“My purpose is madness. It’s the only way you can really tell what happens in war. By lying, you can open the door a little crack on the truth.”—— Private Benjamin (Al Freeman, Jr.)
If you happen to wander into Castle Keep by accident, or by some ill-fated wrong turn, as do the eight American soldiers in this movie who wander into the Ardennes forest, you may wonder what’s up—and not even be sure, after the film’s 105 minutes, whether up was, after all, up or maybe down. Now these soldiers, on the Belgium border toward the end of World War II, just before the Battle of the Bulge, might have an inkling that things aren’t just right. Dog-tired, dirty and downcast, they haven’t gone far into the forest, or into the movie, when they behold, in the first of many incongruities, a man in civilian clothes riding a white horse.
A fairy tale? Maybe—well, partly. An allegory? Or a horror story? Maybe that, too, but not in the way you might expect, for is the horror in the story or in the film itself?
Sydney Pollack, who graduated from television to the big screen in 1965 with The Slender Thread, set out from there to direct a series of fine theatrical films: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Three Days of the Condor, Tootsie, Out of Africa and The Firm, not to mention the soapy, but nonetheless sentimentally watchable The Way We Were, mainly because of the charm and magic of its two stars, Barbara Streisand and Robert Redford. That Pollack would direct Castle Keep is something of a mystery, and, further, a shock that its top-line star, Burt Lancaster, usually so discerning in the movies he chooses, had wanted him to direct it earlier. Perhaps later would’ve been better, providing more time to get everyone’s acts together. Or, better still, never.
In Castle Keep, Lancaster plays a one-eyed major, Abraham Falconer, with a black patch over his blind eye, the leader of this motley assortment of GIs—their lax military posture is surprisingly tolerated by this macho martinet. All the soldiers take residence in a tenth-century castle, which has its own fairy tale mystique, mainly in the way the new and old occupants regard it.
The castle bears its owner’s name, an impotent Frenchman, Count Maldorais (Jean-Pierre Aumont), who is hoping—being French, he is quite open-minded—the major will impregnate his young wife, the countess Therese (Astrid Heeren), so as to continue his line. (If such a coupling is successful, could it not be just as likely Falconer’s “line”?)
Maldorais Castle, in some ways the main “character” in this bizarre story, is full of priceless art treasures—paintings, statues, tapestries, etchings, ancient maps, clocks. The survival of the castle and its contents in the fight with the Germans, which the major believes is unavoidable, is a frequent topic of conversation between Falconer and Captain Lionel Beckman (Patrick O’Neal). Beckman, an art historian, wants the castle and its treasures saved, as a monument to man’s better nature in the midst of one of his worst creations, war and all its brutality; Falconer has little respect for either the castle or its art, and discounts them as casualties of war.
Beckman even lectures the indifferent men on art and enters into a meandering, seemingly pointless, esoteric debate with Private Benjamin (Al Freeman, Jr.), who shares Beckman’s intellectual bent and wants to be a novelist. He tells the captain, “Napoleon before [attacking] Venice said, ‘If my cannon destroy but one statue, I would rather not take Venice.’ ” Beckman responses, “Did Napoleon say that? That doesn’t sound like Napoleon.” “Oh, well—no he didn’t,” Benjamin says, “but I thought it would cheer you up.” “I appreciate that,” the other says, “but Napoleon was a louse.” So much for Napoleon.
While Falconer is doing his best toward the countess in meeting the count’s request—his riding about the estate on Maldorais’ white stallion could well symbolize that accomplishment—the enlisted men are finding similar pleasures in the local village, mainly patronizing its brothel. Recalling a cross between both Toulouse-Lautrec and Renoir on a bad day, the lighting/cinematography is by Henri Decaë— The Night of the Generals, also involving priceless paintings, and The Boys from Brazil.
Sergeant Rossi (Peter Falk) combines his talents as a baker and as an appreciator of women in making bread in the town bakery, even during a German attack, and in bedding the baker’s wife. “Everybody should eat more bread—feeds the heart . . . ,” he says.
Corporal Clearboy (Scott Wilson in only his third picture after In the Heat of the Night and In Cold Blood) has his own romantic attachment—to a Volkswagen beetle. With the film’s weird slant, it’s never clear if this is supposed to be taken seriously.
The car ends up in the castle moat. Clearboy and another GI shoot at the snow-covered vehicle (this is late 1944) until it sinks, only to rise from the depths. Clearboy swims over, climbs in, cranks up the VW and drives it out, the wheels spinning like a Mississippi riverboat’s paddles. He has a discussion with Falconer that might well contain the most original, if ridiculous, lines in Castle Keep:
“ . . . suppose this war just goes on and on and on and destroys everything in the world. Well, since the Volkswagen can get along without water, she’s bound to survive when other creatures die off. Someday the world is going to be populated with nothing but Volkswagens!”
Still another GI, Lieutenant Billy Bix (Bruce Dern), has one of the best of what might be called “set pieces” in Castle Keep. Through the town, he leads a band of soldiers. Where he and his men come from isn’t explained—another U.S. contingent billeted nearby? They are protesting their military servitude, crying, “We don’t believe in fighting. . . . We’re conscientious objectors!” They join in singing “Shall We Gather at the River?,” as they also claim to be “born again.”
Suddenly the soldiers are blown away by the approaching German tanks, and the ladies of the brothel throw Molotov cocktails at the enemy.
At the castle, Major Falconer instructs his few men on their defense, lecturing from the marble pulpit of the chapel. The GIs have captured a German tank. “If we get caught,” Rossi asks, “can they shoot us for wearing a German tank?” The tank’s cannon is used to snap the trunks of trees about six feet from the ground, to serve as tank barriers. The Germans attack, using fire trucks as well as tanks, and destroy the castle and all its art. The symbolism seems clear: the savagery of man “triumphs” again.
The only survivors, who escape through the storage tunnels of the castle, are Private Benjamin and the countess, who is now pregnant. It didn’t seem like the Americans were there long enough for her to know so soon, but judging by how long the film seems, possibly she could tell. Major Falconer had succeeded, at least in that mission!
Whether Castle Keep succeeds or not, you have to decide for yourself. To me, it fails wretchedly, because, for a start, it delivers mixed messages and purposes. If it set out to be a fairy tale, it fails miserably: that guy on the horse in the beginning?—he’s not Prince Charming or Sir Galahad, but a dirty old man. If the film’s intention is to be an allegory of some kind, any possible moral comes through muddled. And as for its potential as a horror movie, the horror was in the making of it.
On another count, Castle Keep awkwardly vacillates between being pro- and anti-war, with the views of the two proponents, Falconer and Beckman, respectively, seeming to merge, even reverse stances, by the end. The humor, whether censuring or satirizing these viewpoints, is critically misdirected, often falling flat, as with Rossi’s tank line. There is a profusion of sexual ingredients, spread on with a heavy hand, either blatantly or through innuendo, the reason for the “R” rating. The sex seems often added arbitrarily, slipped in for its own sake, and riding along on thoughts and sentences that had innocently set out in other directions.
These failures are unfortunate, as all the actors are competent in their roles, within, that is, the limited ambitions of plot and theme. Between their acting and the screenplay by Daniel Taradash and David Rayfiel from William Eastlake’s novel, the actors’ characters emerge vividly and well developed, though they are unlike anyone you might know or meet on the street. Some individuals, say, Falk’s Rossi and Wilson’s Clearboy, are just a little too quirky to be more than caricatures.
After more substantial work—and better films—in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) and Ice Station Zebra, composer Michel Legrand seems to have relaxed on his score here. His music fails to enliven, even to underline sympathetically what’s on the screen and in the dialogue, perhaps because he was uninspired by what he saw and heard. In short, Legrand doesn’t add anything and is understandably helpless in surmounting the shortcomings of the film; Castle Keep is an excellent example of the old maxim that not even a great score can save a poor—okay, let’s go the distance!—a bad film.