Soviet Valor, Revised for the '50s
The New York Times August 8, 2014
Lewis Milestone's 'Armored Attack!' and 'Arch of Triumph'
Context is everything, comrade — to use a word carefully expunged from the soundtrack of Lewis Milestone’s 1943 “The North Star” when this wartime extravaganza was rereleased 14 years later, recut and retitled “Armored Attack!”
Available as an extra on Olive’s “Armored Attack!” (DVD and Blu-ray), “The North Star” dramatizes the German invasion of the Soviet Union through the heroic suffering of the occupied Ukrainian village that gives the movie its title. This lavish Samuel Goldwyn production received near universal acclaim when it opened in New York at two Broadway theaters, less than a month after the Red Army liberated Kiev and was pushing west toward Poland.
Life magazine named “The North Star” the movie of the year. Punning on the director’s name, Time declared it “a cinemilestone.” “The North Star” was hailed by Variety, defended by the notably anti-Communist Hollywood Reporter and praised by most New York dailies; only the two Hearst papers were critical, with The New York Mirror’s initially favorable review pulled in favor of one denouncing the movie as pro-Soviet propaganda.
True, although The Daily Worker’s reviewer complained there wasn’t enough. The original screenwriter, Lillian Hellman, “might have included a scene showing the collective planning on which the principles of leadership in the Soviet Union are based, and she might also have touched on the presence of Marshal Stalin.” (For her part, Hellman considered the movie, partly rewritten by the playwright and prolific screenwriter and film producer Edward Chodorov, a travesty and bought back her contract from Goldwyn.)
Nominated for six Oscars, without winning any, “The North Star” would be cited during the 1947 hearings staged by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. (Milestone was subpoenaed and Goldwyn invited, although neither was called to testify.) Still, however stilted its declamations and outrageous its idealization of Soviet life, notably the lengthy village celebration scored by Aaron Copland and choreographed by the Russian ballet master David Lichine, that suggests “Oklahoma!” in Ukraine, “The North Star” was less tendentious than the committee’s other bad objects,“Mission to Moscow” (1943) and “Song of Russia” (1944).
Mainly “The North Star” strove for innocuous universality. The peasants were played, without accents, by down-to-earth, all-American types: Dana Andrews, Anne Baxter, Dean Jagger and (in his first movie) the 16-year-old Farley Granger. Walter Brennan and Jane Withers appeared as semi-comic stock characters with Walter Huston, as the village doctor, supplying the sort of moral authority Morgan Freeman might provide today. The chief villains were Erich von Stroheim (once billed as the Man You Love to Hate) and Martin Kosleck, the German-born actor who played Goebbels four years earlier in “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” and would assume the role again in two subsequent movies and a TV play.
Unbelievably idyllic for its first 30 minutes, “The North Star” first gets real with a surprise aerial attack on a group of young people hiking to Kiev (remember Pearl Harbor) and the village’s decision to pursue a scorched-earth policy. After the Germans move in, the resourceful inhabitants organize partisan bands. Looking to replenish their supply of plasma, the Nazi vampires drain blood from the village children until the partisans storm the hospital.
The Russian-born Milestone, who had recently collaborated with Joris Ivens on the newsreel documentary “Our Russian Front,” replaced William Wyler when Wyler went to war. He was a middling director, less than an auteur but more than a hack. (“His professionalism is as unyielding as it is meaningless,” Andrew Sarris wrote in “The American Cinema.”) Milestone is best known for the anti-militarist “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1931), a film that inspired riots in not-yet-Nazi Germany; conversely, his reputation rests largely on the combat movies he made from the mid-1940s through the 1950s. It was surely the effective battle scenes that led National Telefilm Associates to acquire “The North Star” and release a truncated version (on a double bill with Marlon Brando’s first picture, “The Men”).
“Armored Attack!” is 30 minutes shorter than “The North Star” (the village festival is missing) and contextualized with an intermittent voice-over: “This is the story of a people betrayed, who defended their homes and their children only to see them destroyed by the armed attack of a godless invader.” A postscript, including newsreel footage of the crushed anti-Soviet revolt in 1956, condemns the “Red menace” and praises “the gallant struggle of the Hungarian freedom fighters,” presumably presaged by that of the Ukrainian partisans we have just seen.
‘Arch of Triumph’
Apparently cornering the Lewis Milestone market (having recently released his 1949 John Steinbeck adaptation “The Red Pony”) as well as that for Enterprise Films (the noirish “Body and Soul,” “Force of Evil” and “Caught”), Olive fuses the two with a DVD and Blu-ray release of “Arch of Triumph”(1948), a $5 million super-production that grossed only $1.7 million and helped capsize the independent studio.
Adapted, like “All Quiet on the Western Front,” from a novel by Erich Remarque, “Arch of Triumph” is set on the eve of World War II in the Paris of desperate anti-Nazi refugees. Charles Boyer is one, an idealistic doctor, who falls in love with a professional courtesan and chanteuse of mystery (Ingrid Bergman, far better than her part). The movie is ripely atmospheric, shot by Russell Metty in a manner that recalls the romantic fatalism of late-’30s French movies. The script, which Milestone helped write, is hopeless — disjointed and rich with pointless enigmas, although not enough to be truly surreal.
The audience for anti-fascist melodrama had diminished when “Arch of Triumph” had its premiere the same day as the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia. If it had been released in 1943, it might have done a bit better — cut by half an hour, with Humphrey Bogart in the Boyer role.
ANNA KARENINA Telecast by “Masterpiece Theater” in 1978, this faithful and engrossing 10-episode BBC adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel features Nicola Pagett (a principal in “Upstairs, Downstairs”) as the doomed heroine, with Stuart Wilson as her fatal Count Vronsky and much incidental music furnished by Tchaikovsky. (Acorn)
BETHLEHEM Yuval Adler’s tense character drama focuses on the ambiguous relationship between an ambitious Israeli intelligence officer and his teenage Palestinian informant; directed by a first-time Jewish-Israeli filmmaker from a script written with the veteran Arab Israeli journalist Ali Waked, this psychologically rich and exceedingly well-acted thriller benefits from another sort of collaboration. “Each side is wrong, each side is right, and both have their brutalities,” Manohla Dargis wrote in The New York Timesin March. (Adopt Films)
CINEMA KOMUNISTO Mila Turajlic’s compilation film is a complex exercise in post-Communist “ostalgia,” offering a wry history of Yugoslav cinema in which Josip Tito is both the producer and the star. Nothing if not self-aware, the movie, available on video on demand, begins with a quotation from the French philosopher Jacques Rancière: “The history of cinema is the history of the power to create history.” (Music Box)
NOAH Few biblical films have been more eccentric than Darren Aronofsky’s rip-roaring reimagining of Genesis 6-10. Scenically splendid, the movie was shot in Iceland, as explicated in one of the dual DVD-Blu-ray’s extras. “The riskiest thing about this movie is its sincerity: Mr. Aronofsky, while not exactly pious, takes the narrative and its implications seriously,” A. O. Scott wrote in The Times in March. (Paramount)
THE UNKNOWN KNOWN Errol Morris turns his Interrotron on a fiercely grinning Donald H. Rumsfeld. Given the capacity of Mr. Rumsfeld, the former defense secretary, to play defense, the results are mixed. “The film is a cat-and-mouse game in which each player thinks he’s the cat, making it both thrilling and disconcerting to watch,” Mr. Scott wrote in The Times in April. (Anchor Bay)