Memorial Day is intended to honor American soldiers, but valor isn’t necessarily a matter of nationality.
“Valkyrie” has just been released on DVD and it’s a strangely fitting Memorial Day movie. Based on the true story of a plot hatched by some German officers to assassinate Hitler in 1944, the film stars Tom Cruise as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the leader of the group. Maimed in battle (Cruise sports an eyepatch and crippled hand), Stauffenberg is the stuff B-movie action heroes are made of: cunning, courageous and perhaps a tad less complicated than one would like (well, hell, a lost eye and a mad-dog Fuhrer are probably complications enough).
Anyway — and I’m not spoiling anything for anyone, I hope — the plot fails, though more through a matter of bad luck than anything else.
“Valkyrie” was released in theaters at Christmas and given its serious theme, hefty running time and Big Name star, I think it was wrongly perceived as pure Oscar-bait posturing by some and never got a fair shot. But it’s a surprisingly satisfying and even gripping picture. Cruise does just fine as one of those handful of Good Germans who apparently weren’t in total goose-step with the Nazis and he’s surrounded himself with a small battalion of British actors who know exactly how movies like this work. Among them are Bill Nighy, Kenneth Brannagh, Tom Wilkinson and, Terence Stamp, who comes off like a wrathe from an earlier anti-war generation who would’ve loved the movie’s “Patton-esque” military-heroes-ain’t-so-simple” patina (No, it isn’t THAT good, but still… .)
For other tales of good soldiers in other uniforms, take a look at Clint Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima,” his under-rated companion work to his even more under-rated “Flags of Our Fathers,” and Paul Verhoeven’s “Soldier of Orange,” starring Rutger Hauer as one of the leaders of the Dutch resistance during World War II.
And then there’s the recently released “Wise Blood,” a minor late-in-his-career masterpiece by John Huston based on … well, I would call it a minor masterpiece again, but it’s always struck me that everything Flannery O’Connor wrote was somehow a masterpiece in a minor key.
“Wise Blood,” which was filmed, sometimes quite recognizably, in Macon and Atlanta in the late ‘70s, stars Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes. An, um, quirky Army veteran, Motes returns to his rural South roots to found the Church without Christ where “the blind don’t see, the lame don’t walk and the dead stay that way.”
This haunting, serio-comic Gothic tale is done to a turn by Huston, Dourif (then fresh off an Oscar nomination as the tragic stutterer Billy Bibbit in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) and a master class of character actors led by Harry Dean Stanton and Ned Beatty. And that’s Huston himself as Hazel’s fire-and-brimstone granddaddy.
Long unavailable for home viewing, this Criterion release offers such excellent extras as an audio recording of O’Connor reading some of he own work and a 1982 interview with Huston conducted by Bill Moyers.