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Blu-Ray Review - CASTLE KEEP (1969)

castle keep review
Sydney Pollack's offbeat WWII drama.







Review by Jason Abbey

Directed by: Sydney Pollack

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Patrick O’Neal, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Peter Falk, Astrid Heeren, Scott Wilson, Tony Bill

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Part of a cycle of films and novels dealing with War as both existential crisis and psychotropic comedy, Castle Keep falls between two stools, never sure if it’s an old-school movie about a group of disorganised grunts defending a strategic target point during World War II under the steely avuncular gaze of old school Major Falconer (Burt Lancaster) or a biting satire of the absurdity of conflict. As such, it ends up feeling a bit like being cornered in a room by an accountant who has dropped acid for the first time.


castle keep

Never quite reaching the complex absurdity of Catch 22 (a feat that even escaped the film version), this feels like a work made by an enthusiastic forger. Based on a novel by William Eastlake, this film may just prove that this is an area more suited to literary rather than cinematic investigation, with only M*A*S*H coming close to that rare balancing act of horror and humour that can seem so tasteless in a real-world setting.

The lack of a decisive tome can be felt in the cast, using the classic Hollywood allure of Lancaster (who actually attacks the proto Brando mumblings of his Colonel Kurtz era with relish) against the independent spirit of the likes of Peter Falk and Bruce Dern. It’s a strategy that carves the film into vignettes of surrealism set in and around the Red Queen brothel, followed by weighty pronouncements on war and art. The grunts, with the exception of art expert Captain Beckman (Patrick O’Neal), are inclined to play ten pen bowling with bottles of expensive claret, while the Count (Pierre Aumont) and Countess (Astrid Heeren) are eager to please the imposition as the former wants the latter to be impregnated by the studly Falconer.


castle keep

Plot wise, that’s pretty much it. We get weird sideplots involving sexual attractions to a Volkswagen, which fortunately doesn’t end in Herbie receiving Cpl Clear Boy's (Scott Wilson) banana; soldiers turned pacifist led by a fulsome Dern, who manages to inject an authentic dose of '60s counter culture zeal; and Falk moving in with an available and alluring baker's wife, who we assume is MIA in the trenches. By turns pretentious, dull and amusing, it may have something of the reality of waiting for something bad and inevitable to happen, of fear turning to boredom turning to hijinks. However, the soldiers are mainly two dimensional, and it stretches out a relatively spry running time into something that feels bloated and wearing.


castle keep

By the time the German tank division arrives you are itching for the taste of battle as much as the bored soldiers. Switching to by the numbers warfare mode, and a heroic defence of a Keep that no one seemed previously that bothered about, you have a film that crawls to an ending, a last ditch pyrrhic victory in which no one wins and everything is destroyed. Castle Keep is either the best film about the boredom of war ever made or the most boring war film ever made. Alienating, infuriating and yet somehow hypnotically watchable. I’ve watched it twice now and I’m still not sure which side of the fence I sit on.
Extras:

A 100-minute audio only interview with Lancaster, which is now becoming a regular feature of Powerhouse editions of restoring archive NFT interviews. Tony Bill discusses his experiences on Castle Keep, and most enjoyable, an archive interview with William Eastlake, the original author of Castle Keep, who is full of disdain for commercial cinema and with a commitment to smoking that would have the cast of Mad Men green with envy (or nicotine poisoning). Add a trailer, subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing as well as a new booklet featuring a Brad Stevens essay, and you have a decent selection of extras. Blu-Ray picture quality is up to the label's usual high standards but the 4:0 soundtrack has a tendency to drown out the dialogue in the mix.
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