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Castle Keep
(Widescreen Version)

Castle Keep
Columbia TriStar
1969 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 105 min. / Street Date November 2, 2004 / 19.94
Starring Burt Lancaster, Patrick O'Neal, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Peter Falk, Astrid Heeren, Scott Wilson, Tony Bill, Al Freeman Jr., James Patterson, Bruce Dern
Cinematography Henri Decaë
Production Designer Aleksandar Milovic
Film Editor Malcolm Cooke
Original Music Michel Legrand
Written by David Rayfiel, Daniel Taradash from a novel by William Eastlake
Produced by John Calley, Martin Ransohoff
Directed by Sydney Pollack

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Back in July, Savant hit the ceiling when Columbia TriStar released a Pan-Scan DVD of this engagingly artsy war movie. I wrote a stinging review of the Pan-Scan release, mostly venting my anger that Columbia would do this to a movie that needed its full Panavision width to have any chance of being impressive. The older review is worth checking out just for the reader feedback, which matched Savant's growl for growl.

The uproar on the web boards grew in scale, and not much later I heard rumors that Columbia was going to do a second disc properly formatted in widescreen. The rumors turned out to be true, and here I am three months later with a new screener to mull over. So here's the same review for content, but with a new evaluation of the disc quality, which I'm happy to say is splendid.

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 emotional, moving The Yakuza.


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 and 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-sequitur 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 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 was an eager consumer of German products. Tony Bill fantasizes that the castle's sexy tapestries can 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.

Columbia's widescreen followup DVD of Castle Keep is a beauty, with only some intermittent scratches to remind of of its age. Regardless of the film's other merits, Martin Ransohoff's production looks fantastic in Panavision, with Falconer's platoon and the magnificent snowscapes of Maldoray spread out across the screen. Colors are excellent, even the reds of the Red Queen don't bleed.

Michel Legrand's anachronistic score, which apes the vocal play of the previous year's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, sounds fine, with several moments of wonder standing out in the memory. There are no real extras but an original trailer is contained in Columbia' short stack of coming attractions.

The packaging is identical to the pan-scan version, except for the little box on the back identifying the screen ratio. Make sure you get the right one.

I'm grateful to Columbia TriStar for righting their error in such a timely fashion - Castle Keep is an amusing and eccentric war picture that needs to be seen in its full width.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Castle Keep rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent (just make sure you ask for the WIDESCREEN version as the older Pan-Scan is still out there)
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 9, 2004


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.

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. It doesn't fill the plot-holes one expects it to.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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