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Posts Tagged ‘world war 2’

David Niven tells his life story (or at the least the first part of it) in this book, and he does it in wonderfully entertaining, genuinely amusing and often quite touching fashion.  From his early life with a distant stepfather, through his life in the Highland Light Infantry, before deciding to give up a military career to try his luck in Hollywood (although he returned to Britain to fight in World War II), Niven takes the reader on a journey packed with anecdotes and funny interludes.

As he explains in the introduction, he drops names all over the place, particularly while talking about his film career, but he remains respectful throughout, and his genuine affection and respect for many of his contemporaries comes through.  His stories – both of his Hollywood life, and his military career – are peppered with laugh-out-loud one-liners; several times I would burst out laughing and then insist on reading bits out to my husband.  Niven is truly a wonderful storyteller and raconteur – he is also self-effacing and honest about his own shortcomings, and modest about his talents as an actor.

Details of his film career also reveal some of Hollywood’s machinations, and by the end of the book – which was published in 1972 – it’s clear that he is unhappy about a changing film industry.

Unlike many such memoirs, Niven did not use a ghostwriter – the writing is his own – and he has a lovely turn of phrase, but is also capable of showing genuine emotion, such as when he describes the tragic death of his first wife, which had me struggling to hold back tears.

If you are at all interested in David Niven, or Hollywood in the 40s – 60s, I would definitely recommend this book.

 

 

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Emma Bau, a Polish Jew, has only been married a few weeks when the Nazis come into her home town, and life as she knows it is changed dramatically.  While her husband Jacob leaves their home to go and work for the Jewish resistance, she is forced to take on a fake name, pretend that she is not Jewish, and live with Jacob’s Catholic aunt, Krysia.  When a chance arrives for her to help the resistance by working in the office of a high-ranking Nazi official, she takes it, but against all her inclinations, finds herself attracted to her boss – and the feeling is mutual.  While the devastating effects of the Nazi regime are being felt all around her, Emma (now known as Anna) must keep up the charade, and cope with her conflicting feelings.

I usually enjoy books set in the WWII, and this was no exception.  I thought it was an easy read, despite the subject matter, and events were moving quick enough that I was drawn in and always eager to find out what had happened.

The story was definitely more plot driven than character driven, and I was never sure how I actually felt about Emma/Anna on a personal level.  Nonetheless, the book does highlight the considerable risks that people took to fight back against the Nazis, and I am always slightly awed by such stories (because yes, these characters were fictional, but there were people who took such risks).  I felt that the author tried to humanise the Kommandant, for whom Emma has such unwanted feelings of attraction; he was almost – almost – likeable, but I couldn’t get away from the fact that he was a Nazi.  However, as Jacob barely featured in the book, he was also not a character about whom I could feel very much.  Krysia, on the other hand was a wonderful character – probably my favourite out of the whole book.

This aside though, I really like the book a lot, and an hour of reading it seemed to pass by in about 20 minutes!  The atmosphere of suspicion and not knowing who could really be trusted was depicted well, and I certainly felt thankful that I never lived through such times or make such decisions as Emma did.

On the basis of this book, I bought another book by Pam Jenoff (actually a prequel to this one, where more is written about the Kommandant’s first wife), and I look forward to reading it very soon.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

 

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Breaking the Mould is a made-for-television film, about the development of penicillin.  When people think of penicillin, they automatically think of Alexander Fleming, and this film is an attempt to tell the true story behind the medical breakthrough and credit those who were very involved, but largely forgotten.  It must be said that Fleming does not come out of this film too well!

Initially I watched it only because Dominic West was in it, and I admit that I did wonder if it would hold my attention, but it was actually very interesting.  West plays Howard Florey, the Australian pharmacologist and pathologist, who in 1938, was interested in Fleming’s earlier discovery of penicillin, which Fleming had abandoned several years earlier, believing that it had little application.  Together with Ernst Chain, a German biochemist, and scientist Norman Heatley, Florey determined to work out how to manufacture large quantities of penicillin.  Despite problems with funding and money flow, the team battled on.  Florey was also again patenting the formula, as he believed that to do so would make the cure too expensive for many people.

After all of their efforts, Fleming – who is portrayed as something of a glory-hunter  – ends up taking most if not all of the credit for what the others have achieved, although Florey and Chain did share the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Fleming, in 1945.

The film tells the story simply, and held my interest throughout.  It showed the human element of the story, as well as the scientific parts, by depicting the early trials which were carried out on hospital patients (not always with successful results).  As the events took place during World War 2, everyone was very aware of the possibilities for treating wounded soldiers, and were equally anxious that the formula for extracting penicillin did not fall into enemy hands.

At an hour and 20 minutes long, this is an informative and interesting film, which made me want to learn more about the men behind the science.

Year of release: 2009

Director: Peter Hoar

Producers: Charlotte Bloxham, Pier Wilkie, John Yorke

Writer: Kate Brooke

Main cast: Dominic West, Oliver Dimsdale, Joe Armstrong, Denis Lawson, John Sessions, Kate Fleetwood, Amanda Douge

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Although officially classed as fiction, this book tells the very true story of Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist, who during World War 2, saved the lives of some 1200 (officially, although the actual number may well be far higher) by employing them in his enamelware and ammunitions factories.  It is the basis of the 1993 film, Schindler’s List; having seen the film years ago, when I thought it was wonderful, I would like to see it again, as I believe that reading the book would make me appreciate it even more.

I honestly don’t think that any review I could write would do this book justice, but nonetheless, I’ll give it a go!  The book tells an incredible story of bravado, resilience and determination, under the most horrific circumstances.  Keneally is almost at pains to point out that Schindler was far from perfect.  He was a womaniser who seemed incapable of being faithful to his wife, he drank too much, and he was not above mixing with people who he didn’t like, simply because he could get something he wanted from them.  This latter skill of course came into play to magnificent effect during his mission to save lives, which actually makes it an asset.  And in fact, this just makes what he did, all the more heroic.  It would have been easy for such a man – who counted SS members amongst his ‘friends’ – to use the war to his own advantage, and to profit from cheap labour, but the fact that he chose to save lives, even when it meant endangerment to his own, and when it certainly would have been easier for him to ignore what was happening, just makes the story even more magnificent.  When someone is portrayed as a superhero, we expect them to do good things – that’s what their role is.  But Schindler was not an obvious candidate for heroism.  A hero is most certainly what he is though.

Initially, Schindler just wanted to make money, but as the war proceeded, he saw for himself the horrors being committed against Jews, Poles and Gypsies.  (The famous scene in the film where he sees a little girl dressed in red was actually based on a real event.)  Although the people he employed were officially prisoners, he was kind to them, and the arbitrary beatings and executions which occurred in other labour camps had no place at Schindler’s premises.  He also paid over the odds to ensure that his workers had adequate food and premises, even insisting that his workers were able to sleep on his site, rather than living in another camp and being marched to his premises by SS soldiers.  Although he was supposed to only employ people with the necessary skills for the work, he also took on people who had no such skills, because he knew that otherwise, they would be killed.

Towards the end of the story, when we come to the famous list of people who he moved to Brinnlitz, another supposed labour camp, he actually gives up all pretence at being in the business for money, deliberately turning out substandard artillery shells.  His brazenness was in fact almost his undoing.

The book gives details of individual cases and names specific people who Schindler helped, and pulls no punches in describing the sort of favours he did to ensure that he got what he wanted.  There is a LOT of information given, and admittedly I sometimes had to check back to remind myself who someone was.  However, all the information is essential to get the full picture.  Despite being written as a novel, I was concerned that the writing might be a little dry (it is after all a true story, and I sometimes find that non-fiction can be less readable than fiction).  In actual fact however, it was quite easy to read, and I found myself getting through huge chunks at a time.

If this review has not tempted you to read the book, that’s my fault.  Not only would I recommend this book, I would urge everyone to read it.  It moved me to tears on several occasions, and at other times I had to put it down simply to digest the horror of what I had read.  But it was totally, absolutely worth it.  Simply wonderful.

(For more information about this period of history, or to learn more about Oskar Schindler, please click here.)

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Based on a true story, A League of Their Own tells the story of the first female baseball league, which was started when many of the professional male baseball players were away fighting in World War II.  Tom Hanks plays Jimmy Duggan, a washed-up, alcoholic former professional player, who is given the job – which he doesn’t really want – of managing the Rockford Peaches team.  Geena Davis and Lori Petty play sisters Dottie and Kit, who have issues with jealousy, and who are both signed on to play for the team.  Other players on the league are portrayed by Rosie O’Donnell, Madonna, Bitty Schram, and others.  The story shows the league’s progress, from a game of little interest to outsiders, to a popular sport in its own right.

I really enjoyed this film.  All of the actors were perfect, especially Davis, Petty and Hanks.  There was a lot of comedy in the film, but it was also very moving in parts, and I actually did cry.  Baseball gave these women – and Jimmy Duggan – something to live for, and a sense of self-belief, which some of them desperately needed.  It also gave them a sense of camaraderie at a time when many of them had loved ones fighting overseas.  I loved how Jimmy was initially resentful of managing a girls team, but how he came to appreciate their talent, and want to fight their corner with them – his personal story was one of redemption, and I loved the character.

There are lots of baseball scenes in this film, but you do not need to like, or even really understand, the sport to enjoy it (although a basic knowledge of the game might help).

I waited a long time to watch the movie, because I was not sure that I would like it.  However, it gets a definite 10 out of 10 from me, and I do not intend to leave it that long before watching again.  Very highly recommended.

Year of release: 1992

Director: Penny Marshall

Producers: Penny Marshall, Elliot Abbot, Robert Greenhut, Ronnie D. Clemmer, Joseph Hartwick, Bill Pace, Amy Lemisch

Writers: Kim Wilson, Kelly Candaele, Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel

Main cast: Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, David Strathairn, Megan Cavanagh, Tracy Reiner, Bitty Schram

 

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I saw this production at the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, on 13th October 2012. It was performed by South Staffordshire Musical Theatre Company, an amateur company – but this certainly felt like a professional production.

The story is a well known one – a young Nun named Maria is struggling to cope with life inside the convent, where she lives in Austria.  She is sent away to become a governess to the seven children of the widowed Captain Von Trapp.  The Captain is initially formidable and doesn’t approve of Maria’s methods (basically, she lets the children have fun and teaches them to sing), but he softens towards her and the two fall in love.  However, their happiness is threatened by the arrival of the Nazis into Germany…

Okay, here’s a small confession….I have NEVER seen the famous Rodgers and Hammerstein film starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer.  I know the story of course, so I knew more or less what to expect in that respect.  What I didn’t know was that by the end of the show, my mouth would be aching from smiling so much, or that I would have had to wipe a few tears from my eyes.

It’s hard to pick out any specific members of the cast, only because they were all so good, but I cannot review this production without commenting on Claudia Gilmour, who had the unenviable task of taking on the part made so famous by Julie Andrews.  Claudia simply has the most beautiful singing voice, and her acting was also wonderful – I really liked her portrayal.  Tim Brown was also terrific is Captain Von Trapp, and his change from formidable and unapproachable, to gentle and loving was lovely to see.

Most of the songs are very familiar to even those like me, who have not seen the film. Do Re Me and A Few Of My Favourite Things were my particular favourites (it was hard not to sing along at the top of my voice, but I couldn’t subject those sitting near to me, to that!), but actually all of the songs were really lovely.

This was a fabulous production, with clearly a lot of hard work from all involved.  Their work paid off – the show is a triumph!

(For more information about The Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, please click here.  South Staffordshire Musical Theatre Company’s website can be found here.)

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This was Cary Grant’s penultimate film, before he retired from acting – and it shows that while he may have felt the time was coming when he should hang up his hat, he had certainly lost none of his charisma and screen presence. In this film, he plays against type as Walter Eckland, a slacker who is dragooned into living on an isolated island during WW2, from where he can report any signs of Japanese ships or planes. His life is shaken up with the arrival of schoolteacher Catherine Freneau (Leslie Caron), who has been stranded on the island with a number of schoolgirls…

Cary Grant was a master at romantic comedies, and this is probably one of his best. I really liked Grant with a more scruffy unshaven look (he himself said that this role was the closest to what he was actually like in real life), and his performance here is spot on, and very funny. Leslie Caron is also great – she looks lovely and brings a lot of comedy to her role, although she always reminds me of Audrey Hepburn (and I actually think Audrey would have been wonderful in this role also).

The idea of two mis-matched people being thrown together is nothing new (see The African Queen and Heaven Knows Mr Allison, for two comparable films), and as this is a romantic comedy, you can probably guess where it’s going, although the ending is still a delightful surprise.

For my money, this is one of Cary Grant’s better films – I thoroughly enjoyed it, and would certainly recommend it!

Year of release: 1964

Director: Ralph Nelson

Producer: Robert Arthur

Writers: S. H. Barnett, Peter Stone, Frank Tarloff

Main cast: Cary Grant, Leslie Caron, Trevor Howard

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