Castle Keep
U.S.A. / 1969
Directed by Sydney Pollack
Burt Lancaster
Patrick O'Neal
Peter Falk
Color / 107 Minutes / R
Format: DVD (R1 - NTSC)
Columbia-TriStar Home Video
Hold your mouse pointer over an image for a pop-up caption
Review by
Brian Lindsey
    5   10 = Highest Rating  
Definitely not your father's World War II movie.
    Castle 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 soldiers — replacements — 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 the ages — but Castle Maldorais and its heritage shall remain.
    Captain 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...
    Castle 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.
    Those 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 (Jeremiah Johnson, 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.)
    This 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 Blows). Action fans aren't ignored, either... They'll appreciate the well-staged battle scenes, with Soviet-made T-34s subbing for German Panther tanks.
    Stylish and ably performed, Castle Keep is a daring, offbeat view of Americans at war, especially since it was made at a very sensitive time — when the U.S. was torn apart by deep social divisions over Vietnam.

Although essentially a bare-bones disc, Columbia's release of Castle Keep in a widescreen edition marks a rare victory for the home video cinephile. The company first issued the film in July 2004 as a horribly cropped Pan & Scan DVD that had fans howling with disgust; Pollack's masterful compositions were utterly destroyed. The corporate suits must have listened, because three months later we have the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio!
    Aside from a bit of grain the transfer looks pristine, with deep blacks and solid colors. A faint hiss is occasionally heard in the quietest moments of the Dolby 4.0 Mono audio mix, but dialog is strong and clear and Legrand's score is well served. Original theatrical trailers for Castle Keep, Black Hawk Down, The Patriot and Tears of The Sun constitute the only extras. 11/09/04