In the Company of Men

WFTB Score: 13/20

The plot: Cynical businessmen Chad and Howard use a six-week work assignment as an excuse to test out their manliness by dating, and then dumping, a vulnerable woman. Deaf typist Christine appears to be a perfect candidate but predictably, complications ensue. As Howard falls in love with Christine and she falls for Chad’s charms, how can the situation resolve itself without a great deal of upset? Or maybe that’s the idea all along…

Those who take offence at the phrase “all men are bastards” are best advised to stay away from In the Company of Men, an uncompromising black comedy from first-time director Neil La Bute. For it not only exposes the male-filled, corporate world as a breeding ground of testosterone-fuelled misogyny, but contains one of the most extreme specimens of chauvinism you are ever likely to see.

His name is Chad (Aaron Eckhart), a suave, self-assured businessman on his way to set up a new office with old schoolfriend and colleague Howard (Matt Malloy). For their own reasons, each is finding work incompatible with successful relationships, Chad having broken up with his partner Suzanne and Howard experiencing trouble with an ex-fiancée. Fearing that women are gaining control over their lives, Chad hits on a plan to make them feel better: find a vulnerable woman, have both himself and Howard date her for the six weeks they’re in town, and then simply drop her like a stone when it’s time to leave.

Somewhat reluctantly Howard agrees to go along with the plan, and they find the perfect target in Christine (Stacy Edwards), a deaf typist whose vocal mannerisms Chad mocks mercilessly, while being a perfect gentleman to her face. In contrast, Howard doesn’t find chatting Suzanne up comes naturally; but when they do date, he finds himself ever more attracted to her and even starts learning sign language to get to know her better. This attention to detail comes at the expense of his performance in the workplace, however; and in any event his wooing is destined to come to nothing as Christine falls for Chad, despite Howard’s efforts to get him out of the way. It also seems as though Chad is really falling in love with Christine, but Howard, spurned and angry, ensures that the truth will out.

The company where both men work is an insanely macho place, and the corporate setting of this nasty variation of Pygmalion works really well. The important people – all male – are virtually clones of each other, all wearing white shirts and patterned ties and constantly denigrating their colleagues. In this arena being the ‘big swinging dick’ is the be-all-and-end-all, and Chad is an alpha-male to an almost psychotic degree (though not quite at American Psycho levels), not afraid to humiliate people wherever and whenever necessary (he revels in an awkward sequence with a black employee).

Aaron Eckhart plays the part perfectly, able to horrify the audience with offensive anti-female jokes one minute and appear perfectly sincere in his wooing of Christine the next. As a hateful and hate-filled character, we really should be wishing him dead; but he retains a demonic, self-assured charm that ensures he remains fascinating, even as he reveals himself – several times – to be the worst kind of bastard.

Opposite him, Malloy’s clunky, needy, inadequate Howard is simultaneously an object of derision and pity, and the scene in which he confesses his and Chad’s scheme to Christine is both devastating and awkward; but both the actors and the script make the unravelling of the relationships strangely compelling. As the unwitting bait in the men’s trap, Stacy Edwards has less to do than the others, but her quiet gestures are effective and her portrayal of a deaf woman (she isn’t) is particularly convincing.

Much of the film put me in mind of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, and while this is generally a compliment to Neil La Bute’s work, it also hints at a few problems. Like the older film, In the Company of Men betrays its roots as originating on the stage in the small number of sets, the static nature of the action and the pervasive talking where a more experienced director might have introduced some more obviously cinematic elements. Also, the division of the film into ‘weeks’ interrupts the flow of the film, again making the film appear like a series of scenes from a theatrical production rather than something designed for the screen. Since Eckhart is so magnetically horrible in the lead role, none of these things really detract from the enjoyment – if that’s the word – of the film; yet it would not be true to say that they go by unnoticed.

I approached In the Company of Men with some trepidation, since a brief description of the film – two businessmen plot to humiliate a handicapped woman – sounds completely sick. However, even if there aren’t many real Chads in the world, I have no doubt that there are some; and the dedicated, raw performances of Eckhart, Malloy and Edwards, combined with La Bute’s wicked words, make the film a gripping if awfully uncomfortable watch.

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Gran Torino

WFTB Score: 18/20

The plot: Grizzled widower and Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski despairs of his spoilt family and mistrusts his neighbours, members of the Hmong community that has come to dominate the area where he now lives with only his dog Daisy for company. When shy youngster Thao is goaded by a gang into trying to steal Walt’s precious Gran Torino, the sick old man nearly kills him; but as Thao pays penance Walt begins to take the young man and his sister Sue under his wing. Little do they know that the relationship will have devastating consequences for them all.

Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is a wretched old man, an inconvenience to the money-minded family who congregate for his wife’s funeral and a thorn in the side of the young Catholic priest (Christopher Carley) who tries to look out for him, despite the insults he constantly receives for his troubles. A war vet and ex-Ford worker, Walt is pre-disposed to dislike his neighbours, the Hmong who were repatriated after the Vietnam War (they supported the losing side); and when impressionable young man Thao (Bee Vang) is forced by his cousin’s gang to try to steal Walt’s immaculate 1972 Gran Torino, Walt reacts with his customary fury and racist outbursts.

However, Walt saves Thao from being hauled off by the gang and soon after saves his sister Sue (Ahney Her) from a sticky situation, making him a local hero; Walt is showered with food (to which he is more than partial) and gets to know both Sue and Thao, who is made to work for Walt and is later given lessons in life by the relentlessly practical curmudgeon. Walt, however, does not have much life left and when Thao’s problems with the gang escalate, he takes it upon himself to find a solution.

Eastwood has stated that this is his last appearance in front of the camera; if so, it is a fine send-off for one of cinema’s greats. Essentially an exercise in old age vigilantism, Gran Torino provides an uncomfortable but incredibly gripping story as Thao and Sue’s lives become ever more threatened by their hateful cousin’s gang and Walt fights to protect them. More than that, Eastwood’s Walt is a superb and complex character study, a man troubled by the violence of war yet not afraid to use his muscle, hateful on many levels, disappointed in his children and snotty grandkids, yet regretful that he didn’t get to know his sons better.

Importantly, even as he comes to know and even like his next door neighbours, his ingrained racism barely softens: only the frequent reminders of impending death make him reappraise his life with the help of the callow priest. Throughout, the gleaming Gran Torino lurks in the background as a symbol of misplaced effort and love, highlighting Eastwood’s contribution as director. He never makes himself likeable, but by filming himself unflinchingly (there is a brilliant shot of Walt smoking in the dark, his blood pouring down his hands) he makes sure we feel everything Walt feels.

Alongside such a towering performance, Bee Vang and Ahney Her – non-professional actors – do admirably in their roles, Her in particular coming across as self-assured and (importantly) sympathetic in a role which is initially burdened with giving details about the Hmong but which later takes a shocking turn. Though other parts are necessarily limited, Brian Haley is excellent as Walt’s son Mitch, failing to connect with the old man and harassed by the wife into proposing retirement villages. John Carroll Lynch is also very good as the foul-mouthed barber who gives Walt as good as he gets, and who helps to school Thao in the art of being a man. Nick Schenk’s screenplay is poignant, funny and hard, and its morals are simple and direct; perhaps more so than in real life, but the impact of every scene is immediate and raw.

Gran Torino’s simplicity and refusal to become sentimental (a trait that afflicted Million Dollar Baby) is generally a blessing, but also leads to my only criticism of the film. At the very end, the ultimate destination of Walt’s prized car is easily guessed at, and Thao’s troubles are wrapped up rather too neatly to be entirely credible; but this is a small quibble, and one which only very slightly reduced my enjoyment of the film (since the build-up towards the climax is so expertly handled, I thought the climax itself might be…cleverer). If I’m being vague, it’s for a very good reason: even if it’s not quite perfect, Gran Turismo is a film that should be seen and appreciated without too much forewarning. It’s an uncomfortable watch, occasionally, but for every frame that Clint Eastwood is on screen, you won’t be able to take your eyes off him.

Hot Shots! Part Deux

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: When a mission to rescue the people sent to rescue American hostages in Iraq goes wrong, there’s only one man to rescue them: Topper Harley. Inconveniently, Topper doesn’t want to know, but he’s brought round by the CIA and signs on for the mission, reuniting with his lost love Ramada in the process. However, there are plenty of bodies between him and the prison where the hostages are held captive.

It’s been two years since Topper Harley (Charlie Sheen) delivered a bomb onto the lap of Saddam Hussein (Jerry Haleva) in Hot Shots! But things haven’t worked out how he hoped: his Latin love Ramada (Valeria Golino) jilted him at the train station, sending him into self-imposed exile at an ashram in Thailand, living with monks and boxing for money. Colonel Walters (Richard Crenna) and CIA operative Michelle Huddlestone (Brenda Bakke) fail to talk him round, but when word reaches him that Walters has been captured on a rescue mission, Michelle’s words, looks and – ahem – bedroom prowess persuade him to take part in the mission to rescue him.

Topper’s contact in the field just happens to be Ramada, harbouring the pain of secretly being married to one of the hostages, an Englishman called Dexter (Rowan Atkinson); but as Ramada, Topper and his band of inept brothers fight their bloody way towards the prison camp, the former lovers struggle to hold back their feelings. Back home, President ‘Tug’ Benson (Lloyd Bridges) depends on the mission succeeding to shore up his faltering re-election campaign, and decides that the only way to secure success is to take direct action.

Moving on from Hot Shots!’ parody of Top Gun, director Abrahams and co-writer Pat Proft here use America’s ongoing feud with Iraq to fashion a parody of ‘Nam films such as the Rambo trilogy, The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. Part Deux is largely successful at lampooning the thoughtless violence of Rambo and the earnestness of the other films – the segment on the river is great fun and includes a lovely Martin Sheen cameo. Sheen Jr, his own life now something of a parodic tragi-comedy, both looks the part and is admirably straight-laced; he’s ably supported by Golino, looking as fine as ever, even in a moustache (and her Gabriella Sabatini joke is amongst the film’s best).

Elsewhere, things are much more hit-and-miss: some of the jokes, like the ’Geronimo!’ gag, are a wonderful surprise, whereas others are terrible – ‘I see you’re no stranger to pain’ is paid off with ‘I‘ve been married – twice’. Bridges doesn’t quite have the same impact as President as he did as Admiral, and the members of Topper’s team are less than luminary (Ryan Stiles’ goofy turn is as welcome as – well, Goofy); but they are redeemed somewhat by Rowan Atkinson’s marvellously sulky turn. Brenda Bakke, meanwhile, makes for a decent Sharon Stone-alike in the film’s Basic Instinct spoof, but eventually suffers the indignity of being the movie’s turncoat, ill-used as she and Golino fall out and randomly embark on an American Gladiators face-off. More than ever, you get the idea that Abrahams and Proft added bits and added bits to their script, until the answer to the question ’So…this feature length yet?’ was ‘I guess!’

Then there’s the thorny issue of killing people in comedy movies. The ‘bloodiest movie ever’ tag is obviously a silly joke, but history has leant this film a slightly queasy political element. If you are going to make jokes about it, the cartoonish way in which hundreds of Iraqis are dispatched is probably the best way to go about it; but given the relative casualties of Desert Storm (and I urge you to find and listen to Bill Hicks’ take on the “war”), it just makes me uncomfortable that dead Iraqi soldiers are considered fodder for body count comedy.

And given the ridiculous revenge mission that we now know/always knew Operation Iraqi Freedom was for George W. Bush, the flippant ridicule of Saddam Hussein rings a bit hollow (never mind the human/economic cost, they got their man in the end). I accept that this might be pretty heavy criticism for a damn silly spoof, but you can’t have Topper saying ’You sold out the greatest country in the world’ with a straight face and still be surprised that some countries think America is a nation of stupid, arrogant bullies. Anyway, enough with the politicking – it’s unfair to judge the film now for its stance at the time, and Abrahams and Proft certainly weren’t alone in feeling the despot was ripe for ridicule.

Finally, while you wouldn’t call Hot Shots! Part Deux sloppy, it doesn’t create locations half as effectively as its predecessor, so you really have no sense of enemy territory as a place (are there really jungles in Iraq?) Another niggly comment, maybe, but it’s one that wouldn’t have arisen had the comedy been more diverting and less reliant on pop-culture references for giggles. Overall, Part Deux is an entirely adequate ninety-minute diversion; but there’s nothing to suggest that there would be much merit in a part trois.

Mrs Henderson Presents

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: Towards the end of the 1930s, wealthy widow Laura Henderson finds herself with more time and money on her hands than she knows what to do with. On a whim, she buys London’s run-down Windmill Theatre and strikes up a feisty relationship with producer Vivian Van Damm. Mrs Henderson averts box-office disaster by scandalously inaugurating Britain’s first nude revue; but when war arrives, moral outrage is the least of the company’s worries.

London, 1937, and Laura Henderson (Judi Dench) buries her husband, for many years her companion in India and elsewhere. Their son Alec having been killed in the First World War, Mrs Henderson finds single life very lonely; she doesn’t enjoy the hobbies – sitting on committees, doing crochet – suggested by her good friend Margot (Thelma Barlow), and neither, being nearly seventy, is she impressed by Margot’s suggestion that she takes a lover.

One day, she drives past the closed Windmill Theatre and – just like that – decides to buy it. Despite arguing with him from the outset, she hires Jewish producer Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins) to put on a show, a combination of revue and vaudeville cleverly called ‘revuedeville’, a show that plays throughout the day and becomes so successful it’s universally copied, nearly causing financial ruin. Mrs Henderson, however, decides to do as they do in Paris and instructs Van Damm to assemble a nude revue.

He does as he’s told, cobbling together a troupe of nervous ‘real’ women to accompany singers Jane and Bertie (Camille O’Sullivan and Will Young) and the leggy Millerettes, while Laura sweet-talks Christopher Guest’s Lord Chamberlain Lord Cromer (or ‘Little Tommy’, as she knows him), who objects to the proposed nudity but is as enchanted as the audience when the curtain goes up and the girls are presented in still, arty tableaux. However, Mrs Henderson’s excitement sours when she discovers that Van Damm is spoken for; and the tight little family enjoyed by the girls, including Maureen, Vera and Peggy (Kelly Reilly, Sarah Solemani and Natalia Tena), is disrupted by the bothersome World War II. But isn’t theatre’s motto ‘The Show Must Go On’? If the redoubtable Mrs H has anything to do with it, it certainly will.

Your first question about Mrs Henderson Presents may well be to do with the nudity – is this BBC Films project a period Showgirls? The answer is ‘of course not’, and this is much to the film’s credit. There’s a fair amount of flesh on show, but apart from a hint of harmless sauce it’s all presented as an unerotic, tasteful and artistic enterprise. An equal opportunities one, too – they don’t warn you about Bob Hoskins’ todger on the DVD cover.

But the point is that the controversy of the Windmill’s nude revue is just a backdrop to the bigger story. This film’s not about naked women, or men, or art, at all; it’s about the indomitable spirit of Londoners, rich and poor, during the Blitz. Quite right too, except that’s a history lesson we’re exhausted with already – and while I applaud the total lack of gratuitousness and titillation, there’s a slight feeling of being conned, of being lured into a strip club only for Simon Sharma to deliver a po-faced lecture whilst blocking your view.

I’d have liked to have known more about the girls, where they came from, why they were taking part in the shows: what we get is a two-line summary from ladies who are much of a muchness, apart from Maureen. She gets matchmade by Mrs H, provoking the film’s big crisis which has some emotional impact. Otherwise, the film is much too polite, too British, too damn nice for its own good – for example, I’m not sure all the visiting squaddies were quite as fresh-faced and respectful as they’re portrayed here.

Still, it does contain moments of sly humour, for example the mouse that causes ‘accidental’ movement amongst the nudes, Cromer getting into a flap over ‘The Midlands’, or Laura’s ruses to sneak back into the theatre after she insults Mrs Van Damm and swears never to return.

The film’s not really about the nude revue, then, and the episodic structure of the script, which constructs the story in a blocky, clunky fashion, demonstrates the lack of a dominant theme: Mrs Henderson drives past theatre and looks pensive, Mrs Henderson ‘suddenly’ hits on the idea of a nude review, Van Damm decides to use real British girls and immediately fishes Maureen out of a canal. This bittiness is also reflected in the film’s technical aspects, which are a real mixed bag: London looks wonderful, the cast are dressed and made up to perfection, and the revues are recreated with verve and entirely appropriate showtunes. However, there’s a disconnect between the recreation of period London and scratchy black and white footage of the Blitz, especially when the film later has an obviously fake go at showing the capital ablaze, with Mrs H looking on.

Luckily, most of these issues are swept aside by the superb performance of Dame Judi Dench: she’s haughty, cheeky, occasionally unhinged, but also full of tenderness, her eyes reflecting a lifetime of love and loss for her husband and especially for her son, buried in France (even if I wasn’t totally convinced by her rationale for funding the show). However variable the quality of what’s going on around her, she sparkles, and sparks off Hoskins who – for once – gets to play a slightly posh role, and plays it well. Kelly Reilly doesn’t fare so well in this exalted company, and while Will Young is perfectly fine, he doesn’t exactly demand a career in the movies. Guest isn’t on screen for long, but as usual is very funny.

Assuming you don’t watch Mrs Henderson Presents demanding sex or sauce, you’re likely to find it a handsome film, with humour and a surprisingly strong streak of nobility and decency – its ultimate message could be paraphrased as ‘naked women helped win the war’! The film’s ripe sentimentality does mean that it lacks anything like an edge, and you might hope for more, and more substantial, human tales to accompany Dench’s brilliant performance; in general, though, this show deserves to go on.

Hot Shots!

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: Ace pilot Topper Harley is persuaded back to the Navy to take part in Operation Sleepy Weasel, even though the mention of his father Buzz causes him to black out during training flights. Fellow top gun Kent Gregory blames Buzz for his own father’s death, so psychologist (and Kent’s ex-squeeze) Ramada has much to sort out, not least her own feelings towards Topper. And that’s all without the mission, threatened not only by the unhinged oversight of Admiral ‘Tug’ Benson but also by the interference of shady businessmen.

I’m not sure that you could ever talk about a ‘golden age’ of spoof movies, since really good ones have always been few and far between, the gems easily outnumbered by lazy cash-ins. However, the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker or Kentucky Fried Theatre team hit gold with The Naked Gun and followed it up in 1991 with a strong sequel, The Smell of Fear. The same year, Jim Abrahams and writer Pat Proft turned out Hot Shots!: but does it hit the mark, or have the writers, in their haste, shot themselves in the foot?

Charlie Sheen is Topper Harley, a US Navy pilot haunted by the fate of his father to the extent that he leaves, to pursue a life among Native Americans who know him as Fluffy Bunny Feet. The importance of Operation Sleepy Weasel brings Lt Commander James Block (Kevin Dunn) to his tepee begging for his return; and Topper does, to the general delight of the squadron which includes boss-eyed Washout (Jon Cryer) and ominously-named ‘Dead Meat’ (William O’Leary).

Less pleased is Kent Gregory (Cary Elwes), who blames the recklessness of Topper’s dad Buzz for causing his father’s death in a hunting accident. Their enmity is assured when Kent’s old flame, Navy psychologist Ramada (Valeria Golino), finds herself drawn to Topper, even though his paternal conflict issues threaten to overwhelm him and ruin any mission he flies on.

What he doesn’t know is that Block has brought Harley back relying on him to break down in action, since he stands to gain by a deal with devious aircraft maker Mr Wilson (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.). He may get lucky in love, but one way or another Topper seems destined to become a cropper up in the skies.

It goes without saying that Hot Shots! is a spoof of Top Gun, although it’s less bothered with satirising the all-boys-together nature of Tony Scott’s film than it is with making a joke at any opportunity. As usual, the jokes are of variable quality, some great (the sequence in the Indian reservation is very funny and starts off a marvellous running gag involving a Chihuahua) and some less impressive – essentially, anything where the joke is a character falling over or hitting their heads (then falling over).

The plot is insubstantial but enough to hang the jokes on, and the cast do what they can to get the best out of the material: Sheen is dumb and handsome, Golina pleasantly full of Latin passion, Elwes assuredly arrogant and snobbish, Cryer agreeably goofy. But the pick of the bunch has to be Lloyd Bridges, nearly 80 at the time and showing all the punchiness that made his turn in Airplane! such fun. He’s the real star of the show, even if Benson is just a variation on Police Academy’s Commandant Lassard (another Proft creation), and his delivery is always spot-on (his admission to being clueless about Operation ‘Slippery Weevil’ is perfect).

Aside from Top Gun, Hot Shots! also riffs on Dances With Wolves, 9½ Weeks and The Fabulous Baker Boys and does it well; however, at about the two-thirds mark Topper bursts into Only You and the film curiously starts looking back on itself, even more curiously breaking into random parodies of Rocky, Gone with the Wind and Superman. Though not without value gag-wise, these jokes come from nowhere and don’t really mesh with the rest of the film.

The plot then shifts into its final set-piece with an attack on the Middle East and America‘s favourite (ex-) bogeyman Saddam Hussein, and there’s a definite sense that an hour of comedy was as much as Abrahams and Croft had in their lockers. In retrospect, we should be grateful that there’s a good hour of comedy here, since by the time Scary Movies 3 and 4 came along Abrahams and his cohorts’ jokes were little more than vaguely contemporary films/TV/music videos refashioned so that the characters hit their heads on something.

One thing Hot Shots! does have in its favour is production values. It would have been difficult to make a Top Gun rip-off without spending a bit of money, I suppose, but in terms of the extras used to fill out the base (carrying out drills to the Brady Bunch theme) and the technology on show, you can tell that no corners have been cut (how much does it cost to rent out an aircraft carrier, I wonder?). While this in itself doesn’t improve the quality of the jokes, it does at least mean that you’re not distracted by cheap-looking props or wonky model work as the gags roll by.

I’ve watched Hot Shots! a few times over the years and it’s chucklesome, with willing performances from an attractive cast and the filmmakers showing a real care for how the whole thing looks. It’s less good when it loses focus, and the fact that I can’t bring many verbal jokes to mind is telling; compared to Airplane!, for example, the script is fairly weak. Nonetheless, the gags are still packed in at a decent rate and I have no doubt I’ll be watching it again, if only for the joy of Lloyd Bridges and the lovely Chihuahua gag.

Carry On Cowboy

WFTB Score: 13/20

The plot: Johnny Fingers, aka The Rumpo Kid, rides into the peaceful town of Stodge City and turns it into a lawless den of drinking and lewd dancing. The place needs a saviour, but probably not Marshall P Knutt, the sanitation engineer sent from Washington DC by mistake. Perhaps his companion in the stagecoach, a Miss Oakley, out for revenge, will prove to be more useful.

By the time I became aware of their existence, the Carry On films had already been chopped into half-hour television segments called What a Carry On! Little wonder, then, that watching an entire film can sometimes be difficult, having already seen the best bits and having to sit through the not-so-good parts and often cobbled-together plots.

The good news is that Carry On Cowboy, in its intact form, is both a funny and coherent parody of Westerns, setting up a classic Sid James vs Kenneth Williams confrontation in the shape of the Rumpo Kid and the blustering but ineffectual Judge Burke (of the Wright-Burkes).  From the start, the jokes hit the mark, James coolly dispatching three men before asking “Wonder what they wanted?” You can also tell from the start that a lot of effort has gone into making the film work: the sets and costumes hint at high production values which the cast complement by taking the plot seriously, some of them even attempting accents. Joan Sims, as usual, is very good as Belle, the owner of the saloon bar that Rumpo quickly takes over as his own.

As a ballast to these performances, Jim Dale is the nerdy Knutt accidentally sent into Stodge City to clean it up, and he arrives at the same time as Angela Douglas, the pretty, petite blonde who also happens to be an expert gunslinger and out for revenge against James, who killed her father. Dale and Douglas make a bland hero and heroine, and it is no surprise that they should fall in love, but there is enough going on around them to keep proceedings lively, especially when Charles Hawtrey and Bernard Bresslaw turn up as an unlikely pair of Indians – Hawtrey is sublime as the frightfully posh leader, Big Heap.

As is always the case with Carry Ons, your enjoyment of the film will depend on your tolerance for the jokes, and although Talbot Rothwell’s script contains rather too much room for slapstick and not a little sexism, it relies much less on innuendo to get its laughs than later films in the series and when it is good it is very good: the undertaker following Knutt around, for example, or the query about why the ultimate showdown has to take place at High Noon. All in all, Carry on Cowboy shows the team at or near their height, and despite being a bit patronising about women, and featuring an undistinguished song from Douglas, is as enjoyable as they come.

Glory

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: During the American Civil War, the hard-pressed Unionists bring into being their first ‘coloured’ regiment, the 54th, under the stewardship of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Shaw’s brand of leadership causes upsets with old friends and recruits of all ages and dispositions; but when the time for fighting comes, his men are ready to prove themselves the equals of soldiers from either side.

Not being particularly gifted in matters of history, and non-British history in particular, the events of the American Civil War tend to slip out of my mind as soon as I stop reading or watching about them; accordingly, though I enjoyed Ang Lee’s Ride With the Devil not too long ago, I would only be able to guess which side Tobey Maguire’s ‘runty nubbin’ character fought for, and where, and why. So on the face of it this tale of Colonel Shaw, a real-life 23-year-old fighter for the Army of the Potomac, and the men he commanded, was only of passing interest to me. Fortunately, Edward Zwick has taken his source material (letters from Shaw to his parents, amongst other accounts) and created a fine, watchable film.

The film opens with Shaw (Matthew Broderick) seeing action at Antietam, where he quickly comes face-to-face with the grisly realities of war in a notorious defeat for the Unionists. The battlefield leaves him shell-shocked, so when his parents – committed Boston abolitionists – arrange for him to be the colonel of a negro regiment, he is almost too stunned to respond. He eventually accepts, bringing along his friend Forbes (Cary Elwes) as Major with another family friend, literate and educated black man Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher) being one of the regiment’s first recruits.

Also volunteering are wise old goat (with a goat!) Morgan Freeman, who shares a tent with Searles, stammering sharp-shooter Jupiter (Jihmi Kennedy) and Denzel Washington’s Trip, a dude with an attitude and more pride than sense. Trip succeeds in winding Searles and the others up with his defiant blackness, earning him a flogging when accused of desertion that adds to the stripes earned as a slave; with hard words and an even harder Sergeant Major, and much to the disgust of Forbes’ liberal mind, Shaw brings his men up to be a disciplined fighting force.

Yet all is not well: not only does the regiment not get equal pay with white soldiers, and not only are they denied the shoes and provisions available to other divisions, causing Shaw to rebel on both occasions; there is a rumour circulating that the regiment exists solely for propaganda, and the soldiers will never do anything other than manual work. Shaw has to face up to his superiors to prove that his men are more than capable in combat, a trust that ultimately proves their making and their downfall.

In terms of presentation, Glory is a very handsome piece of work, showing off the uniforms, weaponry and moustaches of the Civil War to good effect. I couldn’t tell you if these are all accurate, but the film certainly doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the war as men are blown to pieces at Antietam and, later, ranks of Unionists and Confederates line up in ranks and shoot lumps out of each other before charging with fixed bayonets. The personnel of the 54th are given room to develop, Broderick’s Shaw initially coming across as ineffectual but showing a grasp of how he needs to lead his soldiers, making the difficult decision to treat Searles just like all the other men, and Forbes in more or less the same manner.

Shaw’s determination that his soldiers be treated like anyone else fighting for the cause is noble, and his reluctant, but inevitable, suggestion that his regiment should lead the assault on Fort Wagner both moving and gut-wrenching (attacking Fort Wagner first was a suicide mission, more or less: the South Park movie must have had this film partially in mind for one of its jokes). Amongst the ranks, the cool, common sense of Morgan Freeman and the scared but unflagging determination of Searles are commendable.

But if the film belongs to anyone, it is Denzel Washington. A nasty, taunting son-of-a-gun with aspirations to be a Presidential candidate, Trip is also a fierce fighter and at heart, fiercely loyal. All Trip wants is the respect of those who mocked him, and Washington’s achievement in making him both objectionable and sympathetic is considerable. In fact, the performances from all the black cast contain a profound dignity, no more so than in the blues-driven prayers on the night before the assault on Fort Wagner. This moment is powerfully emotional and because the music comes from the group, feels absolutely natural.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for much of the other music in the film. James Horner’s score makes extensive use of a boys’ choir, which in more than one place is terribly overbearing. It is as if Zwick didn’t quite trust the pull of the story, so emphasised the music to drive the mood of the film along. In fact the obtrusiveness of the voices detracts from the mood rather than adding to it, when a quieter (and perhaps less obviously militaristic) score would have had greater effect.

Whilst I’m complaining, I should say that Glory does smack a little of trying too hard to redress a balance: why does it have to be the case that all the bad guys are white – even on the Unionist side, only Shaw and the ultra-liberal Forbes are shown in a positive light – while all the black guys are not only really good guys (eventually), but also really good soldiers? I have no doubt that all the events in Glory are based on good history, but a bit more ambivalence in some of the characters (in response, say, to the Confederates’ death sentence on the whole regiment) would have made the film feel more grounded in reality.

Nevertheless, the men who made up the 54th regiment are worth celebrating as pioneers in American history, helping Lincoln’s Unionists to win the war and – in their way – pave the way for real African-American Presidential candidates, though of course the road from 1863 to 2008 was far from smooth. Glory is epically cinematic, perhaps too cinematic to ring completely true as an historical account; but the story that is told, and the evident dignity of the men who fought for a just cause, makes the film one that will not easily fade from the memory.