The Missing and Ulzana’s Raid.

From “Broken Arrow” (1954) through “Little Big Man” (1970) to “Dances with Wolves” (1990), Hollywood Westerns fell into step with the spirit of the times.  They took an ever-more sympathetic view of the Indians and an ever-more negative view of the white Americans who conquered the West.  Occasionally, some people have taken a more “classical” view.  In particular, “Ulzana’s Raid” (dir. Robert Aldrich, 1972) and “The Missing” (dir. Ron Howard, 2003) focused their attention on Apaches out for blood.  In part, they are effective because they take Indian beliefs seriously as a motivation to action.

In “Ulzana’s Raid,” an Apache warrior named “Ulzana” (Joaquin Martinez) jumps the San Carlos Reservation.  Basically, he’s fed up with the smell of women, children, dogs, and old people.  He wants to smell ponies running, burning, and blood.  In short, he chooses Life over Death.  He takes along his teen-age son and a few other young warriors.  He gets right to business, while the Army tries to track him down.  The Army patrol is “led” by a young lieutenant fresh from West Point (Bruce Davison).  The lieutenant’s father is a Protestant minister in favor of “humane” treatment of the Indians.  The real leader of the patrol is an old scout named “Mr. McIntosh” (Burt Lancaster).  The scout is assisted by an Apache from the San Carlos Indian Police, who happens to be Ulzana’s brother-in-law (Jorge Luke).  (This seems more credible once you’ve been married for a while.)  The patrol revolves around the education of the lieutenant.  Ki-Ne-Tay, the Apache policeman, explains that Apaches torture prisoners to obtain their power: “in this land, you must have power.”  He also learns to command, although his commands are not always for the best and are not always well-received by his troopers.  The movie ends badly for a number of those concerned, as was common in that time and place.


The Missing.

In “The Missing,” Samuel Jones, a white man who “went Apache” years before (Tommy Lee Jones) appears at the ranch of his daughter, Maggie Gilkerson (Cate Blanchett).  She is a “grass widow” who also works as the local “healer.”  She hates her father and rejects his effort to make amends.  At that same moment, an Apache called “El Brujo” jumps the reservation and goes on a rampage.  He kills white settlers and other Apaches, and kidnaps young women of both races for sale as sex-slaves in Mexico.  One of the kidnapped girls is Maggie’s rebellious daughter, who wanted bright lights instead of the homestead.  Maggie’s ranch-hand/lover is among the slain.  The local sheriff can’t help because it’s outside his jurisdiction.  (Sound familiar?)  The Army can’t help because it is busy with other stuff.  (Plundering the homes of murdered settlers for example.)  Maggie tells her father that he can make amends by helping her get the kidnapped daughter back.  So Maggie, and her youngest daughter, and her father set off in pursuit of the Apaches.

One problem is that “Brujo” is the Spanish word for “witch.”  This “El Brujo” has mystical powers and can change into a wolf or an eagle.  Probably he found this a stressful experience as a child because he’s crazy and sadistic.  (There having been too few trained talk therapists in Arizona in the 1880s.  Sad, but true.)  Eventually, the dysfunctional little family teams up with a couple of Chiricahua Apaches who are hunting “El Brujo” for the same reason.  They get the girls back and kill “El Brujo” and his merry men, but at a cost.  On the other hand, there’s a certain amount of reconciliation between the generations, a la Mark Twain.

The Apache Wars.

The Apache started out as nomadic buffalo hunters on the Southern Plains.  The “Apacheria” ran from north of the Arkansas River  in Colorado and Kansas into what are now the northern states of Mexico and from Central Texas through New Mexico to Central Arizona.   Central Texas is where the Spanish first ran into them in the 1540s.  The two groups got along, until they didn’t.[1]  Spanish did some slave raiding; then the Apache did some “I don’t want to be a slave” raiding.  Then the Comanche showed up.  The “Comanch” were scary, so the Apache moved off the Plains.  They concentrated in the mountains and deserts of what would become New Mexico, Arizona, Sonora, and Chihuahua.  Hard lands made hard people.  Constant small-scale warfare made them harder still.  Raiding and warfare between first Spain and then Mexico continued until the middle of the 19th Century.  By the 1830s, the state governments in Mexico were offering large bounties[2] for Apache scalps.  Scalp hunters took up the offer.

Then the United States showed up.  Mexico lost the resulting war.  They also lost Arizona and New Mexico.  They also lost most of the Apache.  The American won everything the Mexicans lost.  A series of wars followed: the Jicarilla War (1849-1854); the Chiricahua Wars (1860-1862); the Texas-Indian War (1861-1865, involving Apache but mostly Comanche); the Yavapai War (1871-1875); Victorio’s War (1879-1881); and Geronimo’s War (1881-1886).  In theory, that ended the Apache Wars, but small groups of “renegade” Apache continued to “jump the reservation” from time to time.  The last of these incidents in the United States occurred in 1924; the last in Mexico in 1933.[3]

How does this relate to the movies “The Missing” and “Ulzana’s Raid”?

Part of the reason that the United States defeated the Apache is a numerical advantage.  The Army sent 5,000 soldiers to hunt Geronimo’s band of thirty men.  Another part of the reason lay in the Army’s recruitment of Apache scouts to hunt Apache “hostiles.”  Apaches shared a common culture, but they didn’t have a strong sense of identity beyond their own bands.  Often they quarreled among themselves.  So, some Apache warriors enlisted as scouts with the Army.[4]   Sometimes—as was the case with the “Apache Kid–they then fell out with their employers.

Mexico and the United States had a testy relationship after the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).  Mexico viewed the Americans as predators to be kept at arm’s length.  “Pity poor Mexico: so far from God, so near the United States.”  Mexican reluctance to allow American troops chasing Apaches to cross the border turned Mexico into a “safe haven” for the raiders.

“Brujo” is Spanish for “witch.”  This isn’t the same as a “medicine man” or “shaman.”  The latter use their skills—“white magic” in Medieval European terms—to heal or protect.  In contrast “brujo/bruja” use their skills—“brujeria” or “black magic” in Medieval European terms—to harm others.  As part of their art, it was believed that they could take the form of animals like owls or snakes or coyotes.  This transformation allowed them to travel secretly and to strike at their victims.  Furthermore, it was believed that they could make “corpse powder” from powdered corpses.  The powder could induce the symptoms of painful or lethal diseases.

[1] Just like Canadians are really nice, until they’re not.  Ask the Waffen SS troops in France who shot a bunch of wounded Canadians in June 1944.  Wait, you can’t.  Never mind.

[2] The equivalent of a year’s pay for a working man for one scalp.  Scalps were supposed to come from males aged for years or older, but how could you tell from just the scalp?  Lots of women and kids got killed in attacks on Apache “Rancheria.”

[3] The best book on this is Dan Thrapp, The Conquest of Apacheria (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967).

[4] See: “Mickey Free.”

Shooting Dogs.

David Belton went to Rwanda in 1994 as a reporter for the BBC.  After the killings began, he and the other whites were evacuated by Western military forces.   These Westerners left behind many Rwandans they had known, but carried with them terrible memories of things they had witnessed.  Belton went back to making documentaries for the BBC.  Rwanda stayed on his mind.

One of the stories from Rwanda which Belton heard concerned Father Vjekoslav “Vjeko” Ćurić (1957-1998).  Ćurić had been born in the Artist Formerly Known as Yugoslavia.  He became a Catholic priest and, in 1983, went to Rwanda as a missionary.  He got posted to a small town in the provinces.  Ćurić turned out to be a missionary priest out of some 1940s Hollywood movie: moral without being moralistic, and devoted to his flock and beloved by them.   When the genocide began, he refused to be evacuated.  He worked hard and courageously to help victims from among both Hutus and Tutsis.  He survived the genocide, but someone shot him dead a few years later under murky circumstances.[1]

David Wolstonecraft (1969- ) was born in Hawaii, but ended up living in Scotland at a young age.  He went to Cambridge (where he got a BA in History, so there).  He got a job writing for British television shows.  Television is a small world.  Belton and Wolstonecraft ran into each other.  Together, they wrote the script for “Shooting Dogs,” inspired by what Belton had seen in Rwanda and centered on a version of the story of Father “Vjeko” Ćurić.

They pitched the story to BBC Films.  Approaching the ten-year anniversary of the genocide, lots of people were thinking back to it and what it had meant.[2]  BBC Films agreed to produce it.  They put Michael Caton-Jones (1957- ) in as director, hired some not-quite stars to act, and decided to film the movie in Kigali, Rwanda.  So, lots of what you see in the movie is what Kigali actually looks like, and most of the extras are Rwandans.

None of the Rwanda movies does a good job of explaining the context.  In brief compass, a recent insurgency by Tutsis against the Hutu government had resulted in a truce.  The UN has sent in a bunch of Belgian soldiers to “monitor” the truce.[3]  Then the Hutus began to repent their moderation.  Meanwhile, the US didn’t want to get involved in another Somalia.[4]  The French didn’t want the potentially pro-Anglophone Tutsis to defeat the actually Francophone Hutus.  So, the two countries resisted calling what happened “genocide” or intervening to stop it.

The story centers on the “Ecole Technique Officielle” (The Official/Public Technical School), a sort of technical middle school.  A priest, Father Christopher (played by John Hurt),  runs the school.  He is assisted by a young Englishman, Joe Connor (played by Hugh Dancey, who has come to Africa for a while to do some good in the world.  The school also provides a base for a bunch of the Belgian soldiers.  Then, there is Marie (played by Clare-Hope Ashitey), the Tutsi student who may have a crush on Joe.  Around this human core of the story circle a BBC reporter and her cameraman, who symbolizes the media and what the world knows; a Belgian army officer, who symbolizes the ineffectiveness of the UN; and a bunch of killers with machetes and clubs.  What are any of these people—or us–supposed to do?

[1] It could have been an armed robbery or it could have been some kind of retribution for his actions in 1994.  Or it could have been something else entirely.

[2] Curiously, at the same time another Anglo-American team of writers was working on a different story about Rwanda.  Keir Pearson and Terry George wrote the script for “Hotel Rwanda.”  It came out the same year as “Shooting Dogs” and just buried it.  Too bad: it isn’t a better movie, just a more up-beat one.

[3] That is, they are not there to “enforce” or even “keep” peace.  They’re just watchers.  Voyeurs really.

[4] See “Black Hawk Down” (dir. Ridley Scott, 2001).


In 1967 Israel lashed out against a gathering flock of vultures (Egypt, Syria, Jordan). In an astonishing triumph, this “Six Day War” put Israel in possession of the Sinai peninsula, the West Bank of the Jordan River, and the Golan Heights. It also put them in possession of a large population of Arabs and Palestinian refugees cast up by the agony of Israel’s initial creation in 1948. The problem became what to do with the conquered lands and people. Israel offered to “trade land for peace” with its neighbors. The neighbors showed little interest. Meanwhile, the Palestinians launched their own war on Israel through terrorism. In 1972, members of the “Black September” group kidnapped eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Summer Olympics. Most of the captors and all of their captives died in a botched rescue operation by the Germans.

In revenge, Israel launched “Operation Wrath of God.” In theory, the objective was to kill eleven of the “Black September” leaders who were responsible for Munich. The operation went on for years. It killed many more than eleven men. Eventually, the operation wound down.

In 1984, Yuval Aviv, one of the assassination team leaders who then was living in New York and no longer working for Israel’s intelligence agency, became the source for a book about the operation.[1] Soon afterward, HBO brought out a movie based on the book.[2] Then the story languished for almost twenty years.

Then, early in the 21st Century, Steven Spielberg bought the rights to the book and made his own version, “Munich.” Why did Spielberg want to re-make somebody else’s movie? There are a couple of possible answers.

On the one hand, Spielberg has made a bunch of historical movies that can be thought of as grouped in pairs. The pairs deliver different perspectives on the large historical subjects. Thus “The Empire of the Sun” (1987) and “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) consider the legacy of surviving traumatic events in the Second World War; “Amistad” (1997) and “Lincoln” (2012) deal with the fight against slavery, a problem which continues to haunt America; and “Schindler’s List” (1993) and “Munich” (2005) turn on the struggle for survival by Jews in a hostile world. In the case of the latter two movies, “Schindler’s List” made an argument for Israel as a Jewish refuge; “Munich” asked how Israel differed from other states.

On the other hand, maybe the movie isn’t about Israel at all. Maybe it’s about America. At the end of “Munich” the World Trade Center’s “Twin Towers” are visible in the backdrop. On 9/1101 Al Qaeda terrorists attacked sites in Washington and New York, most famously the WTC. The United States responded by invading Afghanistan in an effort to get Al Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden. Missing their punch, the Americans became bogged down in a long struggle that hasn’t yet ended.[3] Then, in 2003, the Americans invaded Iraq on the grounds that the country possessed a program for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and that contact had been alleged between al Qaeda and Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein. Here the Americans became embroiled in an even worse conflict than in Afghanistan.[4]

Where does vengeance lead? Does it lead to “justice” and “closure”? Does it lead to an open-ended conflict with an ever-rising death toll? Are we captives of our past experiences? Are we even conscious of how our views of the past shape our present actions and our future?

[1] George Jonas, Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team.

[2] “Sword of Gideon” (1986, dir. Michael Anderson). See:

[3] See: “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012, dir. Kathryn Bigelow); “Lone Survivor” (2013, dir. Peter Berg).

[4] See: “Generation Kill” (2008, HBO); “The Hurt Locker” (2008, dir. Kathryn Bigelow); “Green Zone” (2010, dir. Paul Greengrass); “American Sniper” (2014, dir. Clint Eastwood).

The Special Forces Solution.

Many of the international problems confronting the United States these days seem both intractable and incomprehensible.[1] This is deeply frustrating for people living in a country with what is still the leading economy and the most powerful military—by far–in the world. There may be a sense that there is a solution at hand, if our leaders would just employ it.

You can see where this attitude comes from. In truth, the “armies” of many developing countries aren’t made up of real “soldiers.” They’re just “men with guns”[2] hired to prop up the regime in power. The collapse of large parts of the army of Iraq in Summer 2014 illustrates this point. In contrast, the Special Forces of Western nations are highly skilled and motivated. In the American popular imagination, SEALS, Rangers, and Delta Force troops are almost mythic heroes. People often are quick to point out that the Battle of Mogadishu in October 1993 left 17 Americans dead, while the Somalis suffered 1,500 to 3,000 casualties.[3] If only we could lay the weight of our real advantage (elite troops, Precision-Guided Munitions (PGMs), drones) on the primitive enemy, they would be vanquished.

Recent war movies have epitomized this belief.[4] As one of the SEALS surrounded by Taliban says, “I think we’re in for one Hell of a gunfight.” However, all of these movies both built on and diverge from earlier, more cautious movies.

The movie “Clear and Present Danger” (1994, dir. Philip Noyce) asked what if the “war on drugs” was a real war? It answers that we wouldn’t fight it with cops and lawyers bound by legal forms and trials. An angry American president orders his National Security Adviser to launch a secret and illegal war on the cocaine cartels. An elite platoon recruited from Hispanic-American soldiers is inserted into Columbia. They begin to destroy drug labs and transport aircraft. They call in an airstrike against a meeting of cartel chiefs, leaving the building in ruins. The operation is aborted when a henchman of the surviving cartel chief discovers that it is Americans who are doing the killing—without a formal declaration of war. The National Security Adviser betrays the troops to save his own skin, but the remnants are rescued by men of honor. A series of clips begin at:

The movie “Tears of the Sun” (2003, dir. Antoine Fuqua) asked what if we had wanted to stop the Rwanda genocide? A squad of Navy SEALS is sent into Nigeria in the midst of revolution[5] to rescue an American-by-marriage doctor working in a do-gooder camp. She refuses to leave without her ambulatory patients, so the SEAL team commander (played by Bruce Willis) is forced to take them along. They are hunted through the forests and mountains by the rebels. Along the way, the Americans change their attitudes. Willis’s character says “I broke my own rule: I’ve started to give a fuck.” One of his men says they need to fight “For all the times we stood down or stood aside.” A series of fire-fights display American prowess, but the SEALs and refugees are finally saved by a belated airstrike.

Both movies are cautionary tales in which elite forces are never all of the answer.

[1] The same probably can be said about the domestic social and economic problems.

[2] See: “Men with Guns” (1997, dir. John Sayles).

[3] The movie about the event, “Black Hawk Down” (2001, dir. Ridley Scott), was a huge hit and remains very popular.

[4] See: “Lone Survivor” (2013, dir. Peter Berg); “American Sniper” (2014, dir. Clint Eastwood).

[5] Curiously, the trouble arises from a reheating of the quarrel with the southern Ibos, rather than the current war with northern Muslims. See: “The Dogs of War” (1980, dir. John Irvin), another example of my argument.

War Movies 8: “American Sniper.”

Chris Kyle (1974-2013) had a rare talent at shooting, joined the Navy SEALS at the beginning of global terror’s war on us, did four tours in Iraq as a sniper, wrote a book about his experiences, and was killed by a disturbed military veteran he was trying to help.

Warner Brothers bought the movie rights to the book and signed Bradley Cooper to star. First, David Russell (“The Fighter” (2010), “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012), “American Hustle” (2013),) was going to direct; then Stephen Spielberg; and finally Clint Eastwood.[1]

Kyle’s father instructs his son on shooting and in manly conduct: “there are three kinds of people: sheep, wolves, and sheep dogs.” Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) takes the message to heart. He is determined to use his skill to save the lives of endangered American troops in Iraq. A chance encounter with his younger brother, who had enlisted after 9/11, drives home the importance of this mission. The younger man is skittish and eager to be gone from Iraq. This sense of duty leads him to serve four tours in Iraq. He becomes a legend among the common soldiers and Marines. A dead insurgent plunges off a rooftop into the midst of an American patrol. An officer casually remarks “that’s the over-watch; you can thank him later.” Increasingly, Kyle becomes obsessed with an insurgent master sniper called “Mustafa.”[2] He returns for his final tour in hopes of killing Mustafa. He succeeds and comes home.

The price is very high: Cooper plays Kyle as “calm and confident,” so he doesn’t emote much about stress. He’s just increasingly distant, uncomfortable with the emotions of other people (both his wife’s and those of grateful veterans), with flashes of rage. Eventually, this self-contained man makes his way home by finding a new means to “save” fellow soldiers.

The movie has been criticized from the Left for de-contextualizing Kyle’s story. Eastwood portrays Kyle as motivated by the Al Qaeda attacks on the American embassies in East Africa and by 9/11; then the events in Iraq focus on the effort to kill Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. How the United States came to invade Iraq is scrupulously left out. The critics are mad that this wasn’t about the lies that led us to war. That would be a different movie. Indeed, it has been. Several times. All of which were flops. “Rendition” (2007, dir. Gavin Hood); “Lions for Lambs” (2007, dir. Robert Redford); “Redacted” (2007, dir. Brian de Palma); and “Green Zone” (2010, dir. Paul Greengrass) all lost money or fell short of earning expectations. That says something about audiences and what they’re willing to acknowledge. . In contrast, “American Sniper” is well over $200m in the black.

“American Sniper” falls into a different category of war movie from the ones that haven’t succeeded with American audiences. “The Hurt Locker” (2008, dir. Kathryn Bigelow) and “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012, dir. Kathryn Bigelow) became huge hits by focusing on driven individuals, the personal price they pay, and on the shameful American indifference to the human costs of wars waged by their country.   However, “American Sniper” ends on a different note than do Bigelow’s two movies. In her work, the protagonists (played by Jeremy Renner and Jessica Chastain) are lonely souls, estranged from their less-driven colleagues, cut off from home, and unknown to their fellow Americans. “American Sniper” ends with Kyle’s funeral procession across Texas. On a rainy day masses of people line the highway and the overpasses, fire-engine ladder trucks hoist huge American flags, Stetsons and baseball caps come off as the cortege passes. Eastwood is in his eighties. This may be his last movie. Hell of a way to go out.

[1] “American Sniper” (2014, dir. Clint Eastwood).

[2] It’s worth noting that the film portrays Mustafa (played by Sammy Sheikh—who has portraying evil Muslims down to a fine art) as an insurgent version of Kyle: skilled, committed, and with a family that is shut out of his work.

The 317th Platoon and The Anderson Platoon.

Not that you would know it from Anglophone publishers, but sometimes Frenchmen get bitten by the adventure bug. The results can be fascinating.

Henri de Monfried (1879-1974) was the son of a French painter. One of his father’s friends was Paul Gauguin, which explains a lot. When he hit thirty, de Monfried junked conventional life. He went to Djibouti, built a dhow, and went into the smuggling business around the Red Sea. He smuggled guns and opium, and fished for pearls, but insisted that he had never been a slaver. He became a well-known, respected, and prosperous figure. Which ought to tell you something about the neighborhood. In 1930, he encountered Joseph Kessel, who was passing through looking for adventure. Kessel (1898–1979) was a Lithuanian Jew born in Argentina, then raised in Russia and France. He served in the French air force in the First World War. Between the wars he wrote ten books. One of Kessel’s interwar books was Fortune carree (1932), based on some of Monfried’s experiences (or, at least, on his stories).[1]

Pierre Schoendoerffer (1928-2012) lost his grandfather (1917) and father (1940) fighting the Germans. When he was fifteen he read Kessel’s Fortune carree and decided that was the life for him. He spent the summer of 1946 on a fishing boat in the Bay of Biscay, then traded on that experience to get hired on a merchant ship in 1947. He did this for a couple of years, then spent a couple of years doing his military service in the “Chasseurs alpins” (mountain troops). Peacetime soldiering had been dull, but a rebellion had broken out in Indochina. In 1951 he re-enlisted and volunteered for a documentary film unit that was going east. He spent three years in Indochina, including serving with the “paras” and the Foreign Legionnaires at Dien Bien Phu (1954) and in the brutal Vietminh prison camp afterward. Back in civvy-street, he went into making documentaries and films based on his experience. Several are about the Vietnam wars.

“The 317th Platoon” (1965) takes place in French Indochina in 1954.[2] Dien Bien Phu has just fallen and the Vietminh are on the offensive. The garrison of a tiny post of Foreign Legionnaires out in the boonies is ordered to retreat to the main lines. The dominant figures are the commander—a high-minded, but wet-behind-the-ears lieutenant—and his top-kick—a German veteran of the Eastern Front. Most of the troops are Vietnamese now caught on the losing side of a civil war. The retreat begins in a light-hearted fashion (they lug their refrigerator along), but soon turns grim. A spectacularly filmed ambush of some Vietminh brings the hunters down on the little group. They are gnawed away to nothing. You can watch the trailer at:

“The Anderson Platoon” (1967) takes place in South Vietnam in 1966. It is a documentary record of Schoendoerffer’s six weeks with a platoon of the 1st Cavalry Division commanded by Lieutenant Joseph Anderson. Hence, the film has less of an overt structure and message than does “The 317th Platoon.” The platoon marches through the countryside seeking the enemy, fording streams, pushing through tall grass and trees. Occasionally they make contact in little fire fights that seem to accomplish nothing. Occasionally they go on morose leave in Saigon. You can watch the movie at:

[1] Later on, Kessel answered Charles de Gaulle’s “appeal” for support in June 1940 and flew in the Free French Air Force. One of his fellow flyers was Romain Gary, another Lithuanian Jew turned French author. Later on, Gary wrote the adventure novel The Roots of Heaven (1956), then co-wrote the screen-play with Patrick Leigh Fermor. Later on, de Monfried retired to a little French village. He raised opium poppies in his garden.

[2] One of the production assistants was Brigitte Friang (1924-2011). A remarkable person.

“The Battle of Algiers” (1966).

Saadi Yacef was born in Algiers, the capital city of Algeria, in 1928. He learned the trade of baker, but didn’t learn to read or write. Yacef became involved in nationalist politics from 1945 on. From 1947 to 1949 he was a member of a secret nationalist para-military organization. The French stomped on this organization. Escaping the round-up, Yacef went to France for three years. While working as a baker, he thought a lot about what he had learned about conspiracy. He returned to Algiers in 1952. When the Algerian war for independence broke out in 1954, Yacef joined up. From May 1956 to September 1957 he commanded the Algerian nationalist forces inside the city of Algiers. The French captured him in September 1957, then kept him in prison until the end of the war in 1962. In prison he purportedly wrote a memoir of the Battle of Algiers. That memoir became the basis for the screen-play of the movie “The Battle of Algiers.”

Enter Gillo Pontecorvo, who was born in Pisa, Italy, in 1919. Well-off, Jewish, and trained in science, Pontecorvo fled Mussolini’s Italy for France in 1938. While scratching out a living as a journalist, he met a lot of interesting people in Paris and got started in the movie business. After the Second World War broke out, Pontecorvo returned to Italy to join the Communist Party and the Resistance movement. He led the Communist Party’s resistance organization in Milan from 1943 to 1945, so he knew a good deal about living on the run and blowing up things. After the war, Pontecorvo taught himself to make movies. He remained a Communist until 1956, and never stopped being a “man on the Left.” His movies had a strong anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist strain in them. So he was a natural for the Algerians who were seeking a director to tell the story of their war against the French.

Pontecorvo had his own style. He shot the movie in black-and-white. He shot it on location, with the eager assistance of the post-colonial Algerian government. The combined effect is to make it look like a documentary. He liked using amateurs, whose faces looked right for the scene, rather than professional actors. (His one exception in this movie was Jean Martin, a former member of the French Resistance and a paratrooper in the Indo-China War, who plays the commander of the French paratroopers.) You can see he had watched a lot of Eisenstein.

Colonel Mathieu, the para commander is a composite of several real French officers (Jacques Massu, Marcel Bigeard, Yves Godard). Many of the other leading characters are based on real people: Andre Achiary (the mustached police officer), Ali “la Pointe” Ammar, “le petit Omar,” Hassiba Ben Bouali, Djamila Bouhired (who later married Klaus Barbie’s defense attorney), and Zohra Drif (actually Yacef’s girlfriend at the time). Some of them are still living.

The movie came out in 1966. The French government banned it for five years; Fidel Castro’s Cuba awarded it a big prize. So that’s a wash. The movie deserves to be evaluated in its own right as a work of art. More to our purposes is the reception it has received from professionals in the insurgency line of work. Andreas Baader, one leader of a 1970s German terrorist group, claimed it was his favorite movie. Israeli audiences flocked to see the movie in 1988 when it was shown at the same time as the Palestinian “First Intifada” broke out. In Summer 2003, shortly after completion of the major military operations phase of the Iraq War, the US DoD’s Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict sponsored several showings of the movie in the Pentagon. So, a lot of people at the sharp end of the business thought that it had some lessons to teach. What are they?

“Conspiracy” (2001, dir. Frank Pierson).

There are a bunch of movies about the Holocaust, but not a lot of good movies about the Holocaust.  Here’s one.

In the House of Lies. Ernst Marlier (1875-?) made a lot of money running a shipping company, then went into making and selling worthless patent medicines. The money rolled in. In 1914 he had a luxurious house built in the ritzy Wannsee area of Berlin. However, he was a fraud and he had a violent temper. By 1921 various forms of the law caught up with him as lawsuits, criminal charges, and a divorce ruined him. He sold the house to Friedrich Minoux. Minoux (1877-1945) had made a fortune in coal, oil, and electric power. After the First World War Minoux wanted to overthrow the Weimar Republic and had some contact with the Nazis. His money and contacts made Minoux and his wife stars in Nazi high-society after 1933. In 1941 he was convicted of having defrauded his own companies of an immense amount of money. Ruined and in prison, he sold the house at the Wannsee to the SS for use as a conference center.

On 22 June 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union. On 31 July 1941, Hermann Goering, second highest figure in the Nazi government, ordered Reinhard Heydrich to prepare a “final solution to the Jewish Problem in Europe.” Heydrich’s initial plan called for deporting Europe’s Jews to Eastern Europe, where they would slowly die of over-work, starvation, and disease. Moving all these people would involve massive organizational problems. On 29 November 1941 Heydrich invited the representatives of the key government departments to a meeting to sort out these issues. The meeting was scheduled for 9 December 1941. On 5 December 1941 the Red Army counter-attacked before Moscow; on 7 December 1941 Japan attacked the United States; on 8 December 1941 Heydrich postponed the meeting. Eventually, Heydrich re-scheduled the meeting for 20 January 1942.

Fifteen men attended the conference: Heydrich, three of his most terrifying myrmidons (“Gestapo” Muller, Rudolf Lange, Karl Schongarth), his trusty assistant Adolf Eichmann (who recorded the minutes), and representatives of the Interior Ministry (police), the Justice Ministry (the lawyers), the Ministry for Occupied Eastern Territories (Russia), the General Government (Poland), the Foreign Ministry (all the Jews not yet under SS control), the Four Year Plan for the economy (Goering’s stand-in + slave labor), the Nazi Party (stand-in for the rising figure of Martin Borman), the SS Race and Resettlement Office, and the Reich Chancellery (the office that coordinated the bureaucracy).

The meeting wasn’t about “what” to do. That had already been decided. The meeting was about “who is in charge.” Heydrich wanted to make it clear to everyone that he was in command and would brook no opposition. There are three things to look for in the proceedings of the conference. First, there is the veiled or Aesopian language. Nobody comes right out and says they plan to gas millions of people. No one who attended had any trouble figuring out what Heydrich meant. Second, the meeting got bogged down in petty details. That’s what committee meetings are like. Try not to be on committees. Third, focus on the push-back from Wilhelm Stuckart of the Interior Ministry, and Friedrich Kritzinger of the Reich Chancellery.

What them befell? The Czechs killed Heydrich in 1942; the Americans killed Roland Friesler, the Russians killed Lange and Muller, Alfred Meyer killed himself, and the Nazis killed Martin Luther, all in 1945. The Poles hanged Schongarth in 1946 and Josef Buhler in 1948. Friedrich Kritzinger testified at Nuremberg, then died in 1947. Wilhelm Stuckart died in 1951. The Israelis hanged Adolf Eichmann in 1962. The other four–Erich Neumann, Otto Hofman, Georg Leibrandt, and Gerhard Klopfer—did a little time in prison, then died in the 1980s.

Only the imprisoned Martin Luther didn’t have time to destroy his copy of the minutes.  It’s how we know what happened at the meeting.

All Quiet on the Western Front.

Carl Laemmle (1867-1939) was a German Jew who migrated to the US in 1884. He worked as a book-keeper, but got interested in movies when they were a new thing. So did a lot of other people. In 1912 Laemmle and some of the others merged their companies into Universal Films, and then moved to Hollywood. Universal Films turned out to be very successful in the Twenties and early Thirties. However, in 1928 Carl Laemmle made the mistake of bring his son, Carl, Jr. (1908-1979), into the business as head of production. Carl, Sr. had been a book-keeper, so he paid attention to what stuff cost. Carl, Jr. had been a rich kid, so he never paid attention to what stuff cost. This could work out OK if the spending produced a huge hit, so Carl Jr. and Universal were always on the look-out for a potential huge hit.

Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970) grew up in a working class family in Germany, but had some hopes of becoming a writer. He was drafted into the German Army in 1916. After his training, he served six weeks on the Western Front before he was wounded. He spent the rest of the war in hospital. After the war he took a swing at teaching, then wandered between different types of jobs. He still wanted to be a writer. In a burst of creativity in 1927, he wrote All Quiet on the Western Front. It became a hit when it came out in 1929.[1] Universal bought the rights.

First, Universal needed a screen-writer to adapt the novel into a movie. They hired Maxwell Anderson (1888-1959) whose career is a novel in itself: he was a poor kid and son of an itinerant minister; a school teacher[2] and newspaper writer (fired many times in both careers, usually for not toeing the company line); and then he became a successful play-write, who turned to doing move screenplays on occasion. In 1924 his realistic war-play “What Price Glory?” had been a hit on Broadway. Carl, Jr. hired Anderson to adapt the novel.

Second, they needed a director. Lieb Milstein (1895-1980) grew up poor and Jewish in Kishinev, a city in pre-Revolutionary Russia. Kishinev wasn’t a good place to be either poor or Jewish, so Milstein did what everyone else who didn’t have rocks in their head did: he migrated to the United States. Upon arrival he changed his name to Lewis Milestone. He had been in the US for five years when America entered the First World War. Milstein enlisted in the Army; the Army taught him the film business as part of its propaganda and training work; and Milstein moved to Hollywood after the war. He soon became a director, with a Best Director Oscar in 1928. At the top of his profession, he was much in demand for big pictures. Carl Jr. hired him to direct “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

Third, they needed a bunch of actors. The “extras” weren’t hard to find. Oddly, there were several thousand German war veterans living around Los Angeles. Carl Jr. hired a lot of them. For the lead role of Paul Baumer, they hired Lew Ayres (1908-1996). Ayres didn’t have much acting experience (and he wasn’t really much of an actor). He was young and innocent and impressionable looking, which was the whole point.

The movie cost $1.2 million to make and earned $1.5 million at the box-office. That was enough profit to tempt Carl Jr. into more big-budget movies. Most didn’t do so well. In 1936 he and Carl Sr. got shoved out of Universal.

Lewis Milestone won the Oscar for Best Director. He got black-listed in the Fifties, then went into television work. Ayres became a conscientious objector/medic in World War II.

[1] Remarque wrote ten more novels, but his first remains his most famous.

[2] You notice that both Remarque and Anderson were school teachers? So was William Clark Quantrill. On the one hand, it didn’t used to be a respectable profession, so all sorts of flakes tried their hand at it. On the other hand, anybody with some brains can learn how to do it.