historical

Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor (2003)

I was all prepared to give Benedict Arnold a fair airing. One doesn’t go from war hero to traitor overnight, and I was sure something in his history would pique my sympathy, an episode from his chaotic childhood or the loss of his wife perhaps. There’s still a good movie to be mined from that, but it’s just not this one. If anything, A Question of Honor hardens your opinion against him, assuming you’ve taken the winning side of all this.

The Benedict Arnold we get in this movie is an arrogant, aggrieved social climber completely lacking in humility. Some of that is down to his true character and much, I’m sure, is equally due to Aidan Quinn’s overacting. The man seems incapable of using his indoor voice, and his bellicose Arnold relishes in fighting anyone who even looks at him the wrong way. The general who changed the fate of the American colonies during the Revolutionary War may well have been wronged by fellow officers and by the Continental Congress, but it was also his stubbornness brought about his own downfall.

The film begins with the Battle of Saratoga, which seems to be the catalyst for most of Arnold’s grievances. Although he leads the Continental Army to a decisive victory and is shot in the process, another general claims the credit while he just gets a few months recovery and a set of wicked gold epaulettes. This wrong is further compounded, so he thinks, by Congress’s failure to recognize his heroics with greater financial compensation, adding to his debt and the burden of losing his business.

About the only time Arnold isn’t a bitter, howling mess is when he is with Peggy Shippen (Flora Montgomery), the daughter of a Loyalist family – and paramour of Britain’s number one spy, John André (John Light). I’m not one to judge romance in a time of war, but Arnold’s courtship of and eventual marriage to Peggy sounds like bad fucking news. He has no thoughts of joining the ranks of the British, whom he’s basically tried to murder for the last five years, until Peggy feeds the idea into his angry head.

She’s the missing link in all of this, the one who connects Arnold and André, which is all sorts of awkward. Needless to say, she does not come off well. Though not the political or military mastermind, she’s a skillful manipulator. Montgomery doesn’t play Peggy as a Mata Hari or the kind who schemes because she’s a bored, unhappy housewife. No, she’s loyal and wide-eyed, expertly tending to all the right parts of her husband’s bruised ego so that he’ll take the side most likely to uphold her family’s good fortunes.

The men, on the other hand, are the real drama queens. If this movie’s anything to go by, these petty divas managed to defeat the British and found a country all while backstabbing and plotting against their own leaders and officers. George Washington (Kelsey Grammer) of course stays above the fray. Grammer is no Chris Jackson (of Hamilton fame), but he’s as tempered as one imagines the first president to be. Arnold, however, brings out the worst instincts in other rebel leaders, both military and government. A portrait of this jealous, sneering lot probably helps our understanding of the American Revolution on balance, but Quinn tips the scale with his caricature of the nation’s most misguided hero. He eschews nuance, preferring instead to shout his way through the film and only taking a break to grunt poetry to win over Peggy.

There’s enough in Question of Honor to plug in the bigger gaps in one’s U.S. history education. Those looking for a quality dramatization need to wait it out or try AMC’s Turn though. This A&E production might capture the suspense of Arnold’s flight, but it misses much of the context. You’d hardly know he and Washington were fighting a war of independence since the film doesn’t shed much light on their underlying motivations. There are occasional nods to grievances over representation, but it’s hard to understand the gravity of Arnold’s betrayal when the cause he’s betraying is mere background noise. A British officer comes in with a late save, noting to Arnold’s face that his single act has unified the rebels and strengthened their resolve, all but ensuring their victory. It’s profound but not quite as rousing as it might have been.

Released: 2003
Dir: Mikael Salomon
Writer: William Mastrosimone
Cast: Aidan Quinn, Kelsey Grammer, Flora Montgomery, John Light, Steve Hogan, Tom Murphy, John Kavanagh, Nick Dunning
Time: 100 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: A&E
Reviewed: 2019

Pompeii (2014)

So there’s this thing called Game of Thrones, and I don’t watch it. But not wanting to skip out on the moment, that is the final season premiere, and really just hoping to clear the DVR, I turned to another estimable Kit Harington production, Pompeii. Scratch, it’s just a second rate swords and sandals picture that takes place on the eve of the city’s destruction. Wikipedia notes, however, that it’s a “romantic historic disaster” and this is a genre I didn’t know existed but now kind of love. The movie is an example of aiming high and only halfway getting there, but its mishmash nature is also what makes it enjoyable.

For starters, the main characters are laughably miscast. Kiefer Sutherland as the manipulative and vicious Roman senator Quintas Attius Corvus? I’m more likely to believe that Thomas Kirkman, his accidental president character in Designated Survivor, held a night of “government through the ages” role play and he drew the short straw. Harington is slightly better as Milo, the lone survivor of a Celtic tribe slaughtered by Corvus and then sold into slavery. I can get behind the idea of the actor transforming into a gladiator because Harington’s entrance is marked by his very formidable abs, but he doesn’t seem so ferocious when the record shows that gladiators like Russell Crowe existed. Emily Browning is also slight, and Cassia, the governor’s daughter and Milo’s love interest, looks like she might tip over at any moment. Others are more fitted to their part though. Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss have a regal touch as Cassia’s parents, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje passes as Atticus, the seasoned gladiator who joins Milo against the slave traders and Corvus.

This hodgepodge of looks and accents strangely makes it easier to embrace the spectacle that director Paul W. S. Anderson presents. This is, after all, just expensive dress up with loads of gory swordplay and a cataclysmic natural event. The characters are secondary to the action, and gladiatorial fights get the better share of the attention. These don’t boast sophisticated choreography, but there are a few flourishes and the face-offs in and out of the arena prove well-paced and appropriately bloody.

With the eruption of Mount Vesuvius casting a shadow over things, the film aims to create a mood of doom and gloom, though perhaps too much gloom. Shoddy lighting design means a wasted scene early in the film when someone is swallowed up by an earthquake. Thankfully the better part of the effects involve raining fireballs and gushing tsunami waves and don’t take place in the dark. The last half hour is pure disaster movie chaos, which isn’t great if you want a more human account of the eruption’s devastation. We get masses of people running one way to avoid being crushed to death and then the opposite way to avoid being swallowed up by the sea, but there is nothing that conveys the personal. If you’re looking for affecting tragedy, you’ll do better to reflect on the frozen images found at the actual ruins.

The characters might have inspired more feeling if they weren’t so generic. They are better vehicles for the action than for an emotive story, and even Milo and Corvus don’t seem too antagonistic. Milo snarls with rage once he sees Corvus, who has come to Pompeii on official business and to chase Cassia, but there’s not much effort to build up this rivalry. They end up hacking at each other out of duty and over a girl. Instead, the story relies on the forbidden romance between Milo and Cassia for a little heartbreak. They share a scene that is similar to one in the Star Wars film Rogue One, except that the latter film made me cry and this one made me think about what movie to queue up next. The only characters who came close to conveying trouble or loss were Cassia’s parents, who do a lot with their little screen time.

Released: 2014
Prod: Jeremy Bolt, Paul W. S. Anderson, Robert Kulzer, Don Carmody
Dir: Paul W. S. Anderson
Writer: Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, Michael Robert Johnson
Cast: Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jared Harris, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jessica Lucas, Joe Pingue, Currie Graham
Time: 104 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

The von Trapp Family: A Life of Music (2015)

If filmmakers were hoping to cash in on my love for The Sound of Music, Austria, and Matthew Macfadyen, they’ve found the right vehicle in this von Trapp family biopic. While it doesn’t approach the beloved classic by any measure, it’s a workable companion piece that casts a light on the children’s perspective, namely that of eldest daughter Agathe. The movie is based on her memoirs and, not surprisingly, paints a different, less rosier portrait than the one in the musical. The principal players and events and even some singing remain, but this story is not so concerned with kids traipsing around in drapes as it is with a family navigating the growing menace of Nazism.

Maria (Yvonne Catterfeld) has a supporting role behind sixteen-year-old Agathe (Eliza Bennett), who has never gotten over the death of her mother. After the family move to Salzburg, the young girl takes charge of her siblings, content to be the lady of the house. She is indispensible to her adoring father, Georg (Macfadyen), a respected naval officer, and is not so thrilled when he announces his engagement to their new nanny.

On screen, the courtship takes all of ten minutes, from the time Maria appears at the von Trapp home, guitar case in hand, to the moment the wedded couple shuffle through the gates of Nonnberg Abbey. The sequence is a reminder that this isn’t a movie for soft focus close-ups and romantic ballads in the moonlight. Instead, A Life of Music is determined to bring the mood down closer to reality, and its rougher take makes this retelling worthwhile.

Stubborn and proud, Georg misjudges the political situation and keeps his family in Austria perhaps longer than he should. His defiance sets him up for a dramatic confrontation with the Nazis, who try to strong-arm him over to their cause. Agathe, meanwhile, is more attuned to the national mood. Her friendship with Sigi (Johannes Nussbaum), a young resister, and Lotte (Annette Dasch), an opera singer, allows her a close-up of the destructive ideology taking over the city.

This plot adds details to a familiar story and is the movie’s main appeal because by itself, it’s a lackluster pre-war drama with spotty character development and a completely unnecessary framing device. Rosemary Harris plays an elder Agathe, who is recounting her history to grand-niece Kirsty (Lauryn Canny) in America. Besides contributing nothing to the story that couldn’t be done with voiceover or better writing, the constant flashforwards are so distracting that you would do well to skip over them.

The film trades on what it knows though, and that is the 1965 classic. Sometimes this means trying to get away with half-sketched characters, like Konrad (Cornelius Obonya), the chauffeur and resident villain of the piece. He is parts Franz and Herr Zeller, his working class frustrations manifesting themselves in the worst possible way. Yet his occasional bursts of loyalty to Georg are confusing and neither earn him sympathy nor create genuine tension.

We’re left to fill in the blanks with Maria as well, who while not the film’s focus still has an important secondary role. Unfortunately she doesn’t do much besides establish herself as an anti-Julie-Andrews-Maria, a bit cold and entitled. Part of the problem is that Agathe only really interacts with Sigi and Lotte and, in one powerful scene, her father. The remaining von Trapp children are mere extras. Agathe’s relationship with her childhood friend, Sigi, is the most touching, marked by great warmth in a movie that parcels those emotions out in small amounts. There’s a distance between the family though, and it’s misleading to think of this as a movie about the von Trapps when it really is about Agathe. Nevertheless, Georg has some fine moments, and credit to Macfadyen for bringing precious vulnerability to another beloved character.

Where the film fails its subjects, it makes up for with nods to the movie musical. The stately yellow house with the green doors, the trimmed landscapes of Mirabell Gardens, the lush and sweeping Austrian terrain – the two movies link in a way that doesn’t detract one from the other. This one may be a humbler set for a humbler story, but it still captivates with little effort.

Released: 2015
Prod: Rikolt von Gagern
Dir: Ben Verbong
Writer: Christoph Silber, Tim Sullivan
Cast: Eliza Bennett, Matthew Macfadyen, Yvonne Catterfeld, Rosemary Harris, Johannes Nussbaum, Cornelius Obonya, Annette Dasche, Brigitte Kren
Time: 98 min
Lang: English, some German
Country: Germany
Reviewed: 2019