Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Movie Review: Castle Keep (1969)


A surreal World War Two movie, Castle Keep embarks on a philosophical quest to find the intersection of war, art and sex.

It's the winter of 1944. In Belgium, a ramshackle unit of eight US soldiers under the nominal command of Major Abraham Falconer (Burt Lancaster) occupies the Maldorais, an imposing ancient castle filled with artwork. The Count (Jean-Pierre Aumont) is the castle's owner, married to the much younger Therese (Astrid Heeren). Soon Falconer and Therese are having an open affair, with the approval of the Count, who is impotent but would welcome a son.

Private Benjamin (Al Freeman Jr.), an aspiring writer and the unit's only Black member, chronicles the men's experiences. Captain Beckman (Patrick O'Neal) is an art historian and attempts to educate the other soldiers about the castle's art collection, but they are more interested in the whorehouse at the nearby town. Sergeant Rossi (Peter Falk) finds the local bakery and reverts back to his role as baker and family man. Corporal Clearboy (Scott Wilson) is infatuated with a Volkswagen found on the castle grounds.

Falconer anticipates a German counteroffensive in the area as part of the Battle Of The Bulge. He decides to fortify the castle and make a defensive stand, placing the precious art in harm's way. Both the Count and Beckman are horrified, but Falconer is determined to forge his destiny.

The anti-war sentiment of 1969 is retrospectively applied to World War Two, and Castle Keep plants a distinctive flag as a different kind of war film. Writers Daniel Taradash and David Rayfiel adapted the 1965 William Eastlake novel with a European sensibility laced with dark humour, and director Sydney Pollack creates a stylish, often visually stunning story of war's collision with culture. While occasionally crossing over from philosophical to onerous, the film carves a uniquely cerebral identity. 

War's abhorrent incompatibility with love, art and all things of beauty is teased out through a deceptively simple narrative structure. The castle occupies lush landscaped grounds filled with romantic statues, while the inside walls and ceilings are decorated with masterpieces. Falconer's unit arrives at this abode in a disjointed state, the men disrespectful towards the Major, their dialogue and behaviour atypical for soldiers. The script hints early they may all be dead anyway, representing dreams shattered by the incursion of a destructive global conflict.

Whether alive or expired, the men are beyond jaded about the war and more interested in other pursuits, including women, cars (bordering on a fetish), baking, and writing. For educated men like the Count and Beckman, destroying classic artworks is a crime. But for warriors like Falconer, complete with his eye patch and buffalo mentality, the castle is a perfect defensive fortification. He alone commands a warlike attitude, his one eye firmly focused on military objectives and intentionally blind to collateral damage.

In addition to the Volkswagen echo, the free love of the 1960s shows up in Falconer's quick sexual conquest of the willing Therese with the quiet acquiescence of the Count. Therese is the Count's wife and also his niece; it does not matter: he just wants a son, and will accept Falconer bedding Therese perhaps in return for the castle's treasure being saved.

Adding to the surreal surroundings is another group of hollow-eyed anti-war soldiers wandering through the nearby town led by Lieutenant Bix (Bruce Dern). Instead of calling for an end to the fighting they noisily protest fornication at the popular Reine Rouge whorehouse. The protestors eventually encounter mortar strikes, in what proves to be a short confrontation.

With a primary interest in war as a most barbaric anti-cultural weapon, Pollack does not pull back on the combat scenes. The second half boasts two epic battles. First Falconer's men slow down the advancing Germans with an ambush featuring whores with Molotov cocktails and a tank incursion into a church. The climactic defensive stand at the castle occupies the final 30 minutes, Pollack able to maintain the men's incongruous attitudes even as they put up a spirited defense of their new realm.

Wearing eccentricity as a medal of honour, Castle Keep towers over a landscape of emotions ravaged by endless war.






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