Full frame and a tepid war/romance? Judge Mitchell Hattaway couldn't find anything here to like.
A one-eyed major and his oddball heroes fight a twentieth-century war in a tenth-century castle!
First off, let me apologize to the ardent fans of this film. I was expecting to enjoy Castle Keep—the story sounded right up my alley—but it just didn't work for me. Why didn't it work? Two words: Sydney Pollack.
Here's the gist of the plot: During World War II, eight American soldiers billet in a medieval castle in the Ardennes Forest and soon forget all about the conflict. Major Falconer (Burt Lancaster, Atlantic City) begins an affair with Therese (Astrid Hereen), wife of the castle's owner, the Count of Maldorais (Jean-Pierre Aumont, Jefferson in Paris). Captain Beckman (Patrick O'Neal, Under Siege) immerses himself in a study of the Count's art collection. Sergeant Rossi (Peter Falk, The Princess Bride) takes up with the wife of the town's absent baker. Private Benjamin (Al Freeman, Jr., Malcolm X) concentrates on his literary endeavors. Corporal Clearboy (Scott Wilson, Pearl Harbor) falls in love with a Volkswagen. Then Falconer learns that German troops are advancing on the forest, and the war once again shatters the world of the soldiers.
See, nothing wrong there. The problem for me lies in director Sydney Pollack's (Out of Africa, Random Hearts) approach to the material. Pollack's style doesn't have enough charge for the story, and the end result is too often flat and lifeless. From what I understand, the focus of William Eastlake's original novel alternates between the main characters, contrasting the absurdities in the individual stories with the larger picture of the war. I can see how that would work, but Pollack meanders through the first half of the story, doing little more than stringing together scenes or pieces of unfinished scenes; there's no flow to this section of the film, no connective tissue, and no thrust. By shortchanging the characters and their stories, Pollack also drains the film's climax of its emotional potential. When the shooting starts, and people start dying, there's no impact. There's an anti-war statement at the heart of the story, but there's no weight to that statement because we have nothing invested in the characters—they're pretty much empty vessels.
Pollack is also out of his element during the battle sequence at the end of the film. The battle is poorly staged, with the director taking little more than a point-and-shoot approach. There's usually a static shot of a weapon being fired, followed by a static shot of a target being hit. The seemingly endless shots of statues and hedges exploding are tiresome (we get it: art is good and war is bad), and it's often difficult to tell where a few of the characters are positioned.
Okay, I'll stop picking on Pollack. In his defense, he did manage to get some very good performances out of his cast; there's not a false note in the acting. Okay, that's enough being nice. Time to pick on somebody else.
This full frame disc was Sony's first attempt at a DVD release of Castle Keep, and so many people were ticked off Sony eventually released a widescreen disc. I haven't seen the widescreen version, but I hope it's an improvement over this release. This film was shot in Panavision, and although I don't think Pollack is much of a visual stylist, there are moments when it's obvious his compositions have been butchered. To add insult to injury, the transfer is sub-par; there's far too much grain and noise (especially in close-ups), colors are washed out, and there's ample evidence of damage to the source elements (nicks, scratches, and fading). The Dolby 4.0 Surround is also a disappointment. There is a nice spread across the front channels, but the sound in thin, pinched, and tinny; the only instance of surround action I noticed came during a scene involving a flyover by a German plane. The only extra you'll find is the film's theatrical trailer, which for some reason in presented in—get this—anamorphic widescreen. (I'm not even going to attempt to figure out the logic behind that.)
Fans of Castle Keep probably already know to avoid this release and pick up the widescreen version. As for everyone else…well, it fell short for me, but I seem to be in the minority on this one, so you might just want to sample it for yourself. Besides, I'm still so intrigued by the story that I plan on picking up the novel. This could turn out to be one of those great, unfilmable stories. Okay, let me stop. Before you know it I'll be picking on Mike Nichols about Catch-22.
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