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Valkyrie: Riding Roughshod Over History?
Luke Turner , January 23rd, 2009 05:31

We've come to expect Hollywood to rewrite history, says Luke Turner. But in the case of Von Stauffenberg, the mono-armed, cycloptic plotter who tried to blow up Hitler, is there even space to do this?

Plus: Scroll down for Shot From Both Sides: Cinema From The Enemy's Point of View

The old adage that the story of war is told by the victors has, in recent years, taken on a new dimension. Given that these days the story of war is told by a Hollywood that pays scant regard to historical fact or balance, it's hard not to approach Valkyrie with a sense of trepidation. Added to this has been the furore of Tom Cruise's casting as Claus Von Stauffenberg, the aristocratic German Colonel was part of the ill-fated 1944 plot that almost succeeded in killing Adolf Hitler. This disquiet has been especially pronounced in Germany, where Scientology is viewed with extreme suspicion as a cult with undemocractic instincts.

But the makers of Valkyrie (Usual Suspects director Brian Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie) have been sensitive to these concerns, working closely with the descendents of those involved and keeping a close eye on the historical record. Of course, the fact that all the key conspirators ended up in front of a firing squad or hung up by piano wire meant that options to tweak history were somewhat limited.

The result of this was always going to be something of a compromise between action film, suspense thriller, and historical drama. How successfully does Valkyrie achieve this difficult balancing act?

For starters, though the explosion-heavy trailers might have indicated otherwise, Valkyrie doesn't reinterpret these events into an action flick. The only major pyrotechnic display occurs in the opening sequence set in North Africa, where Von Stauffenberg loses his hand and eye in a British fighter bomber attack. What's more, Cruise holds up well in the face of a solid ensemble cast, largely recruited from the UK, who (with the exception of a panto-Nazi turn from Eddie Izzard) put in commendable, if not outstanding, performances.

There are odd moments where the sleight of a modern hand can be detected. For example, when Stauffenberg is discussing the post-Hitler Germany, he announces that one of the first things that will be done is the closing of the concentration camps. This seems fanciful. There are lumpen moments in the dialogue, such as when Hitler gravely announces that "One cannot understand National Socialism if one cannot understand Wagner". Meanwhile, the scene where Von Stauffenberg watches his children mock-fight while fancy dressed as Teutonic knights as the aforementioned composer plays in the background is clunky to say the least. There's also a strong historical argument that the conspirators were motivated by a naive assumption that knocking off Hitler would allow them to start negotiating a peace with the Western allies and thus escape the vengeful onslaught of the Red Army. By this point in the war, Churchill and Roosevelt had as little time as Stalin for anything except an unconditional German surrender.

That's not to say that there aren't moments where Valkyrie succeeds. The final section of the film where, believing Hitler to be dead, Cruise and his cohorts take control of key areas of Berlin, putting the ropes around their own necks, is gripping indeed. As their plan crumbles around them and the forces loyal to Hitler gradually regain control, arresting Von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators, the sense of despair and impending doom is pronounced. The executions that then end the film are handled with thoughtfulness and tact.

To its credit, Valkyrie is no U-571, Enemy At The Gates or Pearl Harbour, films where fascinating true stories of brave women and men have been warped by American spin and the opportunity for lots of snogging in uniform. Yet on the other hand, it's no Downfall, the masterful, German-made 2004 film that dealt with the madness and terror of the last days in Hitler's bunker. As such, it's hard not to see Valkyrie as a valiant attempt to find a territory somewhere between the two, and the result is a commendable war film-stroke-thriller of the sort that used to be shown on a Sunday afternoon.

Click the image below for Shot From Both Sides: Cinema From The Enemy's Point of View

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