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A taste of war without the bite

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A taste of war without the bite

By Steven G. Kellman

When Sergeant Peter King (Cranham) and Private Leslie Cuthbertson (Bill) return to their base in England after a brief, unauthorized sortie into German-occupied France, they are forced to explain their absence without leave. "Never before have I been forced to listen to such appalling drivel," complains the colonel who conducts their court martial.

A viewer of Two Men Went to War, which begins with a proclamation, "Most of what follows is true," is less likely to be appalled than amazed.

Two Men Went to War

Dir. John Henderson; writ. Richard Everett, Christopher Villiers, based on a book by Raymond Foxall; feat. Kenneth Cranham, Leo Bill, Rosanna Lavelle, Derek Jacobi, Phyllida Law (NR)
The year is 1942, and Private Cuthbertson is a raw recruit to the British Army Dental Corps, a group that might have been called the Canine Corps except that they also take care of the molars and incisors of men at war. "An army that can't bite is an army that can't fight," explains a major, but Cuthbertson feels frustrated that because he has learned to fill a tooth the army insists that he can't fight for the Crown. Sergeant King, a crusty World War I veteran, frets that age disqualifies him from current combat. Like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, King and Cuthbertson set off on a crazy quest to crush the enemy on their own. Armed with pistols, grenades, and courageous derangement, they attack a fortified German radar installation in Normandy.

John Henderson, who made his mark directing the satirical British TV series Spitting Image, finds wry English humor in the naïvete and ineptitude of an odd couple of eager warriors. As compatible as fish and chops, the two English soldiers quarrel frequently and lose their way more than once. They mistake the coast of England for the coast of France. King accuses Cuthbertson of behaving "like a little kid on a school outing," while Cuthbertson calls King "a washed-up, over-the-top has-been."

Henderson cuts occasionally to the War Room in London, where a daft Winston Churchill bullies his devoted staff. But Major Desmond Merton (Jacobi), chief intelligence adviser to the prime minister, finds King and Cuthbertson even more rum than his blustering boss. "God bless the lunatics," he declares. "Without them this war could be very serious."

Wars, especially those pursued by lunatics, are very serious indeed, a fact that the British ought to have reason to remember again today. About halfway through the proceedings, the dry wit turns wet, and Two Men Went to War morphs from Catch-22 into Sergeant York. Amid the resounding crescendo of Sir Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations, King and Cuthbertson, bruised but not beaten, accomplish their mission. War becomes a glorious adventure, a matchless opportunity for callow young men to cut their teeth. •


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Virgine Ledoyn and Grégori Derangère share improvisational dance moves in Bon Voyage.
Bon Voyage Bordeaux

By Steven G. Kellman

In 1940, following the "phony war" in which the French military stood serenely behind what it assumed was the unbreachable Maginot Line, German forces routed all resistance en route to taking Paris. More than 60 years later, memories of capitulation and collaboration still trouble the French collective conscience. Most of Bon Voyage is set in Bordeaux in 1940, following a hasty mass exodus from the conquered capital. Refugees, government officials, journalists, scientists, and spies cram the city in southwestern France, which, like the cinematic Casablanca, provides a clamorous stage for both low farce and high moral drama.

Bon Voyage

Dir. Jean-Paul Rappeneau; writ. Gilles Marchand, from a novel by Patrick Modiano; feat. Isabelle Adjani, Gérard Depardieu, Virginie Ledoyen, Yvan Attal, Grégori Derangère, Peter Coyote (PG-13)
Causing more tumult in Bon Voyage than even the German invaders is Viviane Denvers (Adjani), a self-absorbed, amoral movie star who is probably meant as a metaphor for Vichy France itself. Oblivious to the genuine suffering of her compatriots, Viviane is preoccupied with her own creature comforts at Bordeaux's posh Hotel Splendide. She is an alluring femme fatale, and the first of many men we meet who have succumbed to her charms is soon stuffed, lifeless, into the trunk of a car. Another, a novelist named Frédéric (Derangere), gladly goes to jail to cover up her complicity in that death. A third is the minister of the interior, Jean-Etienne Beaufort (Depardieu), who takes on Viviane as his mistress. "With you around," he tells her prematurely, "all our worries fade." A fourth catch is Alex Winckler (Coyote), a Nazi spy masquerading as a journalist.

Unlike Two Men Went to War, the current British feature that veers between mockery and mush in its account of an unauthorized sortie into Normandy during the German occupation, Bon Voyage manages to be both serious and ludicrous simultaneously. •


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