-enactment.  This wasn't helped by the use of CGI effects, instead of pyrotechnics, to produce explosions, muzzle flashes and the like.  Whilst undoubtedly cheaper than using blank rounds and pyrotechnics, this method ultimately looks unconvincing.  Worse still, it quickly becomes obvious that none of the weapons being 'fired' are ejecting spent shell casings - a prominent feature of combat weapons.  Also surprising are the number of organisational inaccuracies: light tanks and medium tanks would rarely operate as part of the same formation and US tank destroyers certainly wouldn't be seen operating with tanks - they were organised separately as part of the US's armoured doctrine in World War Two.  It was also highly unlikely that you'd see British troops supporting American GIs - differing supply chains dictated that western allied units of different nationalities  generally operated separately from each other.  But enough of my nit-picking.  Ultimately, these films demonstrate that accuracy in terms of having the right tanks and guns isn't enough to make an entertaining war move.  Believe me, they aren't half as much fun as the average, wildly inaccurate, 'Macaroni War' picture.

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