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World War II Collections:
Invasion Europe
True Stories of WWII

Savant Blu-ray Review
of Two separate releases.

Warner Home Video

Invasion Europe (World War II Collection)
The Big Red One - Where Eagles Dare - The Dirty Dozen - D-Day to Berlin (DVD)

True Stories of WWII (World War II Collection)
Memphis Belle - The Battle of the Bulge - Defiance - Bonus Features (DVD)

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This Memorial Day - Father's Day season gives us two Warners releases catering to the Memorial Day market for war-themed pictures. Even at retail, these box sets offer three solid attractions for about $10.00 each, in Blu-ray. The downside is that some of the discs are old pressings, and even casual disc buyers probably own one or more of them already. I've reviewed five of the titles out of seven, so this will be a brief overview of what many disc fans will decide is a worthy bargain.

The Invasion Europe box has three big titles and one fascinating documentary that I'll bet was originally planned to be on the second, supposedly more 'factual' collection. If you're an action or war genre fan, the selections will be more than familiar.

The Big Red One is Sam Fuller's ode to his own infantry outfit's long haul across Europe. It stars a somewhat long in the tooth Lee Marvin opposite some young Turks, notably Mark Hamill and Stephane Audran. Unfortunately, Lorimar didn't like the idea of the show becoming an epic, took it away from Fuller and cut it down by a third. A reconstruction of an approximation of Fuller's cut was undertaken about ten years ago, which earned almost unanimous approval. More of my analysis and opinions regarding the initial DVD can be read at Savant's The Big Red One review.

There's one real head-scratcher of a problem with the disc: the original short Theatrical Cut is present in full HD resolution, but the extended Reconstruction that's now considered the "real" movie, is encoded at 480i. The extras from the earlier DVD are all here, including Richard Shickel's commentary and docu on the restoration.

1968's Where Eagles Dare is the ultimate escapist war jaunt, an almost completely implausible but nevertheless fun impossible spy mission to an impregnable Nazi castle high in the Bavarian Alps. Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood get a big workout climbing ropes, setting bombs, confusing German generals with double-talk and shooting dozens upon dozens of enemy soldiers, none of whom has a gun that can hit anything. The expensive movie takes place in attractive locations, with Mary Ure and Ingrid Pitt along for 'romantic interest'; it's the kind of picture where machine gun noise can be relaxing. Savant's Where Eagles Dare Blu-ray review gets further into the fun.

The disc is identical to an earlier Blu-ray packaged with Kelly's Heroes in 2010. The quality is not compromised.

The Dirty Dozen is of course the once-controversial war horse that shows up in any TV celebration of macho pictures with a testosterone level above 2.3. The idea of condemned prisoners being sent on a suicide mission sounded absurd in 1967, yet works like charm on film. Typed as a 'tough guy' director, Robert Aldrich runs the show as if it were a championship football team, setting up a tall stack of interesting personalities and making sure they all get big opportunities to show their stuff. Lee Marvin is a natural but Charles Bronson and especially John Cassavetes shine; everybody is unbalanced with Telly Savalas playing a sick sex killer. Somehow, equating a noble war mission with mass murder (the Nazis are burned alive) and a sex slaying are more than exploitative gambits... combat is psychopathic behavior, nothing less. I dig deeper into the joy of mayhem in Savant's The Dirty Dozen DVD review.

This appears to be the same disc release from early in the Blu-ray game, and the quality is not exceptional. The aspect ratio fills the wide screen at 1:77, when Turner Classic Movies' copy of the picture (which looked just as good) is wider. But don't jump to conclusions, because The Dirty Dozen was one of the first 35mm films blown up to 70mm for initial theatrical runs -- even though it was filmed flat, not in CinemaScope or Panavison. So the jury's out; I'd have to compare this disc with that TCM copy to decide for sure if the frame has been cropped at the sides.

The extras include the entire TV movie sequel The Next Mission, encoded in Standard Definition. All the old DVD extras are here, including Marine Corps Combat Leadership Skills, a training film with input from Lee Marvin.

The final Invasion Europe title is George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin, a documentary by George Stevens' son. Stevens senior was one of several big Hollywood directors that spent years overseas filming combat action. Stevens collected a great volume of 16mm Kodachrome home movies that were never seen. They look less like home movies than the official newsreels Stevens and his crews were filming in the push across France and into Germany. We see some of the big brass like Generals Bradley and Patton, a bit of the Battle of the Bulge and a look at an experimental German jet plane, captured. I talk more about the unusual footage in Savant's George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin DVD review. This is listed as a 'Bonus DVD' but only on the back of the package. It is indeed just an old disc from the first release ten years ago and the encoding looks fairly primitive.

The second (and separately purchased) collection True Stories of WWII can be said to be about true stories, but the three features here range from slightly fictionalized to laughably trivialized. All are acceptable entertainments for the beer & chips Memorial Day afternoon crowd, and will give armchair generals (I confess) plenty of opportunity to correct all the historical and technical errors.

Another big director who hung up his megaphone to risk life and limb in the armed services was William Wyler, who directed the superb WW2 docu The Memphis Belle. Forty-five years later came the fictional feature Memphis Belle, which turns a B-17 bombing mission into a multi-character drama. Packing too much of a good thing into one mission, the movie is slightly on the corny side. The dialogue is dumbed-down and every crewmember has a vital dramatic crisis during the flight. The special effects can be marginal as well. On the plus side are some great performances by Eric Stoltz, D.B. Sweeney, Sean Astin and Harry Connick Jr.; Matthew Modine stars. The original The Memphis Belle is one of the extras, looking pretty good but not restored. A free-standing disc of this came out more or less at the same time; so I've already covered the title in Savant's Memphis Belle review

The other two features I haven't yet reviewed for DVD Savant. Looking at the poster and cast list for 1965's Battle of the Bulge one would think that it's the most action-packed war movie ever made. The trailer shows a terrifying shot of a German tank firing into a railroad tunnel at an approaching locomotive. Filmed in Ultra-Panavision 70 and packaged as a Road Show release, Bulge appeared to have everything. The only previous Hollywood picture dedicated to the Battle of the Ardennes forest was William Wellman's 1949 classic Battleground, and it was in B&W and mostly restricted to a few snowbound foxholes. The 'big picture' of the Bulge would make a great movie -- the German counteroffensive trapped an army in an icy pocket with weather so bad that supplies couldn't be flown in. Frostbite was as terrible a foe as the enemy.

A massive European-based production, Battle of the Bulge is big, loud and rather flaky, especially considering what a big production it is. Expert ex-Sam Bronston veteran Philip Yordan was one of the producers and writers, and the show has his fingerprints all over it. Effects veteran and classy designer Eugene Lourie provides some of the most spectacular scenes in the movies with very large miniature settings, and even large tank miniatures. Unfortunately, the script makes the battle seem like an action-packed game of deception and intrigues instead of a terrible siege in an icebox. And the physical production in Spain was dealt a hand that makes the whole concept laughable -- much of the picture takes place in an absence of snow, under beautiful clear skies.

Forget the experience of the poor dogfaces holding out under terrible conditions, as Battle of the Bulge prefers more exciting action. All the snowbound troops are taking it easy for Christmas 1944. But commanders Grey and Pritchard (Robert Ryan & Dana Andrews) scoff at the warnings of Lt. Colonel Kiley (Henry Fonda) that the Germans are preparing a massive counteroffensive. That's exactly what happens on the German side: strict disciplinarian Colonel Hessler (Robert Shaw) waits for bad weather to attack, and totally surrounds the units at Bastogne. Many troops are captured outright, but young Lt. Weaver (James MacArthur) is saved by the more experienced Sgt. Duquesne (George Montgomery). In the confusion, frustrated soldiers Wolenski and Sgt. Guffy (Charles Bronson & Telly Savalas) can't get informed orders or good intelligence. Colonel Kiley goes behind the lines and discovers two crucial things: first, the Germans are using forward units composed of soldiers masquerading as Americans; the efficient Schumacher (Ty Hardin) has Yank units going the wrong way as he seizes vital bridges. Second, Kiley deduces correctly that the hundreds of tanks in Hessler's Panzer Corps are short of gasoline -- the Germans are making a beeline for a huge Allied fuel dump.

Battle of the Bulge looks great on a big screen but it's simply a bogus picture all the way. The fun is in seeing a few favorite personalities do their thing. Bronson is his usual charismatic hard-a**, and Savalas an excitable maniac. Savalas is given some pitiful scenes with 'a dame' he's left in charge of his black-market goods, played by Pier Angeli. The deception by Ty Hardin's fake G.I. is okay, and so is George Montgomery's paternal protection for the initially incompetent James MacArthur. Over on the German side, Werner Peters' politically minded General can't make a dent in Robert Shaw's rock-hard tank commander.

But Shaw seems to lose his mind on the battlefield, unable to accept the imminent defeat of the Reich. And the screenplay also takes a crude position on our side too, with a petty squabble among the commanders making Robert Ryan's general look like a dimwit warming up for his dimmer-wit character in The Dirty Dozen. The great actor Ryan seldom got a break in these war movies. Despite some okay battle action, the movie is utterly doomed by those clear skies and snow-challenged hills. No wonder the script downplays the facts of the actual battle -- it can't replicate the conditions required to film them. Either the Spanish mountains had a disastrously dry winter that year, or the producers of Battle of the Bulge just didn't care.

The Blu-ray encoding of Battle of the Bulge looks great with its ultra-wide format, a full intermission, etc.. We almost wish they'd not gone for the full Road Show length, however -- it's a 170-minute movie with maybe 100 minutes of story to tell.

The extras include an interesting commentary from Ken Annakin and James MacArthur, a trailer, and two vintage featurettes that don't seem to mind that a former Nazi is working as a technical expert. The featurettes also wonder where all the tanks came from, when the picture was shot in Spain -- Franco collected and maintained military hardware and planes both German and American, which saw plenty of use rented out to movies. It's a crazy world.

The (by far) newest title in the True Stories box is also the most unusual. From 2008 comes Defiance a Paramount Vantage presentation. It's the true story of a group of Jewish partisan fighters in Belarus, who barely escaped extermination by the invading Nazis and hid out for years in the deep forests, harassing the Germans and sometimes fighting with Russian regulars. The real group formed around the Bielski Brothers Tuvia and Zus, whose family has been wiped out.

The 'Bielskis' take help from sympathetic Christian farmers untouched by the Nazis, and exact harsh revenge against collaborators. No matter what they do, they collect more helpless Jewish survivors and ghetto escapees. Tuvia (Daniel Craig) founds a little Jewish village in the forest, under martial law. Although most of the refugees look upon Tuvia as a gift from God, all kinds of conflicts arise. Zus (Liev Schreiber) becomes impatient with Tuvia's orders against indiscriminate killing. He also resents the 'city Jews', that he thinks are useless yet hold themselves as superior to the country population. The Bielski's have a younger brother, Asael (Jamie Bell) who is very unsure of himself. An even younger brother Aron has survived, but has been traumatized by the sight of a mass extermination pit.

Zus eventually leaves to fight with a regular Russian guerilla unit, which barely recognizes the right of the Bielski camp to exist. The camp undergoes periods of near-starvation, and an attempt by some fighters to usurp control. Eventually they discover that an entire German division has been assigned to wipe them out. No match in a stand-up fight against the German troops, the Bielski's retreat leads them to a swampy river, which seems impossible to cross.

Defiance is a fairly well mounted story, directed and co-written by Edward Zwick, the director of one of the worst action films ever made, The Last Samurai. This better show avoids many of the pitfalls lying in wait for filmmakers tackling 'Jewish' subjects. Despite the fact that the big star hero is also a celebrated James Bond, Daniel Craig's Tuvia Bielski is a convincingly human fighter with very real limitations. He has to fight a rival when stricken with a fever, and we can feel the strain. Liev Schrieber is also no Jewish superman, despite coming off as a convincing bruiser and brutal fighter. Although no filmmaker can really communicate the privation and misery of the refugee camp, neither do we raise an eyebrow when the fugitives have fun or enjoy themselves> On one level they're more independent than ever, even though their chances of survival are so slim. We certainly understand that a lot of provisional "forest wife & husband" couples would pair off. On the other hand, all the Bielski's except for little Aaron seem to have sensitive, gorgeous women at their beck and call. I guess I'll need to become a dauntless guerilla fighter risking all for my neighbors if I want that experience.

We get a wedding scene in the snow and some scenes of romance that are entirely credible. The group survived, which means that they had to have been left alone most of the time. In one scene Tuvia abandons a German prisoner to be slaughtered by his refugees, including women. It's quite a bit like a scene in Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, where a luckless prisoner is used as a way for the campers to release their hatred and frustration.

We also like a scene in which Zus tries to get justice for one of his Jewish volunteer soldiers, fighting with the Russians. It's a delicate situation. Zus and his Jews are being used, but they're also being recognized as loyal Russians. Then again, the Russian commander has zero interest in protecting the Jewish holdouts in the forest. Zus wants to kill Germans, but learns that his true comradeship lies back with his brother, who is holding the fort on his own.

We're told that there were resistance holdouts like this across Eastern Europe, and that their chances for survival were greater the farther East they were. The Bielski's were apparently very lucky, as a couple of them survived, and eventually came to the United States.

The Blu-ray of Defiance looks fine; I have no doubt that the cold skin tones on view are correct for the film. The show comes with an Edward Zwick commentary and several featurettes.

The Bonus disc, a DVD, has some interesting extras, especially several training films from the war years. I was produced by Constantine Nasr. The First Motion Picture Unit: When Hollywood Went to War is a new docu made especially for this release. Warner at War is a long form TV documentary. Both examine the 'realignment' of the Hollywood film factories as tools of training and propaganda. Winning Your Wings is a short subject in which newly-commissioned Lieutenant James Stewart sells America's young men on the idea of joining the Army Air Corps. He even tells potential recruits that women really go for those uniforms. Yeah, maybe if Stewart's wearing it. The hour-long Photographing Intelligence for Bombardment Aviation turns a boring subject into something fairly interesting. A Navy man who complains about the lack of support learns how a crack aerial photo-interpretation expert (Alan Ladd!) is practically winning the war from a light table. We see a big chunk of the photo intelligence work being done -- and immediately think about how it might be being done now, with computers. Ladd's acting work is excellent -- he handles mouthfuls of difficult technical dialogue, and convinces that he's an analytical genius. I'll bet this was shown to find candidates good at 'visual gaming' who could help in the massive target intelligence gathering network: "Now, is that the new Messerschmitt assembly plant, or the orphanage? They sure look the same."

A short subject called The First Motion Picture Unit covers the Culver City Signal Corps studio where many training films were made, especially the ones that wanted to look like Hollywood product. We see a lot of the works, and young Ronald Reagan puts in an appearance, seemingly running things. Never before seen on video, Position Firing is a fascinating cartoon that teaches bomber waist-gunners how to properly lead an attacking plane, to actually hit one with a machine gun burst. Utilizing a 'goofus' cartoon character, it tries to communicate the complicated ideas to prospective sure-shots. I have a feeling that a gunner would either have the knack for that job, or not. Were I a draft-able kid in 1942 I can very readily see me being routed and re-routed until I ended up as a typing clerk.

The extras end on a high note with a really good hour-long mini-feature called Resisting Enemy Interrogation. A group of captured flyers is successfully tricked into telling everything they know, without openly telling anything -- the brilliant Germans just put together the clues. A great cast helps out -- Lloyd Nolan, Arthur Kennedy, George O'Hanlon, Craig Stevens, Mel Tormé, Don Porter and James Seay are Yank fliers, while Carl Esmond, Kent Smith, Peter van Eyck, Hans Heinrich con Twardowski, Steven Geray and Poldi Dur are Germans. Bernard Vorhaus directed, and I guess Ronald Reagan actually was running things, because he produced.

Packaging: (separate releases) four discs in sleeve-book pages in book like cover.
Reviewed: May 25, 2014

Text © Copyright 2014 Glenn Erickson

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