U-Boote westwärts! (1941)

When I first discovered and read about the German World War II film U-Boote westwärts!, I was struck by the extreme story similarities with the British film We Dive at Dawn from two years later. So struck that for a while I speculated whether the latter might actually be a loose remake of the former.

German submarine U-123 in U-Boote westwärts / U-Boat, Course West (1941)

The initial story structures are, indeed, strikingly similar. A submarine returns to port after a long and hard mission at sea (scenes of surfaced submarine moving steadily forward through picturesque sea and port backgrounds). The crew is looking forward to a long and well-deserved shore leave. They meet up with families, fiancées and various other female friends. One is about to get married. But duty calls. The Queen/Führer needs them and they have to set to sea immediately in order to fulfil an important mission.

However, even during the brief shore leave sequence, the differences between these two films start to become apparent. Beyond the abovementioned similarities, these films are very different at their cores.

Compared with the British film, U-Boote westwärts! seems much more realistic, both in terms of the submarine interiors, and in terms of the missions and situations that a World War II submarine would typically face. On the other hand, the story lacks the intensity, action and adventurous touch that the British production has. Which version you prefer thus depends on whether you prefer realism or suspense.

This film is best enjoyed if you like old war films. U-Boote Westwärts! is not a great film, and some will be further put off by the propagandistic portrayals of British seamen. Nevertheless, it has several good qualities, including some very solid actors.

Herbert Wilk in U-Boote westwärts / U-Boat, Course West (1941)

U-Boote westwärts!
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Year: 1941
Language: German (English subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 37 min
Director: Günther Rittau
Stars: Herbert Wilk
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Matroska (681 M)

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Bronenosets Patyomkin (1925)

I have loved silent film for nearly forty years, ever since I saw a series of Chaplin films on TV. But it was not until about half a year ago that I watched my first silent with live accompaniment – which is of course the way they were meant to be seen. The film was one of the greatest of all silent classics, Bronenosets Patyomkin (Броненосец Потёмкин), best known in English as Battleship Potemkin.

Sergei Eisenstein's Броненосец Потёмкин / Bronenosets Patyomkin / Battleship Potemkin (1925)

The scoring of silent films on the Internet Archive is rarely unproblematic. Even though the films themselves have often fallen into the public domain, and therefore can be freely uploaded to the archive, this is not necessarily the case with the music. For many commercially released silents, a new score has been composed; often the original music has been lost, if there even was an official score in the first place. And even when the music itself is free, the performance as such may be copyrighted. If these things bother you (I have no idea if the excellent score for this particular edition is copyrighted or not), then you are in luck, because the Internet Archive contains many examples of groups or individuals who make it their hobby to produce new free scores for old films. These are, of course, of wildly varying quality, but for this particular film, a pretty decent one exists, created by a group called Apskaft. Their version, unfortunately, suffers from inferior image quality, but you cannot have everything.

Battleship Potemkin tells the story of how the crew of a Russian battleship revolt against their cruel officers when several crew members are ordered shot after refusing to eat bad meat. The film was released the same year as director Sergei Eisenstein’s first feature film, Strike, but already we see Eisenstein perfecting his craft, progressing into the halls of the greatest cinematic artists of all time. There is a reason why this film is often mentioned when the greatest films ever are discussed. Among many other things, Eisenstein shows excellent technique in composition and cutting, and there are also many facial close-ups, for great effect.

This film, of course, cannot be discussed without mentioning the Odessa stairs, one of the most famous scenes in all of cinematic history, and a favourite example for film theoreticians. It is a bit unfortunate that this scene has been so over-analyzed, because it really deserves to be seen with fresh eyes. I will therefore say nothing substantial about it, and if you happen to be among the lucky few who are unaware of what it is, then you will be able to enjoy it in full, without preconceived notions.

The ending of the film is typical of how propaganda film is tweaked in order to create a mood and serve a political lesson, rather than try to tell any kind of truth (Hollywood, by the way, does this all the time in order to make historical events fit better with what the producers and writers perceive the audience wants, and the messages they wish to convey). In the film, the battleship sets course straight for an armada of ships sent by the government to force the mutineers to surrender, but instead the Potemkin makes the entire armada change sides without firing a shot. In reality, only a single ship sided with the Potemkin, and both crews eventually had to give up.

This film is best enjoyed with live music, the way I had the fortune of watching it. But if you cannot get that, the music for this version, or for the other version mentioned above, will do very nicely. A good score definitely adds another dimension to silent film, and I actually prefer no sound at all to a poor score.

Sergei Eisenstein's Броненосец Потёмкин / Bronenosets Patyomkin / Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Bronenosets Patyomkin
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Year: 1925
Running time: 1 h 11 min
Language: Russian (English subtitles)
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (928×738)
Soundtrack: Excellent; perfectly synchronized music
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.3 G)

We Dive at Dawn (1943)

The submarine film is an interesting genre, and We Dive at Dawn is a good representative. Here you will find everything to be expected from a good submarine film. The closed spaces, the comradeship and conflicts among the crew, the sounds of machinery and exploding depth charges, the excitement of the hunt and the tense waiting as the hunter turns to prey.

John Mills and Reginald Purdell in We Dive at Dawn (1943)

The British submarine Sea Tiger has just come back after a long time at sea. We get to see the various crew members as they go ashore for a presumed lengthy leave, but we barely get a glimpse of their private troubles before they are ordered back to ship for another important mission. As the somewhat disheartened lot take their vessel out again, they are told that they are going after the German battleship Brandenburg, as they should be able to catch up with her before she enters the Kiel Canal in northern Germany.

But when they take aboard some Germans from a rescue buoy, they learn that the Brandenburg is farther ahead than expected, and they will not be able to catch up. The ship’s captain (John Mills) then makes the decision to enter the Baltic and search for the German battleship there. But the decision is a foolhardy one. Not only because the Baltic is full of German ships, but also because they are running low on fuel.

Judging by its looks, We Dive at Dawn was a pretty cheap film. The submarine interiors look convincing enough to my untrained eye, but many small details, such as John Mills’ fake stubble, lack the attention which marks a really well-produced film.

Nationalism and propaganda naturally lurks in the background of a wartime production such as this. But it is never allowed to surface (pun intended) in the same way as in, for example, In Which We Serve (1942) or One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942).

This film is best enjoyed if you like either submarines or British 30s/40s films. Though not the best representative of either category, We Dive at Dawn nevertheless has enough good qualities to satisfy your hunger for more of those kinds of films. The story, while a touch on the sentimental side, is good and the actors are adequate.

Turkish S class (Oruç Reis class) submarine P 614 in We Dive at Dawn (1943)

We Dive at Dawn
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Year: 1943
Running time: 1 h 33 min
Director: Anthony Asquith
Stars: John Mills
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (700 M)

Captain Kidd (1945)

Last week, I wrote about how Douglas Fairbanks defined the entire pirate film genre with The Black Pirate (1926). Having said as much, all pirate films are naturally not made from the same template. Though a number of clichés can certainly be found in Captain Kidd, the film also contains a number of original elements.

Randolph Scott in Captain Kidd (1945)

Captain Kidd is nowhere near as lavish and epic as The Black Pirate, yet it is well worth watching on its own merits. The plot is a bit too intricate to be described in just a few sentences, but rest assured that you will find both romance and adventure a-plenty. It involves the greedy and scheming pirate William Kidd (Charles Laughton), the greatest menace of the seven seas, and Adam Mace (Randolph Scott), a man who is out for revenge.

Captain Kidd has often been criticised for being historically inaccurate. That may well be the case, but it is totally beside the point. The film does make use of a number of historical names, places and ships, but the entire plot is just a wonderful fantasy, and it should be watched as such.

This film is best enjoyed for Charles Laughton’s acting. Even though Randolph Scott may nominally be the film’s hero, Laughton is definitely the main character. I did not clock, but I am sure he gets more screen time, and he is absolutely magnificent in his role. There is also a very good John Carradine in a minor role.

Captain Kidd (1945)

Captain Kidd
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Year: 1945
Running time: 1 h 29 min
Director: Rowland V. Lee
Stars: Charles Laughton, John Carradine
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (720×576)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: DivX (700 M)

The Black Pirate (1926)

Through the Internet Archive, you can follow Douglas Fairbanks’ career pretty well. From one of his earliest bit parts in The Martyrs of the Alamo (1915), through to his last leading role in The Private Life of Don Juan (1934), you can follow almost every important turn of his rich and interesting life in Hollywood. Pretty much in the middle, you will find The Black Pirate, often considered to be one of his greatest.

Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate (1926)

The Black Pirate has all the trademarks of Fairbanks’ romantic adventure epics of the 1920s. There are splendid costumes, magnificent sets, swashbuckling action, breathtaking acrobatics. There are also most of the clichés you would expect from any good pirate movie. Hidden treasure, mutiny, cannon fire, walking the plank. Basically the same kind of stuff you will find in the latest Pirates of the Caribbean, only Fairbanks did it first. And in some ways just as good. In fact, a few unique scenes have never (to my knowledge) been duplicated, such as the crew of seamen swimming underwater. Marvellous stuff!

The film, of course, was not created out of a vacuum. It has been said that Fairbanks was mainly inspired by Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates (1903; also available at the Internet Archive).

The Black Pirate was one of the first films to be entirely shot in colour, albeit a limited two-colour process. Unfortunately, the copy at the Internet Archive is black and white with some tinting. Also, the IA copy is cursed with a very bad score, consisting of random classical music.

This film is best enjoyed by lovers of the pirate genre. The Black Pirate stands at the portal of everything that followed, and it is still good enough to compete with the best. If you care to spend the money, the DVD with restored colour is much preferable, but the IA copy is nevertheless enjoyable.

Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate (1926)

The Black Pirate
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Year: 1926
Running time: 1 h 23 min
Director: Albert Parker
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (640×480)
Soundtrack: Poor; random classical music
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (629 M)

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Even though Buster Keaton had an acting career of nearly 50 years, his greatest period can be narrowed down to only about six years, starting with Our Hospitality in 1923 and ending about 1929. One of the last great silent comedies with Keaton was Steamboat Bill, Jr. It was the last silent he made for Universal Pictures, and the last film where he had almost total creative freedom.

Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

In this film, Keaton plays a young man who has been studying at college, and is now about to be reunited with his father, whom he does not really know. He is vain and foppish, and his father, the steamboat skipper, is annoyed by the difficulties he finds in teaching his son the trade of riverboat navigation. Things take a turn for the worse when the son falls in love with the daughter of the father’s worst competitor. Keaton uses this simple setup to create another of his great masterpieces.

The meticulously orchestrated and spectacular stunts (see for example the breakneck fall above) are, as in any good Keaton, the film’s trademark. Keaton’s perfect sense of timing, along with his fine acting skills, are the main reasons why this film still works today, almost ninety years after its release.

Unfortunately, the film was a box office bomb. It has gone down in history as a great classic, but was not received well enough by its contemporary audience, and this was the reason why Keaton fell out of favour with his employer.

This film is best enjoyed for one of Keaton’s best and most well-known stunts, as an entire building falls down around him. Keaton’s acrobatics, and this stunt in particular, has been cited as a major influence on Hong Kong star Jackie Chan, who has frequently been compared with Buster Keaton.

Buster Keaton and Marion Byron in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Steamboat Bill, Jr.
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Year: 1928
Running time: 1 h 9 min
Director: Charles Reisner, Buster Keaton
Stars: Buster Keaton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (808 M)

The Fighting Lady (1944)

The Second World War saw on both sides of the conflict a considerable rise in the quality of its cinematic propaganda material. One of the driving individuals behind the American material was William Wyler, who in 1944 helped direct and produce both The Memphis Belle, about a B-17 Flying Fortress in action over Germany, and The Fighting Lady.

Curtiss SB2C Helldiver over USS Yorktown aircraft carrier during World War II in The Fighting Lady (1944)

The Fighting Lady tells the story of an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. The ship is unnamed in the film, but most of the scenes were filmed on board the USS Yorktown. The film stresses the difference between the boredom of everyday routine, and the dangerous bursts of action during a battle. An effective and dramatic contrast is thereby reached, which together with authentic combat footage helps to make this one of the better American documentary/propaganda productions from the war years.

Typical of Wyler’s films, there is no attempt to hide the losses of human lives caused by the war. On the contrary, the US casualties are held up as tragic but also heroic. No doubt, this helped to strengthen home front morale, as long as the audience were also told that the terrible cost was paid back in full to the enemy.

If you like this sort of film, you may also want to take a look at Wyler’s Thunderbolt (1947), about the P-47 Thunderbolt and the action it saw during the campaign in Italy.

This film is best enjoyed for a better understanding of one of mankind’s most terrible conflicts ever fought, not forgetting that it is in many ways propaganda and not foremost a historical document.

Aircraft landing on carrier deck during World War II in The Fighting Lady (1944)

The Fighting Lady
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Year: 1944
Running time: 1 h 1 min
Director: Edward Steichen, William Wyler
Stars: Robert Taylor (narration)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.8 G)