Thursday, 5 January 2017

Castle Keep (1969)

I recall seeing a bit of Castle Keep as a kid whilst on a caravan holiday in Fleetwood, near Blackpool. We had just come in for the evening and were due to leave for home the following morning. It was way past my bedtime anyway so there was no opportunity to watch all of it but I remember it because it was striking to see TV cops Columbo (Peter Falk) and Sgt. Phil Esterhaus of Hill Street Blues (Michael Conrad) play American GI's opposite the film's star, Burt Lancaster.

I finally caught up with Castle Keep today and it's a little disappointing to say that the film isn't really worth the memory. It's essentially a deeply pretentious, existential and woozy art-house war movie from director Sydney Pollack. The film is based on the 1965 novel of the same name by William Eastlake, who based much of the story on his own experiences as an infantryman during WWII and the Battle of the Bulge (which this film is set around the outskirts of) and the tone befits that of a veteran who has been left with an understandably cynical view of war. Unfortunately this means that the screenplay is peppered with pithy, smart lines that purport to be deep and meaningful but are actually pointing out the kind of thing most of us have realised in our teenage years. For example;

"Elk and I have a plan to end this war"
"What's that?"
"We're going to win it"
"It's been tried before"


"We don't believe in fighting"
"Who does?"

Ostensibly, Castle Keep details the story of eight, ragtag and weary US soldiers led by Major Falconer (an eye-patch sporting Burt Lancaster), who are making their way through Belgium ahead of the Battle of the Bulge, when they arrive at a tenth-century castle in Belgium owned by Count Tixier (Jean-Pierre Aumont) and his young wife, Therese (Astrid Heeren). Falconer instructs his men that their duty is to hold the castle at all costs to prevent the approaching advance of German troops to the Allied front line. 

But there's obviously a hell of a lot more going on here than that rather traditional, familiar plot outline suggests. Michel Legrand's music perhaps gives us our first clue as indeed does the striking, hallucinatory visual style of Pollack and his cinematographer Henri DecaĆ« which places the action firmly at home in the surreal intelligentsia of the late '60s rather than the period the film is actually set in.  Right from the off, Castle Keep appears dreamlike, trippy and fantastical, placing our heroes in an anachronistic fashion inside a medieval castle with latterday concerns and a penchant for ruminative philosophy. I believe the key to understanding the subtext of Castle Keep lies in one of the lines delivered in echoey voice over by Al Freeman Jr who stars as would-be author Private Benjamin and serves as the film's narrator - a meta device that allows us to appreciate the events unfolding as if they are already written by this character.  The line is;

"All of us had been killed twice, some of us three times...maybe that's why we were at the castle"

And once you take that literally, rather than poetically as you may first presume, it's easier to make sense of the peculiarities that subsequently unfold. The castle itself, and nearby village, must therefore be Purgatory and a last opportunity for these ghost soldiers to explore the lives and roles they ought to have had before transferring to Heaven. Captain Beckman (Patrick O'Neal) was an art historian before the war, so his presence at the castle is not unlike a child's in a sweet shop given that it contains many priceless and irreplaceable art treasures (there's even a certain irony in the scenes in which he has to justify his commitment to these artifacts to Falconer, knowing that Burt Lancaster had previously appeared in The Train!) Peter Falk's Sgt Rossi was a baker and, spurning his comrades desire to visit the local whorehouse, the mystical Red Queen, he instead arrives at the bakery across the street and is immediately welcomed in by the widowed woman there and her young child (who looks suspiciously like Falk) as the surrogate man of the house. In no time at all, he leaves his soldier's duties aside to bake bread instead. Tony Bill's Lt Amberjack is a flautist whose key scene sees him share a temporary truce with a German scout and fellow flute-player who has studied music and has other strong coincidences, such as having read Beckman's work before the war. But the strangest of all just has to be Scott Wilson's Cpl Clearboy, the unit's driver and mechanic, who - and I'm not making this up, honest - falls in love with a Volkswagen Beetle!

Falconer: I understand you've been sleeping with the Volkswagen

Clearboy: Yes sir, Is there a regulation against it sir?

Falconer: Yes

Clearboy: Sodomy?

Falconer: That's animals, there's a regulation against using enemy equipment. Creates confusion.

Clearboy: Sir, she's a beautiful car, sir

Falconer: You must love the Volkswagen very much Corporal Clearboy

Clearboy: 36 Horses. No water, sir. Hides her engine in the rear, air cooled, no water, sir!

Falconer: Is the world suffering a water shortage Corporal Clearboy?

Clearboy: Not now sir, but suppose this war just goes on and on and on and destroys everything in the world. Well, since the Volkswagen can get along without water, she's bound to survive when other creatures die off. Someday the world is going to be populated with nothing but Volkswagens!

Spooked by this case of paraphilia, some of the soldiers push the VW into the castle's moat...only for it to remain bouyant and float to the surface (its previously open windows now sealed shut?!) like it was Herbie! They fire bullets into the care, and still it survives, and Clearboy simply drives it back out of the water. This motor vehicle immortality is later returned to when the unit attack a German tank; the Nazi soldiers are killed, but the tank remains undamaged and GI's drive it back to the castle.

Only Benjamin seems to be aware of the strangeness that is occurring, referencing it in his voice over, which is fitting given he is the character whose life is determined for the fantasy world of fiction and therefore best placed to adopt the role of the author of the tale (and therefore is Eastlake himself in all but name we must presume). But this also means he is not without all the inherent problems such an unreliable narrator possesses for its reader/audience; If what we're witnessing didn't actually happen, and is just from Benjamin's imagination than maybe the strangeness can be explained by his own poetic licence? 

As for Burt Lancaster's Falconer, his role represents the might and vitality of the New World (America) coming to save the Old World (Europe) which is dead, dying or impotent (Beckman: Europe's dying. Falconer: No Beckman, shes's dead. That's why we're here. Don't you read the newspapers?) This heavy handed symbolism is further drawn by the fact that the Count is himself impotent and allows Falconer to sleep with his young wife, because he wants him to impregnate her and therefore give his line (and, thematically, Europe) a future. With his eye-patch and later, his white steed, he is a walking stereotypical symbol of a powerful, heroic and battle-scarred, unafraid America - a role, one suspects, Lancaster's ego was happy to embody at this stage in his career. (As an aside, Roger Ebert once related to a doomed interview with the star and driving force of the film when the film came out; "You didn't like the picture, did you?" Lancaster asked Ebert who in turn openly revealed that he did not. "Then we have nothing to talk about, do we?" Lancaster retorted, before walking out. The interview, Ebert recalled, lasted just 4 minutes)

However, not even America can truly save the day. It seems Purgatory insists that to save the castle the unit must also destroy it and, in the final reel, the flames of hell itself seem to devour it. Only Therese and Benjamin, the author, survive.

How enjoyable you may find Castle Keep depends upon your threshold for strangeness. I don't mind a good headscratcher but ultimately I felt a lot of this was being strange for strange's sake and smacked of both pretension and immaturity at equal measure at times. Thank God Pollack's other film of 1969 was the significantly superior They Shoot Horses Don't They? It is only Pollack's direction and the excellent, crisp cinematography from Decaƫ that kept me watching this piffle.

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