Director: Sydney Pollack
By Roderick Heath
In the wake of the wishy-washy fare that clogged the latter part of his career, it is easy to forget just what a talented filmmaker Sydney Pollack had been. His excellent early dramas, like The Slender Thread (1965) and They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969), and his genre outings that offered up two of the best American films of the 1970s in The Yakuza (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975), display that talent in spades. His best work was defined by a fervent thread of black humour and a painterly verve, as he shot dramas like thrillers and thrillers like art films. Unfortunately, it was the polished nostalgia of The Way We Were (1973) that scored the biggest hit and pointed the way forward for Pollack to tone down his style and become best known for slick prestige pieces. In his later career, only the sleek pulp of The Firm (1993) stands out as a return to his roots. Looking more closely at the shape of his career, it’s easy to see two poles in Pollack’s films, rhapsodist and ironist, cynic and ardent romantic, duelling in his best work. At a time when oddball antiwar films were a dime a dozen, Castle Keep, his fourth film, didn’t get much admiration on release, but in finally catching up with it, I have to admit it floored me. Here, perhaps, are Pollack’s different, opposing temperaments in intricate balance. The result looks very much like a classic now.
The basic story, of the sort Samuel Fuller employed so well and often, is relatively conventional: a ragged bunch of military misfits is banded together under a gritty leader who melds them into a fighting force to carry out a dangerous, doomed mission—except Castle Keep immediately bellows its strangeness by commencing with the words “Once upon a time” in hinting that what follows will be a fairytale.
In the first few moments, a rapid montage of explosions devastating statues and ancient signifiers of culture give way to a glimpse of a battlement gargoyle with a raptor’s head, the cry of which seems to echo out across the wooded landscape and reach the ear of Pvt. Rossi (Peter Falk). Earthy former baker Rossi, former critic and intellectual Captain Beckman (Patrick O’Neal), green and angst-ridden Lt. Amberjack (Tony Bill), redneck Cpl. Clearboy (Scott Wilson), budding author Pvt. Allistair Piersall Benjamin (Al Freeman, Jr.), and the plebeian Elk (James Patterson) and DeVaca (Michael Conrad) have all been press-ganged into serving the formidably competent cyclops Major Abraham Falconer (Burt Lancaster). The eight men, collected together from the stragglers and survivors of the American advance into the Ardennes in the winter of 1944, try get to the crossroads town of Saint Croix and take command of the castle of Maldorais.
Trying to push a broken-down jeep along a muddy country road, these men are astounded to see a couple on horseback charging by, one a stunning female with a cape billowing behind her like a vision out of a chivalric romance, the other a neatly attired gentleman in a red hunting suit. The pair proves to be the Count of Maldorais (Jean-Pierre Aumont), and his wife Therese (Astrid Heeren). “We came to the wrong war!” Rossi blurts upon seeing this pair who seem to have ridden out of another age. The situation, and the dilemmas that will face the characters, are soon polarised. Falconer, predicting the German assault that will precipitate the Battle of the Bulge, recognises that Maldorais will be an important defensive position necessary for stemming an attack on the army’s main body, and determines to fortify the castle. Beckman is captivated by the Count’s trove of art and antiques from the last nine centuries of European civilisation. The Count wants to save them all, willing to make any compromise, be it bivouacking German or Allied soldiers or letting any man who can swing it bed the Countess to provide the heir he can’t. The enlisted men want to get laid and follow the Count’s directions to the local brothel, the Reine Rouge. Amberjack wonders if following them can help him rebel against his authoritarian father. Clearboy forms an obsession for a Volkswagen that belonged to the former German occupants of the castle. When Falconer’s predictions come true, however, the cost for everyone is bound to be high.
Castle Keep mediates between the first breed of more cynical war film, like Paths of Glory and Bridge on the River Kwai (both 1957), and the antic, counterculture-inflected breed like MASH, Catch-22, and Kelly’s Heroes (all 1970). One irony of this period was that these films were still being made on the theory that war movies were popular, even if the general mood was against war, and so the peculiar, invigorating quality was in watching such films trash the genre even whilst being produced on the biggest of scales: shot in Yugoslavia with incredible photography by Henri Decaë, Castle Keep employs a high-budget, cinematically walloping spectacle, with the huge main set of the castle and town ready to be pulverised. Castle Keep is ambivalent about the traditional hierarchical and moralistic assumptions of the war epic. Interestingly, Steven Spielberg specifically cited it as one of the strongest influences on his Saving Private Ryan (1998), and that influence is particularly evident in the harum-scarum, tragicomic battle scenes. Norman Mailer once commented that he had been glad to be posted to the Pacific, and therefore wrote The Naked and the Dead because he did not imagine himself equal to the greater challenge of writing about American intransigence crashing headlong into European culture, a spectacle inherent in WWII’s European theatre. Castle Keep, on the other hand, adapted from William Eastlake’s novel, dedicates itself to examining precisely that nexus, and more.
What renders Pollack’s film fascinatingly, perversely distinct is the way present, past, future, fact, and fiction are rendered in a state of flux. Castle Keep calls attention to its own artificiality throughout, as the story is mediating through a lapping structure; at the end, the story loops back again, and the fact that the story is being “written” and “recalled” by Benjamin is repeatedly iterated. Such a fact explains and mitigates the film’s loopy flourishes of anachronism and surrealism, and how it dips in and out of what might be fantasy, embellishment, or genuine rupture in reality. The notion that the characters are all embodiments of primal traits is soon outlined, as the landscape unveiled in the film populated by figures that could come from any century. The Major, with his one eye, channels ancient myth as a warrior incarnate. The Count is a virtual pharaoh in his elitist desire to conserve within his domain all possessions: even his wife is a relative, whether his niece and sister is not clarified, but still firmly suggested. Rossi, upon arriving in Saint Croix, seeks out not the brothel, but the bakery, on the theory that’s where there will be a baker’s wife. He finds one (Olga Bisera) and immediately steps into her dead husband’s place, taking over the shop and trying to drop out of the war.
Rossi’s understanding of war is one of a job. In a bizarre, haunting interlude, Amberjack and Rossi converse in the woods outside the castle. Amberjack tries to play his damaged flute when a German soldier’s voice sounds from the forest: he asks to fix Amberjack’s flute, and recognises Beckman’s name, recommending the book he wrote as a civilian professor. Rossi casually shoots the unseen German in spite of their amicable conversation: “That’s what we do for a living, lieutenant,” he tells the despondent Amberjack. He also tells off a flock of soldiers turned conscientious objectors led by the self-appointed apostle Lt. Billy Byron Bix (Bruce Dern), who haunt Saint Croix’s streets like stragglers from Peter the Hermit’s Crusade, singing hymns outside the bordello and preaching to columns of wounded and bewildered men bearing a rude crucifix of twigs. The idea that time is folding back on itself hovers with both humour and menace throughout, as the Major becomes the image of a knight-errant, riding a white horse in leading men to battle, with Bix screaming accusatory that he knows him, as the image of strife incarnate. A simple threat from the Major is all that’s needed, however, to turn these pacifists back into Crusaders; following the Major back to Maldorais, they’re instantly wiped out by a shell.
The Count exploits Beckman’s reverence for art to get him to labour to save the castle and its contents, and the petit bourgeois Beckman stands between the actually philistine sensibility of the Count, who regards himself much more as a warrior (“I am the bravest man I know”) and the gruffly debased, yet in many ways far more sensitive sensibility of the enlisted men, particularly Rossi. There’s a touch of genius in making the artist-witness figure, whose philosophical and psychological enquiries filter the film and its portrait of a civilisation’s Euclidian reboot, an African American. “I wonder if my moving in here will reduce the real estate prices,” Benjamin quips sardonically when first settling down in the castle. Castle Keep seems set up for a showdown between militaristic and cultural values. But the film cleverly elides such a simplistic central conflict. Instead, the running argument between Beckman and Falconer evolves as Falconer retorts to Beckman’s proposition that saving the things worth fighting for is the whole point of their mission with the coldly diagnostic statement that “Europe is dead. That’s why we’re here.” Instead of simply decrying the Major as a vandal, the film makes the not-negligible point that he’s also one of the last remnants of the potent spirit that built such a world, and he’s the one who mans the battlements to the last along with Beckman, and lending weight to the amazing ferocity of the film’s final 20 minutes.
The castle and the Countess, initially a passive-seeming love object whom the men aspire to and envy each other for having, are conflated in Benjamin’s estimation (“That was three weeks ago when the castle was occupied. Nobody knew when the Major occupied the Countess…”). In another of the film’s weirdly textured interludes, the Major and the Count, out riding on reconnaissance, realise the grounds of the estate have been infiltrated by a German patrol; they hole up in a summer house, and the Major takes out the patrol with lethal efficiency, only to realise they were missing their officer. He realises that the officer went straight to castle, tracks him there and kills him, and the Count confirms he was formerly bivouacked in the castle: he had led his men back merely so he could see the Countess, and the Major took his place. Beckman is jealous of the Major (“Bitch!” he declares after he’s had to interrupt them in bed together, and she indolently ignores him) and when Falconer calls Beckman a collector, the Captain admit that if he were poor “I’d probably collect old string…newspapers…fallen women.” To which Falconer retorts knowingly, “Don’t judge her. She’s not a painting.” The grazing roundelay of jealousy and vanity around a woman who sees them as all more or less the same is finally ended when the Countess proves to have different values to the Count and warns Falconer he intends to use one of the escape tunnels under the castle to reach the Germans and help them infiltrate in order to save the castle. The Count dies in a hail of long-distance bullets, viewed at a remote remove by the Countess through binoculars.
Like many films of the period, the temptation to crawl back into the nominally bawdy, yet rather oedipally boyish world of the brothel beckons the heroes. When they first arrive at the Reine Rouge, the women are sprawled like props in a wonderland, mirroring, with insolent eroticism, the corps of soldiers, who gaze on in gobsmacked wonder. Later on, both hookers and soldiers are sprawled about between jobs lazily sucking on cigarettes and wondering what the hell to do with themselves. Falconer arms the prostitutes with Molotov cocktails. Clearboy predicts their failure: “There’s been a lot of sentimental junk wrote about whores, but they’re just plain defeated women!” But they proceed to rain down with gleeful, punitive relish on the German soldiers. Amberjack and Elk attempt to capture a Leopard tank with a bazooka, luring the colossal vehicle into the church. Amberjack, praying as the juggernaut roles up the centre aisle crushing the pews, desperately tries to load and fire the bazooka before being crushed. He and Elk manage to knock out the tank’s crew, and commandeer it, completely demolishing the rest of the church, and then promptly ditching their hard-won prize when the order comes to abandon the town. Rossi has to be talked around from his equanimity as a baker, reciting philosophical meditations with his face caked in flour, to return to the fray.
The film’s flaws are easy to pick. Michel Legrand’s music score is sometimes in the right key of trippy elegy, but far too jazzy and modishly ’60s at other times. A comic interlude in which Amberjack and Benjamin try to destroy the Volkswagen to save Clearboy the tragedy of seeing it destroyed in battle seems to have stumbled in from a different movie. Heeren belongs to the vast number of good-looking nonentities who decorated ’60s cinema. I dare say the whole stew could seem ungainly and strange to many, and yet Castle Keep’s poetic streak is powerful and original. Pollack pulls off the last act with an authority that’s impeccable. The magic realism crystallises in a bizarrely beautiful scene in which, trapped in the castle’s rose garden, Amberjack, Clearboy, and Rossi try to decide on a strategy. Rossi heads off to swim the moat, and the remaining two are trapped, becoming increasingly badly wounded. The image becomes more ghostly and strange, until Benjamin, in voiceover, explains their next action to woozily beautiful images of star shells and gunfire flashing over the field of roses. This is immediately nullified as it proves only an authorial flourish, for Benjamin reports to Falconer that the trio are dead. The final moments possess something of the same orgiastic, apocalyptic flavour of its film contemporary The Wild Bunch. Falconer and a badly wounded Beckman hold the castle against Germans who try to scale the walls by using a fire engine ladder as Benjamin flees with the Countess, whom he has to carry away from the fray. The petrol-coated moat ignites and the entire scene is consumed in stygian flames. It’s a delirious end to a film that ought to be far better known.