Reviews

Victory at Sea

Erich Kuersten

In 1952, Victory at Sea not only sold new televisions, but a new conflict as well.


Victory At Sea

Distributor: Columbia
Cast: Cast (as themselves, in footage): Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler, Emperor Hirohito, Benito Mussolini
Network: U.S. Navy
First date: 1954
US Release Date: 2003-09-30
Amazon

Produced with help from the U.S. military, the 26-part documentary series Victory at Sea tells the story of World War II from a maritime perspective. Wars, the program reports, are won and lost based on supplies; merchant ship routes ran everywhere during the '40s, including near the North Pole, and the ceaseless attacks on them by U-boats and bombers comprise much of each episodes' running time. When it aired in 1952 and '53, the series prompted the purchase of many new television sets and granted commercial legitimacy to the new medium. This was the time of the Korean War, and no doubt, the government had a motive for helping in the production of this tale of American triumph. Victory at Sea not only sold new televisions, but a new conflict as well.

Free of talking head interviews or excessive historical detail, the episodes flow like free-form stock footage festivals, all black and white, mostly beautiful quality (especially as transferred to DVD). Leonard Graves' narration is spare, pompous, and poetic, such that Victory at Sea has more in common with 1920s Soviet propaganda films, Disney's Fantasia (1942), or the work of Leni Riefenstahl than it does later documentaries like World at War or more recent pieces on the History Channel.

It's no help either that sometimes the footage doesn't cohere, a blend of battle imagery from various locations and other scenes recreated for the documentary. It all starts to flow by in a dream like wave, seductive and lulling, but hardly riveting. Though it may touch a soft spot in the heart of its target generation, the unabashedly patriotic score by Richard Rodgers (of Rodgers & Hammerstein fame) now seems dated. Mixing grandiose strains of Germanic European classical with American marching band rags and general patriotic hoopla, it resembles a 1920s silent film score (the DVD sound is also badly mixed, so the score swells up and down in volume, as if the digital sound technician was himself on a boat at sea). Call it "Triumph of the Yankee Will."

After the Germans defeat the British troops in Greece, Graves intones: "But for a time yet, the Germans will plot and push and plunder." Back on the water, the men on the transports have nothing to do but "Relax, wait and anticipate the job ahead." Each episode starts with the servicemen on the ships relaxing and waiting, and then the turning point battle comes. The ships must get through with valuable supplies, but the Axis planes and submarines prove fierce. Guns fire and fire and fire, men run and run and run, a plane dives. A bomb explodes. Grave describes the action like an announcer at a football game: "High level bombers! Low level bombers! Submarines! The entire holocaust of Nazi fury! The attack goes on, intense, unbroken. The convoy reels under the slugging. More death is on the way."

It's not all death and holocaust, though. The series allots time as well to footage of the men who had nothing to do during the War but stop over on islands in the Pacific, drinking beer and unloading supplies. The documentary even shows the occasional dead soldier, his lifeless body rolling in the surf. To its credit, the series includes attempts at racial equality, with African American servicemen visible throughout, without any special "separate but equal" section devoted to them.

While Victory at Sea tries in its way to avoid racism (the Japanese for example, are depicted as a decent people whose devotion to tradition led them astray), it is stridently nationalist. Victory at Sea's unflinching, unapologetic view of the devastating destruction of Japan and Germany near the War's end raises some interesting questions. When Graves begins describing events like the fire bombing of Dresden, or 60% of Tokyo consumed by flames, his voice betrays a certain schadenfreude mixed with an expected Yankee compassion. It is as if the Axis onslaught of the first 20 episodes is finally getting returned in spades, or as Graves unironically puts it, the Americans are "throttling aggression at its source."

Graves tone grows a shade more sympathetic for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which concludes the War: "8:16 AM, August 6, 1945," he says, 'Hiroshima Japan: A city dies as an age is born. One bomb from one plane and life becomes death; one bomb from one plane, Hiroshima is wasteland; one bomb from one plane, 78,000 human beings perish; two bombs from two planes, and World War II is over."

This deux ex machina of an ending is, however, oddly unsatisfying. The dire struggle of men and guns became obsolete, even as the War was nearly won in a more conventionally "fair and square" way. It appears here as if total victory could only come with the cost of taking the world's atomic virginity. For the U.S., it was also a total loss of innocence, now awakened as the official victor in a bloody brawl for global dominion. It would prove a serious addiction.

The most fascinating aspect of Victory at Sea is its reflection of America's changing self-perception over the course of the War. Imperialist dreams slowly blends with democratic ideals, resulting in a more mature, modern, and crafty America, the publicly pro-peace yet secretly war-happy nation it remains today. In Victory at Sea's endless parade of war machines and human faces, we're granted a peek at an attitude that in 1952-'53 was still unafraid to wave its enemies' bloodied head on a pole. In this valuable time capsule, we are granted a look at the States at its most self-congratulatory. To the victor goes not only the spoils of being the world's police force, but also the right to paint a big V over history.

From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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