not your father's World War II movie.
Keep is the Second World War viewed through
the prism of Vietnam. It's unlikely that such
an antiwar film could have been made without the
experience of the latter conflict, which was still
raging when Castle Keep
went into production. Like Coppola's Apocalypse
Now, made ten years later, it takes a distinctly
surreal approach to the madness of war. Yet its
geographic and historic setting brings a different
set of issues and themes to the table.
In Belgium's Ardennes forest
in the autumn of 1944, a ragtag squad of American
billet themselves in a 10th Century castle a short
distance behind the front line. The castle's owner,
Count Maldorais (Jean-Pierre Aumont), welcomes
them as he welcomed the Germans who came before.
He wishes only for the combatants to pass through,
leaving his fairy tale world intact. The castle
contains a veritable treasure trove of great artworks
paintings, tapestries, statuary
collected by his family over the centuries. Above
all he wishes to safeguard them for future generations.
But the Count is impotent and has no children...
Without a future, how can the past be preserved?
He persuades his beautiful young wife (Astrid
Heeren) to take the American commander, the one-eyed
Major Falconer (Burt Lancaster), as a lover in
hopes of becoming pregnant. Eventually the war
and the soldiers will move on
as they have always done, countless times throughout
but Castle Maldorais and its heritage shall remain.
Beckman (Patrick O'Neal), a renowned art historian
before the war, fully appreciates their host's
concern over the treasures housed within the castle
walls. The intellectual officer disdains the casual
indifference shown by the rest of the squad towards
the artwork (they couldn't give a shit), and is
horrified at Falconer's talk of the castle making
an ideal strongpoint should the Germans launch
an attack in their sector. He's also disgusted
by the major's bedding of the foxy Countess
though more out of jealousy than any notions of
morality. Surrounded by beauty, Beckman loses
all interest in the war, occupying himself by
cataloguing the numerous objets d'art.
Meanwhile, the other men are concerned with their
own pursuits: erstwhile seminarian Lt. Amberjack
(Tony Bill) with music; Sgt. DeVaca (Michael Conrad)
and Pvt. Elk (James Patterson) with the whores
at a nearby bordello, the Red Queen; Corporal
Clearboy (Scott Wilson) with his beloved Volkswagen
'Bug', left behind by the Germans during the last
military occupation of the castle. Sgt. Rossi
(Peter Falk), a baker in civilian life, moves
into the town's bakery (and the bed of the baker's
wife) to fulfill his only dream, making bread.
Young Pvt. Benjamin (Al Freeman, Jr.), a highly
educated African-American, fancies himself a writer
and works on his memoir of the war, serving as
the film's narrator. (Beckman recommends Castle
Keep as the title of his book.) Aside from
the passing of the season into winter, time seems
to stand still in this idyllic, almost mythic
place. The men all but forget the war, and the
war, blessedly, seems to have forgotten them...
Except for their commander, Falconer, the only
true warrior among them. Though distracted by
his dalliances with the Countess, for him the
outcome of the war is all that matters. Art, history,
morals, personal philosophies
by necessity these must be shoved aside. He will
not retreat when the enemy comes, even if means
the total destruction of the castle. And the enemy
will come. It's December now, and the German
Army is on the march in a last desperate counterattack
against the Western Allies. (The "Battle of the
Bulge.") The American division manning this section
of the Ardennes is shattered by the blow and reels
back in disarray. Castle Maldorais stands directly
in the path of the panzers...
Keep takes some liberties
with historical/military facts in order to serve
the story. Mainly, the nature and composition
of Maj. Falconer's unit has no basis in reality
the disbursement of replacements was certainly
not handled that way by the U.S. Army, and as
the armed forces were still segregated in WWII,
a black man would not be among them. Frankly,
an eight-man squad consisting of three officers,
two sergeants and three enlisted men is ridiculous,
at least without more detailed explanation. (Unless
he's a staff officer, a major would be in command
of a 900-man battalion.) Falconer is never
seen in contact with any higher authority; he
doesn't even appear to have a radio. Pvt. Benjamin,
in his narration, refers to his comrades as "walking
wounded" and "ghosts", even musing
that "All of us had been killed twice.
Some of us three times." Thus the film's
GIs are really metaphors
avatars of The American Soldier, regardless of
which war they're fighting. The "decadent"
European, Count Maldorais, equates them with brash
children, brave but naive and lacking in culture.
In truth the Americans are all of these things,
and at the same time, none of them.
beholden to the black
and white "there is our truth and
no other" Manichean
worldview will positively
hate this movie
think Three Kings
rather than Battleground.
There are no heroes in Castle
Keep, no flag-waving salutes to patriotism.
The film is deliberately anachronistic, from elements
of the music score (composer Michel Legrand occasionally
injects '60s jazz/lounge pop to the mix), to the
dialog (Falk often speaks like a Beat poet), to
the surreal situations and set-pieces. Clearboy's
obsession with the Volkswagen points out that,
only 20 years after the war, America had become
infatuated with products made by its once bitter
enemy. (The VW was commissioned by Hitler himself!)
The symbolism employed by director Sydney Pollack
Tootsie) can be heavy-handed
at times but its universality cannot be denied...
Falconer, as God of War astride a white horse,
employs a deranged Christian fanatic (Bruce Dern)
to help him lead a group of stragglers to safety,
only to see them wiped out in an artillery barrage;
when the Germans launch their assault on the castle
and the first of the defenders is killed, a statue
broken by shellfire actually bleeds. (Blink
and you'll miss it.)
kind of approach, told with a highbrow script,
could've gone horribly wrong in less capable hands.
The fumbles that are made (dialog is sometimes
too clever, cryptic or philosophical for its own
good; parts of the film seem choppy, especially
the second half) don't pull up the drawbridge
on the entire concept. That this weird war tale
plays as well as it does is a testament to Pollack's
direction, a solid cast, and
the often beautiful cinematography of Henri
Decaλ (Truffaut's The 400
fans aren't ignored, either... They'll appreciate
the well-staged battle scenes, with
Soviet-made T-34s subbing for German Panther tanks.
and ably performed, Castle
Keep is a daring,
offbeat view of Americans
at war, especially since it was made at a very
when the U.S. was torn apart by deep social divisions