17 December 2009

From Hell to Victory

Italy – 1979
Director – Umberto Lenzi (as Hank Milestone)
United American Video Corporation, 1990, VHS
Run Time – 1 hour, 42 minutes

In history classrooms and textbooks around the world, you’ll likely find a standard narrative regarding the Second World War. Typically the stories would have you believe that there was a concerted effort by a few evil imperialists to take over the world. Against these were arrayed a fragile alliance of freedom loving peoples who, with a great deal of cautious strategy and careful planning bought a narrow victory for the cause of freedom. A very grandiose and inspiring tale to be sure, but sadly inaccurate.

Through Umberto Lenzi the true saga of World War Two can at last be told. But his is not the standard tale of triumph snatched from the jaws of global fascist conspiracy. Lenzi employs a unique documentary style, utilizing randomly selected archival footage to lend his picture a blurry realism, and jumping deftly between his own dramatized material and footage never before seen outside the context of its original movie. Rather, he loosely describes a series of boring and unconnected local skirmishes which might have coincidentally happened around the same time. Eisenhower, Stalin and Hitler were only shuffling about with little direction, but Lenzi admirably captures that confusing mess and transfers it to the screen with such accuracy it astounds.

"Where's that angry fellow with the mohawk?"           "Vietnam isn't over until 1983 sir."

The loose group of friends around which the narrative quickly skirts, is caught up in the totally unexpected arrival of war in 1939 Paris. All are cast into diverse and dubious roles; French Partisan, Wermacht Panzer Colonel, Elderly American Paratrooper, and each is given an enigmatic and ambiguous motivation, their intense personal struggles revealed through vague dialogue and inspiringly minimal use of continuity. Unbelievably, though each is fighting for a separate cause the friends come face to face in the final climactic battle as if scripted in some low budget melodrama and not by cruel ironic accident of history. It is only through such carefully crafted efforts as Lenzi’s that we can truly come to terms with the pointless chaos of war.

By definition the job description “director” suggests giving a point or a purpose or goal to some series of events or behaviors. Direction implies some kind of plan under the authority of a leader. Much like a general issuing orders to his army; “Move there, attack that ridge and capture and hold the summit there.” It makes for interesting college courses, for it makes history sound like it happened in a sort of linear narrative progression type of thing. But at last, thanks to our beloved Umberto, it has become clear that what sounds good for the headlines and history majors, is really just fluff, propaganda, an elaborate delusion to make us feel like we’re actually taking part in some sort of shared temporal experience. Lenzi’s most lofty triumph in From Hell to Victory is to give the lie to that self-important ivory tower conspiracy called history.

A nice French poster from Moviegoods.


Samuel Wilson said...

This title rings a bell. It's the movie playing in the theater where Giovanni Lombardo Radice goes berzerk in Cannibal Apocalypse.

The Goodkind said...

Very cool, I'm going to check that out!