War Movie Mondays: ‘Castle Keep’

Castle Keep (1969) is a very anti-heroic World War II film filled with lots of dark humor and beautiful photography. The film is based on William Eastlake’s novel about a weary squad of American soldiers who come upon a tenth century castle in Belgium in December 1944.

Sydney Pollack, who was still yet an unknown in Hollywood circles, was chosen to direct this large scale film. Veteran Hollywood great Burt Lancaster stars as Major Abraham Falconer, who leads a reconnaissance squad badly in need of R&R. The remaining cast includes Peter Falk (Sgt. Orlando Rossi), Patrick O’ Neal (Capt. Lionel Beckman), Scott Wilson (Cpl. Ralph Clearboy), Tony Bill (Lt. Amberjack), Al Freeman (Pfc. Alistar P. Benjamin), Michael Conrad (Sgt. De Vaca), and wide eyed screen great Bruce Dern (Lt. Billy Byron Bix).

In the opening scenes of the film, the men are trying to maneuver their battered jeep through heavy mud down an old road. The use of slow motion photography of two individuals on horseback establishes the meeting of the two residents of the castle and the American soldiers. The Count of Maldorais (Jean-Pierre Aumont) welcomes the American soldiers and hopes that they will help protect his castle and its vast treasures and art from the advancing Germans who are preparing to counter-attack in the Ardennes Forrest.

Once in the castle, Maj. Falconer (Lancaster) begins fortifying in preparation of the attacking Germans. His adjutant Capt. Beckman (O’Neal) is an art historian who stresses the importance of the Count’s art collection and that the castle holds some of the greatest treasures of Western Europe.

Beckman tries to convince the Major that they should pull back towards the Meuse River and spare the castle from any destruction. Falconer is a career soldier and cares nothing for the statues, paintings, tapestries, and other treasures. Falconer’s men quickly find ways to keep themselves entertained whether its using expensive bottles of wine as bowling pins, defacing bust sculptures, or satisfying certain requirements at the local whore house in the nearby village known as The Red Queen.

Other side stories of the film include Falk’s (Sgt Rossi) character who begins an affair with an absent baker’s wife. The religious Lt. Amberjack (Bill) begins to have sexual fantasies about certain works of art in the castle. Cpl. Clearboy (Wilson) begins to have a love affair with an abandoned Volkswagen, and the Major begins his own affair with the Count’s wife/niece due to the Count’s impotency. One of my favorite scenes is when Lt. Amberjack and Pfc. Benjamin try to drown Cpl. Clearboy’s Volkswagen which they feel is an unhealthy obsession.

The car doesn’t sink but floats in the moat. The Lt. begins to fire at it in hopes that it will sink. One missed shot goes through the passenger window at which point Benjamin says to the Lt. “Christ Reverend it’s still alive. I think we’re dealing with something supernatural here.” Cpl. Clearboy aware of what’s going on to his beloved automobile, falls from the keep into the moat to drive it out of the water and into the safety of the castle. A very funny scene, filled with much off the off beat humor and dialogue throughout the film thus far.

As the film builds to its climax, the off beat humor and the far off distance of the war come to an abrupt halt as the Americans are becoming quickly surrounded by the advancing Germans who are utilizing the crossroads which the castle sits directly upon on their way to Bastogne. Maj. Falconer tries in a desperate last ditch effort to recruit stragglers from the retreating American forces to help defend the castle from attack. One such group is run by the evangelical Lt. Bix (Dern), a shell shocked religious zealot who leads a small band of conscientious objectors through the streets of the village. An absolutely fantastic performance from Dern who always plays very high strung individuals who are ready to snap in an instant.

A deadly game ensues for who will rule the castle in the final forty or so minutes of the film. The Count believed that he had the assurance of Beckman who sympathized with the Count and that something needs to be saved out of this war. The Count looks on in horror as his trees are demolished in order to make tank traps. The Count calls Beckman a traitor and then tries to lead the Germans into the castle using a passageway which leads under the moat towards the German lines.

One of my favorite lines in the film is when Maj. Falconer and the squad are preparing the castle for the attack which is about to commence. Beckman knows that the castle and everything will be destroyed. Beckman turns to Falconer and says “Europe is dying.” Falconer replies “No Beckman, she’s dead. That’s why we’re here. Don’t you read the newspapers?” Its a great stab at European decadence and the fact that these Americans care nothing for the art of the old world.

The scenes in which the German forces lay siege to the medieval castle are wonderful. SS storm troopers armed with MG-42s, sub machine guns, and tanks begin to storm the ramparts of the castle’s outer defenses. Falconer , De Vaca, Beckman, and Pfc. Benjamin (the film’s narrator) man the keep where there is an M-60 mortar and .50 caliber heavy machine gun emplacement there.

The Germans bring in fire engines, equipped with ladders to get over the walls and the moat. Falconer and Beckman go out in a blaze of glory similar to the ending of the film Bataan where the lead character (Sgt. Dane) mans the machine gun and fires relentlessly at the enemy not knowing whether they live or die (most likely dying).

Castle Keep was a film which didn’t do quite well for 1969 audiences, however it has gained a cult following of viewers over the last forty some odd years. Famed New York Times critic Vincent Canby hailed the film as “Brilliant” and nothing that had ever been seen before.

The film has always been one of my favorites because it has a very unique style about it and that it’s not just a war film, but also a medieval Gothic tale, woven in a very funny comedy. When Rossi, Amberjack and the others commandeer a German tank to help defend the castle, Rossi asks “Can they shoot us for wearing a German tank?”

Castle Keep is available on DVD through Columbia/Sony Pictures and can be rented through Netflix.

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