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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Castle Keep
Castle Keep
Columbia/Tri-Star // R // July 20, 2004
List Price: $19.94 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by DVD Savant | posted July 12, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Castle Keep was a big theatrical misfire for Columbia but remains an engaging and entertaining war film. It affects a tone that in some ways prefigures the dreamlike Apocalypse Now but mostly comes off as pretentious, like a Combat! TV show shot by Alain Resnais in mock Last Year at Marienbad mode. Yet the craftsmanship and visual talent marshalled by young director Sydney Pollack are still impressive; this is one of his "uneven" pictures that are sometimes unfairly dissed, like the charming The Scalphunters and the emotionally moving The Yakuza.

Now is the time to start throwing things and yelling ...

I've reviewed Castle Keep out of order for one reason - Columbia has elected to release this beautiful Panavision film in a pan-scan transfer, an abomination for which I don't recommend buying the disc. In fact, this is the first major, polished studio disc Savant has ever given "Poor" and "Skip It" ratings to; I wish there were an easy way to write Columbia TriStar and complain. More on this in the disc quality paragraphs below. Maybe I'll have cooled off by the time I get down there, but I doubt it.

Synopsis:

In the Ardennes forest, Major Falconer (Burt Lancaster) and his motley platoon hole up at Maldoray, the fabulous castle of The Count (Jean-Pierre Aumont). As they prepare for the German counterattack Falconer insists is coming, the various soldiers go about their vaguely satirical war-movie business. Corporal Clearboy (Scott Wilson) falls in love with a Volkswagen left by the Germans. Pvt. Allistair Benjamin (Al Freeman Jr.) thinks about the combat novel he'll write. Sergeant Rossie Baker (Peter Falk) is just that, and he wanders into the local town to shack up with the widowed baker's wife and start baking again. Captain Beckman (Patrick O'Neal) is enraptured by The Count's collection of art treasures, which Falconer says will be sacrificed when the castle is used to make a stand against the Germans. Green Lt. Amberjack (Tony Bill) is too inexperienced to understand what's going on. As for Major Falconer, he moves in with the Count's beautiful wife, Therese (Astrid Heeren).

In 1969, we high schoolers tried to interpret Castle Keep as a tongue-in cheek satire, as Kelly's Heroes would be the next year. We responded to the film's play with war movie clichés even as the art-movie trimmings moved the plot beyond weird into self-conscious faux-art. The film starts off with Peter Falk saying "Did you hear a bird scream?" and continues with dozens of non-sequitir lines of varying effectiveness. As in Catch-22 the war is patently absurd. The insane orders and fruitless death and destruction are played out as if defending Maldoray were some kind of endlessly cycling ritual. Private Benjamin's eventual book Castle Keep is heard over the film as occasional voiceover, and Benjamin is indeed an Ishmael figure who does everything but say "I am survived to tell thee." The dreamy visuals by the legendary cameraman Henri Decaë give the movie a magical look, and Michel Legrand's music adds grandeur and touches of baroque weirdness. 1

Castle Keep begs to be interpreted and the associations it encourages lead us all over the place. As Benjamin is the only survivor the movie might be his subjective record filtered through a purposely surreal hindsight.  2 Major Falconer's completely stoic isolation would be a parody of war heroism in older films, if Lancaster did not play the role so soberly. He's invulnerable to mortar hits that blow others to bits, as was Robert Duvall's character in Apocalypse; he wears an eyepatch ("Ooh! ohh! The blindness of military thinking!") and might be the Falconer that the falcon cannot hear in the famous apocalyptic poem. Bruce Dern has a great scene as a deluded concientious objector preaching surrender; Falconer uses his charisma and authority to rally the retreating troops, but to no avail.

Most of the touches are Theater of the Absurd Lite. Clearboy has a humorous romance with a VW beetle that makes fun of VW's ads about unsinkable cars, and reminds us that 60s America is an eager consumer of German products. Tony Bill fantasizes that the castle's sexy tapestries come to life, and the brothel called The Red Queen is a psychedelic fantasyland balanced by Peter Falk's humble bakery. Falk's character is amusingly fresh; he's so down-to-earth that he makes the open-verse forced poetry of his dialogue seem natural. More than anyone else, he talks like one of those characters in a dream play who is already dead but doesn't know it. In fact, that's the obvious interpretation of the whole movie, what with symbolic red roses springing into focus to substitute for gory death scenes.

Lancaster's relationship with the sexually available princess is a fairy tale of war ... the well-groomed, cultured but impotent Count wants an heir, so he passively allows Falconer to shack up with her. Here's where the dialogue gets really thick. Lancaster and a good script brought the surreal The Swimmer to life, but the lines here boil down to pretentious phrases with abstract non-answers. It doesn't become too grating (the film is just so beautiful to look at) but we do get our fill of deadpan line deliveries that receive no response other than 'meaningful' stares.

Patrick O'Neal's fruitless effort to protect the castle's art treasures seems an inversion of the Frankenheimer film The Train, where Lancaster risked all to preserve a similar stash of paintings. Like any big-budget war picture, this one has to end with a bang, and Castle Keep has a whale of a noisy battle at its climax. To counter lowbrow concern that the show will just stop in some kind of non-conclusion, Pollack uses flash-forwards to telegraph pieces of the castle being blown up, etc.

Like I said, we kids didn't mind, but contemporary critics had Sydney Pollack for breakfast. Castle Keep is one of those pictures that's a pleasure to watch in spite of its ambitious miscalculations.


Or at least it would be, if it weren't for Columbia TriStar's unforgivable DVD of Castle Keep. It's a &*%^@ pan-scan transfer, the same shown on cable television. I've been waiting for one of Columbia's stupid pan-scan transfers to really annoy me, and this is it; I remember the film looking terrific in Panavision and haven't seen it that way since 1969. The compositions are ruined: Pollack frequently composes with all the platoon members spread out across the screen, á la Howard Hawks. We become totally lost in the final battle trying to figure out who's where and who's dead, and where the tanks that crash through the fancy garden are in relation to the defending soldiers.

At first I simply hoped that the packaging was in error. No such luck. Columbia was once the best studio for retaining Aspect Ratio and once recalled Silverado just for being slightly mis-cropped. I strongly urge that anybody in a position to complain to Columbia do so. Sydney Pollack should be furious, as DVD should be the way for his unevenly-valued body of work to redeem itself.

There are many cases where DVD fans expect fine points of presentation to be a studio's top concern. Savant normally sees no reason to go ballistic, but I'm sick of stupid marketing games with pan-scan; what the public gets to see is probably being dictated by the tastes of a couple of Wal-Mart executives. Castle Keep isn't the kind of title likely to be reissued so we're probably stuck with this pan-scan abomination for at least the next fifteen years. 3


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Castle Keep rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Poor, unacceptable Pan Scan transfer
Avoid this Disc and complain Loudly and Often
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 9, 2004


Footnotes:

1. Decaë's shots are so beautiful to look at that one is reminded of the basic failure of modern pictures that purposely affect degraded images - when there's nothing to look at, your drama better be good. Legrand's music is infected with the kind of anachronistic touches found in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but as Castle Keep goes for surrealistic effects, no harm done.
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2. The voiceover is far more successful than that spoken by Bugler Timothy Ryan (Michael Anderson Jr.) in Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee. Intended to be a counterpoint to the story and showing the difference between the real campaign and Ryan's perspective on it, Ryan's "only surviving record" ends up being used as a confusing storytelling device that doesn't fill the plot-holes one expects it to.
Return

3. Whew! Getting irate isn't my normal mode of operation. This is where Gary Teetzel usually retorts with a cheery, "Gee, Savant, tell us how you really feel about Columbia and Castle Keep!"
Return


Feedback Email about the Pan-Scan Castle Keep issue: Note: I haven't reprinted letters that asked about weblistings that claimed Castle Keep would be widescreen and letterboxed. My copy has only the one flat transfer and there's only one release.

7.10.04

Hi Glenn, As a consumer and a film fan, I was looking forward to purchasing the DVD release of Castle Keep, a movie that's haunted me for years. But after reading your review, that's not going to happen. I for one am going to watch those DVDs stack up in the clearance bin at Wal-Mart and I'm not spend a cent on it unless it's released widescreen, like it should be. What a crock! Please forward this to anyone at Columbia-TriStar... - Bill Shaffer

7.11.04

Glenn, I'm horrified about your pan and scan revelation of Castle Keep, which I saw (first-run) at the Paramount theater on Hollywood Blvd onthe Saturday night of the Tate killings. I've asked for it, but I can't decide whether to ignore it or put it in my "Dick's pans" column. Do you have any idea whether Columbia will be affording the same mis-treatment to They Came to Cordura? Dick Dinman (DVD Classics Corner)

WAY TO GO, GLENN!!!! Personally, I think you should get mad in your writing more often -- it puts in an extra snap, a righteous indignation, that I like. I couldn't agree with you more, we've talked about this before when Disney bowed -- briefly -- to audience complaints by reissuing The Absent Minded Professor. I was really looking forward to seeing Castle Keep in widescreen; it's apparent to anyone who knows movies that the film must look great in its proper ratio, and that pan-and-scan mutilates it. By the way, I'd include The Swimmer, with Lancaster and co-director Pollack, in that list of films that got unfairly dismissed from that period. I fear this is going to continue unabated, even though the executives are really out of it (who doesn't know about letterboxing anymore -- even E.R. on TV is letterboxed). Paul Mavis

. . thanks for the timely warning as it gave me a chance to cancel my preorder before I had to go to the trouble of sending the DVD back . . . I have written Columbia regarding this issue which pops up now and then (Cowboy) but am yet to receive an answer - these things must sell enough copies in the rental market, whatever, to make them worth the lack of effort, but in this day and age when you find a nice anamorphic DVD of something like Night of the Following Day from a major studio (Universal), it does give one pause (and makes you kind of happy Columbia has not yet released These Are the Damned as it might be full frame as well) . . . - Wade Sowers

Well, Drat! Just read your review, and was sorry to learn about the Pan and Scan of Castle Keep. I was born and raised in Colorado, and loved what that film did with Winter - one could smell the snow melt and taste wet wool mittens. And the frost mists and Tule Fog, ach... What is especially disappointing is that I read early on that both The President's Analyst and Castle Keep were being released full-frame only, and was worried enough to check out the studios' home websites. - Edward A. Sullivan III

7.12.04

G, Just as pissed as you are about Castle Keep...One question? Does it say mastered in High Definition on the back of the package? Perhaps it will show in HD on HD Net, Showtime, Cinemax etc.. somewhere down the line. Completely shameful. Who do they think is going to buy Castle Keep anyway, but people who know about it? Darren Gross

I've only seen Castle Keep on television, and I had really been looking forward to a proper DVD. It's a shame. - Bill Dodd

To add insult to injury, Pollack's film was a legendary butcher job, with a great deal of footage cut just prior to release. Supposedly Lancaster offered to give back his salary, but to no avail. I had always hoped maybe someday it would be put back together... Guess not, huh? - Dr. Savaard

7.13.04

I read your review of Castle Keep and ... CAN'T AGREE WITH YOU MORE. I am with you 100% about the cruddy Columbia FS versions that usually cost as much as 2 DVDs from any other studio. If there is anything I can do to help as far as a petition or something, let me know. Like you I pre-ordered a copy from Deep Discount and it is too late to cancel it. I have been waiting for this film for a long time and only saw it once when I was a kid on regular TV before cable. To maybe help in your battle against Columbia, I have listed the titles that I have boycotted buying from Columbia because of this FS policy: 84 CHARING CROSS RD, ANATOMY OF A MURDER, ANNIE, CASEY'S SHADOW, COWBOY, DIVORCE AMERICAN STYLE, MOUNTAIN MEN, ROAD TO WELVILLE, ROCKET GIBRALTAR, STORYVILLE, TOY SOLDIERS. That's an awful lot of lost sales for just one collector. I mean with the price tags they put on these (usually $24.95) what market are they appealing too? I mean Wal-Mart doesn't carry these kind of high priced catalog titles and Blockbuster, even if they do order older titles like this for rental, could they amount to the lost sales from collectors who are disgusted with Columbia altogether? I mean it makes you wonder who is charge over there as it is someone who is definetly out of touch with the market, the way the titles should be sold and the people who would buy them. Love your reviews, you seem to cover the titles I mostly likely well purchase. All Best, James

Hi Glenn, Castle Keep has always been a favorite of mine and I was really looking forward to adding this to my 1,000 plus DVD collection, but NOT if it's Pan and Scan! I don't know what happened. Terry Huang over at DVDPriceSearch.com told me some time ago that Columbia/Tri-Star had given him information that Castle Keep would be both widescreen and anamorphic! God this is irritating!! They did the same damned thing with A Midnight Clear (another one that I was looking forward to in anamorphic widescreen). Thanks for the early review so I don't have to waste my money. I surely wish I knew who to write with a complaint!! - Perry

Columbia TriStar drop in dependability: Yes, I had the same sinking feeling when I bought Blue Thunder on DVD at last, and found that it was P&S only, even though the marketing info said it was dual-version aspect ratio. Now they have released the Sundance Filmmakers Trophy winner Fly by Night--in P&S only as well. It's sad, but money makes the world go 'round, and the profit margin for older titles has dropped along with retail prices, so I kinda see why they are starting to pinch the occasional penny now and then. Keep complaining and maybe others will join in and at least let them know that we are all not to be taken for granted. Thanks, Larry Estes

Dear Glenn: I just want you to know that no apologies of any kind are necessary for your tirade about what Columbia did to Castle Keep. I recently tried to watch this film (which I never saw in a theater) on AMC (I believe) where it was shown, of course, "full screen," which is one of American marketing's biggest misnomers. What's "full screen" about showing a film while cutting off up to half of its original image? (In this respect, thank the good Lord for Turner Classic Movies - although they recently and surprisingly showed a "full screen" version of Mike Todd's Around the World in Eighty Days! Of course I didn't manage to watch more than a few minutes of the AMC Castle Keep presentation. AMC is a cable venue I almost never watch anymore due to the plethora of inane commercials, the total lack of letterboxing, and their incredibly stupid recent in-house offerings, so poor in comparison to some of the things they did in the past. Best regards, Greg Couture

A CASTLE we should not KEEP! Glenn, If you figure out to whom we can direct complaints about Castle Keep, let me know. I too had been waiting for that one a goodly long while and will not settle for a pan & scan. I mean, I would have bought it immediately, but now I decided I just might as well keep my crummy old VHS recorded-off-TV version from the '80s. The scene with the kid who's in love with the Beetle has always stayed with me. What delightfully oddball stuff! - Gregory Nicoll

I thought your review was too kind to Columbia -- you emphasized artistic reasons for hating it (which I agree with) but to me the pan and scan decision also flies in the face of the increasing sales of widescreen ratio TVs -- which are also sold at WalMart. I wonder if there is another reason besides crass idiocy? Or maybe Disney time-warped execs from 5 years ago are populating Columbia these days? - Dennis "still waiting for The Mysterians on DVD" McDonald

Hello, Do you have an email address to whom comments can be addressed regarding this dastardly policy? IMHO, pan&scan is simply a scam. If one has a really decent letterboxed print, one of two clicks of the zoom control will take care of the people who want to fill their full 4x3 format. Thanks, John Dziadecki


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