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    Code Word: Survival

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    Dunkirk writer-director Christopher Nolan has said in interviews heralding the opening of this past weekend’s #1 global box-office hit that his recreation of the harrowing events of World War II’s Operation Dynamo evacuation of surrounded British troops was not a war film, but a survival film. Through the intensely portrayed experiences of a gallery of fictional characters – young and inexperienced trapped soldiers and sailors, brave civilian mariners piloting their small boats across hazardous English Channel waters, dedicated Royal Air Force aviators buzzing the skies on limited fuel to thwart the deadly efforts of their Luftwaffe counterparts strafing defenseless ground forces, he expertly thrusts moviegoers into the thick of the chaos through the actions of people pushed to the utmost limits of endurance, i.e. everyday, unsung heroes. Nolan’s achievement has been favorably compared to the impact of such landmark movies as The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan. The efforts of Nolan’s collaborators – cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, production designer Nathan Crowley, editor Lee Smith and composer Hans Zimmer, among dozens of others – generate a thrilling rush of spectacle, suspense and anxiety as the odds of rescue vs. oblivion rise and fall as cross-cutting events unfold. Two other noteworthy World War II thrillers with a “ticking clock” aspect, well-crafted production values and characters locked in desperate situations, both employing fictional figures set against a backdrop of true events, also immersively recreate the feel of, as one principal says, “the war’s come down to the two of us.” That line is spoken by The Needle (Donald Sutherland), the ace Nazi operative and merciless killer who has struggled to escape a remote British island back to Germany with intelligence of the imminent Allied D-Day invasion plans, to a lonely woman (Kate Nelligan) who has loved him yet proves to be his final mission obstacle in Eye of the Needle (1981, opening in cinemas 26 years ago yesterday). Directed by Richard Marquand from screenwriter Stanley Mann’s adaptation of the Ken Follett bestseller, the movie also cloaks the carnage of war in a tale of personal endurance, with the potential future fate of thousands on a French beachhead relying on the resilience and courage of individuals. Backed by the team of cinematographer Alan Hume, production designer Wilfred Shingleton, editor Sean Barton and legendary composer Miklós Rózsa, Marquand deftly balances the narrative’s strong sense of rugged geography and its principals’ internal struggles with patriotic duty and unexpected attraction. 

    Unlike Dunkirk, Eye of the Needle is not full of visceral combat and explosions. However, another recent Blu-ray arrival, also set at a strategic flashpoint location where the course of World War II was altered, fills that bill. The Bridge at Remagen (1969), a David L. Wolper production directed by talented journeyman John Guillermin, brings to the Panavision screen the story of the Rhine River structure critical to both German and American forces in the closing months of the conflict. The preservation vs. the destruction of the one-time insignificant railroad trestle, now the only standing bridge key to the Allied advance into Germany as well as the escape of occupation-devastated refugees and cornered German soldiers from the battle zone, is the movie’s major preoccupation, and the American GIs (including George Segal, Ben Gazzara, Bradford Dillman and Bo Hopkins) and German forces (among them, Robert Vaughn and Hans Christian Blech) are equally committed to self-preservation and that of their comrades-in-arms despite each side’s rising casualty count and bone-weariness. With Czechoslovakian and Italian locations subbing for Germany and Richard Yates and William Roberts adapting their screenplay from a chronicle of the true events of the bridge clash by an ex-GI (Ken Eichler) who was there, Guillermin’s own forces – veteran cinematographer Stanley Cortez, production designer Alfred Sweeney Jr., editors William Cartwright, Harry Knapp and Marshall Neilan and composer Elmer Bernstein – construct a vivid tapestry of havoc and heroism. Dunkirk’s tagline, “Survival is victory,” encapsulates all three sagas. See the enthralling Dunkirk in a theater with a big screen and enveloping sound system. Likewise, experience the marvelous Eye of the Needle and The Bridge at Remagen in your home theater on a pair of terrific Twilight Time hi-def Blu-rays, respectfully available here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/32111/EYE-OF-THE-NEEDLE-1981/ and here: http://www1.screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/33538/THE-BRIDGE-AT-REMAGEN-1969/.