The Battle of Russia (1943)

2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the October revolution in Russia, which led to the forming of the Soviet Union and 70 years of communist domination in Eastern Europe. During most of 2017, I will commemorate this by writing about several films with a Soviet connection. I started two weeks ago with Eisenstein’s Strike (1925). This week, I present to you The Battle of Russia, the fifth part of Frank Capra’s World War II series of propaganda documentaries Why We Fight.

A Soviet army marching in Frank Capra's The Battle of Russia (1943)

Last week, I wrote about The Battle of Britain, and I have also written previously about The Nazis Strike. These, along with the rest of the films in the series, are both very similar and very different from one another. Walter Huston’s excellent narration help to make them similar, as does the style of cutting and the similar looking animated maps and other graphics. Yet, each is uniquely woven around its fact content. In the case of The Battle of Russia, that fact content tells the dramatic, and often tragic, story of Hitler’s idiotic attack on the Soviet Union.

One reason why The Battle of Russia is interesting is that it was seemingly made with respect for the Russian nation and its people. Anatole Litvak, who was the main director (together with series director Frank Capra) was himself Russian. Thus, while the film is certainly propaganda to a large extent, it also shows a deep understanding of Russia and its struggle. It is probably significant that the title contains the word “Russia” rather than “Soviet”. I know next to nothing about Litvak’s background, but I am guessing, based on the film’s contents, that he was not a communist nor, for that matter, a believer in the idea of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Soviet is only mentioned in passing in the film and communism not at all. Mostly, it talks about Russia and the Russians.

Like other parts in the series, The Battle of Russia is propaganda, and it must be used with caution for historical facts. I am guessing that most facts presented in the film are basically true, but on the other hand many things are left out.

This film is best enjoyed for its excellent use of a variety of film material. Everything from old Russian silent historical dramas to captured Nazi propaganda films are used to produce a living picture of how the Soviet Union and the United States became allies in World War II. This is doubly interesting when you consider the bitter enmity that was to replace this alliance only a few years later with the coming of the Cold War.

Soviet soldier with machine gun in Frank Capra's The Battle of Russia (1943)

The Battle of Russia
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Year: 1943
Running time: 1 h 23 min
Directors: Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak
Stars: Walter Huston (narration)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (3.8 G)

The Battle of Britain (1943)

Frank Capra’s famous World War II propaganda series Why We Fight has been justly praised for its high drama and impact. I have previously written about The Nazis Strike, the second part, and the turn has now come to part four, The Battle of Britain. I have seen most of the series, and in my humble opinion, this part is perhaps the best of the lot.

The Nazi whale about to devour Great Britain in Why We Fight: The Battle of Britain (1943)

There are several reasons why I like this film. One is the large amount of genuine aerial footage, both from British sources and from captured Nazi propaganda films. Another is the exciting story it tells. Not the least important reason is the excellent narration by Walter Huston, with brilliant lines like this one: “The Nazi plan called for the RAF to be knocked out of the air, but the men of the RAF hadn’t read the Nazi plan.”

Sure, this is propaganda. It cannot be trusted for historical facts. But it will give you at least a partial glimpse of the reality behind the facts and figures of World War II.

If you are interested in some more facts about the series as a whole, do check my post on The Nazis Strike.

This film is best enjoyed if you are interested in old combat aircraft. The pictures do not lie about these magnificent machines and their performance in the air.

Spitfires in Why We Fight: The Battle of Britain (1943)

The Battle of Britain
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Year: 1943
Running time: 53 min
Directors: Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak
Stars: Walter Huston (narration)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.9 G)

Strike (1925)

Sergei Eisenstein’s first feature-length film, Strike (known as Stachka or Стачка in Russian), showed that the legendary director had already at that time formed most of those ideals that were to follow him through much of his career. And while it may not be as refined as some of his later works, it is just as powerful, poetic and artistic. Strike deserves to be seen for reasons beyond historical curiosity.

Workers in Strike / Stachka / Стачка (1925)

Strike tells the story of a pre-revolution strike at a factory (apparently based on true events) and its voilent resolution. We get to follow the workers as their dissatisfaction with the poor and greedy management explodes into action, when one worker hangs himself because he has been falsely accused of theft. The workers unite in their demands for better conditions, but the managers plot to either force them back to work, or get rid of them once and for all.

One of the things that is typical about Strike, and that sets it appart from the Hollywood norm of story-telling that we are used to, is that there is no main character. Focus is always on the group, and even when individuals do emerge out of the formless mass of strikers (constantly running around from one place to another), they are not proactive in the way that you would expect your standard Hollywood protagonist to be. Rather, they react to things that happen around them, and they act together with the group. You could perhaps call them catalysts, sparking the fire in others to act in concert. This theme of cooperation permeates the film to the extent that one could probably write a book about it.

Another of Eisenstein’s identifying traits is the way he uses metaphor in his images. Some would perhaps say that he is too obvious when he interfoliates cuts with animals and with humans, thereby giving the humans animal characteristics. But to me, this is enormously powerful. Even more so, since this technique is practically never used in Western film, neither contemporary nor modern.

This film is best enjoyed for its powerful and emotional ending. As the military move in on horseback and massacre the strikers, Eisenstein interleaves cuts of cattle being slaughtered, and of laughing capitalists, fat and lazy. Regardless of whether you agree with the underlying ideology, this is truly effective and artistic film.

Revolutionary leader in Strike / Stachka / Стачка (1925)

Strike
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Year: 1925
Running time: 1 h 34 min
Language: Russian (English subtitles)
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Excellent; perfectly synchronized music and some sound effects
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (685 M)

Nancy Drew… Reporter (1939)

Back when I was a kid in Sweden in the 1970s, there used to be a famous series of books for kids. (In fact, that series was published for almost 100 years, and there were over 3,000 titles.) The backs were alternately green, for boys, and red, for girls. I mostly read the green ones, with Biggles as my big favourite. But on occasion I was attracted to one of the red books as well, and in particular the ones about Nancy Drew.

Nancy Drew, the famous girl detective, has made it to the silver screen on several occasions, but the early films from the 1930s are said to be the best. The only one available at the Internet Archive, and quite a gem at that, is Nancy Drew… Reporter.

Thomas Jackson and Bonita Granville in Nancy Drew... Reporter (1939)

I will be the first to admit that my memories of those juvenile books are far too sketchy to allow any comparisons with this movie version, but whether true to the original stories or not, it cannot be denied that Bonita Granville’s interpretation of Nancy Drew is fresh, charismatic and full of vigour. Sure, she acts something of a spoiled brat, but does so with such charm that you have to forgive her. Her performance is very good for the most part, especially in the dialogues.

The story, briefly, is that Nancy has entered a competition for young people to write the best news story. In order to get the best opportunity, she steals a real reporter’s assignment, which gets her involved in a murder case. But unlike everyone else, Nancy does not believe that the one the police suspects convicted the crime. So with the aid of her sidekick and her lawyer father, she decides to try to find and frame the real killer.

There is a certain similarity between this film and Danger Flight from the same year. Although one is for girls and one is for boys, both were made for juveniles, and both talk to the kids instead of talking down to them. This is certainly not always the case with modern juvenile films.

This film is best enjoyed when you need a feel-good movie. This one provides exactly that, and does it well. Look for no deeper meanings. Nostalgic sentiments for Nancy Drew are not required, but may augment your experience.

Bonita Granville, Frankie Thomas and Larry Williams in Nancy Drew... Reporter (1939)

Nancy Drew… Reporter
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Year: 1939
Running time: 60 min
Director: William Clemens
Stars: Bonita Granville
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (2.8 G)

La petite marchande d’allumettes (1928)

So, here we go again. Another new year begins, along with the usual celebrations. A few close friends; good food and wine; some fireworks. It is at times like these that one should perhaps, at least for a minute, stop and think about life. About how fortunate we are to be born at a time and place where there is really very little to worry about. Jean Renoir helps us find that reflective mood, through his 1928 masterful adaptation of H.C. Andersen’s La petite marchande d’allumettes (The Little Match Girl).

Manuel Raaby and Catherine Hessling in The Little Match Girl / La petite marchande d'allumettes (1928)

It was just before the great breakthrough of sound film, and the silent film medium was at its artistic peak. Europe was spearheading the development through filmmakers like Fritz Lang (e.g. Metropolis), Carl Theodor Dreyer (e.g. La passion de Jeanne d’Arc) and F.W. Murnau (e.g. Der letzte Mann). La petite marchande d’allumettes falls right into this tradition with its splendid use of composition, cutting, lighting and costumes.

I guess you know the story already from your childhood. A poor match girl goes out on New Year’s Eve to sell matches, even though her shoes and clothes are pitifully inadequate. When she fails to sell any, she lies down in the cold snow to dream about the toys she saw in a shop window. Renoir’s dream sequence bears traces of the German expressionism, which was extremely strong in Germany about this time.

This film is best enjoyed as a fine example of late 1920s European filmmaking. The film is short, but given the story it sets out to tell, it could not have been made much longer and still kept the interest up.

Jean Storm, Catherine Hessling and Amy Wells in The Little Match Girl / La petite marchande d'allumettes (1928)

La petite marchande d’allumettes
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Year: 1928
Running time: 32 min
Language: French (English subtitles)
Director: Jean Renoir
Stars: Catherine Hessling
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×482)
Soundtrack: Good; harmonium music synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: H.264 (189 M)

Scrooge (1935)

One year ago, almost exactly, I wrote about Scrooge (1951), one of the many cinematic interpretations of Charles Dickens’ famous story A Christmas Carol. That version is only one of several available at the Internet Archive. Today, the turn has come to the very first sound version of the story, also titled Scrooge.

Oscar Asche and Seymour Hicks in Scrooge (1935)

A Christmas Carol is one of those stories that has been filmed again and again. And quite often, the resulting product has been really nice. Hence, there are a good many actors that have made classic Scrooge interpretations. Alastair Sim in the 1951 version is certainly one, and Seymour Hicks in 1935 is another. Hicks is excellent as the miserly old money-lender, and he is among the very best in his terror of the ghost of Jacob Marley, as well as of the three spirits of Christmas. Like many other Scrooge actors, he lets himself be carried away, and is a bit too manic as the reformed kindly old man. But this is a minor problem and goes with the genre.

I find it difficult to choose between the 1935 and the 1951 versions. Both have good scripts and excellent actors. The former is a bit less advanced in terms of special effects (ghostly apparitions, and that sort of stuff), but since it cleverly avoids many of the technical difficulties, using instead simple means like shadows and good acting, this is not really a problem. The 1951 version is perhaps a trifle stronger in the camerawork, whereas the 1935 movie has many little humourous details. In the end, it may come down to technical aspects, and in that respect the 1951 version is blessed with a better copy at the Internet Archive. However, both are well worth watching.

The 1935 copy mainly linked to from this post is the one at the Internet Archive with the best image quality, but the download file is well over 3 GB in size. Fortunately, there is another version, made from the same source. Image quality is almost as good, and file size is much smaller. This is a good option if your bandwidth is limited.

This film is best enjoyed when you need a bit of feel-good in your life, or when you just want to experience a good old classic British costume film.

Donald Calthrop, Barbara Everest and Philip Frost in Scrooge (1935)

Scrooge
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Year: 1935
Running time: 1 h 18 min
Director: Henry Edwards
Stars: Seymour Hicks
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (3.7 G)

The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

Imagine being kicked in the shin. Repeatedly, over and over again, for almost two hours. That is what it feels like to watch The Star Wars Holiday Special. I normally try to stay away from writing about bad movies on this blog (although on occasion I make an exception or two), but this is one you just need to experience because, you know, you have to see it to believe it.

Patty Maloney, Micke Morton, Paul Gale and Harrison Ford (Han Solo) in The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

Everyone knows that the first Star Wars film premiered in 1977. Less well known is that The Empire Strikes Back (1980) was actually not the second part of the saga. That honour goes to The Star Wars Holiday Special, which made its TV premiere for the Christmas season of 1978. Here, you will see Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels (C3PO), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca) and James Earl Jones (voice of Darth Vader) reprising their roles from the first film. However, none of these are the main characters. Instead, the action centres around Chewbacca’s family – his father, wife and son – living in a tree house that would have made Johnny Weissmuller green with envy.

This is where the Holiday Special’s problems start. Through much of the film, these relatives just walk around, howling their lungs out in poor imitation of wookie language (which, embarrassingly, was created by Ben Burtt himself). The so-called story, about Chewie having to make it back home in time for celebrating the all-important Life Day holiday, is stupid enough in itself, but every step of the execution just keeps making it worse, and then worse again.

There is actually one segment of the Special that is rather good (when compared with the rest). About halfway through, there is a ten-minute animated short film. The inclusion of this is incredibly silly, plot-wise speaking, but when seen in isolation, the animation (which is not in any significant way connected with the rest of the plot) has a number of redeeming features. Sure, the animation is a bit too cartoonish and the voice actors (also the original cast, as far as I can tell) certainly did not put their souls into the job. But on the other hand, and very much unlike the rest of the Special, it has a lot of nice Star Wars-esque alien planet environments. The story is simple but not bad. As an oddity under the Star Wars brand, this short is well worth exploring. Also, it is the first-ever appearance of Boba Fett.

Since The Star Wars Holiday Special has never been restored and officially released after the original airing, copies found online tends to be of really low quality. The main copy at the Internet Archive is the best I have seen, with almost-decent technical quality. There is also another version available, with worse quality, but on the other hand it comes with all the commercials from the original airing. They provide a welcome break from the inanities of the Special, and also add some unintended entertainment of their own.

This film is best enjoyed because you know that pain is your friend. Besides, what does not kill you will make you stronger. George Lucas has allegedly gone on record saying that, if he could, he would smash every existing copy of this film with a sledgehammer. This in itself is reason to watch it. Also, when properly applied it can actually be useful. Carrie Fisher has stated that she always puts this film on when she wants her late guests to leave the party.

R2D2, C3PO (Anthony Daniels), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

The Star Wars Holiday Special
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Year: 1978
Running time: 1 h 48 min
Director: David Acomba, Steve Binder
Stars: Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (597 M)